A Pashtun custom of old

Ghiljie women in the lower orders, 1842.  By James Rattery


Kalat-i-Ghilzai, 1842.  By James Rattery



The Ghilzai women in the above paintings are not wearing nose or face masks as one may assume, its a large round plait of hair. This sketch was made on one of Rattray’s journeys from Kabul to Kandahar with an Afghan escort in 1842. Rattray’s group often came across roving bands of western Ghilzais, who lived a nomadic life from season to season, searching for pasture for their flocks. The unmarried Ghilzai women bore a peculiar badge of virginity on their foreheads: “[bringing] the whole of their hair to the front of their face and kneading it into a compact cake with an admixture of dung and mud, ornament it with beads, bits of metal and coloured glass.” Some of them were very pretty, Rattray observed, but others were squint-eyed from peering around the sides of their “odious distinction”. 1

H.G.Raverty (Oriental scholar on the language and literature of the Afghans) gives the following description of the custom in 1860:

“To-takaey ((توتکې)) refers to a knot of hair worn in front, on the forehead, by virgins. This refers to a strange custom prevalent some hundred years since amongst the whole of the Afghans, and still observed ad, and sometimes reaching to the tip of the nose, covering the eyes, and acting, in fact, the part of a mask. It may be raised or put aside to enable the wearer to see properly. On the morning of the marriage it is opened, and not plaited again.” [“A Dictionary of the Puk’hto, Pushto, Or Language of the Afghans”, p-1102]by the Ghalzis, and other tribes of central Afghanistan, of plaiting the front hair of young girls, from about eight years of age, until their marriage, in a large round plait, often the size of a saucer, in front of the forehe

Ashraf Khan Khattak, the eldest son of Khushal Khan Khattak refers to it in one of his couplets ;

چی اوربل د مخ له پاسه لکه سپر کا
د سرو گلو یې خاصیت همه د لمر کا

“When, in the shape of a shield, the hair on the forehead is plaited,
The roses wreathed therein, impart the intrinsic virtues of the sun “[“Gulshan-i-Roh”, p-149]

A chieftain and female of the Ghiljee (غلجي) tribe from Kalat-e-Ghiljee (قلات غلجي), 1840 (c). Painting by James Atkinson.


James Atkinson writes: “The dress of the Giljee female, as here shown, is that of the poorer class. It is remarkable for the peculiar manner in which their hair is made to act a partial veil, by being brought over the forehead, plastered with gum, and then wound in a flat circle round a piece of green grass.” 

The custom of plaiting forelocks of Pashtun brides on the occasion of wedding and then its opening by groom (symbolic of transition of females from maidenhood to womanhood), is practiced in many parts of Pakhunkhwa and is remnant of the above-mentioned old custom.

The Rohillas (Pashtuns settled in India) had this custom in early 19th century. After performance of nikah, the Rohilla groom was invited to the ladies’ quarters where he opened the bride’s orbal (forelocks) ceremoniously in the presence of women. [“The Ruhela chieftainships” by Iqbal Hussain, p-207]

The custom of keeping round plait of forelocks as the badge of virginity by unmarried Pashtun girls is no longer practiced but Kochis and other Pashtuns have replaced it with a forehead pendant reminiscing it. Its round, and much larger than Indian Tikka, reaching to the root of nose.


A Pashtun nomad woman. From. Zhwandun Magazine, December 1975.



A Pashtun nomad woman bakes flat bread, Afghanistan 1971. By Jean Bourgeois


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