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A banner hung over the entrance of Kabul museum proclaimed: "A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive."
PTI | By HT Correspondent
UPDATED ON FEB 01, 2006 08:10 PM IST

A banner hung over the entrance of Kabul museum proclaimed: "A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive."

The culture of Afghanistan reflects its ancient roots and position as a crossroads for invading ethnic groups and traditions.

Little the Afghans make is unattractive; even common grain bags to carry produce to market are often embroidered to make them more beautiful.

A camel caravan of nomads often looks like a circus parade, with the animals decked out in woven finery. The Islamic traditions of fine calligraphy and graphic arts are evoked in the fine filigreed flourishes that decorate many buildings.

Poetry and poets are revered. Although the people of Afghanistan may have been sorely stressed by centuries of warfare and a difficult environment, their arts have prospered nonetheless.

People: Afghanistan is an intensely Muslim country. The Shrine of Hazrat Ali in Mazar-e-Sharif is one of the most important shrines and it is holy to both Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

The country is 85 per cent Sunni and the Hazaras of central Afghanistan form the bulk of the Shiites, and as such have strong links to Iran. The country has historically been a great centre of Sufism.

Social structure: Tribal affiliation is still the most significant organising principle in parts of rural Afghan society. Tribal units have strong patrilineal organisation - something that perhaps comes almost by nature to nomads and those with a remembered and idealised nomadic past.

The patrilineal principle is also strongly supported by Islam. Leading families are recognised on the basis of land or livestock ownership, their reputation for religious leadership, or for having furnished men who exhibit the ideal Afghan personality type of the warrior-poet.

Women's status: In 1959, Afghan leadership stopped enforcing the seclusion and veiling of women, something that the Holy Quran is often interpreted to require.

However, the Taliban brought back the burka with a vengeance. Afghan women were flogged or otherwise punished for refusing to wear the shuttlecock-shaped accoutrement, or for being on the street without the company of a male relative, or for painting their nails.

Women could only attend single-sex hospitals (of which there were few) and were not allowed to seek employment or education.

Language: The two major languages in Afghanistan are Pashto and Persian, known in Afghanistan as Dari. Both are Iranian languages.

Music and literature: Afghan music, once banned by the Taliban but readily available on tape in Afghan communities in the United States, is very popular. Both sexes dance the atan, a national dance in which dancers with arms raised twist from side to side at the waist as they step in a slow, rhythmic pattern around a circle. It is danced in same-sex groups during weddings and other celebrations.

Dari literature is Persian literature, a 1000-year tradition mostly of rhymed poetry. TheRubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is probably the best-known example of Persian poetry, through the translation of Edward Fitzgerald. A rubai is a quatrain with a particular meter; rubaiyat is the plural of rubai.

Pashto also has a literary tradition, dating from the writings of Khoshal Khan Khattak, a larger-than-life Pashtun soldier and poet whose writings are full of life and energy. Pashto poetry mimics Persian poetry, with similar verse forms.

Hospitality: Afghanistan's Islamic heritage is also the basis of its famous hospitality: if you are invited into a home, expect to be treated with a respect not often understood in the West.

Though a family may clearly be putting themselves under financial strain to provide a meal for you (the honoured guest), refusing the invitation or offering to bring food would be a grave insult. A gift of fruit, flowers or something small from home would be appreciated, however.

Food and drink: Afghan food is essentially a variety of Persian food, with influences from the non-Iranian ethnic groups. It centers on pilaus, kabobs, chalows, and dumpling-like dishes introduced by the Altaic peoples from the north.

A pilau is a rice dish in which the rice has been cooked with other ingredients and is therefore coloured and flavoured by those ingredients.

The rice is usually cooked with meat juices, but sometimes only vegetables are used. Probably the most famous Afghan pilau is qabile pilau. There are probably as many variations of this dish as there are villages in Afghanistan, but typically pieces of lamb are covered with a pilau that includes strips of carrots and currants. Another quintessential Afghan dish is aushak, scallion-filled dumplings with meat sauce and yogurt, sprinkled with mint.

Afghan bread comes in slabs, or in round flat loaves (not to be confused with the now commonly sold Middle Eastern pita bread) that have been baked on the inner sides of large clay ovens called tandoors. Afghan bread is generally available in Middle Eastern grocery stores and in mainstream grocery stores in cities with large Afghan populations.

Because of cattle and sheep herding, dairy products are traditionally an important part of the diet. The usual beverage is tea, which constitutes one of Afghanistan's major imports. In general, black tea is used southeast of the Hindu Kush mountains, while green tea is preferred in the northwestern part of the country. Although most Afghans, as Muslims, do not drink alcohol, some educated, urban Afghans frequently do. Muslim dietary rules also prevent most Afghans from eating pork.

Art and heritage: Afghanistan's geographical position - for centuries crisscrossed by armies, empires and trade routes - combined with its varied geological terrain have given rise to the great diversity of foods, arts, languages and traditions that make up this country's cultural heritage. Unfortunately, many of the country's artistic treasures have been surreptitiously sold on the global market, while 2001 saw the destruction of the Great Buddhas in Bamiyan by the Taliban.

The Afghan people have, in some ways, sacrificed such luxuries in order to survive. However, no country with as rich and plentiful a heritage as Afghanistan could forget this source of strength and expression. If and when this country is blessed with a little peace, expect to be dazzled by its contributions to the world's culture once again.


National Holidays

Nau-Roz (New Year) - March 21
Victory of the Muslim Nation - April 28
Anniversary of Revolution - April 29
National Labour Day - May 1

Religious Holidays

Independence Day - August 19
Eid ul Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice) - March 18-21
Tenth of Moharran (Ashura - Battle of Kerbala) - April 17
Mawlud Nabi (Birth of the Prophet) - June 17
First Day of Ramadan - November 17
Eid ul-Fitr - December 18-21

Afghan's share in Indian art and culture

Afghanistan and Hindustan (presently India) were two neighbouring countries just more then half century ago.

Before the partition of subcontinent, Afghans and Indians had a frequent exchange of business and cultural activities. Afghans had played an important role in promotion of Indian art and culture.

One can find the glimpses of Afghan architecture spread all over the Indian territory. When Afghanistan was called Aryana, both Afghans and Hindus were sharing a common culture. Similarly, when Arian ruled the said region and the region was called Gandahara, in those days, both Arian and Indians were sharing the same faith, system and traditions.

The huge statue of great Buddha in central parts of Afghanistan and also other ancient pieces of art and culture stood testimony to those days of sharing and bonding.

Similarly, Indian books of Sanskrit version also mention Balkh of Afghanistan as a great place of learning.

Sufism is one of the most significant and rare gift from Afghanistan received by Hindustan or India. After famous Afghan king Sultan Muhammad Ghuri built Qowat-e-Islam Mosque of Delhi, (his Army Chief Qutob u Din Aibak had constructed the famous Qutab Manor. The famous Urdu poet and music composer Ameer khisro was a court member of Sultan Ghiasudin Balban. The famous Agra fort is one of the creations of Sekandar Lodhi. Most of the Lodhi emperors have chosen India for their last place of rest), famous Afghan Ruler Shir Shah Suri contributed the most significant works in the field of road building and architecture.

Evens today, thousands of Afghan migrants are living in India and they are sharing their social and cultural values with their host Indians.

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