See the ‘blue-skinned’ Pashtun Hindus brought to life in a new film
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See the ‘blue-skinned’ Pashtun Hindus brought to life in a new film

Filmmaker Shilpi Batra Adwani set out to trace her roots. Her journey took her from Jaipur to Afghanistan and back, unravelling a unique and little-known Partition tale.

more lifestyle Updated: Jan 27, 2019 12:14 IST
Anesha George
Anesha George
Hindustan Times
Documentary,Shilpi Batra Adwani,Pashtun Hindus
Shilpi Batra Adwani with Bagodai Babai, a Pashtun Hindu migrant seen here in a restored Kakari kameez. The heavily embroidered garment traditionally had coins sewn into the bodice to indicate wealth and status.

Search for Hindu Pashtuns on the internet and even Google doesn’t have much information. This forgotten tribe migrated from Afghanistan and Pakistan to India during Partition, ended up in Rajasthan, and spent the next few decades trying desperately to fit in.

They were meat-eating Hindus with a unique culture that they had taken great pride in. This culture included distinct blue tattoos that adorned the faces of the women, and a traditional costume — the Kakari kameez — that was heavily embroidered and had coins stitched into the bodice.

Struggling to fit in, the women began to hide their skin art, put away their Kakaris, and stopped speaking Balochi. Which is why, growing up, Shilpi Batra Adwani didn’t know that the ‘secret language’ she spoke at home had a name. “When classmates discussed their hometowns, I just said I was Punjabi. It was so much simpler,” says Batra, 30.

It was in 2009, while pursuing a Masters in journalism at Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi, that she began to explore her roots. “I was a Hindu Pashtun, and I didn’t know what that meant,” she says. Her journey has become the documentary, ‘Sheenkhalai - The Blue Skin’ the first cut of which will be released next month.

It’s the story of what happened to the mutton recipes, the coins, the kameezes and all the rest of her people’s culture, a story she’s put together through seven years of travelling through Afghanistan and connecting with old men and women from the Kakari tribes in Loralai, Quetta, Bori and Maikhter, after which she spent months of going door-to-door in Jaipur.

Batra hosted a get-together for the community, where seniors sang wedding songs and tried on the restored kameezes. Most of the faces at the meet bore the distinct tattoos that were once considered marks of beauty.


In the film, about 100 old men and women gather for a party. They sing traditional Pashto songs, like the ones they once sang at weddings, and discuss the folk dance called Attan.

The songs show how proud the women once were of their skin art. ‘Sheenkhalai’, the most popular, has the male singer asking to see the woman’s tattoos. ‘Tora shpa da tora khun, sheenkhalai na da maaloom’ (This is a dark room and the night is dark, and your sheenkhalai is not visible),’ he says, with the woman asking him to be patient, adding, ‘Tora shpa ba khudai runya ki,sheenkhalai ba khudai paida ki’ (Dawn will break soon and my beauty marks will soon be visible to you).”

In Rajasthan, the tattoos — designed by injecting kohl-filled needles into the skin — were viewed with suspicion. “It marked these women out as different,” Batra says. “Initially, they were considered akin to untouchables and not allowed inside kitchens, because they looked different and spoke in a strange language.”

That made work hard to find for the refugees. Pyari Devi, 103 in the film, narrated how she tried to scrub the marks off her skin, over and over, and failed.

To survive, the Kakari kameezes — embroidered by hand, each piece often taking a woman up to a year to complete — were sold as scrap, their worth determined by the weight of the coins that had once represented wealth and status. “Even those who didn’t sell the kameezes stopped wearing them, and switched to the regular Punjabi kameez. They also began to wear veils to cover their face tattoos,” Batra says.

Last January, former Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, a Muslim Pashtun, inaugurated the Sheenkhalai Art Project — a curation of photos, dresses, coins, jewellery and songs — while in that city for the Jaipur literature festival. (Photo courtesy The Open Space Society)


As she went door to door, Batra uncovered some of the Kakari kameezes that had been wrapped up and put away. “They were crumbling and moth-eaten, so fragile that we got in touch with a textile conservationist for help restoring 15 of the outfits,” Batra says.

The first thing Canadian textile conservationist Skye Morrison did was put the outfits in the freezer for a week, to kill any insects and bacteria. “Replicating the rich embroidery would only have looked tacky, so we left them as was and stitched similar-coloured cotton linings under the fabric to give the kameezes a stronger base,” Morrison says.

The documentary captures the excitement on the faces of the older women, when presented with the restored kameezes. “Many said that they had forgotten how beautiful they were; some asked if they could put them on,” Batra says.

Short clips show the women smiling, skin art on display, clad in their traditional garments. The film also traces traditional Hindu Pashtun recipes through these women, and customs such as that of serving one big bowl of Mutton Tarkari during every meal, which the entire family would eat from.

Last January, former Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, a Muslim Pashtun, inaugurated the Sheenkhalai Art Project — a curation of photos, dresses, coins, jewellery and songs — while in that city for the Jaipur literature festival. The film and the show have been funded in part by the India-Afghanistan Foundation.

“Finally,” Batra says, “I feel like I know my true identity.” To keep a bit of the Sheenkhalai with her, she has also had the word tattooed, in Pashto, on her hand.

First Published: Jan 25, 2019 21:21 IST