Pakistani Culture: Sources & Drivers

Although Pakistan is only a 70-years old nation-state, all its federating units are proud inheritors of thousands of years old rich cultural traditions manifested in all facets of their daily life-food, shelter, clothing, ideas/beliefs, entertainment, etc. However, slowly but surely, distinct Pakistani culture is emerging with its own peculiar ethnic Pakistani touch, kaleidoscopic blend of individual cultures of various provinces, regions, classes, and communities. With contribution from diverse sources, indigenous and foreign, Pakistan’s culture is naturally pluralistic reflecting the spatial diversity and historical trajectories of the country.

Sources of Cultural Evolution of Pakistan

No society or culture remains static over time. It keeps on changing under the requirements of the stage of its technological and economic development accompanied by attendant structural and institutional changes. The same is the case with Pakistan, home to over 15 major ethnic groups that differ in physical features, customs, dress, food, and music. It is a melting pot of Indian, Persian, Afghan, Central Asian, and Western Asian influences brought by foreign invasions and trade relations and strongly shaped by Islam since it first came to the region in AD 700. This cultural evolution is influenced, like all other cultures, by several drivers of historical development;

  1. Indus State Heritage

Pakistan is the inheritor of the world’s earliest urban civilization, the Indus Valley Civilization which started around 5500 BCE and lasted till around 1500 BCE. Known for its extensive use of bronze, they developed new techniques in handicrafts, built its cities using the grid system with roadside drainage systems and multi-story houses made with bricks. Consequently, like every other ancient civilization, Indus Valley civilization has left rich legacies in all the regions of Pakistan, providing a solid common foundation for the evolution of national culture.

Unfortunately, there are no surviving grand monuments of the Indus Valley because their cities have almost vanished. However, their knowledge and skills still survive in our cuisine, architecture, clothing and fashion, agricultural practices, arts & crafts, trading conventions, etc

We have inherited out staple diets of lentil and bread from the Indus Valley people who were forced to use heavy intake of fat and carbohydrates due to the harshness of the climate and heavy load of work. Wheat imported by them from the Fertile Crescent and grown in the fields of Punjab and Sindh soon replaced barley as the main ingredient of our bread. Frequent famines taught them how to use grass (Saag) along with vegetables as a second dish. Before the British introduced the third timing of food eating—breakfast, we used to have only ‘do waqat ki roti'(two meals a day) –11 o clock after finishing the work at the fields, and 6 pm dinner before going to bed.

Beads and pendants are very important forms of ornament that have a very long history in the Indus Valley. Buttons—made from seashell—were used in the Indus Valley Civilization for ornamental purposes by 2000 BCE. Many crafts such as shell working, ceramics, and agate and glazed steatite bead making were used in the making of necklaces, bangles, and other ornaments from all phases of Harappan sites and some of these crafts are still practised in the subcontinent today. Some make-up and toiletry items (a special kind of combs (kakai), the use of collyrium and a special three-in-one toiletry gadget) that were found in Harappan contexts still have similar counterparts in Pakistan. Terracotta female figurines were found (ca. 2800-2600 BCE) which had red colour applied to the “manga” (line of partition of the hair).

Most of the themes of the folk stories, wedding dances, belief in magic, sacredness of cows, ritual bathing, bull-baiting, possibly yoga, symbols like the Swastika and endless knot which are auspicious symbols of Buddhism / Jainism today owe their origins to our Indus people. The Indus valley people lived in peace and their gift to us is showing us how to live in peace. Village structure and respect for authority are still the same as were prevalent during the Indus valley civilisation. Many pieces of touchstones bearing gold streaks probably used for testing the purity of gold were found in Mohenjo Daro. Such a technique is still used in many towns and cities of the Sub-continent.

The IVC may have been the first civilization to use wheeled transport. These advances may have included bullock carts that are identical to those seen throughout South Asia today, as well as boats. Most of these boats were probably small, flat-bottomed craft, perhaps driven by sail, similar to those one can see on the Indus River today; however, there is secondary evidence of seagoing craft.

The people of the Indus Valley have also passed on lots of games; kabbaddi, chariot racing, wrestling, gulli danda, etc owe a lot to our Indus people ancestors. The dice that were used in the Indus Valley are very similar to the ones we use today. An early form of chess may have been used in the Indus Valley. Objects with grids on them and playing pieces have been found in the Indus Valley.

  • Islamic Influenc

Islam’s contributions to Pakistani culture are tremendous and can be seen in every aspect of its culture. While the core beliefs and practices of Pakistani Muslims revolve around the basic tenets of Islam, they have adopted some of the local traditions and even beliefs after their sanctification, albeit pseudo one. Thus peeri/mureedi, magic, some festivals, etc are considered to be rooted in Islam are totally indigenous. Islam created the division of halal and haram in food, in particular eating the meat of only those animals which have been declared as halal and have been slaughtered under the Islamic injunctions. Similarly, its injunctions against pork and wine resulted in their banishment from our cuisine.

Although Islam gave a lot to the improvement of local cultures, it also benefited a lot from them and over a period of time, there emerged a distinct Indian Muslim culture with a mixture of hardcore Islamic teachings as well as religiously sanctified local customs and traditions. The dress code for religious ceremonies is also influenced by Islamic traditions.

  • Central Asian Impact

The present-day Pakistan was the base camp for any invader from the Central Asia-and there were many. Consequently, there has been a lot of racial and cultural intermixing which over a period has been diluted but still manifested in physique, food, shelter, clothing. There are hundreds and thousands of towns and villages in Pakistan whose inhabitants are proud of their Central Asian ancestry. A lot of our cuisine, particularly meat dishes, is of Central Asian origin. They introduced horses, dogs, and camel to the list of domesticated animals. Similarly, a sizable portion of our daily use vocabulary has its roots in Central Asia i.e., Daku(robber), Qazzak(vagabond), Ghar(house), Makan(home), etc

  • Mughal’s contributions:

Mughals came from Central Asia but settled here and ruled India for more than 200 years. One of the most powerful dynasties ruling India for more than two centuries, they bequeathed us substantial legacies in almost every field. During their rule, Indian culture and society underwent a fundamental transformation in multiple dimensions ranging from food and shelter to art, literature and even our dress. The centralized, imperialistic governance style, Mughal art by the fusion of Persian and Indian one and culture, cuisine, and the development of Urdu language are their best legacies.

Art and culture would have been poor if Mughals had not left such rich and exquisite traditions in this field. Even the tradition of decorating the trucks for which Pakistan is famous all over the world comes from the era of crafts and craftsmen from the Mughal empire. Extreme attention paid to the intricate details in every aspect of these trucks stems from the old style of palace décor employed during the Mughal era.

They left us a rich culinary legacy called Mughlai cuisine consisting of a delicious blend of ex0tic ingredients mixed with indigenous spices besides perfecting the art of cooking by using earthen ovens and pots. These are still the norms in our cooking practices. Some of the dishes we take for granted such as Murgh Musallam or Navratan Korma are Mughal gifts to our cuisine. The same is the case with Nihari, Shabdeg, Biryani, Haleem, etc.

Talking about architecture, we cannot escape Mughal contributions wherever we go. Lahore, occasional residence of Mughal rulers, exhibits many important buildings from the empire. Most prominent among them are the Badshahi mosque, the fortress of Lahore with the famous Alamgiri Gate, the colourful, the Mughal-style Wazir Khan Mosque, the Shalimar Gardens in Lahore and the Shahjahan Mosque in Thatta. The Lahore Fort, a landmark built during the Mughal era, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Even the British who while introducing European architectural styles in India were greatly inspired by the Mughal architecture and built numerous buildings copying their style.

  • Colonial Heritage:

Although formal British rule started after the 1857 War of Independence when Queen Victoria became empress of India, the British cultural invasion had started influencing Indian society even during the rule of the East India Company. We must give them credit for laying down impressive public infrastructure such as roads, railways, canals, telegraphs, etc. Excavations and preservation of our archeological sites and saving traditional languages from extinction owe a lot to the British explorers and linguists.

Foreign invasions, trade relations and colonialism have also played a key role in introducing certain foods, fruits and vegetables as well as dishes and manners of their cooking and eating. While the Portuguese were responsible for introducing tomato, potato, chilies, and tobacco, the British introduced the third timing of food eating—breakfast. Before their arrival, we used to have only ‘do waqat ki roti'(two meals a day) –11 o clock after finishing the work at the fields, and 6 pm dinner before going to bed. Having lunch or dinner around the table and use of fork is also a colonial legacy. While tea and refined sugar (still called Cheeni) was introduced by the Arabs from China, it was popularized by the British. Evening tea with snacks and custard are British legacies.

  • Globalization:

In a rapidly globalizing world, it is not possible to protect your culture from global influences of the dominant western cultural influences any longer. Travel, ease of travel and flow of ideas through print, electronic and social media is transforming every culture in multiple ways even in the remote corners of the world.

Pakistani society and its cultural values are also subject to these influences. Globalization has made great inroads in all spheres of our social life, including food, shelter, clothing, attitudes, beliefs, etc. Coffee is the gift of Globalization along with fast food, and different fizzy drinks. Lassi , made from curd, a traditional drink in the Punjab region is being replaced with fizzy drinks even in the rural areas. Black tea with milk and sugar is popular throughout Pakistan and is taken daily by most of the population.

The same is the case with our dresses, entertainment, means of transportation and communications, modes of governance, etc. Globalisation is also changing our attitudes and behavior. From a joint family to nuclear, a lesser number of children, individualism, role, and status of females, eating habits and manners are changing with the global trends.


The evolution of a particular national culture takes time in which each federating unit contributes. You cannot force cultural homogeneity through the barrel of the gun or state edicts.Let a hundred flowers of different varieties and hues bloom rather than having a garden full of roses only. Unity in diversity is the hallmark of a true federation. Give respect to every major language spoken and let a national language evolve over a period.

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