LOCATION: Pakistan

POPULATION: 140.5 million

LANGUAGE: Urdu (official national language); English; Punjabi (60 percent); Sindhi (13 percent); Pushto (8 percent); Baluchi (2 percent)

RELIGION: Islam (majority); Hinduism; Christianity; Buddhism; Baha'i; Parsi (Zoroastrianism)


Pakistanis are citizens of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan (Islam-i Jamhuriya-e Pakistan). The nation of Pakistan came into existence in 1947. Before that time, the region formed part of the British Indian Empire.

Pakistan's history dates back nearly 5,000 years to one of the world's first urban (city-based) civilizations, which grew up along the Indus River. Pakistan was settled by peoples of varied ethnic and cultural backgrounds. In the Urdu language, the name Pakistan translates as "Land of the Pure."

At the beginning of the eleventh century, rulers from Afghanistan mounted military campaigns over the mountain passes into the region that is India and Pakistan today. For over 650 years, a Muslim government based in Delhi ruled much of the area that makes up modern Pakistan. Toward the end of the sixteenth century, one emperor, Akbar, made Lahore the capital of his empire. Lahore is a major city in modern Pakistan.

Britain took over the plains of the Punjab in 1849. Over the next hundred years, the British colonial government in India gained control over virtually all the lands and peoples that were to make up Pakistan.

The modern state of Pakistan was created in 1947, when the British colonial possessions were divided between Pakistan and India. Pakistan's capital city is Islamabad. The traditional conflict with India has led to several military confrontations, with wars fought in 1947, 1965, and 1971.


Pakistan lies in the northwest part of the Indian subcontinent. It has an area of 307,304 square miles (796,095 square kilometers). Pakistan occupies the territories of Jammu and Kashmir, which officially belong to India. In size, Pakistan is slightly larger than the state of Texas. Its southern border is formed by a 650-mile (1,046-kilo-meter) stretch of coastline along the Arabian Sea. From there, the country extends northward for 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) to the mountains that lie along its northern border with China. To the west, Pakistan shares borders with Iran and Afghanistan. India lies to the east, and in the northeast is the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Pakistan's western boundary was established by the British as part of their Indian Empire. The eastern boundary was set in the mid-twentieth century. When the British were preparing to give up control of their Indian Empire, Muslims living there were concerned that they would be a minority in a Hindu-controlled independent country. They demanded their own country. When the British left India, the Muslim majority areas in the north—one in the west and the other in the east—were separated to form Pakistan.

Pakistan was then made up of two "wings" separated by 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) of land belonging to India. East Pakistan, even though it had a Muslim majority, was culturally different from the West Pakistan. Eventually, civil war erupted. East Pakistan broke away (with Indian help) and became the independent nation of Bangladesh in 1971.

The boundary between India and West Pakistan divided the region of the Punjab in two. In 1947 when the boundary was set, many people moved to live closer to people who were like them—Sikhs and Hindus moved into India, and a Muslims moved into Pakistan. This process was not peaceful, and an estimated 1 million people died in the process.

In the territory known as Jammu and Kashmir (usually called simply "Kashmir"), there have been tensions. In 1947, Kashmir had more Muslims in its population. But the ruler was Hindu, and he was reluctant to join either Pakistan or India. From 1947–49, there was armed conflict. A ceasefire was negotiated by the United Nations in 1949, but Kashmir remains divided, with Pakistani and Indian troops facing each other across the ceasefire line.

The 140.5 million people of Pakistan encompass a range of distinct ethnic groups. Baluchis are found in the southwest, and Sindhis, in the south. The Punjabis of the northern plains of the Indus River make up the largest, and most politically influential, group in the country. In the northwest, Pashtun (also called Pakhtun or Pathan) are the main group. Tribal areas are administered by the federal government rather than by provincial governments. The ethnic mix of Pakistan is further modified by the muhajirs (Muslims from India who crossed into Pakistan in 1947, along with their descendants), who represent perhaps 10 percent of Pakistan's population. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979–88), there were an estimated 3 million Afghani refugees (mainly Pashtuns) in northwestern Pakistan.

Pakistan is roughly divided into three geographic regions: the Indus plains, the northern mountains, and the hills and plateaus that extend from the Khyber Pass to Baluchistan. The Indus plains, and especially the northern region of the Punjab, form the heart of the country. In spite of the dry climate (Karachi receives about 8 inches, or 20 centimeters, of rain a year) and maximum temperatures that may hover above 104° F (40° C ) for months at a time, the plains support the largest part of Pakistan's population. Agriculture depends heavily on irrigation from the waters of the Indus River system.

The northern mountain zone has some of the most rugged land found anywhere in the world. Nearly all the region lies above 7,800 feet (approximately 2,400 meters). The Karakoram Mountains contain some of the highest peaks in the world. More than fifty peaks are over 21,000 feet (6,500 meters) in elevation. The area is difficult to cross, especially in the winter months. It is sparsely populated with tribespeople who display a fierce sense of independence.


Over twenty languages are spoken in Pakistan. Punjabi is spoken by almost 60 percent of the population. Other languages include Sindhi (13 percent); Pushto or Pashtu, the language of the Pathans (8 percent); and Baluchi (2 percent). Kashmiri is the language of the disputed areas of the former Jammu and Kashmir State.

Balti, spoken in the extreme Northeast, belongs to the Sino-Tibetan, rather than the Indo-European, language family.

The origins of the Burushaski language (spoken in the Hunza region) are still unknown.

Brahui, spoken by some 2.5 million people in Baluchistan Province, is of interest. Unlike most languages of Pakistan, it belongs to the Dravidian language family. It is linguistically related to the languages of southern India.

With this great variety, and because of the role of language in cultural identity, Urdu has been adopted as Pakistan's national language. However, it has been adopted only by the intellectuals and the educated, wealthy classes of the cities, so it cannot be viewed as "national." Only about 10 percent of the population speaks Urdu. Urdu is written in Persian-Arabic script. Urdu and English—the latter a legacy of the colonial era—are official languages in which government and business are conducted.


Given that the Pakistani identity was created by a political decision in 1947, it is not surprising that the peoples of Pakistan tend to identify more with their own communities than with their nation. In other words, one is a Punjabi, Baluchi, Sindhi, or Pashtun before one is a Pakistani. Individual people respect the folk traditions and folk heroes of their own community. However, Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1875–1948) has reached the status of a national hero for many Pakistanis. It was Jinnah, Pakistan's first leader, who demanded a separate Muslim country in India. He is responsible for the existence of Pakistan and is known as the Great Leader, the Quaid-e-Azam .


The majority of Pakistanis are Muslims (followers of Islam). Religious minorities, accounting for just over 3 percent of the population, include Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, and Baha'is (who are of Iranian descent). There is a small Parsi (Zoroastrian) community, concentrated in Karachi.

Within the Muslim community, the Sunnis sect forms the majority. About 25 percent of Muslims are Shi'ah (or Shi'ite), who are often at odds with the Sunni majority. The Ahmadiyas, a modern Islamic sect, have beliefs that are so different that many other Muslims don't consider them Muslim. There are over 2 million Ahmadiyas, and they face discrimination from other Pakistanis.


The two great religious festivals celebrated by the Pakistanis are Eid-al-Fitr , celebrating the end of the fast of Ramadan , and Bakr-Eid, the feast of sacrifice. Ramadan, the month of fasting, is observed by all Muslims. Muharram is a major day of remembrance among the Shi'ahs. The Urs festivals, commemorating dates of the deaths of Sufi saints, are important festivals celebrated at the saints' shrines. (Sufis are members of another of the Muslim sects.) The Muslim religious holidays follow the lunar calendar, so they fall on different days on the Western calendar each year.

In addition to religious holidays, Pakistanis observe certain national holidays. These include Independence Day (August 14), Pakistan Day (March 23), Defence of Pakistan Day (September 6), and the birth-date and deathdate of M. A. Jinnah, the Quaid-e-Azam (December 25 and September 11, respectively).


Pakistanis follow the rites of passage associated with the Islamic faith. Newborns are sanctified by prayer and undergo head-shaving and naming ceremonies. All males undergo the ritual of circumcision (sunnat) . Among some Muslims, a ceremony known as Bismillah marks the beginning of a child's education in religious matters.

Ceremonies associated with death and burial combine practices from the shari'ah, (Islamic law), with local customs and traditions. The body is ritually bathed and wrapped in a white shroud in preparation for burial. The body is brought out of the house, and the face of the deceased person is shown to relatives and neighbors. Mourners, led by a priest, say prayers over the body, which is then taken in procession to the graveyard.


Traditional Pakistanis use the formal greeting of Muslims the world over, Salaam alaikum (Peace be with you). The correct reply to this is the sentence, Wa alaikum as Salaam (And also unto you). Less formally, men shake hands and friends embrace each other. Pathans embrace twice, once from the left side and once from the right. Men are addressed as Sahib ("Mister" or "Sir"); when used with a name, the word Sahib comes last (as in "Johnson Sahib "). The equivalent form of address for a woman is Begum . Khan, although a name, is also a title of respect.


In spite of the improvements in the nation's health standards since independence, many Pakistanis continue to face major health hazards. Leading causes of death include malaria, childhood diseases (measles, diphtheria, whooping cough), typhoid, gastrointestinal (digestive-system) problems, and respiratory infections (in the breathing apparatus). Bad sewage disposal, lack of safe drinking water, and malnutrition (lack of enough food or the right kind of food) contribute to health problems. Infant mortality rates (the proportion of babies who die very young) are high. Fertility rates are also high; the average woman has six babies. The natural increase of population is 3 percent per year, the highest rate in southern Asia.

Although the majority of the populatio lives in rural villages, many Pakistanis live in cities. Karachi has over 5 million people and Lahore has over 3 million people. Islamabad was built specifically to be Pakistan's capital. The prosperous upper-class city people live in large, air-conditioned houses with the latest modern conveniences. Rural house types, construction materials, and furnishings vary according to region.

Pakistan has 121,000 miles (195,000 kilometers) of roads, although only 54 percent of them are paved. State-run bus services and private minibuses are available to the public. The train still remains the most common means of long-distance travel for Pakistanis. Pakistan also has a state-run airline that operates scheduled domestic and international flights.


Social relations among Pakistanis are very much influenced by caste (inherited social status and job categories). (This is true even though the religion of the majority, Islam, rejects the caste system.) The caste system does not have the religious aspects of the true Hindu caste system of India, but it does define the job roles of specific groups in the villages. It is also important for selecting a marriage partner.

Pakistanis follow the general customs of Islam in marriage (nikah), but details vary according to community and region. Parents take great care in arranging marriages for their children. Pakistani society is patrilocal (the daughter-in-law enters the household of her husband's family). The role of women in traditional Pakistani society is clearly defined: to bear sons, to manage the household, and to see to the needs of the men of the family. However, behind the scenes, women have influence in family matters.


The standard clothing of men all over Pakistan is the salwar, loose baggy trousers, and kurta, a long shirtlike tunic. This is worn with a variety of head coverings, from turbans to caps. On formal occasions, the kurta is replaced by an achkan or serwani , a long coat that buttons up to the neck.

The Jinnah cap, favored by Muslim Indian politician M. A. Jinnah (1876–1948), is popular among politicians, government officials, and other groups in the cities and towns of Pakistan.

Women commonly wear the salwar , kamiz , and dupatta (scarf), or the sari. Orthodox Muslim women cover themselves from head to foot in the tent-like burqa, the long garment that covers them from head to toe.

12 • FOOD

It is difficult to identify food that is specifically Pakistani because the region shares food traditions with its neighbor, India. The main difference between Pakistani and Indian food is that Pakistani food tends to be less spicy. Pakistani dishes are often made with yogurt, which reduces the effect of the hot spices used in cooking.

Wheat is the staple food for most of the people. It is eaten in the form of flat, unleavened bread called chapatis or roti, together with spiced lentils (dal) and vegetables in season. Sweetened tea, buttermilk, or lassi, a drink made from yogurt, rounds out the meal. Those who can afford to buy it eat meat or poultry, although in rural areas these are usually festival foods. Goat meat is a favorite. Pakistanis will not eat pork, because Muslims regard it as unclean.


(Carrot Dessert)


  • 1½ pounds carrots
  • 2 cups milk
  • ¼ cup butter
  • ¾ cup jaggary (dark brown sugar may be substituted)
  • 2 cardamon pods, peeled, and seeds cracked
  • 1 Tablespoon rose water
  • slivered, toasted, blanched almonds


  1. Grate carrots in blender with milk.
  2. Cook mixture for 1½ hours until all moisture has evaporated.
  3. Add butter, jaggary, and cracked cardamon seeds and mix well. Cook mixture for ten minutes; mixture should be dry.
  4. Just before serving, drizzle mixture with rose water. Garnish with almonds. This dessert may served hot or cold.

Adapted from Castle, Coralie and Margaret Gin. Peasant Cooking of Many Lands . San Fransisco, Calif.: 101 Productions, 1972, p. 45.

(Yogurt and Vegetable Salad)


  • 1 cup yogurt
  • 3–4 cups mixed vegetables, such as raw spinach and cucumber, cooked potatoes or eggplant
  • ½ cup chopped onions
  • 1 dried red chili pepper, crushed, or ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 2 Tablespoons minced fresh mint leaves
  • ½ teaspoon each cumin powder and salt
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper


  1. Combine all ingredients in large bowl.
  2. Mix well. Serves 6-8.

Adapted from Castle, Coralie, and Margaret Gin. Peasant Cooking of Many Lands . San Fransisco, Calif.: 101 Productions, 1972, p. 45.

The Mughal style of cooking was developed in the Muslim courts of India. It uses a blend of herbs and spices, rather than chilis and peppers, and offers a selection of meats and poultry served in sauces, tandoori dishes baked in a clay oven, breads such as nan, and rice dishes.


Despite the expansion of educational facilities since independence, only 35 percent of Pakistanis over fifteen years of age were literate (could read and write) as of 1993 (47.3 percent for males and 22.3 percent for females). The variation in literacy between city and rural populations is also great. Attendance at school remains low in rural areas because many children must work in the fields, and the dropout rate is high. Over two-thirds of adults have no formal schooling. Less than 2 percent of the population attends universities.


Buddhism has left its mark on Pakistan. The ancient kingdom of Gandhara, in northern Pakistan, was a major center of Buddhist learning and arts from the first to fifth centuries AD . With influences from the West, Buddhists developed a tradition of Gandhara art that combined motifs from Persia, Greece, and Rome with Buddhist forms. The Indian-Islamic style of architecture, the many shrines of the pirs (Sufi saints), and the mosques such as the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore indicate the influence of Islam.

The poetry and music of the Sufis are widely known. The singing of qawwalis, religious songs, is extremely popular, and some qawwali singers enjoy the kind of fame pop stars have in the West. There is a rich tradition of poetry in Urdu and other regional languages.


Pakistan is mainly an agricultural nation, with 68 percent of its people living in rural areas. Pakistan's rapid population growth has increased the demand for food and slowed industrial expansion. There is a surplus of laborers. This has given rise to unique businesses, such as the world's largest ship-breaking operation. It is located on the beaches of the Arabian Sea coast, and the sometimes dangerous work of tearing apart old boats and ships is done almost entirely by hand. Many Pakistanis work in the oil-exporting countries of the Middle East, where workers are in demand. They earn much higher incomes than they could in Pakistan. This is an important source of foreign currency (money) for the country.


Sports and games enjoyed by children in rural areas include hide-and-seek, marbles, kite flying, gulli-danda (a stick game played by boys), and kabaddi, a wrestling game. For men, cockfighting, partridge fighting, and pigeon flying (and betting on the outcome) are favorite pastimes. Polo, played more informally than in the West, is popular in northern areas.

Pakistanis also play modern sports. The entire country is addicted to cricket, a leftover from British colonial days. In recent years, the Pakistani national (Test) cricket team has regularly defeated England's team. The Pakistani national field hockey team is also one of the best in the world, a frequent winner of the Olympic gold medal. Games such as soccer, tennis, badminton, and table tennis are also played. Pakistanis have regularly won the world championship in squash, a court game similar to racquetball.


Radio and television are available in Pakistan, although these forms of communication are controlled by the government. Television shows are broadcast only during certain hours, and the programming is not always interesting. It includes quiz programs, dramas highlighting the country's social problems, soap operas, and reruns of old sitcoms from the West. Films in Urdu and in English are popular. Many well-to-do households have VCRs, and rented videos are available in the bazaars (markets).

Movie theaters abound in Pakistani cities and towns, showing films in Punjabi and Urdu. The films, starring well-known actors and actresses, tend to be melodramas, with much action, singing, and dancing, and with predictable plots. Music from films is popular and can be heard on the radio, in buses, and in the bazaars at all hours of the day.


Every region in Pakistan specializes in its own local arts and crafts. These include rugs and carpets, embroidered and appliquéd bedspreads and table linens, colorful fabrics, mirror work, leather goods, copper and brass articles, onyx ornaments, woodwork, inlaid furniture, lacquerware, and gold and silver jewelry.


Pakistanis face many of the social and economic problems typical of developing nations. Poverty, illiteracy (inability to read and write), unemployment, economic inflation, and a widening gap between rich and poor are only a few of the country's ills. These problems have been intensified by wars with India, high spending on the military, and the continuing conflict in Kashmir. The frequency with which the Pakistani Army has overthrown democratically elected governments has added to political instability in the country. India and Pakistan both conducted nuclear tests in 1998, heightening political tension.

There has been some enthusiasm for the creation of an independent Pashtu-speaking state (Pakhtunistan) on Pakistan's northwest frontier.

In recent years, the presence of 3 million Afghan war refugees has been an added economic and social burden on the country.

Punjabis are viewed as having too much power and influence, and conflict between muhajirs and Sindhis has led to unrest in the south, especially in the city of Karachi.

The government's policy of Islamization (increasing the role of Islam in the country), combined with the outspoken fundamentalism of many religious leaders, has created conflict between segments of the Muslim community.


Blood, Peter R., ed. Pakistan, a Country Study . 6th ed. Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1995.

Castle, Coralie and Margaret Gin. Peasant Cooking of Many Lands . San Fransisco, Calif.: 101 Productions, 1972.

Eglar, Zekiye. A Punjabi Village in Pakistan. New York: Columbia University Press, 1960

National Institute of Folk Heritage. Folk Heritage of Pakistan. Islamabad, Pakistan: National Institute of Folk Heritage, 1977.

Quddus, Syed Abdul. The Cultural Patterns of Pakistan. Lahore, Pakistan: Ferozsons, 1989.


Embassy of Pakistan, Washington, DC. [Online] Available , 1998.

Interknowledge Corp. [Online] Available , 1998.

World Travel Guide, Pakistan. [Online] Available , 1998.

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