Colours of the Kalash

The midsized Kalash valley of Rumbur is the land that time — and electricity, mobile service and hot showers —...


Cheree Franco June 26, 2011

My journey officially begins at the Chitral police station, where Pakistani friends sip sweet green tea while Shane and I try to argue our way out of 24-hour armed escorts.

“I was here just last July, and I didn’t have a guard then,” says the adamant Irishman, a five-year resident of Islamabad and a seasoned traveller in the northern areas.

Apparently, since October 2010 — a point in time that seems completely arbitrary to us — all foreigners are assigned guards. Will the guards fit in our Landcruiser? Okay then, not a problem. They’ll send a separate truck. So the next afternoon, we begin the treacherous uphill chug into what was, until recently, the North West Frontier, following a pick-up packed with cops — at least seven at last count.

The midsized Kalash valley of Rumbur is the land that time — and electricity, mobile service and hot showers — forgot. It’s less commercialised than Bhumboret, the larger valley, and its population is almost purely Kalash — a tribe of Indo-Aryans who consider themselves the progeny of Alexander the Great. Rumbur has five villages of between 10 to 50 families each.

It’s twilight when we arrive in the largest village, tumbling out of the Landcruiser like clowns on parade. Women stand on low roofs, their gazes fixed and expressionless. Men and boys crowd the road to witness the spectacle. The girls — miniature copies of their mothers in regal headpieces and baggy black, neon-trimmed dresses — scatter like minnows as we approach.

We are staying at The Kalash Guest House, operated by Engineer Khan and his family. A wooden structure that stacks level upon level, the Guest House is set apart from the main village, nestled opposite a bend where the river opens to misty-soft mountains. It’s ramshackle and cosy. The fresh, pungent waft of burning cedar drifts from the cooking fire, and I think we have come to the most pacific place on earth . . . for about six minutes. Then my reverie is interrupted by angry voices. There’s a confrontation playing out between my travel companions and the cops.

My friend Tazeen fills me in: “They want to sleep in our rooms, but we said no, that we have women, for one.” It seems the police have been sent with nothing more than knapsacks of clothes — no plans and no funds for room and board. Finally, we reach an agreement. We’ll pay for our guards’ meals, and Engineer will pitch a tent so they can sleep in his yard.

Harmony restored, Engineer breaks out a recycled Pepsi bottle of home-brewed grape wine, and we sip from mismatched cups and quiz him on Kalash culture. As the first college graduate in the village — Chitral Degree College, 1990 — Engineer is a local activist for education. He teaches English, among other subjects, at the Rumbur government primary school.  His daughter, Shazia, is pursuing a master’s of philosophy at Punjab University, and his 18-year-old son is studying engineering in Chitral.

Despite their exposure to urban life, Engineer is convinced that his children will choose to follow Kalash traditions. And Shazia, a woman with an open face and wry wit, agrees: “I miss it here, I miss my family when I’m in Lahore,” she says. She hopes to follow in her father’s footsteps and teach the Kalash children. But at 22, she’s past the traditional age for marriage, and Kalash men don’t understand her ambition. “It’s strange for a woman to be educated, and there are valleys with mountains on either side. So people don’t have anything to do but talk,” she says, offering a candid half-smile.

The next night we split a bottle of local moonshine with Comeo, a hardcore Japanese backpacker who rode down from Gilgit atop a Jeep. It’s a thrilling experience that he doesn’t recommend: “Very cold,” he says dryly.

Comeo came for Joshi, but he is leaving the next day, before the festival even begins. “I can’t take this security thing anymore,” he says. “I’m going to Peshawar.” Less fortunate than we’ve been, Comeo is sharing his bedroom with a guard.

We wake to a full guesthouse — there are journalists and tourists from Peshawar and one guy, a Danish trekker, even slept on the open-air porch. Despite the fact that we freeze all night, I envy him the experience. The night before, I huddled under a blanket on that same porch and watched the planetary sideshow — roughly a shooting star every four minutes.

We amble about the main village, watching women wash clothes in the river, and men pat out flat circles of walnut bread. In the evening we meet Engineer’s nephew, Ahmed Kalash (“It used to be Ahmed Ali, but I changed it to sound less Muslim,” he explained matter-of-factly). Ahmed is 28 and lives in Lahore. Despite the fact that he holds a law degree from Peshawar University, he works at a call centre that dispatches limos to New York airports — a quirky mish-mash of globalisation that seems misplaced in Rumbur.

Ahmed invites us to his father’s house, leading the way across the rapid river, hopping on rocks and a rickety board. There used to be a proper bridge but, like the hydroelectric generators, it fell victim to last August’s floods. Once across the river, we are greeted by a fairy-tale scene — low-roofed houses with womblike interiors, piled atop each other in a precarious pyramid and reached by a series of makeshift ladders and narrow paths that wind through bright fields and tiny irrigation channels. Everything’s shrouded in the purple mist of evening. I feel like I’ve stepped into a Tolkien novel.

“Ispata, baba, babyan,” we say to everyone. “Hello sister, brother!”

The next morning, the main day of Joshi, Engineer serves goat cheese at breakfast. “At Joshi we ask for good cheese, good food, good crops, all these things,” he tells us.

The previous day his wife, Zamgulsa, sent someone to Chitral to get new shoes for the children, and today she shakes out the dresses that she and Shazia stitched through long winter evenings. Their black sheen will soon be dulled by fine dust.

We step through the metal-detector, a new festival accessory, and begin our steep ascent up the mountain.

The sun is nearly unbearable, but soon we are distracted by hundreds of ecstatic, dancing women. They link arms and step firmly to the beat of the men’s drums, emitting ethereal siren calls from open throats.

From my perch above the action — the rooftop of a building that serves as teahouse and convenience store — I marvel at the complex, archetypal symbols they form — spirals gyrate and helixes unfold. The men bounce in the center, pummeling the sky with hats and fists and fragrant juniper branches. Boys laugh and roughhouse on the fringes, tumbling like puppies on top of the world, as close as they can get to their gods. “Our religion says to us you should gather. You should try to be happy with each other, and, in a really practical way you should enjoy the happiness,” Ahmed tells me.

According to Engineer, Joshi honours three sentiments, dictated by the various drumbeats. The Kalash offer prayers of thanksgiving and petition, they honour those who have died in recent years — occasionally transmitting via song the dream messages that come from deceased love ones — and finally, they celebrate the universal rebirth of spring through romantic invitation. During the festival, Kalash are free to choose spouses, even if they are already married. Young men, emboldened by wine, chat up girls who rebuke them flirtatiously or sometimes, with genuine annoyance. The Kalash have no holy book, so the festival is also a means of orally passing on tradition, and some of the songs recall the glory days of famous ancestors.

The festival grounds are muddied, as men spray spring water, channeled through a pipe, to ease the dust. Sometimes they playfully target specific people. But the stream is no match for the clouds rising beneath busy feet. Many of the women tie kerchiefs around their noses as they dance.

The festival is a whirl of stampeding kids, faces stained from sucking on sugary glacial ices. It’s teenagers stealing away behind the shop, and wine-happy women grabbing each other’s shoulders and pledging sisterhood and affection. It’s bossy little girls in circles on the ground, distributing bracelets and necklaces — signs of material wealth — among friends. It’s the raucous, rollicking life-and-death ritual that happens each Joshi, as everyone forms a looping chain, grasping ceremonial woven strips, and snakes full-speed around the mountaintop to a frenzied drum accompaniment. This is the most breathless ritual of the day — the Kalash seem shocked each time they’re jerked around a corner, open-mouthed laughter mixing with dismay whenever someone is unfortunate enough to lose grip. Woe to the person who breaks the chain, because this indicates probable death in the coming year. There is another strange ritual, a festival addition in recent decades. It involves corralling all the outsiders (journalists, tourists and police) on the shop roof while elders and teen boys chuck rocks at us. We are warned that this will happen, but I don’t think we believed the Kalash hold this sort of violence or anger until the rocks start flying. We scatter from the edge of the roof, but there is nowhere to go. Kalash boys run up the exit path, and the roof is small. Luckily, the rocks are also fairly small — they have to be, to be launched by hand — and it all ends after about 10 minutes.

More dancing, more brandishing of the cleansing juniper branches and then suddenly, without any sort of prelude or gradual denouement, the drumming stops and the dancers move towards the exit path.

And that’s it. Joshi is over.  Or at least until it starts again tomorrow, one valley over, on a different mountaintop.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, June 26th,  2011.

COMMENTS (4)

Ahmad M. Qamar | 10 years ago | Reply Hello, Cheree I had visited Bamburit in 1995 with some of my friends. It was a memorable journey. Recently, I have also penned a piece on the trip, which I would like you or some other journalist to go through before I can submi it to the Tribune. Will you do this favour to me? It is three pages only, and is mainly about my persoanl experience with the Kalash people. As for the comment to this particular article of yours, which is a good one anyway, I have only one thing to say. Don't you think Kalash people have realized their commercial value, hence charging you for everything you want to know about them?
cheree franco | 10 years ago | Reply Joshi is in mid-May, but even if you don't visit during the fest, there's trekking to keep you occupied and Kalash culture year round. But in winter, I'm told the roads are nearly impassable. I can't imagine trying to negotiate those winds and inclines on ice...
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