Kalash: Culture shock

Published: June 26, 2011
The reason that traditionalists have threatened the Kalash in recent years is that the Kalash adhere to a polytheistic tradition based on ancestor worship.

The reason that traditionalists have threatened the Kalash in recent years is that the Kalash adhere to a polytheistic tradition based on ancestor worship.

The reason that traditionalists have threatened the Kalash in recent years is that the Kalash adhere to a polytheistic tradition based on ancestor worship.

“Every week we get threats from people who ask us to abandon our traditions,” says Fida, a resident of Bamorat village of the Kalash Valley in Chitral. This is one of the realities that the Kalash have to face every day, a reality that is at odds with the serene beauty of the valley.

The Kalash live in about 12 villages in the valley, which is full of lush green fields and natural springs. The Kalash villages are accessible from Peshawar and Gilgit over the Lawari Pass and Shandur Pass, located at a distance of 365 kilometres and 385 kilometres respectively, a 12-hour journey in either case. However, tourists prefer to travel by air via the daily flight operated by Pakistan International Airlines from Islamabad or Peshawar to Chitral.

The origins of the Kalash tribe are shrouded in doubt and speculation. Some historians believe that these people are the descendants of Alexander the Great. Others say the Kalash are indigenous to Asia and come from the Nuristan area of Afghanistan. Some say the Kalash migrated to Afghanistan from a distant place in South Asia called ‘Tsiyam’, a place that features in their folk songs. However, it has been established that the Kalash migrated to Chitral from Afghanistan in 2nd century BC, and by 10th century AD the Kalash ruled a large part of present-day Chitral. Razhawai, Cheo, Bala Sing and Nagar Chao were famous Kalash rulers in the 12th- 14th centuries AD. Their fellow tribesmen in Afghanistan were known as Red Kafirs.

But by 1320 AD, Kalash culture had begun to fall. Shah Nadir Raees subjugated and converted the people to Islam, with the villages of Drosh, Sweer, Kalkatak, Beori, Ashurate, Shishi, Jinjirate and adjacent valleys in southern Chitral among the last subjected to mass conversion in the 14th century. By the time the Amir of Afghanistan forcefully converted the Red Kafirs on the other side of the border to Islam in 1893, the Kalash were living in just three Chitral valleys, Bhumboret, Rumbur and Birir. The villages of the converted Red Kafirs in Chitral are known as Sheikhanandeh — the village of converted ones.

Today, the Kalash are popular with domestic and foreign tourists because of their unique culture. The Greeks have recently shown great interest in the area and one NGO reportedly funded by the Greek government is doing a great job protecting this ancient civilisation. Unfortunately, according to a survey conducted by an NGO, the Kalash population decreased from 10,000 inhabitants in 1951 to 3,700 in 2010, motivating conservation experts, development workers and anthropologists to put in greater efforts work to preserve Kalash culture. The Kalasha Dur — the “house of the Kalash” — is the outcome of these efforts: a museum which houses artifacts from Kalash culture.

The reason that traditionalists have threatened the Kalash in recent years is that the Kalash adhere to a polytheistic tradition based on ancestor worship. They also worship 12 gods and goddesses dominated by the main god Mahandeo. Their myths and superstitions centre around the relationship between the human soul and the universe. This relationship, according to Kalash mythology, manifests itself in music and dance, which also contribute to the pleasure of gods and goddesses. In their festivals, music and dance are performed not only for entertainment, but as a religious ritual. The Kalash celebrate four major festivals commemorating seasonal change and significant events in agro-pastoral life. These festivals are Joshi or Chilimjusht, Uchal, Phoo and Chowmos. The Kalash celebrate these festivals by offering sacrifices on altars, cooking traditional meals and dancing to traditional music during the week-long events.

The Kalash have kept alive their ancient traditions, including superstitions about menstruation and pregnancy. During these times, women are secluded, and live in a place called Bashali. Each Kalash village has a Bashali outside the settlement, and though women are allowed to work in the fields they are not allowed to go home. The Betaan or Shaman plays an important role in Kalash culture. He makes prophecies during religious rituals, and seeks the help of fairies to make prophecies come true.  Another important practice in Kalash mythology is astronomy. The Kalash believe that a new sun is born on December 21 and that the new sun affects the flora and fauna of the land.

This civilisation is now wasting away as some Kalash families have either gone underground or left the area. This may be a great blow to Chitral which pockets millions of rupees from tourism every year.

“We don’t want to leave this land,” says Gollaya, a villager in Bamort. “But we are afraid of people who threaten us if we do not bow down to their wishes. The government and local
administration is protecting us, but we still feel insecure.”

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

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Reader Comments (10)

  • Dr. Khalil Chitrali (Canada)
    Jun 26, 2011 - 9:46PM

    Every time you make baseless stories out of Kalash people, ,, i live 18 Km away from Kalashs i have listened any feeling of insecurity, from any Kalash, In fact there is no thread to them by anyone in the area. They have years back disagreement with few people close Sekhandeh ,, , but the people of Sheikhandeh are more opressed then Kalash.. Kalash have deep family links with people of nearby ZVillage of Ayun ,, they dont need to worry about any thing at all .. You have and million others have told the unproven history of Kalash, we don’t care where they came from, ,, they are our people and we will give our blood for their protection.
    Dr. Khalil resident of Ayun
    Presently in Hamilton ON Canada Recommend

  • Jun 27, 2011 - 11:19AM

    I would like to asked Mr. Obaid ur Rehman. How you got the above information about Kalash religion? Why you people are very founded to show Kalash non-believer? Why you have putted that Kalash believe in 12 goddess? Have you interviewed Kalash them-self? As a member of Kalash community i never-ever heard that we have 12 gods! then where you obtained all these…can you justify this article? Who is Fida and which community he belongs….? What sort of news are publishing in Express i can say baseless…i do not see any positive news published in Express regarding Kalash. Every time publishing propaganda’s about Kalash….If news sites such as Express published this kind of articles then how i blame the small news groups? I hope Mr. Zeeshan would answer my questions….!

    Luke Rehmat
    Kalash People’s Development Network

  • MysticSoul
    Jun 27, 2011 - 2:19PM

    Great work by the author, The population is decreasing over the period of time because the religious leaders or Mullahs of Chitral valley are no less than the Taliban *(without the violence factor). Their extremist-interpretation of Islam and intollerance of any other community around them is beyond any doubt. They have assumed a divine duty to convert every living Kalasha to Islam. The Kalash people are not allowed to carry out any kind of business in the local market of Chitral and the conditions for survival are made so tough for them that ultimately they decide in favour of conversion for the sake of survival.
    @ Dr Khalil
    You live 18 KM from Kalash? didnt know there was a Kalash valley in Canada as well..btw the writer is talking about Kalash Valley in Chitral and you are a proud announcer of, “Presently in Ontario Canada,”hahaRecommend

  • Comrade Ali Taqui
    Jun 27, 2011 - 2:57PM

    I am an graduate anthropology student and for years have been investigating the happening of read your whole article very carefuly and do agree on your whole points but i think i left all those root causes which are producing such kind of harms to the pure pastoral life lacking commercialisation, the present day occurances/changes any their liff is more determined and shaped by the conscious process of capitalisation/commodification of their lives, the development projects of NGO,s geared by corporats is realy devastating their livelihood.. Recommend

  • Andrea
    Jun 28, 2011 - 4:44PM

    Just because someone lives in Canada or any country for a few years doesn’t make them forget their origins. For the fellow from Chitral who is settled in Canada, what makes you think living a few years in Canada should make him forget his ancestral town and district? I come from Pakistan and still remember my village fondly and return home every year. The point is that journalism in Pakistan should be veiwed very carefully since people write whatever they want without checking sources or verifying sources. This is what the expatriate Pakistani from Chitral is saying. All Chitralis live in relative people and this article’s attempt to portray otherwise is misguided.Recommend

  • Ajaz Ahmad
    Jun 28, 2011 - 5:31PM

    The Kalasha are more empowered people as compared to their surrounding community and it is fact that the population of kalash is decreasing day by day, it is not due to the Mullah of Chitral, the rate of conversion is high but there is no any force conversion in the valley. Kalash people are freely enjoying their lifestyle and culture in the valley without any insecurity. I request the reporters/writers please do proper research before publishing any news. plese try to highlight the major issues and problems of the valley,like environmental problems, livelihood problems, etc,

    Ajaz Ahmad
    Chitral Recommend

  • Hidayat
    Jun 28, 2011 - 11:06PM

    Kalasha of Chitral is an Indo Aryan origin tribe living from centuries. They are not connected with Alexander the Great. Social scientist proved it that the Kalasha are not direct descendants of Alexander. They speak Indo Aryan language and their culture is much similar to the Aryan.Recommend

  • M.Bugi
    Jun 30, 2011 - 10:58AM

    @Luke Rehmat: Pakistan Protects Its Minorities in the Constitution, Minorities are represented OPENLY in National Provincial and district Infra structures of Pakistan as laid down in Constitutional Guide lines,
    recently Human Rights Organizations are Monitoring situations in Kalash round the CLOCK, President of Pakistan gave a medal First Human Rights medals to a Kalash GIRL,
    Sp please Write carefully Do not exaggerate, Kalash in Speculations or Borrowing From western Writers,Call Kalash and ask questions,YOU WILL GET ANSWERS as one dozen Kalash are FIRMLY educated with Ma. Ba. Fa, HighSchools Middle schools Always Climbing the ladder on Education,
    Luke Rehmat Kalash has Written a Good answer,The Print media is cashing on all kinds of Speculations about the AREA of Kalash since a few years,Luke Rehmat was the FIRST Live Broad caster of a Kalash event in History of Kalash,So please Give him respect, FOR what he says, Kalash people of Pakistan (interview in English) The Sole Pagan Tribe of Pakistan! The Kalash tribe is said to descend from Alexander the Great’s army, but now it is fighting to preserve its traditions , Listen and download FREE Podcast http://www.talkshoe.com/tc/89203 Radio Libre Expression=M.BugiRecommend

  • Afzal Nadir
    Jun 30, 2011 - 11:42AM

    I agree with the writer that there has been tremendous decay in Kalash population during few decades.I totally disagree with some friends who hold responsible mullas of Chitral for the decay in population. Every civilization has its its climax and ebb, so this applies to Kalash civilization. Now they are getting education awarness and can better know how to get sucess in the permanent life ahead. Islam is the religion which attracts humanity and no one can force the other to convert to Islam. It is totally inner sense and force has nothing to do in converstion to Islam or to other religion. I request my friends to be careful in passing such sensitive statements.Recommend

  • MysticSoul
    Jun 30, 2011 - 3:25PM

    Kalasha culture, language and their mere existence is in danger and you will have to visit Lok Virsa Mueseum in Islamabad to see a Kalasha dress in coming 10 years becuase of the hardline Mullahs in Chitral and that is a fact. I know a Kalash person myself who started selling vegetables in Local Market and the next day a mullah from the nearby masjid told him that you are Kafir and cannot sell eatables unless you convert to Islam. Recommend

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