Kalash Valley: The tale of a single tribe

At the heart of the Kalash tribe is tradition and an undying zest for life.

A girl precariously perched on stone ledges. Some houses here can be easily accessed via stairs, while others can be reached only by scaling stone walls. PHOTOS: DANIAL SHAH

“Eesshhh-paaata” is how the Kalashis will greet you and welcome you to take a glimpse into their colourful lives. Tucked away in the Kalash Valley, Chitral district of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, these people celebrate life one ritual at a time.

Education is considered important by the tribe and  children are sent to government or private schools located in the valley. Some even proceed to acquiring a graduate degree from universities spread across the country.     PHOTOS: DANIAL SHAH

Inhabitants of the valleys of Birir, Bumburet, and Rumbur, the Kalashis speak the Indo-Aryan language, Kalasha, which bears close resemblance to ancient Greek. Although many researchers have drawn parallel comparisons to Mediterranean cultures, mainly Greek, owing to their coloured eyes, light skin and sandy hued hair, the origins of the tribe are still shrouded in myth and mystery. Even though they claim to be heirs of Alexander the Great or his generals, little has been proven about lineage in the absence of concrete evidence. Believed to be refugees from Nuristan, in neighbouring Afghanistan, the Kalashis therefore go about their everyday lives oblivious to the curiosity that continuously draws people towards them.


The tribe is famous for its folk songs and dances during festivals. The women dance, putting their arms around each other’s waist and shoulders, and spin in twos, threes or longer lines, appearing spellbound. PHOTOS: DANIAL SHAH

For the Kalash people, life pivots around nature. They celebrate four main festivals every year — Phoo, Uchal, Chowmos and Joshi or Chilimjusht — commemorating the arrival of seasons. At the Joshi festival celebrated in spring this year, the people engaged in jovial dancing and family reunions for a successful future harvest.


When death comes to Kalash, it is seen as a release. The deceased are given a farewell in a room where the relatives circle and dance in happiness for three days before the body is taken to the graveyard.  PHOTOS: DANIAL SHAH

Adhering to a polytheistic tradition, based on ancestor worship, the Kalash people worship pantheon gods and goddesses. And of particular importance are Jestak, a female spirit, protector of homes and its inhabitants and Mahandeo, a male spirit, protector of the valley and its wildlife and crops. It is the very reason that the receding population, of close to 3,000, continues to shrink, with increasing threat from traditionalists to abandon their beliefs and traditions, and forceful conversions.


A woman tends her sheep. Rearing goats and sheep is a primary source of earning, other than tourism and growing walnuts.  PHOTOS: DANIAL SHAH

But even in the midst of uncertainty, the Kalash tribe continues to wholeheartedly embrace culture. Women in embroidered black gowns with elaborate headpieces called kupas, complete with layered, beaded necklaces, and men in traditional shalwar kameezes, with a feathered cap called the pakol, celebrate their unique existence in all its colourful glory. With dance and laughter they drown their sorrows and the impending threat to their existence.


A woman from Rumbur valley weaves a beaded headdress, called kupa, which takes almost a week to prepare.  PHOTOS: DANIAL SHAH


Kalash girls take a break to watch their elders dance during the spring festival. PHOTOS: DANIAL SHAH



The Rumbur valley is the most traditional of all valleys, comprising 70% of the Kalash population. Wooden houses in the valley are stacked one on top of the other, such that one house’s rooftop forms the terrace for the house above it. PHOTOS: DANIAL SHAH


During the spring festival, it is a ritual that a man, or a number of men, stand in corners of the ground to protect the valley and their future harvest from evil spirits. PHOTOS: DANIAL SHAH

Danial Shah is travel writer and photographer who is always on the lookout for positive stories. He tweets @DanialShah_ 

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, March 2nd, 2014.


Adil Mulki | 10 years ago | Reply

Nice pics and write-up.

3rdRockFromTheSun | 10 years ago | Reply

How long before this unique culture is 'assimilated' into the majority religion and dissappears? The JI have already given them an ultimatum!

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