The orangish red, yellow and green over a dominant base of black shying away and at times playing hide and seek as our jeep approached closer to a rocky valley. Houses made of woods and stones built on the steps of the mountain that seemed like hills. Charmed by the beauty of the landscape before reaching the valley had mesmerized me. I soon witnessed a human figure with golden blonde hair dressed elegantly in colourful attire springing me out of the jeep. The beautiful setting made me leap just to hitchhike the remaining way not knowing where I was heading, but my heart certainly knew where it was taking me.
I had just arrived at the most mysterious aboriginal tribe of Pakistan. Who with time acquired many names such as ‘The White Tribe’, ‘The Kafirs’, ‘Alexander’s descendants’ or simply the ‘Kalash’. For me, they appeared to be people of ‘The Pure’, an untouched tribe hidden behind the rugged landscape of the unforgiving Hindu Kush Mountain range. The moment I arrived, there was a buzz around as I was forever following my habit of trying to hit a conversation. My new friends greeted me with sheer excitement shrieking out ‘Eesssh-pata’ (Ishpata), which means ‘Hello’ in the Kalasha language. The buzz was not because they had not seen tourists before, they were well accustomed to tourists from all across the globe visiting them, taking pictures of them. But, it was still a rarity for them to see a girl carrying a big fat camera and chit chatting with the locals. It was like a moment out of a dream or a book. The valley of Chitral, hidden behind the Hindu Kush Mountain ranges, the most picturesque district of Khyber- Pakhtunkhwa. I had seen the people of Kalash on TV, read about them, seen innumerable pictures of women in colourful dresses dancing around happy go lucky, but being among them was liberating.
I was specifically told by my (pilot) Jeep driver to take the permission of women before I take their photographs. There was no other way of doing that but to get to know them better and let them feel comfortable. Some of the younger girls held my hand and took me close to the community center area, where all the women gather together in the late afternoon, taking a little break from their long arduous day doing field work at the farm. It came as no surprise to know that the women work long hours in the field seeding and harvesting subsistence crops over the vast stretch of land that is not completely plain.
I was taken aback by my exceptionally warm and hospitable hosts whom I had grown to admire on arrival. Soon within a few hours of arriving I was welcomed in their home. Also, taken around to the cultural center where their traditional handicrafts and head gear called ‘Kupas’, complemented with layered beaded necklaces along with other hand woven accessories and men’s feathered cap called the ‘pakol’ were displayed for selling. The shop is one of the biggest attractions for tourists who love to buy souvenirs. The Kalash’s traditional design and colours have become so popular that they are now being incorporated by big commercial designers these days.
The highlight of the evening was when I was taken to their graveyards. I was told, when death comes to Kalash, it is seen as a release of the spirit. The deceased are given a farewell in a room where the relatives dance in a circle and the release of the soul is celebrated for three days before the body is brought to the graveyard. The ironic part is that the dead are not buried, but left in the cemetery in wooden boxes with their most prized possessions.
The Kalash adhere to a polytheistic tradition, one that worships the ancestors, the Kalash people worship the pantheon Gods and Goddesses. Their belief is in the female spirit ‘Jestak’ as the protector of homes and the male spirit ‘Mahandeo’ the protector of the valley and its wildlife and crops. Such traditions are definitely not accepted by the traditionalist of Pakistan, which has allowed a sharp decrease in the Kalasha population shrinking to a mere 3,000 to 4,000 among the 3 valleys and are being forcefully converted to a more traditional ‘Shiite’ religious sect.
The next morning I was toured around the locals’ home, and later taken around to their traditional room where the dead are kept for three days. The children of the tribe are being educated at a private school built by the Greek Government. Some Kalash believe they are the descendants of Alexander the Great and his soldiers, which has triggered the great interest in the Greek government to support the tribe. Not to forget a large number of the young minds are now being sent to Islamabad, Peshawar and other cities at close proximity for education or acquiring a better life than what they would have in the valley. Since then I have kept ties with my friends from a distant land and I am proud to mention that some of their people are extremely talented and work towards the social development of their tribe. They let the extremists know of their tribe’s individuality, customs, and traditions through a web portal called ‘Kalash People Development Network’ – http://kpdn.org/get-involve/contact-us/about/. Moreover, they have their own news portal called ‘Ispata News’ – http://ishpatanews.tv and ‘The Kalasha Times’ www.thekalashatimes.wordpress.com. All has been achieved by the learned generation that stepped out of the valley to find out the world outside their nomadic way of living.
The Kalash have inhabited three valleys namely the Birir; Bumberut and Rumbur where they speak a Dardic language an Indo-Aryan language spoken in Northern Pakistan, eastern Afghanistan, and Jammu & Kashmir. The language is spoken by a handful of people not more than 5000 and is claimed to be one of the endangered languages by UNESCO. Some researchers have drawn a conclusion of the Kalashas to Mediterranean cultures, owing to their green-blue eyes light skin, sharp features, and golden sandy hair. However, the origins of the tribe are masked in myth and mystery. The Kalash themselves claim to be descendants of Alexander the Great, but little has been proven with concrete evidence. While others believe them to have migrated from Nuristan, from neighboring Afghanistan, a mystery which keeps drawing tourists towards their valley, keeping them busy, and finding some level of living from selling handicrafts to tourists.
The Kalasha thrive on dance and celebrations. They have four festivals each year. Joshi (Chilimjusht) is celebrated from the start of Spring in May, and Ucaw is the autumn festival held in August. The P’O festival starts in Mid October and is held in the Biriu valley, followed by Cawmos – the winter festival till the Valley closes for visitors as it is near to impossible to reach there with all the landslides.
The People of Pakistan have not well received these Pagans of God. However, Kalasha have now started to spread out spreading their beauty and proudly presenting their customs and traditions that they have been following for thousands of years couped up in a corner of a valley not known to many a few years ago. The people follow their own customs for marriage, birth, death and family. Their beliefs are just like any other aboriginal tribe anywhere in the world. This is their beauty and rarity, which we as a nation should cherish and highlight. It is time to look above and beyond, and conserve and protect the real treasures of Pakistan.