Intoxicating is the place,
In the shadows of Hindukush
Where gods worship the human worth;
And define dignity of their land
The Kalash called. The Kalash called
To show the colors of love,
Even in death, they celebrate life.
Yes, they are the Kalash
But the dogma is exploiting their feebleness,
Contaminating their purity;
Distinguishing the light they spark;
Change, they had been forced to adopt
While still clinging on the hope for survival
And for the world to hear their plea.
In the Hindukush region of Chitral, in the northern part of Pakistan, are the majestic valleys of Kalash – a distant dream world whose beauty is the stuff of legends.
The Kalash region comprises of three exotic valleys; Bamborait, Birir and Ranbor. They have a population of about 12,000 inhabitants, out of which about three thousand are struggling to preserve their identity and religion. Living in tough conditions through ancient histories, they have choreographed their lives to blend well with the cruel harshness of the Hindukush. They have survived by cutting wood, taming cattle and tilling the land. They are a rustic folk that make their life vibrant with colors manifested in their dresses, music and households. Ornaments with heavy beads and elaborate needlework form part of their daily attire. The folklore they narrate of fairies that visit their running streams at night to empty the bowls of milk left for them give a mysterious touch to their living experiences. The place resounds with haunting beauty; hypnotizing for the soul and intriguing for a curious mind.
What I saw there was an experience of love, a thrilling sensation of being alive, an appreciation of life and all its gifts. With each turn of the wheels crossing the dangerous narrow bends of the single unpaved road, I was struck in wondrous anticipation of what was in store for me. Luke Rehmat, a young Kalash man who is also running an NGO called Kalash People Development Network, was our host when we visited the valley. Despite the long journey we took by road, every moment spent there was worth it.
As we drove towards our ‘Happy Rest House’ in Bumborait, the natural beauty of the surrounding area was in sharp contrast to the vehicles and tourists that could be seen everywhere.
"But this year we have very few tourists visiting the valleys” explained Luke, "security has been very tight because of threats from the Taliban from neighboring Afghanistan”. His words brought to mind our own journey from Mardan, where we had been stopped countless times by Rangers, Local Police and the Army. Perhaps the security was justified; there have been inside reports circulating about abductions of foreign workers that allegedly took place somewhere in Upper Dir.
As I stepped into the guest house, I became aware of a sudden chill in my large room. Perhaps it was because the daily perils and threats to people here came to mind. They have to struggle for their survival, not just against militancy but also against internal threats from the orthodoxy.
They are constantly harassed to convert to Islam in order to enter the mainstream and avail economic and civic benefits that cannot be considered a privilege for all. The rate of conversion cannot just be blamed on the economic condition, but also on forced conversions that took place in General Zia ul Haq’s dark regime in the 80’s which catalyzed the process of alienation and dejection of many indigenous groups in the country.
Even today, the people of Kalash face varied problems, such as with the issuance of National ID Cards that don’t enlist their religion, which leaves them with no option to officially mark the right religion. They take it as a violation of their fundamental rights that their religion is not even recognized. It has also been reported that women are asked to cover their heads instead of wearing the traditional head dress which is distinctive of their identity.
The sense of gloom I felt in the guesthouse was soon forgotten in the merrymaking of the evening under the bright yellow stars, which was further enriched by melodious singing by our generous host and keeper of the guesthouse, as he played his instrument in remembrance of his old love.
Next morning was the day of the Joshi festival. I woke to the faint sound of drums coming from a nearby village. We walked to the place where the festival dances were being performed to welcome the spring under the holy altars of their gods. The singing and dancing had a magnetism that drew us in to participate as well. "We also have a festival during funerals… it’s like a thank you to the departed soul for all the wonderful things it left us with”, explains Syed Khan, a volunteer at Luke’s KPDN. The Kalash do not mourn the dead but rather celebrate the life of their dear departed. Their rituals, however, have been heavily demonized by the orthodoxy.
There is a school in Kalash set up by a Greek NGO that is working towards preservation of the Kalash culture. There is just one middle level government school serving in the area but mostly Kalash parents don’t prefer to send their children there because of the homogenized government syllabus that they cannot relate to. The Greek school instead helps them carry on with their studies while maintaining their cultural distinctiveness. But the matter is worsening at the hands of the militants. Recently major development work by foreign NGOs has halted or slowed down because of the abduction of a foreign charity worker and the murder of a government official.
"Kalash will become non-existent if nothing is done about it”, Luke Rehmat, chairman of KPDN informed us. A bid has currently been sent to UNESCO to consider it a heritage site so that concrete steps may be taken for its preservation. It is time we in Pakistan embraced the diversity of the people who live within our borders and provide them with the rights, dignity and security they deserve. This is vital not only for our respect as a country throughout the world, but for our progress as a nation as well.
The experiences I had in the Kalash valley have left a deep impact on my outlook towards life. I am sure Kalash will remain with me wherever I go. Amidst the bright faces and welcoming smiles, I wish I had the courage to promise to come back.
—Written by Zeeba T. Hashmi
(Published in The Laaltain – Issue 7)