Obscured by high mountains and treacherous muddy tracks, there live a people up in the north of Pakistan, who do not even know who they are or from where they came to live a life of isolation – yet maintain and protect their beliefs, their ideology and way of living. Their ancestry is enveloped in mystery and has always remained a subject of controversy. A legend says that five soldiers of the legions of Alexander of Macedonia settled in Chitral and are the progenitors of the Kafir-Kalash. One can still find similarities between the sports and games (specially the wrestling and shot-put style with those practiced in the ancient Olympics. Their features are not local and are thought to resemble those of the South-European characteristics. Some even find their influence of Greek music in Kalash music. Alexander the Great when encountered Kalash, he is said to have remarked that he encountered strange wooden boxes, which his troops chopped up to be used as firewood. These “boxes” were actually coffins for their dead following the custom which the Kalash Kafirs of Chitral still have of leaving their dead outside in wooden coffins. He also described them as a light skinned race of European type people, which is exactly what they are. Kalash ruled over the areas now part of the Chitral Valley and neighbouring Afghanistan for three centuries (1200-1400AD). Remnants and ruins of Kalash forts can still be seen Uchusht and Asheret . The famous bridge over Chitral River known as Chee Bridge was also built by a Kalash ruler. The names of Bala Sing, Razhawai and Nagar Shao are still alive in the folklore of Chitral. They were the most prominent among the eight Kalash Kings.
Between the town of Drosh and Chitral city, a track turn to the left from village of Ayun on Kunar river to the Kalash Valley, where these strange yet attractive people live in three villages of Rukmu, Mumret and Biriu (called Rambur, Bumburet and Birir in local Kalashi language), south of Chitral. Bumburet (above right), the largest and the most picturesque valley of the Kafirs, is 40 kilometres from Chitral and is connected by a jeepable road. Birir and Rambur are located at a distance of 34 and 32 kilometres respectively from Chitral. The present population of the Kafir Kalash is approximately 3,000. However, after living in obscurity for long, their children are now studying in local schools, but do not move out to seek other avenues of livelihood and continue to cling to their age old traditions and customs.
The villages are situated on the southern face of the hillside about 50-100 meters above the river. This protects them from invaders and the floods in summer, and at the same time helps to get sunshine during the winter. The snow that lies on the bottom of the ravine and in the shade do not melt until spring. In summer to avoid the sun, some people live in a second house built on the opposite side of the river. The Kalash Valleys have extensive forests of Holly-Oak and Himalayan cedar. Walnut, Apricot, Apple, Pear and Mulberry trees abound near the villages.
The Kalash women wear five large braids of and the ‘Cheo’, a black woolen homespun dress, red-beaded necklaces by the dozen, and an exceptional head piece (shaped differently in each valley) covered in cowrie shells, beads and trinkets that flow down their back. For their black robes, the Kalash are sometimes referred to as the “Wearers of the Black Robes”. Kalash means black in their language.
Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” is purported to be in the Kafir Kalash Valleys. In the late 19th century the present day Kalash Valley was known as Kafiristan — Land of the Infidels — and extended to several valleys in present day Afghanistan. However, the inhabitants of the Afghan Kafir valleys were forcibly converted to Islam, leaving only the tribes of the three valleys of Rambur Bumburet and Birir to carry on their centuries-old animistic culture. In order to conserve this primitive pagan tribe and to protect their distinctive identity, unparalleled in the world, the Government of Pakistan has officially forbidden anybody from trying to convert these tribes to another religion.
The Kalash tribes have their own distinctive religious and social traditions. The Kalash believe in God they call “Deziao”. However their religious practices are a mixture of animism and ancestor worship. Their god is represented in wooden effigy, while animal effigies represent their belief in animism. There is also a concept of male and female sacred spirits called “Dewalok” who are responsible for different activities and are believed to communicate prayers to Deziao. There is also a concept of pure-impure dualism in Kalash religion. The pure is called ‘Onjesta’- the pure – while women are considered Pragata- the impure. They leave their dead open in the coffins, even when the bodies have become mere skeletons (below left). They usually leave all of the belongings of that person next to their coffins. At nightfall, animals and other beasts of pray come down the mountains and eat up what remains of that dead while the belongings are carried away by other inhabitants in the area. The Kafirs end up believing that the deceased has gone along with his belongings. The Kalash graveyards are smelly for the obvious reason and the faint hearted should not go as they should expect to see unsuitable scenes.
Kalash women adorned with make-up and their necks laden with bright orange and yellow necklaces, wear brightly coloured embroidered robes, which go very well with their rather fair colour and generally blue eyes. The women in Kalash are expected to treasure traditional knowledge. Yet when it comes to sitting around for a lunch or dinner, like many other agrarian communities, they are suppose to take a back seat, eat less and offer the better dietary constituents, like butter, milk and meat, to their brothers, husbands and sons. There are special laws for women. In the special days, women are sent to make shift made shelters (above centre), called “Bashali”, till they are clean. There are also segregation rooms (above right) for expecting mothers. The Kalash believe that women in later stages of pregnancy are impure therefore they avoid getting into contact with them. For this purpose, these special rooms are built where such women live up to four months. All food and other necessities are provided to them during their stay, but care is taken in not touching the impure women.
While visiting the holy places, care should be taken that altars and holy places could only be visited by male tourists not by females because women are not allowed to these sacred places and it is strictly forbidden for them. In addition, there are some places like Bashali, Bashalini (Menstruation House) where the males are not allowed.
The wooden temples of the Kalash are often elaborately carved, especially around the doors, pillars and ceilings. Some of the holy places are closed to women; both Kalash and foreign. If a woman accidentally goes to these places, they are fined a goat or an equivalent amount of money. They make offerings to several gods, each of which protects a different aspect of life and livelihood; animals, crops, fruits, family etcetera. The Kalashi build their houses of timber and fill the cracks between the logs with mud and pebbles. They have holes in their roofs to let smoke escape through the wooden ceiling. In summer, the Kalash women can be seen, sitting on the wide verandah on the second story, cooking or weaving. The Kafir women are known for their toughness since all household chores and work in the fields are performed by them while the men can be spotted either idling around with other men or taking care of the kids in the homes or doing other minor chores.
The Kalash are a friendly and cheerful people, who love music and dancing, particularly on their religious festivals like Joshi Chilamjusht (14th & 15th May in spring), Phool (20th-25th September) and Chowas (18th to 21st December). In the spring festival Joshi, autumn festival Uchao, weddings, funerals, feasts and on many other occasions the whole society of the Kalash gather and participate in a grand performance called cha, drajahilak and dushak. These are set performances all consisting of song (ghu), dance (nat) and the drums but the details differ respectively. 5 to 10 elders make a circle and one of them will sing alone, followed by a chorus. Besides them there will be one set of drummers, one playing a barrel shaped drum called dahu and the other a glass-hour shaped drum, wach. Around the elders and the drummers, 20 to 200 dancers dance while singing.
Visiting Kalash: The temperature of Kalash is very pleasant in summers and the best time to visit is between May and September if someone is planning a visit by road. For those using air link, one can extend it by another two months. The maximum temperature of Kalash valley in summers is between 23°C to 27°C and the mean minimum temperature is between 2°C to 1°C. In winters, the entire region in general and Kalash Valley in particular comes in the grip of cold northerly winds. The extreme minimum temperature recorded in the valleys have been -4.8°C to -15°C for the month of January and February. The valley get rainfall between 700mm to 800mm. From December to March occasionally even later, snowfall is quite frequent Kalash valley.