Kalash: A Culture Preserved for Two Millennia

Written By: Ahmed Shayan

Even though an overwhelming majority of Pakistan’s population follows the religion of Islam, there are many religious minorities that co-exist within the Pakistani society, pursuing their religion in peace.

One such community, the Kalash tribe, resides exclusively in a particular geographical area; the three valleys of Birir, Bumburet and Rumbur known locally as Kafiristan, which is situated in the Hindu Kush between the Afghan border and Chitral valley.

The origin of the Kalash tribe is one of the most fascinating aspects of the tribe. Since no proper record has been kept of Kalash history, all of the people’s beliefs are rooted in mythical tales passed down from generation to generation by the elders of the community. The Kalash firmly believe that they are the descendents of Alexander the Great’s brave general Shalak Shah of Tsiam, to whom Alexander gave the Chitral valley as a reward. Tsiam is a mythical place, and no one knows where it is located.

The Kalash have been ruled by the Mehtar of Chitral since the 1700s and have enjoyed a cordial relationship with the major ethnic group of Chitral, the Kho. The multi-ethnic and multi-religious State of Chitral ensured that the Kalash were able to live in peace and harmony and practice their culture and religion. The Nuristani, their neighbors in the region of former Kafiristan east of the border, were invaded in the 1890s and forced to convert to Islam by Amir Abdur-Rahman of Afghanistan and their land was renamed Nuristan.

The region where the Kalash are located is extremely fertile, covering the mountainside in rich oak forests and allowing for intensive agriculture, despite the fact that most of the work is done not by machinery, but by hand. The powerful and dangerous rivers that flow through the valleys have been harnessed to power grinding mills and to water the farm fields through the use of ingenious irrigation channels. Wheat, maize, grapes (generally used for wine), apples, and walnuts are among the many foodstuffs grown in the area, along with surplus fodder used for feeding the livestock.

Their unique culture and belief system differs drastically from the various ethnic groups surrounding them. The Kalash believe in various deities Mahadeo, and worship other deities that offer protection to different aspects of life (such as Jeshtak, who represents family and marriage).

It is suggested that they are based on the Indo-European religion, similar to the twelve Olympian gods of Ancient Greece. Nature plays a highly significant and spiritual role in their daily life. As part of their religious tradition, sacrifices are offered and festivals held to give thanks for the abundant resources of their three valleys. Presently, these self-sufficient farmers are moving towards a cash-based economy whereas previously wealth was measured in livestock and crops.

Tourism now makes up a large portion of the economic activities of the Kalash. To cater to these new visitors, small stores and guest houses have been erected, providing new luxury for visitors of the valleys. People attempting to enter the valleys have to pay a toll to the Pakistani government, which is used to preserve and care for the Kalash people and their culture. Travelers should refrain from interfering with or patronizing the locals. The villages are more heavily visited by tourists than ever before and the Holy festivals are very serious to them and joining in or gawking at their practices is considered very rude.

Kalash is famous for its festivals, and attracts a lot of tourists during these festivals.

Function is organized to pay thanks to Almighty. They celebrate the arrival of spring season with new hopes and aspiration.

2) UCHAO O UTCHAL (19th - 20th August)
Kalash celebrate Uchao to pay homage to Almighty because of grapes and other ripe fruit. They prepare wine, cheese, corns etc. and rejoice.

3) CHOIMUSK (7th to 22nd December)
Choimus is a winter festival celebrated to welcome the New Year. The entire population remains indoors. It is celebrated by feasting, drinking and merry making. It is thanksgiving function to Almighty for their bumper crops, fruits, animals and eatable stores for winter. Winter is full of snow, rain and cold wind. People sacrifice animals in the name of Almighty, rejoice with wine, fruit, assemble for dancing, singing and enjoy every event and moment.

For thousands of years, the Kalash have preserved their demographic and cultural heritage. Increased international awareness, a more tolerant government, and monetary assistance have allowed the Kalash to continue their way of life. Their numbers remain stable at around 3,000. Although many convert to Islam, the high birth rate replaces them, and with medical facilities they live longer.

2 Response to "Kalash: A Culture Preserved for Two Millennia"

  1. Anonymous May 19, 2010 at 9:29 AM
    One of the only things i knew about the Kalash were the occasional pictures that appeared in Dawn about their famous folk dance. Brilliant article! Pakistan surely has been blessed with a multitude of cultures!
  2. Ahmed May 25, 2010 at 3:56 PM
    thanks :D

    Even though i have never relly visited the area, I have found it quite fascinating.

    I would really like to visit the place someday

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