Tucked into Pakistan’s remote northwestern hills, along the border with Afghanistan, is a cluster of three villages whose residents are still trying to preserve their language and culture in the face of advancing modernity and religious conversion. The tribe, known as Kalash, is said to have descended from soldiers of the army of Alexander the Great who travelled this way in 324 BCE. However, many scholars deny the story even though it has not been established finally yet how these people, their language, dress, and their nature-worshipping culture—in marked contrast to the Islamic culture that surrounds them—evolved and survived through the centuries.
British author Rudyard Kipling alluded to these people of ‘Kafiristan’ in his book The Man Who Would Be King (1888). According to several scholars, it was Kipling’s story that gave rise to the myth that they are descendants from Alexander’s army. It was Kipling’s story that was adapted for the eponymous film directed by John Huston and starring Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Saeed Jaffrey, and Christopher Plummer as Kipling (the anonymous narrator).
For centuries, the Kalash lived in a remote mountainous region which now spreads contiguously across Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to reports, the people who resided in the area now under Afghanistan were converted to Islam by political design and their land renamed as Nuristan. However, Kalash people who lived in the region now under Chitral district of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan carried on the legacy. Today, they form the smallest of Pakistan’s minority ethnic groups (numbering between 3,000 to 4,000 people) and can be found in three valleys: Bumburet, Rumbur, and Birir. The Kalash language is said to be part of the Dardic group of Indo-Aryan languages.
Earlier, the people followed a simple life, mostly dependent on agriculture and cattle rearing. Buckwheat and other crops were grown in the river valleys. Surrounding orchards provided fruits of various kinds. Milk from the cattle was used to make ghee, butter and cheese. Wine was made from grapes. Food was cooked over wood-fired ovens. They followed a nature-oriented faith, which later some researchers equated with animistic form of worship while others found similarities with ancient Hindu concepts.
The Kalash follow various social customs and rituals. One of them that has been much discussed is the custom of sending menstruating as well as pregnant women to the ‘bashaleni’, a dorm-style building far from the main village. Modern interpreters of culture often refer to it as a form of oppression. But according to Kalash people, it is the women who handle the bulk of everyday work; the time out in the bashaleni is to give the women rest from the daily chores.
The traditions continue even today but have been much influenced by the incursions of modern lifestyle as motorable roads (rough and dusty) have made the remote villages accessible. Shops have opened in the valleys which provide meat and other food items, consumer products, etc. Electrification has made televisions, mobile phones and computers accessible. While men of the Kalash community have long adopted Pakistan’s popular dress (shalwar kameez), the women still wear the traditional attire—a colourful headgear over their intricately braided hair, a voluminous full-length black robe cinched at the waist, and loads of beaded necklaces. Apparently, the embroidery seen on the women’s dress is of later vintage.
Even though the Kalash people and their culture had been changing slowly over time, the elderly keepers are worried that the advent of modern lifestyle and the younger generation’s proximity to Islamic lifestyle and teachings (when they go to schools and the only university in Chitral) are likely to usher in many irreversible changes. Although conversion to Islam was not unheard of, the rate has gone up recently, according to village elders. The area has also seen controversies over availability of foreign aid. However, there are rare Kalash residents, such as Sayed Gul, who are trying to preserve the tribe’s culture and customs.
Tourism has also made inroads into the Kalash villages. Unless hindered by political situations, tourists arrive in spring and summer (winter can be harsh) to see the rugged breathtaking beauty of the region and the unique lifestyle of the Kalash people. The villagers too look upon tourism as a way of earning and have set up homestays and hotels, and shops selling local handicrafts. One of the best occasions to visit the Kalash villages is during the festivals. Popular festivals include Joshi (also Zoshi) in May, Uchao in August and Choimus in December. Usually related to various harvesting periods, the festivals see a lot of music, dancing and feasting. The cultural performance of the Kalash people recently got much publicity when Britain’s Duke (Prince William) and Duchess (Kate) of Cambridge visited the Bombaret village (October 2019). Dressed in traditional headgear, they watched the performances sitting alongside the local people. Incidentally, William’s mother, Princess Diana had also visited the valley in 1991.