The women of Kalash are a tale of colours, simplicity and struggle

Published: July 13, 2015

This festival was the most colourful extravaganza I had ever seen in my life. PHOTO: ANAM SAEED

Traveling is like an escape from the usual hustle bustle of the urban life. But this escape turns into an experience if you witness a culture very different from your own. We all have a lot of pre-conceived notions about every person we meet, every place we visit and every set of beliefs we encounter, but to look beyond these preconceptions is the essence of what traveling is all about.

This sheer thought has provoked me to explore the world, beyond the realms of prejudices and artificiality. I’m not a photographer; rather I just try to capture this reality through my camera and try to share these moments with the world.

Last month, this difference of reality versus perception was reinforced during my trip to witness the beautiful Chilam Joshi festival celebrated every year by the Kalash tribe.

This journey involved a visit to many small villages like Bumboret, Rumbur and Burir, around four hours from Chitral valley. I had already heard and read about the natural beauty of the Kalasha people. The women of Kalash are famous for their impeccable features, glowing complexions, and flawless skins. And I thought this was my opportunity to witness this gorgeousness and capture a few faces with my camera. However, contrary to the popular glamorous clichés, I encountered tales of struggle to maintain a bare minimum lifestyle coupled with inspirational valour and ambitions.

The journey started from the beautiful Lowari top, the peak stop on our way to Chitral. The view was breath-taking and overshadowed all the misery of the rugged roads, landslides and torrential rains we had faced earlier. After absorbing these beautiful cloud-studded mountains, we further travelled around three to four hours to reach the lush green mountains of Bumboret village, the home of the Kalasha people.

We had two days before the festival and this was my chance to interact with the local community. To avail this opportunity, I went to visit nearby homes within those mountains and fortunately had an opportunity to meet many Kalasha men and women, understand their culture, and listen to the struggles they have to go through.

I started by taking a few candid shots of Kalasha children playing and running around the roads in Bumboret village. Most of the kids covered their faces or hid behind a car to avoid photographs. I was already perplexed about their hesitance when one of the kids shouted at me,

“Paise deti nahi, photo leleti!”

(She takes pictures without giving money)

I was shocked at how informed these little kids were about the importance of their outfits for photography enthusiasts.

My next step was to meet some of the women and take a look at their homes. Upon peeking through my window, I captured a lady busy weaving a beautiful Kalasha outfit. She noticed me looking at her and called me inside. Soon her whole family was around me and showing me and my friends a variety of necklaces and dresses which were for sale.

After discussing their culture for a good few minutes, she opened up her heart to me and I got to know that most of these women were running their homes and earning their livelihoods without even basic necessities like water, electricity, education, and job opportunities.

Despite these harsh realities, these graceful ladies had learnt to speak fluent Urdu and some were even fluent in English. They not only followed their traditions but also knew the importance of education and had placed their children, including females, in nearby cities for higher education.

Higher education came at a higher price, with no money for basic necessities. These women had to make difficult choices in order to keep their homes running. My previous shock over the children asking money for a photograph suddenly dissipated. All I felt now was despair and hope.

Despair because thousands of tourists and photographers visited the tribe’s festival every year but nothing remarkable was done to provide them with a better lifestyle, but I was still hopeful because they knew the importance of education and that’s one factor that can definitely improve the state of affairs for their coming generations.

As Allama Iqbal said,

“Nahin hai na umeed Iqbal apne kasht-e-weeran se,

Zara num ho toh ye mitti bohat zerkhaiz hai saaqi.”

(Iqbal is very hopeful from this deserted nation, a little enlightenment and they’re better than the rest.)

My next stop was Rumbur, where the festival was to be held. This festival was the most colourful extravaganza I had ever seen in my life.

Women of all ages were dancing around with a particular foot movement, while a selected few were singing local songs in golden dresses. Amidst this festivity, I met a group of four to five teenagers who had just arrived from Chitral to join their families for the festival. One of the girls was named Nazi; she was student of grade nine and an extremely graceful and well-spoken girl.  When I asked her about her dreams and aspirations, she smiled with a glimmer in her eyes and said,

“Main cricketer banungi!”

(I’ll become a cricketer one day!)

Stunned and pleasantly surprised, I asked,

“Chitral ki koi national cricket team hai?”

(Is there a national cricket team from Chitral?)

And the reply was furthermore surprising,

“Nahi hai, main banaungi!”

(No, I’ll make one!)

Her confidence and ambitious approach was actually awe inspiring.

However, majority of these women had lost what we all were looking forward to. Yes, they had lost their pristine complexion and unblemished skin in the process of earning a respectable life for their children. Young girls were astoundingly pretty and as my lens moved from teens to adults, the skin transformed from glowing to tan and then rugged to rough. These women didn’t live the ‘dream lives’ we imagine they do between these magnanimous mountains, instead they had to put up with a lot of societal, financial, and psychological pressures through the course of their lives.

I felt fortunate that I got a chance to see another side of these women who are otherwise just known for their rich culture and beaming beauty. Their courage to earn their livelihood, despite of all the odds they’re faced with, their attitude towards education was indeed commendable.

Their positivity, enlightened mind-set, and audacious personalities have a lesson for each and every one of us, a message to ponder over our own complacent attitude towards life. Despite of all the opportunities, we’re still thankless and with all odds against happiness, they’re still optimistic.

Chitral valley was everything I imagined, a beautiful valley with even more stunning personalities.

All photos: Anam Saeed

Anam Saeed

Anam Saeed

The author is a Fulbright Scholar, travel photographer, economist, analytics professional and a former sales specialist, currently pursuing her masters in Texas. She tweets @Missanamsaeed. Her work can be accessed on facebook.com/anamstory and 500px.com/anamsaeed

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • shehzil

    Incredible piece and pictures (y)Recommend

  • Ash

    It felt just soo blissful to look at these wonderful ppl and getting to know a little about their life .Recommend

  • Rajesh Mehta

    Each village used to have a large meeting hall(dont know if its true even today), sometimes underground, mostly for
    religious practices. This was barred to women, but there was also a community
    centre with an open dance area for both sexes. In addition, there were several
    inhabited clan-owned houses used for worshipping their tutelary deity. Some
    or all of the posts inside these houses known as amo´l were carved with deity
    figures . A free-standing effigy, diz, of the deity was kept in
    a special container at the back, off limits to women, and set up and dressed
    when invoked. The amo´l was inhabited by the clan-priest, mu¨nt, and his
    family. If he became unpopular or out of favour with the deity, he was
    replaced by another man with the approval of the clan. Surprisingly, many of
    these amo´l had survived intact until the 1970s, complete with their posts
    bearing carvings of deities, albeit much mutilated by axe blows.

    Pakistan should preserve such ancient culture from point of Anthropology , as I understand its already a reserved area but care should be taken these few remants dont give up speaking their native language or faithRecommend

  • Anam Saeed

    thanks a lot :DRecommend

  • Atif

    Wow.. this is where I fall in Love with Pakistan. It has just beautiful people, beautiful language and offcourse delicious food.Recommend

  • anon0912

    I think the article was a bit bland probably cause living here we have all heard these stories before or lived through them ourselves but the pictures are amazing since you do this out of passion.They are vibrant with the colors popping out.Not to mention some of these girls are better looking then our so called models and that too without makeup.Seems like a good place to retire someday,get high and read novels.Check out pics by Sebastiao Salgado if you want,hes really good.Though i would advice you to steer clear of his earlier works in Africa and see his genesis project unless you are in the mood for a good cry.Recommend

  • Rationak

    Why would you ask somebody from chitral if they have a ‘national cricket team’, the question makes no sense, chitral is a valley part of Pakistan so Pakistan is their national team, it would be like asking somebody from Multan if they have a ‘national cricket team’, makes absolutely no sense but I can see using this kind of language in publications is dividing the country more…

    Recommend

  • Fareed Khan Afridi.

    Superlative Blog ! Great photographs ! Been there, done that. Excellent
    area, Pristine, beautiful, relaxed. Great place to visit and charge your batteries.
    The beauty of that area bankrupts the English language.Recommend

  • Anam Saeed

    Thanks a lot :D.Recommend

  • Anam Saeed

    thanks a lot :DRecommend

  • Yaqoob

    Kalash is just one of the many wonders chitral has for you, Anam! You should consider visiting during shadoor festival (Aug 7-9 this year) and Boroghil festival. Loads of stories waiting to be told.Recommend

  • Hamid Khan Bashgali

    Hard to decipher what you are trying to fork across. “cause living here” you
    mean living in Chitral ? Kalash or formerly Kafiristan? YOU are not a Chitrali.
    Thinking of retiring there? You mean on your Social Security income? But
    your take on ‘ getting high ‘ will cause you a lot of grief there. That will be
    mostly illicit drugs. Because liquor is hardly available. You will be treated as
    a pariah. The mullahs will be on your case from day one. If you think
    the Chitrali or Kalash women have loose morals or are ‘easy’ ,..or you look
    at them the wrong way…then you have a severe lesson coming your way.
    And four months of the year you will be cut off from the rest of the country.
    Only PIA flies there and it’s very expensive flying.
    You don’t sound like an honorable man. Take it from a Hunza wala.Recommend

  • Parvez

    That was amazing…….never having been there I am now told that its too late, its all become commercial etc……but your pictures, especially the way you have captured colors, helped give me a glimpse of what I have missed.Recommend

  • Waleed Khan

    Really hope you paid the kids some money and bought some artifactsRecommend

  • atif

    “better looking”!!!!!
    anon0912 yar please.. they are amazing..Recommend

  • http://thoughtsandotherthing.blogspot.fr/2015/09/vegetarianism-ritual-killings-et-al.html Supriya Arcot

    Sigh … Wish to visit some day but then if wishes were horses ….Recommend

  • Rajesh Mehta

    Author shouldnt be embarassed to allow posts which educates the ordinary Pakistanis how once the former Kafiristanis(of course for Islamists) ruled entire Chitral and Nuristan area and were fiercely protective about their ancient ways

    Only in 1895 did the expedition of Emir of Afghanistan supplanted their culture by forcefully converting them to Islam ,the population of Nuristan was exiled for some 30 years to new settlements to the north of Kabul and elsewhere. The invasion led to much bloodshed, large-scale kidnapping of men and women as slaves and hostages and, most shocking for many foreign observers, the destruction of a fascinating civilization

    No Point clicking pictures just for sake of your adventure if you cant even handle such reality,for much of the way of these people have been lost and by the look of things,sooner or later you wont have their culture left they would be brainwashed to believe their culture of forefathers were inferior which is case in most of Islamicized Pakistan.Recommend

  • Anam Saeed

    why not Supriya? :DRecommend

  • Anam Saeed

    I did…bought a few dresses and souvenirs ….but that’s not enough…they need a proper livelihoodRecommend

  • Anam Saeed

    I will definitely try Yaqoob InshAllah :DRecommend

  • Anam Saeed

    Every city has national level teams for national championships…you’re just reinforcing you’re preexisting prejudice over here!Recommend

  • Anam Saeed

    Parvez thanks a lot for the compliments…there will be another spiritual festival in december but Chitral is packed during those months….:)Recommend

  • Anam Saeed

    Wow Rajesh you have indeed shared amazing information here…Some of those practices are practiced during their spiritual festivals.
    And yes, I completely agree, preserving their culture,faith and language is important and that can only be done by providing them a healthy lifestyle in their own villagesRecommend

  • Anam Saeed

    noted, not sure what you are saying thoughRecommend

  • Anam Saeed

    I agree with you Hamid…as I think I have read a good few articles before but never anything about Kalashi people except for their festival, women and religion. I tried to emphasize their culture and the difficulties they face as humans..Recommend

  • Anam Saeed

    thanks a lot atif! :DRecommend

  • Anam Saeed

    thanks a lot Fareed…exactly a great place to visit…Recommend

  • Anam Saeed

    it’s not too late :D…they have a spiritual festival in December but the winters there are horrible I have heard…Recommend

  • anon0912

    Haha,way to form preconceived notions about me.I meant like living in Pakistan,most of us have seen what extreme poverty is like or
    experienced it first hand.I belong to the latter.I am 20,retire also means to withdraw and in this case away from civilization for awhile.The getting high part has got more do with expanding your consciousness and connecting with nature instead of consuming alcohol which is a downer.What makes you think I have any intention of harassing your women?Being cut off is exactly the point.As for your honor,keep it.Recommend

  • 19640909rk .

    these people look like Roma of Europe,Recommend

  • Hamid Khan Bashgali.

    Nothing preconceived. Extremely poor choice of words.
    Fast and furious. “I meant this,..I meant
    that”. . Everyone can READ what you meant. Being cut off for four months means snow and bad
    weather. No TV or Cable reception. Cannot even hike out.
    So if you get sick,…hope a local hakim keeps you alive.Recommend

  • Anam Saeed

    Dear Rajesh, this is a blog post which shows my point of view and opinions are always subjective. I appreciate your response, but however, I feel you’ve taken it to an extremely different trajectory.
    Regards,Recommend

  • Gullu

    Nope. They don’t. These Chitrali people are Caucasians. As you can see.
    The Roma of India migrated to Europe maybe a 1000 + years ago.
    And they are Dravidians. They are also known as ‘Gypsies’ in Europe.Recommend

  • Gullu

    Your historical diatribe does not hold any water. It is rambling, Disjointed.
    And was very likely generated in some Bharati textbooks. People
    also go to Machu Pichu in Peru to see the remnants of an ancient
    Inca civilization. It’s not relevant because the Spanish Conquistadores
    destroyed it? They have full fledged Viking villages preserved in
    Denmark, Sweden, Now the Vikings were replaced, supplanted by
    the current indigenous. So are are they of no consequence? Even in
    Bharat there is well preserved indigenous aborigine culture, in the South.
    All of the Indian South. They are Dravidians. Are they relevant? At all?
    1895 you say? Rest assured there was not much of a ‘foreign audience’ or
    a clutch of ‘foreign observers’ getting ‘shocked’ or riled up. Consider what
    the British did in South Africa,…. during the Boer Wars.
    You don’t have much of a point of view. It is heavily prejudiced. No surprise.
    You being a hindu from Bharat.Recommend

  • TAHIR

    many years ago i trekked in this area…wonderfully written and outstandingly picturised by your goodself ……so nice to read and see of all this after a long time….keep it up.Recommend

  • Anam Saeed

    Thanks for sharing this :)Recommend

  • A.A.Khan

    Mr. Rationak , She is talking about club teams which play in Regional tournaments ! Teams like Karachi Zebras , Lahore Lions , Peshawar Panthars and etc etc ! Teams which play on Regional levels !!Recommend

  • Anam Saeed

    Thanks a lot for your time Tahir :)Recommend

  • Anam Saeed

    Yes, exactly :)Recommend

  • 19640909rk .

    your history seems hazy. Gypsies are from Rajasthan area. So they are not Dravidian. They are Aryans -just like all Pakistanis (even though you claim to be of Arab heritage). Have you even seen a Gypsy in your life? They are much more fairer than any Punjabi or Kashmiri- maybe due to intermixing with European gene. They look exactly like Kalash.

    Coming to Dravidians- they are mostly dark complexioned. Some of them are much more darker than africans. But as I would say- colour is skin deep.Recommend

  • Gullu

    Saw more ‘Gypsies’ then you can on all your fingers and toes.
    Saw them in Warsaw, Bulgaria, Romania, Germany, even
    in Paris. They are in Los Angeles too, and are well known in the US. And, unfortunately, have a very unsavory reputation Majority of them are olive complexioned. Dark. And their facial characteristics…..are pure Bharati. Enough to make you stop in your tracks and say what is hindu woman doing begging in Vienna?Recommend

  • Daviduke

    These people including others are jewel of Pakistan. We must protect them.Recommend

  • http://www.nomadic-by-nature.com/ Mike McCaffrey

    Great blog Anam and your pictures are stunning!Recommend

  • Anam Saeed

    Thanks a lot Mike …matters a lot! :)Recommend

  • Anam Saeed

    Thanks a lot David …i completely agree with youRecommend

  • Nizam Uddin Raiyan

    inspiring, indeed the people are the asset.Recommend