Kalash: What we can learn from the lost civilisation

Published: May 12, 2011

They wear black gowns, with bright orange, green or yellow embroidery on it.

My family and I were fortunate enough to spend a few nights among the extraordinary Kalash last summer. This unique tribe is tucked away in the isolated mountain valley of Bumberet, hidden from the rest of the world.

Legend has it that 2,300 years ago, when Alexander the Great and his army were pushing deep into South Asia, on their way to India in 327 BC, some of his men remained in the villages of Chitral. As a result the Kalash tribe of roughly 3,500 today consider themselves direct descendants of the Macedonian king.

We began our journey along the Chitral-Dir road early in the morning. Besides a few large boulders here and there, the paved highway was not living up to the lore. The drastic change in terrain didn’t occur until midday. Our vehicles turned off the mainline and headed down a steep s-curve. Upon navigating the turn, we immediately encountered what I like to describe as an 1800’s suspension bridge intended for pedestrians and small mules. We safely squeezed through the narrow passage despite driver apprehension. Mud walls crowded the dusty roadway and made the concept of speeding impossible without losing a side view mirror. The seemingly endless ride went on for hours. At one point the tires of our pickups were inching off the edge of a rocky cliff on one side and skimming the sharp cut bank of the other. Eventually the jagged gray scenery morphed into green fields tended by women in colorful clothes, embroidered headpieces, and jewelry. We were there.

The preserved tribe

It felt great to finally witness a culture which I had heard so many tales about. The Kalash have maintained ancient Greek rituals throughout the centuries. They make their own wine, hold animals sacred and believe in gods and fairies. The steep slopes surrounding the valley have helped protect this tribe from the rest of the country. During a time when extremists drove out minorities in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, the Kalash remained free to grow marijuana in the open and continued to ferment their wine.

Although the people remain isolated, some of them venture out to the modern world to educate us about their ancient civilisation and to work with NGOs to improve their schools and hospitals. Recently, the population has been dwindling as more and more people depart to follow the faith of Islam. However, this pattern hasn’t prevented the steadfast from holding popular festivals which continue to generate revenue and attract tourists from the world over.

Kalash: Spring festival

The Kalash spring festival (Joshi), which lasts four days, takes place in mid May. During the first day of the festival each house provides wine and milk that has been stored for 10 days. The Kalasha go from house to house singing, dancing and rejoicing. This festival is held to honour fairies and also to protect the goats before they head out to pasture.

All Kalash festivals are accompanied by dancing and clapping to the beat of a drum. The drum is fashioned out of a metal gas canister. The dancing usually begins with the women forming a huge circle with their feet crisscrossing and moving perfectly in step to the rhythm and with one-another. After a while the rows disperse and the women break into groups of three and dance on their toes while flicking their hands side to side. Eventually the men and children join in too. When the dancing has come to an end, men and women wave branches of walnut and throw them in the air at the sacred shout of their religious leader (asking for more milk). They believe that fairies gather up in the hills to watch them wave the walnut branches.

The Kalasha women

Legend has it that the Kalash women are part-fairy and part-human. They wear black gowns, with bright orange, green or yellow embroidery on it. But their intricate headgear steals the show, it is embroidered with buttons, shells, beads and whatever else is available in the village. Some suggest that the colorful headpiece resembles Macedonian war helmets. Women in the village ritually add a set of orange beads around their neck for each additional year of life. Needless to say the older women have thick strands upon strands of orange beads on their chests.

The most astonishing aspect of this tribe is the working relationship between Kalasha men and women. The tribe does not separate between male and female or shun contact between the sexes. The women do not hide their faces. Instead they dance in the open, drink wine and express themselves freely. They also have a lot of social freedom including marriage-by-elopement even if they are already married. This is one of their customs – the prospective husband has to pay double dowry to the ex-husband. Unlike most other villages in Pakistan, Kalasha women are active members of the governing body and play a role in decision making. They tend the fields in the morning, cook, make wine in the evenings and embroider intricate designs on clothes and accessories to be sold in their handicraft stores. It appeared to me that the women ran the community. Men on the other hand, were seen chatting with others, taking care of the children or with cattle in the hills.

Last rites

Another aspect of their fascinating culture that deserves mention is the ancient graveyard in the Bumberet valley. Open coffins with visible bones were spread around in the cemetery. The Kalash do not bury the dead and their funeral rituals are just as distinctive. The deceased are not mourned.  Their bodies are instead propped up for display at the Jestak Temple which is named after the goddess who protects pregnant women, marriage and family. Family members visit and scribe images of the deceased with coal on the temple walls. Fresh milk is offered up on an alter to the goddess in order to protect the family during this period.

After three wonderful nights, our group was naturally disappointed when the moment of departure could no longer be delayed. The village elders came to say goodbye and draped hand woven ribbons around our shoulders to thank us for coming.

This visit was a mesmerising adventure and the Kalash way of life was an exciting discovery. Remarkably this tribe has maintained its identity while the rest of us have been consumed by globalisation.

This post was originally published here.

Sabina Khan

Sabina Khan

A Master's graduate in Conflict Resolution from the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. She tweets @ksabina.

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

  • rk singh

    excellant article. You say that

    Recently, the population has been dwindling as more and more people depart to follow the faith of Islam.

    This is only partly true. Kalash were decimated over the years by Islamic radicals and called as Kafirs. There women were fair play for these bigots.

    All said and done, hopefully pakistan will take care of the remaining minorities at least. Or is it too much to ask from religious zealots???Recommend

  • Khalid Rahim

    @rk singh: With the enforced war of terror Muslims may find themselves in same position as
    the people of Kalash for their survival.Recommend

  • http://www.economistshan.blogspot.com Shan Saeed

    I have shared this piece with my networking at Harvard/Oxford who is a doctorate in Phil / History. She admired Kalash civilization during the course of her studies in 1990s..Sabine, good work.

    Shan Saeed

  • cabbage-head

    WOW! I feel like I was actually there!Recommend

  • Mir Agha

    Most of the converts are men. Conversion isn’t a supreme threat according to them, deforestation and environmental degeneration is.Recommend

  • sam

    @ sabina great job dear ….these people may become extinct soon due to radical islamist forces .may god save them from the jehadis..@ khalid bhai your extinction is not possible ..why do u consider urselves 2 be terrorist as u r feariong the war on terrorism .yeh kalash log bhi aapke hi bhai ..let them live their ilfe in in their indigenous ways without forcing them to convert to islam.Recommend

  • Fahad Raza

    Nice read. Sabina Khan. Keep em comingRecommend

  • Malay

    Excelent article. Plese keep up the good work. We need to know more about such people at the frinze.
    Though I have grave doubt about the future of kalash in the land of “PURE” Recommend

  • parvez

    Nice picture drawn by you of the Kalash people. Could anyone enlighten me on the crime rate amongst them ? How disputes are settled ? Do they have reasonable health care facilities ?
    Is the conversion to Islam beneficial to the Kalash people or is it otherwise ?Recommend

  • masood

    a good article. Some additional facts. Across the mountains of the Kalash valley with passes at fourteen thousand feet resided what were called the “Red Kafirs” by Robertson who wrote in such details about them in the Kafirs of the HinduKush. Unlike the Kalash they were a strong, aggressive war like people greatly attractive to Robertson in the nineteenth century. He dismissed the Kalash in a few lines in his huge book. But interestingly the Red Kafirs despite all their characteristic failed to survive. Amir Abdur Rehman in his religious zeal converted them to Islam. A hundred years later they were fighting for their second religion because the revolt agains the Taraki communist regime began in these valley. Today the valley of “nuristan’ are centre for taliban activity. The Kalash with their non aggressive and almost meek attitude had cleary developed greater ability and skills to survive in a sea of Muslims. The aggression of the Red Kafirs proved of little help. The fundamental zealots have come to the valleys mostly in the summer months but credit must go to the people who live in the valleys of the Hindu Kush that bigotry has never been part of their culture and history. Even the zealots in these valley lose their zeal and have come to accept a culture which would not have survived the madness that is Pakistan in any other part of it today. I think the Greek part is a bit far fetched. The Kalash were probably indigenous to the area and they were found in a much larger area which has gradually dwindled. But there is no harm preserving the Greek myth. Some groups from Greece have come here and done good work for the people in the valleys. In terms of gender equalty lets not project the kalash culture as perfectly equitable. It has customs which were cruel to women which perhaps accounted for the high mortality rate for children in the past and probably contributed to their dwindling which has hopefully been checked. Its nice to see these small islands still surviving and people visiting these areas and describing themRecommend

  • http://www.nooru.wordpress.com Nooru Jalal

    Excellent piece Sabina,my valley is more famous because of the Kalash People who inhabit the southwestern part of the region. There is a common belief that the people of Kalash are descendants of the soldiers from Alexander’s army, who were injured in various engagements and settled in this loam.The Kalash are colorful and fun loving people who love music and dancing.

    A short glimpse of chitral: https://nooru.wordpress.com/2010/12/01/chitral-where-time-stops-and-the-fairies-tread/Recommend

  • Rabia

    a very nice pieceRecommend