Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Kalash in quarantine

The Kalash in quarantine
Zubair Torwali Saturday, July 05, 2014
From Print Edition
Hardly would there be a gallery in Pakistan where the colourful portraits of the uniquely beautiful Kalash women are not displayed. At every hotel one can see pictures of the Kalash girls in their traditional attire.

The Kalash culture is among the few things Pakistan can boast of as a tourist attraction. The print media carries features on the Kalash, sometimes with some poorly researched description of their traditions, rituals and festivals.

The Kalash are usually termed as very mysterious people. Some researchers trace their history back to Alexander the Great by asserting that they are the descendants of Alexander’s soldiers who were left in the area. However, latest research based on the archaeological findings in Chitral and Swat suggests that the Kalash tribe is the remnant of the Dards – an ancient nation that occupied northern Pakistan, northern Afghanistan and Kashmir.

There is a great similarity of lexicon, syntax and grammar of the Kalasha language with that of the Dardic languages spoken by people in the region. Forced conversion in the wake of invasions by outsiders compelled the Dards to quit their indigenous worldview and shift to Hinduism, Buddhism and later to Islam. There are still many ethnic groups in the region that converted to Islam just three or four centuries ago.

Among these ethnic groups the present Kalash people have still retained their own worldview to some extent. On the one hand they are unique and add to the cultural diversity of Pakistan – and consequently to the tourism industry – while on the other they are the signposts of a lost history.

Owing to their unique traditions and way of life they are presented to the world with apparent pride. But what is missing is care, respect and development by the state.

The first time I visited the valley was in 2007. Almost seven years later I, unfortunately, have seen no improvement in the lives of the Kalash.

The Kalash people, who are now hardly 4,000 in number, are virtually living in fearful quarantine. They are the most disadvantaged members of our society who languish in utter misery, extreme social pressure and fear.

The Kalash Valley borders with north Afghanistan where the Taliban rule. The Taliban recently issued a video threat to the Kalash and other tribes in Chitral asking for complete conversion or get ready for the worst. The Kalash people are too scared to move freely in their mountain pastures where the Taliban slaughtered a Kalash youth and snatched over 1000 sheep.

The Kalash are the soft victims of a certain mindset that is hell bent on targeting the Kalash faith.

The predicament of the Kalash doesn’t end here. They are very resentful of the tourists, particularly Pakistanis, who visit their valley – not for any anthropological study. Most of these tourists merely go there for liquor and other such activities. The young girls of the area are now tired of posing for pictures while the children have begun to beg money from those who take their photos. The kalash women are also harassed by these outsiders.

The Pakistani government treats the Kalash people as show pieces. The culture, language and tradition of the Kalash are under threat and there seems no effort on the part of the government to preserve their language, culture and faith.

The government of Greece used to take initiatives to help the Kalash but since the worst depression hit Greece it has abandoned welfare or developmental work here.

Fear, pressure, stigma, neglect and poverty have become the fate of the Kalash people. If Pakistan wants to have a respectable international image, it must take measures to protect its minorities.

The writer heads IBT, an independentorganisation dealing with education and development in Swat.Email: 


Women at work: Meet the tomb raider from Kalash

Women at work: Meet the tomb raider from Kalash

CHITRAL:  When people who have heard of her but have not met her finally do, they are taken aback. The head of Bumboret Museum—an archaeologist no less—named Sayed Gul Kalash is not a man.
Images from the Kalash valleys portray women as a strong, confident ilk, even if the photographs are run-of-the-mill shots of festivals focusing on the colourful attire. Kalasha women come across as in control, unabashed and bold.
As does 27-year-old Gul. Working her way around obstacles both natural and manmade, Gul became the first archaeologist from the valley, and a globally recognised one at that. In 2013, National Geographic added Gul to their Emerging Explorers programme.
Digging to reach dreams
“The journey across rugged mountains to cities in the country has never been easy,” the Bumboret native tells The Express Tribune.
But that didn’t stop Gul; not even the 30-kilometre journey from her home to her college in winter. “I would just hang on tight to my bags and find my way to Chitral on foot,” around routes blocked by snow. Even on a bright summer’s day, the journey is an arduous one as worn and tattered roads greet travellers, even though Kalash is a tourist destination.
Gul started piecing together her career before she completed her Master’s degree in Archaeology Studies from Hazara University. While Gul was still in college, she worked for a Unesco project in collaboration with Abdul Wali Khan University.
As a student, her archaeology fieldwork took her to sites in Chitral and Khanpur. But Gul doesn’t like to talk about the discoveries made then as “the credit goes to the teachers who were leading the excavation.”
For her later work, in Bumboret, the explorer names at least eight sites where she made substantial discoveries in an attempt to piece together the history of the Kalasha; their journey from the town of Chitral to Bumboret and other valleys. Within the sunken village and the grave sites she discovered, Gul says she wants to be able to verify whether what oral history says is indeed true.
“They say 15,000 years ago, the Kalash ruled Chitral. In the 10th century, this ruler Rais came and drove the Kalasha to these valleys,” narrates Gul. “So we’ve only been here for 600 years if what they say is true.”
Before she joined the Bumboret Museum as a government employee (where she manages a team of nine) in the August of 2010, Gul voluntarily helped found Kalasha Dur, a museum aiming to preserve the history, culture and art of the Kalasha. Kalasha Dur, she says, has preserved the unique Kalash culture for future generations and the centuries-old artefacts are a great attraction for tourists and locals.
“Everything present there has been gathered by me and sponsored by the Greek government,” she tells The Express Tribune, dressed in her traditional Susutr (headdress) as she enthusiastically receives guests at Bumboret Museum.
As Gul is currently not involved in field work, she prefers to wear the traditional black robes and beaded headdress. However, talking to her, one gets the distinct feeling Gul would not let something as insignificant as clothing get in her way.
The intrepid woman, the explorer
Living in a wooden house in front of a PTDC motel, the archaeologist receives dozens of visitors a day and is one of the most prominent personalities of her area. “Many people think they are coming to meet a male archaeologist and are truly stumped when they come across a woman,” she jokes, making a reference to her first name. After Gul, the name Sayed will retain a more androgynous quality and might come to reflect the qualities of strength and perseverance she has used to establish herself with.
“Of course I face problems because I am a woman,” Gul replies to a question. “Is there any work in which women are not faced with problems?”
But, Gul says, for her, the problems begin and mostly end at home. “Masla sab seh ziada ghar peh hota hai.” My family is the one with the biggest issue with me working as an archaeologist, she says.
“They tell me, especially my old-fashioned paternal grandfather, ‘you dig graves while others finish their studies and join the police force.’” Gul repeats, “Masla sab seh ziada ghar peh hee hota hai.”
Gul isn’t one to let that get in her way either. “I love the challenge; they can say what they want, but I love risks.”
The role model
“Every daughter of the valley wants to become Sayed Gul and bring a positive change to their lives, but a lack of resources stops us,” says Nasira, a resident of Bumboret, as she presented dried mulberries to those visiting her home.
“I have four daughters and all of them are studying in different grades at local government schools.” Her three sons could be seen playing outside; another reminder of how the Kalasha girls or boys are not bound by as many gender roles. Nasira adds that she wants the same respect for them as Gul elicits. But the area lacks educational facilities.
In fact the population of a few thousand is still partially agrarian and partially dependent on tourism. With few opportunities to make money, many live below the poverty line. Even maintaining their culture is a burden on the Kalasha; the headdresses they like to sport can cost as much as Rs20,000, also making it a very expensive souvenir for tourists.
But after the story of Gul, many of the Kalasha are determined to overcome all obstacles the same way the first archaeologist of Kalash did.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 13th, 2014.


Religious Minorities in Pakistan Demand the Right to Choose Their Own School Curriculum

Religious Minorities in Pakistan Demand the Right to Choose Their Own School Curriculum

By: John Coleman

A group representing the religious minorities of Pakistan organized a seminar that discussed the concerns of the educational curriculum in the region. The group demands that the government allow religious minorities to choose the curriculum they want.
The event was organized by the South Asian Partnership Pakistan (SAP-PK) and Members of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) Assembly and social activists were in attendance, according to the Express Tribune.
Pakistan is known to include Islamic teachings in the school curriculum. Christians, Sikhs, Hindus, Kalasha and other religious groups make up the minority of Muslim-dominated Pakistan.
"Non-Muslim students should be given the option to decide if they want to study Islamiat or Civics instead of it," Sikh elder Rabinder Singh Tony said at the event.
Members of the Kalasha religious minority have had no representation at a general assembly in Pakistan, and many of them live in poverty without proper health and educational facilities.
"The Kalasha have a unique culture and have been living in Chitral for centuries, yet their voices are not heard in the assemblies," MPA from Chitral Sardar Hussain said.
Haroon Sarbdiyal, chairman of the All Pakistan Hindu Rights Movement said "education molds minds and people of all faiths should be given the right to decide what they want to study at school."
A member of the PTI MPA political party, Shaukat Yousafzai, said in a speech at the event that the government would acknowledge the requests of religious minorities, and non-Muslims deserve to have equal rights in the providence.

Footprints: Winter days of celebration

Footprints: Winter days of celebration


CHAOMOS, the winter festival, now ending, celebrates the solstice at this end of the year; it is the most sacred of Kalash festivals and is the time when Balamahin, believed to be a messenger of the Divine, is supposed to ride into the valleys.
I have seen all these festive seasons, Joshi in the spring, Oocho, held in Rumbur, celebrating the bringing down of the cheese in summer and the autumn festival, Pur, celebrated in Birir.
The festivals vary from valley to valley, in the same way the language varies. Bumburet and Rumbur Kalasha are virtually the same, but in Birir the accent is different (more pure, according to the Birir Kalasha!), some of the nouns are different and sometimes the conjugation of the verbs differs. Until recently, women’s attire showed variations. In Birir, the women wore long chains hanging from the waist on one side of their black robes.
In Rumbur and Bumburet, no one is allowed to enter the valley after Dec 10, and then they must go through a purification ceremony, where burning twigs and leaves are waved over the heads of the new arrivals.
In all three valleys, dancing is enjoyed. This is the only time I saw the ‘solo’ dance, usually by two people, either two women or a man and a woman; sometimes there is just one dancer. Often it can be a spontaneous event held on a rooftop or open meadow.
As with all festive occasions, the women wear kupis, the winter and ceremonial headdress decorated with cowrie shells and weighing around five pounds. Both women and men often wear ornate gowns over their regular clothes.
At a certain time in the festival, women make small figurines out of dough which they will put on a shelf or table for display.
In Rumbur, late at night a huge bonfire is lit around which the people dance. The heat from the fire keeps the audience warm. Rumbur and Bumburet are colder than Birir and for the visitor very challenging.
In Birir, which is farther south than the other two valleys, it is warmer — warm enough to grow excellent grapes which are then used for wine for which the valley is famous, whereas Rumbur is well known for its milk products.
In Birir, towards the end of the festival, the people march up the hillside of Guru village, one of the most traditional villages where the rooftop of one house serves as a terrace for the one above. Guru is in the process of being made a protected area by the government, the first in the Kalasha valleys.
The view of the people in their brightly coloured robes reflecting the bright December sunshine changes as later at night the Kalasha ascend the hill of another village with lighted flares.
The event that the Kalasha prize most, perhaps, is Boots Sambian — the rite of passage of young boys around seven and eight. Dressed in the clothes of their ancestors including turbans, they spend two or three nights in the goat houses, where they see their first goat sacrifice and imbibe their first glass of wine. When they return to their homes, they always look a tad dishevelled…
My Kalasha family are here with me in Peshawar for the winter, as winter came early and it is very cold up in the mountains. The mother remembers two years ago when her eldest son went through the ‘rite of passage’. She remembers that four goats were slaughtered, eight maunds of flour, 10 pots of cheese and 10 gowns were provided. “Many rupees go!” she exclaimed. The son in question remembers along with his peers trying to make the bread in the goat house. His younger brother remembers gleefully the drummers marching at night up the hill with the flares. The elder sister keeps her memories to herself…
Often visitors ask me if society is changing and how the Kalasha are coping with modern life. The greatest threat is climate change as seen in the onset of an early and very cold winter. This year, the Gol, which runs by our house, and the new school being built, was inundated twice by floodwaters. The first time was in early spring, an unheard-of event. At that time of year, it is usually the main river which floods its banks.
The government has now banned the cutting of timber. It has also said it will implement a reforestation programme and control the wanderings of goats where young seedlings are growing.
The Kalasha are well aware of the problems facing them and don’t need NGOs telling them they must keep their culture! The desire to retain their culture and their language is strong, as is their desire for education. It was they who decided some time back that their oral language needed a written form; they adopted the Latin script and have books in Kalasha for the schools. With encouragement from NGOs and government, the Kalasha will continue to celebrate their colourful and unique festivals.
Maureen Lines is the project director of the Hindukush Conservation Society.
Published in Dawn December 23th , 2014