The Kalash People: A Tribe Lost and Found
Parwana Jan, 23, a native of Kalash, moved out of the picturesque valley when he was 18 years old to pursue an education in Peshawar. Now he studies film making in Lahore and visits his family back home in the Hindu Kush mountain range in Chitral once every three months. “What I miss the most is a dish my mother makes from clarified butter and cottage cheese,” he chuckles, as he reminisces about the traditional savoury speciality his mother cooks.
Jan addresses some of the problems that people from his indigenous community endure. Today there are only about 4000 Kalash – the country’s only pagan tribe – in Pakistan, perhaps the world.
Once a flourishing community, over the years the population of Kalash has seen a gradual decline. This owes in part to the rise of the Taliban – the Kalash’s neighbours across the mountains in the Afghan province of Nuristan – whose threats have compelled them to slowly join other Muslim tribes in the area or face death. Also, it is believed, due to inbreeding and the resultant health issues this can engender, the Kalash population is fast dwindling.
Jan says that the Kalash are a small community with big problems. “Roads are a huge problem. Commuting to schools and hospitals is a major task, especially when rain hits the area and roads remain blocked for weeks,” he states.
Although schools have been built there over the years, Jan says that English medium schools remain a rarity, due to which people like him have trouble when they move to the city and do not even have the basic English language skills with which to communicate and write. Similarly, he adds, “We have a hospital but even basic amenities such as X-ray and ultrasound machines are not available. So people have to commute for hours to reach a hospital that offers those things.”
Siraj ul Mulk, who runs the Hindukush Heights hotel in Chitral along with his wife, says that until Kalash is made a heritage site – something he has asked members of UNICEF working in the area to look into – the Kalash people won’t be able to endure. “Recognition by the UN would be crucial to sustaining them as a tribe,” he says.
And there are endless other problems as well. Mulk relates how a few years ago he went to the army commander in Chitral and asked him to enrol men from Kalash in the forces so they could have a viable source of livelihood. Five years later when he asked the same officer how the recruits were faring, he was told that the army had stopped hiring Kalash men as they were being influenced into converting to Islam, and –surprisingly– they wanted to prevent these conversions. The officer told Mulk that other jawans would mock the recruits because of their unusual names or outfits, and in such circumstances the boys found it more “convenient to just become Muslim.”
Forced conversions to Islam are still prevalent in the valley. On May 16, residents clashed in Chitral over the forced conversion of a Kalash girl to Islam that sparked a clash between a group of Muslims and members of her community.
Mulk continues that Christian and Muslim missionaries who had come to the Kalash lands in the past had not succeeded in converting the locals. Now, however, he says things have changed. “Their own customs are increasingly working against them. According to Kalash tradition, if a member of their family dies, they have to slaughter 20 to 25 goats. Goats have become really expensive now, so they take loans to purchase them and then cannot repay the debt,” says Mulk, adding “hence a lot of Kalash people just find it easier to become Muslim.”
The conversions are usually accompanied by new Muslim names. The Kalash seemed to have a penchant for quirky nomenclatures. For example, the manager at Mulk’s hotel goes by the name Quaid-e-Azam. A woman in his tribe is called Edinburgh Khan, and another man named himself Zardari. Mulk recalls the first female pilot to come from Kalash who was called Election Bibi. The ridicule she encountered forced her to change her name to Lakshan Bibi. But others adopt more run-of-the-mill Muslim names.
Ansari, aka Bugi, a Holland-based painter who has lived and worked among the Kalash off and on for many years, campaigns to preserve the heritage of the people of Kalash. It is a heritage that is rich in tradition and folklore. There is a season for example, when the young men of the Kalash valleys take to the mountains to perform the rites of passage which will earn them their manhood. If they survive the harsh climes and return to their villages, they are fêted and celebrated. At the Joshi or Chilim Josh festival that follows, there is music and dance and the young men choose the girls of their choice to partner with.
Another tradition, akin to some ancient Hindu customs, is the seclusion of women in a “bashali” – a house where women are required to stay during their menstrual cycle as they are considered “impure” during their periods. When they go into retreat to “bashali,” they are off-limits to men.
Ansari is enamoured by the Kalash customs, lifestyle and attire: the feathers on their hats, their chunky necklaces made of shells and beads – a mystery, for where it is often wondered, do the denizens of landlocked mountains, acquire the shells from – and their neon-coloured outfits that complement their light eyes and pale skin. “I have yet to see another tribe, which is more beautiful and colourful,” he says. “Because of their beauty, at the time of the Greek and Persian empires, the Greeks paid a sizeable bounty to mercenaries to kidnap these women and bring them to the Persian kings in return for favours.”
Ansari also pays tribute to the Kalash’s creativity and indigenous artistic orientation. But he laments, “It is heartbreaking: until just a few decades ago, the Kalash tribes had 106 statues and wooden figures created by their legendary artists and artisans. But over the years, all those masterpieces have been taken away – stolen by people from outside.” Furthermore, certain traditions are on the decline due to increasing outside influences. But the Kalash people still erect totem poles in their ceremonial grounds on the upper valley slopes, to honour those who have died and they make wooden statues of their ancestors. These statues, locally calledgandao, can be seen erected over graves in the three Kalash valleys of Birir, Rumbur and Bumburet.
And perhaps to reintroduce them to their own aesthetic and inspire them to keep creating, Ansari relates how he has taught five generations of Kalash to paint and sculpt. He says he listens to their folk tales and creates paintings around them and even held an exhibition of his Kalash work in 1989.
Ansari says that the Kalash people lived in peace and harmony with each other and their environs until 1977, when the Tableeghi Jamaat entered the valley. The Jamaat took over the hotels and land from the people and in just a short span of time, 50 to 70 per cent of the ancestral Kalash land was gone. He also tells how before the Russia-Afghan war of the early ’80s the Pakistan government had allocated funds for a museum to be developed in Kalash, but then, when the refugee crisis erupted, those resources were diverted to help the Afghan refugees settle in the Kalash valleys.
“It is still paradise on earth,” says Ansari, “but polio has even come here. One Kalash girl has polio.” He continues, “Marsia Bibi, the victim, is the daughter of a friend of mine who used to be my carpenter. I met her in 2008 and was astonished to see how she was treated – like an animal. The family would go to the fields to work and just dump her outside their house, leaving her to fend for herself.” Appalled by her situation, Ansari contacted some friends and family members who collected money to buy a wheelchair for Marsia.
Ansari is not the Kalash’s sole protector. Many organisations, both local and foreign, along with several individuals, have gone to Kalash on their own to draw attention to the situation there, but it is not an easy undertaking. Ansari recalls a volunteer from a Greek NGO who once came to Chitral and was told of a tribe nearby called ‘Alexander’s Army.’ He went and met them and when he returned to Greece, he asked school children to collect money for the tribe. He came back to Kafiristan, and while living there, built a museum in the area, but in 2009, he was kidnapped and taken across the Afghan border to Nuristan. Ansari and some associates worked for eight months behind closed doors to collect money to pay the ransom demanded for his release.
In the late 1980s, a Japanese woman, Akiko Wada, came to visit Kalash as a tourist and was so captivated by their simple, self-sufficient lifestyle that she married a local man there and never left. She learnt the language, adopted their dress and became one of them. She was welcomed by the community and she now regularly hosts activities for children at her place.
Maureen Lines, a British woman, meanwhile, has written a wonderful book on the Kalash, The Last Eden – Living With the Kalash of Pakistan, introducing this magical, mystical civilisation from another age to the world.
Mobeen Ansari, known for his portrait photography has taken some of the most famous portraits of Kalash women, including that of Bibi Kai, a famous face in Rumbur valley. Islamabad-based photographer Sara Farid, captured the valley of Bumburet in December 2015 after it was hit by floods and an earthquake.
Bugi Ansari has now filed a petition with the United Nations to help turn Kalash into a heritage site. But like the land itself, the route to attain this is “lonely, dark and deep”…..”with miles to go before” those fighting for the Kalash can sleep.