Kalash Girls in Rumbur, Chitral, Pakistan - June 2006
The Kalash are found in 3 valleys Rumbur, Bumburet and Birir. They are a warrior like people who ruled from near Kabul to the Lowari Pass. They are not Muslims but follow their own way of life and there is only a few thousand Kalasha left as many have converted to Islam, the majority religion in the region. If they change religion they are no longer considered Kalasha. Non-Kalash women do not wear the black dress with voluminous embroidery.
Linguists think Kalash are descendants of Indo-Aryans who overran the region in 2BC. Kalash say they are from a place Tsiam although no one knows where that is. They managed to keep Tamerlane at bay. In the western side there were Bashgalis or Red Kafirs. Between the13th and 16th centuries the Chitralis gradually subdued the Kalasha. By the 19th century there were estimated to be 50,000 and they Kalasha were pushed to higher valleys of the southern Hindu Kush. Rudyard Kipling set “The Man Who Would Be King” here even though he never came here. In 1893 the British and Afghan governments drew a common border that took 2 years known as the Durand Line which cut through Kafiristan. Amir Abdur Rahman, the ruler of Afghanistan slaughtered the Bashgalis and any survivors were forced to convert to Islam. That area known as Kafiristan was renamed Nuristan. In 1895-6 many Bashgalis fled to Chitral and settled in the Upper Kalash Valleys and in an ironic twist of fate within 50 years they all converted to Islam. They are seen as Nuristanis or Shiekhs by Kalasha.
Most Kalasha are Mediterranean looking. The men have largely traded traditional goat-skin tunics for Shalwar Kameez and Chitrali caps, often with a flower or feather in the brim.
The women wear voluminous black or brown dresses reaching to ground, bound at the waist with a sash. Over thin plaits they wear headpieces decorated with cowrie shells, beads, buttons and coins. Ceremonial versions can be spectacular with exotic embroidery, mounds of bead necklaces, bells and plumes. The women often decorate faces with mulberry-juice tattoo’s, or pomegranate seeds, or blacken them with burnt goat hair which also serves as sunburn protection too.
Kalash religion is complex and polytheistic with a single creator called ‘Dezau’ or ‘Khodai’ and lesser gods and spirits with their own responsibilities. The Warrior God named ‘Mahandeo’ is the guardian of crops, animals and other public matters and the female goddess ‘Jestak’ who cares for home, family and private matters. Goat sacrifices are common at their shrines throughout the valley. Traditionally the dead are buried above ground in carved wooden sarcophagi. Wooden totems or effigies were carved for wealthy or honoured people. The old style graveyards have graves that have fallen open and bones scattered.
Tradition is that women are less pure than men and there are precise rules what each may do, where they may go and how to purify people and places. During menstruation or childbirth women are confined to the lodge called ‘Bashaleni’ or ‘Bashali’ – which is also shrine to goddess ‘Dezalik’ who looks after births. Men can’t go in and women must be purified after visit. Women may not visit most shrines. In old days ceremonial acolytes had to be virgin boys.
The Kalasha love festivals. Typically the older men stand in centre and take turns chanting old legends or just chatting. Accompanied by drums the women dance around them, arms around one another’s waists and shoulders in spinning two’s and threes or trance-like encircling lines. Maybe day dancing or night dancing and some maybe closed to outsiders. Each valley has its own style and timing. Dates can be fixed at the last minute depending on harvest or other things.
‘Joshi’ is the festival dedicated to spring and future festivals. It includes day dancing and family re-unions and runs for 4 – 6 days in mid-May.
‘Uchau’ is held only in Birir in late September to early October. It includes night dancing with day dancing on the last day. It marks walnut and grape harvests and the end to wine making, though origins concerns return of shepherds from high pastures.
‘Chaumos’ is a solstice festival and the biggest of the Kalasha. It includes visiting, feasting and night-dancing for around 10 days starting in mid-December. In Bumburet it is closed to Muslims but not non-Muslim foreigners and then expected to take part.