The Last Kalash of The Hindu Kush
In northwestern Pakistan, close to the Afghan border, the Kalasha people are struggling to preserve their centuries-old culture. Once they inhabited large portions of the Hindu Kush, deep into today’s Afghanistan. Today there are only around 4,000 Kalash left. They live in three picturesque valleys in the Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The Kalash are facing an uncertain future. In predominantly Muslim Pakistan the survival of their traditions hangs in the balance. Until recently the valleys where the Kalash live were so inaccessible that they were effectively cut off from the outside world. Now a bumpy dirt road brings vehicles here. For centuries, the remote location of the Bumburet, Rumbur and Birrir valleys preserved the local Kalash from the fate suffered by other members of their faith. Throughout the Hindu Kush region, the Kalash have been persecuted as infidels, killed, or forced to convert to Islam. Today they are under the protection of the state as Pakistan’s smallest ethnic-religious minority. They can practice their faith and traditions freely.
Unlike the monotheistic Muslims surrounding them, the Kalash adhere to ancientIndo-European polytheistic beliefs, in harmony with nature. According to some legends, they are descended from Greek soldiers from the army of Alexander the Great. Life in the valleys has changed greatly in recent years. The Kalash are no longer isolated. And now they face the question of how to preserve their culture in a time of radical upheaval. The new connection to the outside world has not only enabled Islam to move into the valleys. Modern civilization is also encroaching on the villages. The streets are filled with commercial activity. Television, the internet, and smartphones are widespread — evidence of how the original way of life is gradually changing.
At the state-run girls’ school in Bumbaret,17-year-old Persikila is about to graduate. And she is facing big changes. She wants to study at a college, for which she will have to leave her native village. Islamic instruction is mandatory in all public schools in Pakistan. The Kalash students also have to take part. The path to higher education invariably passes through the public schools. Attending them offers Kalash people better job prospects — and a way out of poverty. But they always feel the subtle pressure to conform to the Muslim majority. In Persikila’s house, it’s time to prepare the evening meal. The cooking is done in the traditional way. Every meal is accompanied by flatbread made from corn or wheat. Both are grown in the valley. Persikila’s mother doesn’t need electricity to cook. But her brother does— to watch television. For a long time, the Kalashhere were self-sufficient. Even today most of their food comes from the fertile valley.
Alongside grain, the farmers here grow many kinds of fruits and vegetables. In the evening the whole family gathers for dinner. Persikila and her siblings have spent the day in school. Their parents worked in the field and took care of the family business. The flatbread and beans are an invariable part of daily life — just like the Pakistani garb worn by the men – the shalwar kameez — and the round wooden cap, the Pakol. The women still wear brilliantly embroidered dresses and the customarySusut headdress. That is a big contrast to the clothes worn by Muslim women. The animistic beliefs of the Kalash are not part of an organized religion. Their faith has neither books nor buildings. Without holy scriptures, mosques, churches, or temples, the Kalash are guided by the signs and rhythms of nature.
Their most important goal is to live in harmony with their environment. One woman who has managed to hold on to her Kalash culture and complete studies at university is Sayed Gul. The archeologist navigates between two worlds — that of the Kalash and Muslim society. She researches her own culture and hopes to raise public awareness about it. She sees that as an important step in bolstering the rights of the Kalash. But the developments in Bumbaret have also left their mark on Sayed Gul’s own family. Her younger sister Maya recently converted to Islam So far, she is the only Muslim among the seven children. Sayed Gul thinks her sister decided to convert out because she was in love with a Muslim. Marriage would only be possible after conversion. Twenty-year-old Maya won’t talk with her family about her reasons. It’s a tough situation for all of them. Our parents were very alarmed when she converted. But she can be a good person as a Muslim, too.
So it’s all right. It’s her decision. The most important thing is that she’s a good person. Right? As a Muslim, I missKalash clothing. I could go on wearing it, but I don’t. The problem isn’t the religion, but the people. If you convert to Islam and keep on wearing Kalash clothing, people might think that you’re not committed to Islam, or have even abandoned it. And that could antagonize religious extremists How do you feel about your daughter converting to Islam? I have to accept it. She’s my daughter. She’s still a good person, and that’s what matters. During Ramadan, I tried to relieve her of her chores, but she still always wanted to help me. I want the best for her. She is my daughter.
Gul is disappointed in me. She is more than my big sister. She’s also like a mother and a father for me. She’s done so much for me. The Kalasha Dur Museum in Bumbaretwas founded with the help of a Greek NGO. Alongside the exhibition rooms, it houses a library and a primary school for Kalash children. Sayed Gul comes here regularly. Our population ingrowing like it should be. Many people talk about forced conversion. But this pressure isn’t so easy to define. What kind of pressure is it? It happens in an indirect way. On the one hand, there aren’t many of us. And our children are influenced in school. The things they learn push them further away from our culture. Like Maya, more and more young Kalash are converting to Islam. That is why their numbers have been continuously dwindling — from 30,000 in1950 to 3,800 today. Kalash women are allowed to choose their husbands — and to divorce them. But if they marry a Muslim and convert to Islam to do so, they are bound to their new faith.
Conversion to Islam is a step that can’t be reversed. In this way, a personal choice can affect the entire society. And the few Kalash who remain bear the responsibility of preserving their culture. The weather in the valley is ideal for a hair wash in the river — using what nature has given them. The striking braided hairstyles have been worn by Kalash women for centuries. The colorful handmade bead necklaces also have a long tradition. They weigh up to several kilograms and are worn by women of all ages. The number of chains increases as a woman grows older. Early summer is mulberry time in Bumbaret. The sweet fruits ripen almost all at once. Everyone pitches in to harvest them and dry and store them for the long winter to come. Or at least the ones the cows leave behind. For the Kalash, it is normal to view animals not as property, but as partners.
Persikila’s mother uses fresh milk to make cheese, butter, and ghee. Residents here no longer have to cultivate and make everything themselves. Nowadays there are small shops. The roads may be bad, but they enable traders to come here to sell their goods. Modern life is entering the sleepy valleys. And rapidly growing tourism is bringing many changes for the Kalash. But it is also opening up new business opportunities. Persikila‘s father Faizi Khan has gone into the tourism business. He’s turned his home into a hotel. We run the hotel as a family.
That earns us some money to pay for our children’s education. There aren’t many other opportunities here. There’s no industry in the valley — meaning no jobs. The tourists only come for two or three months of the year. No one comes in the wintertime. But tourism at least gives us a small income. Persikila and her mother also profit from that. I don’t like the tourists. They come here in the summer holidays for our festivals. We don’t have walls or fences around our houses, so they just walk right in and take pictures. I don’t like that.
A little way up the river, life still seems normal — and undisturbed by tourists. Gul She lives here with her family. The 14-year-old student faces the same questions most young Kalash do. Should she follow in her mother’s footsteps and care for the family, the household, and the fields? Or should she leave the valley and go out into the world? This is the family farm. Children from the neighborhood gather here. Gul father, Sher Alam, is a teacher. He instructs the children in his spare time. Patiently he teaches them reading, writing, and English.
They don’t need blackboards or notebooks. Pebbles will also do the trick. The Kalasha language spoken here belongs to the Dardic languages. Its writing uses Latin characters. It is spoken exclusively in the three Kalash valleys of Chitral District. Kalash culture and language are on the curriculum of this state-funded primary school. But only a few places are available. The other children have to attend the public Islamic schools. You have to roll your tongue here. In contrast to the Islamic schools, the Kalash classes are mixed gender. The boys and girls learn together.
After graduating from primary school, all the children move on to public secondary schools. They have separate classes for boys and girls and follow the Islamic curriculum. Education is important. If the children want to get an education they have to go to other towns. There they will come into contact with other cultures and they may adapt to them. But culture doesn’t out, it improves. And it changes through contact with the outside world. If someone wears shorts, for instance, other children might find that practical and start wearing shorts, too.
Changes will come. If we have education improves our culture, too. Our children will learn that they have a choice. Education shows them the way. It is the light Gul and her sister are headed to Bumbaret High School. Gul is in the 8th grade there. She takes along her Islamicchador to put on in the classroom. Wearing the chador is not mandatory for Kalash girls, but in the predominantly Muslim school environment, most of them feel more comfortable with it. Gul takes her attendance at the Islamic school in stride. She knows that attending public school is the only way she can get an education. And she knows that the school is financed by the Islamic state.
Gul doesn’t question the Islamic educational system. She hopes to benefit from it as much as possible. Her parents support her in that. They see a good education as the basis of a life with prospects for the future. While she was working on the field, Gul started menstruating. That means she can’t go back to the village and her parents’ home for several days. Her mother gets her clothes ready and prepares lunch before Gul makes her way to the bashali. The bashali is a communal menstrual house where Kalash women spend their periods and have their babies. Westerners often view this custom as a form of ostracism and discrimination.
But within the Kalash value system, it is a holy place. Bash Ali enjoys a very high status. The Kalash divide the world into the categories “on jeshta” and “Pragati”. “Onjeshta” means something like “high” or “pure”. “Pragati” can be translated as “low” or “impure”. But these do not value judgments as they might be in other religions. For example, the fields are denoted Pragati — or impure. Yet they are the source of life, and thus have the highest value for the Kalash. Women are also Pragati, but at the same time are seen as the source of creation. The high-low dualism serves as an orientation for the Kalash — a way of organizing everyday life. It is not a division into good and bad. On her way to the bashali,Gul is not allowed to cross the upper part of the village.
The way to the bash Ali is long and hard. She makes a detour around the village, keeping as far from other people as possible. Otherwise, it could bring misfortune. There are few records on the origins and development of Kalash culture. The Kalash people have no history books or written traditions. All their cultural knowledge is passed down orally from generation to generation. In a country like Pakistan, the relative gender equality in Kalash society is something special. Women are highly regarded. The notion that they could bring misfortune during their menstrual period is in fact protective. They are left in peace during this time.
They don’t have to care for their families, they can’t have sex, nor can they carry out hard manual labor. The bash is the place where everyone here was born. So it’s no wonder that the Kalash lovingly refer to it as ‘the source of creation’. Gul is a newcomer in the bash Ali. The women can choose between two communal rooms with six or seven beds each. Abash Ali is always outside the village, but it is one of the most important places for village society. For the Kalash, it is a refuge and a sacred spot. All Kalash women spend their menstrual periods in the bash Ali. Pregnant women come here to give birth, and remain in the bash Ali for around 30 days their babies are born.
They often have their young children with them — both boys and girls. The time in the bash alias a time to recuperate — and gives them a time-out from daily life every month. However, they can not attend festivals or go to school. They don’t have to cook for themselves. Their families bring their meals and leave them in front of the bash Ali. Many of the women spend their time doing handicrafts. But Gul Sinhe finds the enforced timeout quite a challenge. It’s so boring here. I don’t like feeling bored. But it’s the rule, soI had to come here. I like playing football. I love the Kalash — our clothing, our festivals, everything. I would like to go to college in Chitral.
When I live there I won’t have to go to the bash Ali when I have my period. Lots of girls go there to study, but I know I won’t like it, because I love the Kalash people so much. Whether it’s a woman’s menstrual cycle, the seasons of the year, or a sudden weather change, for centuries, the Kalash have organized their lives and their rituals in accordance with the laws of nature. How much of that will the younger generation carry on in the future? A group of women have also gathered in Gul Sinhe’s house. Her mother Daktar Gul has her friends over for afternoon tea. We should think about what the bash Ali means to us women.
What does this tradition mean? A few days of rest before you go back home. Even the older women who no longer go to the bash Ali, meet up regularly. The conversations range from reflections on culture to everyday topics: what are the children doing, what cooking, and who brought which baked goods? Most of the older women consider the bash Ali an asset, a valuable part of their culture. A place that dignifies womanhood. But the bash Ali can also be seen as a form of repression. The obligatory stay there also denies menstruating women a role in the normal life of the community. Chitral is the closest city to Bumbaret. It can be reached in two and a half hours.
The capital of the Chitral District offers its 45,000 residents plenty of activities. Since 2017 it has also had a university. Persikila and her mother are visiting her sister Sophia. Many young Kalashcome here to study. The new university is seen as a driver of economic growth in the region and a way of lifting people out of poverty. With departments including political science, IT and economics, the university is open to both men and women. But in the small cafeteria, there is strict gender segregation. A new world awaits Persikila — a world full of technology and new regulations, but also full of knowledge. What impact will that new world have on Kalash culture?
So many women are wearing the chador. The chador is not apart of Kalash culture. But what will remain of our culture when women veil themselves? The men have long been dressing like the Muslims do. So it’s the women who keep our culture alive. After the short visit to her home village, Sayed Gul is returning to her work at the university. Gul can leave the bash Ali after five days. She is glad to be going back to her home and to school. Finally – back to normal life. This time she doesn’t have to avoid people. She can take the direct way home — straight through the village and across the main bridge.
Will the Kalash women continue to take this way through their untouched valley in the future? Or will camping grounds and hotels spring up on the banks of the river? Will camera-wielding tourists intrude on the Kalash on their fields? At the same time, the interest tourists are taking in this remote region is also an opportunity. They come here to experience a unique culture. Perhaps that will give it a chance of survival. Once she’s back home, it’s if Gul Sinhe was never away. Now she has to rush to get to school on time. Just as her parents expect her to. Many young Kalash love the freedom their small world offers them. They are determined to preserve their culture.
But they also know that they must not miss the boat when it comes to progress. And that they will have to prepare for drastic changes. The question is not whether Kalash culture will change. It will in any case. The question is far more — how it will change.
The Last Kalash of The Hindu Kush