The Kalash are the last surviving animists in Central Asia. They live in three valleys, high up in the Hindu Kush mountains on the border with Afghanistan.
The Kalash creed is all that remains of a faith, which was once followed across the Hindu Kush. The territory of these animists was known as Kafiristan or ‘Unbeliever country’. Over the past few centuries Kafiristan shrunk into two distinct zones: the area occupied by the Black Kaffirs who are the present day Kalash and the area occupied by the Red Kaffirs, the descendants of whom live the Afghan province of Nuristan. In 1895-6 a jihad lead by the Emir of Kabul forcibly converted the Red Kaffirs. The territories of the Black Kaffirs however, were out-with the Emir’s juristrisction and therefore escaped the Emir’s jihad.
The Kalash religion is especially significant because it is probably a survivor, along with Zoroastrianism and Hinduism, of a very ancient Indo European faith. Although the Kalash are often referred to as ‘polytheist’, most Kalash claim that they are monotheist, worshiping one creator god, ‘desau’ and that the other figures in the Kalash pantheon are not gods but Desau’s messengers . The Kalash faith can also be described as animist since the Kalash believe that trees, stones and streams all have souls.
The Kalash religious calendar is split into Spring, Autumn and Winter festivals. Interestingly these seasonal festivals mirror the old pagan festivals of Europe. The festivals involve sacrifices, the baking of special bread, feasts, dances and songs. During these festivals the concept of purity is given special importance. Everything must be purified: people, homes, even whole villages. Purification is achieved by a combination of cleaning, incantation and encirclement with a wand of burning juniper.
The practice of the Kalash religion/culture has changed with outside influence through the twentieth century. After the creation of Pakistan the situation of the Kalash became precarious, however in the 1970s the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto made moves to ensure the protection of the Kalash.
Today there are about 3,000 Kalash. Although every year some Kalash are converted to Islam their numbers remain stable as they have an increasingly low child mortality rate. The Kalash are also protected by the Pakistani constitution although the Ministry of Minority Affairs whose specific duty it was to support Pakistan’s religious minorities as recently been disbanded.
The sound of the drums could be heard from all over the Kalash valley while, tens of young people, including plenty of girls wearing some very exotic and colorful dresses, were dancing to the music. The local men at the party were continuously offering me both home-made wine and some fruity liquor which tasted surprisingly good.
I wanted and try to enter the dance floor where, between smiles and flirting, it was nearly impossible not to make eye contact with one of those beautiful, blue-eyed girls who, shyly, returned my look with a timid smile, inviting me to grab their arm so I could join the dancing.
I was a slightly drunk, dancing with girls and in one of the remotest areas in Pakistan, only a couple of kilometers away from Taliban-controlled zones of Afghanistan.
But guess what: I was attending a festival in the Kalash Valley, a region located in the northwest of Pakistan and inhabited by the Kalash people, the last Pagans in Pakistan.
Before going to the Kalash Valleys, I spent some amazing days wandering around the Swat Valley, a beautiful forest region inhabited by the Pashtuns, an ethnic group characterized by their fundamentalism ideas about Islam. In the Swat valley, most women wear the faceless burqa.
When I arrived in the Kalash Valley, only a couple of kilometers away from the Afghan border, and saw the huge contrast between the Pashtun Muslim women and the Kalash women, it was sort of a shock. Unlike in the traditionally conservative Pakistan, the Kalash women tend to be more liberal, as they hang out together with man, may have a boyfriend from a young age and even choose whoever they want to marry to.
To some extent, this cultural behavior might be understandable, as the Kalashi are not Muslim but they follow a sort of animism religion which, for centuries, has been described as pagan. The Kalash religion claims that there is one God called Dezau and they worship, and even sacrifice animals, to some kind of spirits in outdoor temples. Since they don’t have a Holy Book, people will tell you different stories about their gods and religion. Every person I asked about it, told me different things and, even if you look on the internet, the information is also contradictory. For example, some sources say that they are polytheists.
Today, around 5,000 Kalash people live across 3 different valleys (figures are highly argued). Due to their remoteness, very far away from the civilization, today, the Kalash people live a traditional, rural life which still remains pretty untouched. Most families rely on the sun to have electricity, don’t have running water, are self-sufficient and live in wooden shacks. To be honest, life is quite hard here as they have very long, freezing winters and, unlike people from other parts of Pakistan, during winter, they don’t move to the cities but they remain in the valley.
However, if you come in the right season, when the weather is pleasant and you see all of those happy, gorgeous women, fitted in their traditional dresses, who will likely invite you to have some tea or even better, to drink some home-made wine, it seems that you came to the happiest place on Earth.
Because no matter which day of the week it is, the Kalash women always dress up in very colorful dresses which, by the way, one day I grabbed one of them and they are damn heavy, especially the part that they put on the head.
Me: Why are you always wearing them? Isn’t it uncomfortable?
Some Kalash girls: Yes, it is, but our commitment to keep our traditions is one of our most important values.
Wearing those heavy dresses is not the only tradition they keep but also, they still have some very bizarre superstitious beliefs. For example, in every village, there is an isolated house where they keep all the women who are in their period, with no exception. They are forced to remain in the house for the time being because they think that a woman wandering around with her period would bring bad luck to the family. You can actually check out this houses from far away and see some women hanging out in the garden. But don’t take pictures!
But, unfortunately, not everything is as pretty and great as it sounds. Over the years, for several reasons, many Kalash converted to Islam, abandoning their pagan beliefs. Actually, it all started in the 19th century, when the Kalash were conquered by the Muslim Afghans, who destroyed all their temples and forced them to follow Islam. The ones who survived this brutality were living in the current Kalash Valleys which would later become Pakistan.
During the past decades, around 50% of the total population in Kalash have converted to Islam. In addition, a large population of original Muslims has decided to settle in the valleys and, as you may imagine, they are also building mosques and complaining about Kalash women for not being covered. This is originating some big levels of discomfort in their society. Who knows how the situation will evolve in the next upcoming years.When I traveled to, I was lucky enough to visit the Kalash Valley during the Chilam Joshi Festival, a cultural event which takes place every year around the end of May. It’s a 4-day festival which happens across the 3 valleys, where people not only drink, dance and have fun in general but they also worship their gods and spirits, giving offerings and even sacrifices. Also, is during this festival when some young men and women choose their future husbands and wives, in the middle of the dance. Attending this festival was, definitely, one of the highlights of my journey.There are several homestays across the three valleys. If you go to Rumbur, I recommend you stay at Engineer’s Guest House. Engineer (this is his actual man) is a local, kind man who speaks very good English and will try to make your stay unforgettable. Price varies and it’s quite negotiable. When I was there, there were a few other foreigners and we all paid different prices. However, you should pay something between 10-20USD, including accommodation and three meals a day.
Please, remember that the different villages across the valleys are not zoos where people in colorful dresses live. It’s all right to take pictures of them but always try to have some human interaction first. The Kalash people are actually quite friendly and they like foreigners but they don’t like people who come to their villages, take pictures and leave. Instead, go walking around the area, smile and try to talk to them. Always accept chai (local black tea with milk) invitations and ask for permission to take a picture first.