Kalash Valley: a Long and Winding Road!

I haven’t posted much lately; somehow, my photography is taking a different direction, less documentary and more street-focused. I am unsure whether this will last forever–who knows? But I am certainly still eager to learn about unique cultures, particularly those struggling to survive, so a few months ago, I could not pass up the opportunity to visit the Pakistani Kalash community. 

The Kalasha are a small non-Muslim minority tribe of around 3,500 members living in Northwestern Pakistan. They practice a polytheistic religion close to animism, in which nature plays a highly significant and spiritual role in their daily life. As part of their religious tradition, the Kalasha people hold various festivals and offer sacrifices to give thanks. The Kalash community lives in three valleys surrounded by the majestic Hindu Kush mountains and a mere 20 km from the Afghan border. For years, they were quite isolated from the rest of the world (which helps explain how their unique culture has survived this long). In the 1980s, a primitive road was built, providing somewhat easier access to Chitral, the main town in their district. Later, in 2017, the 11 km Lowari tunnel was finished being built through the Hindu Kush mountains. This tunnel now links Northern Pakistan to the rest of the country and the world beyond—in a manner of speaking. I cannot imagine what access was like before the completion of this tunnel, but I can tell you that the current way in is neither for the faint of heart nor for anyone in a hurry. After the eight-hour trip by something that can pass for a road from Peshawar, we took a three-hour journey on a single-lane mud track in a 4×4 vehicle to reach the valley of Rumbur, one of the three valleys in which the Kalash people live. Though I visited the two other valleys,  Bumburet, and Birir, the village of Balanguru in the Rumbur valley is where I stayed and spent most of my time.

When I arrived there, exhausted and stressed from tightly holding on to my car seat for so long, I found a serene community that almost felt out-of-this-world. One could immediately feel the peace and tranquility of the people and the surrounding area. It was the end of the day, and before dark, the village men played a game that reminded me of the French “petanque” (but without pastis) or Italian Bacci, but they played the game with stones. Nearby, children (both boys and girls) were playing cricket, which is as popular here as in the rest of the country.

The Kalasha houses are built on top of hills surrounding the valley; many traditional houses are built on top of one another. Early one morning, while looking at the central part of the village from an adjacent terrace, I almost felt like I was looking at the stage of a theater where a play about daily life was ready to be performed. Houses, streets, and pavements are all built from stones and wood. Most houses consist of a large room with a wood-burning stove in the middle and beds and other valuable objects placed around the walls. 

I had heard that the Kalash people were incredibly hospitable, and this was almost instantly confirmed to me. Whenever you walk into a house, someone will offer you tea, grapes, or a piece of delicious walnut bread (the Kalash Valley is famous for its walnuts) or a few walnuts to take with you if you are in a hurry. The same will be repeated at the next house. And always with a smile.

The Kalasha men do not dress very differently than their counterparts in North Pakistan, sporting the shalwar kameez (loose-fitting trousers and a long tunic) and, on their head, a pakol (an ingenious soft rounded wool cap also popular in Afghanistan that can be pulled down to cover the neck and ears in cold weather). The only distinction is that the Kalasha men sometimes add a feather to their pakol, which they now mostly do during the festivals.  Kalasha women, though, have a style all of their own. Everyday, they wear long dresses; traditionally, they were black, but now they have bright, colorful patterns that they accessorize with long, colorful woolen belts. Their headdress is spectacular: a head cap complemented with a long, narrow piece in the back, all embroidered with elaborate bead designs. They wear the head cap over typically five braids, one of the braids in front that is pushed to the side. 

When I was there, most men were out in the fields with the cattle and goats, but a few were in the village. Still, I spent most of my time with the women, who, as seems to be the case everywhere in the world, were busy with numerous activities– working in the field, grinding wheat in the local water-powered mill, cooking, cleaning, sitting at their looms to weave a piece of new clothing, and of course, taking care of the children.  I also got to help chase a wandering goat and meet the village shaman, a woman who, while spinning wool, told me about what she learned in her dreams.  I also met the woman known as the oldest of the village, though nobody knows her age for sure.  Her timid smile still easily warmed my heart.

Some of the special highlights of my time with the Kalasha were visits with the children and to various schools in the village. Charmingly, the school children (boys and girls) wear tiny versions of the elaborate adult clothing. One of the schools I visited has two floors, with one classroom on each floor, where young children go from kindergarten to third grade. Each classroom is divided into two (kindergarten and First Grade on the lower floor, Second and Third Grade on the top floor), with the two groups on one floor, each facing the opposite wall. This operation is all managed by ONE teacher who goes back and forth and up and down, teaching all these students. The students are, of course, very attentive when the teacher is in front of them, but I was impressed to see that when the teacher moves to another group, one of the students takes over and teaches the other classmates.   All of this is done cheerfully and effectively. Students seem to love to learn and appear to have a good time doing it, though perhaps not as much fun as when playing outside during recess. 

A commonly held theory about the origin of the Kalash people is that they are descendants of the armies of Alexander the Great, who conquered this South Asian area in the fourth century BC. Though DNA analyses do not seem to confirm this theory, it is still considered as one of the possible origins of the ethnic group. When I asked my young local guide what he thought of this conjecture, he wisely answered: “Lots of people worry about where we came from; I mostly worry about whether we can keep our land and our ways.” The Kalasha are surrounded by conservative Muslim populations in Pakistan and Afghanistan and, for years, have faced both economic pressures and attempts to convert them to Islam. 

There is so much more to know about the Kalasha culture. I am sure the various festivals and celebrations are as unique as the Kalasha people. Who knows, maybe I’ll have the privilege to attend one of them one day and enjoy a piece of walnut bread with the locals again. If you are up for an adventure, I hope you do too.

Happy Holidays,

France

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22 Responses

  1. I have a longstanding interest in northern Pakistan and know a wee bit about the Pathan culture but had not heard of the Kalash culture. I do so hope these longstanding communities can survive the scrutiny of a global desire to mine what is unique for private gain.

    1. Dear Moya, Thanks for reading. I do, of course, share your view. Although, the Kalash community is so small that it is hard to imagine they can resist the global pressure to assimilate for very long. But again, they have been around for a long time. I sure wish them well, they are lovely caring people.

    1. Thank you, Alison. You would certainly enjoy the Kalasha people, they are lovely and caring. Happy Holidays.

    1. Thank you, Jane. The Kalash people are beautiful, indeed. And caring, it was a pleasure to be there. I am glad you like the photographs. All the best, France

  2. France, always such a gift to receive your outstanding photos and writings. Thank you! Happy Holidays.

    1. Hello Barbara. Lovely hearing from you. Thanks for taking the time to read about my “adventures”. Hope you are well. Happy Holidays to you and John.

    1. Thank you, Vera. The Kalasha are beautiful, caring people so I was happy to share. Thanks for reading. Happy Holidays.

  3. France, thank you for sharing these wonderful images and smiles of these lovely people. One thing that always amazes me in my travels is that the clothing is so clean no matter how poor or lack of water availability. Their pride in clean clothing and their heritage is impressive as well as the desire to learn seen in the enthusiastic faces of the children. I’m curious if the headpiece the women wear is to accommodate a basket on their heads. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Dear Joyce, yes I totally agree. It is beyond me how these women can look so good, even when doing messy tasks, like working in the fields. I also sometimes wonder what they think of my boring clothes. The Kalasha women gave me a few garlands that they had woven but I did not know what to do with them. They probably think I am hopeless. Anyhow, yes, I was quite taken by the children and their interest in learning and this was true for every grades I visited. One of the girls will start university this year. As for the headpiece, I don’t know and when I asked the women about the various elements of their unique style, I was told that this is how it has always been. But it is an interesting conjecture!

  4. Beautiful images. What a trip u had to this remote area!! Happy and Healthy 2024. Here’s to more exciting adventures 😍

    1. Thank you, Michele. Yep, it was quite a trip!!!! Hope you are enjoying India. Happy Holidays to you as well. See you soon, I hope.

  5. France , they look so joyful in their lovely bright clothing . Very beautiful looking people .
    Had to laugh at the oldest woman but no one knows how old she is .
    The comment from your guide certainly is true and the uncertainty is sad .

    ‘Lots of people worry about where we came from; I mostly worry about whether we can keep our land and our ways.”

    Is the area prone to earthquakes or are they safe as the second picture looks like the dwellings are built into the hillside .

    Really enjoyed these beautiful images …I will always marvel at how kids learn , play and live ..dressed in these long length and probably heavy garments …such patience 😊🌺🥰

    1. Dear Emilie, yes the Kalasha people are beautiful, and lovely, and caring. And the children are so much fun to watch. And yes, I am guessing, it is going to be hard for them to keep their culture alive, they are such a small community. But who knows, they have been around for so long. And yes, the area is prone to earthquake but the more recent natural disaster was flooding and landslide. In fact, the school is a new building, the previous one was destroyed in a landslide. So all pretty scary.

    1. We never know. I am sure the festivals are amazing. But I quite like being there in a quiet time, I enjoy seeing the daily life.

Would love to hear from you!

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