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.