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FOCUS June 2021 Volume 104

Kalash Community Under Threat

Sayed Gul Kalash

The Kalashas comprise an indigenous community living in the three small valleys of Biriu (Birir), Rukmo (Rambor) and Mumorete (Bumborate) in the District Lower Chitral, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province of Pakistan.

The Kalashas have a unique culture of their own, and are considered to have one of the oldest living cultures in the world. They speak an ancient form of Indo-European Dardic language. They have a rich tradition of folklore, epics, love songs, and idioms demonstrating a high standard of indigenous experience.

Theories on Origin

There are two main theories regarding the origin of the Kalash community. Some historians consider them to be the descendants of troops of Alexander the Great who came to an area that is now part of Afghanistan and Pakistan in 327 B.C. They say that some Greek cultural elements can partly be identified in Kalash culture; the sports and games in Nuristan (wrestling and shot-put, etc.) for example were supposedly practiced in the ancient Olympics. It is believed that the Greeks influenced their music. But there is no conclusive evidence to support the Alexander the Great theory.

Archaeological investigation of ancient graves in Parwak (Upper Chitral) as well as in Gankoriniotek Singoor (Lower Chitral) revealed remains of Indo-Aryans. The radiocarbon dating of the bone samples collected from these sites ranges from 1,000 BCE to 1,000 CE. With the burial traditions of the Indo-Aryans being practiced by the Kalashas, some of the archaeologists consider the Kalashas to be Indo-Aryan descendants.

Both theories are promoted by the nonlocal writers and are based on archaeological and ethnological remains. None of these writers have ever tried to know the perception of the local community about its origin.

Although the early history of the Kalashas is covered in mystery, the oral traditions and archaeological excavations carried out in the region are helping to shed light on the origin of these unique people.


Kalash Culture and Traditions

The Kalashas have no daily prayers like those in Islam and other religions. But they pray and perform rituals through their festivals. The frequency in holding these festivals made the Kalashas become known as the happiest people in the world. They celebrate each and every occasion in their daily life. There are more than thirty community festivals throughout the year. In addition, there are more than a dozen annual clan and family feasts and ritual celebrations (for birth, death, marriage) and other family celebrations. The annual calendar is always full; an activity is held every few days. The most famous major festivals are Chowmos, winter festival (8  to 22 December each year), Joshi Spring Festival (13 to 17 May), Uchao Summer Festival (20 to 22 August) and Phoo Festival in mid-autumn.
There are also other customs and traditions that are no longer existing due to rising cost of living (preventing the poor Kalashas from practicing them) and lack of keen interest of the new generation of Kalashas in them. Gandao (celebrated to remember the death of a member of the family) disappeared since 1993, Dur Neweshi (celebrating a new house), and Sariyak (giving honor to the marriage of a daughter and niece) are no longer celebrated.

The following customs, traditions and rituals are no longer practiced due to lack of interest: Dewaka (sacrifice to the fairies); Basun Marat (spring sacrifice); Kish saraz (purification for cultivation); Istom saraz (purification for goat milk) and Kirik pushik (first flower celebration).

Government Support

The Pakistani government has been supporting the Kalash community and is very concerned about the protection and preservation of Kalash culture. Since 2018, the provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa allotted 600,000 Rupees (around 4,000 US dollars) for the preservation of Kalash culture in collaboration with the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums of the Government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The acquisition of land for Kalash festivals and graveyards has already been processed.

Kalash Economy and Governance

The Kalash community mainly depends on forest resources, raising animals and farming for livelihood. Modernization has become part of the Kalash economy and the Kalashas are now engaged in tourism, managing hotels, doing small businesses, employed in government offices, etc.   

The traditional Kalash community leadership is somehow effective. Recently, more than sixty male and female Qazis (community Judges) have been performing their part though they use the governance structure under the Pakistan local government system.


Kalash Women

Kalash women still exercise their traditional freedom of choosing and divorcing their husbands. They also freely discuss issues in the community such as the bashali system (segregating women who have menstrual period), marriage and tourism activities (including behavior of tourists that intrude into their privacy). In case they have a business, the women take part in its operations. They also play leading roles in religious activities.

These, however, are the only freedoms that they enjoy. Kalash women have restrictions, similar to those in other societies. In education, if the parents could afford to educate only one child, they would educate their son not their girl child. In the family, girls are always being discouraged, never appreciated for their work. The home is the workplace of the girls. They are always judged by the community on what they wear and what they do. In case something wrong happens, the girls are blamed. People say that the girls might have done something wrong that caused the problem.   
Threats to Kalash Community
One threat to the existence of the Kalash community comes in the form of “development” brought by people outside the community.

As aptly expressed by Maureen Lines, well-known conservationist and adopted member of the Kalash community (known as Bibi Dow in the community): “it's not the Taliban that are going to ‘kill off’ the Kalasha, rather development in the ‘name of progress.’” 1

A report in Dawn newspaper explains

In other words, ‘tourism not terrorism’ is the biggest threat to the Kalasha.
The fascination around the tribe has often centered around their rumoured ancestral links to Alexander the Great, their pagan lifestyle and the fact that they produce their own wine in the deeply conservative frontier regions. Their vibrant dress, Indo-Aryan features and hypnotic ritual dances have also added to the pull of tourists to Chitral and the Kalash valley.
Thus, when militants threatened this somewhat mysterious tribe, there was much media hype.
Yet, amongst the ‘save the Kalasha’ clamour that followed, a vital aspect was missing from [the] discourse – the land rights of the Kalasha and the issue of their displacement due to increased deforestation which is robbing them of their sustenance.
 “All this worry of the Taliban, the real threat is the land problem,” says Lines. She goes on to add that hotels are taking up scenic land and illegal logging is leaving the area susceptible to flooding.

The Kalash community suffered from flooding in 2015 that destroyed many houses and infrastructures including the school building.

Non-Kalasha people have started constructing infrastructures such as modern buildings in the region that slowly change the beauty and structure of the Kalash environment. There are also incursions by non-Kalasha people on the land and forests in the Bomborate valley. The Kalashas have long been fighting the elite Royal Family to protect their forests. Loss of the forests would mean loss of everything.   

The Kalashas number around 4,000 at present. In a region with a total population of 10,000, the Kalashas constitute a minority in their own place. Though there is no single reason for the declining of population of the Kalash community, three major reasons have been identified: conversion to other religion; death; and birth control (which has just started and not that much prominent in some ways).  

Poor Kalashas may convert to another religion because they cannot afford holding cultural and traditional activities.

Modernization is also a threat to the Kalash culture. Electronic, print, and social media and the insensitivity of tourism affect the Kalash culture. The education system is also silently killing the Kalash culture.

Survival of the Kalash Community

Preserving Kalash culture is very difficult. We can preserve the tangible culture somehow but not intangible culture. Preserving one’s way of thinking is not easy.
Anyhow, in my view, education is more important and Kalash language and culture must be taught in schools. In this way, Kalash children can understand their own cultural values and feel proud of themselves as Kalashas.

I also think that a profound lack of education has kept my community “backward” and the people unaware of their rights.2

There are challenges, however. There is a lack of Kalasha teachers and not all Kalasha children are in school. Many Kalasha children leave school after the 7th or 8th grade. There are many reasons for this including marriage at a young age. There is currently no marriage law or rules and regulations for the community regarding marriage. And the minimum age for marriage is not set.

Secondly, making the Kalashas economically strong is necessary. Sustainable tourism is most important to the Kalashas to generate income for the area. In this case, tourism should be run by Kalashas and supportive of their culture.

In 2013, when the Taliban threat was exposed in the Dawn newspaper, there were Muslims who stepped forward to support the Kalash community.

In my observation, interfaith education in the region is very important. I must say that we are living in peace because of interfaith harmony.  Hate speech can never be erased by counter-hate speech, only love and compassion make a peaceful environment. Peace and harmony among the Kalashas and the Muslims in the region remain exemplary, a model for the world.

It is necessary to mention how the 3,000 year-old ancient Kalasha culture has survived. And much of the history of this culture is still to be discovered. Kalashas lived an isolated life for a long time until tourism and global networking highlighted them. The Kalashas need to find a way to minimize the effect of tourism and global attention on their culture.
I am really concerned and alarmed at the situation. I am not sure about Kalashas’ future.  Many Kalashas think the same way. May God bless us while hoping for the best.

Sayed Gul Kalash, a member of the Kalash community, is an archaeologist working on the world heritage site in Taxila under the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums Government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

For further information, please contact Sayed Gul Kalash, gulkalash@yahoo.com.  

1 “Embrace of the Kalasha,” Dawn, 20 May 2014, https://www.dawn.com/in-depth/kalash/.
2  See also “Embrace of the Kalasha," ibid.

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