- Middle East
LAST PAGANS OF THE HINDU KUSH
The Kalash, an ancient people who managed to survive and preserve their cultural identity primarily due to the geographical location and centuries of isolation in the remote valleys of the Hindu Kush Mountains are among the smallest and possibly the most unique ethno-religious community in Pakistan. Certainly the most popular theory about the origin of this Dardic, Indo-Aryan people, whose physical appearance and customs indicate the ties with the ancient Hellenes is that they are descendants of Alexander the Great, whose army conquered this area almost two and a half millennia ago. Opinions are divided among the experts that began to take an interest in the Kalash in the 19th century, while the latest analyzes of their genetic material indicate that direct connections with the Macedonians are most likely just a myth.
In any case, the life of the Kalash, whose population nowadays counts less than 4000 souls inhabiting three river valleys in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, with its mysterious origins and the way of life that remained unchanged for centuries, colorful costumes and pagan religion seems almost unreal, like an embodiment of the imaginary Himalayan kingdom of Shangri-La.
Despite the romanticized notions of this small community in the popular culture like in Rudyard Kipling ‘s famous story The Man Who Would Be King, the life of the Kalash in remote mountain valleys of the Hindu Kush which has always been difficult, now they face new challenges: from one side, they are under threat by the Taliban who control neighboring areas in Afghanistan, while their population is also threatened with both cultural and demographic extinction in the form of a growing wave of conversion to Islam, and as well with increasing of young people going to cities in search of better living conditions.
In addition to the rich material culture that can best be seen the luxurious folk costume of Kalash women that has survived to this day as part of everyday life and as well the traditional architecture, unique customs and languages, this people of European appearance who are characterized by pale skin and blue eyes, the polytheistic religion is probably the most important ingredient of their unique identity. The Kalash are also the only ethnic group that has managed to preserve their ancient religion that also used to be practiced in the past by other peoples in the Hindu Kush, a territory that included part of present-day Afghanistan in addition to northern Pakistan and was known as Kafiristan or the land of infidels. Thanks to the inaccessibility of the valleys they inhabited, as well as geopolitics, the formation of today’s line of demarcation of these two countries known as the “Durand line”, the Kalash managed to escape the fate of neighboring tribes that were Islamized in the late 19th century. Their religion, which is based on the ancient Indo-Aryan religion and also possess elements of animism, is characterized by distinctive pantheon of various deities that symbolize natural forces and the cycle of life. In addition to ritual animal sacrifices and festivals dedicated to the change of seasons and the gods who govern this cycle, religion, as well as the concept of belief in clean (unclean) and unclean (pragata) things permeate all aspects of life of the Kalasha, from daily activities to childbirth rituals, marriage and burial of the deceased.
Unlike the Muslim communities in this area, Kalash women enjoy surprising level of freedom, from dressing to the way they choose their partners. That being said, Purdah, the custom of covering women in public spaces as well as physical segregation within the homes which is widespread practice in the countries of South Asia is non-existent among the Kalash. An integral part of the culture of this community, in which the fundamental rules are based on a rural, traditional pattern, is a liberal approach to women’s rights, which despite a clear hierarchy and division of labor between men and women is not that rigid as is neighboring Muslim communities. Thus, the faces of girls and women are never fully covered with veils but decorated with colorful headbands, they openly communicate with men and even make physical contact with them, and when they became ready for marriage, the girls are free to choose the young man they like. Also, the practice of remarriage is very common when women decide to leave their husband’s home if they find another partner, which usually happens during festivals that are held several times a year. As women are considered unclean due to menstruation as well as during the childbirth, in accordance with their belief in clean and unclean elements, they spend those days in special huts called bashali, which is one of the rare cases of physical segregation between the sexes among the Kalash.
A group of boys from Batrik village in the Bumburet valley returning from the school in the back of a truck.
A boy releases the pigeon from the roof of a house. Pigeon keeping which is popular all over the country is also widespread among the Kalash.
Youngsters from Brun village having a chat in front of the local shop in the evening.
A villager from Grum village carries a bundle of wood. Kalash valleys are surrounded with woods of the Himalayan cedar whose wood plays a significant role in material culture of the Kalash people. It is used not only for construction of houses but as well for various household items and ritual objects.
The majority of Kalash people still lives in traditional houses built from the wood of Himalayan cedar dotted on the sloped of surrounding hills. Rambur village in the Rumbur valley.
Traditionally dressed girls hiding from the camera with a veil. Girls and women in Kalash valleys are very shy and only in rare cases they accept to be photographed.
Turning her back in order to avoid being photographed, a girl spreads the veil over her headgear.
Young men wearing shalwar kameez have fun with a skipping rope during the summer afternoon in Grum village in the Rumbur valley.
Unlike men that accepted the usual way of clothing in Pakistan consisting of shalwar kameez and a pakol hat, womenfolk retained their traditional dress including the ornate headdress called susutr.
Girls wash clothes in the water channel. Since they are four years old Kalash girls waer susutr headdress all the time, except when they are having a bath or sleeping.
Ethnic dress which remained in everyday life of the female population is among the most important and certainly most visible symbols of the Kalash ethnic identity today.
Woman with a khawa, conical basket woven on a wooden frame that is carried on the back goes to the orchard with her little daughter. Besides child nurturing, housework and crop cultivation, women’s work includes collection and processing of different types of fruits.
Interior of a traditional wooden Kalasha house in the Bumburet valley
Woman with a tattooed face at the doorstep of her home. Tattoos on the face, hands and wrists are popular among the female Kalash population and as well amongst women from the other ethnic communities in Northern Pakistan.