Two prominent members of Kalash society had been expressing their interest to host me in their village for quite a while, but given various constraints, I had not been able to take up their offer until this month. So it was that I left for the central Kalash Valley of Bumborait on the 20th of August, 2020. This was my first visit to the Kalash since 2016, when I had last visited to pay my condolences to the families of shepherds who had been executed by militants crossing over from the Afghan province of Nuristan. Thankfully, this was to be a much happier visit.
The journey from Chitral Town to Bumborait takes about two hours but as the Kalash Valleys had just opened up for tourism on the 8th of August following months of quarantine, the narrow road was packed with vehicles bringing in Pashtun and Punjabi tourists. So it ended up taking closer to three hours. Upon reaching the village of Krakal I was received by my hosts Mikel and Nabek, who welcomed me with the customary Kalasha ceremonial decorated woven belts, which are worn around the neck, and a silk robe. Similarly, my staff were also presented with white Chitrali khapol hats with decorative feather plumes. After this, we were seated in a luxuriant garden by the river and pleasantries were exchanged. Soon afterwards it started to drizzle and this led to a pleasant change in the weather as the hot dusty Chitrali summer has been pronounced this year. I was worried that this may trigger a flash flood, which the valleys of Lower Chitral are susceptible to, but thankfully this did not occur. I expressed my interest to visit their religious sites in the village and we walked up to see them.
The Kalasha religion is a shamanistic version of Vedic Hinduism. In the past this faith was worshipped by all of the people of Lower Chitral and a similar set of beliefs also existed in Upper Chitral alongside Buddhism. The Kalasha pantheon includes deities such as Indra, Mahadev, Sajigor and the goddess Jeshtak. Today under Islamic influence, the Kalasha are for the most part monotheistic, and worship a single creator deity. But they continue to sacrifice at the altars of the various old deities as well. Their spiritual life is closely linked to the seasons and the natural world. We were there just days before the festival of Ucchal, marking the beginning of the Autumn harvest.
First we made our way up to the Jeshtakan, a temple and gathering hall where the community celebrate their midwinter and spring festivals. As we waited for the caretakers to bring the keys to unlock the doors, the tourists walking about the village took interest in my little procession. Given that I was in my silk robe, they probably thought I was a Kalasha chieftain or priest going into the temple to conduct rituals! The entrances to temple are decorated with carved wooden ram’s heads. The inside of a Jeshtakan is an expansive hall with altars on the walls bearing carved icons of what appear to be horses or goats. These carvings are decorated with flowers on the spring and midwinter festivals and the dried remains of the flowers which had been adorned on the icons in May were still present. Blood from sacrificial animals is also applied on these icons. My hosts explained that the two sides of the hall are reserved for the two leading Kalasha tribal lineages, the descendants of Raja Wai and Bulla Singh.
Kalasha spiritual life is closely linked to the seasons and the natural world. We were there just days before the festival of Ucchal, marking the beginning of the Autumn harvest
After the Jeshtakan, we sat in a local house waiting for the rain to dissipate, which it soon did. Our next destination was the open air ceremonial altar of the village. In Khowar we call these altars Malosh but the Kalash refer to them as Deva Dur, or House of the Devas. After a brief uphill walk we reached the Deva Dur. A natural spring is located next to the altar, where the Kalasha purify themselves before conducting their rituals. This particular altar in the village of Krakal is known as Mahadev o Dur or the House of Mahadev. There are not icons or statues at this location and the object of reverence is a natural rock face, polished by the hands of reverent worshippers over the centuries. In a nod to the times, my hosts mentioned that during the midwinter festival, when the spring is frozen and only a trickle emerges, they purify themselves with wine instead of water, like hand sanitizer!
We then went back down to the river side to have lunch. The Kalash pride themselves in the quality of their goats and two fine specimens had been slaughtered for our feast. The Kalash have an immense amount of respect for my tribe. According to Kalasha tradition, the Katoors are also descended from an ancient indigenous lineage of Chitral and are considered to be blessed by the mountain spirits. In Chitrali history, the Katoor rulers always protected the Kalash from religious conversion and it is because of this protected status that they are now the last non-Muslim tribe left in the Hindu Kush. I then proceeded to thank my hosts and begged my leave.
The Chitrali drinkers are actually much more welcome in the communities than Tablighis out to save souls and the tourist youth who harass local women!
The throngs of down-country tourists who frequent the Kalash Valleys are both a blessing and a curse. The money they bring helps invigorate the local economy but their “holier than thou” attitude towards the local people, culture and beliefs is extremely negative. The Kho Chitralis who visit mostly come for another reason. They are drawn to the valleys by the openly and abundantly available Kalasha wine and spirits. Drunkards often cultivate great friendships with the locals based upon mutual respect and a shared love of drink! The Chitrali drinkers are actually much more welcome in the communities than Tablighis out to save souls and the tourist youth who harass local women!
In 1947 when Chitral acceded to Pakistan, there were four Kalash Valleys, Bumborait, Birir, Rumbur and Urtsun. Today there are only three left. Urtsun became entirely Muslim sometime in the 1970s when the last of the old believers died. Neighbouring Nuristan, the region historically known as Kafiristan, was conquered by Afghanistan in 1895 and the entirety of its population converted. Thousands of Nuristani tribesmen fled to Chitral where they established large villages. The elders among them kept their old gods but the young converted, seeing better prospects as Muslims. The last of the Nuristani polytheists died out by the 1940s. Today there are about 4,000 Kalasha who still keep their traditional faith. It is vital that the they continue to exist and maintain their way of life that goes back 4,000 years.
For it is in the Kalasha that all of the Dardic peoples of Northern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan can see a glimpse of themselves, as they were in the past.
The author is the ceremonial Mehtar of Chitral and can be contacted on Twitter: @FatehMulk