Kalash valley is one of the top cultural retreats of Pakistan. Kalash valley provides an amazing cultural experience in the Hindukush mountain ranges among the ethnic minority community of Kalash. UNESCO listed Kalash culture as “Intangible Cultural Heritage” in November 2018. The decision was announced during the 13th session of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee meeting organised in Mauritius.
The Kalash or the Kalasha are the only pagan minority residing in the Chitral district of the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhua. They form the smallest minority community in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Though the people of Kalash were once in a large number, around 200,000, the number has dwindled so much so that only a handful of Kalashas remain— about 3000 to 4000. The striking decrease in the population of Kalashas pertains to the forceful conversion of these pagans to Islam. Even in the current day scenario, smallest pagan minority is hardly given any rights and is not recognized as a separate entity. Only a handful of foreign NGOs are working towards the development and progress of this area and tribe.
Which valley to visit?
Before you go, you must decide which of the three Kalash Valleys you want to visit:
- Bumburet – The most developed valley in terms of facilities, and most popular with domestic tourists.
- Rumboor – Small villages in Rumboor are less developed and more popular with foreign tourists. Unlike Bumburet, Rumboor is still predominantly Kalash.
- Birir – The least developed Kalasha Valley, and sees the least visitors.
I suggest you visit either Rumboor or Birir, as Bumburet has undergone a Disneyfication process, and is less Kalash and more Murree at this point.
The Kalashas live in three valleys of Chitral namely, Rumbur, Brumbret and Birir. The Rumbur and Brumbret form a single culture due to their very similar cultural practices, while Birir being the most traditional one forms a separate culture. The people of Kalash or white skinned with golden brown hair and blue eyes.
The origins of Kalashas still remain unresolved as their history is shrouded behind a number of theories, mysteries and controversies. Of these many theories, three carry with them great significance and are considered closest to reality. The grandest of all is that the Kalashas carry a romantic view of being the descendents of Alexander the Great. On the other hand, many historians believe that they are indigenous tribe of the neighboring area of Nuristan also called Kafiristan (the land of Kafirs). It is believed that in 1895 Amir Abdul Rahman, the king of Afghanistan, conquered the area of Nursitan and forced the inhabitants of the area to convert to Islam. It was during that time that many people fled to Chitral to avoid conversion. The third theory claims that the ancestors of Kalashas migrated from a distant place in South Asia called Tsiam. The Tsiam is considered to be the traditional home of these people. The Kalasha folk songs and fables hint the existence of Tsiam and that their roots belong in that region.
The language of the Kalash is the Kalasha and is a Dardic language (sub group of Indo-Aryan languages spoken in Northern Pakistan, eastern Afghanistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir). The language is spoken by a handful of people approximately 5000 and is considered to be critically endangered by UNESCO. The Kalasha language has no proper script; however, there have been recent developments in introducing a formal script for the language.
The people of Kalash are extremely particular about their religion and break ties with anyone of them who converts to Islam. The converts are not allowed after the conversion to be a part of their community. They keep their identity strong.
The people of Kalash differ from the people of the surrounding areas in a number of ways. There is no separation between males and females in Kalash and are allowed to keep contact and communicate without any fingers being raised at them. Moreover, the females of Kalash are sent to live in a bashaleni when they are considered to be impure for e.g. during the child birth period and other occasions. These women are only able to live this place after they regain their purity and have undergone the ritual of restoring purity.
The women of Kalash wear long black loose robes with colorful embroideries and cowrie shells. These women are also found wearing colorful beads and necklaces that further distinguish them from the other women of the Chitral region. They accessorize their black robes by making use of colorful long braided head wears. The males of the Kalash on the contrary have adopted the Pakistani national dress i.e. the shalwar kameez and are often found wearing waistcoats over them. They also wear hats common to the northern area of Pakistan.
The people of Kalash march to a different drummer. Their customs and traditions are as different as day and night, especially vis–à–vis the concept of marriage. Marriage by elopement is more frequent in the Kalash valley and is also common amongst women who are already married to another man. In fact, wife elopement is considered to be one of the great customs of the people of Kalash.
When a man and woman get married the man pays the woman’s family a certain amount in order to have her. When a woman wants to leave her current husband and marry some other man, she offers herself to that man and informs him of how much her current husband had paid for her. In order for the man to marry an already married woman he has to pay double the amount to have her.
The Kalashas are polytheistic believing in 12 Gods and Goddesses. A renowned linguist Richard strand, is of the view that the people of Kalash practice an ancient form of Hinduism which gradually developed locally and got influenced by the neighboring areas of pre Islamic Nuristan.
They believe in a number of Gods e.g. Yama Raja also called Dezau and Khodai who is the creator deity. Another god is the Balumain who is the cultural hero and taught the people of Kalash how to celebrate the winter festival. Other gods include Destak, Munjem, Dezalik.
Like all the other religions, the Kalasha also have different religious rituals and practices. In Kalash the rituals are the means of generating economic activity and are gift giving festivals.
The numerous Gods and Goddesses have shrines and altars all over the valley where goat sacrifices are offered regularly. Crows that are considered to be their ancestors are frequently fed with their left hand at a number of places including tombs. Moreover, the people of Kalash do not bury their dead under the ground rather their coffins are left out in the open. They believe that the soul was excited to leave the human body and reunite with the already departed souls. It is for this reason that they celebrate the funeral of a dead person by singing and dancing rather than mourning over their bodies.
If you’re visiting the Kalash Valleys one of their three annual festivals, there will be plenty of feasts for the eyes. Dance, drink, and be amazed at the colorful rituals and clothes on display… but make sure to respect locals’ space and customs when you do. There have been many problems with overcrowding and harassment from tourists at previous festivals; do your best to be a respectful guest.
There are three major festivals in the Kalash Valleys:
- Chilam Joshi – May
- It is celebrated in May and marks the arrival of spring. People wear new clothes and women accessorize heavily, girls are sent to the hill side for dancing and singing. Women decorate their houses and collect milk from the cattle, One year old babies and their mothers are also purified in this festival.
- Uchau – Autumn, usually September
- This festival takes place in mid August at the altar of Mahandeo where newly made cheese is brought from the pastures. Dancing and singing again forms an integral part of the festival.
- Choimus – Two weeks around the winter solstice
- It is the most important festival held in mid December.
The locally-run Kalasha Dur museum is a fantastic place to start your education. The attractive cultural museum in Bumburet Valley will give you all the background information you need before heading out into the valleys.
These valleys have an alpine climate. The people inhabiting these valleys are the primitive pagan tribes of Pakistan, who are known as Kafir Kalash, which means the wearers of the black robes. Their origin is cloaked in controversy. A legend says that soldiers from the legions of the Macedonian conqueror, Alexander, settled in Chitral and are the progenitors of the Kalash.
They live in small villages built on the hillsides near the banks of streams. Their houses are constructed of rough-hewn logs and are double storeyed because of the steepness of the slopes. Kalash are very lively people and are famous for their lively religious festivals namely: Chilimjusht (spring), Phool (September) and Chowas (from 21st December for a week). The Kalash love music and their instruments are drums and flutes. Their colorful dances impart a feeling of peace, joy, and contentment. If you join them in their dance, they interpret it as a sign of friendship and will open their hearts to you and reveal some of their mysteries, their joys, and sorrows. You depart with a sense of poignancy and nostalgia for these beautiful children of nature and the nagging fear that all the sweetness and innocence may soon be swept away forever by the power and intolerance that often hide themselves under the banner of progress.
How to get from Chitral to the Kalash Valley?
Chitral is the starting point for getting to the Kalasha Valleys. Regardless of which valley you want to visit, the way of getting there by public transport is generally the same.
Direct Jeeps from Chitral to the three different valleys leave around 13:00 from near Bank Alfalah in the center of Chitral. These Jeeps charge 200 – 300 Rs per person. However, Jeeps go to Birir only when there is demand.
If you don’t want to travel during the middle of the day, there are shared cars going to the valleys in the early morning and late afternoon. To find a shared car, head to the Chitral central bus stand (the partially covered area with minibusses and shared cars), and get a shared car to Ayun. Ayun is about an hour from Chitral, and a seat costs 100 Rs or 600 Rs for the whole car.
From Ayun, shared cars and Jeeps go to the different valleys once full. They charge 100 Rs per person for the bumpy ride to your valley of choice, although cars might charge a bit more depending on the day’s demand (or lack thereof).
If there are no transport options available when you arrive Ayun, a private hire should cost no more than 1000 – 1200 Rs to any of the valleys. However, if you wait for a while, it’s usually possible to fill up a car with other travelers and locals who are going to the valleys. From Ayun, it will take one to two hours to any of the valleys.
Where to stay in the Kalash Valley?
This valley has several hotels and guest houses and is becoming less Kalash and more Muslim by the day. Luckily, there are still several Kalash-run guesthouses where you can get your dose of local culture.
Rumbur only has three guest houses, and the most homely of the lot is Kalash Home Guest House. If you’re driving into Rumbur, it will be on your left at the start of Grom village—you can’t miss it! Run by the amiable Engineer Khan, the food is delicious, the family is friendly, and the location great.
More remote and with little in the way of facilities.
Mobile networks in the Kalasha Valleys
If you need to have phone signal or internet while in Kalash, make sure to get yourself a Telenor SIM card. It’s the only network provider operating in the Kalasha Valleys.
The people of Kalash have a rich culture and are very strong footed about their identity. These people stand out from the remaining tribes, cultures and communities of Pakistan due to their distinct culture, religious practices and festivals. The area known as Kalash Valley boosts serene beauty, lush green valleys and fruit farms making it an ideal tourist spot not only in terms of scenic beauty but also cultural diversity and religious spots. Despite all the pros the fact of the matter remains that nothing is being done to develop the area and to invest in its tourism industry. The Kalash valley faces discrimination on a number of fronts be it economic development or recognition as a separate religious entity. The area lacks proper infrastructure which cuts it off with the rest of the world and has resulted in the backwardness of the region.