The plight of the Kalash People

 zeeba with Kalasha


Intoxicating is the place,
In the shadows of Hindukush
Where gods worship the human worth;
And define dignity of their land
The Kalash called.  The Kalash called
To show the colors of love,
Even in death, they  celebrate life.
Yes, they are the Kalash
But the dogma is exploiting their feebleness,
 Contaminating  their purity;
Distinguishing the light they spark;
Change, they had been forced to adopt
While still clinging on the hope for survival
And for the world to hear their plea.
By: Zeeba T. Hashmi
For what I saw there was an experience of love, a chastised sensation of being alive, a simple principle of life  to celebrate  and appreciate its gifts; not make it limited by conditions that we have become used to.  In the Hindukush region of Chitral, in northern part of Pakistan are the magnetic valleys of Kalash—a world  of a distant dream as if its magic hasn’t yet worn out.  In the shadow of the troubled Nooristan region in bordering Afghanistan, the rough  terrains frequently taunted by the  security check-posts and the Friday sermons given on loudspeakers by the clergy have overshadowed this beautiful place we want to call our heaven.
 Kalash people are in danger of losing their identity fast, yet not much has been done about  it..
The Kalash I visited  comprises of three exotic valleys, Bamborait, Birir and Ranbor.  They have a population of about 12,000 inhabitants, out of which about three thousand  are struggling to  preserve their religion.   A rare simpleton rustic folk that make their life vibrant with colors as can be seen in the dresses they wear, music they make and love they spread.  Living in tough conditions through ancient histories, they have choreographed their livelihood that  blends well with cruel harshness of the Hindukush, taming their wood and cattle and agrarian lands, coupled with beads and elaborate needlework; the delicacies they derive from the most complex forms of art and the convincing folklore they narrate of fairies that visit their running streams at night to empty the bowls of milk left for them.  The place resounds with haunting beauty: hypnotizing for the soul and intriguing for a curious mind. I was received  with  genuine warmth, when a dear friend, Luke Rehmat had traveled  to Chitral city to take me and my friend Sabir down to the valleys where he is running his NGO, Kalash People Development Network which is working for alleviation of the Kalash community.  With each inch of the wheels crisscrossing through the dangerous narrow bends of the single unpaved road, I was stuck in a wondrous anticipation of what was in store for me.  Despite all odds of the long journey I took by road, every moment I spent there was worth it..
But as we drove towards our Happy Rest house in Bumborait, the natural vividness of the surrounding was in sharp  contrast of numerous vehicles, transporters and commuters that have made the valley busy with tourists.
“But this year we have very few tourists visiting the valleys” explained Luke.  “security has been very tight because of threats of Taliban from neighboring Afghanistan”.  He was right about it.  Since I began the journey from Mardan, I recall how I had been stopped at least a gazillion times at Rangers, Local Police and the Army check posts throughout.  Perhaps the scrutiny was justified; there were inside reports circulating about abductions of foreign workers that allegedly took place somewhere in Upper Dir which of course, could not be verified.  Especially during the time of the year when a major Joshi, festival of spring is about to commence in Kalash.
As I stepped into the room of Happy Rest House, I couldn’t ignore a sudden chill I felt in my large room.  Perhaps it was  the thought of the perils and threats people face here everyday, especially because they have to struggle for their survival everyday; not just against militancy, but also against internal threats from the orthodoxy.
They are  constantly threatened to convert to Islam in order to enter the mainstream and avail economic and civic benefits that cannot be considered a privilege for all.  However doing so, in a culture where the language has not been scripted, the threat of conversion is growing.   The rate of conversion is not just blamed on the economic condition, but also on forced conversions that took place in General Zia ul Haq’s  dark regime in the 80’s which catalyzed the process of alienation and dejection of the many indigenous and ethnic groups that are not even mentioned in the state sponsored text-books.  The Kalash people became a calamity too.
This sense of gloom soon got dissolved  in the merrymaking of the evening under the bright yellow stars which was further enriched by melodious singing by  our generous host and keeper of the rest-house, as he played his instrument.  in remembrance of his old  love.     The magic held its sway with the local drink made of ripe fermented grapes and soft tipsy sensation that followed soon before a carefree, liberating sleep.
Next morning: was the  day of the Joshi festival.  I woke with the faint sound of drums coming from a nearby village.  Luke had already left.  Sabir and I, along with another friend from the rest house were to follow him soon, first to his own village, where we experienced the pure indigenous rites of a boy who has come of age. As soon as we entered the house, we were warmly greeted by women of the house, dressed in their perfect attire they offered us  cheese delicacies and gave us garlands of hazelnuts, cashews and peanuts to wear around our necks along with hand-embroidered colorful belts.  The precious token of their hospitality for us. We then went ahead to where the dance of the festival was, commencing spring under the holy altars of their gods.  The singing and dancing had an air of majesty in itself; like life protruding outwards; grabbing us and making us a part of it too.  “We also have a festival during funeral.  it’s like a thank you to the departed soul for all the wonderful things it’s left with us”.  Explains Syed Khan, a volunteer at Luke’s KPDN, and also a young heart-throb to many, including myself.  The Kalash do not mourn the dead, instead they celebrate the life of their dear departed, their appreciation, however, has been demonized heavily by the orthodoxy as “Kafirs”.
Zarqima and Marjanaa invited me to dance with them.  I tried my level best to synchronize my footsteps with them.  Though  I wasn’t worried about the 16 year old jubilant Zarqima, it was  fear of 6-year-old cheerful Marjaana’s possible foot injury that refrained me from further dancing and taking that risk.  Zarqima understood my predicament soon.  She laughed.
 “I go to school set up for us Kalash”  Zarqima referred to the school set up by a Greek NGO that is working towards preservation of Kalash culture.  There is just one middle level government school serving in the Kalash: but mostly Kalash parents don’t prefer to send their children because of homogenized government syllabus that they cannot relate to.  The Greek school instead, help them carry on  with their studies while maintaining their distinctiveness and thus making it appealing for Kalash parents.  But the matter is worsening at the hands of  militants, the  major development work by foreign NGOs have halted or slowed down because of abduction of a foreigner charity worker and also  murder of an official there recently.  In fact,  some Muslims of the Kalash community hold some reservations on the foreign social work.  They feel that they are promoting the philosophy of segregation and setting the Kalash people in resentment against Muslims, and perhaps, with this creating rift in the communities, caused the murder of an official not too long ago.
 “Kalash, will become  non-existent if nothing is done about it.” Luke Rehmat,  chairman of KPDN informed  that a bid has been placed for UNESCO to consider it a heritage site and to preserve its ingenuity.  He also pointed towards the  citizenship problems they face, the major one is the issuance of National ID Cards that doesn’t enlist their religion, so they are left with no option to officially mark the right religion . They take it as  humiliation of their fundamental rights if their religion is not even recognized.  It has also been reported that women are asked to cover their heads as they wear their traditional head dress which is distinctive of their identity.
Kalash.  The word itself is intoxicating,  but it is getting  contaminated and polluted by misdirected governmental connotations about the place to attract tourism.  The region is being used for commercialism, which does not guarantee the solution to the extinction these tribes are facing.  This is the time to at least accept diversity and appreciate their existence which is vital not only for the  respect for Pakistan in the world, but also its economic progressiveness.  Marginalizing people for the sake of political maneuverings and appeasing the powerful religious lobby is doing us more harm than good.

The problems I’ve seen and the experiences I’ve had have left deep impact on my outlook towards life.  As I was compelled to leave earlier than planned, a part of me wanted to stay back and live among the beautiful people I came across.  My jeep  was to take me back to Chitral for a long journey back home when  I saw Syed Khan approaching me with a  surprised smile and asked  “You will come back for the dance?” I  wish I had said yes, but I looked on blankly.  Kalash will remain with me where ever I go.  Amidst the bright faces and welcoming smiles, I wish I had the courage  to make that promise.


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