The unique Kalash community of Pakistan

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Kalash or Kalasha are a small ethnic and religious community living near the western borders of the Chitral district, close to the neighbouring Afghan province of Nuristan (Nooristan). Shrouded in mystery, there are many different claims about the history and origin of the Kalasha people. The majority of writers, scholars, anthropologists, and linguists, point to a pervasive myth that testifies to the Kalasha as the descendants of the armies of Alexander the Great[i]. In the past, the Kalasha peoples ruled over territory that stretched from Chitral to Asmar in Afghanistan for many centuries.

I was born into a Kalasha family known as Aspa’I’n Nawaw. I have practiced the Kalasha religion, culture and tradition since my birth. From my research work in my own village, I have concluded that my people have lived in these valleys for as long as we have been a distinct community. Kalasha peoples firmly believe that originally they came from a place called Tsiam. Some people say that Tsiam is the ancient name of Thailand, a claim that most of us consider false.

Within the Kalasha community there are some people in Biriu (Birir) valley, who originally came from Majam in Nuristan (Nooristan). The cultural traits of these Biriu residents, particularly their rituals, differ from the rest of the Kalasha communities. However, in their culture and costumes they are brethren to the people of Rukmu and Mumuret. The people of Rukmu and Mumuret are culturally very similar and there is little difference between them.

Kalash settlement the Anish village in Chitral–photo by Luke Rahmat

Kalash are unique people

We must now turn to the key issue: what is the essence of the Kalasha way of life? What makes us distinct? One thing is clear. The Kalasha are a unique people, unlike any other on the globe in our cultural practices. As a point of comparison, history and legend tell us, for example, that Mullah Nasir Uddin was a unique man. Many nations, including Iran, have claimed him as one of their own. His exploits have become the stuff of legends, stories I learnt myself while studying at school. Those who wrote down his achievements and philosophy made one thing clear: that he was a unique man. We, the Kalasha, are the same. We, too, are unique.

Recent news reports point to archaeological evidence that suggest that the Kalasha peoples were the ancient inhabitants of the Swat region. Likewise, the Bulgarian ambassador, during his visit to Chitral, said in an interview to an online news service that the ‘’Kalasha peoples are [their] descendants [i.e. of the Bulgarians]’’. The Greek people are similarly confident and claim the Kalasha as their descendants,. They have been working with the Kalasha communities in the valleys since 1998. To settle these differing claims further scientific research needs to be done to determine the ‘’origin of Kalash’’; and the results must be shared with the community.

Culture of the Kalash and women

The Kalash people, and their way of life, clearly differ from both the surrounding present cultures of Pakistan and the rest of the world. We are a flexible people, living happily. By a definition of culture as ‘’something socially learnt and shared by members of the community’’, we, the Kalasha, have doubtless, a rich and ancient culture. Some years back the Greek volunteers in the valleys said that the ‘’Kalasha are the cultural heroes of 21st century’’. The Kalasha way of life is finely balanced, allowing both men and women to do their duties and social responsibilities freely.

The Kalasha society is not a male-dominated society like other communities in Pakistan. Our social organisation is very effective, and it ensures that there happens no cruelty or discrimination based on issues of gender.

Kalasha women feel comfortable living in a society which gives them respect and freedom. In her work, American anthropologist, Wynne Maggi, describes the difference between the Kalasha and other people. The difference – the title of her book – is quite simple, “our women are free”.

The Kalasha culture is appreciated globally. Our society is optimistic even in the face of significant challenges and changes we face. We know we cannot stop these changes, but we can effectively slow down, and adapt to these changes. In the Kalasha culture, one cannot marry with a close relative, including second cousins, or within the same caste. Some 50 years ago the engagement system was strong and there were fewer love marriages. However, since that time there has been a decline in arranged marriages and love marriages have become more popular. This is because the lack of freedom of choice in arranged marriages and the consequent unhappy life. Consequently, people started to adopt love marriages as a more effective alternative with less chance of the marriage ending in divorce. All cultures are in flux, constantly adapting and changing to new situations, and tolerance and flexibility ultimately emerge once a society learns that change does happen; and that alternative options can be adopted successfully.

 

Beliefs and customs

The Kalash peoples believe in a single, creative God, referred to in the Kalasha language as Dezau, although we use the Persian term Khudai as well.

Most of the literature written on the Kalasha religion has incorrectly mentioned that the Kalasha peoples believe in twelve Gods and Goddesses.

Why did the authors report this to be the case? Undoubtedly the reason lies in a communication gap between the writer and the person interviewed. For example, different Kalasha altars and temples were incorrectly understood to be places of worship for separate and distinct Kalasha deities. While it is correct that the Kalasha people do have different names of altars such as Sajigor, Indrain and Warin et al. These altars are all ultimately a place to offer sacrifices to Dezau. Kalasha people do not have any routine daily prayers, like the Muslim communities have in the valleys. They do pray whenever they initiate any activity like harvesting, ploughing, and construction and whenever the favour and honour of Dezau is needed. Most prayers are offered during Kalasha festivities. There is a strong belief of purity and impurity in the Kalasha culture. In the Kalasha belief system women are considered to be especially impure during menstruation and childbirth. There is a separate building for these women and it is prohibited for men to enter the area. The area is known as Bashali.

Costume

Kalasha dress for male and female inside Kalashadur Museum in Mumuret valley–photo by Luke Rahmat

Kalash women have a unique and colourful dress that serves as the most obvious symbol of identity for the Kalash community, and any outsider who enters the valleys can recognize them easily. Historically, women used woollen clothes with embroidered designs. With the passage of time the raw materials became rare and expensive and they subsequently adopted cotton and silk fabrics. Kalasha male dresses had already changed some 50 years ago due to shortage and non-availability of wool. But there is an occasion during Cawmos, the winter festival, on the 19th of December every year, when they use their traditional clothes for boys in a special ceremony.

State of survival

For most of our history, the Kalash valleys remained cut off from the rest of the world. The centuries of isolation provided an opportunity for us to sustain this unique culture. The Kalash culture does not have any attested documented form. It is an oral tradition performed practically. Our people are more committed and steadfast than ever before to sustain our culture for the younger generation. Historically, many people lost their lives but did not change their faith. Our elders used to say some years ago that during Zhoshi, the spring festival, in the Shishi Ku valley, people were forced to convert to Islam but some 70 girls and boys resisted the conversion and chose to end their lives by throwing themselves into Shishi River. Later in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was very difficult for Kalasha people to carry on their culture and religion. Very few families escaped forced conversion in the valleys. But in the 1970s, when Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Butto visited the region, he introduced this culture to the nation and since then the people realised to protect and defend its uniqueness.

Festivals

The Kalash peoples have four main seasonal festivals per year. Zhoshi, the spring festival, is held from May 14th to 16th. Ucaw, the autumn festival, falls on the 18th to 22nd August, but the preparation begins in July. The P’O’ festival starts in mid-October, and is held only in Biriu valley. Finally, Cawmos, the winter festival goes from the 7th of December to the 22nd of December every year. There are many occasional festivities as well.

Sports and games

Kalash traditional calendar–by Luke Rahmat

There are many sports played in the valleys but I would love to introduce the games called cikik-ghal, kirik-ghal and him-ghal meaning ‘’snow golf’’, which is a famous sport during winter. It is played between two villages and there are no specific players. Victory is achieved by winning the best of three, and the losing team must sacrifice a bull to provide food for the winning team and arrange a musical party to enliven spirits after the exhausting day. In February 2012 our traditional sports development programme had organised an indigenous winter sports festival and formed a standard team, consisting of 24 members including captain and coach. This step was taken to preserve the game because it was being lost with the passage of the time. The sport is very emotional and there is a slight risk of fighting. In order to minimise risk during the game we sought to have some standardised rules to continue this unique game. The same organisation has planned another winter sports festival in 2013 as well.

Efforts by the government to protect the Kalasha people

The Kalasha valleys are well known all over the world but being a very remote part of the country it lags far behind in terms of development and facilities, despite the fact that the Kalasha valleys are richly endowed with cultural heritage and natural resources. Unfortunately, the government of Pakistan has ignored this region and has paid no considerable attention to its development and preservation. While the government has inscribed shrines, mosques and forts on the World Heritage list, and even put forwarded the Kalash valleys, we are still to be included on the National Heritage list. The National Registration Authority, that created a database in 2008, provide a religion check box, did not include the Kalasha religion on that list. It is pathetic. Institutionally, the NADRA now indicates that there are no Kalasha ethnically or religiously in the government record. As a result, we are forced to indicate Islam, Buddhist, Yarsi or such other faith in our national data documents for identity cards and passports

When it comes to diversity and cultural icons, the government does not hesitate to showcase the Kalash culture to visitors and guests.

However, Kalash culture remains no more than a showpiece for government officials. The government has done nothing for our tribe except building irrelevant constructions in the Kalasha valleys, which undermine its natural beauty and destroy the Kalasha’s tangible heritage.

There have been no positive steps taken by government for the conservation of Kalasha culture so far. In schools, Kalash students are compelled to undertake Islamic studies, as there is no option for minority students to study another subject in the area. The preaching of Islam by Muslim teachers in the schools and pressure of Muslims students create hatred among the Kalasha for their culture and religion and force them to abandon their heritage and consequently convert. The quote below indicates how government neglect and exploitation pressures the Kalasha to abandon their culture:

Abdul Sattar, a village elder who has converted to Islam, tells me, “Before, when I was Kalash, I was very happy. But the government and people from the rest of Pakistan were coming here and making us dance and perform. I became a Muslim because I couldn’t enjoy performing for outsiders” – Quote from the Observer Feb 201

Challenges

Conversion of religion

Kalash settlements are being encircled by the growing Muslim population year by year.

In the absence of a curriculum for minorities in government schools the Kalash students are forcefully taught Islamiyat and compelled to convert to the majority faith.

There is no instrument, law or legal protection of the culture, faith and property of the Kalash minority in the prevailing legal system in Pakistan.

There is an unprofessional approach towards the ‘’so-called’’ conservation and protection of Kalash culture on the part of the government as well as donors and NGOs, with the exception of only a few.

Recommendations

Based on ECOSOC conventions and the UN General Assembly resolutions, the Kalash culture should be declared a UNESCO World Heritage site so that the global community may undertake serious efforts for the protection and conservation of Kalash culture

The subject of ethics should be introduced in the schools of Kalash valleys instead of Islamiyat to check the progress of forced conversion of Kalash youth by Muslim teachers

Government of Pakistan and UNESCO should give international exposure to the Kalasha ethnic community by arranging foreign visits to the Kalash valleys after declaring them World Heritage Sites.

The Government of Pakistan should allocate a separate seat for the Kalash minority both in the provincial and national assemblies.

Last, but not the least, the Government of Pakistan should prepare a comprehensive development package for the Kalash minority. The package should include certain incentives to protect the threatened and endangered community.

Government should allocate a quota and scholarship programme for Kalasha students in professional colleges and universities in Pakistan, and also a quota system for employment in different departments.

Separate columns for the Kalasha people should be provided in the national database and census forms.

[i] Endnote by the editor. Recent DNA based research denies this claim of the Kalasha people of being the descendants of Alexander the Greek. Research by a group of scientists and researchers suggests, “The Kalash represent an enigmatic isolated population of Indo-European speakers who have been living for centuries in the Hindu Kush mountain ranges of present-day Pakistan. Previous Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA markers provided no support for their claimed Greek descent following Alexander III of Macedon’s invasion of this region, and analysis of autosomal loci provided evidence of a strong genetic bottleneck. To understand their origins and demography further, we genotyped 23 unrelated Kalash samples on the Illumina HumanOmni2.5M-8 BeadChip and sequenced one male individual at high coverage on an Illumina HiSeq 2000. Comparison with published data from ancient hunter-gatherers and European farmers showed that the Kalash share genetic drift with the Paleolithic Siberian hunter-gatherers and might represent an extremely drifted ancient northern Eurasian population that also contributed to European and Near Eastern ancestry. Since the split from other South Asian populations, the Kalash have maintained a low long-term effective population size (2,319-2,603) and experienced no detectable gene flow from their geographic neighbors in Pakistan or from other extant Eurasian populations. The mean time of divergence between the Kalash and other populations currently residing in this region was estimated to be 11,800 (95% confidence interval = 10,600-12,600) years ago, and thus they represent present-day descendants of some of the earliest migrants into the Indian sub-continent from West Asia.”

For a full read of the article click this link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4570283/

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