Bashgal and the Kalasha under Katoor Rule

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Bashgal and the Kalasha under Katoor Rule

The history of Chitral prior to the 1700s is not very well documented. As such any historical writings from before that period are subject to intense scrutiny but the oral traditions of the Kalash as well as the written history of Chitral from the 1700s point to an interesting fact. Both of the Non-Islamic tribes who at that time dominated the Western and Southern flanks of Chitral had an intense sense of loyalty to the Katoor Mehtar. The Bashgalis, Surkhposh Kafirs tribes belonging to the Kati and Kom tribes of the Easternmost valley of what is now Afghan Nuristan, were never directly administered from Chitral but they did pay a tribute in kind (thanggi) to the Katoor Mehtar and provided warriors to fight for him. At times the Mehtar of Chitral would appoint a Hakim (Governor) in Bashgal and at least once a Kalash held that office. The Kalash were entirely a subjugated race and were often subjected to unpaid labor and other excesses, yet on the other hand Kalash Asaqals were often among the most trusted advisors of various mehtars and played key roles in court intrigues. The Kalash even today look favorably upon the Katoors as they had prevented local fundamentalists from converting them to Islam during their rule.

argematal, Nuristan. In this village the tribes of the Bashgal Valley pledged alleagiance to Chitral during the Anglo-Afghan War of 1919–photo provided by the author

Prior to the 1400s the Kalash were the rulers of Lower Chitral. They were initially defeated by the Chagatai Khanate and then finally subdued by the Raees, a ruling clan of Badakhshani origin. As for the Bashgalis they had to face none other than the Amir Timur himself. The Bashgalis and  Kalash had an intense enmity with both the Chagatais and the Raees, but when the Katoors took the throne their attitudes changed. According to Kalash legend the Katoors are descendants of an ancient Pre-Islamic ruling tribe of the region who were said to be powerful shamans on excellent terms with the local mountain spirits. This legitimized Katoor rule in the eyes of the Kafir tribes and indeed the mehtars all retained a secular outlook until the rule of H.H. Mehtar Shuja-ul-Mulk who introduced Deobandism to the valley and pressurized many Ismailis into becoming Sunni, but even he did not force the Kalash to convert to Islam. Two instances of Chitrali history show how much the mehtars trusted the Kalash. In the initial stages of Katoor rule, a scion of the former Raees Dynasty, Abdul Qadir bin Mahmud, returned from Badakhshan and retook the throne. The Katoor ruler, Sangin Ali II went into exile and crossed the lowari. He had been totally deserted and his only companion was a loyal Kalash Asaqal named Machuli. Machuli accompanied him all the way to the Mughal court at Delhi where the Emperor Mohammad Shah gifted him some gold and jewels. With this treasure he was able to get to Swat-Kohistan and recruit a mercenary army from among the local Dards and cross the Kachakani Pass to Laspur from where he proceeded to retake Mastuj and finally Chitral. In a later era, during the final days of the Great Game, a Kalash man was instrumental in contributing to the period of infighting which eventually culminated in the British Chitral Expedition of 1895 that finally ended the independence of the Katoor Kingdom and transformed it into an Indian Princely State. Amir-ul-Mulk was one of the younger sons of Lot Mitaar Shah Aman-ul-Mulk. He was a simple man who dressed very plainly in the Islamic fashion, shunning the Yarkand and Bokhara silks and brocade coats of his other brothers. He had never been taken seriously and was often taunted so when the opportunity arose he decided to assassinate the Mehtar, his elder half-brother the handsome and flamboyant Sardar Nizam-ul-Mulk, and took the throne.  To carry out the task he chose a Kalash headman named Sherjang who was his close confidant. He first asked Sherjang to summon a Kalash Shaman to go into a trance and predict who would be Mehtar, the shaman replied that the fairies were beating drums and dancing for the son of the Princess from Asmar. Thus one fine day while Nizam-ul-Mulk was out hawking he was shot by Sherjang Kalash  and Amir-ul-Mulk became Mehtar. His rule was short lived though as less than a year later he had been deposed by the British and sent to a life of exile in Madras. His younger brother Shuja-ul-Mulk, who was Amir’s full brother and thus also a son of the daughter of the Khan of Asmar, then became the ruler, fulfilling the shaman’s vision.

The winding road to the Urtsun Valley, the site of the battle between Khairullah and Mohtaram Shah II.–Photo provided by the author

Unlike the Kalash Valleys Bashgal was indirectly ruled by Chitral. The Bashgal Valley runs parallel to Lower Chitral from the Dorah Pass in the North down to Arandu in the South. The Kati and Kom tribes of Bashgal gave a yearly tribute of goats, honey and slaves to Chitral. Although at times these wild tribesmen would have to face military action from Chitral because of their habit of raiding neighbouring valleys for head-hunting, kidnapping women and ransacking trade caravans, there have been instances when they have shown great solidarity and support to the Katoor Dynasty. Shah Khairullah, the Khoshwaqt ruler of Yasin conquered Chitral in the 1700s and sent the Katoor ruler Shahnawaz Khan into exile. Shahnawaz never returned and his brother Mohtaram Shah II became the Katoor chief. Mohtaram Shah lived in exile in Chukiatan, just south of Dir Town at the base of the Barawal Valley. While Khairullah was firmly in control of Chitral the Bashgalis would send a delegation to Dir every year and pay their tributes to Mohtaram Shah in person. This infuriated the skilled and passionate warrior Khairullah and he decided to go to Bashgal to punish the Bashgal Kafirs. Khairullah crossed over via the Kalash Urtsun Valley and as soon as he did so Mohtaram Shah crossed the Lowari with a lashkar of Barrawal and Dir Pathans to reclaim Chitral. The Bashgalis, and other Nuristanis, are the finest warriors in the Hindukush so they gave Khairullah a tough time. When Khairullah heard that Mohtaram Shah was back in Chitral he turned around and took his battered army back across to Urtsun, while being pursued by the Bashgalis. Thus at the battle of Urtsun the Bashgalis from the West and Mohtaram Shah’s mercenary lashkar from the East surrounded and decimated Khairullah’s force. Prior to Khairullah’s campaign a Kalash named Ishtaluk had a vision in which he saw two eagles fighting and the larger one was defeated by the smaller one. He took this to mean Mohtaram Shah would succeed. His cousin Amar Kalash was appointed Hakim of Bashgal following the defeat of Khairullah.

When Chitral entered into the British Sphere of Influence the issue of Bashgal arose. Bashgal had been under Chitrali Suzerainty for centuries and the close links between the Bashgalis and the Katoor Ruling House in particular were well established. As such, the Bashgal Valley is mentioned in the Durand Agreement as falling within the ambit of British India. A clause clearly states that “ The Amir of Kabul will refrain from interfering in Bashgal and Arnawai (the Upper Kunar Valley)” thus the Afghans formally recognized these regions as outside of Afghanistan but went ahead and conquered them anyway, resulting in the conversion of all of Nuristan, including Bashgal, to Islam. During the Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919 the Chitral Bodyguard under the then Wali-Ehad Shahzada Nasir-ul-Mulk captured the Afghan Garrison of Birkot in the Upper Kunar Valley which is the point at which the Bashgal River joins the main Kunar flowing South from Chitral. In another cross boundary action Khan Bahadur Mehtarjao Dilaram Khan invaded Bashgal from the Kalash Birir Valley and took the main town of Bargematal. A few Afghan Askaris did try to stop the Chitrali force but they were easily defeated as they received no local support. The tribes of Bashgal then immediately summoned a jirga and told Dilaram Khan that they were no friends of the Afghans and they still considered His Highness Mehtar Shuja-ul-Mulk to be their ruler. Sadly as large swathes of British territory further south along the Durand Line had been taken by the Afghans the British forced Chitral to return Birkot and Bashgal to Afghanistan.

Pahlawan Kadi, one of the last remaining Kalash Shamans–Photo provided by the author

Thus ends the story of Bashgal with Chitral. The Kalash though are still part of Chitral and they are today a well educated people and have representation in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Assembly in the person of Minority MPA, who is now an Advisor to the CM. Despite the forced labor they were required to provide, the Kalash, still by and large, look favorably upon the House of Katoor. In 2016 the Taliban based in Nuristan entered the valley and killed several Kalash shepherds and stole their flocks. I went to Bumboret to offer my condolences and the old Kalasha men assembled there said they knew that I would be the first to come and console them and that the Mehtar (even I, a powerless ‘chuchu ‘mitaar as we say in Khowar) to them meant much more than the DC, MNA or even the Chief Minister.

Sources: Peter Parkes, A Minority Perspective on the History of Chitral: Katore Rule in Kalasha Tradition. A paper presented at the Third International Hindu Kush Cultural Conference.

My personal conversations with the notable Chitrali historian Hidayat-ur-Rehman.

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