Exoticising and at the same time ignoring the Kalasha

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The mountainous communities of Pakistan who inhabit the valleys of Karakoram, Hindu Kush and Himalaya are on the margins, ignored and side-lined; dependent on external centres of power for knowledge that define and decide their identities, policies and power dynamics. The people of Pakistan largely don’t know much about these communities, their languages, cultures and history. This was glaringly evident during the media coverage coming out of the valley during the recent visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to one of the Kalasha valleys in the Kalashadesh in Chitral. Some reporters associated with certain famous media houses even thought that the more than ten ethnically diverse Chitrali communities were Pashtun.

Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge visit a settlement of the Kalash people. PHOTO: AFP

Even in the past little was known about the Kalasha except that the people were pagan, wild, and wine drinkers. For many the Kalasha or their brothers towards the west, in today’s Nuristan in Afghanistan, were ‘terrible and imprecise’. (Loude and Livere 2017) Then many myths were common about them depicting these ‘Kafirs’ as ‘huge as giants, speaking an unknown language, clad in black, with hearts as dark as their clothes’ (Hookham 1962). Even a usually restrained English traveller to Afghanistan noted that ‘the Kaffirs live in a most barbarous state, eating bears and monkeys’. (Burnes 2012)  Where these ‘mysterious wild people’ had come from was a persistent speculation for European ethnologists. Many authors agreed with the local myth that the Kalasha were the descendants of Alexander’s army. The assertion that the Kalasha are the descendants of Alexander’s army still reflects in reports by Pakistani and international media despite the fact that in 2015 a genetic study overturned this claim.

The interest in the “Kafiristan”(Land of the Pagans) —a term applied by the surrounding Muslims in the south for the people of the mountainous communities of Hindu Kush, Karakoram and Himalaya ‘from the Panjshir valley in Afghanistan across the northern areas of Pakistan to the borders of Kashmir who were largely non-Muslim still at the beginning of the nineteenth century’—emerged among the western ethnographers with the onslaught of armies of the Afghan Emir Abdul Rahman in 1895 on the ‘Kafirs’ of today’s Nuristan province of Afghanistan. This region including upper Dir and Swat valleys, as Peter Parkes cites in his book ‘Livestock Symbolism and Pastoral Ideology Among the Kafirs of the Hindu Kush’,  ‘practiced archaic polytheistic religions which, though differing in many traits – such as the names of divinities, the morphology of religious festivals, the contents of the mythologies – had at their core a common symbolic system based on what has been termed a ‘pastoral ideology’. (Parkes 1987)

The Duchess of Cambridge receives gifts from a member of the Kalash tribe. PHOTO by AFP

It is interesting that the so-called Kafirs of this Kafiristan succeeded in keeping their ancient beliefs and ‘primitive’ traditions alive until the end of 19th century even though they were surrounded by an expanding Islamic world.

But the situation drastically changed with the advance of Emir Abdul Rahman’s army to the valleys of today’s Nuristan in 1895 killing many and converting the rest. A considerable number of the ‘Kafirs’ in Afghanistan fled the wrath and took refuge with their brethren, the ‘Black Kafirs’—present day Kalasha—across the Durand Line in Chitral under the then British India.

The present day Kalasha live in three valleys in south-western Chitral in Pakistan. The Kalash valleys of Bumburet, Birir, and Rumbur are all narrow valleys at altitudes between 4,875 and 7,800 feet. Bumburet valley is the largest among them with twelve miles in length whereas the other two valleys are somewhat shorter and narrower.

Kalash women wearing their traditional clothes at Bumburet. PHOTO by AFP

For researchers, the Kalasha provide living examples of customs somewhat similar to the now extinct cultural traditions of many communities from Hindu Kush, Karakoram and western Himalaya. These people living in three remote mountainous valleys in Pakistan are the last remnants of the ‘Kafirs’ of the Hindu Kush, who in 1896 numbered more than 100,000, but are now a small indigenous community surrounded by encroaching Muslims. Recent estimates put their numbers around 4,000, which indicates a drastic decline in the population of those Kalasha people who still practice their religion and traditions.

It is difficult to tell how the population of the Kalasha has fluctuated over time, though it may be noted that in 1956 a Danish ethnographer estimated the number of Kalash at approximately 3,000, (Siiger 1956) and in a survey done in 1988, the Kalasha people who adhered to their faith were 2,500. (Lines 1988)This indicates the decline in the population of those Kalasha people who still practice their religion and traditions. A recent estimate counts the Kalasha nearly 4,000.

French travellers and researchers, Loude and Lievre, refer to the Kalasha community as a ‘society of competitive feasting’ as for the Kalasha ‘every occasion from childbirth to death, is a demand for feast’.

The Kalasha religion, like the population of the community, is in considerable fluctuation today as it is faced with challenge of social pressure in the surrounding. Their religion is a ‘modem form of the proto-Aryan Vedic pantheon’ (Loude and Livere 2017). It includes a creator god, Dezau; and ‘below him a number of divinities associated with particular areas, each celebrated and honoured through particular rituals’ (Loude and Livere 2017). Their worldview is animistic. They believe that the physical environment is permeated with the spirits. There are deities ‘associated with human fertility, the protection and fecundity of goats, the protection of livestock, the protection of the population, the protection of the family and the home, and the prosperity and fertility of the fields, while the fairies are the guardians of the wild sheep and ibex and govern the success of hunters’ (Loude and Livere 2017).  Worship associated with these spirits and divinities is done both on an individual and communal level; and the Kalasha calendar is marked with a series of feasts for the consecration of gods in the pantheon.

Kalash girls sitting in Bumburet, the largest valley of Kalasha Desh in the Chitral District. PHOTO by AFP

The one dimensional religious and intellectual upbringing of the Pakistanis makes the Kalasha very ‘strange’ creatures for them because they cannot think beyond their own belief; and neither can understand the unique characteristics of the Kalasha traditions.

“The disgusting questions asked by people about our religion worry us very much. Often I have to face these stupid questions at my office too. Yesterday some people visited my office and one of them told me strange anecdotes just to prove my religion false and baseless. He asked me peculiar questions, as if I was a lesser human being. He told some stories of monkeys with the implied meaning that we are no more than monkeys doing strange things in the name of ‘culture’ without any belief in God. This is done with me even though I am an archaeologist, so imagine what is going on with the ordinary Kalasha. When we question this mindset we are told that such people are few in number and constitute only 20% of the populous. Ironically, this incident took place during a seminar on cultural pluralism held this year in Chitral by a civil society organization, Idara Barayae Taleem-o-Taraqi(IBT)”

There is a myth among many Pakistani men regarding the promiscuity of Kalasha women, and every summer many men can be found in the valleys, staring the women and in many cases proceeding to more sexual harassment. This usually happens because of lack of understanding and celebrating the cultural diversity. Since the Kalasha feasts are embedded with traditional dances by women and men together; and since the overall general cultural mindset of Pakistani men associates dancing with prostitution they think the Kalasha valleys havens of prostitutions. In addition, women in Pakistan are supposed to be in veil; and wherever and whenever the patriarchal mindset finds a woman un-veiled she is thought to be promiscuous. The Kalasha women wear their beautifully embroidered dress Cew and Piran (Mela 2012) with the beautiful headdresses called Shushut and Kupas (Mela 2012), the former is casual while the latter is worn on special occasions. Wine has a special status in their culture hence many Pakistanis go there for wines and local liquor; and consequently perceive the area as a sensual paradise where anything goes forgetting that ‘the dances are in no way lascivious and the Kalash ‘wine’ is virtually undrinkable’.

Additionally, there is a myth among many Pakistani men regarding the promiscuity of Kalasha women, and every summer many men can be found in the valleys, staring at the women and in many cases harassing them as well. The influx of tourists has led to a large number of Kalasha women willing to pose for photographs and perform ceremonial dances in return for payment. This has created resentment within the community and they now do not see dancing by women a good act and sometimes equate it with a ‘form of prostitution’ or ‘going to the zoo’ (Naqvi 1996) in their local metaphors.

The commercialization of the Kalasha culture is another threat to the dignity and wealth of the people. From tourism the non-Kalash prosper economically because they own almost all the hotels and restaurants. The Kalasha are ‘too poor and too subdued to profit even in a field which should strictly be theirs’.

This exclusion of the Kalasha from the tourism industry create many other issues for them as well.  The influx of Muslim entrepreneurs and adventurers also expedites the conversion of the Kalasha. The conversion is not a new phenomenon as noted above but the various social and economic pressures accelerate it.  However, those Kalasha who converted tend to be naturally tolerant of their parent religion and respect their neighbours as ‘these new Muslims have still much more in common with their Kalasha compatriots than with adventurers from outside’ (Naqvi 1996). But over the time they, too, get intolerant because of indoctrination from outsiders who visit those areas in order to preach. The tourism has also led to the influx of large numbers of more puritanical Muslims who go there with a zeal to make the Kalasha like them.

The Kalasha children are among the most disadvantaged segments in Pakistan. The ‘schoolteachers often join up with missionaries to pressure Kalasha schoolchildren by constantly referring to the Kalash religion in degrading and demeaning terms’ (Naqvi 1996). The Kalasha children, being in a minority in the school, are discriminated against by the other children who are accustomed to their elders discriminating against their Kalasha counterparts. This attitude discourages the Kalasha children and they abandon schooling thus keeping them in the vicious loop of poverty and disenfranchisement. The schoolteachers in the areas sometimes perform the duty of missionaries as well.

In addition to it, the Kalasha children are ‘forced’ to learn Islamic studies at schools despite the fact that the Pakistani state has not prescribed teaching of Islamic studies as a compulsory subject to non-Muslims.

Acute poverty and the economic wants also lure the Kalasha to convert. Many of them are in debt to the outsiders; and whenever they cannot pay that debt they readily tend to convert so as to find some relief in the debt. Because of the growing poverty many women are also encouraged to marry non-Kalasha who are wealthier than the Kalasha men.

Despite the many religious and social pressures, most of the Kalasha ‘would point to economic improvement as the only way to religious freedom, if any official assistance is to be given’ (Naqvi 1996).

The biggest economic issue the Kalasha face is that many of them had been enticed or coerced into selling their lands and walnut trees, often for very low prices. Fraudulent transactions are also noticed by many writers in the Kalashadesh wherein the illiterate Kalasha has been coerced to endorse the transactions.

All these issues are not limited to the Kalasha only. In Pakistan, many groups, whether ethnic or religious minorities, have faced, and continue to face, such challenges. However, the primary difference is that we as a nation love to exoticise the Kalasha. Each government proudly showcases this community as evidence of Pakistan’s rich cultural diversity and as a symbol of just how committed the state is towards safeguarding the rights of minorities and preserving indigenous communities. This narrative is then echoed by the civil society, and the masses are convinced that since we readily put the Kalasha up on display for foreign visitors, we are also preserving and promoting their culture and religion. As noted above, the realities in the region are very different from the narrative which has been popularised.

Researchers and writers love the Kalasha as long as they provide them with an excellent field of anthropological research in the form of a human museum which continues to preserve its culture and traditions in a glass box for us to marvel at from time to time. The locals love them because the Kalasha have made the region famous,while tourists love to visit them for a bevy of other reasons. But the moment one speaks of the overarching social pressures, poverty, human rights violations, stigmatisation and the discrimination of the Kalasha, many of our researchers, linguists, and influential locals choose to look the other way. Unless this apathy towards the mounting issues faced by the Kalasha is rectified, we as a nation run the risk of endangering a community which we so happily display as a sign of our cultural pluralism.


Burnes , Alexander . 2012. Travels into Bokhara: The Narrative of a Voyage on the Indus. Eland Publishing.

Hookham, Hilda. 1962. Tamburlaine the Conqueror. Hodder and Stoughton.

Lines, Maureen . 1988. Beyond the North-West Frontier :travels in the Hindu Kush and Karakorams. Haynes Publications.

Loude , Jean Yves, and Vivane Livere. 2017. Kalash Solstice: Winter Feasts of the Kalash of North Pakistan. Ishi Press.

Mela, Elizabeth. 2012. “The Kalasha Woman Today.” International Journal of Humanities and Social Science (Centre for Promoting Ideas) 2 (17): 88-94.

Naqvi, Feisal Hussain. 1996. “People’s Rights or Victim’s Rights: Reexamining the Conceptualization of Indigenous Rights in International Law.” Indiana Law Journal (Maurer School Laa,Indiana University ) 71 (3): 673-798.

Parkes, Peter . 1987. “Livestock Symbolism and Pastoral Ideology Among the Kafirs of the Hindu Kush.” Man (Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland) 22 (4): 637-660. doi:10.2307/2803356.

Siiger, Halfdan . 1956. Ethnological field-research in Chitral, Sikkim, and Assam: Preliminary report. I kommission hos Munksgaard.


A short version of this article was previously published in The Express Tribune


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