Dawn News

In the land of infidels

Click on images to enlarge

A bulletin board caught my attention while I was roaming in the narrow streets of Peshawar: “Celebrate Kalash Festival with the KPK Tourism”.  The message was so appealing that it went through my mind all day.

I grew up watching documentaries on TV regarding these ancient nomadic people who call themselves “Kalash” and follow a distinct culture, living deep in the mountains of North West Pakistan. I always dreamt of visiting the place that I had read about in books and seen in postcards. “Now is the time to actually experience it,” I said that to myself and without any further delay; I booked my flight to Chitral to experience the culture that had endlessly fascinated me.

There lies a mystical valley in Hindukush known as Kafiristan, the land of infidels. Until I actually visited the place, I believed it to be a myth. I took a local van from Chitral Bazar and went through a rough three and a half hour journey via Ayun Valley that ended up in the magical valley called Kalash, an unknown land surrounded by giant mountains and rivers.

Kalash consists of 3 valleys: Rumbur, Bumboret and Birir. Rumbor is the oldest and largest, while Bumboret is the most visited, populated and developed of the three. Situated between two giant mountains, it runs along a small road with a water stream from glaciers flowing downwards.

While searching for my hotel, I came across beautiful women in black gowns decorated with colorful embroidery. When they saw me, hearty greetings of “Ishpaata” were shouted my way; the Kalasha way of saying hello.

The Kalash people are distinct in their language, way of living, culture, religion and norms and have been carrying around this culture since centuries with very little or no change over time. Unlike other parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, this was the first valley where I saw unveiled women roaming around freely. It felt like I was not in northern Pakistan but some foreign nomadic village shown on the National Geographic channel.

Still practicing their ancient customs, they have a proud and almost exclusive culture. They claim to be the descendants of the armies of Alexander who were left behind from his campaign in the area although there isn’t any evidence that would suggest that he passed from this area. The physical attributes of the people usually trace back to the Greek civilization as most of the Kalash are fair skinned and have blue eyes, rosy cheeks and blonde hair.


Photo by author

The next morning, while the valley was still under shadow with the sun behind the mountains, I woke up to drum beats. Upon looking out the window beside my bed, I saw groups of Kalasha women with their young ones walking away from the village towards the ground where the festival was being held. As if on cue, I jumped up, grabbed my camera and rushed after them.


Photo by author.

Kalasha Village - Rumbor

Photo by author.

Before reaching the ground, I came across the real village of Kalashas next to the water stream. On the way to the ground, I saw centuries old wooden houses stacked on top of one another, rising up the hillsides where one house’s roof forms the veranda to another house above. I saw Kalasha women getting ready and washing their hair and cloths by the stream.

Celebrating the spring festival

Photo by author


Photo by author


Photo by author.

Apparently, they were all gathering at one place for family reunions. Dressed in their new clothes, the women were standing in the middle of the ground, preparing to dance while the men were encircling the area, silently reciting prayers to protect the valley from bad omens.

I also learnt that they celebrate the arrival of spring festival, also known as Chilimjust/Joshi  every year in May which is dedicated to future harvests.

The festival stared with a family reunion. They danced to drum beats, the women danced in circle, their arms around one another’s waists and shoulders, spinning in groups of twos or threes and alternating with trance-like encircling lines. The men and women both also sing together to beautiful folk music.


Photo by author

Celebrating the spring festival (4)

Photo by author

This festival lasts at least four days and incorporates different kinds of dances and rituals throughout. Once over, the valley returns to its normal routine. A strange feeling of peace settled over me as I watched these happy people.

My stay in the valley was short-lived, yet the whole time that I was there, I had no connection with the outside world. The valley is a world in itself; it almost cajoles you into keeping away from the chaotic outside life.

The entire experience was an indulgent one. I found myself in a place unlike any other in Pakistan. The uniqueness of this culture, the practices of their religion and the strange traditions here, came as breath of fresh air.

However, it is indeed distressing that their numbers are dwindling by the day. Last year their population accounted for over 4000. A year later, only around 3500 Kalashas remain. The biggest cause of this are faith conversions.

Every day that I was there, I would wake up early, leave my hotel room and find a comfortable spot in the valley. There I would just sit in a corner and observe the ways of Kalashas.

Kalasha women passing by a narrow street in their wooden village

Photo by author.

As I write this, somewhere in the deep recesses of my heart, I can still feel the rhythm of their dances.


The author is an adventure seeker, travel photographer and writer, who loves mountains, deep sea diving, food and tea. He tirelessly wanders around Pakistan for positive stories. He blogs at www.iexplorepakistan.com. You can view his photography here.


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Email feedback and queries to Dawn.com's editorial team, or visit our contact page

Danial Shah is an adventure seeker and a travel and documentary photographer with an interest in anthropology. He loves trekking, climbing, deep sea diving and chai.

He tweets at @Danialshah_ and you can follow him on instagram here.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


Comments (27) Closed

taranveer Singh
Sep 30, 2012 06:38am
wonderful people. Muslims should understand world is beautiful and colorful with flowers of all colors.Taliban way of living doesn't suit for everyone.
Dr. Tripta Singh
Sep 30, 2012 12:59pm
The are forced to believe they are descendents of Alexander. These are pure Central Asian Aryan Race people who speak an ancient Dardic language an Indo-European language. To make them Greeks is the greatest fraud of this century. They are on an average much lighter than the Greeks and all data shows that Alexander never stepped into this area. Also the Greeks have different features and are mostly much darker than these people. The Pakistani Punjab in which Greeks stayed the people are very dark on an average in comparison to the average Europeans. Stop this non-sense of selling this fraud.
Oct 01, 2012 08:37am
i know for pakistani's alexander was also muslim..
Analytical Engine
Sep 30, 2012 04:17am
The Kalash people are also Pakistanis
Oct 01, 2012 12:12pm
Culture of separating women during menses is from the house was followed in brahmin families in India. gradually this process is dying out. This shows that Hindu Religion,Custom,Culture derived from people living around that region taking into account culture of natives of India at that time. All religions.god etc are creation of human being.
Sep 29, 2012 11:46pm
Mohenjo Daro and Kalash valley are God's historical gifts bestowed upon Pakistan -- one only hopes the two do not become victims of Pak Puritanism -- hope Pakistanis preserve their unique heritage.
Oct 01, 2012 06:53am
have u been there ? it s a nice article , not nonsense
rizwan shaikh
Sep 29, 2012 08:08pm
Nice one....
Mohammed Baluch
Sep 29, 2012 06:38pm
The Greeks themselves feel an affinity for the people of the Kalash - as they have a Greek cultural center on the outskirts of the valley, guarded by a handsome Kalash male the last time I was up there. Mr. Shah would be well advised to use "infidels" with care - the Kalash do not need this tag on them, as they live in very sensitive neighborhoods, and they are conscious of that. They are a lovely people - reflecting the diversity of culture in our historical land!
Sep 30, 2012 09:35pm
I believe that Kafiristan is not imagination of the author. It was a real name of the land. Long time ago in eastern Afghanistan near Pakistani boarder. about 25 years ago, I had read an article in National Geographic about real Kafiristan province in Afghanistan. It was an eye witness record about some people actually secretly practicing non-Islam and about one historical Afghan Sultan who had changed the name of Kafiristan to some other name and that he also had made it a crime to practice any other faith but Islam. Someone can locate the the article.
Tom Alter
Sep 30, 2012 08:55pm
Yes, in what was for nearly 3000 years an Indian land, according to your logic one may find anyone except Hindus. Maybe they are related to Maori tribes from New Zealand, who knows?
Sep 30, 2012 08:38pm
Whether they are the descendants of Alexander or not that doesn't matter but one thing for sure, the valley will loose the color and charm if they are converted to Islam! God please keep the diversity in this world!
Sep 30, 2012 09:18am
Kalash are descendants of Alexander the Great. When he passed through this area, him and his army married into locals and the Kalash represent that lineage. Thats why they are very fair and Caucasian in appearance. Hence the interest of the Greek govt in maintaining a presence in the area. Infact, Greek support is visible in other areas also e.g along river Jhelum where Alexander and Porus fought a battle, the Greeks have constructed a beautiful memorial.
Sep 30, 2012 09:22am
I agree. I hope the author doesn't mean it and is just trying to translate "Kafiristan", which in itself is rather offensive by the way.
Sep 30, 2012 09:23am
Hard to believe though isn't it?
Sep 29, 2012 09:32pm
It is a beautiful place with beautiful people.possessing the purest of hearts. I only wish that the we let their civilization be. For us to be better Muslims, we need to focus on being better human beings. That does not require converting others but improving our own faith which is a accident of nature. We need to learn and read more about Islam than listening to what elders or culture teaches us about it. You will be surprised to see how different the true meaning is than what we were taught.
Sep 29, 2012 08:55pm
you must be in india. Just kidding. Not sure why woman are judged by viel.
Sep 29, 2012 08:15pm
May Allah save this land and it's people from our religion defenders.Aamen
Krish a
Sep 29, 2012 06:22pm
Pakistani Muslims are so hell bent upon converting any one/anything non~islamic that there would be no other culture allowed to survive; Akbar the Great can't find peace! ,!
Oct 01, 2012 03:40am
Well said....they should learne to accept and appreciate difference.. Similar tribes also live in HP in India.
Oct 01, 2012 05:13am
a very interesting open article depicting a free society and culture sadly dwindling down. What a shame.
Sep 29, 2012 07:42pm
Hi Danial, I read about Kalasha people in books and still have a wish to be able to visit their habitat at some point. Thanks for sharing your beautiful memories. However, the saddening fact is the faith conversion of these people. I am not sure what kind of people are those who see security in converting others to their faith. That too when followers already are bilion plus. This sense of insecurity among followers of mainstream religions will destroy all diversity and uniqueness of human civilizations. I hope to be able to visit Kalashas before sun sets on their way of life. I hold Indian passport and live in Europe and situation in Pakistan is volatile. I don-t really know if my dream will ever come true or will just remain a dream. Keep sharing diversity of ancient land that is called pakistan in today's world.
Sep 30, 2012 08:41am
Neeraj......thanks for loving the place that much..i really respect such people. i invite you whole heartly to visit Chitral.
Sep 30, 2012 08:38am
Being living in the same place (CHITRAL) i feel that the unique heritage is really in danger.
Sep 30, 2012 04:53am
Thank you for taking me around to a corner of the sub continent , seems like a nice place. It appears that " The infidels" live a life much better than that of the believers. I do not like the racist title to this article.
Paurusasp Magol
Sep 30, 2012 05:23am
Interesting! They would not be of Zorastrian/Persian lineage?
Sep 30, 2012 05:12am
Very interesting statements : "-----a place unlike any other in Pakistan. The uniqueness of this culture, the practices of their religion and the strange traditions here, came as breath of fresh air. However, it is indeed distressing that their numbers are dwindling by the day. Last year their population accounted for over 4000. A year later, only around 3500 Kalashas remain. The biggest cause of this are faith conversions.---" True ---------a conversion of traditional faiths to Middle eastern religions like Islam and Christianity, , among Himalayan mountain folk everywhere, leads to a loss of folk culture.