The Kalasha people, or ‘Kafir’ Kalash, as they are generally called, live in three remote valleys in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, close to the Afghan border. Bumburet, Rumbur and Birir lie approximately 22 miles south of Chitral. The population of Chitral district is about 378,000 people, of whom 4,500 are Kalash. These valleys are the last enclaves to withstand conversion to Islam in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area.
During the seventh century AD, much of the area was invaded by the Arab forces and converted to Islam. The Kalash, believed to have arrived in the Chitral area in the 10th century, came from the Bashgal valley, which is now in Afghanistan. They had been pushed out by the other Kafir tribes, who in turn were being pressed by invading Islamic armies from the west.
In Kalash oral histories their traditional home is called Tsiam. One theory put forward is that it is the town of Chaga Serai in eastern Afghanistan, but it is doubtful. According to the Kalash, Tsiam is reputed to be the original home of the Kalash “Messenger of God” - Balamahin who is said to return to the valleys every year during the winter solstice - the festival of Chaumos.
The Kalash oral histories also mention a place called Yarkhan. Yarkand was an ancient Buddhist centre, which is now in the Chinese western province of Xinjiang. A number of beliefs and institutions of the Kalash are thought to have originated there.
When I first visited the Kalash valleys in the beginning of the 1980s, they had just been discovered by anthropologists, much in the same way as Columbus discovered America!
During the 1980s and 90s, I was to meet many of those academics, among whom, though often gracious and friendly, very few actually liked me. The reason was only too obvious: Who was this upstart who had such a close relationship to the Kalash? I was not an academic and I had no degree. When in the 1990s, I attended a seminar in Denmark, and I suggested to the august members that we should write a friendly guide book on the Kalash for the tourists, the idea was met with horror; so I make no apologies for writing about the Kalash from the tourist’s point of view.
The Kalasha have no set calendar as we know it. Their year begins around March with the month of the spring sacrifice and all succeeding months are decided by the phases of the moon and become synonymous with natural events. Hence there is the Month of the Teats, denoting the birth of animals, the months associated with the festivals of the four seasons, and those which bring forth the various crops. When all the harvesting is over, there comes the Month of the Falling Leaves, followed by two months of winter, divided into the first 40 days called the Big Cold and the next twenty called the Little Cold. Then comes the Month of Melting Snow, followed by the Moon Month heralding the beginning of the new cycle.
The Kalash celebrate all four seasons with a festival each. Chaumos, the celebration of the winter solstice, is held in all three valleys in the middle/end of December. At all the festivals, there is dancing in the day and night.
Each festival has its own particular charm. In Birir the spring festival is held on a mountain top and the autumn festival (my favourite) was held in an open glade with a backdrop of the mountains.
Unfortunately, corruption and lack of awareness have ruined this once gorgeous spectacle. A few years ago, overzealous corrupt Kalash elders approached the Secretary of Minorities to build a cement wall around the natural dancing ground, thereby destroying the whole ambience.
Twice I observed the Chaomos festival in Rumbur and twice in Birir. Of all the festivals, the Chaomos (celebrating the winter solstice) is the one appreciated by the Kalasha the most. It is the time for doing their spring cleaning, their young children going through the rite of passage, the drinking of wine, dancing around bonfires and enjoying the fruits, which have been dried during the summer.
Chaomos, as is the case of many cultural events, differs in a number of ways from valley to valley, except for the two most important issues. This is the festival when boys of a certain age - around eight or nine - go through a rite of passage and spend three days in a jestakhan (temple) where they see their first goat being slaughtered and where they drink their first wine. For this the young men are dressed in the clothes of the ancient elders.
The other major feature of the winter solstice is the ride of Balamahin. The Kalasha religion is a complex, convoluted subject with multi-layered and often paradoxical beliefs. Most anthropologists consider it to be polytheistic because it has many deities. In Rumbur valley, however, where people are more progressive, there is a stronger belief in the monotheistic concept of one supreme creator of the universe, called Dezau or Khodai, the intermediary between the people and Dezau being Balamahin.
In Rumbur, be they inhabitant or visitor, they must make sure that they are within the precincts of Rumbur before December 10, when they are obliged to go through a ritual of cleansing, which generally consists of somebody waving twigs above a person’s head. In this valley there is more evidence of an attractive feature of the people carving out figures of goats and Balamahin in the dough for making bread. In Birir, besides the big bonfire, around which the people dance, the Kalasha walk up the path of Guru village, dressed in colourful chogas and carrying flares. It is traditional for everyone, whether they are residents or guests of the valleys, to go from one valley to another to celebrate the festival as the days of celebration in each valley differ.
(Published in Dawn’s All About Lifestyle)