Any mention of Kalash and our thoughts drift towards people practising polytheism. The images we visualise are of fair-skinned women in black robes with colourful embroidery, dancing and whirling in groups, and chanting ancient songs. That was the case with me too. But later when I visited the place, I realised that the valley of Kalash is inhabited by not only polytheists but monotheists as well, with two-thirds being Muslim. Hence, there are a number of mosques situated in the valley.
Faith conversion has taken place in the region but is not a recent phenomenon, as is often said; it dates back centuries ago. The places of worship are representation of the wooden architectural heritage in the region of Kalash. There are several mosques located in the area that are quite old. One such mosque, that attracted me the most is Janalia Masjid with a lovely wooden minaret situated in the Nuristani settlement of Sheikhanandeh; I had read about it a long time back in one of my guidebooks.
Bumboret is the most commercialised of all the three valleys of Kalash where I spent a few days experiencing the Kalasha culture. The valley is long and goes all the way up to the Nuristani settlement near the Afghanistan border — a transition of valleys where the practice of polytheism changes completely into monotheism.
I was staying in a small hotel in central Bumboret, and wanted to visit the mosque. On inquiry, Abdul Ghaffar, the owner of the property, negatively asked: “Why would you want to see a mosque in Kalash when there is a completely different culture to experience?” He said it was rare for tourists to go to Sheikhanandeh. They all come from far-off places, stay in Bumboret; go up till the last village of the Kalasha settlement and return. No one goes further. “What if I tell you I am not a tourist,” I responded.
The next day in the afternoon, Ghaffar left young Shahzaib at my disposal to guide me to the mosque. Eight-year-old Shahzaib wore a green cap from his school and had a toy gun to keep him busy for the walk ahead. The problem was that he would not understand a single word of all the languages in the world that I know and could only speak Khowar, the Dardic language spoken in the region. Soon after having lunch, we left for the mosque on foot.
We passed through the bazaar, the wooden houses of Kalasha people, a graveyard and then the last village called Karakal. With that, the path opened up into wide fields. The walk became long and steep. I was getting impatient and asked Shahzaib about the mosque “Masjid kahan hai?” Young Shahzaib, in a very conventional way raised his shoulders in the ‘I don’t know’ gesture. He only knew his mission was to take this guest to the mosque and bring him back, as directed by Ghaffar. I checked the small guidebook for Khowar phrases that I carried in my backpack for help: Kura Sher is the term for ‘where is’. “Shahzaib, Masjid Kura Sher?” He uttered something that I could not understand and then pointed towards the path we were walking. There is a police checkpost on the way and I had to prove my identity to go through.
The walk that I thought would be short became long. The sun had already gone behind the mountains but I could still see some light in the houses on the mountains close by. The houses were built on an upward slope where one house’s roof served as the other house’s veranda. The altitude was 2,300m and I reached Sheikhanandeh in an hour-and-a-half.
The inhabitants of Sheikhanandeh are said to have fled centuries back from Nuristan province of eastern Afghanistan, previously called Kafiristan. But in the late 19th century, the region was attacked by the forces of the then emir of Afghanistan, Abdur Rahman Khan, who converted the whole population to Islam and named it Nuristan, the land of light. This also reduced the number of the people who practised animism, polytheism and shamanism in the region. They are closely related to Kalasha people, and also claim themselves to be the direct descendants of Alexander the great or his generals. The people of Sheikhanandeh converted to Islam during the first two decades of this century. They still have houses similar to Kalasha people.
The men of Sheikhanandeh wear a fresh flower or a leaf on their cap, or just a cap alone as compared to the Kalasha men who wear a feather on their cap for distinction. It was hard to find someone who could speak Urdu, but I managed to meet a schoolteacher who then directed me to the mosque. He offered me a cup of tea at his place, but I had to decline it as so as to return to my hotel before dark.
The minaret was visible from a short distance and it was a visual treat after such a hideous walk in cold. The outer three-foot high boundary wall of the Janalia mosque is made of stones and the newly built wooden door opened into a garden and a pathway leading to the praying area. The mosque has a separate hujra with a fireplace for guests, as mosques in the region are an important place of social gathering. The ablution place is in the basement that has freezing water flowing all the time directly from nearby glacier.
The minaret is the mosque’s distinct feature, which is not common in other mosques in the area. The beautiful and unique structure of the multi-storeyed minaret is located in the south east separately which is decorated with fretted panels. There is no record of when it was constructed, but it can’t be older than 200 years. The Italian archaeological mission in Pakistan first surveyed it in 1984 (mentioned as Shikanande) and details were published in the journal East and West by Istituto Italiano per l’Africa e l’Oriente (ISIAO). Dr Ahmad Hassan Dani later wrote about it in his book Islamic Architecture: The Wooden Style of Northern Pakistan.
Being indigenous to the area, woodwork has been used in architecture since centuries and way before the arrival of Islam. With time, the craft improved with the advancement of the carpenters’ tools and absorbed nuances of Islamic architectural design and structure.
I did a quick ablution with freezing water and offered a short prayer in the veranda while Shahzaib waited outside. We rushed back in a hurry since we had no flashlight and it was already dark. On our way back, Ghaffar met us midway with a torch in his hand. He came all the way up, worried about the little Shahzaib and me. With this adventure, I had explored a lesser-known place in Pakistan that is normally ignored by tourists.