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Footprints: Winter days of celebration

Published Dec 23, 2014 06:18am
YOUNG boys dressed up in their ancestor clothes for the rite of passage.—Photo by writer
YOUNG boys dressed up in their ancestor clothes for the rite of passage.—Photo by writer

CHAOMOS, the winter festival, now ending, celebrates the solstice at this end of the year; it is the most sacred of Kalash festivals and is the time when Balamahin, believed to be a messenger of the Divine, is supposed to ride into the valleys.

I have seen all these festive seasons, Joshi in the spring, Oocho, held in Rumbur, celebrating the bringing down of the cheese in summer and the autumn festival, Pur, celebrated in Birir.

The festivals vary from valley to valley, in the same way the language varies. Bumburet and Rumbur Kalasha are virtually the same, but in Birir the accent is different (more pure, according to the Birir Kalasha!), some of the nouns are different and sometimes the conjugation of the verbs differs. Until recently, women’s attire showed variations. In Birir, the women wore long chains hanging from the waist on one side of their black robes.

In Rumbur and Bumburet, no one is allowed to enter the valley after Dec 10, and then they must go through a purification ceremony, where burning twigs and leaves are waved over the heads of the new arrivals.

In all three valleys, dancing is enjoyed. This is the only time I saw the ‘solo’ dance, usually by two people, either two women or a man and a woman; sometimes there is just one dancer. Often it can be a spontaneous event held on a rooftop or open meadow.

As with all festive occasions, the women wear kupis, the winter and ceremonial headdress decorated with cowrie shells and weighing around five pounds. Both women and men often wear ornate gowns over their regular clothes.

At a certain time in the festival, women make small figurines out of dough which they will put on a shelf or table for display.

In Rumbur, late at night a huge bonfire is lit around which the people dance. The heat from the fire keeps the audience warm. Rumbur and Bumburet are colder than Birir and for the visitor very challenging.

In Birir, which is farther south than the other two valleys, it is warmer — warm enough to grow excellent grapes which are then used for wine for which the valley is famous, whereas Rumbur is well known for its milk products.

In Birir, towards the end of the festival, the people march up the hillside of Guru village, one of the most traditional villages where the rooftop of one house serves as a terrace for the one above. Guru is in the process of being made a protected area by the government, the first in the Kalasha valleys.

The view of the people in their brightly coloured robes reflecting the bright December sunshine changes as later at night the Kalasha ascend the hill of another village with lighted flares.

The event that the Kalasha prize most, perhaps, is Boots Sambian — the rite of passage of young boys around seven and eight. Dressed in the clothes of their ancestors including turbans, they spend two or three nights in the goat houses, where they see their first goat sacrifice and imbibe their first glass of wine. When they return to their homes, they always look a tad dishevelled…

My Kalasha family are here with me in Peshawar for the winter, as winter came early and it is very cold up in the mountains. The mother remembers two years ago when her eldest son went through the ‘rite of passage’. She remembers that four goats were slaughtered, eight maunds of flour, 10 pots of cheese and 10 gowns were provided. “Many rupees go!” she exclaimed. The son in question remembers along with his peers trying to make the bread in the goat house. His younger brother remembers gleefully the drummers marching at night up the hill with the flares. The elder sister keeps her memories to herself…

Often visitors ask me if society is changing and how the Kalasha are coping with modern life. The greatest threat is climate change as seen in the onset of an early and very cold winter. This year, the Gol, which runs by our house, and the new school being built, was inundated twice by floodwaters. The first time was in early spring, an unheard-of event. At that time of year, it is usually the main river which floods its banks.

The government has now banned the cutting of timber. It has also said it will implement a reforestation programme and control the wanderings of goats where young seedlings are growing.

The Kalasha are well aware of the problems facing them and don’t need NGOs telling them they must keep their culture! The desire to retain their culture and their language is strong, as is their desire for education. It was they who decided some time back that their oral language needed a written form; they adopted the Latin script and have books in Kalasha for the schools. With encouragement from NGOs and government, the Kalasha will continue to celebrate their colourful and unique festivals.

Maureen Lines is the project director of the Hindukush Conservation Society.

Published in Dawn December 23th , 2014