Kalash: An odyssey of the heart

Marjiana and Shamsia, both in Grade 8, want to become doctors. Their eyes sparkle with an unforgettable motivation.
Published May 30, 2015

The compulsive urge to travel is a recognised physical condition, and is known as 'dromomania'. I can say without any hesitation that I suffer from it. Every time I look at the map and retrace my progress, I become painfully aware of the countries I have not visited yet.

I have been visiting countries for free mainly because I apply to summer schools, conferences, consultations and volunteer work, so that I get to travel. My wanderlust has been increasing with each new experience, and this time, I wanted to do it differently.

I made up my mind to travel to Kalash and explore what my country has in store for me. As a female solo traveler, I did encounter surprise and pestering by some fellow travelers. Sadly, there is a dire need of instilling gender sensitivity in the Pakistani society, one never feels this more strongly than when traveling alone in the country.

Granted, there are good people around too, who try to help and make you feel comfortable, but they are in a minority here. Looking back, I feel somewhat heroic having done this trip on my own.

After all the enchanting photographs I had seen, I couldn't wait to visit Kalash during the Chillum Joshi festival.

The rugged and majestic mountains surrounding the lush green valley welcomed me with the fresh and cool breeze particular to that region. The assembly of tall pine trees particularly, perched on slopes, was a sight to marvel.

I feel lucky to have experienced the festival, because after a few years, there is a chance there won’t be any more Kalash people left – their tribe is steadily decreasing due to either conversions or development in the area.

A total of 3500 Kalash people are now left in the three valleys of Bambooret, Ramboor and Birir. The loss of this tribe; its culture and heritage; its toxic uniqueness, will be an utter tragedy for our country.

The Chillum Joshi festival happens every year in May. The festival welcomes spring and honours the deities of the Kalash people for protecting them. It attracts foreigners and locals alike. The people of Kalash are said to be descendants of Alexander the Great, and so, have Greek ancestry; the fair skin tones and coloured eyes are a declaration indeed.

They speak ancient Greek too. I remember being welcomed by Ishpata! ('hello' in their language). Looking at the beautiful headgear of the Kalash women decked in cowrie shells and beads and crowned with a large feather, did make me recall some parts of Greece where women wear similar head coverings during their traditional festivals.

The Kalash people celebrate spring with dancing and rhythmic chants. They were pulling me in to dance with them. It felt like some Eastern European traditional dance, floating across with elaborate foot movements while holding the waists and shoulders of their dancing partners.

The dance and music introduced to me many friends from the Kalash tribe. I can still recall the beautiful smiles of Shamsia, Amrina, Marijiana, Zoya and Fais Begum who were studying and aspiring to do great things in life.

Marjiana and Shamsia who were studying in Grade 8, wanted to be doctors. Their eyes sparkling with an unforgettable motivation. When I was leaving, Marjiana gave me her handkerchief, as that was all she had with her that day. She had insisted that I take it with me.

I pulled myself away from the place with the heaviest heart. The people of Kalash, who are famously known as 'pagans', not only radiated warmth and kindness but so graciously showed me a whole new perspective on life itself. They opened up their hearts and even those who had little possessions, opened their homes for me. Sitting with the loving and hospitable people for hours by the flowing river, listening to their stories of the challenges in the mountains, sharing the bread, lassi and the local white wine, I felt – if only for a brief time – like a part of this enchanting valley. I felt like I belonged.

For me, the trip to Kalash was more of a personal odyssey of the self; and luckily, I was able to carry that sense of peace and tranquility back home.

—All photos by author

Anam Gill is a columnist for Education for Sustainability, a project of a UK-based organisation.