Come winter, Kalash people go into virtual hibernation

Published December 27, 2015
Kalash children dancing during Chitramas festival. — Dawn
Kalash children dancing during Chitramas festival. — Dawn

The horrified fox leaped towards the human settlements after it was freed from fetters and the chief bitan (religious leader) waved his hand in the air with which the multitude of Kalash people started dancing.

The pleasure radiating from their faces was beyond description and they reached the central village of Bumburate valley in the same spirit by beating drums, singing and dancing.

This was the concluding ceremony of Chitramas winter festival of Kalash people who are known for their unique culture and ways of living. They are settled in three contiguous valleys of Bumburate, Rumbur and Birir in the south of Chitral, bordering the Nooristan province of Afghanistan.

These people celebrate more than four festivals in a year of which Chitramas is the most important from dogmatic point of view and it lasts for well over two weeks.

Shah Murad Baig, a researcher on Kalash culture, says that Chitramas is a complex festival during which more than 50 different ceremonies are held on village level. “Many of them are binding and the participation of both adult men and women is obligatory and those absent are fined,” he said and added that some ceremonies were being rendered redundant with the passage of time.

Mr Baig said that some rituals were so rigid in nature that the people could not even think of discontinuing them and they would remain so in the times to come. The chief characteristic of the festival is that despite their hospitality the Kalash people do not allow any outsider to visit their villages as even their sight will pollute them, he said.

Their (outsiders) entrance into the core area of the village and talking to a Kalash is strictly prohibited by their beliefs.

One is bound to take a bath in the cold water of the stream to cleanse him or herself if found talking to other people during the festival, says Zor Kalash of Bumburate while recalling how he passed through the ordeal in his youth when he committed the sin.

The festival starts in the second week of December (usually from 8th) when the chief bitan (chief religious leader) announces it in all the three valleys with the ceremony of saruzari in which the youth go to the forest and make bonfire of dried oak woods after having been divided into two groups of boys and girls. They compete with each other in making high flames of fire and sing and dance around it for hours while the village elders give them a warm welcome when they enter the village carrying the burning woods.

The people clothe their children under two years of age in the traditional costumes in a ceremony, while such a ceremony is also included in the spring festival of Chilim Jusht. The most important ritual of the festival as described by Luke Rahmat, an educated Kalash youth, is the one in which a group of volunteers go into seclusion during the last seven days and reside inside the cattle houses and consume the meat of goats slaughtered for the occasion. While slaughtering of goats is obligatory, a goat is beheaded for each adult member.

The ritual of going into seclusion is called ‘autik’ in local language and the volunteers are not visited during this period to meet their family members. They come out on the last day of the festival and join the concluding ceremony where they are greeted by the bitans on their joining the procession.

The strict following of the rituals can be gauged from the fact that if someone dies during the days of the festival it is concealed and not made public till the concluding ceremony and the family of the deceased continues participation in the rituals as usual till the last day.

Mr Rahmat said that in case of death the concluding ceremony was held with simplicity as the community members were engaged in the customary dancing and singing around the dead body.

“The Chitramas festival motivates us to prepare ourselves for the long and tedious days we pass inside our homes due to the heavy snowfall in the valley,” says Zor Kalash who was one of the celebrators.

He said that due to the snowfall the Kalash people would virtually go into hibernation for the three months of winter season and will consume the food stored by them.

Published in Dawn, December 27th, 2015

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