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A festival of fire and ice

Temperatures that dip well below freezing point, threat of snowy landslides blocking roads and a very long journey
Updated Nov 14, 2016 05:15pm

Temperatures that dip well below freezing point, threat of snowy landslides blocking roads and a very long journey did not deter travel photographer Danial Shah from making his way to Chitral last year to conduct a photography workshop for the Kalasha youth.

In doing so, he also got a first-hand look at the Kalasha’s rarely-witnessed and most ‘secretive’ winter festival: Chamos.

Held in mid-December, it signals the arrival of winter and the birth of a new year

Text by Madeeha Syed | Photographs by Danial Shah

There is always time for portraits: the many faces of the Kalasha youth
There is always time for portraits: the many faces of the Kalasha youth

Also known as the ‘black kafirs,’ the Kalasha are one of the last remaining pagan cultures in South Asia. They occupy three distinct valleys: Rumbur, Brumbret and the Birir valley near Chitral. Collectively, they form what is known as the Kalasha Desh. They have a festival for every season, the most popular with tourists being Chilum Joshi — the spring festival.

Their biggest and most important festival, however, is the Chamos, the winter festival that takes place during the winter solstice when the sun is at its greatest distance from the equatorial center. And because of how incredibly hard it is to reach the valley in winter, the festival is rarely ever witnessed by an outsider.

There is always time for portraits: the many faces of the Kalasha youth
There is always time for portraits: the many faces of the Kalasha youth

According to reports, it’s when one of their gods, Balomain, passes through the valleys and collects prayers for protection. The prayers are then carried by Balomain back to a mythical land of origin for the Kalasha, called the Tsiam.

Danial had previously only attended Chilum Joshi, which lasts for four to five days. Chamos goes on for a little over two weeks. “This one seemed more intimate and for the community,” he said. “The other festival was more like a show for the public.”

There is always time for portraits: the many faces of the Kalasha youth
There is always time for portraits: the many faces of the Kalasha youth

Children crush coal to make ink with which they decorate the main temple. They draw what they know: stick figures of people and animals. They also carry walnut bread baked exclusively for the occasion to relatives in nearby villages. “What shocked me was that I thought the festival was held during the day, but there’s a lot that happens in the evening,” related Danial. “Baking the walnut bread is an activity that takes place exclusively in the evening by the women whereas the men make toys from dough and bake them over the fire.”

Right before the festival begins an intricate tower made from juniper twigs is made and placed inside the temple. The man who makes the structure says a prayer and then sets the tower alight. No one is allowed to look at it while it is burning. “This is to avoid evil spirits coming into that room while local families are communicating with their ancestral spirits,” says Danial. While the tower burns, the Kalasha gather in another room and burn juniper twigs while praying for the deceased.

There is always time for portraits: the many faces of the Kalasha youth
There is always time for portraits: the many faces of the Kalasha youth

Prayers aren’t the only thing that dead ancestors are offered. “People sent food from all over the village,” relates Danial, “so the spirits can share their food.” It’s stored in a room at the temple and the understanding is that the spirits are consuming it while the twigs are burning. When they stop, it’s time for the humans to feast.

After that there is drinking and dancing that lasts throughout the night.

There is a day event in which men and women gather in the main ground. “This is the one that’s attended by the most number of people,” explains Danial. “Invitations are sent out in advance and around 300-400 people show up for it.”

While some women carried dolls wrapped like babies, this one brought a teddy bear and grandma is delighted!
While some women carried dolls wrapped like babies, this one brought a teddy bear and grandma is delighted!

The men and women gather in grounds next to each other and a friendly (but fierce) competition between the sexes ensues. “It’s all about seeing who can sing louder, dance better, celebrate harder, etcetera,” said Danial, “Basically it’s a competition to see who has the more ‘happening’ gathering.”

There’s one competition that has men and women climbing trees to see who can climb higher. Then the champion from the men’s side is invited to dance with the champion from the women’s side. The contest isn’t over — now they wait to see who gets tired first!

Taking food to the temple to feed the spirits that will visit at night
Taking food to the temple to feed the spirits that will visit at night

So who won? “According to my observation the women’s celebrations dominated the men’s,” laughs Danial.

There were a few changes that he noticed from the last time he went up there. Solar panels were found hanging on almost every house. “Modern technology and ease of road access is changing the community,” he says.

“Most of the women, for example, wear joggers now. You could see smart phones everywhere and people were constantly taking photos. In 2009 when I first went, there was only one phone in the valley and you had to walk a long way just to make one call.”

Even the rivers have started to freeze up
Even the rivers have started to freeze up

Chanjah Raat or the night of the torchlight festival is when the Kalasha take torches made from pinewood bound with willow with which they light in a bonfire. They then make their way up the mountain. As many groups of Kalasha are doing this around the same time, a line of burning torchlight can be seen snaking down several sides of the valley. Hundreds of cattle are also sacrificed around this time.

It was right before Chanjah Raat that Danial was very politely asked to refrain from participating or witnessing this ritual. A couple of local tourists who had previously attended the ritual sacrifice had become disruptive and violence ensued. Since then, the Kalasha were a little wary of including a ‘local’ outsider — even a trusted one. Respecting their sentiments, Danial relocated to a guest house outside the village and took this time to work on the material he had captured.

Guests arriving in the bitter cold with stools to sit on during breaks
Guests arriving in the bitter cold with stools to sit on during breaks

After the sacrifice, the processions then converge at the largest dancing ground prepared for them and the night is then spent drinking the local wine and in singing, dancing and chanting. Chanjah Raat is the last night out of the many that the Kalasha spend merrily dancing away. By now a lot of food has been consumed, a lot of cattle has been sacrificed, innumerable cups of wine have been drunk and finally, Balomain has finished collecting and carrying the wishes of the Kalasha to Tsiam. And a new year for the Kalasha, has finally begun.

Crushing coal to make ink
Crushing coal to make ink
Crushing coal to make ink
Crushing coal to make ink
Decorating the walls of the temple
Decorating the walls of the temple
Making a tower of juniper twigs to burn and drive evil spirits away
Making a tower of juniper twigs to burn and drive evil spirits away
Making a tower of juniper twigs to burn and drive evil spirits away
Making a tower of juniper twigs to burn and drive evil spirits away
Burning juniper twigs in memory of the dead
Burning juniper twigs in memory of the dead
Now that the spirits have feasted, the humans will too!
Now that the spirits have feasted, the humans will too!
After praying and feasting, it’s now time to drink and dance
After praying and feasting, it’s now time to drink and dance
After praying and feasting, it’s now time to drink and dance
After praying and feasting, it’s now time to drink and dance
After praying and feasting, it’s now time to drink and dance
After praying and feasting, it’s now time to drink and dance
After praying and feasting, it’s now time to drink and dance
After praying and feasting, it’s now time to drink and dance
Showing who’s boss: a woman aims to climb a tree higher than the men
Showing who’s boss: a woman aims to climb a tree higher than the men
A woman takes a photo with a smartphone
A woman takes a photo with a smartphone
There is always time for portraits: the many faces of the Kalasha youth
There is always time for portraits: the many faces of the Kalasha youth
Men in festive mood
Men in festive mood
Women walk in traditional dresses
Women walk in traditional dresses
A senior member of the society
A senior member of the society
A man walks while carrying woods on his back
A man walks while carrying woods on his back
Girls play a traditional game on a street
Girls play a traditional game on a street
There is always time for portraits: the many faces of the Kalasha youth
There is always time for portraits: the many faces of the Kalasha youth
There is always time for portraits: the many faces of the Kalasha youth
There is always time for portraits: the many faces of the Kalasha youth
A man bakes bread
A man bakes bread
People in lighter mood
People in lighter mood
A girl prepares food for her family
A girl prepares food for her family
Children play with a lamb
Children play with a lamb
A solar panel is placed against a traditional house
A solar panel is placed against a traditional house
Chilgoza business is one among few businesses in the region
Chilgoza business is one among few businesses in the region
Chilgoza business is one among few businesses in the region
Chilgoza business is one among few businesses in the region
Traditional meal of the region
Traditional meal of the region
Houses wear snow in winter
Houses wear snow in winter
Children use ink to decorate the main temple.
Children use ink to decorate the main temple.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 13th, 2016