The myth about declining Kalash population

Updated March 03, 2019

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Kalash women busy in merrymaking during a festival in Bumburate valley. — File photo
Kalash women busy in merrymaking during a festival in Bumburate valley. — File photo

There is a general feeling among the local people and visitors that proper steps should be taken for the welfare of Kalash people and preservation of their unique culture to attract more and more tourists.

They think that the population of Kalash people living in three valleys of Chitral is on decline for various reasons with some portraying, though wrongly, conversion to Islam as one of the causes of their dwindling population.

However, in reality the Kalash population increased over the years while mortality rate in the area has dropped in recent times, mainly due improved health facilities for the people in the area.

The Kalash have been ruling Chitral for two centuries from 11th to 13th century AD when they were ousted by Shah Nadir Raees, the founder of Raees dynasty, and restricted to the three segregated, but contiguous valleys in south of the district, which borders the Nooristan province of Afghanistan.

A suspension bridge over the Chitral River connecting the two parts of Chitral town had been named as Chew, one of the leading lords of Kalash clan who ruled Chitral. The bridge is reminiscent of the rule of the ancient people over Chitral.

The population of Chitral, including the Kalash people, was about 80,000 in the first census held in 1951, which rose to 159,000 in 1972, 208,560 in 1981, 318,689 in 1998 and 447,362 in 2017.

According to the records of Ayun and (Kalash) Valleys Development Programme (AVDP), a local NGO, the Kalash population was about 2,500 in 1980s while presently it stands at 4,100 people. Currently, the Kalash population forms about one per cent of the total population of Chitral and it has remained so throughout the period after independence as evident from the census records.

The number of conversions of Kalash to Islam is too low to be cited as the reason for decrease in their population, which are hardly five to 10 persons a year. As far as the cause of conversion is concerned, in such cases mostly young girls embrace Islam before solemnising Nikah as a prerequisite for marriage with Muslim young men. The conversion of male members of Kalash community is hardly one or two persons a year. The hype in this regard is created by the local media giving the impression of decrease in Kalash population due to conversions.

Former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was the first ruler who gave importance to the Kalash people by taking steps for their welfare thereby reducing the poverty rampant in the Kalash valleys so that they may continue their unique culture after being freed from the economic compulsions. It was during this period that the Bumburate valley was connected with the outer world by a jeep-able road and it acted as a catalyst in the promotion of tourism as the non-local tourists, especially foreigners, started to visit the valleys.

A number of steps were taken by the government for the preservation of Kalash culture and saving the Kalash people from dangers which threatened the civilisation. As such, the improvement of living standard of Kalash people led to low mortality rate, especially among the newborns and women.

The Kalash women pass the menstrual period in an isolated community place called Bashaleni whose improvement of hygienic condition by the non-governmental organisations led to rid the women of a myriad of diseases which they contracted during their stay there. The improvement of nutrition is said to have drastically reduced the mortality rate of mother and child. Besides, the improvement of the economic conditions of Kalash enabled them to go to Peshawar and other major cities for treatment of their patients.

Muhkamuddin, a development worker in the valley associated with a local NGO, said that a Kalash man used to have usually two to four children three decades ago, but presently the conditions had improved and the number had doubled thereby increasing their population. A senior doctor in Chitral confirmed that the fertility rate of Kalash had increased over the years.

The prevailing social conditions are also conducive and congenial to the Kalash people to continue with their religion and ways of life. The Kalash people find a good number of NGOs, both local and international, in their support who lent them support of all kind for their development as well as their survival. Above all, the relations between the Kalash and Muslim community living in the valleys are friendly and the Kalash have never complained about their neighbouring community.

The Kalash are known for their peaceful nature and their love for peace which is, perhaps, the major reason for ideal communal harmony prevailing in the valleys.

PTI MPA elected on a reserved seat of minorities, Wazir Zada Kalash, said that the population of Kalash was on steady rise and it was wrong to think the other way. He said that the socioeconomic conditions of Kalash people had greatly improved coupled with enhanced healthcare facilities and economic prosperity.

The MPA, who had worked with a local NGO in Kalash valleys for about 12 years, confirmed that the decrease in the number of Kalash people due to conversions was negligible. He praised the cordial relations between the Muslim and Kalash people residing in the valleys.

Published in Dawn, March 2nd, 2019