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Dancing in the Birir festival.–Photo Courtesy Dawn All About Lifestyles

The Kalasha people, or ‘Kafir’ Kalash, as they are generally called, live in three remote valleys in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa  province of Pakistan, close to the Afghan border. Bumburet, Rumbur and Birir lie approximately 22 miles south of Chitral. The population of Chitral district is about 378,000 people, of whom 4,500 are Kalash. These valleys are the last enclaves to withstand conversion to Islam in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area.

During the seventh century AD, much of the area was invaded by the Arab forces and converted to Islam. The Kalash, believed to have arrived in the Chitral area in the 10th century, came from the Bashgal valley, which is now in Afghanistan. They had been pushed out by the other Kafir tribes, who in turn were being pressed by invading Islamic armies from the west.

Rite of passage.–Photo Courtesy Dawn All About Lifestyles

In Kalash oral histories their traditional home is called Tsiam. One theory put forward is that it is the town of Chaga Serai in eastern Afghanistan, but it is doubtful. According to the Kalash, Tsiam is reputed to be the original home of the Kalash “Messenger of God” - Balamahin who is said to return to the valleys every year during the winter solstice - the festival of Chaumos.

The Kalash oral histories also mention a place called Yarkhan. Yarkand was an ancient Buddhist centre, which is now in the Chinese western province of Xinjiang. A number of beliefs and institutions of the Kalash are thought to have originated there.

When I first visited the Kalash valleys in the beginning of the 1980s, they had just been discovered by anthropologists, much in the same way as Columbus discovered America!

During the 1980s and 90s, I was to meet many of those academics, among whom, though often gracious and friendly, very few actually liked me. The reason was only too obvious: Who was this upstart who had such a close relationship to the Kalash? I was not an academic and I had no degree. When in the 1990s, I attended a seminar in Denmark, and I suggested to the august members that we should write a friendly guide book on the Kalash for the tourists, the idea was met with horror; so I make no apologies for writing about the Kalash from the tourist’s point of view.

Winter in Birir.–Photo Courtesy Dawn All About Lifestyles

The Kalasha have no set calendar as we know it. Their year begins around March with the month of the spring sacrifice and all succeeding months are decided by the phases of the moon and become synonymous with natural events. Hence there is the Month of the Teats, denoting the birth of animals, the months associated with the festivals of the four seasons, and those which bring forth the various crops. When all the harvesting is over, there comes the Month of the Falling Leaves, followed by two months of winter, divided into the first 40 days called the Big Cold and the next twenty called the Little Cold. Then comes the Month of Melting Snow, followed by the Moon Month heralding the beginning of the new cycle.

The Kalash celebrate all four seasons with a festival each. Chaumos, the celebration of the winter solstice, is held in all three valleys in the middle/end of December. At all the festivals, there is dancing in the day and night.

Each festival has its own particular charm. In Birir the spring festival is held on a mountain top and the autumn festival (my favourite) was held in an open glade with a backdrop of the mountains.

Unfortunately, corruption and lack of awareness have ruined this once gorgeous spectacle. A few years ago, overzealous corrupt Kalash elders approached the Secretary of Minorities to build a cement wall around the natural dancing ground, thereby destroying the whole ambience.

Preparing for the Chaumos festival.–Photo Courtesy Dawn All About Lifestyles

Twice I observed the Chaomos festival in Rumbur and twice in Birir. Of all the festivals, the Chaomos (celebrating the winter solstice) is the one appreciated by the Kalasha the most.  It is the time for doing their spring cleaning, their young children going through the rite of passage, the drinking of wine, dancing around bonfires and enjoying the fruits, which have been dried during the summer.

Chaomos, as is the case of many cultural events, differs in a number of ways from valley to valley, except for the two most important issues. This is the festival when boys of a certain age - around eight or nine - go through a rite of passage and spend three days in a jestakhan (temple) where they see their first goat being slaughtered and where they drink their first wine. For this the young men are dressed in the clothes of the ancient elders.

The other major feature of the winter solstice is the ride of Balamahin. The Kalasha religion is a complex, convoluted subject with multi-layered and often paradoxical beliefs. Most anthropologists consider it to be polytheistic because it has many deities. In Rumbur valley, however, where people are more progressive, there is a stronger belief in the monotheistic concept of one supreme creator of the universe, called Dezau or Khodai, the  intermediary between the people and Dezau being Balamahin.

In Rumbur, be they inhabitant or visitor, they must make sure that they are within the precincts of Rumbur before December 10, when they are obliged to go through a ritual of cleansing, which generally consists of somebody waving twigs above a person’s head. In this valley there is more evidence of an attractive feature of the people carving out figures of goats and Balamahin in the dough for making bread. In Birir, besides the big bonfire, around which the people dance, the Kalasha walk up the path of Guru village, dressed in colourful chogas and carrying flares. It is traditional for everyone, whether they are residents or guests of the valleys, to go from one valley to another to celebrate the festival as the days of celebration in each valley differ.

(Published in Dawn’s All About Lifestyle)

Comments (15) Closed

urawal Feb 03, 2013 09:09am
Soon they will be destroyed by the self appointed custodians of religion and culture....
HNY2013 Feb 04, 2013 12:05pm
by law these AREAS are protected from conversions?
HNY2013 Feb 04, 2013 12:04pm
When there was no India, there was no Pakistan too
Sraman Feb 03, 2013 09:07am
An interesting article! Is it not true that the people of Kalash region are originally Greek from its Macedonia region? I also read somewhere that they as well as their ancestor were a part of troop (war weary) belonging to Alexander the Great (a Macedonian) in his conquest of India gave up! Some returned to Greece and others stayed back in that part of the World, currently in Pakistan. As a scientist myself, I am curious if anyone did a "haplotype" analysis of these fascinating people and Pakistan must take every efforts to leave these people alone.
Tamilselvan Feb 03, 2013 10:04pm
Interesting. Kalashnikov is a Sanskrit word having several positive meanings. Yes,these people could be Greeks or were they defendants or original people referred in Mahabarath? Present Khandahar is Gandhar from Ghandari king down from where queen Dhropathi was from. Only hope these people are not forced to give up their practices in the name of religion by the mullahs as these are doing to ban Katti Pattang
murali Feb 04, 2013 02:06pm
There was no such thing as "Greece" either, back then... only Macedonia and the Spartan states. Sorry to point out, but you seem to be selective when you said there was no India then., Its easy to pick and choose to suit your interpretations.
Raj Feb 03, 2013 01:20pm
You are right. Many of these people considered to be remnants from Greek origin. During Alexander's foray to India, wounded soldiers had to be left behind and also representatives of the Greeks were ordered to look after conquered lands. Linguists were surprised to find many Greek words in the language of Kalasha people. Some day, I hope more investigations of anthropological nature would follow . BTW, Alexander did not conquer India but simply invaded. There is a difference,
Rizwanul Huda Feb 03, 2013 08:20pm
The way things are moving, it seems you are right
Wg Cdr (r) Fardad Ali Shah Feb 04, 2013 06:14am
The Kalash is probably one of the oldest living culture on earth existing in it's original (or near original) form. The fact that the Kalash continue to live in harmony with the Muslim population of Chitral for centuries, shows the beauty of Chitrali culture -- tolerant, pluralistic, believers in the principle of 'live and let live'.
Mir Feb 03, 2013 07:57pm
When white people go to visit remote parts of Africa, the word goes around telling local Africans to take off their clothes, put leaves and feathers in their hair and start dancing. Same thing happens when people visit Kalash valleys. If you go on the other side to Nuristan in Afghanistan, you will find people just like the Kalash in features and life style. These people never claimed to be of Greek or Germans roots. Even some of the Kalash don't believe they are from Greek ancestors.
babu Feb 03, 2013 06:38pm
azhar hussain, please preserve this culture
Azhar Hussain Feb 03, 2013 02:00pm
I certainly is amazing this has survived. I have been to this beautiful valley and I was told that by law these areas are protected from conversions.
Shiv Feb 03, 2013 06:35pm
'These valleys are the last enclaves to withstand conversion to Islam in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area. During the seventh century AD, much of the area was invaded by the Arab forces and converted to Islam.' And the custodians of Islam today claim that Islam was spread by Sufis! You can't hide the truth. It comes out, however you may suppress it.
Maria Feb 04, 2013 04:13am
Alexander did in fact invade and conquer what is now called Pakistan and touched on what is now called India. There was no India to speak of back then. It was just a land mass but cities in Pakistan were left under Greek rule for over 200 years - longer than British rule in Pakistani cities. Si yes the Greeks did conquer Pakistan.
Caz Feb 03, 2013 02:47pm
There is no concrete evidence to the effect that they are of Greek origin