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Capturing Kalash Culture

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Centuries old Kelash indigenous culture is at a greater risk today than any time in the past. Despite their remote location - landlocked in winters - last of the Kelash race is maintaining tenacious hold in district Chitral but is vulnerable to ravages of time and different pressures with external locus. The onslaughts are clearly eating at their open and nonchalant indigenous culture. Many have been forced to join the drift to the cities. But when asked what they want, their collective answer was simple: we want our old way of life. Which is why, pastoral Kelash have been able to keep some of their cultural traditions and identity so far.

Some historians and anthropologists think that the Kelash are descendants of Indo-Aryans who overran the region in the second millennium BC. The Kelash say they are from a place called Tsiam, though nobody is sure where that is. Commonly they are considered as descendants of Alexander from Macedon who came this way. Their warrior like forebears managed for centuries to keep everyone - including Tamerlane - at bay. In 1893, the British and Afghan governments agreed on a common border that cut right through Kafiristan dividing the community into two parts. Abdur Rahman who was then Amir of Afghanistan renamed Afghan Kafiristan as Nuristan - land of Light.


The Kelash are called Kafirs (infidels) and their land is known as Kafiristan. Between the 13th and 16th centuries the Chitralis gradually subdued the Kelash. By the 19th century, Kelash had been pushed into the higher valleys of the southern Hindu Kush. Rudyard Kipling set his book “The Man who would Be King” in Kafiristan, portraying the people as fierce and credulous though he never went there. And later, what Geoffrey Moorhouse has described in his book "To the Frontier" is no more there. Even the Chitral town of days when Russian were in Afghanistan (shops used to be full of the US goods like sleeping bags, shoes and field jackets) is no more there.

Not properly documented in our history books, I had the opportunity to explore the Kelash valleys in the widespread and on the edge district Chitral in Pakistan and know the people during my two years long in small village Mirkhanni – a gateway to Kalash trilogy. There are no villages called Rumbor, Bumbret or Birir. These are the valleys inhabited by Kelashis. One can take a 4 x 4 jeep (or hire one) from Attaliq Bazaar Chitral, or more adventurous type can get off on foot and walk along river Kunar up to Ayun.

From Ayun, the road forks left to Bumbret and right to Rumbor. After the fork, the barely jeep able roads to Rumbor and Bumbret - steady climb - will give you a new appreciation for walking particularly if you have been missing walking. There you will see lush green tree lined terraces, dancing and noisy torrents and lofty snow capped peaks set at a distance in the backdrop of forests of Himalayan. Rumbor is friendliest of all valleys where as Bumbret is most picturesque. The mouth of Birir Valley is at village Gahiret, about seven kilometres south of Ayun. Birir - the traditional of all valleys - peters out beyond village Guru. Near the village, you will find out a breathtakingly beautiful spring beneath a mound of stones. It is possible to trek between the valleys. There are also some good locations for 'rock repelling' and places for camping especially in Birir.

Lively by nature, the Kelash are a bit Mediterranean looking, though they gamut from fair and nearly blonde to quite whitish. Men have largely traded traditional goat skin tunics for Shalwar Qamiz and Chirtali caps, often with plumes, feathers, or fresh flowers in the brim. It is the dress of the women that is unique and quite amazing. Even in the fields, women wear immense black or brown dresses reaching to the ground, bound at the waist with a sash. Over locks of hair they wear splendid headpieces decorated with cowries, shells, beads, buttons, coins and plumes. The formal forms of these outfits are spectacular, with embroidery, mounds of bead necklaces and bells. They often decorate their faces with mulberry juice tattoos or pomegranate seeds or blacken them with burnt goat's horn (also for sunburn protection). I once saw a three years old child completely coated with the soot of burnt horns. A local told, "This will keep the baby fair coloured through out life."

The Kelash religion is complex and polytheistic with a single creator, called Dezau or Khodai, and many other lesser gods and spirits, each with its own responsibilities. Two important ones are the warrior gods Mahandeo, guardian of crops, animals, other public matters, and the female goddess Jestak who cares for home, family and private matters. All need occasional compensations, usually in the form of goat sacrifices and ceremonies at their shrines scattered through the valleys. The religious traditions are taught by one generation to the next.

Traditionally the dead are not buried. The wooden coffins used to be placed on the ground. Wooden totes or effigies were carved for wealthy or honoured people. At few old style graveyards I saw, the coffins fallen open, wood pieces and bones scattered about. Totems are scarce now; some carted off by anthropologists and treasure hunters. "Swat and Karachi museums have a few in good conditions," informed a German researcher Laila Mason, whom I met in village Bashala. These days the dead are simply placed on cart in the graveyard.

Tradition has it that women are less pure than men are and there are precise rules about what each may do, where they may go and how to purify people and places. Women during menstruation or childbirth are confined to a lodge called Bashaleni (which is also a shrine to the goddess Dezalik, who looks after births). Men cannot go in; even other women must be 'purified' after a visit. In old days, even food could be served to the women confined in Bashaleni only by virgin boys, untouched by women. Gradually these traditions are losing their power. But still it is the women that are seen working around in fields or homes and men spend all their quality time sitting on the pathways. The burden of perpetuating the last strains of Kelash indigenous culture is also born by women alone.

The Kelash take their festivals seriously. In addition to religious ceremonies there is always dancing and local made wine. Typically the older men stand in the centre, taking turns chanting old legends. Accompanied by drums the women dance round them arms around one another's waists and shoulders in spinning twos and threes or trance like encircling lines.

There may be day dancing (adua-naat) and night dancing (raadt-naat) or both. Some may even be closed to outsiders. Each valley has its own style and timing. The dates may not be fixed until the last minute, often depending on harvest or other work, so you could end up waiting days or even weeks for the kick off. Locals from down country may find it difficult to attend any such function but foreigners are often welcome. A Swedish tourist Toni has an interesting theory for this. He says, "Kelash people do not like those who go looking for alcohol, hashish, women or pure salageet.

This feast dedicated to spring and to future harvests is called Joshi. It includes day dancing and family reunions for four to six days in mid May. The summer festival Uchau, celebrating the wheat and barley harvests, is a big tourist draw. It may include night dancing every few days in successive villages, form mid June to mid August. Pul is held only in Birir, for three or four days in late September or early October. Night dancing is held in various villages and day dancing on the last day. It marks the walnut and grape harvests and the end of wine making, though its origins concern the return of shepherds from the high pastures. This solstice festival called Chaumos is probably the biggest for the Kelash, with visiting, feasting and night dancing for around 10 days starting in mid December.

"It is in unique indigenous culture that Kelash differ from the rest of the country," confirms Pordum, an elderly resident of village Guru. It is also perhaps the sole claim to fame for the region besides gorgeous natural beauty, poverty and backwardness. Laila Mason says, "unless opportunities are created and due respect is given, this unique culture will disappear fast."

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posted by S A J Shirazi @ Wednesday, May 06, 2015,

5 Comments:

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