Situated about 45 kilometers from Chitral town, the Kalash people attract the world for their unique culture and religion
In a remote valley in Pakistan, dozens of Kalash minority women dance to celebrate spring’s arrival – but as a gaggle of men scramble to catch them on camera, the community warns an influx of domestic tourists is threatening their unique traditions.
Every year the Kalash – a group of less than 4,000 people confined to a handful of villages in the north – greet the new season with animal sacrifices, baptisms, and weddings at a festival known as “Joshi”.
As celebrations kick off, tourists with phones jostle to get close to Kalash women, whose vibrant clothing and headdresses contrast starkly with the more modest attire worn by many in the rest of the country. “Some people are using their cameras as if they were in a zoo,” said local tourist guide Iqbal Shah.
Known for their pale skin and light-coloured eyes, the Kalash have long claimed ancestral links to Alexander the Great’s army – who conquered the region in the fourth century BC. They worship many gods, drinking alcohol is a tradition and marriages of choice are the norm.
However, the community is far from a liberal beacon. Members of the community often wed in their teens, with women poorly educated and expected to perform traditional roles in the home.
Stories about the Kalash are nonetheless frequently fabricated, and this has been amplified in recent years by the proliferation of smartphones and social media.
One video viewed 1.3 million times on YouTube, proclaims the Kalash “openly have sex” with partners of their choosing “in the presence of their husbands”.
Another calls them “beautiful infidels”, saying “anyone can go and marry any girl there. How could that be true?” asks Luke Rehmat, a Kalash journalist.
“People are systematically trying to defame the community. They are fabricating stories… when a tourist comes with such a mind-set, he will try to experience [it].”
In the main Kalash village of Bumburate, a hotel manager estimates that about 70 percent of Pakistani tourists visiting his establishment are young men, who often inquire about where to “find girls”.
According to tourists who spoke to AFP – most of whom were men traveling in groups – their primary interest in exploring the Kalash Valley was to learn about a new culture.“We want to be part of this festival but it doesn’t mean that we want to mix up with girls,” says tourist Sikander Nawaz Khan Niazi from Lahore. But friction has been increasing in recent years.
In Bumburate, posters now call on visitors to seek permission from villagers before photographing and signs warn tourists not to harass women.“If they don’t respect us, we don’t need tourists,” says Yasir Kalash, the vice president of the local hotel association. If they respect… our culture and traditions, we must welcome [them].”
Regulating tourism is a cumbersome but vital task for the Kalash, with money from the industry increasingly providing an important source of revenue for the community.
The Kalash – who once inhabited a vast territory stretching from the Himalayas in Kashmir to northern Afghanistan – are now one of the smallest religious minorities in Pakistan, according to Akram Hussain, the director of a local museum.
A recent survey put their number at just 3,872, living in three remote valleys.
“We are going to die if we are not supported,” says Hussain. Kalash traditions, Hussain argues, can be expensive. Weddings and funerals require families to kill dozens of animals for the festivities, driving them into debt, forcing them to sell off land and leave their ancestral homes.
Cases of forced conversions to Islam of Kalash women have also been reported, while the increase in tourism has pushed some in the community to shun traditions like Joshi, according to several residents who spoke to AFP.
Others have begun wearing veils to hide their faces from the prying eyes of outsiders. “We don’t wear veils as it is not our custom, but some wear them because people take pictures of them from all sides and it makes them feel ashamed,” says Musarrat Ali, a high school student. The ongoing erosion of the culture at the hands of outside forces is tragic, says Sayed Gul, an archaeologist from Bumburate.
“They don’t want to participate just because of these cameras and this insensitivity,” says Gul. “If these things are continuously happening … maybe in a few years, there are only tourists, there are no more Kalashis to participate and dance in the festivals.”
Tourists from Germany, France, Japan and elsewhere in the world continued to throng Kalash valley to enjoy the three-day Chilimjusht or Joshi festival celebrations. On the directives of Tourism Corporation Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (TCKP) Managing Director Junaid Khan, in-charge of the Tourist Information Centre in Chitral, Zarin Khan, is briefing the foreign tourists upon their arrival in the town.
The tourists are provided brochures, pamphlets, maps and other informative materials and guidelines about the local culture and traditions and the scenic attractions in the three Kalash valleys – Bamburet, Birir and Rambur.
TCKP MD Junaid Khan has said that the Chilimjusht festival celebrated in a befitting manner to promote tourism and cultural activities in the province. “Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is blessed with exotic valleys and unique rich culture and traditions.
The province is a peaceful destination for foreign and domestic tourists to come and enjoy the beauty of nature it has to offer,” the managing director said while presiding over a meeting. Situated about 45 kilometers from Chitral town, the Kalasha people attract the world for their unique culture and religion.
The local people have launched the cleanliness drive, while the TCKP authorities have set up a tent village to facilitate the tourists in the scenic valleys. Besides tent village, every possible support is being extended to the Kalash tribe so that the people could revive their traditions and customs and celebrate their religious rites. Last year, the TCKP had established a tent village for the tourists.
The facility attracted a large number of visitors to the festival. According to the data, the population of Kalash people stands at 4,100, but they are the major tourist attraction in the region despite their dwindling population. Though the Kalash people observe various festivals, Chilimjusht is the most popular among all. Thousands of tourists throng the valleys every year to enjoy the event.
Kalash people wear new dresses and prepare various dishes to welcome the spring. According to organisers, Kalash men and women were seen shopping for the festival in the Chitral bazaar while in the valleys they were busy preparing traditional dresses for the festival.
The Kalash girls spent lavishly on purchase of clothes and ornaments for the event and the occasion is being used to show off their financial status. They dance to the traditional music and drumbeats and thank god Goshidai as they believe it protects their herds during spring and summer seasons. Young girls and boys sing and dance in groups in the community halls.
Houses are decorated and the Kalash people wear new clothes that are specifically prepared for the occasion. Main feature of the festival is selection of life partner for unmarried boys and girls. The event culminates with the loving couples tying the knot.