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Kalasha Valleys/Pakistan

Introducing Kalasha Valleys

In devoutly Muslim Pakistan, the existence of a pagan people still practising their ancient customs – in however remote a series of valleys – comes as something as a shock. The Kalasha have a proud and unique culture that has attracted everyone from missionaries to anthropologists, do-gooders to snap-happy tourists. That they remain so welcoming to visitors is something of a miracle.

The Kalasha claim legendary ancestry as descendants of Alexander the Great’s armies left behind after his campaigns in the area. Contrary to popular belief, they believe in one god (Dezau) but regard him as a distant figure and instead pray or sacrifice to dewalok (spirits) who deal with more earthly matters. Life is divided into pure (onjesta) and impure (pragata) spheres, which impact greatly on daily life and carry many associated taboos. For example, menstruating women are considered pragata, while altars, fireplaces and high pastures are onjesta. Breaking taboos or polluting onjesta areas are easy for the casual visitor to do without realising, so a Kalasha guide is often a good idea. The Kal’as’a Dur cultural centre in Bumboret is an ­excellent place to learn more about all aspects of Kalasha society.

The valleys, wooded with deodar and holly oak, are small, rugged and beautiful. Rumbur and Birir are especially narrow, and the solid houses of wood, stone and mud climb the hillsides, the roof of each serving as the veranda of the next. The ground floors serve as stables and storerooms; quarters upstairs typically include a windowless, sooty kitchen-cum-­living room with a hearth and smoke hole in the middle and a door onto a veranda. Bumboret has the most spectacular views of these valleys, with great walks.

The Kalasha cultivate wheat, millet, maize and lentils, or herd goats. Sweet grapes, from gnarled vines growing up into the trees, are made into a sticky, fiery wine. Mulberries, apricots, apples and plums are plentiful, as are walnuts (a major protein source). There’s little meat beyond the rare slaughtered goat.

Pakistanis seem to have an ambivalent attitude towards the Kalasha. While tourist posters proudly picture Kalasha girls in traditional costume as proof of Pakistan’s diversity, the valleys are under continual threat of cultural erosion. Mosques are increasingly present in every valley and most businesses are run by incoming Muslims or recent converts (only in Rumbur are Kalasha still in the majority). Even the influx of tourism has proved a mixed bag, with many tourists disrespecting Kalasha holy sites and burial grounds, and the theft of cultural artefacts. Kalasha women who go proudly unveiled have been hassled by domestic visitors who consider them ‘loose’.