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Kalash Valley: Where death is a celebration July 20, 2010

Posted by Yilan in Macedonia.
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Gulf News travelled to Kalash in Pakistan’s Chitral district to explore the lifestyle of an ancient tribe believed to have descended from the army of Alexander the Great. During the visit, it found out that the Kalash still follow centuries-old customs and rituals found nowhere else in the world. They dance around their dead and then celebrate with a sacrifice of 30 to 40 goats.

    Colours of Kalash

    Kalash is a place out of this world. There are no doctors, no mobile phones, no newspapers and no tarmac roads. But they still look the happiest people on earth.

    They follow centuries-old traditions and customs and still send their women to secluded houses called ‘Bashali’ during menstruation and child birth as they are considered impure. No one even touches them during this period.

    During a trip to Kalash Valley in Chitral, Gulf News found out that the Kalash sing and dance around the bodies of their loved ones for two to three days before burying them in a coffin and offer a feast with a sacrifice of 30 to 40 goats to guests who come to celebrate (not mourn) the death.

    A Kalash becomes poorer if anybody dies in his family because he has to throw lavish feasts and sacrifice his goats. But the tradition continues.

    The Kalash’s life revolves around their festivals throughout the year. Dancing, singing, brewing mulberry wine and following rituals and culture is their way of life. They take pride to be Kalash and do not want to change their primitive ways of living. But they do want education and health facilities in addition to jobs and better road access from their valleys to the outer world.

    Though a number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) made money in the name of the Kalash, they did very little to improve the plight of this impoverished community.

    There is one basic health unit (BHU) in Bumburet and a dispensary in each of other two valleys: Birir and Rumber but there is no doctor.

    Mortality rate

    “The infant and mother mortality rates are quite high due to lack of health facilities and no doctor,” said Naseera, a Kalash lady health worker in Rumbur valley, which has a population of about 2,500 people, including both the Kalash and Muslims.

    “I have only oral rehydration solutions (ORS) and some contraceptive pills in the health centre [comprising one small room] and no other medicines,” she told Gulf News.

    The Kalash are minority even in the Kalash valleys. They are less than 4,000 or less than 20 per cent of about 17,000 population. The rest of the population are Muslims including a large number of converts.

    The rate of education among Kalash women is 18 per cent and it’s 15 per cent among the men where overall literacy rate is 25 per cent. Compared to boys, there are more Kalash girls in schools.

    These are neglected valleys with only one high school in the three valleys, two middle schools and around 10 primary schools.

    There is co-education in schools. Boys and girls study together with other Muslim students. There is only one lawyer amongst them.

    The community hopes to have their own Kalash doctor within three years as two people from their tribe have managed to get admission in a medical college while one of them got admission in an engineering college. Two of the community members are studying law.

    “We need more schools, especially high schools and at least one college,” said Rehmat Din, a Kalash teacher.

    He called for the need of teaching the Kalasha language in schools because currently education is provided in Urdu. Only a couple of primary schools built by NGOs teach Kalasha. Alphabet for their language was developed about three decades ago. They use the Roman script but the pronunciation is different (Watch video on gulfnews.com).

    No access to clean water

    Though water is in abundance in the lush green Kalash with lakes and rivers gushing through the mountain valleys, a majority of them don’t have access to clean drinking water. All of them live in traditional stone and wood houses, which are completely blackened from smoke emanating from burning wood used to cook meals.

    Hygiene is another issue as most of them live in filthy houses and wear soiled clothes. Women make only four to five dresses a year and that too during the time of a celebration.

    “We need better housing facilities but they should be built keeping in mind our culture and way of living,” said Saifullah Khan, headman of Kalash in Rumbur valley.

    Their main source of sustenance is agriculture. They grow maize, wheat and lentils while their fruit orchards, where walnuts, grapes, apples, mulberry and pears grow, help them survive throughout the year.

    The Kalash society is based on a joint family system. They lead a simple life free of hypocrisy, violence and other social evils. They don’t lie, steal or quarrel.

    Though women are considered impure during child birth and menstruation, they are not looked down upon. Kalash women join the men in farming, as well as in singing and dancing activities.

    Free to choose life partners

    The girls are free to choose their life partners and also have the right to divorce. They have liberal views and do not put any restrictions on their women. Marriages are conducted by a Qazi in a place of worship where a goat is sacrificed and the blood from the goat is put on the ears of the bride and the groom.

    Most girls prefer love marriages and are free to tie the knot even without the permission of their parents. But some visitors try to exploit the situation and get married to them or lure them to the cities and then convert them. Some of them have also married foreigners, including the Greeks.

    Head of the village is called ‘Asuqal’. They follow the solar calendar. Their elders are good at forecasting the weather. The Kalash are also known for their indigenous wisdom. Their proverbs and folk tales reflect the realities of the universe and life. They are also known for their witty remarks and sharp responses. They are also known to drink their morning tea with salt and not sugar.

    Seclusion

    Bashaleni OR Bashali

    Kalash women move to ‘Bashali’ during menstruation and child birth because they are considered impure during this time. Bashali, also known as Bashaleni, is like a maternity home which is built away from the main houses and no men are allowed to enter it or even touch its walls or doors. The women confined to the Bashali spend their time gossiping and doing some handicraft work. They are given food by their families but no one touches them during their stay in the secluded house.

    After the child is born, the women stay there for at least 10 days while menstruating women stay there during the time of the periods. They come back after taking bath.

    Singing, dancing for the dead

    The Kalash never miss a chance to dance and sing even when someone dies in the family. This is perhaps the most interesting and unique phenomenon. The duration of the rituals depends upon the socio-economic position of the dead person or his family. This is why there is proverb in local language that ‘when a Kalash is buried his wealth is dug out and when he is alive his wealth is buried’.

    Though the close family members of the dead mourn in the house, they have to arrange for big feasts and arrange for celebrations. They put the body in the coffin and keep it for two to three days in the graveyard. Every Kalash community member from the three valleys is informed about the death. Women in the family sit around the body with their hair covering their faces while rest of the community people keep on dancing around the body. The Kalash from different villages continue to come and join the celebrations.

    Whenever a new group of people comes to the celebration, they fire gun shots in the air to announce their arrival. Then one of them stands near the body and starts telling stories about the life of the deceased. As soon as he finishes, the dancing resumes and the same practice continues for two to three days. Some 30 to 40 goats are sacrificed during two to three days of the celebrations.

    The Kalash used to leave bodies in the graveyard without burying them but now they have started burying them. They also bury personal belongings of the deceased like axe, knife and gun and also leave his pillow and charpai (his bed) at the grave. They do not bring the belongings back as they believe evil spirits come home.

    How to go to Kalash

    The best time to go to Kalash is summer, from May to September because the Kalash valleys are cut off as the access roads are closed due to heavy snow. You can take a flight from Dubai or Abu Dhabi to Peshawar or Islamabad. Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) operates daily flights from Islamabad and Peshawar to Chitral (subject to weather conditions). It is a 50-minute flight on small plane. You can also go to Kalash by road both from Islamabad and Peshawar. It takes around 10 hours from Islamabad to reach Chitral by road and some 7 hours from Peshawar. You can easily rent a vehicle with a driver to go to Kalash from Chitral and it takes about two hours to reach Bumburet valley. Foreigners need special permission apart from the regular visa to go the area. The best deal to visit Kalash is to book a trip through Hindkush Trails, one of the best tour operators in the area. The website is http://www.hindukushtrails.com

    Terraced style

    A village built on the mountain slope in Birir valley in Kalash. The houses are made of wood and stones and Kalash do not use any paint. Their houses are pitch black as they burn wood to cook their meals and keep their house warm. One of the amazing skills of the Kalash artisans is the art of construction in Kalash architecture. Multi-storey houses constructed with the help of wooden pillars and stone walls supported by wooden staircases and the carvings on the pillars are some of the best examples of the Kalash craftsmanship.

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