Thursday, May 04, 2006


North of Swat the valleys get narrower and steeper as the mountains close in. One such valley, in the northwest corner of the Northwest Frontier Province is the Chitral valley, with its eponymous river (though later in its life it becomes the Kabul river) and, at the northern end, lording over the valley like some overbearing king on his throne, sits Tirich Mir, foremost amongst the titans of the Hindu Kush. The Chitral is the main valley in the region, but many smaller lackeys branch off on either side. There are two such unassuming minnows about 20km south of Chitral town; blink and you'll miss them.

But if you did see them, and happened to be curious as to what they contained (which, thankfully, few people in the course of history ever did), you would see that after about 10km they open up to reveal fertile little valleys, with little fields and orchards, watered by immaculately maintained little water-channels, and little villages that climb the hillsides. And if you were to walk amongst the inhabitants of these villages you would notice that their language is quite unlike those of neighbouring people (actually, you probably wouldn't notice that unless you were a trained philologist, but I have been reliably informed on the differentness of the language), and you would also notice the women. Firstly because you can actually see them (in many parts of Pakistan women observe purdah, whereby they remain at home and rarely venture outside, and when they do they are heavily veiled) but also because of their clothes: black dresses embroidered with geometric motifs of the most shocking and vivid colours, such as fluorescent oranges, yellows, blues and greens; and headdresses embellished with beads of the same colours, cowrie shells and buttons and often topped off with a freshly plucked flower. Meet the Kalasha people.

In the middle of an unbroken ocean of Islam stretching from the Atlantic to the Arabian Sea the Kalasha are a minuscule, pagan island, following their own religion (indeed, to many Pakistanis the Kalasha valleys are known by the rather derogatory appellation Kafiristan, or Land of the Infidels) and observing their obscure, ancestral traditions since time immemorial. Unlike the village of Asterix and Obelix that withstood the Roman Empire thanks to their magic potion, the Kalasha have their remoteness to thank for their survival. This survival is, however, being now threatened by the influx of outsiders into their valleys: Chitralis expanding into neighbouring valleys, Punjabis looking for a business opportunity, and Nuristani Afghans looking for a better life (the Afghan border is only two mountain passes, and a day's walk, away), as well as proselytism by local Pakistani Muslims. Perhaps half the Kalash community is now Muslim. For once, though, tourism might actually help preserve the community as the significant revenue generated by it would disappear should the Kalash culture also disappear. Their appeal lies not only in their uniqueness and isolation, but also in their hospitality. Trekking in the Kalasha valleys is far more time consuming than anywhere else not because of difficult terrain (though it is that) but because every person you meet must shake hands and have a chat. This will usually be followed by the offer of a cup of tea. "What? halfway up a mountain?" my look seems to say. "No problem," he says as he whisks out a kettle from his knapsack and starts setting up an impromptu fire on the hillside (much trickier was actually managing to sit on the steep, scree slope for long enough to drink the tea without slipping all the way to the bottom). Perhaps this openness stems from their religion, or perhaps their isolation and relative lack of corruption by the outside world, or perhaps yet from the not insignificant quantities of pot they all seem to smoke. My visit to the Kalasha almost ended as soon as it began.On my first day there I was playing volleyball with a group of kids when I over-extended myself leading to a trouser-rupture of a size and location that could have caused an international incident, especially as I hadn't brought a spare pair. Luckily a friendly local gave me an old shalwar kameez and my trip could continue.

A lot of time can be spent in the company of these warm-hearted people, lazing under fruit trees and sipping Kalash wine or hiking over from one valley to the next over steep ridges. I, however, have a bit of a deadline looming (more on that later) and so after 3 days took my leave hoping, perhaps, to return again some day.

1 comment:

shara said...

Hey man !!! ishapata!
Nice writing about us...Kalasha...should have stayed more time in the valleys...
i put some pictures from my valleys here...
safe travels....and welcome in kalasha valleys!!!!