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The Kalash People of Pakistan

10th June 2014

Tom LaRue recently travelled to Pakistan with Wild Frontiers. Below he talks about the time he spent visiting the Kalash people.

An interesting part of our trip was the two days with the Kalash, an obscure culture in the Hindu Kush mountains. In a strongly Muslim country, they are animists, worshipping many gods and spirits. Their foundation myth is that they are descendants of Greek soldiers left behind by Alexander the Great. They grow grain and vegetables in the valleys and herd sheep and cattle in the mountains. Extended families live in small one or two room homes. Houses are built of alternating layers of cedar logs and uncemented slate; this loose structure vibrates in earthquakes, but does not collapse. The village has a large building used for a school, meeting hall and funerals. There is a building for women in childbirth or during menstruation, while they are "impure". Girls can elope and wives are free to leave their husbands for a better man. This keeps husbands in line; women and girls are treated much better than in the surrounding Muslim communities.

Despite Pakistan's laws against liquor, the Kalash produce an araq, distilled from fermented mulberries. Drinking it straight tastes like it would take the rust off an old axle. Diluted 1:5 with fruit juice however, I found it very comforting.

The most striking feature of the Kalash is the female clothing. All day, every day; I do not understand how they keep it so clean and bright in a dusty environment. When "dressing up" they merely add bead necklaces. They have maintained independence for centuries by living in obscure remote valleys, which are hard to reach, but now the government is building roads into the mountains.

We went by "road", which was actually a trail wide enough for the jeep, to the village of Balanguru in a valley with about 2000 people. We stayed in a pretty basic guesthouse where the hot water came in a bucket in the morning. The people were very hospitable and we attended their Spring festival. Occasionally the women would form a semi-circle and chant. The main accompaniment to the line dancing was drums, which ranged from sedate to vigorous. At the end of the festivities, a shaman came waving a willow sapling. The villagers, separated by gender, joined him by waving willow branches to drive away bad sprits.

As they became exposed to the outside world, the Kalash were coerced into conversion to Islam, resulting in their numbers plummeting. More recently, the Pakistani government discovered that the Kalash might become a tourist attraction and passed regulations to "protect" them. I don't think this cynical act will make much difference. Intermarriage, the temptation to find a better life in cities and pressure to conform to the dominant culture will continue. I think we saw a way of life about to be snuffed out.

Tom LaRue

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