11th October 2019
In the remote and mountainous north of Pakistan, close to the Afghan border, in a region surrounded on all sides for thousands of miles by Islam, a pagan tribe has somehow managed to survive against the odds.
The Kalash tribe, who worship a plethora of ancestral gods and spiritual deities, claim descendancy from Alexander the Great’s armies, who passed through the region in 324 BC. The tribe celebrates four colourful festivals each year which are noisy, energetic spectacles, where you may see everything from goats to chapattis being sacrificed.
At one time their ancestors ruled all the way from the Panjshir Valley, north of Kabul, to Swat and Chitral in a land known as Kafiristan – literally Land of the Unbelievers. It was here that Rudyard Kipling set his famous short story, The Man Who Would Be King. But when Afghanistan’s eastern border was finally agreed upon in 1893 – cutting right through Kafiristan – the ruthless Amir of Kabul seized the opportunity to invade the land on his side of the border, convert the infidels and change its name to Nuristan – Land of Light. In what was probably the last forced mass conversion in history, Kafiristan was reduced to the lands of the Kalash.
The Kalash divide the summer months between herding their goats in the high pastures and tending their crops of wheat and maize in the valleys. Apricots, mulberries and walnuts are collected and dried for winter while the grapes are made into wine. During the seventies, when local Muslims forced a number of conversions upon the Kalash, their numbers shrank to just two thousand. However, with protection from the government, a decrease in voluntary conversion and a great reduction in the child mortality rate, the last two decades have seen their numbers double.
Extended families live in small one or two room homes and houses are built of alternating layers of cedar logs and uncemented slate creating a loose structure which vibrates in earthquakes but doesn’t collapse. The Kalash village also includes a large building that functions as both a school, a meeting hall and to host funerals.
Kalash women are considered ‘impure’ during menstruation and so they must spend this time in a special building where they also go to give birth. But as far as women’s standing goes within the Kalash culture, they differ greatly from the surrounding Muslim communities in that they have much more power. Girls can elope and wives are free to leave their husbands for a better man, which keeps husbands in line, treating their women and girls much better than women sometimes are in Pakistan.
Wild Frontiers’ story began in this region when founder Jonny Bealby first led tours there in 1998 and over the years we have built up close personal friendships with the tribe, going back twenty years to when Jonny first visited Chitral and was humbled by the hospitality he was shown. Today a number of our group tours include stays with the Kalash people and our clients spend time getting to know the Kalash culture and through this understanding help to safeguard it. Spending time with the Kalash during one of their colourful festivals is a joyous and life-affirming experience. Tourism also provides an important income in a region that’s largely dependent on subsistence farming.