The Tomorrow Boy of Kalash
A new generation learns how the ancient past informs their future
Sardar turns crimson as he tells this story.
The 21-year-old is studying to be a hotel owner and tour guide for his home, the Kalash region in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. One day, he led a group of people, including two or three Kalasha girls, on a training trek up into one of the mountains to see a sacred place—except according to ancient tradition women cannot go there. Little did he know at the time that he had violated the purity of the ancient place of worship. Nature’s reaction was immediate: For the next ten days it rained and snowed in the valley even though there had been no such weather predictions.
“It seemed as though I angered God and as a result my valley suffered,” he says. The village elders found out and fined Sardar Rs5,000, a hefty amount by their standards.
“There are some traditions in our culture and religion that sometimes young people do not fully understand and as a result we make certain mistakes,” Sardar admits, adding that he has given himself two years to properly train.
This young man’s sobering encounter with the Old Order is emblematic of the tension that accompanies change. He is part of a Kalasha generation that is devoted to working in the community to keep the heritage alive, as contemporary life presses against its fragile fabric. The probing curiosity of the world has formed part of that pressure exerted upon a relatively closed community that has preserved its way of life.
Foreigners and Pakistanis have endlessly romanticized the region of Kalash in northern Pakistan as a land of pagans who live life on their own terms, practice a form of animism and embrace a ritual concept of purity and impurity. Where they come from is heavily debated. Some say they are descended from Alexander the Great’s warriors who stayed behind, others say they have been here long before that. The truth remains a mystery but the fact is that these pale-skinned, blue-eyed northerners, who dance at funerals and elope when in love, stand out as unique in the otherwise conservative province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Kalash sits in the mountains that border Afghanistan and has a long and dark history that includes forceful conversions to Islam by invaders during the 16th Century and an oppressive regime of serfdom. Up until the 1970s, it was cut off from the rest of Pakistan and run under a heavy feudal system. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who saw its potential for tourism, opened up access to the valleys with roads that could be traversed at least by jeeps. Dispensaries and primary schools popped up and taxes were lifted. Even under Zia ul Haq’s regime, through the 1980s, development interventions continued.
I went to Kalash’s three main valleys—Birir, Rumbur, Bumburet—where I visited several villages, including Krakal, last year to explore and understand what has changed and what has been kept, but most of all, to try to see how the Kalasha youth are negotiating this tricky terrain between an ancient past and insistent future.
It is a freezing December day when I first meet Sardar Khan in Krakal, outside a Bashali house reserved for menstruating and pregnant women. He strides up to me as I am gazing at it and trying to picture the women inside. He pulls down the collar roll of the turtleneck and extends a hand.
“Hello, I’m Sardar!” he says, revealing a pair of dimples bracketing a wide smile. Twenty-one-year-old Sardar is the son of a Kalasha businessman and farmer Shehzada Khan. Sardar is one of ten children; three of his siblings are married out of which two are settled in Europe and the US. “My brothers always wanted to go abroad,” he says. “Many young people who watch movies start dreaming of traveling foreign lands.”
Sardar has, however, mapped out his future in Kalash as a hotel owner which is why he is studying Tourism and Hotel Management at a university in Chitral. “I don’t think I could ever move away or stay too far away from my village,” he says. “In the city, I don’t even know where my time goes. I feel quite bored in that kind of an environment. Here, I am at peace.”
His childhood was spent in the valley where he went to one of the several government primary schools. I had just visited one where I met spirited children who aspire to become doctors, teachers, soldiers and pilots—the professions they grow up around.
Sardar’s father Shahzada Khan went into the hospitality business in 2015, a decision that has informed the young man’s choice. In fact, he plans to take over from his father some day and put to use what he is learning, given that tourists have been flocking to the valley in the past few years.
It is not just Sardar who is seeing a future for himself back home. He reminds me of 27-year-old Ayaz, a teacher I met earlier in Anish, three villages below Krakal. He had said something similar about not being able to enjoy city life and wanting to give back to his community. Perhaps the allure of rural life for many young Kalasha is hard to shake off when they have not been raised in a city. And then there is Sardar’s cousin 19-year-old Irene who was only six when she left Kalash to be raised in Lahore. She moved back to Bumburet valley three years ago to become an internationally registered tour guide while she was waiting for university enrolment in Islamabad.
Despite doubling to 4,000 since the 1970s thanks to new roads and better medical facilities, the region’s population today is still considered tiny by general standards. But Sardar explains that, “The reason why it may seem there are fewer of us around is because our festivals are youth-oriented and a lot of young people are away studying in Chitral or elsewhere.” He doesn’t quite feel as if they could be called “endangered”.
One of the best times to see the community is during one of their festivals such as Choumous or the winter solstice, to honour the dead, pray to God and give sacrifice. Four main festivals take place in a year and each is made up of several smaller rituals and celebrations that can last up to two weeks.
Rituals form some of Sardar’s fondest memories. In his room is a picture in which he is nine years old and wrapped in a shiny cloak. It was for his initiation ceremony that every Kalasha boy undergoes to become an adult. “I remember the joy I felt when my uncle sacrificed a big goat for me,” he says. His younger brother will have his ceremony this year.
UNESCO has acknowledged the Kalasha as “intangible cultural heritage” adding them to the list of indigenous tribes across the world who are often considered fragile. Their intangible traditions or living expressions are inherited from ancestors and include oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature.
“We were farmers and we are still farmers. Nothing has changed too much in the way we practice our rituals and customs,” says Sardar’s grandfather Sher Ahmed Khan, a retired army officer and one of the most respected elders in the village. “In fact, I would say things are better now—there are many more of us and we have bigger celebrations! We have always taken our customs very seriously and our children are doing the same.”
Sardar’s 80-year-old grandmother still lives in their ancestral home: Photo: Khaula Jamil
Sardar’s 80-year-old grandmother still lives in their ancestral home that was made over 200 years ago and barely has any new age facilities. Sardar and his family live in a fairly modern house a short distance away.
“She was okay when my family wanted to live in another house but there are certain things she objects to, like for example, some women have stopped wearing belts with their clothes these days,” says Sardar. “This is something that upsets her and she feels that girls should honor the original way of dressing.”
It is a balancing act to seek living comforts but not at the cost of their rituals, religious practices and clothing, which should stay “authentic”. Many young Kalasha are even working with international organizations to write books, make documentaries, record stories and consult their Qazis about their past to gather as much memory as possible.
For example, Kalasha do not have a scripture, their prayers are passed down orally which is why Sardar is working to document them in a book he assumes will take about three years. This effort has raised his esteem in the community and made his grandfather proud.
“Back in the day we were all illiterate and did not have the means to document our prayers, our songs or our stories—but now, our children and grandchildren are doing it for us,” Sher Ahmed Khan says. He doesn’t seem to be worried about young people who want to study elsewhere or settle abroad. “Anyone who leaves the valley for whatever reason always consults the elders and we take these decisions together,” he adds. “I don’t feel like we lose them because we know how much they yearn to be home when our festivals happen. My own grandchildren are studying in Chitral and I always video chat with them and see how sad they are when they miss an event.”
But then there are Kalasha who do not just physically leave the community. Some people can no longer be a part of the tradition if they have converted to Islam. “I know we are considered [non-believers] but we Kalasha believe in Allah,” says Sher Ahmed Khan. “I call Him Khuda also. Men pray in the sacred places and women pray in the temples. We sacrifice animals in His name too. It is just that we do it differently from Muslims and our way is considered ‘haraam.’”
In the three days I have been in Kalash and the villages and valleys, I have witnessed this peace he speaks of firsthand. Unless a woman is obviously adorned in the traditional embroidered clothes, it is difficult to even tell who is Muslim and who isn’t.
In the pictures on Sardar’s wall is a beautiful photograph of girls dancing in a line. One of them is Sardar’s sister. “She converted to Islam because she fell in love with a Muslim from our valley. They live in Islamabad now.”
Kalasha women are free, raised confident and bold, nurtured to make decisions in life. They love and marry whoever they please, study whatever they like and wherever they wish to. They work. They are perhaps the freest Pakistanis I will ever come across. I cannot help but wonder that it would have to be the truest kind of love that would make a woman give up all of this to go into a traditional Muslim household in Pakistan with all its rules and restrictions. This is probably why Sardar’s cousin Irene is skeptical of Kalasha women who convert for love.
“I have seen women convert to Islam for the sake of love only to be treated very badly and sent back home because the families of the boys they married could not accept someone who they considered ‘kaafir,’” she says. “So many of these men don’t stand up to their families and so what then is she supposed to do? Convert back?”
Was there ever a time when a man converted to Kalasha for a woman he loved. Was it even possible? Sardar has never heard of such a thing and isn’t even sure it is possible. For Irene, the notion is impossible: “The man would be lynched by his own family for even thinking such a thing.”
For their part, Kalasha men, I am told, are happy to keep up the tradition of eloping with the woman they love. (They return after a few days and have a ceremony). The elopement can happen even if the woman is married—an acceptable concept in the valley, as long as the ex-husband gets a pay-out from the ‘abductor’.
Sardar will, however, wait a few years till he has established himself before he finds someone to run away with.
Zarkima, a female Kalasha photographer documenting her heritage. Photo: Khaula Jamil
It is getting dark so we walk down to the dancing. Two of Sardar’s friends spot him. Ashiq Umar is in the Frontier Corps, a profession many young Kalasha boys aspire to. He refers to Sardar as Kal, a name he is known by in the valley.
“Kal means tomorrow,” explains Ashiq. “He is the future of Kalash—our next Qazi. He is the man who will preserve our way of life and the person younger generations of Kalasha will come to for guidance one day.”
The young Kalasha investment in protecting their culture is a small part of any effort to keep this intangible heritage alive. Much of their prosperity depends on support from the government as well as the rest of Pakistan. Responsible and sustainable tourism is key. Grooming their tourism industry, training locals to run their own hotels, giving them access to banking systems with better connectivity, computer skills, language courses and medical facilities will go a long way. And this much is clear: unsupervised radical change and untrammelled over-commercialization will only destroy the Kalasha way of life.
Sardar and his friends are only too aware of uncertainties. “What do you think?” he asks, “will I make a good Qazi one day?”
Khaula Jamil is a well-known photographer. She was one of thirteen journalists who were chosen for a fully funded UNESCO trip supported by an Islamabad-based consulting firm to gather stories from the valley about Kalasha people, their culture and heritage in the hope to understand the indigenous community better.