the fairy people who worship nature
The Kalash is Pakistan’s last-remaining animist tribe
Rahma Khan visits Pakistan’s remote Kalash Valley to learn more about her own country’s cultural diversity and meet a unique but forgotten tribe fighting for recognition in a country strongly marked by Islam
Suri Jagek translates as “observing the sun”
Tucked away in the remote gorges of the cold Hindu Kush mountains in the northern part of Pakistan lies the valley of Kalash. It is home to the last remaining members of the Kalash tribe, who are categorised as animists – the people who worship nature.
a person who believes that plants, objects and natural things such as the weather have a living soul
Pakistan is a Muslim majority Islamic republic where just two percent of the country’s population comprises Hindus, Christians, Zionists and Jewish people, but the Kalash people of Pakistan bear no religion. The Indigenous community apply their traditional knowledge known as Suri Jagek to plan harvests and protect livestock; nature is central to the way of life of the tiny knowledge-bearing tribe, which has been living in three extremely remote northern mountains valleys of Pakistan for many centuries.
Rumoured to be the descendants of Alexander The Great, the tribe traces in Central Asia date back to when the Macedonian king invaded the region, but no concrete data is available about their presence in the sub-continent. The smallest ethnic and religious community of Pakistan currently comprises only 5,000 individuals, but has witnessed a significant drop in its population due to inadequate living, climate change, economic conditions and the threats of attack from the neighbouring Islamic extremist tribes. Are we going to allow this rich culture to vanish?
To preserve its unique yet declining culture, in 2018 UNESCO categorised the Kalash tribe as an Intangible Cultural Heritage, recognising the Kalash tradition of Suri Jagek – which translates as “observing the sun” – as a living heritage whose viability was under threat. The traditional meteorological and astronomical practice is based on the observation of the sun, moon and stars in reference to the local topography.
The system is used to predict the appropriate time for sowing seeds, animal husbandry and to predict natural disasters, as well as being the basis for the Kalasha calendar. This early warning system reinforces the community’s ability to adapt and sustain their livelihoods, in the midst of uncertain times. Factors such as the advent of the digital age and remaining an oral tradition have led to a decline in Suri Jagek, however, and there is currently a lack of awareness about its cultural significance and benefits.
I visited the Kalash Valley to learn more about my home country of Pakistan, spending three months in the valley documenting the stories of the underrepresented community and its unique culture. While staying at local homestays, I got the opportunity to closely observe the locals’ lifestyles, culinary practices and traditions – and learn how the upsurge in tourism to the valley is affecting its inhabitants.
What makes the Kalash tribe unique?
Though classified as animists, the Kalash people do not follow any religion. They don’t worship any God but believe in the solemn power of nature. According to their beliefs, the mountains that surround their community give them refuge from the outside world and the changing seasons bring with them different sources of food and fruits for sustenance. They believe in fairies who descend from the sky atop the mountains to make matches between the unwed people of the valley. It is for this reason, the Kalash tribe has been termed “the land of the fairy people” by many writers.
The lady of the house I stayed at, Bibi, is grateful to the fairies for choosing her husband Mushtaq for her during one the seasonal festivals. “We both were the lead dancers of our dancing troops for the festival when we met for the first time”, she recalled while arranging a fruit platter – a thanksgiving custom that she and Mushtaq prepare for the fairies each year on their anniversary and leave it in the forest overnight. According to their belief, it was the fairies who decided their destiny to meet each other during the festival.
The tribe celebrates three festivals each year, none of which coincides with the cultural festivities celebrated all over Pakistan. Chillum Joshi is celebrated in spring and it is celebrated to mark the new crops’ growth, the main source of sustenance for the locals.
In summer, Uchal is celebrated where Kalash girls and boys perform traditional dances in groups to pay homage to nature for healthy crops during the harvest season. Choimus is the winter festival where people use different dance forms as a means of prayer for a safe winter season, as the weather gets harshly cold during the winter months in the valley.
In all of these festivals, a huge display of colourful costumes and dances take place during these festivals, when the community comes together to mark the start of a new season. Homegrown wine is consumed, a custom that contradicts the Islamic values and legal obligations of Pakistan’s no consumption of alcohol in public. This cultural practice of the making and consumption of wine is one of the major reasons for which the Kalash tribe has received hatred from the neighbouring Islamic extremists tribes.
The tribulations of the Kalash tribe
The Kalash tribe is a closely-knit community. Before the 1980s, a time when access to the valley from other parts of Pakistan was tricky, the tribe lived under the threat of being attacked and killed by the neighbouring tribes. These threats were due to religious extremism by the Ayun tribe of Chitral, which used to be one of the biggest and wealthiest tribes in the region. The cultural practices of winemaking, drinking alcohol and infidelity were some of the most disliked activities by the neighbouring Muslim tribes.
The Kalash culture has certain unique practices for women. The concept of ‘bashaleni’, an isolated home for menstruating women, is only unique to the valley and is not practised elsewhere in Pakistan. Menstruating women are considered ‘impure’ and spend their monthly cycle days in separate common houses. All child births also happen in bashaleni. Dancing and singing publicly during the local festivals and weddings is common for the Kalash women, a norm that is rare in the rest of the country.
The unlawful killings and growing threat of women and children being abducted forced a lot of the Kalash tribe members to convert to Islam or to move to big cities, to live a life like an average Pakistani leaving their cultures and traditions behind. A lot of families marry their girls to Muslim men from the cities so they can move away from the valley and lead a normal life. The years from the 1960s to the late-70s saw a significant drop in the population of the Kalash people leaving the tribe on a verge of extinction.
Abu, a farmer from the Brumbret town told me the sad tale when he had to marry off her his two daughters to Muslim men from Karachi, so they can be protected from the threat of being kidnapped or persecuted by the men from the neighboring Ayun tribe. “I almost forced my family to convert to Islam or leave Kalash for good”, Abu said, as this seemed like the only option for him to protect his family.
Kalash’s fight for survival
The Kalash tribe has been fighting for its survival for the last three decades. Their fight is not only to preserve their identity and population but also to get recognition from the government and the people of Pakistan. The community did not have any representative in the legislative assembly of Pakistan until 2020 and it did not receive much support for the preservation of its culture from fellow Pakistanis. Until the nineties, the Kalash people were famously called ‘Kafirs’ in Pakistan, which means “non-believers of Islam”. This derogatory label shows the non-acceptance of fellow Pakistanis for the tribe.
Tourism played a big role in the fight for the survival of the Kalash tribe. After the Taliban-led war ended in 2011 in Pakistan, tourism resumed in the northern parts of Pakistan. To explore and experience the rich culture of the Kalash tribe, travellers, trekkers and photographers flocked to the valley in numbers. This initiated an awareness drive among the visitors about the history of the tribe and their tribulations related to survival and not being recognised by the government. In 2020, the Kalash Valley Development Authority was formed by the provincial government to preserve the rights and culture of the tribe and to prevent the population drop.
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The authority is helping in restricting the control of people from outside of the valley to own the local land and construct hotels and tourism related infrastructure on it. All the land ownership is now being transferred to the Kalash people. Several development schemes are set up to ensure the valley receives freshwater during the winter months and any profit earned from the sale of crops directly goes to the local farm owners and is not spoilt between middlemen who are mostly Pashtuns from the neighbouring valleys.
“The new generation of Pakistanis is more aware and respectful towards other cultures coexisting in the country”, says Sehar Naqvi, a cultural study enthusiast, and a part-time faculty member of Karachi University. “It is because of the youth who visited, studied, and shared the plight of the Kalash community by leveraging the power of social media and blogs, that now people living in the metro cities know about their existence and the fight for recognition of the minority communities in the country”, she said.
What the future holds
During my time in the Kalash Valley, I saw the tribe bearing the benefits of increased tourism in the shape of economic reforms and better infrastructure. However, one thing that I didn’t know before coming to the valley was how despite of budding tourism, the locals are still living in poverty. Due to high rate of illiteracy in the older population, outsiders are running businesses on the Kalash land and only a fraction of the profits goes to the locals.
At the same time, the locals are also fighting the consequences of welcoming tourists into the valley. There have been many incidents of the Kalash women being photographed by visitors without their consent, especially during seasonal festivals.
While the tribe still faces challenges of invasion of privacy, the younger generation of Pakistanis is taught about inclusivity and the endangered Kalash people of Chitral thanks to events like Faces of Kalash and Kalasha Travel exhibitions.
With the government’s continued efforts of preserving the tribe’s culture and history, the future of the Kalash tribe is foreseen to be brighter and better than its past.
Our role in preserving the Kalash culture
The Indigenous Kalash culture is on verge of extinction. Here’s a few things we we can do in our capacity to preserve it:
- Responsible tourism: a majority of the Kalash people are living under the poverty line. If visiting the valley, stay at local guesthouses and homestays run ONLY by the locals.
- Buy local produce: There are tonnes of locally grown fruits, vegetables and nuts only unique to the valley. Munch on those and help the local businesses to flourish.
- Photograph, but with consent: the colour, vibrant and elaborative attire has caused a lot of invasion of privacy. It has made it hard for the local girls to participate in public events and dances during festive times in the valley. Respect their privacy and always seek consent before photographing them.
- Drink local, but responsibly: Kalash Valley is the only place in Pakistan to ‘legally’ drink in public. Chug on homegrown wine made in traditional wooden vessels with local grapes.
- Watch this video about Suri Jagek, the traditional Kalasha meteorological and astronomical knowledge system:
Reputed tour agencies that hire local tour guides
– Wild Frontiers is one of the most-reputed group tour companies to run tours in northern Pakistan
– Apricot Travel run a cultural Kalash valley tour in the Hindu Kush mountain ranges
– Hunza Explorers organise tours, treks, safaris and expeditions in Pakistan
– Coyote Trail Pakistan run adventure bikes and 4×4 drive off road tours
What’s so good about this?
Stories of Pakistan’s unique cultural diversity is one of the aspects about the country which often fails to make a cut when Pakistan is presented in the international media. Amplifying the stories of an Indigenous tribe creates awareness about the community. It also passively creates ways for economic reforms resulting in the perseverance and flourishment of the tribe and for its generations to come. Learning, reading and writing about the Kalasha creates more awareness of the importance of preserving the diminishing culture and its existence. All of this helps the community to co-exist with the rest of Pakistan peacefully and without shrinking in numbers.
Meet the writer
Rahma Khan is a travel writer and an independent journalist from Pakistan based in Canada. She uses her travel blog, thesaneadventurer.com, to share the stories of her travel adventures and experiences of travelling as a woman of colour. Her passion is to amplify underrepresented stories of people, communities, and culture. Her work is published in Independent UK, CondeNast Travel, Eaters, and Matador Network, among others.