The Kalash or the Kalasha are the only pagan minority residing in the Chitral district of the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhua. They form the smallest minority community in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Though the people of Kalash were once in a large number, around 200,000, the number has dwindled so much so that only a handful of Kalashas remain— about 3000 to 4000. The striking decrease in the population of Kalashas pertains to the forceful conversion of these pagans to Islam. Even in the current day scenario, smallest pagan minority is hardly given any rights and is not recognized as a separate entity. Only a handful of foreign NGOs are working towards the development and progress of this area and tribe.
The people of Kalash or white skinned with golden brown hair and blue eyes.
The origins of Kalashas still remain unresolved as their history is shrouded behind a number of theories, mysteries and controversies. Of these many theories, three carry with them great significance and are considered closest to reality.
The grandest of all is that the Kalashas carry a romantic view of being the descendents of Alexander the Great. On the other hand, many historians believe that they are indigenous tribe of the neighboring area of Nuristan also called Kafiristan (the land of Kafirs).
It is believed that in 1895 Amir Abdul Rahman, the king of Afghanistan, conquered the area of Nursitan and forced the inhabitants of the area to convert to Islam. It was during that time that many people fled to Chitral to avoid conversion. The third theory claims that the ancestors of Kalashas migrated from a distant place in South Asia called Tsiam. The Tsiam is considered to be the traditional home of these people. The Kalasha folk songs and fables hint the existence of Tsiam and that their roots belong in that region.
The language of the Kalash is the Kalasha and is a Dardic language (sub group of Indo-Aryan languages spoken in Northern Pakistan, eastern Afghanistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir). The language is spoken by a handful of people approximately 5000 and is considered to be critically endangered by UNESCO. The Kalasha language has no proper script; however, there have been recent developments in introducing a formal script for the language.
The people of Kalash are extremely particular about their religion and break ties with anyone of them who converts to Islam. The converts are not allowed after the conversion to be a part of their community. They keep their identity strong.
The people of Kalash differ from the people of the surrounding areas in a number of ways. There is no separation between males and females in Kalash and are allowed to keep contact and communicate without any fingers being raised at them. Moreover, the females of Kalash are sent to live in a bashaleni when they are considered to be impure for e.g. during the child birth period and other occasions. These women are only able to live this place after they regain their purity and have undergone the ritual of restoring purity.
The women of Kalash wear long black loose robes with colorful embroideries and cowrie shells. These women are also found wearing colorful beads and necklaces that further distinguish them from the other women of the Chitral region. They accessorize their black robes by making use of colorful long braided head wears. The males of the Kalash on the contrary have adopted the Pakistani national dress i.e. the shalwar kameez and are often found wearing waistcoats over them. They also wear hats common to the northern area of Pakistan.
The people of Kalash march to a different drummer. Their customs and traditions are as different as day and night, especially vis–à–vis the concept of marriage. Marriage by elopement is more frequent in the Kalash valley and is also common amongst women who are already married to another man. In fact, wife elopement is considered to be one of the great customs of the people of Kalash.
When a man and woman get married the man pays the woman’s family a certain amount in order to have her. When a woman wants to leave her current husband and marry some other man, she offers herself to that man and informs him of how much her current husband had paid for her. In order for the man to marry an already married woman he has to pay double the amount to have her.
The Kalashas are polytheistic believing in 12 Gods and Goddesses. A renowned linguist Richard strand, is of the view that the people of Kalash practice an ancient form of Hinduism which gradually developed locally and got influenced by the neighboring areas of pre Islamic Nuristan.
They believe in a number of Gods e.g. Yama Raja also called Dezau and Khodai who is the creator deity. Another god is the Balumain who is the cultural hero and taught the people of Kalash how to celebrate the winter festival. Other gods include Destak, Munjem, Dezalik.
Like all the other religions, the Kalasha also have different religious rituals and practices. In Kalash the rituals are the means of generating economic activity and are gift giving festivals.
The numerous Gods and Goddesses have shrines and altars all over the valley where goat sacrifices are offered regularly. Crows that are considered to be their ancestors are frequently fed with their left hand at a number of places including tombs. Moreover, the people of Kalash do not bury their dead under the ground rather their coffins are left out in the open. They believe that the soul was excited to leave the human body and reunite with the already departed souls. It is for this reason that they celebrate the funeral of a dead person by singing and dancing rather than mourning over their bodies.
The inhabitants of the Kalash valley celebrate a number of festivals all year round. The three predominant festivals are as follows:
- Joshi: It is celebrated in May and marks the arrival of spring. People wear new clothes and women accessorize heavily, girls are sent to the hill side for dancing and singing. Women decorate their houses and collect milk from the cattle, One year old babies and their mothers are also purified in this festival.
- Uchau: This festival takes place in mid August at the altar of Mahandeo where newly made cheese is brought from the pastures. Dancing and singing again forms an integral part of the festival.
- Caumus: It is the most important festival held in mid December.