PAKISTAN’S SURPRISE; “The Wearers of the Black Robes”
The Kalash tribe of the Hindu Kush mountains of Northern Pakistan.
Feature story published in The Herald Magazine.

PAKISTAN’S SURPRISE; “The Wearers of the Black Robes”


The Hindu Kush mountain range on the western edge of the Himalaya holds many treasures that until very recent history were virtually unknown or little understood, in the outside world.

Over the centuries many empires have crossed this way, from Alexander the Great to the British. Most decided to avoid the depths of these tribal area’s, either because of the inaccessibility of the mountains or because of the people themselves, the Pathans; notorious fighters with an independent spirit that most will agree are unequalled anywhere. The Pathans have their own tale to tell, but beyond their areas in the northern most reaches of the country, Pakistan’s most colourful surprise, the Kalasha people, are living their ‘secret’ lives. To see these unique people a traumatic journey needs to be undertaken. But in the end you will be glad you did it.

Once you leave Peshawer city, the capital of the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, there is a sense of stepping back in time, and the beauty of what surrounds you gets its grip on the spirit as you willingly wander into the unknown.

September is still very hot in the valleys below the great mountain range. It is as hot here as anywhere in the world. Air conditioning is expensive and rarely used so travelling in this dusty landscape can be very uncomfortable. A handkerchief is recommended to protect against the fumes from the other vehicles traversing the busy road to the north. A ready change of clothes is a must because you will be covered in dirt when you reach your destination. Suddenly the logic of the ‘Shalwar Khamis’, the simplistic dress of the region, becomes obvious and desirable.

Harvest time is approaching and the people fill the fields, working in a way that has changed little for centuries. First impressions of smiling faces, joyful welcomes, unequalled hospitality and stunning scenery, enjoyed not only by the visitor seeing it for the first time, but by the locals who live in it’s midst, actually belies the difficult life these people experience.

The road from Peshawer to Dir is relatively good, if slow, as you rise from the valley into the lower hills. On a good day it is an eight-hour trip in a cramped but colourful bus.

From Dir, after an overnight rest, you have little choice but to hire a four-wheel drive car and an experienced driver. For once you leave Dir the roads are little more than dirt tracks that wind slowly, seemingly in circles, up into the stunning ‘Kush’ until you reach Lawari Top. Lawari is the only pass through the mountains from Peshawer to Chitral on the western side of Pakistan. It is closed for six months of the year because of heavy snow. Even in the summer a flash flood can wash the road away and leave you stuck for a few days, as happened the day after I returned on this trip. (How fortune smiles!)

As you drop down the treacherous track into the Chitral valley there is a deeper sense of entering a forgotten land, and you are sure that you are the one discovering this place for the first time. A steady head for heights is needed as the car crawls down. Out of the window you can watch the tyres bump along the edge of the stony precipice. I preferred to close my eyes.

From here it is clear that every piece of fertile land is being cultivated to the full. The weather is warm in the valley and fruit, wheat and corn are laid out across the flat rooftops to dry in the sun, adding extra colour to the landscape.

Another overnight stay in Chitral is recommended before the final few hours drive south-west towards Bumburet in the direction of the Afghanistan border.

There is no difficulty understanding how the Kalash people remained isolated for so long as you head along the rough tracks cut out of the mountainsides to allow cars through. In the very recent past the only access to Bumburet must have been on foot or horse back.

At first sight The Kalasha seem to be one of the few things in this world destined to remain unchanged forever. They have lived disconnected from the rest of us in their mountain hideaway for as long as anyone knows; at least a thousand years, probably longer. Yet their own stories and beliefs hint at links with the Hindu slaves who died in these mountains so long ago and gave the Hindu Kush its name. The most romantic stories link them to the remnants of Alexander the Great’s armies who settled in the region. No one knows their true origins. But many of their traditions and a lot of their culture do seem to link them to the people of Nuristan across the mountains in Afghanistan.

They are unique. Quite docile, and simple in their attitude to other people, despite their stories of a warrior past.

The clothes worn by the females are what make them so photogenic. ‘The Wearers of the Black Robes’ as explained by Hazrat Gul, A Kalasha woman who invited my group to her house for chai (tea). I asked about the dress with my friends interpreting. “We all must wear the black robe. But it is up to us how we decorate it. The cuff of the sleeve and the neck is stitched to our own design so everyone is different.”

The brightly coloured beads and headdress are in fact their every day dress. For festive occasions they will change their headdress from the cap and tail to the more full white-shelled head wrap.

They used to weave all their own clothes themselves, and create their own headress by hand. Now they use sewing machines and buttons brought in from the outside world. Cloth is still woven, but the better off amongst them will buy cloth from Chitral. The men dress just the same as other Chitrali or Pakistani men so it is difficult to tell the difference. Except that most of the Kalasha men are short and slight in stature. I wondered why that should be until one morning while I was taking breakfast, a Kalasha man wandered through the grounds in front of me and suddenly leapt up an apple tree in what seemed like a single bound. He eat his fill and jumped down, walking away content. He was 50 if he was a day. Then I thought about the steep hillsides of the valley that the men have to climb to get to their herds of goats way above the tree line, and somehow their physical appearance just seemed to make sense.

Until recently the Kalash valley’s of Bumberet, Birir and Rumbur have been inaccessible, giving the Kalash people the chance to live their own lives and stick to their own unlikely traditions. Money is a relatively new concept for them, but they have had little trouble understanding it’s value.

They will talk religiously of genies and fairies, and build temples dedicated to their god spirits and life forces with symbols of horses and goats carved around the pillars and doors; goats are the mainstay of their diet, providing milk, cheese and meat.

Women are regarded as unclean during menstruation when they must isolate themselves in a special house known as the Bashali. They also stay here when they give birth, and for a week afterwards. Then they have to stay away from the upper village until they go through the purification ceremonies in the winter festival. The Bashali house is always downstream of the village so that when they wash in the river they do not pollute the rest of the village. My guide, Ra’at Khan, became quite upset one afternoon as we approached the area of a Bashali house in Bumburet and insisted that he took a long detour to avoid the area. We met up with him ten minutes later on the other side of the house just thirty yards away from where we parted.

There are benefits for the women though. Unlike the Muslim women of the area, the Kalasha women are sexually free and open, even dominant. When they marry, the new husband pays a dowry. Usually in ‘kind’. However, if at a later date she chooses to go to a new man she can divorce her husband, and her new husband has to pay double the original dowry to the neglected spouse.

It should be said that by western standards the Kalasha’s general sense of Hygiene is highly suspect. All the children appear dirty virtually all the time. Their clothes are worn without change over long periods of time. Washing before cooking or eating does not seem to have occurred to them. Yet the women will spend long hours crouched by the river washing their hair.

Wine from their own vineyards is a favoured staple at the many festivals held throughout the valley’s; The Kalash are the only people in the Islamic republic of Pakistan who are allowed to produce their own alcoholic drink, and their festivals are starting to prove very popular with Pakistani tourists. The festivals celebrate the seasons and other events. Marriage and death will always initiate a big party in the villages.

While I was there I had a rare opportunity to witness this. One of the elders of Anish village in Bumburet died the night before I was due to leave. Gunshots rang out across the valley just after dark to inform the other villages of the demise of Utaq Shai. I was told he was 92 years old and had had a stroke the week before. As soon as we heard the gun shots we knew what had happened. On our visit to Hazrat Gul earlier in the day she had told us that “… my grandfather’s last breath was in his throat.” Hazrat was only 25, so I had my doubts about the age of the old man. Communication and correct translation is always a problem. But he was obviously greatly respected throughout the Kalash Valley’s. The next morning we went up into the village just in time to see the body being taken to a large clearing on the edge of the cornfields. More gunshots rang out from the many kalashnikov rifles that are abundant all over the frontier. As each new group arrived at the clearing they would fire into the air to let everyone know of their approach. The elder in each group went up to the body of Utaq Shai, and his face was exposed to the visitor. He then proceeded to tell a tale of some experience they had had together or in general praise of the great life that he had led. Gradually as the crowd grew, singing and dancing started to the beat of drums that had been brought out. Apparently this would go on for three day’s before the body was sent to the graveyard. Unfortunately we could only stay the first day, as there was a two-day journey back to Dir for me.

The way the Kalash have dealt with death is perhaps the most bizarre image that a visitor will leave the valleys with. Until very recently they did not bury their dead. Bodies were placed in a wooden box along with the favoured personal possessions of the deceased to help make their journey to the next life easier with familiar things. The coffin was left on top of the ground in the ‘yard of the dead’, usually close to the riverbank at the back of the village.

Rarely will a Kalasha return to the yard to visit the dead. Unfortunately the Tourists do. When I came across one in Bumburet every single coffin had been broken open and robbed. Very few bones are left and none of the personal items. A row of skulls had been lifted up and placed side by side on top of a broken coffin.

Not surprisingly the Kalasha have finally taken to interring their dead below ground. A sign of the many changes that are affecting the lives of these people.

Walking through Bumburet, the sight of the mosque minaret surprises; it is not what you expect to see, and the call to prayer is the loudest signal of change in these lush valley’s.

Over the years the Muslim population in the region has gradually moved into the valley’s, creating the hotel trade that relies on the tourist. Today, the total population of the three Kalash valley’s is three thousand six hundred, fourteen hundred of whom are Muslim. In Bumburet the split is virtually 50/50. It is not just that Muslims are moving in, The Kalash are showing signs of converting.

I came across one family where the teenage daughter had converted to Islam, but still lived with the rest of her family in the Kalash household. A difficult clash of cultures. On entering another house I was surprised that the man of the house was Afghani, a refugee mujihadeen from the war with Russia who wandered in and decided to stay.

There is still no phone link here, but electricity has arrived for the Muslim influx. Yet most of the Kalash do not bother with it. Or cannot afford access to it. Their houses have a bleak aspect about them that lack of light only emphasises as night falls.

I paid a visit to the school in Anish village on the way out of Bumburet valley. The teacher of the 99 children there, Din Mohammed, spoke excellent English.

As it happened he was Kalash but turned to Islam a few years ago. But he proudly proclaims himself to be Kalash first and foremost. He left the valley to be educated in Peshawer, and returned to help bring education to the next generation of Kalash children. I found these children sitting in groups reciting their numbers tables and alphabet. Aged five to fourteen all mixed together.

The schools in the valleys are taught in the formal Pakistan curriculum of which Islam is compulsory. In the Kalash schools the government has allowed the Kalash tradition and religious practice to be taught. In fact the culture and religion of the Kalash is protected under the state law, and it is illegal to attempt to convert a Kalasha.

Yet the influence of Islam is all around the more open valleys and gradually their way of life is coming under threat.

So what does the future hold for these people as all these outside influences converge on their lives at such a rapid pace?

Frankly the Kalasha ‘is’ tourism in Chitral District. If they were to disappear it would mean the end of the industry in this region. Tourism is a relatively new business in the frontier, and the Pakistan government seems to be building the industry on the appeal of the Kalash people. So their culture has to be protected and preserved. A way has to be found to balance their desire to live on in their culture without being destroyed by outside forces. But like all other people they are entitled to development.

For the Kalash this time is their ‘Transition’. After centuries of isolation the world has come to the Kalash valleys.

Everything is built around their own unusual religion, but it need not disappear if many of the Kalash turn to Islam as many other cultures around the world have found ways of adapting their lifestyles to their chosen religion.

Probably most important to events will be how education affects the present generation of children, and what decisions they make about their own future.

Who will control the local economy dominated at present by the hotel trade owned mostly by outsiders? How well will the Kalash adapt to the money culture? Will there be more Din Mohammed’s, the Kalash school teacher who left the valley only to return intent on improving the lives of his people by bringing them their natural entitlements to education and progress, without destroying their unique lifestyle.

But the hardest decisions will have to be made by the tourist industry run by the in-comers. They have been running the valleys based on their own economic desires. Now the recent wars in Afghanistan have managed to help them realise that they need to think of the Kalash’s interest if they want to have a future as tourist numbers have dropped dramatically.

But it will be the Kalash themselves who make the final decision. If they turn towards the outside world too readily the Kalash lifestyle will be interned in the grave yard by the river in Bumburet along with the rest of the coffins waiting in line for a decision about what to do with them. And “The Wearers of the Black Robes” will be but a memory of history.

By

Mhic Chambers

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