There is perhaps no other community in Pakistan that draws as much interest as the Kalasha in the north western mountains of the country. The community, despite its unorthodox beliefs and practices, continues to thrive against all odds, and that itself is a testament to its strength of culture. Spread in the three main Kalash Valleys of Bumburet, Birir and Rumbur in Chitral district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the community has not only been a source of tourist fascination but also the subject of various academic studies. The most popular narrative links the Kalash to Alexander the Great, claiming that the people came with the conqueror’s armies and were left behind, but there’s no historical proof of that claim. What is interesting is the distinct religion they practice, animism, which is influenced by Vedic Hinduism, while some of their practices can be traced to ancient Greece. The Kalasha is also said to be a matriarchal society, probably the only one in Pakistan. Besides these interesting facts about the Kalasha, their festivals are also fascinating.
The Kalasha have around three main festivals spread over the year, usually heralding the beginning of a new season. The summer festival is called Uchal, and is usually held in August. The winter festival, Chaumas, is held in December, and is said to be the most important festival of the community announcing the end of the harvest season, but it is not easy to visit and see this festival because of the cold and harsh winter of Chitral. The popular Chilum Jusht festival, in which the Kalasha celebrate the arrival of spring, is held in May, scheduled from the 13th to the 16th of May this year.
Even though the access to the Kalasha Valleys is not easy, the festival of Chilum Jusht makes the journey worth it. Song and dance form an essential component of the Kalasha culture, and this festival is full of it. Women dress up in new clothes, and boys and girls dance together to welcome spring. While the Kalasha pray for their cattle, harvest and lands during this festival, Goshidai being their god to protect the herds in the warmer season, the carnival also entails the search for a potential mate. At the end of the festival, announcements are made by those who have been successful in finding a potential spouse. While the festival is held in all three valleys of Kalasha, most tourists end up in Bumburet Valley owing to its accessibility. Of course, the Kalasha culture is dynamic, and the festivals have also evolved over time as seen by anthropological studies. Accordingly, Chilum Jusht has also become a portal for the Kalasha to portray their culture to the world, and attract tourists to boost their economy. And while this has been successful to a great degree, the Chilum Jusht festival is not only visited by local tourists but it is among the only festivals in the country, where foreign tourists also throng. This attention of tourists has not always been welcomed by the Kalasha.
More often than not, the interest the tourists have in the Kalasha community ends up bordering on harassment, especially by the local tourists. The year I visited the festival, the locals had pretty much barred the younger girls from dancing due to the provocative and misogynist remarks made when they perform. With more news on the Kalasha community spreading, the Mullahs have taken upon themselves to go and proselytize in the Kalasha valleys. However, despite all these troubles and obstacles in its way, the Kalasha stand strong.
While visiting the festival, effort should be made to contact a local and learn about their beliefs but with some discretion. The Bamburet Valley anyway offers much to the tourist in this regard. The Kalasha Museum is a very interesting place to visit, detailing the lives of the community down to its minor details. A walk to the Kalasha cemetery is just as enchanting. In the Kalasha community, deaths are celebrated with song and dance. It is said that the god of death, Sajigor, ordered the people to celebrate death this way. What is more interesting is that in the Kalasha culture, dead bodies are not buried but left open in coffins. This can be witnessed in the cemetery, where the bones of the dead can be seen lying around. However, our guard told us that this practice has now changed. Owing to excessive scrutiny on their customs, the Kalasha have had to adapt to the more acceptable practices in many ways.
It might be prudent to plan a trip to the festival with a local guide in order to get more familiar with the community, and to be granted access to the inner workings and customs of the community that they are reluctant to make public. As interesting as the festivals are, they should be celebrated by the outsiders with respect due to a people with a different culture and traditions. The Chilum Jusht festival is a welcome, refreshing celebration of diversity in a remote part of Pakistan’s northern areas. However, it is the responsibility of the KPK government to ensure that the unique customs, traditions and beliefs of the Kalasha are not only respected but protected and their continuity guaranteed.