Who are the Kalash?
The Kalash Valleys of Rumbur, Bunboret and Birir
are within Chitral in the North-West Frontier Province,
near Nuristan in Afghanistan. The people here are some of
the only non-muslims for hundreds of miles. The Kalash people
are a little wary of strangers, but likely to welcome a foreigner
more than the curious tours of townie Pakistani groups.
The 3000 remaining Kalasha of the valleys live in unique
houses made of local stone and wood which are stacked on top
of one another against the hills so the roof of the lower
house is the veranda of the upper. They make their living
with staple crops like lentils and wheat and goat herding.
Life is very traditional and, like in many in this part of
the world, the division between men and their women is great.
Family life, cattle herding and harvesting form their main
livelihood with the occasional distraction of a festival or
two. Women move into a Bashleni house during birthing
and also when they are menstruating. Many aspects of the society
are both communal and segregated and, typically, marriages
are by arrangement.
Origins and history of Kafiristan
They believe they are originally from Tsaim, although
no one yet knows where that is. It is more likely they are
descendants from Indo-Aryans from the 2000 BC, they claim
to be direct descendants of Alexander the Great from 400 BC.
The locals derrogatively call them the black kafirs and
the Chitral locals pushed the tribes further and further into
the hills where they have now settled and their numbers rapidly
Their region of Kafiristan was divided by the British
in 1893 and those who where in Afghanistan were mainly slaughtered
or forced to convert to Islam by Afghan's Amir. The remaining
Kalash are the last remnants of the pre-Islamic culture of
Kafiristan, what muslims called 'land of the unbelievers'.
The Oppression of the Kalash
The Kafir culture conflicted with Islam with its love of
ornate wood carvings, wine and livestock and violent attempts
to convert the region took place during the 19th century.
The Kalash survived the bloody slaughter as Chitral was a
region governed by the British who offered some protection.
Nowadays, the official Pakistan government line is of ethnic
tolerance, but still the Kalash people are subjected to constant
racism and taunts. Their traditional way of life is also under
threat from tourism and the industrial development of the
valley by wealthy Pakistan corporations whose rubbish and
sewage are polluting the Kalash water supply. They live on
subsistence farming and food shortages and limited grazing
forest land as a result of de-forestation is a constant problem.
Whether enforced or not, the constant pressure to assimilate
with muslim and Pakistan culture is a pressure constantly
on the Kalash people. In poor economic times, many Kalash
are forced to convert to Islam and leave the tribe to go in
search of work. Muslim tourists are known to abuse and leer
at the Kalash women who do not cover their heads and some
women have been forced into prostitution. Now, many families
are divided by religion with less full blooded Kalash remaining,
although the numbers of the tribe are thought to be on the
Beliefs and celebrations
The Kalash are infamous for their festivals; these folks
know how to let their hair down in style. There is much dancing
where the elders chant legends with drum accompaniment and
the women dance round outside. Locally brewed mulberry wine
is drunk in copious quantities, although the festival dates
are rarely set in stone as they depend on the harvest so if
you're running short of time you may be disappointed.
The festival of Joshi is for spring harvest, and lasts
4 - 6 days in Mid May and the Uchao festival on 20th
August celebrates the pre-harvest with cheese, corn and wine.
The Choimus in mid December for the winter solace is
the most impressive, lasting 10 days. Non-Muslims foreigners
are usually allowed to participate, but you must buy your
own goat for the sacrifice!
The Kalash worship the many gods of Kafiristan like Balomain,
the heroic demi-god of the Kalash whom the Choimus Festival
celebrates. Balomain's spirit is said to pass through
the valley counting the people of the Kalash and collecting
their prayers returning them to Tsiam, the mythical land of
What happens at the Choimus Festival?
Much dancing in giant circles around bonfires and chanting
in mesmerising repetitions - with just a drum beat accompanying
the voices. The girls wear intricate costumes with dresses
made of cowery shells, coins and beads with intricate hair
braiding and headwear. The heavy headdress weighing several
pounds is presented to the girl by her uncle. Other jewellery
includes necklaces made from apricot kernels, a traditional
gift during Choimus. Women often paint their faces with ink
(replacing earlier customs of facial tattooing). Single woman
are expected to find themselves a husband during these festivals.
Just before the main festival, seasonal foods are offered
to the ancestral spirits and a kotik, light for the
ancestors, is lit. After this ritual the food, considered
impure, is offered to the elderly women to be eaten.
During the festival, purity is paramount and celibacy is
enforced throughout the days of the event so all the people
will be in pure mind when Balomain visit the valley. All the
people must be cleansed in a ritual bathing the week before
the festival begins. During the men's purification ceremony,
they must not sit down at all during the day and at night
the blood of a sacrificed goat is sprinkled on their faces.
Special bread is eaten cooked away from the main village which
is prepared by men only during the purification ceremony.
Other bread called jaou or choimus bread is
prepared for the festival which is stuffed with crushed walnuts
and goats cheese.
Special dance halls exist for the purpose of dancing at festivals.
They are decorated with ornate carved wooden pillars and goat-like
figurines. The music and dance is a performance of set songs:
the Cha or clapping song is the simplest song with
a lilting dance, sung by the elders, with an energetic round
dance and the women cry like goats. The drajahilak
songs are long and slow, sometimes one song can last up to
2 hours and it is a kind of solo and chorus using improvisation
and variation techniques. The Dushak combines the styles
of Cha and Drajahilak, presenting both traditional songs and
new compositions.The dancing involves side stepping, fast
During the festival prayers, a procession is made to a high
plateau outside of the village in Balanguru where the
long night of dancing begins. The festivals continues for
many more day moving on to different locations within the
Where to see the Choimus Festival
Bumburante is the largest and most accessible place
for a tourist to view the festivities, and there are several
Muslim run hotels in the town. The PTDC hotel is best avoid
as the Kalash people believe it is responsible for toxic pollution
of the valley.