In this land of glaciers, barren landscapes, jagged high mountains and sunlit fertile fields are three valleys in which the Kalasha people live. This one, the Rumbur, is home to about 300 of their estimated 4000 population.
There are many theories about where the Kalasha came from. One says from the Kurds, another, they were originally nomads from the Central Asian Steppes. A more widely held view is the Kalasha are descendants of Alexander the Great’s army that passed through this region around 300BC. Despite a lack of oral history, the chief believes the Kalasha were a tough warrior tribe from Kafiristan – ‘land of the infidels’, which is now Nuristan or ‘land of the light’, a region of modern day Afghanistan just a few miles up the valley. Wherever their background there is no doubt the Kalasha are unique both in looks and culture.
As the steepness increased and the track narrowed, I noticed how the heat of the day was tempered by the natural air conditioning effect of the freezing glacial water rushing a few feet from our path. Perched on a rock was a small grey concrete hydro-electric station which provided power to the hamlets and villages dotted along the valley.
There is an odd dichotomy in the attitude to women in Kalasha society. On the one hand, the women, who wear headdresses woven with cowrie (small egg-shaped shells), black robes heavily embroidered with brightly coloured wool and small orange, yellow and green bead necklaces are free to marry who they like. They can choose to divorce, initiate elopement both inside and outside of marriage and are not judged nor frowned upon when engaging with men unrelated to them. Women of all ages in the hamlet freely associated with me, alone or in the company of other females, and most were happy to be photographed.
On the other hand, they are considered ‘impure’. Shakil, the chief’s son and my guide, pointed out a couple of large buildings behind a compound of high stone walls set away from the hamlet by an eddy in the river. This is the Bashaleni he told me, where menstruating women and those in labour serve are segregated before returning home, but not before ritually washing themselves, fully clothed in the river.
The hamlet has a one jeep width road running through it off which lead alleyways and steps. The walls of the houses are built up of large rocks from the riverbed, reinforced with a lattice of interlocking timbers and held together with grey brown mud. The squat houses huddled higher on the slopes, away from floods, were designed to withstand earthquakes. The roof of one house is the terrace for the one above, on which I saw vivid orange apricots and off-white mulberries drying out on colourful sheets.
I walked past homes catching glimpses of the single room interiors, illuminated only from a small opening in the ceiling through which the smoke from the winter stove escaped. In one home, rough, worn reddish brown carpets lined the floor, along three walls were raised platforms covered with colourful blankets used as seating during the day and communal beds at night. The remaining wall space was a mish-mash of shelves and cubby holes storing the family’s pots, pans, plates and jars of fruit, lentils and flour. I imagined the family in winter all wrapped in blankets huddled round the stove keeping warm and drinking tea.
I noticed one woman hand spinning bright green wool on a large bobbin. Her left hand twiddled while the right sent the bobbin into a gyroscopic spin. Eventually, these colourful threads would be turned into the embroidered flowers, leaves and motifs which decorate the black robes and headdresses worn by the women, young and old.
A group of women squatted on low stools sewing small colourful beads and cowrie shells on to Kapas, the ceremonial headdresses used in the main Kalasha festival which takes place every August. This three day ‘Uchal’ festival celebrates the harvest with singing and dancing at the neighbouring hamlet’s Dancing Place, a large covered square at the top of a steep incisor shaped hill. Young girls, meanwhile, unsuccessfully, tried to corral half naked grubby toddlers playing around the charred remains of breakfast’s fire.
I reluctantly left the next morning to continue my travels in the region. It is easy to assume this hamlet is an oasis of calm and serenity nestled in a happy valley but walking with Shakil through Muslim hamlets on the way to the Afghanistan border I sensed an uneasy truce between these disparate cultures. This was confirmed over tea with Saifullah Jan. He spoke earnestly of regular court attendances seeking protection for his people from proselytizing imams, dealing with logging rights disputes and fighting for central government grants. All of which seemed to weigh heavily on his shoulders.
Despite threats to their unique culture, the Kalasha remain a steadfastly peaceful, welcoming and hospitable people who live in an enchanted corner of Northern Pakistan.