National Geographic October 1981


People of Fire and Fervor



Pakistan's Kalash

BASHARA KHAN'S, prominent black moustaches, looms across the crackling fire. "When Choimus festival is finished, you must take a Kalash husband". This I had not bargained for when I accepted a Kalash friend's invitation to become blood sister to this remote tribe. "Husbands are much trouble," I respond. Bashara Khan is undaunted. "One night?" he grins. I suddenly pretend not to understand a word of Kalasha, and literally dance out of the situation. Slipping away from the smoky warmth of the small wood and stone house into the frosty night, I am immediately swept up in a dancing crowd of young girls. Tonight is the climax of Choimus, winter festival of the Kalash, an isolated mountain tribe that preserves its own ancient religion. About 3,000 Kalash remain in three high, narrow valleys of the eastern Hindukush range. These three valleys, Rumboor, Bumburate, and Birir, are a 20 miles journey from the town of Chitral in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, and lie adjacent to the Nuristan region of Afghanistan. The strategic location of this tiny ethnic minority, in a sensitive border region on the fringes of the Soviet-Afghan war complicates Kalash life and makes Kalash culture seem fragile. Yet most Kalash remain strong in their, culture and beliefs. Few in recent years have been lost by conversion to Islam, and the population is in fact on the increase. In the centre of Balanguru, largest village of the Rumboor Valley, a wild circle of dancers whirls round the ten foot tall bonfire, which spurts sparks and embers, dragon-like, into the moonlit mountain night. Girls and boys, and occasionally older men and women, suddenly spin off the main circle into lines or small circles, creating a joyous chaos. One old woman with a deeply lined nut brown face and an Eiffel Tower earring (given her by a French anthropologist) delights in croaking out the most sexually explicit lyrics, while small girls listen admiringly. Fifteen year old, Taigun Bibi, her face aglow with excitement, shouts the words into my ear as we are furiously clapping and jumping. My friend Saifuilah Jan, 24, the only English speaking Kalash, catches me from behind, unsettling may heavy cowrie shell headdress. "I couldn't recognize you!" he exclaims. "You look Kalash." Saifullah had been right when he told me on my initial visit five months earlier: "If you want to learn about our religion. You must see Choimus".

Annual Festival Upholds Culture

Choimus, roughly coinciding with the winter solstice is the year's most important festival, a time of great celebration both reverent and ribald. It is the distillation of the cultural and religious elements that make the Kalash unique, as the only tribe in the region never converted to Islam. Choimus is part of the pure tradition to which the Kalash have clung despite threats, force and even slavery to the rulers of nearby Chitral. The Kalash religion is the last remnant of the pre-Muslim culture of Kafiristan, which Muslims called "land of the unbelievers." Its borders once extended through the Hindukush far into present day Afghanistan. This land, though never a single political entity, culturally embraced not only the Kalash, but also several tribes inhabiting the neighbouring valleys of what is now Afghan Nuristan. Though every tribe had its own pantheon and dialect, all shared a predilection for ornate carvings on temples, houses, and furniture, and a preference for low chairs rather than sitting on the ground. They also erected elaborately carved effigies of ancestors in graveyards, had a great fondness for wine, and attached a ritual importance livestock, especially goats. Neighbouring Muslims, who abhorred graven images and alcohol, were offended. From 1895 to 1898, Abdur Rahman, Emir of Afghanistan, campaigned to subdue the "infidels" of Kafiristan, and converted them at sword point. He changed the name of the country to Nuristan, "land of light" and annexed it. The Kalash escaped conversion because of their (unwilling) attachment to the princely state of Chitral, within the British sphere of influence. Only vague traces of ancient practices re main in Nuristan, but among the Kalash the religion of Kafiristan persists. The Kalash pantheon includes Dezao, the omnipotent creator god; Sajigor, god of flocks and shepherds; Mahandeo, god of honeybees; and Jestak, goddess of home and family. The Choimus festival honors Balomain, the legendary demigod who once lived among the Kalash and did heroic deeds. Once every year, during Choimus, Balomain's spirit passes through the valleys, counts the Kalash and collects their prayers on behalf of Dezao. He then "carries" them back to Tsiam, mythical land of origin of the Kalash. This year Balomain will count one extra person, as I will join the tribe as blood sister. Photographer Steve McCurry and I reach the Rumboor valley a few days before the festival. Saifullah meets us and escorts us to the "Rumboor Palace Hotel" , a modest structure owned by his father in law Kata Sing. Kata Sing lives with his family in another village, but this extra house, an informal community hall by day, will be our sleeping quarters al night. The handsome Kata Sing and his two sons remember me from the past summer. "Ishpatah, baba! Prusht taza? - Hello, sister! Are you well?" The Kalash hail each others as baba (sister), or baya (brother), unless there is a more specific relationship of blood or marriage. I introduce Steve as my cousin, so no one mistakes him for my husband. We proceed to Saifullah's village, Balanguru by way of the mill, where women are grinding flour for the festival. The houses of Balanguru climb the steep hillsides like stairs. Saifullah leads us up a tricky, roughhewn log ladder and across a flat mud roof into his home. Washlim Gul, his vivacious young wife, welcomes us affectionately, offering walnuts and dried mulberries. She suckles their, eight month old son, Wazir All, while their two year old son, blond, blue eyed Yasir, eyes us intently. Like these children, many Kalash males have names of Muslim derivation. When asked why, the Kalash simply shrug and call it custom.

Dressing for the Occasion

Batan Gul, Saifullah's neighbour and clan sister, calls me to her house. As promised, she has finished making my thick cotton cheo, the voluminous black dress worn by Kalash women. I try it on with a long woven magenta sash that binds it tightly at the waist, allowing objects to be carried safely in the pouch formed in the folds of the dress above the sash. On her terrace we sit in the wintry sun as Batan Gul braids my hair into chui, the five braids worn by all Kalash women. She nods approvingly. "Your braids are very long". Saifullah appears with several strands of fashionable red and white beads, obtained from his mother and clan sisters. Compared to Washlim Gul, whose hundreds of necklaces hang down nearly to her waist. I look like a pauper. Ceremoniously, Saifullah places my kupasi, the heavy Kalash headdress, on my head. I am weighted down by its several pounds of cowrie-shells, buttons, beads, bells, and assorted ornaments, all sewn into rows and patterns on a thick piece of wool. "Now you are Kalash, and I am your uncle", he teases, green eyes crinkling into a smile. "It is the uncle who gives the girls their first headdress". I am pleased to be in Kalash dress for Mandaik, the day offerings are made to the ancestors. As the sun hovers on the high wall of the valley, the clans gather in their Jestak-han, temples of the goddess of home and family. We go with Saifullah's family to the large, one story building that serves as temple to Balanguru's two largest clans, perhaps 20 families altogether. People come to their respective Jestak-han laden with baskets of berries, nuts, and dried fruits, the rich earth tones of the harvest glowing in the afternoon light. Inside, a warm fire beckons. Each family puts a portion of the food into a large communal basket, which will be placed outside for ancestors spirits. In front of the Jestak-han, men construct a pyramid of pine chips. This is the kotik, the light for the ancestors. Everyone is given a small torch of three sticks. Upon entering, we light these hurriedly before we are shut inside, so no one will fear the spirits of the ancestors as they "suck the taste" from the food offerings outside the door. The kotik is lighted. Two men hold a thick cloth over the open doorway, closing us in. A hundred torches light the rough geometric carvings of the four wooden pillars. I am in a hushed sea of ornate cowrie-shell headdresses adorned with feathers. We listen intently for the rumblings of visiting ancestors. It is a moment of magic, a moment when belief brings the once silent temple to life. As the kotik smolders out, the cloth is dropped from the door, and conversation begins anew as we throw our torches joyously on the fire. Since the offered food has been touched by the ancestors, it is now considered impure for consumption by men and is permitted only to women past childbearing age, who quarrel cheerfully over its division. Once it has been divided, people drift home to finish preparations for Choimus. The temple is again cold and silent.

Rites Begin With Purification

Enough flour has been ground to last the length of the festival, and the elders declare that Choimus may begin. The first day is Shishaou Sucheck, the purification of women and girls, beginning the week during which no one may make love. This ensures that everyone will be pure when Balomain comes to the valley. Because I am staying in one of Kata Sing's houses, his clan must purify me. So Saifullah leads me to Kalashagram, the village high above the river where Kata Sing's family lives. Billowing clouds of blue smoke in the morning sunlight mark the places where men bake shishaou over open fires. The special pure bread, used in today's ceremony, must be baked either in a field away from the village, or in the cattle house, which is forbidden to women. Kata Sing's pretty daughter in law, Sunugur, guides me down the steep, icy path to the river's edge, where I must join the women of the village in a ritual bath. Icicles cling to boulders above the river, and I am thankful that bathwater is being heated over a small wood fire among the rocks. In the afternoon the men arrive with the special bread. The women, wrapped in fine, newly woven dark green and blue striped blankets, their bulky headdresses crowned with lavender and purple feathers, begin slowly chanting the hymns to Balomain. They smile encouragingly as I join them, though I know only the last words of each chorus: "He came down". Solemnly, we file up the hill to an open place near the cattle house. A few at a time, the women and girls come forward. Water is poured over their hands, and they are given five loaves of bread to hold. A male member of the clan waves a branch of pungent burning juniper three times over each woman's head, murmuring, "Sooch Be pure". My turn comes, and I feel strangely reverent, like a small girl at her first Communion. That night I help Washlim Gul and Miza Dana, Saifullah's mother, bake jaou, the thick Choimus bread filled with goat cheese and crushed walnuts. Washlim Gul patiently demonstrates over and over how to form the dough into a cuplike hollow for the cheese and walnut mixture. My awkward hands invariably produce clumsy, misshapen forms. "Don't you bake bread in America?" asks Washlim Gul. I explain that in America nearly everyone buys bread from large stores. This they find very funny. When we are finished baking, Washlim Gul removes the heavy griddle and puts two loaves in the embers to warm. "One of mine, one of yours", she says, laughing at my easily recognizable undersized creation. "Is it good?" I ask doubtfully as she tastes my loaf. "Very good", she says, and I am relieved that appearances deceive. We chat in my limited Kalasha. The fact that I am 26 and unmarried is first a source of mystification, then amusement. "Maybe in two or three years", I tell them. "In two or three years you will be old", answers Washlin Gul with a mischievous grin. "I am 23 and have two children". The next day men and boys are purified. Like the women, they must bathe, but are forbidden to sit on chairs or beds until the evening, when the blood of a goat sacrifice is sprinkled on their faces in the cattle house. Before their morning bath the men sacrifice 30 goats at the altar of Sajigor, patron of flocks and shepherds. Under the bare, spreading branches of the giant walnut tree overlooking the flat ground below Balanguru, women await the men after the sacrifice. They keep up a constant quavering of Balomain songs.

From Solemn to Salacious

In the distance the men file down the path from the Sajigor altar in solemn procession, led by elders in bright coats of silver or gold brocade. Their rolled woolen caps are decked with sprigs of holly oak and juniper, with feathers and beads. Baraman, a venerable old man with a strong featured face, is in the lead, his green and gold coat glittering in the sun. His dignity and bearing remind me unaccountably of the ghost of Christmas present. As the men approach, the women, still singing, sink to the ground. The men, chanting in low bass voices, slowly circle the women three times. It is an awesome moment in this faraway valley, at once alien and frightening, yet somehow familiar. Suddenly the men's songs change to aggressive sexual chants, and the young boys jump on each other's backs, crying boisterously, "Oh, ho, ho!" Groups of young men and women hurl insults, and an occasional clod of earth, at each other. They cite each other's inadequacies and transgressions, and the girls gloat over the frustrations of the boys during the seven days of sexual purity. In the midst of this, someone places a string of apricot kernels around my neck and I suddenly remember the summer when I helped Kalash women shell hard apricot pits against a stone. Some of the edible kernels were strung into these long necklaces, to be given as gifts during Choimus. I feel a sense of time flow, the peaceful closing of a circle. The following night is Chanjah-rat the dramatic torchlight procession that its name from the long torches made of pine bound with willow. Before the procession I am invited to Kata Sing's house for a festive meal of tasty but chewy goat tripe and Choimus bread. Well after darkness, the village of Kalashagram gathers on a high place. All light their torches in the bonfire, and the long, slow progress down the mountain begins. It is exhilarating but also frightening. A fire storm of embers hails about me, onto my clothes and my headdress, and whole chunks of burning pine fall at my feet. Across the valley a small constellation of torches snakes down the dark mountainside from the high village of Groom. At the very same moment, both processions reach the bridge that leads across the narrow gorge to Balanguru. At the best of times the supple plank bridge is treacherous, but it is positively terrifying in this traffic jam of bodies and fire.

Festivities Move to Nearby Village

On this night all Rumboor Valley heads for Balanguru, which has the largest dancing space. The village is ablaze with a giant bonfire. I throw myself into the melee of people madly circling the fire, singing, leaping, dancing, glad to be rid of my torch as I hurl it into the fire with the others. The moon is high and bright, the stars like chips of ice in the thin black sky. The ragged snowy mountains rise close by, shutting out most of the sky, and seeming incalculably wild. And yet I feel at home. The next day Saifullah informs me that the dancing is finished here, and suggests that Steve and I follow the festival to Bumburate Valley, which lags two days behind. Bumburate, largest and most accessible of the three Kalash valleys, also has the largest Muslim population. Some are converted Kalash, others are outsiders come to build hotels or shops. As we arrive, the Muslim call to prayer echoes up the snow-dusted mountains, carried to the Kalash villages by a powerful loudspeaker. In Brun, a picturesque stair step village, an unpleasant surprise awaits us. We are informed, by the inhabitants that, having shared a jeep with Muslims, we are now impure. Vainly, Saifullah argues that we did not eat in the impure jeep. But we will not be allowed in the houses until we undergo purification, Bumburate style. The price: one goat sacrificed in the cattle house. Steve and Saifullah return spattered with the blood of the sacrifice. Afterward, we celebrate with several bottles of strong local wine, corked with corn-cobs. The sweet, heady wine soothes my nerves, and we joke, dance, and sing. Then Saifullah becomes pensive. It was not easy for him to become the only educated member of his tribe. The few other Kalash boys who made the ten miles journey to school in the Muslim town of Ayun either quit or succumbed to pressure to convert to Islam. One even became a Christian. Saifullah describes how one of his Muslim teachers used to call on him: "Stand up and read the lesson, dirty Kalash". He tells us of the past oppression of his people, surrounded by a different religion and culture. Until Pakistan's independence in 1947, the Kalash were virtual slaves to the rulers of the semiautonomous Muslim state of Chitral, and were subject to forced labor. Laws required Ka]ash who visited the town of Chitral to wear hats with beads or feathers, to differentiate them from Muslims. There were cases of forced conversion. Today the official policy of the Islamic government of Pakistan is one of respect for the rights of religious and ethnic minorities. In practice, many land disputes between Kalash and Muslims remain unresolved, and the best business properties are in Muslim hands. In Bumburate all the hotels are owned by Muslims from outside the valley. Saifullah feels the courtroom is the best place to defend the rights of his people. His goal is to become a legal adviser, and later a full advocate. He hopes somehow to raise money to continue his education. We return home to Rumboor on Christmas Day, and invite some of our friends for dinner. In my halting Kalasha, I try to explain the "foreigners' Choimus". Jesus is a little like Balomain, but he is the son of Dezao, the Kalash creator god. Some confusion is evident in the faces of my listeners. Over wine, I sing Christmas carols, then Kalash songs. The time is nearing when I must leave the valley. We visit Sumali Khan, a tum puchawao, "bow shaker", who tells the future with a small bow made from a twig and a string of goat hair yarn. Saifullah insists that I ask when I will return to Kalash and I suddenly become afraid. "What if he says five years, or ten, or never?" I wonder. Saifullah reminds me that I told him the future is made by our own minds. I sit tensely on the rooftop next to Sumali Khan, shivering in the snow-laden air. Will the bow never move? It begins to sway, and at last Sumali Khan speaks. I understand the words "six months" and "one year, six months". Saifullah explains that I might return within six months, but definitely within a year and a half. I am so happy I am ready to embrace them both.

Finding a New Family

The day before I leave, I become blood sister, or dari, to Washlim Gul, and thus am formally adopted into the tribe. Washlim Gul is happy, but worried. It is good to have an American sister, she says, but why must we be so far away? I arrange for a sheep to be killed and roasted, and the simple ceremony takes place on the front porch of Saifullah's house. Akbar Hayat, Washlim Gul's brother, officiates. I am nervous, aware that I am undertaking a responsibility that the Kalash take very seriously. I watch intently as Akbar Hayat cuts one roasted kidney. He feeds half to Washlim Gul on the point of the knife, then half to me. When he has repeated the process with the other kidney, we are officially blood sister. I feel elated. Something very important has taken place. Whatever else I may become, I am always Kalash, and an only child has found a sister. We send portions of meat and rice to all my newfound relatives, then invite close relations and elders to a feast. I feel sad as I look from face to face in the soft lantern light. I have found a family, only to lose them to distance, borders, and visas. Washlim Gul's father, Kata Sing, gives an emotional speech, which Saifullah translates. "You are our guest in Kalash, and yet you have made us your guests twice, and now have become as my daughter. We have had foreigners here, but never before have they shared their Christmas with us. In the past we have been made many times to feel low. But because you have made us your guests, we feel we are something high". "But Saifullah, why should such good people ever feel low?" I ask in disbelief. "We have been told so many times that we are low ", he replies, "that it is carved on our brains, like the carpenter carves on wood". Another tragically human story, this is a story of the oppression of one group by another, a story of pride won slowly and painfully. It is with love and respect for my blood sister, Washlim Gul, and my adopted brother in low, Saifullah Jan, their families, and their tribe, that I write their story, in hope of a future of pride and freedom.