Deep in the Hindu Kush mountains of northwest Pakistan lies the remote and picturesque Chitral Valley - home of Tirich Mir, the 14th-highest peak in the world (25,550 ft), and of the legendary pagan tribe Kalash.
The Kalash, or "Wearers of the Black Robe," are a Dardic people whose ancestry is enveloped in mystery: a legend says that five soldiers of the legions of Alexander the Great settled in Chitral, and are the progenitors of the Kalash. Today, the Kalash are one of the world's endangered minorities, with a population of about 4,000 remaining.
The culture of the Kalash is unique, and differs drastically from the overwhelming Muslim ethnic groups in Pakistan. The Kalash are polytheists, with a pantheon of deities and demi-gods that has been compared to that of ancient Greece, though it is much closer to Indo-Iranian (Vedic and pre-Zoroastrian) traditions. The gods are believed to be appeased through animal sacrifices and seasonal festivals, three of the most important being Joshi, in late May, Uchau, in autumn, and Chaumos, in midwinter.
The Kalash are very fond of music and dancing, and wine is considered a sacred drink. Kalash tribeswomen also have much more social freedom than many of their Pakistani counterparts; for instance, marriage-by-elopement is a custom and a celebration, even involving women who are already married.
Kalash women - who, legend says, are part-fairy, part-human - wear black gowns, and headgear decked out with cowrie shells, buttons and crowned with large colored feathers. The men wear shalwar kameez, the traditional Pakistani dress.
The Kalash have lived in peace and harmony amidst the dictates of their own unique culture for hundreds of years. They are connected to the rest of Pakistan by a single road and lack phone service to the outside world; yet, almost everybody in the three Kalash valleys (Birir, Bumburet and Rambur) knows how to speak English, and it is compulsory for Kalash children to attend school.
Historically a goat-herding and subsistence-farming people, the Kalash are now moving towards a cash-based economy, capitalizing on tourism and trade. The tourist season extends from June to September, and a new motel constructed by the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) in Bumburet Valley has facilitated the inflow of visitors. However, uncontrolled tourism threatens the purity and lifestyle of the community; so please be sure to follow the code of ethics listed here on your visit, or book a tour with a native Kalash company, Kalash Travels.
Many thanks to Hajra Tariq for the beautiful photographs from her personal trip this summer!