17 August, 2014

The Changing Kalash

Having been reading about the fascinating Kalash people for over three decades, I finally got a chance to visit some of their villages in the Bumborat Valley this past June.  The visit, short as it was, focused on the transformation that has taken place in the Kalash lifestyles over the years.  My guide was a worldly-wise Mir Azam, a fair blue-eyed Kalash, who worked in a Chitral hotel that I was staying in. His utterly polite and cheerful demeanour seemed to indicate that he was at peace with the world, quite like his Kalash folk, as I was to discover soon.

Detouring off the Chitral-Dir road at Ayun, we constantly struggled over the rock-strewn and potholed track, with Bumborat Gol (river) gushing in full fury alongside. It was a wonder that our driver did not flinch once while negotiating the perilous bends and precipitous climbs, as he drove an ill-suited Toyota station wagon. Approaching the first village of Anish, I was surprised to see a bevy of young Kalash girls in traditional dresses, but with their faces covered in chadars. What had led to this new-found modesty? Mir Azam explained that times had changed, pointing to a nearby madrassah and a mosque. He said that some Kalash girls prefer to cover their faces when passing through the main bazaar, though no such restraints apply in the villages.  He explained that over the years, many Kalash had converted to Islam of their own choice, and local lifestyles had been influenced to some extent.  There was no friction over such matters, however, as the Muslim converts and the Kalash were all related, and a live-and-let-live attitude prevailed.

At the next village of Brun, we came across a beautifully constructed multi-purpose building which serves as a primary school, a dispensary and an ethnographic museum. It has been funded by a Greek NGO which, obviously not well-versed in genetics, has associated the supposed stay-behinds of Alexander’s army with the ancestors of the Kalash. The school had a sizeable strength of neat little children in their traditional attire, and everything about the premises was trim and orderly.  I was just in time to take pictures of shy giggling children as they left school at pack-up. The educational standards have improved tremendously, and a sizeable number of the Kalash children are finishing high school, I was told.

Mir Azam was eager to take me to his home in the village of Karakal, located a short distance away at the south-western end of Bumborat Valley.  We drove down to a dead end and walked to Mir Azam’s two-room house on the first floor. The houses abutting the hillsides are stacked in such a way that the roof of the lower house serves as the terrace of the upper one.  The lady of the house was unwell and would be back from the community quarantine after five days, Mir Azam explained without much ado. His brother-in-law, a shepherd, along with his wife, were the other occupants of the room which had four charpoys in the corners, the arrangement almost mocking at the urbanites’ concept of privacy. The room also served as a winter kitchen with a central hearth, and an adjacent room housed the dry rations.  Mir Azam’s delightful son, a four-year old named Wazir-e-Azam amused us with his antics. His elder brothers are Mughal-e-Azam and Sikandar-e-Azam, the latter studying in Class 10 at the English-medium Langland School in Chitral.  I was to meet Sikandar later in Chitral, and was able to extract a promise from him that he would strive to be the first Kalash officer in the armed forces or the civil services. 

Mir Azam then took me to the house of his cousin, a person of sufficient means with a modern house. I was told that he hosted General Musharraf for tea at his home during the latter’s visit to Karakal village. Musharraf is fondly remembered for a grant that helped repair the derelict village community centre, the Jestak-An, where funerals and annual festivals are held. We visited the Jestak-An, an unlit hall with a central hearth for lighting a fire.  Cooking of sacrificed goats, and burning of aromatic juniper sprigs are essential to the festivities that take place here. The big door of the Jestak-An, flanked by a pair of carved ram’s heads, was the only remarkable item and its interwoven swirling patterns carved in walnut wood bespoke of superb craftsmanship.   

Sadly, Kalash woodwork is a lost art now, as cheaper machine-crafted doors and other wares are easily available.  Similarly, intricately carved wooden coffins – which were once left out in the open in a cemetery – along with wooden totems and effigies of the deceased, have all gone into disuse, as burials in the ground are getting popular.  The cost of wood as well as the workmanship has simply become unaffordable.  The only wooden item left on a gravesite is an upturned charpoy on which the deceased was brought for interment.

Walnut and mulberry trees are in abundance in Bumborat Valley, as are apricot and apple trees. Grape vines readily clamber up every wall, pillar and trellis.  Mulberry and grape have other bacchanalian uses too, as I was soon to discover. Mir Azam suggested that we walk to his friend’s house in Brun village, to which I readily agreed, as I would be able get a closer look at yet another Kalash household.  As we entered Qamra Khan’s house, the salutation involving shaking of hands and then kissing them, males and females alike, came as a bit of a surprise.  Austere as the house was, the amiability of the occupants was overwhelming.  As we settled down, Mir Azam was served a heady mulberry drink called tara, while I settled for plain spring water.  Qamra Khan had been one of the few Kalash men who had served as a soldier in the Army and his home exuded discipline and orderliness. A father of four girls and a boy, he was doing his best to educate them properly. Two of his younger children, a boy and a girl, wanted to be pilots. One of his daughters had converted to Islam and had married a man who worked in a travel agency in Peshawar.  Qamra told me that with a high school education, young boys and girls did not want to work as shepherds or small-time farmers anymore, and would rather move out.  He was glad that his married daughter was happy, though her conversion caused some dismay at first.   

When I asked Qamra if marrying off the remaining daughters was a responsibility of some kind, he told me that fortunately, boys and girls find mates of their own choice, and parents have little say in the matter in present times.  Mir Azam, high-spirited by now, added that during the upcoming Uchao autumn harvest festival on 22 August, many eligible young couples would be tying the knot during the dance and drink revelry. Diana, Qamra Khan’s eldest daughter, who was within earshot, was quite delighted at this prompt and hastened with another peg of tara for uncle Mir Azam.

As lunch time neared, we begged leave, though Qamra Khan’s family insisted that we eat with them.  On promises of another visit with my wife in the near future, we were let off.  In a moving gesture, the lady of the house presented me with a hand-woven sash, signifying that I was now a member of their household. Mir Azam explained that hand woven articles had a special value nowadays, as these had been replaced by cheap machine woven pieces.  Mass-produced women’s robes (sanguch) and men’s caps (pakol) are now available in the local bazaar. Hand-crafted silver jewellery, much prized in bygone days, is also a rarity as silversmiths, like woodworkers and weavers, are a vanishing breed.

As we walked to the nearby Alexander Point Restaurant for lunch, I was reminded how important it was to dig deep into the ancestry of Kalash, and dispel the persistent Greek connection in the process.  I could relate the Kalash to some specific geographical locales on the basis of genetic hotspots that I had studied, having a keen amateur interest in genetics.

Many studies have revealed that 75% of Kalash women belong to European DNA haplogroups (unique groups) and 25% belong to Mid-Eastern/Caucasus ones. Interestingly, the males belong to a more assorted grouping, including South Asian (45%), Mid-Eastern/Caucasus (30%) and European (25%).  Quite obviously, outside males – including South Asians, in recent times – have shown conjugal interest in these women of European origin, as the male DNA studies clearly show.  None of the genetic studies have found a Greek strain, particularly amongst the males, who are purported to be the descendants of Alexander’s army or the later Greek satraps that held sway in Balkh (Bactria) between 255-168 BC.
A tantalising clue lies in the Kalash female mitochondrial DNA lineages, of which the Haplogroup U4 is the ‘flagship’ group, with a high incidence of 34% amongst Kalash women. This group is presently found in the faraway Baltic and Scandinavian countries, as well as nearer to us, amongst the West Siberian peoples north of Kazakhstan. In particular, the Khanty-Mansi people in the Russian autonomous republic of that name, have a high incidence of U4 amongst their females.  An even more intriguing happenchance is the persisting tradition of wooden totems and effigies made by the Kalash, which are quite similar to those made by the Khanty-Mansi people . I am inclined to believe that the Kalash originated in the northern reaches of Central Asia, and moved south, possibly fearing the Hun, Parthian and Saka hordes that swept into today’s Iran, Afghanistan and Northern India around two millenia ago.  Most of these marauders found their calling in subjugating, and then mixing with the local populace; others like the unassuming Kalash, found the prospects of farming in remote water-fed valleys blissful enough for a sedentary life that also helped preserve their unique culture and beliefs. Only religious persecution in Afghanistan in the late 19th  century drove the Kalash into out-of-sight valleys, in what is now Chitral District.

While the genetic imprint shall stay forever etched in the genes of the Kalash, their culture and traditions are fast changing.  A subsistence economy based on farming and animal husbandry is not durable enough to sustain the demands of  material culture they see around them. Almost 10-15% households have satellite TV, and the buzz is that there exists a magical world filled with every amenity, beyond their valleys.  Educated children are unwilling to continue the grind of the village life, simple and idyllic as it might be. Lastly, the inroads made by Muslims, both converts and outside settlers, are influencing the local mores and customs, and there is a clear change in the free-wheeling ways of the Kalash.  My estimate is that within about two to three decades, Kalash culture would just be a page in history.  It is nothing to rue about: that is how history charts its way through the maze of time.
© KAISER TUFAIL. This is an open-access article published under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

This article was published in the daily newspaper The News International on 17 August 2014, under the title A Page in History.