In Langscape Magazine Articles

Voices of the Hindu Kush

July 02, 2024
In a remote area of northwestern Pakistan, the Kalash community has maintained harmony with its territory of life.

WORDS AND IMAGES Ajaz Ahmed 

 

Birir

Birir, one of the three valleys in Kalash.

 

The Kalash or Kalasha people are a distinctive Indo-Aryan community nestled in the Hindu Kush mountain range, in Chitral District of Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. For the past fifteen years, I have been deeply engaged in working with Kalash communities focusing on forest landscape conservation, biodiversity conservation, and enhancing livelihoods. Through this journey, I have developed a profound appreciation for their culture and Indigenous knowledge. Here, I’ll share insights into the exceptional community and its remarkable harmony with, and custodianship of, the natural environment.

The nation’s smallest ethnoreligious group, the Kalash have an intriguing history and cultural tapestry. Their roots trace back to the Chitral Valley, with ancestral tales alluding to a migration from a place to the south that they fondly refer to as Tsiyam in their folk songs — a journey that possibly originated even farther south. Legend meshes with their narrative, as some claim lineage from remnants of Alexander the Great’s armies left behind in the wake of his conquests. Historical evidence, however, fails to corroborate such a passage through the region. Others suggest a connection to the ancient Gandhara civilization.

Nature assumes a profound and spiritual role in the Kalash people’s daily lives.

Regardless of their origin, the Kalash stand markedly apart from their Muslim neighbors in northwestern Pakistan. Nature assumes a profound and spiritual role in their daily lives, intertwining seamlessly with their religious practices. Sacrifices and festivals punctuate their calendar, as expressions of gratitude for the abundant resources bestowed upon their three valleys, collectively known as Kalash Desh. Their cultural landscape further divides into two realms: the valleys of Rumbur and Bumburete forming one, and the more traditional Birir Valley forming the other. Historically, the Kalash sustained themselves through goat herding and subsistence farming, wealth being measured in livestock and crops. Contemporary shifts, however, see the community transitioning toward a cash-based economy. Tourism has emerged as a significant economic driver, bringing forth changes in the local landscape.

In the Kalash community, a charming tale has been passed down through generations. According to this tradition, when a baby boy is born in the Kalash Valley, a somber atmosphere envelops the forest, and it appears as though the trees shed tears. Conversely, when a baby girl comes into the world, a sense of joy permeates the woods. This belief is deeply rooted in the Kalash conviction that the forest fears that boys might eventually become woodcutters and contribute to the depletion of the natural environment. In contrast, girls are perceived as a benign presence, fostering a harmonious coexistence of the Kalash people with their natural surroundings.

Kalash women

Kalash women planting trees for forest restoration.

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Although characterized as animists, the Kalash people don’t adhere to a specific organized religion. Their spiritual practices diverge from conventional worship, centering instead on a profound reverence for the potent forces of nature. In the absence of a formal deity, they find solace in the majestic mountains enveloping their community, considering them a haven from the external world. The ebb and flow of changing seasons play a pivotal role in their belief system, heralding diverse sources of sustenance in the form of food and fruits.

Central to Kalash beliefs are the enchanting fairies that, they believe, descend from the heavens atop the towering mountains. These ethereal beings, known as pariyan, play a unique role in the community, acting as matchmakers for the unmarried individuals in the valley. It is this charming aspect of their culture that has earned the Kalash homeland the evocative moniker of “the land of the fairy people,” used by various writers captivated by the mystical nuances of Kalash beliefs.

The Kalash community has struck a remarkable balance between meeting their sustenance needs and sustaining their environment. Drawing on centuries of experience and an intimate understanding of the local ecology, the Kalash have honed survival strategies unique to their surroundings. Unlike other parts of Chitral and its neighboring areas, the Kalash Valleys boast a relative abundance of natural resources, providing fertile ground for successful subsistence farming and pastoralism.

The Kalash community has struck a remarkable balance between meeting their sustenance needs and sustaining their environment.

This abundance is not accidental; it stems from the Kalash community’s careful use of precious natural resources, steering clear of overexploitation. Land, water, vegetation, and domesticated animals serve as the four pillars on which the Kalash build their subsistence practices. Their deep knowledge and thoughtful utilization of resources not only ensure their survival but also set them apart from their neighbors as stewards of their environment in a way that harmonizes with the delicate rhythms of nature.

In particular, the use of lower-range oak forests (locally known as banj) stands out as a testament to their resourceful practices. These forests, visibly undisturbed and thriving, both provide fodder for goats and keep houses warm during the winter. This strategic use of Indigenous knowledge has enabled the Kalash to maintain larger herds of goats. Their adherence to traditional farming methods has proven advantageous, yielding more per unit of land in comparison to their Muslim neighbors.

Traditional Kalash houses.

Traditional Kalash houses.

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The way the Kalash build their homes is truly fascinating. Their construction principles prioritize minimal impact on nature and the environment. Houses are thoughtfully settled below the oak forest landscapes and typically positioned beneath steep ridges. According to Kalash belief, the area above the oak forests holds a special significance — it is considered pure and dedicated to wildlife and other creatures. They believe that if humans were to intrude into this zone, nature would respond with anger. This could lead to unfortunate consequences, such as increased mortality among livestock and damage to crops. The Kalash community’s respect for these natural boundaries not only reflects their cultural beliefs but also serves as a practical approach to coexisting with the environment they cherish.

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Traditional Kalash houses.

The Kalash people’s construction principles prioritize minimal impact on nature and the environment. Houses are built below the oak forest landscapes because the area above is dedicated to wildlife.

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The Kalash people have established a unique traditional management system that plays a crucial role in nature conservation and the survival of biodiversity. This centuries-old system, deeply intertwined with Kalash traditions, attests to their resilience in the remote and isolated valleys of the Hindu Kush region. Through these practices, the Kalash not only preserve their cultural heritage but also ensure the delicate balance of nature. One vital Kalash tradition that serves this purpose is known as Dane, a practice meant to prevent the overuse of natural resources and to ensure the natural regeneration of various species and habitats. The Dane system operates under indigenous rules, effectively serving as a form of local protected area. Under Dane, specific portions of forests, pastures, rangelands, and wildlife habitats are designated for protection for a specified period. Within these areas, grazing and other human activities such as collecting fuelwood, fodder, and timber are strictly forbidden for five to ten years.

The Dane system operates under indigenous rules, effectively serving as a form of local protected area.

To enforce the time-tested Dane rules and regulations, a committee called Aouray is established. Comprising eleven to fifteen members nominated by villages and hamlets through consensus, this committee selects a local chair known as Lotoro to oversee the adherence to these rules. The committee also establishes penalties and fines for violators. Offenders face fines such as 3000 rupees per goat for grazing in the Dane area, 1500 rupees per cow, and 5000 rupees for activities such as cutting branches or collecting chilgoza (Pinus gerardiana) pine nuts or other non-timber forest products (NTFPs). The rules, regulations, and fine charts are prominently displayed in public places, and announcements are made in social gatherings to disseminate information about the Dane area, the Dane period, and the corresponding fine structure.

Kalash men

Left: A man carrying fuelwood from the forest in Kalash Valley. Right: A man carrying a plant sapling for planting in a degraded forest in Kalash Valley.

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A rehabilitated and restored Dane area

An area in Bumburate that was recently rehabilitated and restored by the Kalash.

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Local Kalash strategically implement Dane in areas that have suffered degradation and deforestation while holding significance as wildlife habitats. Reflecting on the impact of Dane, Sichan Gul, a fifty-six-year-old Kalash woman from Birir Valley, acknowledges her initial resistance to Dane but expresses satisfaction with the results. The once-degraded Chilgoza Forest landscape in the lower Birir Valley is now stable, providing ample NTFPs and forage to meet local needs. Unat Baig, a fifty-five-year-old Kalash Elder, emphasizes the positive changes brought about by Dane in the Birir Valley. Before its implementation, unrestricted hunting had led to a decline in bird species, but thanks to Dane, he comments, they now witness the resurgence of pigeons, Himalayan monal (a pheasant), the chukar partridge, and other wildlife — a true blessing from nature.

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Left: Sichin Gul, a Kalash woman in Kalash traditional dress. Right: Unat Baig, a Kalash Elder from the Birir Valley.

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Wildlife holds a special place in the Kalash tribe, where every wild species carries significance in society. One such example is the fox (Vulpes vulpes montana), a species considered an enemy of livestock by neighboring communities. Kalash people, however, regard the fox as a blessing and a tool for predicting upcoming weather — a crucial aspect for planning farming activities and ensuring food security. They celebrate Uchal, a festival that features an ancient weather forecast ritual. During this event, villagers release a fox onto a main path. If it heads in one direction, it predicts rain and snow in the upcoming season; conversely if it runs in the opposite direction. This practice plays a role in the conservation of the fox and associated species.

Every wild species carries significance.

Bahuk lake.

Bahuk is a sacred lake for the Kalash people in the Hindu Kush Region, Chitral District, Pakistan.

High pastures are considered sacred. The community deeply respects the purity of these spaces, and people avoid activities that could harm or disrupt biodiversity, as it is believed to displease the fairies. Certain activities are strictly prohibited, such as burning grass, harming marmots, rats, and snakes, and washing clothes or bathing in running waters. These actions are thought to pollute the pure environment of the pasture, and it is believed that a spiritual entity may become furious in response. This anger could lead to consequences for the shepherd or their livestock.

To maintain harmony, shepherds follow a code of conduct that includes refraining from carrying firearms. Instead, they employ precautionary measures to keep predators away from the herds. These measures involve burning animal dung outside summer settlements at night, beating drums, and displaying clothed models of human figures in camping areas located in the pastures.

Modernization poses a peril to the rich tapestry of the Kalash way of life.

Between the Kalash valleys of Bumboret and Rumbur, there’s a special lake called Bahuk. The Kalash consider it sacred, as they believe it’s where their ancestors’ spirits journey after death. Both the Kalash and Muslim Kho communities recognize this region as a place where fairies rest. The locals and others who bring their livestock to graze near the lake are careful not to harm the plants and wildlife, as they believe it may upset the fairies, potentially affecting their livelihoods. Interestingly, there are stories about a creature called Barmanu (bigfoot or yeti) living around the lake. The locals genuinely think the yeti calls this area home, and as a result, they make sure not to disturb its habitat.

The Kalash way of life faces significant threats from external influences under the guise of “development.” Modernization poses a peril to the rich tapestry of the Kalash way of life. Electronic and print media as well as tourism contribute to the challenge, while the formal education system is quietly eroding the very foundations of Kalash culture. Finally, climate change further endangers the survival of the Kalash community. Urgent and sincere efforts are essential to safeguard the Kalash culture, not only for the community’s survival but also for the sustainability of biodiversity and the delicate balance of nature.

Kalash youths

Kalash youths carrying plants for planting.

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Support the Cause: Donate to organizations that are directly involved in conservation projects in the region, volunteer for initiatives supporting Indigenous communities, or advocate for policies that prioritize environmental conservation and the rights of Indigenous Peoples, for example the Mountain Society for Research & Development in Chitral at mountainsociety.org

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Ajaz Ahmed.
Ajaz Ahmed is a distinguished forester and ecosystem restoration specialist, with over twelve years of dedicated experience in fostering biodiversity conservation and forest restoration within Indigenous Community Conserved areas (ICCAs) in the Hindu Kush region of Chitral, Pakistan. He also is an Honorary Member of the ICCA Consortium.

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