The Kalash of Pakistan; A JOYOUS FESTIVAL IN THE 'LAND OF THE NONBELIEVERS'
Kalash Valley, Pakistan
My destination, the village of Brun in Pakistan's Kalash Valley, lies at the top of this hill, but as I struggle up the steep trail my way is blocked by an elderly man wearing a feather in his cap. Quickly, several other men with feathers stuck in their caps surround me. They are courteous but firm. They want to know where I have come from and how I got here.Skip to next paragraph
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At this moment a voice booms from the loudspeakers of a mosque in a village below and echoes throughout the valley. It is the azan, the Muslim call to prayer. But these men pay it no attention.
The feathers in their caps are a warning sign to Muslims who live in this area that these men are infidels - nonbelievers in Allah. For me, the feathers affirm that I have found the people I have come to see, the Kalash of Pakistan, an enclave of polytheistic animists who have preserved their ancient culture in a modern state founded on the principles of Islam.
With a few words of English and much use of sign language I try to explain my presence. I tell them that I started out from a small town on the Afghan-Pakistani border and rode with some companions in a jeep for 15 miles over the treacherous winding roads of the eastern Hindu Kush mountains to the village of Ayun. From there I walked three hours, alone, along the valley trails to reach my present destination. I also tell them I have come to witness (and, if they will allow me, to participate in) Chaomos, their annual religious festival.
I am not sure they follow the details of my journey, but it soon becomes obvious they realize my companions during the jeep ride must have been Muslims. The old man who stopped me on the trail lights a sprig of juniper and encircles me three times with its pungent smoke. My contact with the Muslims has made me impure and consequently unworthy of entering the village for its Chaomos festival.
But now the sacred juniper has purified me. The tension fades as quickly as the wisps of the cleansing smoke. The Kalash shake my hand and welcome me: ''Ishpata, baba. Prusht taza?'' (Welcome, sister. Are you well?)
Then they lead me to their village and to the two-story mud and stone house of one of the villagers, Bumbur Khan, father of eight children and master of at least a few English words. Bumbur Khan, miraculously, has an empty room in his house, where I am invited to sleep during my visit.
This is my initiation to the Kalash. The Muslims refer to the three Kalash valleys of Rumbur, Birir, and Bumboret as ''Kafiristan,'' which means ''Land of the Nonbelievers.'' Originally, Kafiristan encompassed a large area spreading across the border into Afghanistan, but in 1896 the ''kafirs'' of Afghanistan were converted to Islam at swordpoint. (That area is known today as Nuristan, which means ''Land of Light.'') Their compatriots in what is now Pakistan, however, retained their traditional beliefs and never converted to Islam. Over the years the number of Kalash in the three valleys has dwindled to about 3,000, but their culture has remained intact.
The official policy of Muslim Pakistan is to respect the rights of its minorities, and there is communication and commerce between the Muslim and Kalash communities. But there is also, as might be expected, friction. Instead of one God (Allah), the Kalash religion embraces a pantheon of gods and godesses. The Kalash sacrifice animals to their gods and have a love for song and dance and a penchant for wine. None of these things endears them to their Muslim neighbors.
For now, however, the problems of a minority people surrounded by a Muslim majority are set aside. It is December, the winter solstice, and the changes in the heavens signify that the annual festival of Chaomos is at hand.