Discovering and falling in love with a new place on one’s travels is akin to the purest forms of happiness known to us. I was recently reminded of this on my trip to Chitral, Ayun and onwards to Kalash, to attend the annual Chillum Joshi festival, held by the Kalashi people to celebrate the coming of spring, and to venerate the deities for protecting them. The women and men also take part in a very interesting courtship ritual which involves dancing in groups and harmonising their voices to make an oddly-beautiful yet eerie sound. The sound of shuffling bodies in rhythm with the drum beat with their voices ululating was almost mesmerising.
The increase in tourism has led to increased awareness about the Kalash community, and as always, people in general are always hostile to something they do not understand. The first example of this came to me in the shape of an army sentry, standing at a checkpost some ways before Lowari Top. The checkpost itself is nothing surprising, because one sees over twenty-five of these (both military and police) on the way to Chitral, and then of course some more, en route to Chitral. When we were stopped to identify ourselves, we were asked the usual questions of where we were from and what our destination was. Upon hearing Chitral, the army guard said, “And then Kaafiristan (Kalash)? Why are you going there? What is there to see? Those infidels, the kaafirs? There is nothing there. You will see yourself.”
While the words themselves might be misconstrued as friendly banter by some (although why that’s the case, I can’t imagine), his tone certainly wasn’t, or the disdain on his face. After checking our ID cards, he later informed us that he was from Punjab too. I was not surprised.
When we visited Ramboor the first day, we immediately saw the effects of tourism around us. Travelling companions that had visited on previous occasions told us that the streets were not always swamped with police officers or tourists; in 2013, there was absolutely no police presence in either of the villages. The entry and exit point was guarded by an army checkpost and nothing more. The reason for this extra security is two-fold; Zarb-e-Azb was focused on areas bordering Afghanistan, and Dir and Chitral are both on that list. Now that they have been cleared out, the army does not want to risk losing control of the area. Even now, with a stringent watch, militants prop up from this region every other month or so. Secondly, the number of Kalashi people left is thinning out. Supposedly containing traces of Greek lineage through Alexander the Great’s army when he passed through here, there are approximately only 3000 Kalash left. And since the valley is their only home, any potential damage to this small community will be irrevocable. There have been threats from the terrorists, who see this small group of people as pagans and want them wiped off this ‘pure’ land.
Ask any traveller and they will tell you that the people that belong to the place are obviously a crucial portion of the time spent in a new place. As a tourist, sightseeing is only one part of the experience. Immersing yourself in the culture and traditions is important, but this must be done in an unobtrusive way. The tourist should at no point become invasive, or seek to impact the environment in any way. The point is not to ‘consume’ but to observe and look for understanding. I should have realised on the way there, of the damage we are causing to the people as tourists, simply by visiting in droves. I visited two villages of the Kalash people on my journey, Ramboor and Bamboorat. People from all over the country had come to witness the spectacle as well.
The crowd was thicker than the people participating. Not only that, but people were jostling other members of the audience, pushing and shoving each other, so much so that there were times when the dancers had nowhere to go. It came to a point where an elderly Kalash woman grabbed a baton and threatened to bash the rowdy onlookers with it. There were other tourists that were seemingly mocking the sounds made by those involved in the festival, and had to be reprimanded for not even attempting to understand a vastly different culture. In the vibrant colours of the Kalashi people, I saw people from other places sticking out like a sore thumb.
This is not to ignore or undermine the myriad benefits of tourism. In areas such as Chitral, the people get isolated from the rest of the world with the advent of winter. This, coupled with the weather conditions makes it very tough to make a living, or at least enough food to feed the whole family. Tourism is often the only source of income for many families in the region. Many in Kalash for instance, use the revenue generated through sales at the Chillum Joshi festival in spring to stock up with rations for the winter as well. Traditional dresses worn by the women of the area was being sold for as much as Rs20,000 when I was there last month.
There are gains to be made from developing the tourism industry in the north of Pakistan. But as tourists we also have a responsibility to keep our intrusions to ourselves, to bear witness to the spectacle but try and blend into the surroundings, instead of obnoxiously making the locals feel unwelcome in their own homes. The central principle behind travelling is to broaden one’s horizons, and if one has already decided to close themselves off to what they are witnessing, it is better that they stay at home.