Disregard for Kalasha culture

When Mehmud Ghaznavi invaded India in 1036, the conversion of the ‘Kafirs of Kafiristan’, now Nuristan, was on his checklist. The romantic tales of the Hindukush people (Bashgali and Kalasha) had not only spread over the subcontinent, but also spread rapidly in Britain when explorers mentioned their tales of European descent and forced conversion.
Even Babar had romanticised them and mentioned their fine wine making skills in his autobiography. History has mixed theories on the Kalash, but one narrative that resonates with all historians is that they have been the early rulers of the current region which now makes Chitral. With the arrival of Islam and Muslim invaders, the Kalasha were pushed back, the Kho people of upper Chitral, who historians contend were Kalasha as well, came to the fore with a new identity and they persecuted and dominated their own kin as newly converted Muslims. The Kalasha were pushed to the current three valleys of Birir, Rumbur, and Bumburet. Their conversion has been of great concern to the government and international organisations as they colour the region in a different hue with their distinct lifestyle.
At present, the Kalasha are over 3000 in number, threatened by the gradual conversion and encroachment of Muslim settlements. The converted Kalash are called Sheikhs who are also a source of discomfort for their Kalasha brethren. With all discomforting affairs, the Kalasha have managed to uplift not only Pakistan’s image in the international space, but also have put the picturesque Chitral valley on Pakistan’s map. Whenever somebody says Chitral, the response is always “that’s where the Kalasha people live”. Simple, grounded and lost in their own world, Kalasha are one of the beautiful people to cross paths with.
The Kalasha culture is a magnet which has turned the small valleys into tourist hubs. The outgoing, joyful, high-energy Kalasha have started to become reclusive because of the sudden onslaught of tourists in their valleys. A paper published in Quaid-e-Azam University’s Journal of South Asian Civilisation titled, “Cultural Commodification and Tourism in Kalash Valley” discusses the impacts of cultural commodification in the Bumburet Valley of Chitral. The responses from the Kalasha members are unsettling and discomforting and draw sympathy.
For instance: “People can come in huge numbers, we don’t have any problem if they follow the rules and be responsible but if they show irresponsibility as they do these days, our people don’t send their families to perform our cultural festivals. Along with our religious rituals, they start to dance or follow us; they don’t understand that what we are performing is a religious ritual.”
The Kalasha culture attracts a lot of visitors who enjoy the freedom which they find in Kalash valleys, but in their disregard for Kalasha values, their freedom has clouded the open, cheerful Kalasha people to their homes. The home structures in Kalash are without outer boundary walls and visitors violate their boundaries. People act as if they are unanswerable to no one for their actions and the ignorance people carry is beyond imagination.
The Kalasha festivals hold sacred religious value to Kalasha people like other communities and they enjoy these festivals amongst their people. Often visitors join them uninvited and because of their shy and docile nature, Kalasha do not get rude, but instead place restrictions on their own people and activities. The in-placed policies are wonderful on paper, but are pale in implementation. Instead, they have started to shun their females to homes like other Muslim neighbours. The insensitive tourism that the government promotes without regard for host cultures and places have put Kalasha in yet another persecution in the name of cultural tourism. The instability in neighbouring Nuristan and threat of insurgents had also choked the number of festivals Kalasha were celebrating and now the threat of unmanaged tourists has also limited the festivals.
Tourism is not all bad when the benefits go to the intended community or people especially in case of cultural tourism. In the case of Kalash, most of the benefits go to outsiders because they own hotels, transports and restaurants in Kalash valley. The local community hardly gets 15-20 percent of the benefits. In Bumburet Valley, only four hotels are owned by Kalash people and the rest belong to outsiders. This leaves Kalasha with no option, but to commodify their cultural items.
People have set up small shops which sell cultural items. However, the commodification of their cultural items have affected the cultural value of these items which has put the whole community in a financial and cultural conundrum. The government is now giving due attention to Kalasha valleys and the current KP government has picked a Kalash on their minority seat for the provincial assembly. The focus on Kalasha safety and development should be a common goal because it will bring communities together.


Adnan Ali
The writer is a Fulbright Scholar from Chitral. He has an undergradu-ate degree in Economics from LUMS and a graduate degree in Water, Society and Policy from the University of Arizona.

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