With the Hindukush as its gates, Chitral can be considered a bridge between worlds, a small melting pot, where people across cultures have mingled both historically and currently. Remnants of Alexander the Great’s exploits remain, an entrance to Afghanis for centuries, later followed Norwegians such as the likes of linguist and anthropologist Georg Valentin Morgenstierne, to now when people from all over the world come for a taste of this barren land. Most visit to experience the Hindukush, and to witness the last of the indigenous - the Kalash people.

The true taste of Chitral should be the Kalash, who have withstood the test of time and remain connected to their aboriginal roots. They are much like American Indians, living in harmony with their natural surroundings such as giving thanks for the bounty of summer during the Uchal festival (held in autumn). Kalashi women seemed to dominate the landscape, a strong contrast to the elusive Chitraly woman who was never seen in the city centre. Are Kalash one of the few existing matriarchal societies?

Yet the last of the Kalash too are ebbing away. Syncretism between the Greeks, Chitraly and Muslim traditions is palpable. Kalashi women still adorn the traditional garb (a splash of colour within green fields) however the men now don shalwar kameez. They segued between Urdu and Chitraly and whipped out their cell-phones, as sting bottles littered the valley floor – it felt like a landfill. Much like the floods of 2014, their culture is being swept away with consumerism. Yet who are we to decide that they shouldn’t have these amenities? Bashalis (menstrual homes where women are shunned) still stood, however, it was claimed, that those who denounced the Kalashi life for Islam are also shunned by the Kalashi community. Graveyards where the departed were initially exposed to the elements have given way to being buried, as tourists and locals disrespected the tradition and stole the deceased’s belongings from the site. Hordes of bearded men crammed in cars with ogling eyes congested the route to Bomberet and some of the Kalashi community vented their frustrations by being unwelcoming towards visitors.

Warped in time, some sort of juxtaposition of what once was and what now is exists. The Kalasha Dur or Bumberet Kalash Museum is a testament to preservation of the culture. Georg Valentin Morgenstierne’s ground breaking research in the 1930’s along with the collection of Kalasha artefacts, stories and traditions are a surreal journey into the past – to our hunter gatherer history. Morgenstierne had collected scientific materials from the culture, including images (some of which are displayed in the museum), movies of pre-Islamic ceremonial dances and sound recordings of the Kalasha language (now going extinct). The materials are supposedly available in his database at the National Library of Norway.

The Hindukush range itself is largely rocky and devoid of vegetation. According to the Proceedings of the Third International Hindu Kush Cultural Conference, the area has lost its flora due to severe deforestation; the soil and landscape show no trace of a possible forest or tree line. It is when you visit Kalash that you see the terrain is actually capable of hosting some sort of alpine-scrub forest. Home to our national animal, the flare-horned markhor, a near threatened species on the IUCN list, this is cause for concern. Conversations with the people of Chitral revealed that it did not snow as it should have early this year. Climate change has made its way to the peaks of Tirich Mir (the highest peak) and its three major glaciers; Chiantar, Kurambar, and Terich. Remnants of the devastation of 2014 floods were seen in the Kalasha Valleys as gargantuan boulders littered the valley floor, and locals are still rebuilding 4 years later.

Water is plentiful as chasmas cut through and constantly shape the endless valleys – great potential for hydel power that could efficiently power every village. Golan Gol Hydropower plant was inaugurated in January 2018 on the banks of Lutkho River enroute to Mastuj. The plant is capable of producing 108MW, 36MW of which is supplied to the Chitral district – almost twice its current demand which is approximately 20MW. They have even prepared for the future, in case the river floods, a 3km long tunnel is quarried through the mountain where excess water shall flow and a turbine at the end of the tunnel will ensure uninterrupted electricity supply for 24 hrs, whilst they make repairs for supply continuity. All remaining electricity will provide to Pakistan’s national grid. Sustainable development at its finest - perhaps we need to explore the development of more such power plants?

Kalash, Chitral and the magnificent Hindukush could benefit from a carefully developed eco-tourism plan. This kind of tourism involves a low-impact and often small scale alternative to standard commercial mass tourism. It means encouraging responsible travel to these natural areas, conserving the environment and improving the well-being of the local people without hurting their culture, traditions and heritage.

Those visiting Chitral next, do stay at the Hindukush Heights for a stupendous valley view with comfortable and modern amenities. Mastuj Fort has a garden of Eden that feels like it sits at the edge of the world, with an ancient Chinar tree watching over you. If you visit Shandur, a visit to Laspur museum is a must where artefacts of the celebrated polo sport amongst other things are preserved and cherished. There is room for great sustainable development in Chitral, however prospects are frightening if more environmental and cultural degradation is to take place.

 

The writer is a graduate from New York University with a Master’s in Environmental Conservation.