Kalash: In valleys of fear

March 2, 2014

Kalash: In valleys of fear

About a month ago, a 50-minute-long video message by the TTP created panic among Kalash and Ismaili communities living in Chitral.

"By the grace of Allah, an increasing number of people from the Kalash tribe are embracing Islam and we want to make it clear to the Kalash tribe that they will be eliminated along with their protectors, the Western agents if they don’t embrace Islam," said the narrator in the video that was posted on the TTP’s website.

In reaction, Chief Justice Tassaduq Hussain Jillani took suo motu notice of the Pakistani Taliban’s threat to Ismailis and the Kalash tribe.

The fact that the three picturesque valleys of South Chitral -- Chitral-Bumburet, Rumbur and Birir -- are only a few hours walk away from Nuristan makes the Kalash community all the more insecure. "My family has stopped me from visiting them," says Arab Kalash, a student of Masters in Quaid-e-Azam University Islamabad from Kalash valley. "Our people are scared. The police have restricted our movement. The community has been advised to purchase weapons for their protection. They have established new checkposts."

Kalash have been under immense pressure from the Islamist missionaries for the last two decades.

Known for their love of festivals, music, dance, wine, wooden idols and bright folk dresses and jewellery, Kalash have lived alongside Muslims for centuries. 

"They treat our valley like a zoo which is showcased to the world as a marketing asset and a tourist destination. When it comes to giving us rights, nobody cares."

A Kalash girl from Bumburet, who does not want to be named, says in a telephone conversation that the community has already made it clear that they will leave Pakistan if adequate security is not provided.

"Tableeghi Jamaat has penetrated our community. My one uncle and one aunt have converted to Islam. Their children have also become Muslims. They still live with us but do not perform the Kalash rituals," she says, adding the more radicalised among them stop us from performing our rituals while others are accommodative.

"An FM radio channel broadcasts content against Kalash and Ismailis in Chitral," she says.

According to her, in the last few years Kalash have been stopped from playing music and dancing. Many Kalash families do not take part in rituals out of fear. She points to the ethnic cleansing of their community in Nuristan in 1896 by the then Emir of Afghanistan Abdur Rahman Khan. He destroyed their ancient temples and wooden idols; their women were forced to wear burqas and the entire population was converted to Islam by force. Earlier this area was called Kafiristan, but Khan renamed it as Nuristan (Land of light).


Salman Rashid, writer and fellow of Royal Geographical Society, says "Their Islamisation started during the Zia regime. The first madrassa was built in late 1980s. Now, there are mosques and madrassas everywhere. The families are divided because of conversions."

Rashid says they are pressured to not practice their rituals during Muslim prayer timings. "They cannot survive in such a situation. State is silent. It would have to take some concrete steps to ‘preserve’ these people and their culture."

Further, he says, local tourists, especially Punjabis and Pushtoons, pose threat to their culture -- "The attitude of tourists has forced them to change their dress code and behavioural patterns".

The Kalash community was numbered around 10,000 at the time of the partition. Today it is at only 3,880.

The Kalash community which, according to experts ,was numbered around 10,000 at the time of the partition, has been facing severe survival problems. Muslim population has outnumbered Kalash in all the three valleys. "Total population of three valleys is 13,000 while only 3,880 among them are Kalash," Wazir Zada, a young Kalash community leader and politician tells TNS.

Besides the role of Tableeghi Jamaat and other religious groups, money lenders in adjoining areas pressure the locals to convert. "Pushtoon community of adjoining Dir district gives them loans on tough conditions. When Kalash fail to repay the loan many are offered a waiver on condition of their conversion," says Muhammad Kashif Ali, a teacher of history at Gujrat University who did his MPhil thesis on Kalash culture and challenges to its survival.

In Kalash culture, women are free to make their decisions. A married woman is allowed to leave her husband and start living with another man. But a man cannot contract second marriage if his wife leaves him. So, "most Kalash men convert to Islam as they are guaranteed a new married life," says Ali.


Death is celebrated among Kalash and is the most expensive rituals of all. The family of the deceased has to arrange a feast for all Kalash people for at least three days. "Goat and cow meat, wheat, ghee, cheese and local wine (tara) is served by the host family. The cost can go up to 0.5 million rupees. So, many elderly people convert to Islam to free their children from these expensive rituals," he says.

Deforestation and illegal occupation of adjoining pastures by Muslim tribes also threaten their economy and culture.

Local police chief admit that there are serious threats to the survival of Kalash. "We have banned Tableeghi Jamaats in these valleys. State has been trying its best to protect them but we cannot stop conversions. We have asked FM radio operators to refrain from objectionable language in their programmes," he says.

Dr Soran Singh, member KP Assembly and assistant to chief minister on minority affairs, says that they have been trying to protect Kalash. "We have recently announced Rs20 million for their rehabilitation from last year’s flash floods and upgrade a middle school to high school."

Killing of Kalash shepherds and stealing away their goats is a routine but state never reacts.

Yet, the Kalash community feels disgruntled. "They treat our valley like a zoo which is showcased to the world as a marketing asset and a tourist destination. When it comes to giving us rights, nobody cares. Our children are forced to study Islamic Studies in schools which is another reason of their conversion as well. There are no proper roads, education and health facilities. We are also discriminated against when it comes to development budget in Chitral," says Wazir Zada.

He says that killing of Kalash shepherds and stealing away their goats is a routine but state never reacts. In 2012 some militants from the Afghanistan border area slaughtered a Kalash shepherd and took away 1500 goats. State did nothing to arrest the culprits.

"Our culture can only survive in isolation. Muslims are our brothers but kindly request them to leave us alone. Their prayers and our dance and drums cannot work simultaneously," he says.

The article appeared in The News on Sunday on March 2, 2014 with the title Valleys of fear.

Kalash: In valleys of fear