The Kalash tribe’s annual celebration of Joshi, a unique festival that marks spring’s arrival in their remote corner of the Hindu Kush mountains, is no longer the carefree affair it once was.
The festival is still a riot of color and rhythm, as it has been for centuries: Kalash women hold each other by the shoulder and swirl around in their customary dance, singing and whistling to a hypnotic drumbeat played by the men as they walk from village to village before all converge at special hilltop sites for their carnival.
But this year’s festival, held in May, took place under heavy security. Less than 5,000 Kalash survive and maintain their mystical beliefs. The tribe’s ancient religion, free mixing of the sexes and wine drinking put them at odds with some of their Muslim neighbors who consider such practices sacrilegious.
“If this celebration ends, our culture will end,” said Mutaram Shah, 80, a Kalash elder who wore a shimmering golden coat for the festival in the Bumburet valley, where he and other male elders engaged in mock fights with sticks amid the dancing.
Members of this community say they are battling to preserve their traditions against two powerful forces: the encroachment of modernity and pressure to conform with the surrounding Muslim population.
At this year’s festival, the women wore their traditional long black dresses embellished with bright patterns, heaps of colorful necklaces and headdresses adorned with beads and seashells. But some of the younger women covered their faces for the dance with scarves, in a recent adoption of conservative Muslim norms.
Kalash children now go to school, where the girls come under pressure to adopt the chador, a wraparound cloth to hide their hair and faces, like the Muslim girls of Chitral, members of the tribe say.
The threat of attack was also visible: Around 400 police officers were deployed at this year’s festival, along with a contingent of army in both uniform and plainclothes, partly in response to a long video the Pakistani Taliban distributed last year that warned the Kalash to convert to Islam, security officials said.
Community members, however, say the steady erosion of their culture is the greatest threat to the Kalash.
“Since I came here, people have been saying that the Kalash will disappear,” said Akiko Wada, a Japanese woman who moved here in 1987 and married a Kalash man. “I can see the culture is adapting to the nearby culture, the lifestyle is changing. It is worrying.”
Many Kalash consider themselves descendants of Alexander the Great, the Macedonian conqueror who led his army into what is now Pakistan in 326 B.C. Anthropologists believe the Kalash are more likely the marooned remnants of an ancient migration from Central Asia to South Asia and Europe.
The Kalash’s realm once straddled Pakistan’s far northwestern Chitral area and the adjacent Afghan province of Nuristan, a region dubbed Kafiristan, or “Land of the Infidels.” Muslims started to conquer Chitral in the 14th century, driving the Kalash into ever-smaller pockets. In Afghanistan, King Abdur Rahman forcibly converted Kalash in the 1890s to Islam, wiping out their culture there. The number of Kalash in previous centuries is unclear.
The tribespeople now inhabit three narrow valleys in Chitral, where they grow crops and raise long-haired goats. Their valleys are accessible only by a narrow track carved into the mountainside. The Kalash language and religion are distinct, as are their pacifistic ways in a region known for violence and internecine feuding.
“We’re a peaceful people,” said Muhammad Iqbal Kalash, sitting outside his traditional stone-and-wood house on the banks of a mountain river in the Rumbur valley. “Without the security now provided, we would no longer go to our dancing places.”
Even in their remaining three valleys, the Kalash are now outnumbered by Muslims. While the native Chitralis are known for their tolerance, many Muslim settlers from outside the region have brought a harsh brand of Islam with them.
Women are in many ways the anchor of Kalash culture. Confidently mixing with men and enjoying home-made wine and liquor fermented from mulberries or apricots at festivals, women usually choose their husbands—unlike most of Pakistan, where marriages are arranged by family elders. A Kalash wife can leave her husband for another man as long as the first one is financially compensated.
“Kalash religion and culture has survived because of the women,” said Sayed Gul Kalash, a woman taking a break from dancing at the festival. “Conversion is a silent killer. When someone leaves their religion, they leave their language and culture too.”
Kalash men have adopted the shalwar kameez, the baggy shirt-and-trousers combination worn by men throughout the rest of Pakistan. The men say they are encouraged by Muslims neighbors to shave, so they are not mistaken for Muslims.
The Kalash have adopted Muslim names, while the now-educated young men are reluctant to tend goats, an animal considered pure by the Kalash and an important part of their religion.
With no written tradition and no sacred book, many Kalash find their religion, a faith of shamans and animal sacrifice, hard to explain. They believe in one supreme God, but other deities function as intermediaries.
Cellphone service, another intrusion of the modern world, arrived in some Kalash areas only this year. But while modernization has taken some Kalash away from their home valleys and beliefs, it has also made many of them prouder of their unique heritage.
“There is now awareness of our culture,” said Meeta Gul, a mother of two in Rumbur. “Educated Kalash don’t convert.”