NationalVOLUME 16 ISSUE # 10

Kalash, the indigenous people of Pakistan

The Kalash people are considered unique among Pakistanis. The Kalasha or Kalash, also called Waigali or Wai, are Dardic Indo-Aryan indigenous people, living in the Chitral district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. They speak the Kalasha language, and are believed to be Pakistan’s smallest ethno-religious community, practising a religion which some authors characterise as a form of animism, while academics classify it as “a form of ancient Hinduism”.

It is believed the ancestors of the Kalash migrated to the Chitral valley from another location, possibly farther in the south, which the Kalash call \Tsiyam’ in their folk songs and epics. They are also considered as the descendants of the Gandhari people by some researchers.

The Kalasha language, also known as Kalasha-mun, is a member of the Dardic group of the Indo-Aryan languages. Its closest relative is the neighbouring Khowar language. Kalasha was formerly spoken over a larger area in south Chitral, but it is now mostly confined to the western side valleys, having lost ground to Khowar.

The Kalash area lies between Biron Shahi (on the north), Drosh (in the south), Broz and Chitral (in the east) and Afghanistan on (the west). It stretches over an area of 210 sq. km. and holds a population of 16,028 persons. The Kalash tribe comprises about 3,000 souls having their own belief, primitive and unique customs and traditions. The valley is rich in plants, natural resources and is less disturbed, presenting a tract of highly mountainous with steep to very steep slopes and diverse altitudinal and topographic variation. Some workers have carried out studies on the plant natural resources of district Chitral and adjoining district.

The current study was aimed at exploring the psychological resilience, beliefs and experiences of the Kalasha and to identify cultural protective factors and indigenous beliefs that help them maintain their psychological wellbeing and resilience. In particular, past studies revealed that the wellbeing of marginalised and minority communities was enhanced when they maintained their cultural values and affinity with their cultural traditions. The Kalasha are the last minority tribe having polytheistic beliefs in north Pakistan. They have maintained their unique traditions, from even before Muslims arrived in the region and, as historians have documented, they have only been marginally touched by the influence of Buddhism and Hinduism. The Kalasha are known to be content and cheerful, as well as peaceful, showing gratitude and enjoying their simple pastoralist living. The example demonstrated through the Kalasha may give a deeper understanding of minority communities and their survival, and reveal clues as to how these communities maintain their resilience through times of social change. It would thus be an important task to explore the belief system of the unique group in order to develop an in-depth psychological understanding of their resilient worldviews. One believes that the minority status and marginalisation do not necessarily lead to lower wellbeing in these communities, contrary to some common beliefs and findings that have reported on the negative impact of rural lives and marginalisation on wellbeing.

The Kalash Valley’s first-ever Ishpata youth competition was held on May 3, 2016. The event was funded by Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP)/ Enhancing Employability and Leadership for Youth (EELY) project with financial assistance from the Global Affairs of Canada. It was implemented by Ayun and (Kalash) Valleys Development Programme (AVDP) and organised by Kalash People’s Development Network (KPDN). For the first time, such a competition was held in the Kalasha language.

There is some controversy over what defines the ethnic characteristics of the Kalash. Although quite numerous before the 20th century, the non-Muslim minority has seen its numbers dwindle over the past century. A leader of the Kalash, Saifulla Jan, said, “If any Kalash converts to Islam, they cannot live among us anymore. We keep our identity strong.” About three thousand have converted to Islam or are descendants of converts, yet still live nearby in the Kalash villages and maintain their language and many aspects of their ancient culture. By now, sheikhs, or converts to Islam, make up more than half of the total Kalasha-speaking population.

In contrast to the surrounding Pakistani culture, the Kalasha do not, in general, separate males and females or frown on contact between the sexes. Girls are initiated into womanhood at an early age of four or five, and married at fourteen or fifteen. If a woman wants to change husband, she will write a letter to her prospective husband, informing him about how much her current husband paid for her. This is because the new husband must pay double if he wants her.

Marriage by elopement is rather frequent, also involving women who are already married to another man. Indeed, wife-elopement is counted as one of the “great customs” together with the main festivals. Wife-elopement may lead in some rare cases to a quasi-feud between clans until peace is negotiated by mediators, in the form of the double bride-price paid by the new husband to the ex-husband.

In an ethnographic study, Wynne described the freedom and liberty of Kalasha women and their openness and freedom in choosing life partners. However, there has not been any study that links such cultural traditions and norms to their wellbeing. We do not have much knowledge as to whether their cultural or ethnic identity affects their wellbeing in a positive or negative way. Also, limited information is available to understand the implications of the inter-group contact they have with the majority groups. Ethier and Deaux, for instance, showed that weaker ethnic identity was related to higher level of perception threat from the environment among Hispanic students, which further lead to reduction in self-esteem and lower levels of identification with the ethnic group. Therefore, we may argue that if the Kalasha hold a strong ethnic identity and pride with their background, they should be more resilient, regardless of the kinds and strengths of threats they may encounter.

The Kalasha, a marginalised ethnic and religious minority group, is known for their divergent polytheistic beliefs, and represents the outliers of the collectively monotheistic Muslim population of Pakistan. Southeast Asia and South Asia are among the most culturally diverse parts of the world. However, many of the minority groups and indigenous people in the region are marginalised and receive little government support and legal protection compared to such populations in the West. In Asia, ensuring human rights for minorities and indigenous people at the national and regional level is still in its infancy, especially in practice. Moreover, there is a dearth of literature on the ethnic and religious minorities of Asia, and very few studies with a focus on psychological resilience.

The Kalasha are strongly devoted to their culture and religion. However, during the 1970s and 1980s, the Kalasha people and the valleys experienced drastic changes like: means of communication, travel, religious conversion, demographic, standards, burial rehearsal, and change in social institutes like bashali1 and budalak.

The Kalasha community is known as the most festive community of Pakistan as the Kalasha dastoor rotates about the festivals, throughout the year. Primarily, the Kalasha celebrate two types of religious festivals; one is of purely religious festivals with rituals only, while the other is a combination of religious and cultural ceremonies; a mixture of rituals, singing and dancing.

(Excerpts from a research article, written by Sadia Bibi, Iqra Liaqat, Iqra Munir and Ume Farwa, and submitted to their supervisor, Ms Iram Majeed, at the Lahore School of Nursing, The University of Lahore)