Last of the Kalash

Sarah Caron

2016 - Ongoing


The Kalash tribe has been at the receiving end of various onslaughts by religious extremists for centuries. Today the numbers of the last surviving polytheist tribe in the entire region, have been reduced to only 4000, thus making them one of the smallest religious minorities in the world. Its members on the Afghan side were brutally massacred or forced into conversion at the end of the 19th century and none remains there anymore. Those surviving took refuge in three extremely remote valleys of the Hindu Kush mountains in Pakistan bordering its porous frontier with Afghanistan. Despite the increased presence of Pakistani security forces in the region, the Taliban continue to take advantage of the terrain and attack this community especially the cattle herders who move to pastures in the higher slopes during summer as during winters, heavy snows keep this area cutoff from the rest of the world.

Various theories exist about the origins of the Kalash also called Kafir (infidels), and remain a hotly debated subject among historians and anthropologists alike. Some historians think this tribe descends from Greek invading armies of Alexander the Great while others insist that they are indigenous people with Persian/Central Asian or Aryan descent. Their physical traits too with green eyes and light colored hair are quite different from the rest of the country’s population.

The Kalash live in complete harmony with nature as all their requirements are fulfilled by it but illegal logging over decades has taken its toll. Today the state of their environment is highly fragile as flashfloods and landslides have become a regular feature causing loss of life and property every year.

While regularly working in Pakistan since 2007, it was only last winter that I got a chance to visit this region during a two week stay with a Kalash family. Despite centuries of persecution and extreme poverty, young activists from the community continue to struggle for recognition of their basic rights. They were able to get official recognition of their religion only recently as earlier in the official papers column religion was marked as “other”. Even to be counted as citizens in the ongoing census, they had to approach the High Court. They have also been trying for inclusion of their language and culture under UNESCO protection since years but due to lack of interest on behalf of authorities, their case remains in limbo.

Some aid organizations and NGOs are working to help the community in some sectors like health, installing solar panels & small hydro-power generators. The provincial government too has embarked upon an ambitious program of tree plantation in and around the valleys.

Its an ongoing project for which, I plan to make two trips each a month long during different seasons, one in December 2017 and second in summer May/June 2018 during Chillum Joshi festival, with the aim to not only record but to enhance awareness about the plight of their threatened culture by organizing expos/conferences in Pakistan and publications in mainstream international media. I have good contacts amongst Kalash community, aid groups and government officials, whom I aim to bring together by creating a common platform with this project.

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  • Fog sets on the Malakand pass at the entrance of Malakand tribal agency. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan.

  • River Kunar flowing through the town of Chitral, which used to be part of the ancient Kingdom of the Kalash tribe. Today they are only restricted to three remote valleys. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan

  • Brun village in Bumburet valley of the isolated territory of Kalash tribe in the Hindu Kush not far from the Afghan border. After being driven out of Afghanistan in the 16th century or forced to convert, the last "kafir" (infidel) tribe in Pakistan struggles to survive in isolation. In January 2016 there are no more than 4100 Kalash. Children play together in their colorful costumes, the girls don't leave their chouchout (crowns) embroidered with beads and cowries as these are the identity of Kalash women and girls. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan.

  • This rugged route, which was almost completely destroyed during the floods, is the sole road link into the isolated Kalash valley of Bamburet, which remains cutoff from the rest of the country due to heavy snows in winter. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan

  • A police check post at the entrance of the Bamburet valley. Due to cross border attacks from Afghanistan, security has been enhanced in the Kalash valleys as they lie just along the volatile Pak-Afghan border.

  • Women take care of their beautiful embroidered dresses and their "Kupas" made of beads and cowries that women wear when they are grieving.

  • Zarkima and Rabina, walk the 4km between their village to meet halfway. In winter visits are fairly spaced.

  • During winter Kalash mostly stay indoors around a fire to keep themselves warm as well as for cooking.

  • The houses are wooden and constructed to withstand the frequent tremors and earthquakes.

  • Zarmina washing clothes by a spring with its water at almost freezing temperatures. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan.

  • Laundry is done in the streams running through Kalash valley only on days when the winter sun comes out.

  • Women benefit from daylight to do their embroidery, which is a major symbol of Kalash identity.

  • Girls buy a piece of black tissue and stitch it themselves adding embroidery in different colors, which takes a lot of time.

  • Women and girls take care of their beautiful embroidered dresses, and their "Kupas" made of beads and cowries, that they prepare themselves. Kupas are worn when they are grieving.

  • Shandana, likes the flowers as a symbol, as most girls being attached to nature, wear them embroidered on their dresses.

  • Kalash families after sunset gather in the main room, which acts as a kitchen, dining room as well as bedroom.

  • Despite extremely cold weather most of the children remain outdoors during the day.

  • Weddings in the Kalash society aren't arranged by the parents instead girls are free to choose who they want to marry as well as divorce.

  • Children play together in their colorful costumes, the girls never leave their Shushoot (crowns) embroidered with beads and cowries as these are the identity of Kalash women and girls.

  • The mountains Goray Miann (left) and Baachha (right) where as per Kalash beliefs Balamain the most important god in the pantheon of the Kalash people moves to the top of the mountain in December.

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