The Lost Civilization

Published at The Express Tribune

Twenty-three hundred years ago, Alexander the great and his forces were pushing deep into South Asia. Legend has it that on their way to India in 327 BC, some of Alexander’s men remained in the villages of Chitral in the Northern Areas of Pakistan. As a result the Kalash tribe of roughly 3500 (3554) consider themselves direct descendants of the Macedonian king. This unique tribe is tucked away in the isolated mountain valley of Bumberet, hidden from the rest of the world. My family and I were fortunate to spend a few nights among the extraordinary Kalash during our travels through Pakistan last summer.

We began our journey along the Chitral-Dir road early in the morning. Besides a few large boulders here and there, the paved highway was not living up to the lore. The drastic change in terrain didn’t occur until midday. Our vehicles turned off the mainline and headed down a steep s-curve. Upon navigating the turn, we immediately encountered what I like to describe as an 1800’s suspension bridge intended for pedestrians and smallish mules. We safely squeezed through the narrow passage despite driver apprehension. Mud walls crowded the dusty roadway and made the concept of speeding impossible without losing a side view mirror. The seemingly endless ride didn’t end for hours. At one point the tires of our pickups were inching off the edge of a rocky cliff on one side and skimming the sharp cut bank of the other. Eventually the jagged gray scenery morphed into green fields tended by women in colorful clothes, embroidered headpieces, and jewelry.

It felt great to finally witness a culture which I had heard so many tales about. The Kalash have maintained their ancient Greek rituals throughout the centuries. They make their own wine, hold animals sacred and believe in gods and fairies. The steep slopes surrounding the valley have helped protect this tribe from conservative Islam. During a time where extremists drove out minorities in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, the Kalash remained free to grow marijuana in the open and continued to ferment their wine. Although the people remain isolated, some of them venture out to the modern world to educate us about their ancient civilization and to work with NGOs to improve their schools and hospitals. Recently, the population has been dwindling as more and more depart to follow the faith of Islam. This pattern hasn’t prevented the steadfast from holding popular festivals which continue to generate revenue and attract tourists from the world over.

My party recovered quickly after a night of rest and headed out on the town where we were greeted by a large gathering of locals. A drum fashioned out of a metal gas cannister started its deep thrum and the Kalashi women formed a huge circle while inviting us to join in. After missing a few steps I eventually fell into rhythm and was proud to see that I caught on before my mother did. Bragging rights are essential during long trips such as these. The circle soon dispersed and the men cheered while the women broke into groups of 3 and danced on their toes while flicking their hands side to side. The men and children joined in too. Each dance was a thrill to witness and my entire party was saddened when the event came to an end way too soon.

The most astonishing aspect of this tribe is the working relationship between Kalasha men and women. The women do not hide their faces instead they dance in the open, drink wine and express themselves freely. Unlike most other villages in Pakistan, Kalasha women are active members of the governing body and play a role in decision making. They tend the fields in the morning, cook, make wine in the evenings and embroider intricate designs on clothes and accessories to be sold in their handicraft stores. It appeared to me that the women ran the community. Men on the other hand, were seen chatting with others, taking care of the children or with cattle in the hills.

Later on in the day we visited the ancient graveyard of the tribe. Open coffins with visible bones were spread around in the cemetery. The Kalash do not bury the dead and their funeral rituals are just as distinctive. The deceased are not mourned.  Their bodies are instead propped up for display at the Jestak Temple which is named after the Goddess who protects pregnant women, marriage and family. Family members visit and scribe images of the deceased with coal on the temple walls. Fresh milk is offered up on an alter to the Goddess in order to protect the family during this period.

As our tour of the Jestak Temple came to an end one of the village elders kindly invited us to visit her house. The house was shared between two families and consisted of two rooms, the kitchen/dining area next to a window by the terrace and another room with a wood burning fireplace surrounded by a few beds. A large container used for fermenting took up a good portion of the bedroom. The Kalasha use grapes grown in the valley and during the festivals every house has wine to offer to the tourists.

Our host then led us to the nearby handicraft store where I immediately hoarded an armful of gifts and souvenirs. Everyone’s favorite was the intricate women’s headgear embroidered with buttons, shells, beads and whatever else was available in the village. Some suggest that the colorful headpiece resembles Macedonian war helmets. Women in the village ritually add a set of orange beads around their neck for each additional year of life. Needless to say the older women had thick strands upon strands of orange beads on their chests.

After 3 wonderful nights our group was naturally disappointed when the moment of departure could no longer be delayed. The village elders came to say goodbye and draped hand woven ribbons around our shoulders to thank us for coming and to welcome us again. This visit was a mesmerizing adventure and the Kalash way of life was an exciting discovery. I am determined to return during the Kalash spring festival which lasts for a month and contains even more dancing and wine drinking. Remarkably this tribe has maintained its identity while the rest of us are consumed by globalization.


3 Responses to “The Lost Civilization”

  1. 1 takhalus
    April 30, 2011 at 10:14 pm

    I believe the greek linkage is a bit of a myth like the Bani israel one for pashtuns

  2. May 12, 2011 at 11:55 am

    I have read your article in The Express Tribune (congratulations!), the pictures are superb and it’s a nice piece of information about the Kalash, which unfortunately is a very unknown people. It is especially interesting that the graves are open. It vaguely reminds me of the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence, in which they would deposit the corpses for the vultures to eat them.

    Their Greek ancestry, as takhalus pointed out, is probably bogus, yet the Greek government offers scholarships to the Kalash to study in Greece.

    Again congratulations, I hope to read more from you soon! 🙂

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