Trip to the Kalasha Desh and Hunza Valley in Chitral

They are considered a pagan people. They drink alcohol, have light skin, blue eyes and practice an animist type of religion. All this is limited to an area of ​​a few square kilometers in the Hindu Kush, on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, in the midst of a delicate territory. We speak of the Kalash, ethnic group of ancient origins. We are in the western offshoot of Karakorum, the starting point of the most majestic mountain range in the world, the Himalayas.

It is an area of ​​great landscape value, with a deep symbolic meaning. It is not in Kashmir, that some believe where Jesus Christ was buried? A little further to the east, in the Indian Garhwal rises the Meru. It is considered the axis mundi, the center of the universe. Then further north, isolated in the heart of the Tibetan Plateau, in view of Lake Manasarovar, stands the Kailash.

It is the crystal mountain able to catalyze the religious experience of the Indian and Buddhist universe. The ancient Kafiristan represents, in fact, the intoxication, the love, the poetry and all the pagan sentiments that we have inherited from the civilization.

Seldom does one have the opportunity to establish contact with people who have escaped the overwhelming machinery that drives history? It is very difficult to study the historical processes by which human communities acquired the rites and customs that make up what we know in today's culture.

Despite the strength with which some ideas, religions or empires have flooded the world, drowning in their brisk waters primitive cultures, there is still room, miraculously, for a few people to preserve their own. An example of these people, perhaps the one that best serves to reflect human impermeability against foreign impositions, is the Kalasha tribe.

This tribe is hidden in a small region in the crumbling heart of the Hindu Kush mountains. It has culturally survived great empires such as Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan or the British Raj. They have not knelt before any god announced from the East or the West.

Islam, Christianity or Buddhism have passed by without disturbing them. And to communicate, they still speak their own ancestral language, because neither Persian nor Turkish, sound good on their lips. The Kalasha are, and I hope they continue to be, are a true living fossil of the Aryan race. My encounter with them is a golden page of this trip to the antipodes.

My first days in Pakistan were spent in the mountains of the paradise valley of Hunza. Here its stimulating nature and spirited inhabitants (followers of the Islamic sect of the Ishmaelites) were the ideal environments to make important decisions regarding my trip. For the first time in a while, I had no concrete plans on how to continue my adventure. I only knew that my natural route to the east had to be carried out in spite of everything. But the area I was in now offered innumerable possibilities to visit mysterious places and reconcile me with old traveler's wishes.

So, I decided about the trip to Kalasha. I learned about them for the first time a few years ago thanks to a book by an anthropologist. It took us 22 hours to travel by jeep from Islamabad to Chitral, the largest town near the Kalash Valley. The journey takes an eternity. I will remember it until old age as a delusion of checkpoints, interrogations, frost and absolute discomfort.

The moving hospitality of people should also be included in the list. The race to Chitral continues throughout the night, including a three-hour stop, before the most challenging stretch in the mountains. Each stop will be accompanied by a cup of green tea and a cigarette. We ascended a steep road and passed through the tunnel of Lowari, essentially a long, glorified cave that crosses the side of a mountain and which barely illuminates the odd lonely lamp.

To get to their domains, I had to move to Chitral, a city of northwest Pakistan at the foot of the Hindu Kush mountains. Arriving there from Gilgit was quite an adventure. The first day I traveled in a public bus that succumbed on the first hills of the mountains. The overloaded bus travels hard on the dirt road and when we try to wade a stream, the wheels end up between the stones.

We have to get off, lighten the vehicle and push it out, over the ford. The temperature is 5 degrees but two guys in sandals go into the water up to the ankles anyway, to place some stones in front of the wheels, so as to facilitate the resumption of the journey. A few moments later we manage to get us out of the way. The city of Chitral is now near. The second day, however, was a grotesque the road that had to be followed. The only way to get around was by 4x4.

On this trip, I have moved, except by plane, in all kinds of vehicles even animal pulled vehicles. But until then I had not done it in a way that made me feel more ridiculous. The place of the 4x4, in the end, was standing in the center of the convertible rear, on sacks of grain piled badly. It was fitted in the middle of a chassis of a large vehicle that the 4x4 transported in the high, tied precariously.

In each curve, or with each pothole (there were thousands on the road), it seemed that the chassis was going to be thrown violently, taking me with it, or worse, sectioning my body cleanly in two halves. To make matters worse, I had to endure the laughter of hundreds of children and not so children who were excitedly surprised to see me pass. They shouted jokingly when they saw me. I felt like the carnival king. Only instead of a beautiful multicolored float, I was holding onto a rusty chassis that threatened to dethrone me from one moment to the next.

Finally, I arrived at Chitral. The streets of Chitral were dirty with melting snow and lined with markets where everything was sold, from televisions to finely spun local wool. For decades Chitral and the Kalash valleys were considered a haven of peace. From here I went the next day, to the Kalasha valley of Bumburet. It was a few kilometers away but I had many hours of travel in another 4x4.

The jeep trip starts at the first light of dawn. On the thermometer hung on the wall outside the hotel are marked two degrees. The view of the doors of the vehicle, in tarpaulin, does not bode well. The first few kilometers are the worst, scourged by strong drafts of icy air that numb my legs. The view of the majestic Tirich Mir (7706 m) to the north is magnificent and is the excuse for a break in the sun.

The driver shows us a picturesque bridge over the river, continuing on the opposite bank along a dirt road that goes up the mountain ridge. Here the speed drops sharply. From time to time we must approach the stony edge of the roadway, to leave the passage to vehicles coming from the opposite direction. At the mouth of the bridge on the Ayun River, we stop at a police checkpoint. I show the passport and the authorization obtained the day before at Chitral's office. I leave my name in the umpteenth register, and the trip resumes in the direction of Bumburet.

There, of course, I had my first contact with the Kalasha. However, despite the fact that I was able to ascertain that I was the only visitor in the entire valley, they received me with a certain disinterest or indifference. Not in vain, this tribe, which is in itself notoriously proud, is relatively used to foreigners, especially to anthropologists, journalists or undefined guests like me.

In any case, the human landscape had changed completely in comparison with Chitral. I could immediately see the high social status enjoyed by the Kalasha women as opposed to the indiscriminate concealment of the women of Chitral. Later, a Kalasha man would convey to me a popular saying of his tribe according to which the men of Chitral keep their wives as if they were gold from Badakhshan.

In Bumburet I stayed for two days at a Kalasha inn. I shared the mossy wooden building with the sleeping innkeeper. There was another man who by his looks could well pass for German or Danish, with his pale skin, broad square forehead, blue-gray eyes, and straight, light hair. It was he who indicated to me, while we were tasting a taara base liquor made by the kalasha, for whom alcohol is not forbidden, from wild berries, that if we wanted to see Kalasha people living in a pure state, it would be best to go walking to the valley of Acholga. Here still live a few families in full nature, without any signs of civilization.

Indeed, in the valley of Acholga, civilization is a difficult term to pronounce. Just the fact of getting there walking and occupies you all day, especially if, as happened to me, you lose descending the slopes of the mountains that hover over the valley, enclosing it in a green abyss from which flow the waters of the raging Acholga river. So closed is the valley, that the same river does not become visible until one is about fifty meters away from it.

In the late afternoon, my concern about the possibility of never reaching the village increased my fatigue. I found a "path" that descended abruptly down a virtually vertical mountain slope, which finally led me to the banks of the mountain.

The first human beings I encountered were two Kalasha girls. They were so scared when they saw me, that they ran terrified and disappeared among the corn fields. I thought it was not a good start to get to know the Kalasha better. But at the same time, I had the rewarding feeling of having realized an exceptionally optimistic expectation in their conception. It is that the people I would meet would feel, at least, so much amazement at the see me as myself

Luckily for my tired bones, not all people reacted the same as the girls. Of the five inhabited houses that I could count in the whole area, I asked in one of them if we could stay, of course with gestures and addressing the head of the family. The man, a peasant dressed in the traditional Pakistani way, with a dirty shalwar (a suit consisting of a knee-length nightgown and pants of the same color) and wearing a pakol (a typical beret from northern Pakistan and Afghanistan), gave a half smile.

It accompanied with a slight tilt of the head, indicating that we could not remain in his house. While conversing with the man, I could feel how he was being scrutinized by his wife. She worked inside the house-hut, and by the two girls who ran scared a few minutes ago. They turned out to be his daughters.

Nevertheless, he asked me to follow him and he took me to his neighbors' house, a mere thirty meters upstream. There he gave me directions, counting on the approval of the smiling neighbors, that I could stay, to my surprise. He disappeared into the thickness of the cornfield, as his daughters had done minutes before when he saw me arrive.

The family that decided to give me shelter was the archetype of traditional tribal family. Their way of life was a whole display of everyday customs "professionally" carried out. It was composed, as far as I could tell, by two couples, one of whom had two children, a boy and a teenage girl and the other a single son. Both couples were related by the two women, who were sisters. They moreover, were the ones who took care of any domestic task.

They lit fires, prepare food and do the knitting. The men were in charge of maintaining the grain crops that surrounded the house and of shepherding the few goats they had. The house itself, built with logs of cedar wood and mud, was an elaborate example of self-sufficiency. It was composed of the main cabin, with a flat roof, which served as a warehouse and also to shelter from the cold in winter.

Adjacent to this was the porch where the goats slept and the family in summer. In front of it was an area of ​​about twenty square meters that belonged to another room located on a lower level. It took advantage of the pronounced unevenness of the soil, in which the forage for the only cow they had and which they kept was dried in the sun. There was a small corral located also on the lower level and with which one had to be careful not to fall inside.

We meet a shepherd-shaman buried for years in a mountain hermitage. We reach it after a hard climb. His hut is on top of a cliff with a panoramic view on all four sides. He is covered in rags but his gaze reveals a magnetic force. He is surrounded by woolly dogs that look like Afghan hounds and other shepherds. He offers us some tea and a bit of chapati (a thin grilled bread) topped with a tasty dessert.

He wants to show me the famous dizi lawat - the rocks of creation - where they offer water, milk, wine, goat's blood and incense of saras (juniper) to Sajigor, the god of the peaks. Our king wants to convince us to stay in the mountains promising that with a full immersion of a few months I can become a shaman. I go downhill thinking about that offer.

When the night came, with its luminous stars, the women busied themselves in preparing the dinner. It consists of fried corn cakes and fresh (crumbled) goat cheese. For dessert, there was sun-dried apple pieces and tea with milk. Nothing more, nothing less. To this day, and considering the state of exhaustion in which I was, this simple pittance is one of the tastiest delicacies that my humble palate has ever enjoyed.

We spent the days recording and the nights with our guests. New Kalash friends passed each night. We ate with them plate after plate of rice, dal, tomatoes, and naan before exchanging songs. They sang evocative chants that the inhabitants of the mountains had passed from generation to generation.

After a week of being there, our hosts invited us one night to go to their cabin to drink and dance. One man played the flute, another the drum, and there was a small space to dance. The homemade liquor was passed from hand to hand in old Coca-Cola plastic bottles, along with a little Nazar to keep spirits high. Every time a new song started, a guard would come forward to dance with me or one of my friends. We strutted from one side to the other, clapping and snapping our fingers with the shrill sound of the flute.

There were several more parties as well throughout that month. The old plastic bottles, the flute player, the percussionist.

When we visit Kafiristan we are seduced by the beauty of kafir women. They smile at us without chador and without veils. To make themselves more beautiful, they wear majestic kupas, made of wool, silver, and shells. And they dye their eyes with black kajal and red elderberry sauce. On the spring festival the Joshi I saw her dancing the zabum. Lit by the roar of the drums they turn on themselves like spins until they are exhausted. The body is shaken by a sacred tremor that the kafir call umbulu. The look is in the sky. It is an ecstatic dance.

In the autumn I saw wine. The onjesta mosh, the virgin children, start to press the grapes into tin vats. The work is then completed by the elder brothers. It is preserved until December for the ritual of the solstice festival. The vine grows clinging to the walnut trees and the grapes ripen to dizzying heights. The cultivation of this alpine grape refers to a new legend.

The wine for the kafir is an ambrosia offered to Balumain, who at the end of winter returns to Kafiristan. I wanted to celebrate the chaumos there, the winter solstice festival. In the days of the eve they prepare the shishao (bread stuffed with walnuts and cooked by virgin boys), and the kuturuli (sweets in the form of female genitals), which are offered to Kushumai, goddess of fields and love.

And on the day of the ditsh - of the great purification - they make baths of blood, fire and icy water of torrent and still juniper fumigations. To protect this ritual purity, the kafir retreat to their villages by imposing a ban on getting close to everything that is impure. I too had sprinkled myself with the blood of the sacrificial kid, blessed with the juniper incense and purified with a nice stream bath.

They explained to me that this purity fanaticism is an intelligent cure that reinforces villages and cafir culture. Taboos, baths, and diets are antidotes against diseases and misfortunes. Dances and parties are a way to reinforce the group and alleviate social conflicts.

In fact, the festival recalls in some ways the orgiastic feasts of the ancient Greek-Roman world. The wine obtained by fermentation is drunk at the winter solstice, called Chaumos, during days when it is used to get drunk to approach the divinity. It is interesting to note that during the year the population no longer consumes wine, which therefore takes on exclusively a ritual meaning. The chaumos is symbolized by the burning of a pine shingle block full of enemies and other demons.

The holy night of the solstice is also the night of sacrifice. Guided by the mighty budalaks - the shepherd kings - I climb into the mountains invoking Balumain. To reach the sacred rocks, thrones of Balumain, we climb a gully without traces of the path. The most sacred place is the wildest and the god of the solstice chooses to land every year on a group of anthropomorphic rocks at the top of a landslide.

Each householder brings a billy goat to sacrifice: I too have a nice red billy goat. The goat will be sacrificed when his body is shaken: a sign that the deity takes possession of the victim. The tremor can infect the dehars and the most sensitive young people who fall into a trance, manifesting their shamanic vocation.

Finally, among the mosques that advance in a maze of small valleys, the sacred jestak-han is a temple, slaughterhouse and town hall. It is the seat of Jestak, that does not disdain offers of kids during the Chaumos. The Chaumos lasts about two weeks and is conceived as a series of acts of purification and propitiatory rituals to visit the great god Balumain.

On the first day, fires with juniper wood are lit everywhere. Old baskets are burned and young men's parades are formed which "trot" and nod, to attract the god, who always appears on horseback. From the beginning, the obscenity explodes, with all its vital charge. On the second day the women wash their hair and renew their kupas, the beautiful headphones adorned with shells and colored beads. Bread is baked in the barn.

The third is the day reserved for insults, among the girls of the different villages. It is a war of words that lasts until night, to which young males assist, ready to appreciate the fantasy of this or that. Then comes the day of the cooking of the beans, that of the pack of small goats with bread crumbs and the repainting of the friezes adorning the jestak-han.

It follows the day of the return of the dead (to whom food must be offered) that closes the first phase of the party. Then begin seven days of abstinence, ablutions, and purifications for all men, women and children, during which any stranger must leave the Kalash valleys. Finally, the day of the great sacrifice arrives.

Dozens of goats are ritually slaughtered in front of the mahandeus, the altar of the great god, from whose stones stand four horse heads, carved in the wood. And at this point the "tremors" can be observed among the young, interpreted as signs of a possession that reveals shamanic attitudes. The farewell to Balumain will be celebrated by a procession of women each with a peacock feather on the kupas.

The stepped village is built halfway up the mountain and on top the stalls of the goats that occasionally welcome the suchi, the fairies that embody the fertile power of Mother Nature. Higher up, huge boulders radiate the male and solar force of Mahandeo and Balumain. The fairies reside in the purest lands of the peaks. They protect the Markors (the ibexes), the dehar (the shamans), the shepherd kings and all the naked and wild nature of the high mountain. The sacred peaks are a taboo place. It would be a real desecration to ascend the pyramid of Mount Palar, where gods and ancestors reside in palaces of gold that are seen occasionally glinting in the sun.

The festival was amazing to see as all those women were dancing around the drums wearing dresses and hats with lots of colors and hand embroidery. There were drunk men with their curtains and vests pushing and screaming. The small town was full of joy. In the evening we also had music at the campsite and we were able to try some local Chitral dances thanks to the encouragement given by two glasses of Arak.

Later, after a lively evening in front of the fire laughing and joking with the children, the older woman ordered something from her husband. The men rise from the point without making any observation. They prepare a wooden-legged bed and corded mattress and arrange it in the middle of the esplanade used to dry the forage. They make me indications that that would be my bed.

There, out in the open, on a soft summer night, in the depths of an abyss, I spent the night awake, resting without sleep. My eyes did not need rest, only my bones longed for it. I contemplated comforting the stars and the moon, which seemed to belong to the same valley, and let me take my imagination.

Who were the Kalasha? Would they really be descendants of the hosts of Alexander the Great? Or perhaps descendants of the precursors of great Persia? Or of those Vedic people that came to India more than three thousand years ago, leaving their epic stories recorded with the ancestral Sanskrit language? Perhaps they were a mixture of everything.

Nevertheless, their rooted and rigorous customs, like the bashali, that practice of separating the woman from the community when she goes through a period of menstruation or childbirth, as well as her strange language, they did not seem to turn them into derivatives of some historical empire or colony. They must have been something purer, perhaps something much earlier than anything else.

Perhaps they were, not only the last white tribe, as many people call them, but simply, the first, or one of the first Aryan tribes.

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