The final Kalash of the Hindu Kush | DW Documentary

published on July 2, 2020

In northwestern Pakistan,
close to the Afghan border,

the Kalasha people are struggling
to preserve their centuries-old culture

Once they inhabited large portions of the
Hindu Kush, deep into today’s Afghanistan

Today there are only
around 4,000 Kalash left

They live in three
picturesque valleys

in the Pakistani province
of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

The Kalash are facing
an uncertain future

In predominantly Muslim Pakistan

the survival of their
traditions hangs in the balance

Until recently the valleys where
the Kalash live were so inaccessible

that they were effectively
cut off from the outside world

Now a bumpy dirt road
brings vehicles here

For centuries, the remote location of
the Bumburet, Rumbur and Birrir valleys

preserved the local Kalash from the fate
suffered by other members of their faith

Throughout the Hindu Kush region, the
Kalash have been persecuted as infidels,

killed or forced to
convert to Islam

Today they are under
the protection of the state

as Pakistan’s smallest
ethnic-religious minority

They can practice their
faith and traditions freely

Unlike the monotheistic
Muslims surrounding them,

the Kalash adhere to ancient
Indo-European polytheistic beliefs,

in harmony with nature

According to some legends,

they are descended from Greek soldiers
from the army of Alexander the Great

Life in the valleys has
changed greatly in recent years

The Kalash are
no longer isolated

And now they face the question
of how to preserve their culture

in a time of radical upheaval

The new connection to the outside
world has not only enabled Islam

to move into the valleys

Modern civilization is also
encroaching on the villages

The streets are filled
with commercial activity

Television, the internet and
smartphones are widespread —

evidence of how the original
way of life is gradually changing

At the state-run girls’ school in Bumbaret,
17-year-old Persikila is about to graduate

And she is facing big changes

She wants to study at a college, for which
she will have to leave her native village

Islamic instruction is mandatory
in all public schools in Pakistan

The Kalash students
also have to take part

The path to higher education invariably
passes through the public schools

Attending them offers Kalash people better
job prospects — and a way out of poverty

But they always feel the subtle
pressure to conform to the Muslim majority

In Persikila’s house, it’s time
to prepare the evening meal

The cooking is done
in the traditional way

Every meal is accompanied by
flatbread made from corn or wheat

Both are grown in the valley

Persikila’s mother doesn’t
need electricity to cook

But her brother does
— to watch television

For a long time, the Kalash
here were self-sufficient

Even today most of their food
comes from the fertile valley

Alongside grain, the farmers here
grow many kinds of fruits and vegetables

In the evening the whole
family gathers for dinner

Persikila and her siblings
have spent the day in school

Their parents worked in the field
and took care of the family business

The flatbread and beans are
an invariable part of daily life —

just like the Pakistani garb worn
by the men – the shalwar kameez —

and the round
woolen cap, the Pakol

The women still wear
brilliantly embroidered dresses

and the customary
Susut headdress

That is a big contrast to the
clothes worn by Muslim women

The animistic beliefs of the Kalash
are not part of an organized religion

Their faith has neither
books nor buildings

Without holy scriptures,
mosques, churches or temples,

the Kalash are guided by the
signs and rhythms of nature

Their most important goal is to live
in harmony with their environment

One woman who has managed
to hold on to her Kalash culture

and complete studies at
university is Sayed Gul

The archeologist navigates
between two worlds —

that of the Kalash
and Muslim society

She researches her own culture, and
hopes to raise public awareness about it

She sees that as an important step
in bolstering the rights of the Kalash

But the developments in Bumbaret have also
left their mark on Sayed Gul’s own family

Her younger sister Maya
recently converted to Islam

So far, she is the only Muslim
among the seven children

Sayed Gul thinks her
sister decided to convert out

because she was
in love with a Muslim

Marriage would only be
possible after conversion

Twenty year-old Maya won’t talk
with her family about her reasons

It’s a tough situation
for all of them

Our parents were very
alarmed when she converted

But she can be a good
person as a Muslim, too

So it’s all right

It’s her decision

The most important thing
is that she’s a good person

Right?

As a Muslim, I miss
Kalash clothing

I could go on
wearing it, but I don’t

The problem isn’t the
religion, but the people

If you convert to Islam and
keep on wearing Kalash clothing,

people might think that
you’re not committed to Islam,

or have even abandoned it

And that could antagonize
religious extremists

How do you feel about your
daughter converting to Islam?

I have to accept it

She’s my daughter

She’s still a good person,
and that’s what matters

During Ramadan I tried
to relieve her of her chores,

but she still always
wanted to help me

I want the best for her

She is my daughter

Gul, is disappointed in me

She is more than my big sister

She’s also like a mother
and a father for me

She’s done so much for me

The Kalasha Dur Museum in Bumbaret
was founded with the help of a Greek NGO

Alongside the exhibition
rooms it houses a library

and a primary school
for Kalash children

Sayed Gul comes here regularly

Our population isn’t
growing like it should be

Many people talk
about forced conversion

But this pressure
isn’t so easy to define

What kind of pressure is it?

It happens in an indirect way

On the one hand
there aren’t many of us

And our children are
influenced in school

The things they learn push
them further away from our culture

Like Maya, more and more young
Kalash are converting to Islam

That is why their numbers have
been continuously dwindling —

from 30,000 in
1950 to 3,800 today

Kalash women are allowed to choose
their husbands — and to divorce them

But if they marry a Muslim
and convert to Islam to do so,

they are bound
to their new faith

Conversion to Islam is a
step that can’t be reversed

In this way, a personal choice
can affect the entire society

And the few Kalash who remain bear the
responsibility of preserving their culture

The weather in the valley is
ideal for a hair wash in the river —

using what nature
has given them

The striking braided hairstyles have
been worn by Kalash women for centuries

The colorful handmade bead
necklaces also have a long tradition

They weigh up to several kilograms
and are worn by women of all ages

The number of chains increases
as a woman grows older

Early summer is
mulberry time in Bumbaret

The sweet fruits ripen
almost all at once

Everyone pitches in
to harvest them and dry

and store them for
the long winter to come

Or at least the ones
the cows leave behind

For the Kalash it is normal to view
animals not as property, but as partners

Persikila’s mother uses the fresh
milk to make cheese, butter and ghee

Residents here no longer have to
cultivate and make everything themselves

Nowadays there are small shops

The roads may be bad, but they enable
traders to come here to sell their goods

Modern life is entering
the sleepy valleys

And rapidly growing tourism is
bringing many changes for the Kalash

But it is also opening up
new business opportunities

Persikila‘s father Faizi Khan has
gone into the tourism business

He’s turned his
home into a hotel

We run the hotel as a family

That earns us some money to
pay for our children’s education

There aren’t many
other opportunities here

There’s no industry in the
valley — meaning no jobs

The tourists only come during
two or three months of the year

No one comes in the wintertime

But tourism at least
gives us a small income

Persikila and her mother
also profit from that

I don’t like the tourists

They come here in the
summer holidays for our festivals

We don’t have walls or
fences around our houses,

so they just walk right
in and take pictures

I don’t like that

A little way up the river, life still seems
normal — and undisturbed by tourists

Gul Sinhe lives
here with her family

The 14-year-old student faces the
same questions most young Kalash do

Should she follow in
her mother’s footsteps

and care for the family, the
household and the fields?

Or should she leave the
valley and go out into the world?

This is the family farm

Children from the
neighborhood gather here

Gul Sinhe‘s father,
Sher Alam, is a teacher

He instructs the
children in his spare time

Patiently he teaches them
reading, writing and English

They don’t need
blackboards or notebooks

Pebbles will also do the trick

The Kalasha language spoken
here belongs to the Dardic languages

Its writing uses
Latin characters

It is spoken exclusively in the three
Kalasha valleys of Chitral District

Kalash culture and
language are on the curriculum

of this state-funded primary school

But only a few
places are available

The other children have to
attend the public Islamic schools

You have to roll
your tongue here

In contrast to the Islamic schools,
the Kalash classes are mixed gender

The boys and
girls learn together

After graduating
from primary school,

all the children move on to
the public secondary schools

They have separate classes for boys and
girls and follow the Islamic curriculum

Education is important

If the children want to get an
education they have to go to other towns

There they will come into contact with
other cultures and they may adapt to them

But culture doesn’t
die out, it improves

And it changes through
contact with the outside world

If someone wears
shorts, for instance,

other children might find that
practical and start wearing shorts, too

Changes will come

If we have education it
improves our culture, too

Our children will learn
that they have a choice

Education shows them the way

It is the light

Gul Sinhe and her sister are
headed to Bumbaret High School

Gul Sinhe is in
the 8th grade there

She takes along her Islamic
chador to put on in the classroom

Wearing the chador is not
mandatory for Kalash girls,

but in the predominantly
Muslim school environment,

most of them feel
more comfortable with it

Gul Sinhe takes her attendance
at the Islamic school in stride

She knows that attending public school
is the only way she can get an education

And she knows that the school
is financed by the Islamic state

Gul Sinhe doesn’t question
the Islamic educational system

She hopes to benefit
from it as much as possible

Her parents support her in that

They see a good education as the basis
of a life with prospects for the future

While she was working on the
field, Gul Sinhe started menstruating

That means she can’t go back to the village
and her parents’ home for several days

Her mother gets her clothes
ready and prepares lunch

before Gul Sinhe makes
her way to the bashali

The bashali is a
communal menstrual house

where Kalash women spend
their periods and have their babies

Westerners often view this custom as
a form of ostracism and discrimination

But within the Kalash value
system, it is a holy place

The bashali enjoys
a very high status

The Kalash divide the world into the
categories “onjeshta” and “pragata”

“Onjeshta” means
something like “high” or “pure”

“Pragata” can be translated
as “low” or “impure”

But these are not value judgments
as they might be in other religions

For example, the fields are
denoted pragata — or impure

Yet they are the source of life, and
thus have the highest value for the Kalash

Women are also pragata, but at the same
time are seen as the source of creation

The high-low dualism serves
as orientation for the Kalash —

a way of organizing
everyday life

It is not a division
into good and bad

On her way to the bashali,
Gul Sinhe is not allowed

to cross the upper
part of the village

The way to the
bashali is long and hard

She makes a detour around the village,

keeping as far from
other people as possible

Otherwise it could
bring misfortune

There are few records on the origins
and development of Kalash culture

The Kalash people have no
history books or written traditions

All their cultural knowledge is passed
down orally from generation to generation

In a country like Pakistan,

the relative gender equality in
Kalash society is something special

Women are highly regarded

The notion that they
could bring misfortune

during their menstrual
period is in fact protective

They are left in
peace during this time

They don’t have to care for
their families, they can’t have sex,

nor can they carry
out hard manual labor

The bashali is the place
where everyone here was born

So it’s no wonder that the Kalash lovingly
refer to it as ‘the source of creation’

Gul Sinhe is a
newcomer in the bashali

The women can choose between two
communal rooms with six or seven beds each

A bashali is always
outside the village,

but is one of the most important
places for village society

For the Kalash it is a
refuge and a sacred spot

All Kalash women spend their
menstrual periods in the bashali

Pregnant women
come here to give birth,

and remain in the bashali for
around 30 days their babies are born

They often have their young
children with them — both boys and girls

The time in the bashali
is a time to recuperate —

and gives them a time-out
from daily life every month

However, they cannot
attend festivals or go to school

They don’t have to
cook for themselves

Their families bring their meals
and leave them in front of the bashali

Many of the women spend
their time doing handicrafts

But Gul Sinhe finds the
enforced timeout quite a challenge

It’s so boring here

I don’t like feeling bored

But it’s the rule, so
I had to come here

I like playing football

I love the Kalash — our
clothing, our festivals, everything

I would like to go
to college in Chitral

When I live there I won’t have to go
to the bashali when I have my period

Lots of girls go there to
study, but I know I won’t like it,

because I love the
Kalash people so much

Whether it’s a woman’s menstrual
cycle, the seasons of the year,

or a sudden weather change, for
centuries, the Kalash have organized

their lives and their rituals in
accordance with the laws of nature

How much of that will the younger
generation carry on in the future?

A group of women have also
gathered in Gul Sinhe’s house

Her mother Daktar Gul has
her friends over for afternoon tea

We should think about what
the bashali means to us women

What does this tradition mean?

A few days of rest
before you go back home

Even the older women who no longer
go to the bashali, meet up regularly

The conversations range from
reflections on culture to everyday topics:

what are the children doing, what’s
cooking, and who brought which baked goods?

Most of the older women
consider the bashali

an asset, a valuable
part of their culture

A place that
dignifies womanhood

But the bashali can also be
seen as a form of repression

The obligatory stay there also
denies menstruating women

a role in the normal
life of the community

Chitral is the closest
city to Bumbaret

It can be reached in
two and a half hours

The capital of Chitral District offers
its 45,000 residents plenty of activities

Since 2017 it has
also had a university

Persikila and her mother
are visiting her sister Sophia

Many young Kalash
come here to study

The new university is seen as a
driver of economic growth in the region

and a way of lifting
people out of poverty

With departments including
political science, IT and economics,

the university is open
to both men and women

But in the small cafeteria there
is strict gender segregation

A new world awaits Persikila —

a world full of technology and new
regulations, but also full of knowledge

What impact will that new
world have on Kalash culture?

So many women are
wearing the chador

The chador is not a
part of Kalash culture

But what will remain of our culture
when women veil themselves?

The men have long been
dressing like the Muslims do

So it’s the women who
keep our culture alive

After the short visit
in her home village,

Sayed Gul is returning to
her work at the university

Gul Sinhe can leave
the bashali after five days

She is glad to be going back
to her home and to school

Finally – back to normal life

This time she doesn’t
have to avoid people

She can take the
direct way home —

straight through the village
and across the main bridge

Will the Kalash women
continue to take this way

through their untouched
valley in the future?

Or will camping grounds and hotels
spring up on the banks of the river

Will camera-wielding tourists
intrude on the Kalash on their fields?

At the same time, the interest
tourists are taking in this remote region

is also an opportunity

They come here to
experience a unique culture

Perhaps that will give
it a chance of survival

Once she’s back home, it’s
as if Gul Sinhe was never away

Now she has to rush
to get to school on time

Just as her parents
expect her to

Many young Kalash love the
freedom their small world offers them

They are determined
to preserve their culture

But they also know that they must not
miss the boat when it comes to progress

And that they will have to
prepare for drastic changes

The question is not whether
Kalash culture will change

It will in any case

The question is far
more — how it will change

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