Life with the Kalash of Rumbur
We accessed the Kalash after making a ten hour journey from the Pashtun-dominated frontier city of Peshawar which lies to the south of the mountains. Approximately seven hours of this journey was made off road on an unpaved mountain road that winds its way on dizzying switchbacks over a 10,000 foot pass to get to the Chitral Valley. A four wheel drive vehicle was needed for the journey due to the rough nature of the road. On several instances we had to cross running mountain rivers caused by the melt from nearby glaciers and snowcaps.
Before entering the Chitral Valley, the road cuts for three hours across the Swat Valley in the vicinity of Malakand. This valley was a Taliban stronghold until 20,000 Pakistani troops retook it last year. We found the main road through the Swat Valley to be firmly under the control of the Pakistani army and police. There were regular checkpoints along the way where soldiers shared reports of skirmishes with Taliban in the countryside. Commerce on this artery nonetheless seemed unaffected by insurgent activity and we noticed a large number of “Jingle” trucks (old painted Bedford trucks adorned with lavishly decorated cabs) on the road. We spent the night in Dir, a Swat town known for Taliban activity and were told not to wander the streets as there were many Taliban sympathizers in the vicinity.
Soon after Dir the road winds its way up the 10,000 foot Lowrai Pass and cuts its way along a glacier before entering the forested Chitral Valley which is surrounded by snow capped mountains. Two hours into the journey through this valley one comes to an exit which takes you on a bridge across the main river in the valley up to a series of narrow side valleys. These valleys, which are barely accessible on newly cut roads that wind along the side of a narrow gorge, take you to the Kalash villages.
We chose to stay in the village of Rumbur as it was the most remote and untouched by the outside world. When we arrived in the village the local women in their bright costumes were shy and hid from us. It was only after we made the acquaintance of Gazi the village priest and received a blessing that we were accepted by the local villagers. With his blessing and the assistance of a local elder, the aforementioned Saifullah, we freely toured the village. We were led from one wooden mountainside house to another and welcomed in home after home. These were simple affairs, often built in steps on top of one another along the mountainside. After having been in the Pashtun lands of Peshawar where the codes of namus (the duty to protect the privacy and honor of women) and purdah (veiling) prevails we were surprised at how freely women welcomed us into their homes and interacted with us.
The women wore bright peasant costumes with elaborate headdresses while the men wore the simple shalwar kamez (pajama pants and baggy shirt) and round felt pakol hats of the neighboring Chitralis. In general people the people of Rumbur seemed to be very hospitable, in good health, and hard working. After being in the pollution, squalor and crowds that predominate in such Pakistani towns as Lahore, Islamabad-Rwalpindi and Peshawar, we could not help but feeling that we had somehow arrived in a remote mountain Shangri La.
We freely admitted into several temples which were adorned with wooden goats heads and taken to several outdoor temples as well. In the evening we were invited to a music celebration where singing, playing instruments, dancing and drinking the local red wine prevailed. Food consisted of local almond bread, chicken and soup. The festivities lasted until far into the morning before the locals began to head back to their homes. In the morning we were woken by the sound of cows being led through the village and the sounds of children playing in the town square. Dozens of villagers gathered to say goodbye to us including some who had never left the valley. With our driver, a Pashtun who had never drunk before, recovering from the previous nights festivities we made leave of our hosts and left this fragile mountain enclave to make the hour long journey out of their valley. It was now time to reenter Pakistan proper a land that seemed far removed in space and time from the ancient rhythms of the Kalash villages.
For more photos of the Kalash, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Islamic Eurasia see: www.brianglynwilliams.com