. .


Mystery of Black Robes






A major attraction for the tourists

By Syed Farooq Ali
Mar 05 - 11, 2001

Kafir Kalash meaning the black infidels are undoubtedly a major attraction for visitors and tourists to beautiful Chitral valley, people of Kalash now reduced to mere 3000 in number belong to a diminishing culture living in about 20 villages in southwest of Chitral in the Hindukush range bordering Afghanistan.

The largest of Kalash valleys is one of river Bamburet extending over a length of about 10 miles, the other two are named Rambur and Birir, all these valleys are located at a distance of approx. 45 km from Chitral town and can be approached via a jeepable road in two and half hours. Bamnuret is located at an altitude of 7590 ft with walnut trees green shepherd ground and beautiful flowers all around, this valley is perhaps the most developed also with a number of hotels and tourists lodges, most of these sprang up quite recently to meet the demand of increasing number of local and foreign tourists visiting the Kalash areas to see and probe the roots of this mysterious and strange clan, which is alive to date with little or no change in their customs and rituals. Most of the Kalash women are beautiful featured attired in black robes with linear embroidery in sparkling colours mostly red, yellow and bluish green and a black head gear, their dress clearly distinguishes them from other inhabitants of the areas and symbolizes their adherence to an uninterrupted continuity of an ancient culture. Apart from dress the Kalash tribes have some peculiar rituals such as Bashaleni huts or confined quarters where the women are forced to stay in confinement during their periods of pregnancy and menstruation. Their worship places called Malosh are stone built rooms with carved wooden doors and pillars, a central place for fire which they circle around while praying, unlike most religions they have no congregational way of prayers, with no specific times for offering to their gods.

For Kalash all weekdays are same without any specific names. Kalash people particularly the fair sex love dance and music, however their sufferings have made them good farmers which is evident from their excellent maintenance of walnut trees and two crops in a year. Their strange burial rituals distinguish them from other tribes as they bury their deads in open coffins with belongings lying on one side of the grave. Many other practices of Kalash of Kafiristan have their roots in ancient human history and have survived vegaries of time surprisingly enough perhaps due to the protected and hilly location of their dwellings.

The ancient Kalash culture came to limelight and drew attention of the students of history when some British explorers under took the arduous mountain journey to Kafiristan on foot and horseback. Major Biddulph in AD 1879 and Surg. Maj. Robertson (Chitral Fort Fame) in 1889 followed by other in 1891, not with the sole intention of discovering an ancient culture but perhaps to explore the areas and the journey took them to land of Kalash, Robertson wrote a famous account of the tribes in his book "Kafirs of the Hindukush" the book published in AD 1900 is still in vogue among readers and researchers of history and anthropology. Rudyard Kipling though never visited Kafiristan but has written an interesting story in Kalash setting entitled "The man who would be the king". Historical studies of Chitral and Hindukush areas have revealed that Kalash once ruled over a large territory spreading from south west of Chitral and extending upto some eastern parts of Afghanistan, there was a strong central Kingdom controlling a large number of small participalities spread over the valley. The kingdom however suffered heavy defeats at the hands of his rulers hailing from Turkish central Asia who invaded Chitral in 1320 AD. The first Rais ruler Shah Nadir while consolidating his position defeated the Kalash ruler Bula Singh, the other Kalash king Kiznook retreated and was forced to move back perhaps it was the time the valley of Bamburet was established as a safe heaven for the Kalash throughout the 270 years of Rais rule Kalash remained in conflict with different kings and a large number embraced Islam. Kalash of today are an arrested civilization confined to their abode in hilly areas of Hindukush, with their old customs and practices intact and embedded in ancient history. It is popularly argued that Kalash are descendents of the Greek army of Alexander the great who invaded these areas in 327 BC. However the riddle in the culture of people with black robes is still unfolded, their practice of fire worship in Malosh and other rituals may locate their origin as far as 1500 BC when Iranian kings ruled a vast area including Hindukush or they may be an even older clan originating from mountainous range of Korakoram or Tibet, as the dress of some monks has the resemblance with Kalash. The mystery of Black Robes is a puzzle for historians and a major attraction for tourists and visitors to Pakistan.