Kalash festivals defy extremist threats

By Fatima Mujtaba A white Toyota attempts to zoom amongst rocks that boulder a curving road in the mountainous valley between Upper Dir and Chitral. There is a rush of water from a peak above creating a sort of fast moving river before it splashes down into icy streams below, making it arduous for cars to speed by. Buses and trucks queue behind, waiting impatiently for the Toyota to somehow paddle this river, before they can attempt the crossing. While road networks, connecting Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to its hinterlands in the north have significantly improved, frequent land-sliding remains one of many dangers for tourists, truckers and Toyotas. The Kalash valley, home to Pakistan’s smallest minority community, has been threatened by an adverse security environment, which has seized many parts of the country since a surge in extremism post-9/11 and even seeped in subtle undertones in the enduring Kalash festival, Chilum Joshi. Braving the threat of potential violence, the festival carried on amidst heavy security. Despite Kalash’s relative isolation, a few mountain ranges away from war-torn Afghanistan, the Chilum Joshi festival in May attracts plenty from all over. Foreign tourists from afar, a few locals from further south eager to escape the sticky summer heat, mountain climbers, hippies in search of spirits and shamans, photographers and day-time bankers turned travelers, all come together. Much of what is know about Kalash people is heresy even though there are several anthropological studies documenting their fire rituals and nature-worshipping beliefs. The mystery of their gods has been compounded by the fact that they cannot be consolidated into neat categories in line with monotheistic belief. Unfortunately, like the rest of the country, here too there have been forced conversions to Islam – indicative of aggression against their polytheistic traditions in the current environment of decreased tolerance to religious diversity. While explaining the nature of their deities, Alam Zeb, a local teacher in Bumburat, says “Like you worship Allah, we believe in higher spirit who we call Dezau.” He glosses over questions of theology, uncertain whether outsiders will understand or accept their ‘Kafir’ ways, and goes on to explain the many festivals of Kalash, who in their dance and song pray for seasonal blessings and spring’s warmth through winter harshness. Kalash women wear long flowing black robes, embroidered in rich spring colors. The men sport feathers in their mountain fedoras; there is a beat and rhythm of drum. Men and women freely dance, love is in the air during the Joshi festival and many marriages are consummated. Kalash marriages cannot be polygamous but women are allowed their husband if a new suitor is better endowed for survival and protection in the cold. The celebrations continue, as they have for thousands of years in Kalash despite recent extremism threats and fears. The up north to Kalash in a way traces history to this lesser touched area. Following Alexander’s route from Islamabad past the Buddhist stupas in Taxila, the coasters move towards Attock fort, constructed under supervision of the wine-drinking poet-philosopher Jalaluddin Mohammad Akbar, the Grand Mughal himself before it was captured by Maratha warriors. Following the Kabul River, the journey takes one into Nowshera cantonment where the School of Armour and Artillery are a testament to unchanging power of guns and barrels, crossing Mardan district into Malakand before reaching Dir and then the Lowari Tunnel. There is a reminder on every turn of Pakistan’s historically religious diverse landscape, which until recently has absorbed so many belief systems. Trucks, adorned in shrines and lascivious Lollywood actresses, honk at the coaster. Their is banter about hipster art and a stop for rice and koftas in Batkhela, a colorful town in Malakand, which had the misfortunate of being named after a ‘Butt’ Sahib. The former princely state of Dir rolls on for kilometres: there begins a swirl of mountain and valley, fields upon fields of wheat play in the breeze, golden and crisp colors burn in sunshine. The production and cultivation of wheat is the primary source of sustenance in the Malakand valley, where several military operations have struggled to keep activities of Taliban groups at bay. In Lower Dir, the security – army, FC and police – checkpoints start to become more frequent: identity cards are passed around; we are scrutinised and questioned in detail. One patrolling station flashes a billboard, ‘Wanted Absconders’ inked in bold red above faces of terrorists and criminals. “Times have never been good,” says Shiraz ‘Sher’ Nasir, Director Operations of Adventure Travel Pakistan. Nasir attempts to promote internal tourism through his company, organising tours for those who seek adventure in Pakistan’s stunning and isolated topographies. The threat of security keeps these majestic wonders unknown to tourists and travelers inside and outside of Pakistan, and while in many instances the fear is not completely unfounded, the beauty is almost overwhelming. The valley curves and spirals, one of the mountain ranges is still white in snow. Apollo, the Sun-God, illuminates it with light and truth. There is an endless flow of streams; the sound of water gushing sings a lullaby through out the night and among the trees that speckle the valley, the Taliban seem to ominously lurk, their presence whispered in loud voices. This landscape is so rich and complex that simplifying it into narrow structures can only create more fissures and conflicts. Since the partition, questions of faith have lingered so closely with state identity that many in Pakistani society forget the historical intricacies that inform the crevices of modern Pakistan. Imaging a singular public space is not possible, simply because it does not exist.–Dawn]]>

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