Gul Hamaad Farooqi
CHITRAL: Daimi Begum, a 75-year-old shopkeeper near Bashalini in Karakar village of Kalash valley, used to run a big shop at the local Chowk (roundabout) before the COVID-19 lockdown started in March 2020. However, her business has now shrunk to a small room.
She says the pandemic not only damaged her business but also affected the livelihoods of 25 other women attached with her business. These women used to sit at home sewing and embroidering different handicraft items and sell them through her shop. Daimi used to receive some commission on the sale of these items.
As the coronavirus affected economies and businesses around the world, it also prevented tourists from visiting the festivald of Kalash tribe such as Chilim Josh. In this festival, women perform traditional dances in groups, while men also dance and beat drums. Sometimes, a man dances by putting his hands on the shoulders of women on his right and left and singing songs to express their pleasure.
Every year, thousands of domestic and foreign tourists visit these valleys to see this and many other festivals۔
But due to the lockdown, all domestic and foreign tourists were bared from visiting Chitral and that is why this annual religious festival of Chilim Josh was not celebrated this year
The people of Kalash have been celebrating two big and two small festivals every year from thousands of years. During these festivals, Kalash people dance, sing and play drums. Thousands of tourists come every year to see their distinctive and unique culture, dress and lifestyle. And the people here look forward to the tourists coming to these festivals to earn their livelihood.
Tourists who come to the festivals stay at local hotels and buy handicrafts from shops, which are usually made by women at home. They bring these items to the Bumburate Bazaar and hand it over to the shopkeepers. And after selling these things, they are paid for it.
Saleem, a shopkeeper in Brun village, told ChitralToday that because of the pandemic neither tourists came to attend the Chelim Josh nor the Ochal festival. Due to this reason, handmade items are lying in his shop and there were no customers. He said 22 women are associated with his shop who buy things from his shop and used to make trousers, shirts, Kalash Kapusi, caps, hats and other garments from it and he used to sell them in his shop.
Alina, a Kailash girl who is a student, said Kalash women make various handicrafts at home and sell them to get education. Older women educate their children from these proceeds as well but this year these items have not been sold due to the lockdown.
When Alina was asked what was the solution as these festivals are often affected by such situations, she said the government should cooperate with them financially or provide interest-free loans to them so that these people can stand on their feet.
Hidayatullah belongs to Rehan Kot in Chitral and has been running a gemstone and jeweler business in Karakar village of Kalash valleys for the last 20 years. He said the local women buy or borrow these items from his shop and make necklaces, bangles, pendants, purses etc from it and keep them for sale in his shop. Tourists who come to the area buy these items that give them a good profit but this year no tourists came to the scenic valley because of the lockdown.
Hidayatullah said at least 22 women who depended on his shops for small business were affected. Karishma, a Kalash girl from Barir, said that Barir is far away from other valleys where a very few tourists come but this time no tourists visited the village due to lockdown and this valley was also badly affected.
Abdul Khaliq Kalash, president of the Hotel Association in Bumburit, said there are 32 hotels in the area. These hotels remain closed for six months of the year because of heavy snowfall and chilly cold weather. Hotel owners often wait for tourists at these festivals in Kalash valley to recover their losses but this time due to the Lockdown tourists did not visit the area at all.
Abdul Khaliq said it is not a big issue for those who have their own hotel as they have to pay salary to the staff from their pocket but those who have rented hotels pay the staff out of pocket as well as rent to the owners.
In Kalash valley, Rs50 tax is also collected from non-local tourists while Rs150 is collected from foreign tourists.
According to the district administration, the money is spent on the welfare of Kalash community. Last year, thousands of domestic and foreign had visited the area.
Since the NOC requirement was abolished on the arrival of these foreign tourists, no special record has been prepared for them but their number was in the hundreds but this year not a single foreign tourist came for the Chilim Josh festival.
Last year, more than 100,000 tourists visited the Kalash valleys, and an estimated 40,000 vehicles entered the valley. Due to the rush, the one-hour journey from Ayun to Bamburate took nine hours.
Local said there was no hotel in the valley in which even the smallest room was left un-booked, as well as most of the tourists had paid and stayed in the tents of the hotels lawn. Most of them had paid up to Rs 10,000 for a single room, but this year no a single customers stayed in hotel and they faced financial losses.
Additional Deputy Commissioner on Disaster Abdul Wali Khan confirmed to ChitralToday that due to the lockdown tourists did not visit the annual festivals of the Kalash tribe this year, which caused a loss of billions of rupees. He said tourists not only go to Kalash valleys to see the festivals and stay in hotels but also bought different items such as dry fruits, souvenirs, salajit and Chitrali caps.