Kalash people: culture, health and society

Kalash people: culture, health and society

Iqra Munir and Ume Farwa

The people of Kalash are considered unique among the people of Pakistan. The Kalasha or Kalash, also called Waigali or Wai, are a Dardic Indo-Aryan indigenous people residing in Chitral, Pakistan. They speak the Kalasha language, from the Dardic family of the Indo-Aryan branch. They are considered unique among the people of Pakistan. They are also considered to be Pakistan’s smallest ethno religious, practicing a religion which some authors characterize as a form of animism, while academics classify it as “a form of ancient Hinduism”.

The Kalash are considered to be an indigenous people of Asia, with their ancestors migrating to Chitral valley from another location possibly further south, which the Kalash call “Tsiyam” in their folk songs and epics. Some of the Kalash traditions consider the various Kalash people to have been migrants or refugees. They are also considered by some to have been descendants of Gandhari people. They also happen to be Pakistan’s smallest community practicing a religion.

Educational level: Several politicians from various political parties gathered on Saturday at a political convention to discuss the failing state of education in District Chitral, analyse the five-year education plans of contesting candidates and probe reasonable solutions to ensure quality education across the government-run schools. The convention was organized by Alif Ailaan and Ishpata News, and attended by parents, youth activists and civil society members of Chitral. Wazir Zada, Israr ud Din and Abdul Latif from Pakistan Tehreek e Insaaf, Molana Ejaz ur Rehman and Molana Abdul Haq from Muttahida Maajlis e Amal, Molana Siraj ud Din from Rahe-Haq party, and two independent candidates namely Haji Abdur Rehman and Ameerullah participated in the political convention on education.

Chitral is ranked 46th nationally on education score that measures retention, learning and gender parity, as per Pakistan District Education Rankings 2017 released by Alif Ailaan. Analysis of the educational landscape in Chitral revealed that shortage of post primary schools, unavailability of basic school infrastructure and facilities and quality of education are the three most important factors contributing to failing education standards in Chitral. 78% of all schools in Chitral district are primary level which adversely impacts the number of students enrolled at higher levels. Due to lesser number of schools, enrolment drops as students move up the higher classes especially for girls, leading to drop-outs after Class 5. Gender disparity is also evident by the fact that only 30% of all schools in Chitral are for girls, leaving little opportunities for girls to study. These factors have negatively contributed to poor learning outcomes of students and quality of education. More than 80% of grade 5 students cannot read a story in Pashto, Urdu and English let alone solving simple division questions of grade 2 standard.

Also read; The Origin of Kalash

Positive and negative cultural practices of Kalash people: There is some controversy over what defines the ethnic characteristics of the Kalash. Although quite numerous before the 20th century, the non-Muslim minority has seen its numbers dwindle over the past century. A leader of the Kalash, Saifulla Jan, has stated, “If any Kalash converts to Islam, they cannot live among us anymore. We keep our identity strong. “About three thousand have converted to Islam or are descendants of converts yet still live nearby in the Kalash villages and maintain their language and many aspects of their ancient culture. By now, sheikhs, or converts to Islam, make up more than half of the total Kalasha-speaking population. Kalasha women usually wear long black robes, often embroidered with cowrie shells. For this reason, they are known in Chitral as “the Black Kafirs”. Men have adopted the Pakistani shalwar kameez, while children wear small versions of adult clothing after the age of four.In contrast to the surrounding Pakistani culture, the Kalasha do not in general separate males and females or frown on contact between the sexes. However, menstruating girls and women are sent to live in the “bashaleni”, the village menstrual building, during their periods, until they regain their “purity”. They are also required to give birth in the bashaleni. There is also a ritual restoring “purity” to a woman after childbirth which must be performed before a woman can return to her husband. The husband is an active participant in this ritual. Girls are initiated into womanhood at an early age of four or five and married at fourteen or fifteen. If a woman wants to change husbands, she will write a letter to her prospective husband informing him about how much her current husband paid for her. This is because the new husband must pay double if he wants her.

Marriage by elopement is rather frequent, also involving women who are already married to another man. Indeed, wife-elopement is counted as one of the “great customs” together with the main festivals. Wife-elopement may lead in some rare cases to a quasi-feud between clans until peace is negotiated by mediators, in the form of the double bride-price paid by the new husband to the ex-husband. In an ethnographic study, Wynne (2001) described the freedom and liberty of Kalasha women and their openness and freedom in choosing life partners. However, there has not been any study that links such cultural traditions and norms to their wellbeing. We do not have much knowledge as to whether their cultural or ethnic identity affects their wellbeing in a positive or negative way. Also, limited information is available to understand the implications of the intergroup contact they have with the majority groups.

The Kalasha are a marginalized ethnic and religious minority group in northern Pakistan. The Kalasha minority is known for their divergent polytheistic beliefs, and represents the outliers of the collectively monotheistic Muslim population of Pakistan. Southeast Asia and South Asia are among the most culturally diverse parts of the world. However, many of the minority groups and indigenous people in this region are marginalized and receive little government support and legal protection compared to such populations in the West. In Asia, ensuring human rights for minorities and indigenous people at the national and regional level is still in its infancy, especially in practice. Moreover, there is a dearth of literature on the ethnic and religious minorities of Asia, and very few studies with a focus on psychological resilience. 


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