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The Chitral fairytale


Mariam Sarah Javid (published in Dawn)

Chitral was once known as Paristan — the land of fairies — or so a Chitrali princess told me. Set against the backdrop of snow-capped mountains, it is no surprise that the rose-filled valley in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province is believed to be inhabited by mythical creatures such as fairies and dragons.

Perhaps, some fairy folk do live here, with one legend even suggesting a lineage that traces back to Alexander The Great.

The intrigue of the Kalash people — an ethnic and religious minority indigenous to the Chitral valley — has drawn millions of local and foreign visitors to traverse the dusty and narrow mountain track leading up to the Bumburet Valley. One wrong turn means a plummet into the fast-flowing river below.

Despite the perilous path, hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to Chitral every year to attend the Chilam Joshi Festival — a celebration of the arrival of spring and the abundance of harvest.

“Think of it as Eid for the Kalash people,” said our guide, Ejaz bhai, who himself is a member of the tribe.

Spring is not the only season they celebrate, the Kalash also have a summer festival called Uchal in August which marks the arrival of fruit, an autumn festival called Phool celebrating the grape and walnut harvest, and a winter festival called Chaumas during which they stock and store supplies for the freezing temperatures.

Into the land of wanderers

Making your way up to the Chilam Joshi Festival, which requires a short trek, can be a daunting task. One has to make their way through the crowd of tourists that pushes against you like the waves of a turbulent sea. The unforgiving sun glares holes into your back as you try to find footing on the uneven pathways.

But the journey to the heart of the festivities, one wood plank at a time, culminates into an unforgettable adventure. Once close enough, a flurry of colours welcomes you. In the centre of the action, dances held in an open arena instantly immerse the viewer. Arm in arm, indigenous Kalash girls groove to the beat of folk music.

In essence, the dance exhibits the various stages of life as women, across all ages, perform. In some instances, a man from the tribe would jump into the circle, a colourful scarf hanging loosely around his neck, his head adorned with a hat boasting a bright feather.

“The dances are about as old as when Alexander roamed these lands,” said Ejaz. The Greek ruler and explorer travelled through the lands of what is now modern-day Pakistan in 327 BCE. Though there is little proof that he ventured through what is now Chitral, there is no doubt that the Kalash have a unique culture and language.

However, in the backdrop of cultural curiosity brimming with bright colours and feathers lies a harsh reality. During the spring festival, several unsavoury individuals make themselves known among the throng of tourists, with groups of men comprising the majority of domestic visitors.

Many of these male tourists are enticed by the dangerous and incorrect idea that they can choose and take a Kalash woman at will. “Men have told me they were disappointed they could not get a Kalash girl,” said a travel companion who had visited the valley twice.

“The Kalash only marry within their tribe; if a member of the tribe marries an outsider, then they are ostracised,” Ejaz added.

As my curiosity got the better of me, I asked our guide if it was true that the Kalash chose their spouse during festival dances. “We choose our spouse before the festival and the couple decides which festival they’ll officiate their marriage. The festivals double as a wedding,” he replied.

The dangerous idea of seeking out Kalash women during the Chilam Joshi festival has led to the harassment of female attendees. Unfortunately, I got to experience this harassment firsthand when a male tourist insisted on taking pictures with a fellow female travel companion and myself, only backing away when scolded by an older woman. The harassment didn’t end there; another male tourist snapped a photograph of us at the Kalash museum, which he deleted when confronted.

“The festival has become a human zoo,” said Mina Fais, a Chitrali princess who converted her 80-year-old home into a bed and breakfast.

‘In tune with nature’

Immediately after the bright colours and vivaciousness of the festival, I was taken to a more sobering site — a Kalash graveyard.

Through a narrow dusty path, past a restaurant, and across a small bridge, the graveyard surrounded by trees offered a solemn silence. At first, I was taken aback; caskets above ground filled the older part of the funerary site. “We used to lay our dead in caskets above ground with their wealth,” Ejaz explained.

“But now we bury them and place a charpoy on the burial spot.”

The Kalash are no longer buried with their possessions because “the white people stole it all”, he said, referring to the British colonial rule.

Another ritual that the Kalash have is to dance when someone passes away. “It is to comfort the bereaved and celebrate the deceased’s return to God and a better place,” said Ejaz. This harkens to the Kalash belief that everything in the universe is connected, like a dot, and in tune with nature.

Interestingly though, the graveyard was not just the final resting place for the locals but also ‘outsiders’. A Spanish zoologist is also buried there, his grave marked by a white plaque. Deeply inspired by the tribe, the Spaniard wanted to live like the Kalash and be buried the same way.

At the heart of Kalash life

Moving away from the festival and along a path less taken by tourists, the backstreets of homestays led me to a small market area where the Kalash sell their merchandise; headdresses decorated with feathers, shells and tassels and ornately detailed embroidery.

The tin-roofed shops entice tourists with dresses, featuring colourful laces and contrasting designs, hung at the entrance. Each item is handwoven with care on a loom; the headdresses take about two weeks to sew while the dresses take 10 days.

Amid these vibrant displays, glimpses of ordinary life are hard to miss — children running along the narrow streets, sharing snacks as a grandmother knitting outside a shop watches on tenderly.

Deeper in the market is a small opening that leads to a residential area. Built in proximity, old wooden houses stand tall. Steep steps lead to small mezzanines, connected by sloped wooden stairs leading to small cabins where the Kalash reside.

Climbing these steep slopes can be challenging, but when you see how effortlessly the locals manoeuvre up and down them day after day you understand how different their lives are from ours. This is what keeps the Kalash close to their ancestors. That and their 200-year-old abodes.

The house I visited belonged to an elderly couple who were close to 100 years old. Their wooden cabin was dark, only illuminated by daylight seeping through the windows. The walls were decorated with animal hides and skulls. A black cauldron of wine and two wooden chairs were the only other furniture in the room.

“Ishpata (hello),” greeted the elderly lady with a kind smile and a gentle shake of hands. Happy to have visitors, she posed for pictures and then led us over to the cauldron. “The wine is still in the brewing process but once done, it is stronger than whiskey,” laughed Ejaz. After dusk, the wine is served to foreign tourists visiting the valley.

Political influence

It is not difficult to tell that Chitralis have a liking for PTI founder Imran Khan. His name is written on shops and posters affixed on cars. But what took me by surprise was Kalash’s fondness for Musharraf.

“He used to come here and buy a lot of merchandise from us … sometimes he would even bring friends,” recounted a shopkeeper.

The love for Musharraf is not restricted to the valley but is also seen across Chitral, with some graffiti honouring his name. Gahirat Castle, the hotel I stayed at, had a copy of Musharraf’s autobiography in every room. But why such affection for the former president? Perhaps, it is because he resumed the construction of the Lowari Tunnel in 2005 after a 26-year halt due to lack of funds.

The 8.75km-long tunnel made travel from Chitral to Peshawar significantly easier. Earlier, the journey to KP’s capital city would take up to 14 hours, through Afghanistan. The Lowari tunnel reduced commute time by 50 per cent and remains open throughout the year.

The untold story of Chitral’s struggles

Yet, commuting in Chitral is not an easy feat. Driving through the winding dusty and bumpy tracks, with little to no barrier, is not for the faint of heart and take a seasoned driver.

“In a way, it’s good that the roads are not well maintained, and difficult to reach; it keeps nature’s beauty intact,” said Chitrali princess Mina.

Hassam Shah, chief executive officer of the travel group, Rawan Pakistan, concurred. “If you look at commercialised areas in northern Pakistan such as Saif-ul-Malook Lake, all you will see is litter, hawkers and traffic,” he said.

But these unpaved roads are not the only problem Chitral faces. The city faces a lack of clean water, electricity and gas.

At a two-hour distance from Chitral town, inside a small shack in Gol National Park, a man prepared tea on a woodfire. Despite a bunch of light switches outside, the interior of the shack was dark and dingy.

Chopping fruit with the little light that seeped through the windows, a middle-aged man told me that the switches were rarely useful due to the lack of electricity. “We are dependent on electricity from solar power but not all areas can afford panels,” he said.

“There is no gas up here in the mountains, I have to hike for dry wood.”

That day, as the sun set over the beautiful valley, I realised how these scenic mountains, beyond their glory, were a chamber of dark secrets. In Chitral, women face the brunt of these hardships.

“Women throw themselves into the river because of the pressure to either get married or perform well academically; there is also domestic abuse,” said local travel group head Hassam, pointing to the fast-flowing Chitral River.

Statistics from 2022 revealed that out of 176 suicide cases in the city, 58pc were young women.

Unwavering spirit

Despite their strenuous circumstances, the people of Chitral offer visitors a warmth rarely found in many touristy areas.

“You will not find this kind of hospitality in any other area in the north nor an appreciation and respect for cultural traditions. Influencers often travel to the northern areas only for internet validation and views … they never look at the lived experiences of locals,” Hassam lamented.

From genuine smiles, and fluffy walnut parathas with fresh goat cheese to the myths of fairy princesses and breathtaking views, Chitral makes a place for itself in the hearts of travellers, its mountains beckoning them to visit again.

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