RUMBUR, Pakistan – Members of a tiny community gathered in a remote valley in northern Pakistan that is surrounded by sheer cliffs and high pastures.
The Kalash are a group of around 4,000 people who live in the mountains of the Hindu Kush and practice an ancient polytheistic belief there. Every year they meet for Chawmos, a New Year celebration that coincides with the winter solstice and is characterized by dance, animal sacrifices and strictly prescribed roles for men and women.
The two-week festival is a portrait in contrasts: snow and fire, solemn ritual and frenzied activity, gender segregation and public flirtation, community and isolation.
While the coronavirus has forced the world to social distancing, the Kalash have practiced being an isolated community for millennia.
The Kalash, whose wooden houses hang on the rugged slopes of three valleys in the often stubborn northwest of Pakistan, are the country’s smallest minority. The vast majority of the more than 200 million people in Pakistan practice Islam.
Despite the remoteness of the Kalash, the outside world has come closer and changed the way they live.
Their beliefs are often compared to an ancient form of Hinduism, but the origins of Kalash are a mystery. Some believe that they descended from the powers of Alexander the Great; Other anthropologists claim they are migrants from nearby Afghanistan.
Their religion includes animistic traditions of worshiping nature as well as a pantheon of gods, the members of which in some cases share similarities with the Vedic gods of ancient India. The chief among the Kalash gods is Balumain, the lord of heaven, to whom the festival is dedicated.
For the Kalash, cleanliness and sanctity are inextricably linked. The areas of the villages and valleys they live in are said to be “clean” and access to them is sometimes gender restricted or may require a ritual bath first. The Kalash believe that places and people of Balumain are most likely to be visited only after they have been cleansed and sanctified.
During the year, Kalash women are required to bathe and wash their clothes and dishes away from home. They remain in menstrual huts during their period and when giving birth. These are common areas reserved exclusively for women, as opposed to the huts found elsewhere in the region, including Nepal, where women are left alone each year and die from exposure and other causes.
At the beginning of the Chawmos Festival in December, women take part in a cleansing ritual. In a temple known as the Jestekan or in an open space outside their homes, women and girls hold bread baked for them by male family members.
A male relative then showered them with water and waves of burning juniper branches over their heads. Only then can women move freely between the villages and houses of the valley to take part in the celebrations.
In the run-up to the holidays, the men grind flour in a communal mill and bake their bread at home or in the Jestekan. The women gather in a bathhouse where they wash their brightly colored clothes and wrap their hair in long braids.
To stay and witness the festival last year, I joined the women of a family I was with in their cleansing ritual. I watched as they stepped forward one by one to be surrounded by a trail of flame.
At the beginning of Chawmos, the fresh winter air smells of freshly baked bread and burning juniper, and the neighbors greet each other with baskets of fruit and nuts.
What follows are 14 days of singing, dancing and ceremony. A group of women, often from the same family or clan, form a circle and begin to sing and dance, arms crossed and eyes half-closed in prayer. As the women sing, other women and men join the ring and the circle gets bigger and louder.
When moved, a young woman breaks out of the group and dances in the center of the circle. Sometimes a woman or a man from her family will join her. But often a young man enters the ring to dance with her. Their dance is different: the couple face each other with their eyes closed. Woo you.
In the first few days of the celebration, young people often find a spouse; Women often take the first step.
“The girl might go to the boy’s family for a few weeks or a month and then when she comes home they’ll get married,” said Bibi Jan, a woman of around 80. “Nobody decides, it’s up to them what to choose. “
Both the dancing and flirting are fueled by locally brewed mulberry wine. The role of women and wine consumption in the community are contrary to the customs of their Muslim neighbors, who sometimes attend the festivals as tourists.
“The way they worship and how men and women get married – and only interact in general terms – is very different from the surrounding communities,” said Wynne Maggi, an anthropologist who studied the Kalash.
The festival, the most important of the year, is also a time for the Kalash local leadership to reflect on the serious challenges of culture.
The Kalash are increasingly being squeezed by outsiders buying and moving land. And for many years the Kalash have been concerned about the threat of militant Islamists who view their beliefs as sacrilege.
You are also exposed to environmental threats. The trees that protected the valleys from flooding from rain and glacial melt are being removed at an alarming rate, sometimes illegally. The shortage of trees and changes in weather conditions as a result of global warming have resulted in devastating flash floods in recent years that destroy homes, bridges and crops.
Younger members are leaving the area for better education and employment opportunities. All state schools teach about Islam, and every year some young Kalash people choose to convert, the locals say. A new road has made access to the area easier, and tourists are increasingly visiting the Kalash Valleys, where most of the people live mainly from subsistence farming and ranching.
Saifullah, a one-name Kalash leader, said his main concern is that outsiders are buying land to build hotels to bring tourists to justice.
The hotels are often on or near properties considered sacred to the Kalash, and the Muslim-owned accommodations are robbing the community of tourist funds, which has led to resentment.
“The Kalash will never end,” said Saifullah, 61. “But of course the population will drop if they can’t get enough land to stay here.”
Aslam Baig, 29, who was returning to the valley from Lahore, where he works, said many young people had left to find work.
“It’s very hard because we don’t have internet, we don’t have newspapers, and then you have to go to the cities to find out about jobs,” he said.
But many of these problems are temporarily forgotten during the Chawmos celebrations.
The festival culminates in a night torchlight procession through the tiny villages in the Kalash Valleys. flickering lights weave through the woods and ring in the beginning of a final dance evening. The slopes echoed with songs.
The Kalash dance around a campfire, bandaging arms and singing prayers for the coming year.