RUMBUR, Pakistan – In a remote valley in northern Pakistan, surrounded by steep rock faces and high pastures, members of a small community have gathered.
The Kalash are a group of about 4000 people who live in the Hindu Kush mountains, where they practice an ancient polytheistic faith. Each year they come together for Chawmos, a New Year’s festival that coincides with the winter solstice and is marked by dancing, animal sacrifice, and highly prescribed roles for men and women.
The two-week festival is a contrasting portrait: snow and fire, solemn ritual and frenetic activity, sexual segregation and public flirtation, community and isolation.
While the coronavirus has forced the world to embrace social distancing, the Kalash have practiced being an isolated community for millennia.
The Kalash, whose wooden houses cling to the steep hills of three valleys in the often unruly northwest of Pakistan, are the smallest minority group in the country. The overwhelming majority of the over 200 million Pakistanis practice Islam.
Despite the Kalash’s isolation, the outside world has come closer, bringing changes to their way of life.
Their faith is often compared to an ancient form of Hinduism, but the origins of Kalash are a mystery. Some believe they are descended from the forces of Alexander the Great; other anthropologists claim they are migrants from neighboring Afghanistan.
Their religion incorporates animistic traditions of nature worship as well as a pantheon of gods, whose members in some cases resemble the Vedic gods of ancient India. The chief among the Kalash gods is Balumain, the lord of the sky, to whom the festival is dedicated.
For the Kalash, cleanliness and holiness are inextricably linked. The areas of villages and valleys where they live are designated “pure” and their access is sometimes restricted by gender or may require prior ritual bathing. The Kalash believe that places and people are more likely to be visited by Balumain than after they have been cleansed and sanctified.
During the year, Kalash women are to bathe and wash their clothes and dishes away from home. During their period and during childbirth, they stay in menstruation huts. These are community spaces that are the exclusive domain of women, unlike the huts found elsewhere in the region, particularly in Nepal, where women are left alone and die after being exposed and other causes every year.
As the Chawmos festival begins each December, women participate in a purification ritual. Held in a temple, known as a jester, or in an open space away from their homes, women and girls hold bread that has been baked for them by male family members.
A male relative then sprinkles them with water and the waves scorching juniper branches above their heads. Only then will women be able to move freely between villages and houses in the valley to participate in the festivities.
Before the feast, the men grind flour in a common mill and bake their bread at home or in the jester. Women gather in a bath, where they wash their brightly colored dresses and wrap their hair in long braids.
In order to stay and watch the festival unfold last year, I joined the women of a family with whom I was staying in their purification ritual. I watched them, one by one, come forward to be surrounded by a trail of flames.
At the start of Chawmos, the cool winter air is filled with the smell of fresh baked bread and scorching juniper, and neighbors greet each other with baskets of fruit and nuts.
What follows is 14 days of song, dance and ceremony. A group of women, often from the same family or clan, will form a circle and begin to sing and dance, their arms entwined and their eyes half-closed in prayer. As the women sing, other women and men join the ring and the circle gets stronger and stronger.
When moved, a young woman breaks away from the group and dances in the middle 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, eyes riveted. They’re courting.
In the first days of the celebration, young people often find a spouse; women often take the first step.
“The girl goes to the boy’s family maybe for a few weeks or a month, and then when she comes home they will get married,” said Bibi Jan, a woman in her 80s. “No one else decides, it’s up to them to decide. “
The dancing, as well as the flirtation, is fueled by locally brewed mulberry wine. The role of women and the consumption of wine in the community contrast with the mores of their Muslim neighbors, who sometimes attend festivals as tourists.
“The way they worship and the way men and women marry – and just interact in general – is very different from surrounding communities,” said Wynne Maggi, an anthropologist who has studied Kalash.
The festival, the most important of the year, is also an opportunity for local Kalash leaders to deliberate on the serious challenges facing the culture.
The Kalash are increasingly pressed by foreigners to buy land and move into it. And for many years the Kalash have been wary of the threat of militant Islamists who regard their faith as a sacrilege.
They also face environmental threats. Trees that protected valleys from flooding caused by rain and melting glaciers are being removed, sometimes illegally, at an alarming rate. The shortage of trees and the changes in weather conditions resulting from global warming have resulted in devastating flash floods in recent years that destroy homes, bridges and crops.
Young members are leaving the region for greater educational and employment opportunities. Government schools all teach Islam and every year Kalash youths decide to convert, residents say. A new road has made it easier to access the area and tourists increasingly visit the Kalash valleys, where most people largely live on a mixture of subsistence agriculture and herding.
Saifullah, a Kalash executive who goes by only one name, said his biggest concern was purchasing land to build hotels in order to woo tourists.
Hotels are often located on or near lands considered sacred to the Kalash, and Muslim-owned accommodation is seen as depriving the community of tourist dollars, which has led to resentment.
“The Kalash will never end,” said Mr. Saifullah, 61. “But of course the population goes down if it can’t get enough land to stay here.
Aslam Baig, 29, who returned to the valley from Lahore, where he works, said many young people had left to find work.
“It’s very difficult because we don’t have the Internet, we don’t have newspapers, and then you have to go to the cities to find the jobs,” he said.
But during the Chawmos celebrations, many of these issues are momentarily forgotten.
The festival ends with a late night torchlight procession through the small villages of the Kalash valleys; flickering lights weave their way through the forests, heralding the start of a final evening of dancing. The slopes resonate with song.
The Kalash dance around a bonfire, connecting their arms and chanting prayers for the coming year.