Anthropology: The Colorful People of Kalash Valley

A group of Kalash girls singing and dancing together.

Concealed in Pakistan’s northern areas is the remote Kalash Valley. Known for its unique culture and traditions, secluding it from the rest of the country. The people, known as Kalash or Kalasha, were once a large number, around 200,000. Now, only a handful of about 3000- 4000 remain, struggling to preserve their language and customs amidst advancing modernity and religious conversions.The striking decrease in the population of Kalashas is due to forceful conversion to Islam. Even in the current day scenario, the smallest pagan minority is hardly given any rights and is not recognized as a separate entity. Only a few foreign NGOs are working towards the development and progress of this area and tribe.

History of Kalashas

There are many theories revolving around the history of Kalash. Historians believe they are an indigenous tribe of the neighboring area of Nuristan also called Kafiristan (the land of Kafirs). It is believed that in 1895, Amir Abdul Rahman, the king of Afghanistan, conquered the area of Nursitan and forced the inhabitants of the area to convert to Islam. It was during that time that many people fled to Chitral to avoid conversion, who are now the present day Kalash.

The tribe of Kalash are also believed to be descendants from the army of  Alexander the Great. British author Rudyard Kipling alluded to the people of ‘Kafiristan’ in his book. The Man Who Would Be King(1888) Several scholars conclude that it was Kipling’s story that gave rise to the myth that they are descendants from Alexander’s army. Later on, this book was adapted for a film directed by John Huston and starring Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Saeed Jaffrey, and Christopher Plummer as Kipling (the anonymous narrator).

Another theory claims that Kalasha’s ancestors migrated from a distant place in South Asia called Tsiam, which is considered to be the traditional home of these people. Kalash folk tales and songs mention the existence of Tsiam and that their roots belong in that region.

Wooden cabin type structure with a bridge on the lower level with two people looking

Geographical location

The Kalashas reside in the Chitral District of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. They are occupants of three valleys namely, Rumbur, Brumbret and Birir. These valleys open towards the Kunar River, downstream of Chitral. The Rumbur and Brumbret form a single culture due to their very similar cultural practices. Birir being the most traditional one, has its own separate culture.

The region is extremely fertile. The mountainside is covered by rick oak forests that allow intensive agriculture. Wheat and maize is grown is surplus. Apart from that grapes (generally used for wine), apples, apricots and walnuts are among the many foodstuffs grown in the area. Sufficient fodder used for feeding the livestock is also grown. Rivers flowing through the valley have been made use of to power grinding mills and to irrigate farm fields.

The climate is typical of Northern areas of Pakistan. Summers are mild with a maximum temperature between 23°C  and 27°C. Winters can be harsh with minimum temperature ranging between 0°C and 2°C. Due to lack of large water bodies, the temperature isn’t regulated.

River through mountains

Culture of Kalashas

The Kalash culture has fascinated anthropologists due to its uniqueness. It differs in many ways from the surrounding Islamic ethnic groups in Northwestern Pakistan. It is a part of their culture to offer sacrifices and celebrate festivals. This way, they give thanks for abundant resources in their Kalasha Desh (the three Kalash valleys).


Kalasha is a polytheist, believing in 12 Gods and Goddesses. Nature plays a spiritual role in their daily life. Kalash mythology has been compared to that of ancient Greece. Richard Strand, a renowned linguist, is of the view that the people of Kalash practice an ancient form of Hinduism. It has gradually developed locally and was influenced by the neighboring areas of pre-Islamic Nuristan. 

Some of their deities are Mahandeo, the god of crops and war. He is also a negotiator with the highest deity. Jestak is the goddess of domestic life, family and marriage. Munjem Malek is the God of Middle Earth. There also is a general pattern of belief in the mountain fairies, Suchi, who help in hunting and killing enemies, and the Varoti, the violent male, partner of Suchi. They live in high mountains such as Mount Kailash.

These deities have shrines and alters throughout the valley where they receive sacrifices of goats and sheep frequently. During the festivals, the people of Kalash believe that the deities are their temporary guests.


The language of the Kalash is the Kalasha, also known as Kalasha-mun. It is a Dardic language ( a sub group of Indo-Aryan languages spoken in Northern Pakistan, eastern Afghanistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir). The language is spoken overall by a handful of people, approximately 5000. This has led it to be critically endangered, as declared by UNESCO. The Kalasha language has no proper script; however, there have been recent developments in introducing a formal script for the language.


The people of Kalash are extremely particular about their religion and customs. Anyone who converts to Islam is shunned by the people and expelled from the community. This way, they keep their identity strong.

The Kalash follow various social customs and rituals that may seem bizarre to the rest of the world. One of them that has been much discussed, is the custom of sending menstruating as well as pregnant women to a building far from the main village. This dorm-style building is called the ‘Bashaleni’. They stay there until they regain their ‘purity’. In the case of childbirth, a ritual is performed to restore the mother’s ‘purity’ before she can return to her husband. Modern interpreters of culture often refer to it as a form of oppression. But according to Kalash people, this time out is their way to give women rest from daily chores. As they normally handle the bulk of everyday work.

There is no segregation between males and females in Kalash. They are allowed to keep in contact and communicate freely without being frowned upon.

At a tender age of four or five, girls are initiated into womanhood. They are married early, at fourteen or fifteen. If a woman wants to change husbands, she has the authority. 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. 

Beautiful Kalash girls with colored eyes smiling


Men of the Kalash community have long adopted Pakistan’s popular dress (shalwar  kameez). They also wear hats common to the northern area of Pakistan. The women of Kalash still wear the traditional attire. Consisting of long black loose robes with colorful embroideries and cowrie shells. They accessorize their robes by making use of colorful long braided headwear. Women are also found wearing colorful beads and necklaces, which is a rather distinguishing feature.

A group of Kalash girls from back showing their long braided head wears and accessorized robes


Earlier, the people of Kalash led a simple life which was mostly dependent on agriculture and cattle rearing. Buckwheat and other crops were grown in abundance in the river valleys and provided them with a source of income and food. Surrounding orchards bore fruits of various kinds. Ghee, butter and cheese were home made from milk derived from their cows. Wine was fermented from grapes. Food was cooked over wood-fired ovens.

The Kalash people still continue to live in their traditional manner but their lifestyle has been closely influenced by modern developments. Motor-able roads have made the remote villages accessible. Shops have opened in the valleys, making meat and other food items easily available. Electrification has made televisions, mobile phones and computers accessible.

Tourism has also become popular in the Kalash villages. The villagers look upon tourism as a way of earning and have set up homestays and hotels, and shops selling local handicrafts.

In this picture Kalash girls are taking a 'selfie' demonstrating modern development


Kalash festivals are linked to their religious offerings and celebration in various seasons throughout the year. Their festivals are much of a tourist attraction. Entire villages gather and participate in performances that involve dancing and singing. The three main festivals of the Kalash are the Chilam Joshi in middle of May, the Uchau in autumn, and the Chawmos in midwinter.

Chilam Joshi is the festival of spring celebrated at the end of May each year. The first day of Joshi is “Milk Day”. On this day, the Kalash offer liberation of milk that has been saved for ten days prior to the festival.

The most important Kalash festival is the Chawmos, which is celebrated for two weeks in winter. It marks the end of the year for fieldwork and harvest. It involves singing, dancing and sacrificing cattle to be consumed. The festival is dedicated to their God Balimain, who is believed to visit from mythical lands for the feast.

The Uchau festival takes place in mid August at the altar of Mahandeo where newly made cheese is brought from the pastures. Dancing and singing again forms an integral part of the festival.

This image shows celebration of festival.Men are playing drums and girls are singing and dancing to the music

Tourist Attraction in Kalash Valley

The area known as Kalash Valley boosts serene beauty, lush green valleys and fruit farms, making it an ideal tourist spot not only in terms of scenic beauty but also cultural diversity and religious spots. Apart from that, Kalash people are extremely friendly. They tend to cater to the tourists and make them feel welcome. Kalash children are beautiful with sun-tanned skin and colored eyes, they’re fond of tourists and help by showing them around. People mostly visit Kalash valley when their festivals are in action to witness the beauty of Kalash blooming at its fullest.

The cultural performance of the Kalash people recently got much publicity when Britain’s Duke and duchess (Prince William and Kate) of Cambridge visited the Bombaret village (October 2019). They dressed in traditional headgear, and watched the performances sitting alongside the local people. Incidentally, William’s mother, Princess Diana, had also visited the valley in 1991.

Despite the fact that Kalash can be a tourist hub, nothing is being done to invest in the area and develop its tourism industry. The area lacks proper infrastructure which cuts it off from the rest of the world and has resulted in the seclusion and backwardness of the region.

To tap the full potential of the Kalash Valley, we need to invest time and money to make it easily accessible so as to attract tourists and enhance the economy of this region.

The duke and duchess of cambridge visited Kalash Valley and attended their festival in 2019

Significance in Anthropology

The Kalashas are rich culture and are very strong footed about their identity. These people stand out from the surrounding tribes, cultures and communities of Pakistan due to their distinct culture, religious practices and festivals. 

Even though the Kalash people and their culture have been changing slowly over time, since adaptation to their surroundings is inevitable, the elderly keepers are worried. The advent of the modern lifestyle and the younger generation’s proximity to the Islamic lifestyle and teachings (when they go to schools and the only university in Chitral) are likely to usher in many irreversible changes. The rate of conversion to Islam has gone up recently even after strong opposition from elders.

As discussed earlier, Kalash Valley is a must visit for tourists, especially during the festival seasons to view Kalash in its utmost beauty, and to boost one’s spirit and zest for life. There is so much to be thankful for and people of Kalash never stop showing their gratitude for life in general.

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