The Month of Wine and Walnuts and the Chicken Myth

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Pakistan  ,
Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Pakistani flag you see above contains a white stripe.  That white stripe is extremely important for the Kalash people, as they aren't Muslims.  The white stripe is symbolic of religious tolerance, the right to a separate identity for minority groups.  Although minorities such as Christians are a small part of Pakistan's population, having this right flying above them is important, although it doesn't guarantee their longevity and survival.

The Kalash people have a myth: their gods forbid them from eating chickens and eggs.  Whenever they ate chickens or eggs, they would meet their downfall.

September is the month of wine and walnuts in the Kalash Valleys.  People harvest wild grapes growing high into the trees.  Girls climb trees to eat small fruits, to pick apples, or to knock down walnuts for collecting. Villagers cut corn with scythes, saving the corn for drying, for chapatis, for the winter.  This is a time of abundance, the harvest time.

The Khan family has a home guesthouse on the outskirts of Grom, a small village in Rumbur Valley.  I stayed here six nights and seven days with the family and other travelers.  The family, the two boys, the daughter, all were friendly and smiling.  One of the sons organized a valley cricket tournament. Ingineer, the father, was constantly searching the high branches for grapes, tasty, slightly sour.

Keeping Ramadan here was more difficult, with temptations in all directions, especially good food and fresh grapes served at lunchtime, but the Khan family helped me along, providing me with leftovers to eat at four in the morning and calling me "Ramazan Khan."

On their porch, I played guitar and sang with Sam from Australia.  It was good to play again after over a year without.  The valley was relaxing, sunny, crisp at night, warm during the day, snow high in the tall Hindu Kush mountains towards Afghanistan, a day's walk away.

One major difference with the Kalash people was that the women were not in hiding, their faces were uncovered and they wore bright clothing with shushut and kupas on their heads, decorated with colored beads and cowrie shells, said to help with fertility.

The Kalash people were shamanistic Animists.  I met the Grom village Dehar one day.  Although we couldn't understand one another verbally, I sensed his friendly nature, though he only channeled Manahdeo a couple times a year.  In different parts of the valley were shrines to various gods, with charcoal remnants showing previous offerings' remains.  In springs were bhut or demons, and they had fairies or suchi called Katsavir and Shingmu.  The villagers showed me the various shrines along the way.

What caught my eye was two things: the name bhut and the wood carvings.  Both reminded me of the Animistic Hindu culture in the Padder valley in Kashmir, where a demon was called Bhutpret, and the carvings had knot-like patterns similar to Celtic spiritual art...or perhaps Aryan.

Up until one hundred years ago, much the Hindu Kush mountains in Northern Afghanistan was called Kafiristan.  Kafiristan was the last place between North Africa and West India where Islam was unable to penetrate, with its fortress-like mountains and isolated valleys.  The people of Kalash were part of this larger group, which likely had a diverse belief system.  Although no one is sure, the Kafirs and Kalash may have come from further west about three to four thousand years ago, perhaps as part of the aryans who settled in India, bringing proto-Hinduism with them.  This would explain some of the similarities in beliefs--beliefs that have remained largely unchanged for many years.

The Kalash are the last of the Kafiristanis, however, as the Durand Line a few miles west of their valleys meant that all of Kafiristan was incorporated into the new nation of Afghanistan: all were converted to Islam.  The Kalash were the only ones to the east of the line and were granted more freedom under British law.

The Kafirs are now Muslim Nuristanis.  One group of Nuristanis has established a new village at the upper reaches of the valley.  They greeted us with large smiles and invited us into their village.

But  the Kalash myth has become reality.  Now, the Kalash eat chicken and eggs.  The population has declined to less than 2,000, the rest converted to Islam, voluntarily.  Families are often mixed, with the younger generation adopting Islam.  A new mosque is being built in Grom village by Chitralis.  The Nuristanis have blocked access to part of their summer pasture and forestlands, leading to some fighting, though in general things seem peaceful, but with a lingering tension underlying everything.

Today, the Kalash are restricted to three small valleys, with their own language, identity, and traditions, a glimpse into the past perhaps without a future.

But there is still a vertical white stripe on the Pakistani flag.
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