Kalasha people, culture under threat from climate change.


Peer Muhammad

Culture, traditions, rituals, and even the very existence of endangered indigenous Kalash communities are threatened by the increasing effects of climate change. The communities are in three valleys of the Chitral district in the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountain range of northeast of Pakistan.

Around 4000 Kalasha people live in three valleys of Chitral district namely Bumburate, Rumbur and Birrir just bordering Afghanistan’s most restive provinces of Noristan and Kunar. They inherited typical distinctive traditions, rites and culture, which are only centuries-old.

The rising trend of natural disasters in the shape of heavy rain, flash floods and earthquakes appears to have far reaching implications for those traditions. The erratic rains with the penetration of the monsoon thunderstorms in that area have induced increasing trends of flash floods during summer. These new climatic phenomena have been damaging to agriculture and livestock in these valleys, which are the prime sources of livelihood to these mountain communities.

Besides other climatic factors, the local community holds the rapid deforestation by timber mafia in these valleys responsible for the recurrence of flashfloods while the authorities have another opinion on this.

Except for these three valleys of Chitral, the Kalasha tribe lives nowhere else in the world and according to historians, this tribe once ruled the then Kingdom of Chitral for centuries. Later a Muslim king from Afghanistan, Nadir Shah, invaded the kingdom and majority of the people were forced to convert to Islam although a small fraction of the populace was allowed to continue living with their traditional faith.

A Cantonment of Chitral Forces destroyed in the 2015 Floods in Bumburate Valley.


Since then, they have been living in the three villages and in recent decades, their number has significantly declined owing to conversion to other faiths, mostly Islam. Until the 1950s, the total Kalash population was around 10,000 but has decreased to about 4,000. High mountains encircle the three Kalash valleys, separating them from the restive Taliban dominated Nuristan province of Afghanistan.


Distinctive to the centuries-old identities  of the Kalash people are their special rituals and traditions, organic food and red wine, colorful embroidered costumes, a special bird feather on their caps, musical instruments, jewelry and special paintings on their walls and doors, which they never abandon.

Shahigul meets with an elderly Kalash woman in a traditional way.

The Kalasha people are very concerned about their vulnerability as they practice some aspects of their culture with particular devotion because the things that make the Kalasha different from the people around them are gradually disappearing. Their rituals have become notable for them and they strictly followed some traditional code and restrictions helping them distinguish between the pure and impure. Seasonal festivals are strictly celebrated with folk songs and dances Marriage and death are marked with animalsacrifices.

“Kalashas are like a museum of this country, who must be protected,” said a Kalasha community leader Shahigul in the Bumburat valley, considered the headquarters of the tribe.

Being unaware of climate change, she notes that growing flashfloods in the narrow valleys induced by erratic rain have many implications on their lives.


“We have lost our houses, crops, orchards, forest and livestock to this year’s flooding and little has left for us behind” she maintained.

Kalasha school girls at a community primary Birrir Valley of Chitral.Photo: Writer

Farming and livestock are the two basic sources of livelihood of both the Muslims and the Kalash people who live in these valleys. But the Kalashas depend on them to perform their unique but expensive rituals and traditions. Both are highly vulnerable due to the growing climatic phenomenon appearing in the valleys over the years.

The month-long recurrences of flashfloods in summer 2015 induced by sudden thunderstorms and floods, were the most devastating in the recorded history of Chitral. Three valleys of the Kalash community were among the worst hit.

The floods also flattened the Bumburat valley and affected other communities by inundating the standing crops, houses, tourist hotels, orchards, and drowning the livestock.

Bajur Khan, a Kalash community leader in the Birrir valley, said living in narrow valleys means they face threats from both floods and earthquakes. He said the 2010 floods were “a dreadful moment,” but last year’s floods were even worse and they lost everything.

“We are scared about future,” Khan said, adding the flashfloods inundated his orchards, standing crops and fertile arable lands. “Almost 80 percent of my arable land was washed away. I managed to collect just two sacks of 40 kg of maize grain instead of 30 sacks as I used to collect in every year in the past.

“We are fed up of these floods and want to come out of this situation,” Khan stated.

Yasir Kalash, a young Kalash community leader, said flashfloods have defaced once the beautiful Bumburat valley, which was once an attraction for local and foreign tourists. He was also critical of the government for doing nothing so far to reconstruct the damaged roads and water channels except giving some relief goods to the affected people.

Roads and connecting bridges have washed away, and have been temporarily restored by the community and the Pakistani army. However, the same problems would re-emerge once the water levels start to rise in summer, he said.

Shahigul, tkhe community leader in the Bumburat Valley, explained that the floods, landslides, avalanches and erosion have made it challenging for them to live there comfortably.  “You see, we are sandwiched between mountains and disasters like floods and earthquakes have become common phenomenon.”

These growing natural disasters have made the lives challenging for the Kalash and will have far reaching implications on their expensive traditions and rituals.

“Our traditions are very unique, but expensive,” Shahigul explained. When a member of the community dies the family needs 30 sacks of grain and 25 heads of goats, two sacks of walnuts, 80 kg butter, over 200 kg of cheese and large quantity of dry fruit to serve to the large number of attendants at the funeral coming from the three Kalash valleys.

She stated that according to the culture of the Kalash tribe, all the community members gather at the home of deceased member and mark the event for three days where they perform folk dance and sing songs in praise of the departed soul. “We are the only religion where death of any family member is also celebrated with folk dance and songs,” she noted.

another woman, Raima, said “That’s why most of our lands in the past had been bought by Muslim people,” interjected Raima, a woman sitting next to Shahigul. “When any member of a poor family among the Kalash died, their heirs would be unable to afford these costly events.”

“Resourceful community members now help the poor in case of any member’s inability to pay for these events,” she said while preparing a tea in her traditionally decorated home.

The Kalash grow wheat, maize, walnuts, pulses and vegetable are their products they grow and all of them were destroyed last year. The floods have uprooted the centuries old walnut trees too. “Like mutton and dairy products, walnuts have also key role in our festivals. Traditionally, we have to mix ingredients of walnuts, cheese and butter in our food at the special ritual and cultural events,” she explained.

“For example in marriages, we mix walnuts, butter, cheese in the traditional bread (cake) and send a huge quantity along with the bride to her new home to be distributed among the relatives.”


Divided opinions

Some Kalasha would leave the valleys if they could be helped to settle in safer places where they can lead their lives comfortably. However, many oppose this idea, saying they have everything they need in these mountainous valleys to live — and die.

Shahigul says that they are fed up of these disasters in the narrow valleys and it would be better if the government made arrangements for their resettlement.

“The difficulties for our tribe are rising and we prefer to be settled somewhere in a safe area if the government can it arrange for us.”

“Living in these valleys seems to be the only option as we are helpless and cannot go anywhere due to our unique traditions and culture,” said Bajur Khan. “But now the circumstances have compelled us to think for leaving for some safer place.”

“We will be happy to go if government helps us and settle us in any separate place where we can perform our rituals and traditions.”

However, Shahzada Khan, another Kalash member, disagreed with this idea, saying that it would not be possible for the Kalash community to migrate from these valleys because their traditions and rituals are connected to livestock, dairy and local farming products, which will not be available in anywhere else.

“That’s why we are compelled  to stay in these valleys,” he noted. He said that the government must provide them with facilities to cope with the challenges. “We are not like our peer Muslim community who can go to any other part of the country and easily adjust to continue with our rituals.”

Deforestation a factor

Bajur Khan thinks that the rapid deforestation in the valleys is responsible for the flash floods because government issues permits to “timber mafia” to collect windfall trees. But they mercilessly chop down the century old trees in the valleys paving way for the floods.

A Muslim community leader in Bumburat valley, Ghulam Nabi, said that the timber mafia from outside of Chitral are responsible for massive cutting of the thick forest in the valleys and his people are bearing the brunt of this act.  “People from Dir area in connivance with the government officials are responsible for deforestation, and the local community has received nothing in return.”

“Now we are now clever enough and have established committees in every village to check the deforestation,” he stated.

Afsarullah Khan, the Chief Conservator of Forest of the Malakand Division and Chitral, said the government has not issued permits to cut the standing trees, but allowed removal of  spoiled wood under the “Dry and Rain Fallen Trees Policy 2013.” Under this policy, 60 per cent of the earnings from fallen trees are supposed to go to the local community and 40 percent to the government.

He said that the provincial government also introduced a Scientific Forest Management Policy in 2015 and a committee has been constituted represented by officials from anti-corruption department, National Accountability Bureau, forest department and district management to maintain the transparency in the disposal of the dried forest. “The committee found no irregularity in the disposal,” he noted.

Khan said there is no relation between deforestation and flash floods. “The flash floods occurred due to cloud outbursts and Glof events not due to deforestation.” He further explained that Chitral’s soil and topography is prone to flashfloods.

Amir Muhammad Khan of Focus Humanitarian Assistance, an organization that works during natural disasters, said that the weather pattern in Chitral has completely changed over the years. In the past there was no concept of monsoon, but now we receive monsoon rainfall in the summer. The pattern of rain has also altered with some areas getting more and others less precipitation. The pattern of crops and fruit has also changed. He held global warming, deforestation and population growth responsible for the changes.

“In the past, our culture and rituals were under threat, but we are now very worried about our own very existence because of recurring flashfloods in our valleys,” said Shahigul.

Keeping in view the threats to the culture and tradition and even to the very existence of the indigenous community, Luk Rehmat, the activist from the Bumburat valley, said Pakistan must nominate the three valleys as World Heritage Sites so that they could be better protected and preserved. He said that this is a job of the federal government, but nothing has been done so far.


The story has been produced under the HICAP Fellowship with the support of ICIMOD and GRID-Arendal



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