BAMBORET, Chitral: Pakistani and foreign tourists bade ‘ashpata’ to the Chilimjusht, a four-day spring festival celebrated by the Kalasha community of Birir, Rambur and Bamboret valleys in Chitral district from May 13 to 16 in the lush green hills amid tight security this year.
‘Ashpata’ is a common word, and the first thing learnt by a team of journalists from the Peshawar Press Club during their tour of Bamboret valley. Little Kalasha girls may greet you with “Ashpata!” meaning “Salam” and it can also be used to mean “goodbye”.
The Kalasha tribe, who once ruled part of Chitral valley, has now been reduced to a few thousands as more than 90 percent population has converted to Islam. Said to be the descendents of the soldiers of Alexander the Great, their mythology and folklore has been compared to that of ancient Greece. They are now limited to three valleys of Rambur, Bamboret and Birir located near Nuristan province of Afghanistan.
Currently, around 4,000 non-Muslim Kalasha people reside with their Muslim family members peacefully in the region. A visit to Bamboret revealed that both the non-Muslim and Muslim members of Kalasha community were living in a single house.
A Kalasha girl, Ghomitta told The News that her brother had embraced Islam. “Though he no longer participates in our festivals and other religious gatherings, he has been residing with us happily and peacefully. We don’t interfere with one another’s religious affairs,” she added.
Ghomitta said they started the celebrations of Chilimjusht early in the morning by drinking milk, eating cheese and serving the same to guests as well. In this modern era, the Kalasha tribe has become an amazing society for foreign and national tourists due to their unique culture.
Shah Juan, a known Kalasha leader, said that when a man or woman died, his body was kept in a wooden box and then shifted to Jestak, a worship place, where they danced around the body for three days before burial. “About 11 years ago, the Kalasha people would place the bodies in the open at their graveyard, along with tools that the deceased would use to earn livelihood in their life,” he added.
He said the Kalasha people started burying their dead after they noticed that belongings of the deceased placed with the bodies were stolen from the boxes and coffins.Some locals said that in the past the Kalasha were very rich but after they became poor, they started stealing things from the boxes kept with the bodies in the graveyard.
Another Kalasha community elder said their girls spent more on the festival than their males during the festival. “They purchase clothes and arrange ornaments for the event,” he added.The rising prices of basic commodities have affected the purchasing capability of the community, he said.
The Bamboret, Birir and Rambur are three narrow V-shaped valleys in Chitral. In Birir and Rambur, Kalasha people outnumber the non-Kalasha, while in the more picturesque Bamboret valley the non-Kalasha — who are Muslims, or have converted to Islam later — are in a slight majority.
The Kalasha women wearing traditional black robes, ornate cowries shelled headdresses and adorned with coloured necklaces, while dancing in a circle, celebrated Chilimjusht festival amid tight security this year.
Due to the recent militant incursions on border areas of Chitral district from Afghanistan side, the Pakistan Army, Chitral Scouts and police provided foolproof security to the festival.Usually, the Kalasha people dance to the drumbeats in every religious ceremony. Women begin dancing in circles and the men also join them later. A man in the middle of the circles usually beats the drum as the others around him dance.
The Chilimjusht is also an occasion for lovers to intermingle. A main feature is that the unmarried boys and girls select life partners at the event. The Kalash people celebrate four main festivals annually. In addition to Chilimjusht, the other three festivals are: “Uchal” which is observed in August marking the harvest of wheat and barleys and bringing down of cheese from the high summer pastures; “Phoo” is only held in Birir at the end of September to celebrate the harvest of grapes and walnuts; and “Chomos” is celebrated around mid-December as the Kalash people believe it is meant for divine pleasure, the living and dead relatives and for the safety of crops and goats.