» » » » Dancing in the hills: a journey to meet Pakistan’s EKalash people - FT Report

Close to the Afghan border, William Dalrymple finds bucolic valleys and a unique community

(Courtesy: Financial Times)

We headed up the mountain in the moonlight, through a forest of holly oaks and walnuts, dotted with crudely carved wooden-box graves. Occasionally a life-sized weathered wooden effigy of some armoured and helmeted warrior reared out of the darkness, leaning at a crazy angle. Above us we could hear the beat of drums and the cries of dancers; from below us came the rush of a mountain torrent. The beat got louder and more driven the closer we came to the ceremonial platform at the top of the hill.

We were in the mountains of the North-West Frontier of Pakistan, less than 20 miles from the Afghan border. A little south-east was the Swat Valley that only a decade before had declared itself an independent Islamic republic run by a pro-Taliban cleric known as “Mullah Radio”. Yet the gathering we had come to see was unlike anything stereotypes of these conservative borderlands might lead you to expect.

For as we emerged from the woods and into a clearing, our hearts beating and lungs puffing from the altitude, we found ourselves stumbling into the middle of a moonlit mountaintop harvest festival. A sort of home-brew hooch — mulberry vodka — was being sipped by the village elders leaning on their sticks on the edge of the clearing. Next to them was a gaggle of drummers thumping away energetically on their dholaks, raising the tempo, minute by minute. Under the stars, bathed in the pale light of a full moon, were gathered some 200 or 300 dancers.

On a beaten mud platform in the centre of the clearing, threesomes of unveiled teenage girls, arms over each other’s shoulders, were turning pirouettes. They were wearing embroidered black dresses edged in cowrie shells and heavily hung with bead necklaces, their hair tied in tight braids. Shy gaggles of boys looked on and occasionally three would link arms and launch into the middle of the dance floor, too. Here they would turn backwards and forwards in a series of steps not unlike the Gay Gordons. They would then attach themselves to one of the group of these girls, the linking couple holding hands — a small act of public intimacy unthinkable anywhere else in this region.

The pale-skinned, blue-eyed Kalash people who preserve this dance, and the religion and cosmology that give it meaning, used to dominate all the valleys of Swat and Chitral, while their cousins across the border in Afghanistan carried these beliefs deep into Nuristan, the land that the epitaph of Mughal Emperor Babur dubbed the Light Garden of the Angel King.

It was these tribes who inspired Kipling’s most famous short story, The Man Who Would Be King, as well as the 1975 John Huston movie that was based on it: the tale of two British ne’er-do-well deserters, Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan, who try to make their fortunes in the mountains beyond the North-West Frontier. Here, mistaken by the Kalash for the long-lost white gods of tribal myth, the pair briefly succeed in becoming the kings of Kafiristan. They rule the country until Dravot marries a Kafir girl who bites him during an amorous dispute. When he bleeds, Dravot is revealed as all too human, and he is quickly unmasked as a conman and killed. Only a maimed and wounded Carnehan escapes and returns to India to tell the tale.

In 1895, seven years after Kipling wrote his tale, the last Kafirs of Afghanistan were forcibly converted to Islam by Abdur Rahman Khan, Afghanistan’s “iron emir”. At the same time, in what became the northern territories of Pakistan, Wahhabi mullahs were encouraging their followers to enslave the infidel Kafir tribes and to seize their lands, their wives and their daughters. Driven ever deeper into the mountains, today the Kalash are found in only three remote valleys, none of which are linked to Chitral town by a metalled road.

Their isolation has kept them both intact and endogamous. They do not marry out, and within this last stronghold they faithfully preserve the complex web of stories, myths and beliefs that together preserve all that has been salvaged from arguably the most ancient of all south-Asian religions, one that may have already been old when the horse-riding nomads who composed the Rig Veda passed down the Swat Valley in the second millennium BC.

Last summer my children, tiring of the usual August diet of Mediterranean villas and Tuscan pools, demanded to go “somewhere more exciting”. Various ideas were canvassed, but in the end we all agreed on a trip into the Karakoram mountains of northern Pakistan, a place I had first visited and fallen in love with as a 21-year-old setting out to follow the route of Marco Polo.

We flew into Islamabad from the various corners of the globe into which the family had scattered — Britain, France, India and Tajikistan — and set off sleepily up the Grand Trunk Road in the pre-dawn glimmer of an early August morning. At sunrise we stopped for breakfast in a roadside dhaba at Attock and watched as the mighty Indus swept under the walls of Akbar’s magnificent fort. For much of south-Asian history, this fortress marked the boundary between Indian Hindustan to the south and Afghan central Asia to the north.

From there we corkscrewed up the switchbacks of the Malakand Pass, where the young Winston Churchill was ambushed and nearly killed by the jihadis of the “Mad Mullah” in 1896. At the top we entered the green and bucolic hillsides of the Swat Valley, where, as a young Delhi-based foreign correspondent in the late 1980s, I used to come with my wife Olivia every December in search of a peaceful white Christmas. It was a very different place now: memories of the Pakistan Taliban takeover were still fresh, and to follow the Swat River up towards Chitral we had to pass an endless gauntlet of police and army check-posts, each of which demanded to see our papers. There had been no recent incidents or incursions, but the hideouts of the Pakistan Taliban were supposed to be just over the Afghan border and the Pakistan Rangers who guard it were taking no chances.

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