Date? Lost track of time. Kalash Valleys. Pakistan. 1992.

“Maybe it is about time I wrote of the funerals. I’ve been putting it off, mainly because there is so much to write!

Today I began to think of leaving, though India seems so far away! Leaving this incredible place. I have had thoughts that when I return (which I am hoping to) for Joshi (spring festival), I will invite my Dad. I think he would love it here.

And so to the funerals. I think the best way is to ‘automatic’ write and see what comes out!

The first funeral in Broon (1st night of the 3 day event)

Arriving , pitch-black, in a moonlight glow. Tripping and stumbling, up hill to the fire glow doorways. Following the sound. The sound of drums.

And a magical drone. Women’s voices carrying inward, driving the nails that carry the coffin we call life.

The doorway surrounded by shadow, mumbling men. The light bouncing off my glasses, half blinding me.

Peeping in.

And what I saw needed a minute, a lifetime, all too aware of my own strangeness in this world so strange to me.

Making sense of the dark moving images.

The women, interwoven, sidestepping slowly. A tone, a drone singing. Playing with clashing harmony. Slowly around, around,around. Kupass headdress and twinkling eyes – serious faces and a weary onward. The smoking, talking men in huddles and groups.

Aaaaah-ahhhhhhhhhhh, Aaaaah-ahhhhhhhhh, Aaaaah-ahhhhhhhhhhhhh……

and from the centre a wailing, sobbing continuous cry

“Ma baya co?” (My brother why?)

And the drums beat on.

I crept in, so aware of my presence it hurt. Partly through my own ‘learning’ of death.

Inside it was warm.

And friendly.

The muffled ‘Isparta’, and accompanying smile of welcome.

I was part of this dream,

And the drums beat on.

Suddenly the rhythms change.

A whoop went up and the slow circular thread was interrupted as the people jumped up to dance.

The drums beat fast.

The women broke off in twos, threes and fours, clinging together and spinning in semi circles, increased their calls and spinning first one way, then the other, smaller circles drawn along the path of the larger one they trod.

Some danced alone, spinning and twirling, their hands in the air, blinking their fingers like stars, like spirits, like fairy ghosts.

The men danced in the same fashion, only with more leaping and howling.

Whistling so loud it rattled your brain.

Men holding flags.

Men holding spears.

Men holding swords.

Men holding bells and feathers.

Around and around.

The men, at some signal?, would link together, move around, then suddenly laugh dramatically, as if to scare the evil away.

Mwaa-ha-ha-haaa. Running in and, like a wave, returning.

Around and around.

Like a spectral orbit of demons and fairies, light and stars. In a kind of dance game of life.

The whirling flags and laughing men ‘catching’ the whirling ,singing girls.

Flirting and laughter with a serious edge.

Man on the brink.

Human on a bass line.

And then suddenly, as suddenly as it had started, the rhythm changed again.

The people drifted away to sit and talk, to watch, to walk.

And one woman’s voice would rise above.

The slow eternal wailing.

“Why? Why?Why?”

The dead man’s wife and all his ‘sisters’ stood and sat in the centre of this whirling frenzy.

Like a pre-Raphaelite painting in the candle light. Some with wet faces from their tears, others ‘faking’ crying with the slow throb of their shoulders.

Their, normally plaited hair, half un-braided, they mourned around a bed. Two women stood at the head and sang. The slow agony of loss.

And on the bed he lay. Covered with a sheet of cloth. Red flags at his head.

The dead Kalash brother.

For him these people came to dance and remember and not just for 1 hour.

The drums beat on for the next 2 days…

2nd day night.

We went away to sleep and then returned.  I was very stoned (due to a visitors solar-oven hash birthday cake!) and something unfathomable and yet strangely accepted happened to me.

The same magic, the same visuals and yet…..

The drums beat on.

We entered the ‘house’ and my mind fled in agony.

The air was thick, the darkness black, the lights too bright.

Heavy with atmosphere I couldn’t even breathe. Indigestable power. I swayed in the crowd.

Blinking fingers, the laugh, the laugh at death, their eternal wail that sang to my inner consciousness.

It all span and I saw……

Fire, fire,fire.

Blood and a woman.

Fast pictures and understanding…..and then I knew I couldn’t take it all…

“Cathy, Cathy…I am fainting!”

Too late.

Next thing I knew there were many hands and concerned faces. “Tu journis. (You understand) Tu journis” they were saying.

I had to get air.

2 days continuous wake. No sleeping, just singing and dancing and crying.

The power was tangible.

Air. Air.

Gulping and shell-shocked,like zombies, we sat on a rock outside. I, so grateful for friendship in this foreign environment. So confused and yet weirdly elated.

I know what I saw.

And that I cannot explain it.

It was history and present all wrapped up in one and I do not know why I experienced it.

Jerry said ‘Charas (local marijuana) poisoning.” and maybe he is right.

But I cannot shake the images and have not shaken them yet. I actually feel blessed to have experienced it.

And the really strange thing is the Kalash people all seem to think I saw something special too!!!

I slept in Broon at Shringiree’s brother’s house. Too weak to walk.

A deep sleep with half-remembered interruptions and curious lanterns held up to my face. I awoke, still quivering, unable to forget and took nearly all day to recover.

But then we were told that there was another funeral in Birer and we all jumped on a jeep over the mountains to the neighbouring Kalash valley and I felt alright again.

2nd night of Birer funeral

The same as before, only in an incredible, magical setting.

The “shik” (funeral) was held outside this time, on a steep mountainside, below the cliff hanging village, but metres above the huge river below. It looked out across the valley and the opposite mountains. When the moon rose it was truly dramatic. The silver gash of boulders and water that was the river (The river was split in many flows, a delta, and to cross you had to use a system of rough hewn tree trunk bridges then a laddered climb up to the village above) shone in the moonlight.

The sky was clear and icy sharp, the temperature freezing.

And still the drummers drummed, the dancers danced and the wailing women mourned.

The feeling was far less intense as it was outside. It was very beautiful, rather than threatening. This time I slept for only 2 hours in order to understand more fully.

Here Cathy and I were invited to join in the dancing. We copied the women and it was very well received!! They loved it! Sometimes the teenage girls would grab us and use us as battering rams, much to our embarrassment, so we preferred to dance alone.

It was all such fun. And yet we were at a funeral!!?

Very haunting.

Here I began to understand more levels of the Kalash shik.

The old men huddle in one area. Many men would join them and then break away. Always one man is telling a story in the centre. The stories are told to a kind of rhythmic pattern, with the drums, a kind of call and response. Men chorused “Yes! Yes! Yes!” or “That’s right!” from time to time. The story drum often echoed the tale. This activity continues for the entire duration of the shik, parallel to the dancing. The stories told appear to be the history of the deadman and their ancestors. The telling made compelling viewing.

The tribe continue these rituals for for 2 days and nights without stopping (although I believe they work shifts!) until sunrise the 3rd day. At sunrise the dead man’s soul leaves his body and the dancing and chanting reaches a frenzy.

In Birer the women do something I had not seen at Broon. They continually soothe the air above the dead man’s head with a stroking action. Very beautiful to watch.

They ‘break’ for food 3 times a day (the rhythms continue). It is special food. Meat cooked during the funeral itself, 100’s of goats are slaughtered and a very strong goats cheese is eaten (Too strong for me!). On the morning of the third day there is much wine drunk and all the exhausted people get very drunk and go home, at last, to sleep.

Birer. And the magik of tribes and moonlight.

Their slow song will never leave my brain or my heart. the chilling cold forgotten. The strange dance of life and death encapsulated. the history telling, the past, the dancers, the future.

And there is so much more……

The men bury the body in a wooden coffin which has to be made during the 3rd day morning. The dead man is carried away from the wake on his bed.

Some men make speeches, talking directly to the body, dramatically kissing the man goodbye.

They fire a lot of guns at funerals too! All sorts of guns pistols, shotguns. At Birer there were also AK47s and tracer bullets. Pretty dangerous stuff. Often fired unexpectedly close. You could feel the breeze!

I suppose, at least during  the last few centuries it has become a war zone, situated so close to Afghanistan, but it surprised me none the less, as guns are not something I had previously associated with the Kalash.

Women’s funerals

From what I can gather a woman’s funeral is not a grand affair. It lasts only for one day and there is no music and dancing. Only the ‘history’ in the form of chanting and speeches and then she is, unceremoniously, buried.

These women work hard for their men.”


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