The Kalasha Mountain People of the Hindu Kush

By Mytte Fentz, with architectural research and drawings by John Harrison.

Published by Rhodos, Denmark (www.rhodos.dk). ISBN 8772459743. 498 kroner (approx £50 plus postage.)

Mytte Fentz has written the definitive book on the Kalasha. The publishers and the author are to be congratulated. The book is magnificent, and like Maureen Lines recent book “From Disaster to Catastrophe” is compulsive reading. Both books will stand as paradigms of their genre for years to come. It is therefore a pleasure to note that Mytte Fenze uses some of Maureen’s photographs in her book. These are on pages 188 and 189. Mytte Fentz’s book is almost 550 pages long, and has a coffee-table format and weight – but it is much more than that. There are superb colour photographs with accounts of all aspects of the Kalasha, including their history, villages, social structure and environment. Mytte Fentz lived in the valleys for a number of years during the 1990’s, and has the academic credentials to lift her account to a level that will ensure her book’s long-term importance. As Mytte writes in her introduction “The present book may be regarded as a continuation of an internationally recognised tradition of Danish research into Central Asia that began as early as the final decade of the 19th century with Lieutenant Ole Olufsen, who in 1896–97 and 1898-99 led the first and second Danish Pamir Expedition. It is my hope that this contribution can add to existing international research about the Kalasha in the Hindu Kush mountains.” Her hopes have been amply fulfilled.

Kalash Valley in winter – Photo: Maureen Lines

The book is divided into three major sections: ‘Introduction’, ‘The Valley’ and ‘The High Pasture’. There are also seven appendices, followed by a glossary, bibliography, a list of photographers, and an index, all of which are first rate. The three main photographers are Mette Fentz, John Harrison, and Torben Stroyer, with seven additional names including Maureen Lines who has a unique knowledge of the area. These photographs are acknowledged on page 530. There are a number of interesting topics with comments in the book. We very much enjoyed the general account at the beginning of the book on Chitral and Chitral Town which we know well. Earlier foreign workers in the area are also given due recognition, including Georg Morgenstierne, Karl Jettmar, Alberto and Augusto Cacopardo, Jean Loude and Vivian Lievre, Peter Parkes and Max Klimburg. There are one or two minor errors in the bibliography. For example on page 481, Parkes 1993 and Foster 1965 are not in the bibliography at the end of the book. But this inevitably happens in any major contribution to the literature.

 

Photo: Maureen Lines

The author provides us with a detailed account of Kalasha cultural ideas on religion and the relative roles of women and men in society.  She also identifies the important leadership role that women play in irrigation agriculture and water milling to produce flour, together with the part that locally brewed wine and the sacrifice of goats play in society. There is also detailed discussion of the role of legends in the culture and history of the Kalasha is fascinating, and the author discusses and comments on these. The old architecture of the Kalasha is impressive, and is constructed on steep mountain slopes using techniques and positioning that withstand earthquakes, land-slides and flash floods. The high pastures are discussed in some detail. These are relatively high altitude grazing areas that men and goats inhabit during the summer months. Migrations are made to and from these areas in Spring and Autumn, with appropriate rituals. So the story is well told.

All in all, the Kalasha are an extraordinary and endangered group of people and theirs is an extraordinary story.  Mytte Fenze’s book together with that by Maureen Lines do the Kalasha the fullest justice. The two books will stand as major achievements for many years to come. Anyone interested in the origins and culture of the Kalash people and in their environment really has to have a copy of both books.

Peter and Azra Meadows. July 2010.

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