In Chitral

Jeremy Bernstein

Sometime in the winter of 1969 a Pakistani colleague told me that the Ford Foundation had created visiting professorships at the University of Islamabad and asked if I would like one. At the time I was always open to travel adventure so I said sure. After I was appointed, the question arose as to how to get there. To me the obvious answer was to drive. I put the proposition to William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker, who thought it an interesting idea. The magazine put up enough money for me to buy a Land Rover Dormobile. This legendary vehicle, which is no longer manufactured, had sleeping bunks and a stove – perfect for the job. I enlisted my friend the Chamonix guide Claude Jaccoux and his wife Michèle and in early September we set out. It took about three weeks to drive from France through Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan and then over the Khyber Pass into Pakistan.

On arrival in Islamabad I called my hosts at the university and they were very apologetic. The university was closed for a month as a punishment for some student agitation which had displeased the government. To me this was wonderful news: we would have a whole month to explore the North-West Frontier region of Pakistan. We drove to Chitral over the Lowari Pass, where the historian Arnold Toynbee had been stopped by a snowstorm a few years earlier while trying to retrace Alexander the Great’s path through Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Toynbee believed that the Kalash people – who live in three isolated valleys, Rumbur, Bumberet and Birir, a day’s walk from Chitral – were descendants of Macedonian soldiers. Alexander certainly brought his army into what is now Pakistan – which turned out to be a fatal mistake – and it is at least conceivable that some of them stayed but there’s no evidence that the Kalash are their descendants. They speak Kalasha-mun which is, like Sanskrit, an Indo-Aryan language.

Chitral was a two-day drive from Islamabad. The first day we drove to Dir, at the foot of the Lowari Pass. The next day we started up the Lowari with Jaccoux at the wheel. He is a virtuoso alpine driver. It was the most serpentine road I have ever seen. I cannot imagine doing it in any kind of bad weather. (A few years ago they opened a tunnel but work continues and it is often closed.) On reaching the other side the road runs pleasantly along the river to the town of Chitral. Chitral was a so-called princely state presided over by a mehtar. It had been suggested that we call on him to make our presence known. We found him in the office of the air field, on the radio, trying to persuade a pilot to come over a cloudy Lowari to pick him up. Having made our greetings we checked into a wonderful old guest house. The next day we crossed the river with the Land Rover and headed up the other side.

The government of Pakistan had taken over the princely states that summer and the army was present in Chitral. An officer pointed out where we should go to get to the valleys where the Kalash live. The trail up was wide and well-maintained. The odd European crossed our path and after a couple of hours we came to a wide and very pretty valley: Bumboret. On the way up we spotted some farmers; they seemed to have no interest in us. We found a rustic building that looked like some sort of guest house. It had no facilities but we had brought sleeping bags and enough food to get us by for a couple of days.

When we were settled in I explored the village. I came to a substantial building and walked in. The only people there were women. I had stumbled into a ‘bashaleni’, a place where menstruating women go. They found my intrusion extremely funny and I beat a hasty retreat. Later a woman came by our little encampent and sold us some wine. It was pretty awful. We had no common language so I could not ask her anything. It was very clear that whatever we were seeing had nothing do with the Muslim culture of Pakistan.

Toynbee died in 1975. I wish I had had the chance to tell him what he would have found in Chitral if he had been able to get there. A recent report I read in Dawn said that if he or I went there now we might find a culture in the process of disappearing. There are fewer than four thousand Kalash people left. They have fewer visitors, too:

Due to the deteriorating security situation, foreign tourists have confined themselves to visiting the town only. The provision of a security guard for each tourist doesn’t help create a perception of security.

When we went there was no sense of any danger. The people went about their business and we went about ours.

The real Greek influence in this part of the world is visible in Greco-Buddhist art, of which the most famous examples were the huge statues at Bamiyan in Aghanistan. We visited them on our trip. The Taliban blew them up in 2001.


  • 6 July 2019 at 2:32pm
    Jeremy Bernstein says:
    There is something I did not have the space to discuss so let me say a few words here. As mentioned in the text the Kalash speak and early version of Sanskrit. They use basically the Sanskrit number system which if you look at it bears a striking resemblance to the Greek number system. These resemblances to Greek were especially emphasized by Sir William Jones in the 18th century. The explanation given and I think generally accepted is that these languages have a common origin in what is called Proto Indo European-PIE.No written examples of this language is known and the number system is reconstructed from the modern languages. But who were these people and how did they get to India? One romantic view is that they succeeded in domesticating the horse and rode into these countries on horseback or in chariots.