Sayed Gul Kalash
Photograph by Abid Mehmood
Sayed Gul Kalash works to preserve her critically endangered Kalash culture and language in a remote region of Pakistan. Her archaeological finds, museum work, and sustainable tourism efforts raise awareness for one of the oldest and most unique cultures surviving today.
One of the world’s only cultures to survive in its original form for 3,000 years now numbers only about 3,500 people. Whether it endures, or vanishes, rests largely on the shoulders of one woman.
Sayed Gul Kalash, a member of the indigenous community herself, works to keep traditional beliefs, language, dress, religion, art forms, and other elements of Kalash heritage alive. As a compelling representative of a culture under threat, she focuses her efforts not only on preserving the past, but also on improving the present and safeguarding the future.
As the first Kalash archaeologist and only Kalash woman trained as a scientist, Gul Kalash uses her rare skill set to instill greater appreciation for Kalash traditions within her own society, her nation, and the larger world. “I want to rekindle a sense of ownership and pride in my community, particularly among young people,” she says.
Once powerful and widespread, Kalash civilization numbered tens of thousands of people strong. Over the centuries, they were increasingly pressured to assimilate and abandon traditional practices. The tiny sliver remaining descend directly from the last holdouts, who fled to remote valleys in the Hindu Kush mountains of Pakistan’s frontier. Today, even these secluded areas are transforming as forests are destroyed and construction projects launched.
Gul Kalash laments that as their landscape changes, Kalash people continue to be marginalized—beset by socioeconomic challenges and lacking basic infrastructure, health care, and educational facilities. They are Pakistan’s smallest religious minority and not officially recognized.
Gul Kalash discovers remnants of past Kalash glory at the world-renowned Taxila archaeological sites she excavates—shedding light on the culture’s origins and artistry. Ancient graves yield ceramics, jewelry, and weapons and reveal clues about unique funeral rituals and burial practices. Such artifacts and other iconic elements of Kalash heritage will be part of a new multicultural museum opening soon, with Gul Kalash at the helm.
Tourists are fascinated by Kalash crafts, ceremonial music and dance, traditional cuisine, and women adorned in elaborately embroidered dresses and headpieces bearing exquisite beadwork and shells. Unique polytheistic/animist religious practices culminate in four annual festivals commemorating seasonal changes and showcasing ritual performances. Gul Kalash acknowledges that positive attention from outsiders through sustainable tourism could help keep her culture alive, but cautions that tourists must observe people, activities, and celebrations respectfully.
Travelers are not the only ones drawn to the distinct identity of Kalash. “Our language belongs to an ancient branch of Indo-European languages and is of great interest to linguists yet it has no written script,” she explains. “The culture’s early history, folk stories, love songs, and epic tales reflect a high level of indigenous wisdom and insight into the human experience, but exist only in oral tradition. As our numbers decline, a language that flourished since 1000 B.C. has been brought to the verge of extinction.”
Gul Kalash works to preserve the language by documenting local legends and lore in written form for the very first time.
“I would like to see the government create a clear policy for protecting Kalash heritage,” she says. On an even broader scale, she hopes endangered Kalash culture and land will ultimately be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list, a designation that would help mobilize international cooperation and assistance. She actively participates in conferences to advance this effort, documenting elements such as villages, language, religion, and music still existing in their original forms and in need of preservation.
“All of my efforts point toward one goal: to raise awareness about a special and ancient culture existing only one place on Earth, in danger of disappearing forever,” she says. “All around the world, fewer and fewer traces remain of values, beliefs, and artistic expressions that defined humanity so long ago. Where they still survive, I hope to help keep them alive.”
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