Hindu Kush: Prototype Vedic/Tibetan deities and Kunlun’s mountain fairy and apsara legends of the ancient Kalash people?

Map of Central Asia, including the Hindu Kush mountains (Jagged Globe)

Map of Central Asia, including the Hindu Kush mountains (Jagged Globe)

Excerpted from “Kalash Religion” by M. Witzel:

To begin with, the valleys of Nuristan in E. Afghanistan inhabited by the Nuristani (Kafiri) speaking tribes that form a third branch of IIr., while the neighboring valleys of northern Pakistan are inhabited (apart from a few recent Nuristani immigrants that have arrived in Chitral over the past hundred years), by various Dardic (NIA) speaking Muslim populations such as the Kalash, Kho, Shina etc. Only the larger part of the Kalash, living in three of the western valleys of Chitral (see map below for Chitral pass), have retained their old, pre-Islamic religion and rituals, while the rest of the Nuristani and Dardic speaking peoples have retained, as Muslims, only vestiges of their former beliefs.

However, though the languages of the Nuristanis and Kalash belong to two different, not mutually understandable subfamilies of modern IIr., they share many common concepts, beliefs and often even figures of the pantheon, though normally under different names. The isolated Kalash have received strong religious influences from pre-Islamic Nuristan. For that reason, most of the religious traits of both areas can be treated together.

Both groups (and to a large degree also the other Dards, including the Kashmiris), also share some features that are general ‘Himalaya-PamirHindukush’ and in all probability represent an ancient, common substrate (TUITE 2000, cf. BENGTSON 1999, 2001, 2002). These must be separated from what may appear to be Vedic. In the sequel, Hindukush religion is described according to its traditional Nuristani (N.) features, but Kalash (K.) peculiarities are always indicated.

Common traits of these ‘mountain religions’ — often extending all along the Himalayas — include the following. There is the prominent role of shamans (pshur, wrear, deal N., dehar K., LIEVRE & LOUDE 1990) and related items: the use of flat circular drums, of various types of psychopharmaca (wine, fly agaric, rhubarb, mead, Pashto hum ~ Kalash sámani; cf. also NYBERG 1995), and a general pattern of goat sacrifice (already seen at Mehrgarh, near Quetta, 6500 BCE), with sprinkling of the blood of the victim.

There also is a general pattern of belief in mountain fairies, now often called by their Persian name, Peri, but still called Apsaras in the Rājataraṅgiṇī(3.465, 468-471 for King Raṇāditya’s entering and disappearing in a mountain cave into the company of Daitya women). The Kalash distinguish between Suchi (sÏci), who are helpers in the hunt and in the killing of enemies,1 and the Varōti who are the more violent and angry male partners of the Suchi, reflecting the later Vedic (and typical medieval Kashmiri) distinction between Apsarases and Gandharvas. Certain mountains are the favored seats of the fairies, especially the impressive, 7708 m high pyramid of the Kailāsa-like Tirich Mir in the North of Chitral (~ Meru Kaṭh B, Meros Arrian, Anabasis 1.6; Sumeru, Pāli Sineru; cf. *devameru, Shina díamer = Nanga Parbat, CDIAL 6533). In late autumn, the Peri descend to the high mountain meadows.2 A few key features that highlight the position of Hindukush religion in between the IIr., BMAC and Vedic religions will be summarized and discussed in some detail, as they by and large even now remain unknown to Vedic specialists, in spite of BUDDRUSS 1960 and the selective summary “d’un domaine mal connu des indianistes” by FUSSMAN (1977: 21-35), who, even with an “esprit hypercritique comme le nôtre” (1977: 27), overstresses (postVedic) Indian influences (1977: 69; for a balanced evaluation of the linguistic features, see now DEGENER 2002). However, both Hindukush and Vedic mythology, ritual, and festivals, in spite of many layers of developments and mutual influences, tend to explain each other very effectively; cf. the similar case of Nepal (Witzel 1997c: 520-32).

§1.5.1. Mythology

Nuristani deities were praised in songs called bem (= Ved. bráhman, BUDDRUSS 2002: 123). There is a creator god, appearing under various names, no longer as Father Heaven, but as lord of the nether world and of heaven: Imra (*Yama Rājan), Māra ‘death’ (N.), Dezau (*dih, CDIAL 14621, from N.) or Paidagarau (paydagaráw, K.). Sometimes he has taken over, like Zeus, some characteristics of Indra (he kills a snake, like the ṚV Indra). He also is the ancestor of humans or their creator (uncharacteristically, out of mud).  However, just as Yama has a twin sister Yamī, so has Dezau (ḍizáw, K.): Dezālik (ḍizálik, K.), the goddess of birth, similar to the Kafiri Nirmali (N. < nirmalikā).

Heaven consists of seven round disks, clearly an influence of the South Asian (probably, originally Near Eastern) preponderance of this number, as compared to Northern Eurasian nine (also seen in the ṚV and in Nepalese Shaman songs, MASKARINEC 1998, where 7 appears next to 9).

More importantly, there is an Indra-like figure, often actually called Indr (N., K.) or Varendr (K., waræn, werín, *aparendra). As in the Veda, the rainbow is called after him: Ved. indra-dhanÏṣ, N.: Kati indrō~, i~drō~, K.indré~, etc. (CDIAL 1577); when it thunders, Indra is playing Polo (or, when Munjem moves, BUDDRUSS 2002: 125); Kal. indōcik ‘lightning‘ < Indradyotya (CDIAL 1576); and the earthquake is called *indreṣṭi ‘impulse from Indra’, Kati indrí.c., indríṣṭ (CDIAL 1582).

Indra appears, however, in various forms and modern ‘disguises’; we have to assume many local developments and cross-wise influences from one local tradition on the other during the past 3000 years, as clearly seen in the god Balumain (§1.5.1, 5). The Kafiri Giwīṣ/Giwē’ṣ/Gyīṣ (< *gaviṣa ‘wishing for cows’) is a daring, always successful killer and hero and reflects Indra’s Ṛgvedic character well (ṚV gaviṣ, cf. gaviṣṭi); some other of his ‘incarnations’ stress fertility that he brought about or personifies, and also Indra’s connection with rain when he appears as as Wushum, Shomde (N.) and as Sajigor (Sajigōr, K.), who is indeed called Shura Verin (šÏra werín < *śūra *aparendra ‘the hero, the unrivaled Indra’). Waræn(dr-) or In Warīn (K.) is the mightiest and most dangerous god; the location of his shrine was assigned by bow shot, which recalls Indra’s Bunda bow (see §1.4, above). Another god, Munjem ‘malik’ (munjem < *madhyama ‘middle’; malék < Arab. malik ‘king’) is the Lord of Middle Earth and killed, like Indra, his father, a demon. He pressed him down, took his head to the upper valley, his feet to the lower valley and covered him with earth,3 all of which is reminiscent of the Puruṣa/Ymir and Chin. (< Austric) Pangu myths. Most interestingly, Mahandeu (mahandéo, K.) and Mon/Mandi (Māndi, N., < *mahān deva), too, is a war god, a negotiator with the highest deity, and he is everywhere and accessible like Indra. Mon/Mandi has a golden body, appears as Zebu bull and collects clouds (cf. the bull/horse form of Tištriia, opponent of the demon of drought, Apaoša).

Even the recently popular Balumain (baḷimaín, K.) has taken over some of Indra’s features: he comes from the outside, riding on a horse. Mahandeu had ‘cheated’ him, like other Indra figures, from superiority.4 Balumain is a culture hero who, among others things, taught how to celebrate the Kalash winter festival (Chaumos).

Like the IIr. *Indra *Vṛtraghan, the Hindukush Indra has a demon-like counterpart, Jeṣṭan (K., < *jyeṣṭha?), seen on earth as a dog; the gods (Devalog, cf. N. dilū) are his enemies and throw stones at him, seen as the shooting stars.

There are many other deities, which cannot be treated here;5 however, the goddess Jeṣṭak (jéṣṭak, K. < *jyeṣṭhā, or *deṣṭrī?), the Dis(a)ni (< dhiṣaṇā) of the Kafirs, is important: she is the goddess of the hearth and of life force; she protects children and birth giving women, as are the Jach (.j.a.c. <yakṣ(in)ī, K.), a whole category of female spirits of the soil or of special places, fields and mountain pastures.

§1.5.2. Ritual

Hindukush ritual has many IIr. and IA features, too (pace FUSSMAN 1977: 34). Kafiri religion had priests (N. wutō, utō < hotṛka? CDIAL 14176; note K. ištikavan ‘priest’, from ištikhék ‘to praise a god’, still found by MORGENSTIERNE in 1929),6 bards and shamans. However, in Kalash religion the priests are missing now (only some shamans, dehár, remain). Instead, there is a special role for half-grown boys, who are treated with special awe, and who combine, like Brahmacārins, pre-sexual behavior and the purity of the high mountains, where they tend goats for the summer months. …

Purity is very much stressed, just as in the Veda or in Hinduism. In Kalash religion it is centered around altars, goat stables, the space between the hearth and the back wall of houses (as modern Himalayan/Newar practice), and also in periods of festivals; the higher up in the valley, the more pure the location. By contrast, women (especially during menstruation and birth), as well as death and decomposition, and the outside (Muslim) world are impure, and, just as in the Veda (and Avesta), many cleansing ceremonies are required, even for the average householder, if purity was infringed upon.

In Kalash ritual, the deities are seen, as in Vedic ritual (and in Hindu Pūjā), as temporary visitors. Other than Nuristani shrines, Kalash ones (dūr ‘house’ < Ved. dÏr; malosh) are located, with the exception of the women’s house (Jeṣṭak Han), under the open sky at trees (juniper, oak, cedar), and they are characterized by a wooden board or a stone altar. There always is an opening, apparently to the other world of the gods (as in shrines for the Newar deity Nāsa Dyo). In 1929 MORGENSTIERNE still saw the effigy of a human head inside such holes; cf. the (lost) ‘head of the sacrifice’, so important in Vedic ritual (HEESTERMAN 1967, WITZEL 1987); cf. further old Celtic practices.

Fire is generally used at rituals, but next to the altars, and not inside an altar as in Vedic religion; blood is sprinkled there, unlike in India where it is regarded as polluting, except for Tantric or tribal rituals. Horses, cows, goats and sheep are sacrificed.

Hindukush ritual makes use of several forms of sacred drinks, especially wine (vines grow locally, and are attested already by Alexander’s Greeks, who thought of Dionysos). Indr, or similar gods, have a vineyard; he defends it against invaders, and an eagle appears. When the invaders shoot at him with arrows, he creates a rock slide, killing them. This may reflect a faint Kafiri echo of the old IE and IIr. myth of the eagle bringing the sacred drink.

Crows, however, represent the ancestors, and are frequently fed, also at tombs (with the left hand), just as in the Veda and in parts of modern India and Nepal (WITZEL 1986: 163).

In general, solemn Kalash ritual seems to be of potlatch type (namÏs <Arab.), as KUIPER has proposed for the Ṛgvedic one. By organizing rituals and festivals (up to 12 are mentioned, the highest form being biramōr) with many offerings of goats and also cattle, one gains fame and a greater voice in the local assemblies. It seems that just as in the ṚV, the offered cattle join the herd of the offerer after death, and perhaps his rank is preserved as well. — Importantly, the former local artisan class was excluded (K., N.) from public religious functions (cf. FUSSMAN 1977: 68), just like the Vedic Śūdras.

§1.5.3. Festivals

Finally, in order to better understand Hindukush religion and to compare it with IIr. and BMAC religion, it is important to take a brief look at the division of the year and the major  rituals/festivals (khawsáṅgaw, K.) associated with it. A common division seems to be that into two moieties, Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter. For example, Māra (~ Yama Rājan) is welcomed in Spring, and Munjem (~ Indra) in the Fall. Among the Kalash, the pastoral god Sorizan protects the herds in Fall and Winter and is thanked at the winter festival, while Goshidai does so until the Pul festival (pũ. <pūrṇa, full moon in Sept.) and is thanked at the Joshi (joṣi, žōši) festival in spring. This reminds of the two (ritual) halves of the year (uttarāyaṇa, dakṣiṇāyana in the gavām ayana),7 of various similar instances in the Himalayas,8 and the division of the year into a dry and a moist part in the BMAC, Avesta and ṚV (as discussed above)

The most important Kalash festival is the Chaumos (cawmōs, Khowar chitrimas, importantly < cāturmāsya, CDIAL 4742),9 which is celebrated for two weeks at winter solstice (c. Dec. 7-22). It has significant repercussions in the foundational myth of the Kalash (and Nuristanis), which will follow. At this festival the visitor god Balumain appears. Impure and uninitiated persons are not admitted.

Purification is achieved by a waving a fire brand over women and children and by a special fire ritual for men, involving a shaman waving juniper brands over the men. The ‘old rules’ of the gods (Devalog, dewalōk) are no longer in force, as is typical for year-end and carnival-like rituals. Differently from other festivals, drum and flute are now forbidden, and only the human voice is allowed. The ritual takes place at a Tok tree, a place called Indrunkot, or indréyin, clearly indicating the older concept of Indra as focus of this festival; in fact, Indrunkot is sometimes believed to belong to Balumain’s brother, In(dr), lord of cattle. Balumain is offered specially baked bread, often in the form of sacred animals, such as the ibex. This is later taken up to his mountain seat by ‘shepherd king’ (buḍáḷak) and offered along with goat milk.

In the ritual, a fire is constructed out of superimposed, crossing twigs (‘a fortress’) much like a Vedic one, and a goat, especially its heart, is offered into the fire. Ancestors, impersonated by the young boys (ōnjeṣṭa ‘pure’) are worshipped and offered bread (cf. DOLLFUS 1989:69 sq.) The children hold on to each other and form a chain (Ved. anvārambhaṇa) and snake through the village. (This chain should represent the Vedic tantu string of the ancestors, WITZEL 2000b.).10 A fox chase is included as the fox is Balumain’s dog. (In the Altai the bear is the ‘dog’ of the mountain god).

The men must be divided into two parties: the pure ones have to sing the well-honored songs of the past, but the impure sing wild, passionate, and obscene songs, with an altogether different rhythm. This is accompanied by a ‘sex change’: men dress as women, women as men (Balumain also is partly seen as female and can change between both forms at will).11 Modern dress, such as of tourists, is included now.

Much of this reminds of the solstice festival in neighboring Tibetan Ladakh (DOLLFUS 1987) as well as in the Veda, of the Mahāvrata and the form it has taken in the second pressing of the Soma ritual (WITZEL 1997a: 398-400, 404), and also of reflections in myth. The one that corresponds to ‘Indra’s opening of the Vala’, a typical New Year myth, is found among the Nuristani in two main versions, summarized here.
§1.5.4. Creation myths

First, the recovery of the lost Sun and Moon by the gods (ROBERTSON 1896: 385, 28; further Prasun and Urtsun versions, following JETTMAR 1975/1986 (who used BUDDRUSS’ unpublished materials; however, see now BUDDRUSS 2002).

There was no sun, no moon. It was very dark. A demon (Espereg-era) brought sun and moon into his house, right and left of a waterfall.
12 The god Mandi changes into a boy, and goes to the mother of Espereg-era. Mandi is not allowed to open a certain door. He tries to do so, pushes in his finger, this turns golden; finally, he breaks the door and §1.5.5 Kalash myths of winter solstice

The act of reviving the Sun is repeated by the Kalash in the Chaumos (cawmōs) festival at Winter solstice; this is now dominated by the god Balumain (baḷimaín). He is the typical ‘visitor god’ from far away, and is rarely seen. Such visiting deities are also found in Kafiristan (noted by MASSON in 1844), and are also common, as marebito, in old Japan.

Apparently, Mahandeu had cheated Balumain from superiority, when all the gods had slept together (a euphemism, K.) in the Shawalo14 meadow;therefore, he went to the mythical home of the Kalash in Tsiyam (tsíam) , to come back next year like Indra at year’s end (ṚV 10.86, WITZEL 1997a: 394; cf. 1997c: 520 sqq.). If this had not happened, Balumain would have taught humans how to have sex as a sacred act. Instead, he could only teach them fertility songs used at the Chaumos[Chaturmas] ritual, exemplified by the explicit, chorus supported male/female exchanges of ‘dialogues’ such as ṚV 10.86.

He arrives in Kalash land in early December, before solstice, and leaves the day after. A myth tells how he was at first shunned by some people, who chased him with their dogs, and therefore were annihilated. He comes from the west, the (Kati Kafir) Bashgal valley. But, in spite of this, the mythical country of the Kalash, in the east or south, is also connected with him. Clearly there are several layers of mythology, the later one being the introduction from Kafiristan. He always comes riding on a horse, as also said in the secret songs addressed to him.

He was awaited by seven Devalog of the Kalash land (cf. the seven Ādityas?) and they all went to several villages, e.g, Kamadeo, where he was received only by dogs and therefore destroys the village. The people of Batrik village, however, received him with seven pure, young boys whom he took with him (therefore one only sends men and older boys to receive him nowadays). Several items mentioned in his ritual reception allow to identify him, at least in part, with Indra.

Sometimes Balumain is seen as female. When he turns right, he is male, when he turns left, he is female. The shaman, in trance at the sacred Tok tree, identifies and addresses Balumain with Kushumai (kuṣumáy), the goddess of fertility, and the festival ‘king’ honors her. There is a myth about Kushumai’s staying away from Balumain’s reception, back on her own mountain.
Balumain turned towards her, and he in fact became Kushumai, and is now addressed as such.
Balumain is the typical culture hero. He told the people (of Batrik) about the sacred fire made from junipers, about the sowing ceremony for wheat that involved using the blood of a small goat he had brought with him, and he asked for wheat tribute (hushak) for his horse. Finally, Balumain taught how to celebrate the winter festival (see above). He was visible only during his first visit, now he is just felt to be present.

§1.5.6. Hindukush influences: a summary

In sum, the Hindukush area shares many of the traits of IIr. myths, ritual, society, and echoes many aspects of Ṛgvedic, but hardly of post-Ṛgvedic
religion (pace FUSSMAN 1977). They may be summarized as follows.

In myth it is notably the role of Indra, his rainbow and his eagle who is shot at, the killing of his father, the killing of the snake or of a demon with many heads, and the central myth of releasing the Sun from an enclosure (by Mandi < Mahān Deva). There are echoes of the Puruṣa myth, and there is the cyclical elevation of Yama Rājan (Imra) to sky god (WITZEL 1984: 288 sqq., pace FUSSMAN 1977: 70). Importantly, the division between two groups of deities (Devalog) and their intermarriage (Imra’s mother is a ‘giant’) has been preserved, and this dichotomy is still re-enacted in rituals and festivals, especially the Chaumos.

Ritual still is of IIr. type: Among the Kalash it is basically, though not always, temple-less, involving fire, sacred wood, three circumambulations,
and the *hotṛ (?, N. wutō ‘high priest’). Animal sacrifice, at square fire places, is very prominent; it is carried out by decapitation (as in ṚV, SCHMIDT 1973) and by offering parts of it into the fire or into holes (cf. Avest. maγa?, and perhaps even with the ‘lost head of sacrifice’, still seen by MORGENSTIERNE).

Sacred drink (wine < *Sauma < mead), is prominent; consumption is allowed only after Indra (as Praba) has been offered to. Ritual often is a potlatch-like merit festival (KUIPER) meant to gain status and to confirm rank. There are year-end rituals (cawmōs < cāturmāsya), involving the two moieties of the gods (Devalog and others) and of society with a Mahāvratalike carnival, and there are other seasonal festivals within the two halves of the year.
Society stresses the aspect of purity (as in India, Iran); this affects the position of women, and results in the exclusion of artisans from ritual (like the Śūdras). There is exogamy of clans, and intermarriage is allowed again, as in the Veda, only after 7 or 4 generations. As in IIr., there is a great importance of oaths, sworn at special ritual places.
Some features already have their Vedic, and no longer their Central Asian form (e.g. dragon > snake), and there is clear South Asian influence as
well, such as the prominence of the number 7 (7 heavens, 7 gods, 7 boys in ritual).
One may wonder, however, about the exact nature of the Yakṣ(iṇ)ī and Shuci as local Hindukush or as S. Asian female spirits. The stress on the purity of the mountain regions, as habitat of fairies (Varōti < vātaputrī), and the black/red demons (like Rudra) seems to be local. Many of the Hindukush features further elucidate what we observe in the ṚV (Gandharva, Rudra, Apsaras, Yakṣa ṚV+) and especially in the AV, as features of the deities, demigods and spirits living on the (high) mountains. Some items clearly belong to the ancient mountain cultures of the Hindukush-Pamir-Himalayas (pace FUSSMAN 1977), and have not been taken over, or only fragmentarily so, into Vedic religion. Examples include the shamans (except for the ṚV Muni) and their rituals (except for a trace in the Vājapeya, and maybe some healing ceremonies in the AV); the role of boys and adolescents as semi-priests (note the description of the Brahmacārin in the AV); the centrality of goat sacrifice and blood, of sacred twigs (juniper), and of megalithic monuments.

In sum, all of these features of Hindukush religion are in need of further, much more detailed study, not just by anthropologists but certainly by Vedic specialists. While the Iranian side of IIr. religion is not followed up further in this context, a brief closer look is taken at the Indian side, as seen in
the Ṛgveda.

Source: Kalash Religion by M. Witzel  (Extract from: The Ṛgvedic Religious System and its Central Asian and Hindukush Antecedents. A. Griffiths & J.E.M. Houben (eds.). The Vedas: Texts, Language and Ritual. Groningen: Forsten 2004: 581-636)


Kalash and Japanese populations share many of the Proto-Indo-Iranian or Indo-European mythemes and motifs of the Pakistani ethnic populations, and the Kalash share genetic similarities specifically, the Makrani Baloch, Brahui, Pathans and Sindhi tribes, according to the study  The same study concluded based on the differing YAP haplotypes of the different ethnic groups that the Pakistani groups Sindhi and Pathans were descended from migrant groups from North Africa, while the Baloch, Brahui and Makrani tribes originated from Sub-Saharan African migrants.

This suggests that Kalash populations may be closely related to the P-I-E or Indo-Iranian Vedic populations, while the other Pakistani groups.


Further readings:

The Winter Solstice Festival of the Kalasha of Birir: some comparative suggestions   by Cacopardo, Augusto S.

Abstract: The Chaumos Winter Solstice Festival is the fulcrum of the ritual system of the Kalasha, the last polytheists of the Hindu Kush. The Chaumos of the Birir valley was documented for the first time in 2006 by the author. The article investigates the structure and the meanings of this complex ritual event and sketches a comparison with a better known, and rather different, version of the same festival celebrated in the other Kalasha communities, highlighting connections with the Vedic pantheon.

“the languages of the Hindu Kush belong to the so-called Dardic and Kafiri (or Nuristani) language groups (Edelman 1983; Fussman 1972; Morgenstierne 1974; Strand 2001; Bashir 2003). The Dardic languages are a group of very conservative (in comparison with those of the plains) Indo-Aryan tongues not traceable to a common origin, among which Kalasha (and especially its closely connected neighbour, Khowar) is considered by Morgenstierne to be one of the most “archaic” (Morgenstierne 1965: 184; 1974: 3). The Kafiri languages–a group of five non-mutually intelligible tongues spoken in Afghan Nuristan–display even more archaic features, to the point that there is general agreement among researchers that they may be considered either a separate branch of Indo-Iranian that issued forth from the undivided stem before the split between Indic and Iranian, or an early offshoot of the Indic branch”

The Chaumos winter solstice festival is the fulcrum of the whole symbolic system, for in its complex rituality are expressed the deepest and most comprehensive meanings on which the Kalasha world-view is based. To call the Chaumos a festival may seem like a reduction, because it is in fact the focus of a highly complex sequence of ritual events lasting, in both versions, several weeks. Though the analysis of the Chaumos can obviously be of great interest for Indo European studies, we shall see that the cosmological themes emerging from the rituals go beyond this cultural horizon to join similar quests ritually carried out in other, far away, contexts.

The first, pre-liminal phase, lasting four days, is the time when adverse supernatural beings appear and must be contained. It is dedicated mainly to the purification–or, better, sacralization–of the whole territory. On the first day (14th December, in 2006) a kid is sacrificed in a place just up-valley of the uppermost village; its blood is collected in a vessel and subsequently sprinkled on juniper fires that are lit above each village by a restricted group of performers (four or five) who slowly descend the whole length of the valley. desh suc’ein, purifying the country, is the name of this ritual which marks the separation from ordinary space. (14) Every four years, a special ritual event takes place on this day, which is called bhut ungush’ek (= ‘to anger’): the bhut spirits are believed to invade the villages at night with their typical ‘backwards dance’ to anger humans (who stay locked up in their houses) by playing all sorts of tricks–like hiding the ladders that lead to the houses–and turning everything upside down. On the second day (ruzh’ias), all houses are swept and cleaned and in the evening, at the goat sheds, the wine vats are ritually opened with a goat sacrifice. This is the day when the souls of the dead are believed to descend to earth and in which witches (ruzh’i) run loose in the valley (Loude & Lievre 1984: 323). On the third day (goST s’araz) the goat sheds are purified with juniper smoke. In the evening, tumultuous processions of men and women bearing torches (Fig. 1), coming from the hamlets spread along the valley, proceed to storm the temples located in the three main centers, shouting insults addressing the people of the villages where the temples are located: guru h’Oi zh’awi! ‘People of Guru (village) fuck!’ is one of the cries I recorded.

The arrival of the most sacred days is underscored by a brief fast, ending in the early morning with a ritual offering of juniper smoke and rice (pakt’i s’araz) on the roofs of the houses. In the name that designates this day–the night of the serpent-monster–we may see a remembrance of Vrtra, the monster snake of the Rig Veda, the personification of chaos, defeated by Indra at the beginning of Time (Eliade 1979: 226-229; Stutley & Stutley 1980: 496-497). The most archaic of the Aryan gods is a divinity that looms over two of the main deities of Birir, whose names–Praba and Warin–are etymologically connected to Indra. (16) Moreover, Indra can be considered specifically the divinity of Chaumos. To him is dedicated a sacred bread-offering (called indr harik = ‘to take to Indr’) in the holiest rite, and his name–again in the Vedic form, Indr–is invoked, we shall see, in a secret prayer murmured by the holder of the secret formula on the central day of the festival. Furthermore a holy place–marked only by a greenish boulder–specifically dedicated to Indr exists in Birir near the upper village of Biyu, where offerings are made at the time of Chaumos.

A chant announcing the descent of a god is sung in the morning of the next day… , the day of the initiations (ist’ongas rat), (17) that opens the liminal period. The children are dressed in ceremonial clothes by their maternal uncles: the girls wear for the first time the kup’as, the heavy cowry-shell-covered Kalasha headdress, and the boys the traditional woolen trousers (Fig. 2). They are then brought to the temple where the boys have to perform a ritual dance in front of the community gathered around them. Before and after their performance the women sing the chant of the descending god, which announces the divine visitor and recalls the main ritual events of the festival. For reasons of space, only the first part of the recorded text is reproduced here below: (18)…

The name ‘Bidrakalen’ occurs only in this chant; it was explained as the name of the divinity who descends on earth for Chaumos. (19)

The initiation rites of the boys are held in the afternoon at the goat sheds, while the initiation of the girls takes place in the homes. Since the pastoral ideology connects men with herding and women with agriculture, in this rite the girls hold bread-cakes in their hands while a burning juniper branch is circled around their heads by an officiating woman; symmetrically, the substance of the male rite is the blood of a sacrificed he-goat. The male ritual may be seen as a blood baptism, because the novice bends down in front of the sacrificial victim, whose blood gushing from the split throat is sprinkled on his shaven skull. With the rite the novices–who are well below the age of puberty-…

Through the dramatic representation of conflict, a superior unity is reaffirmed. Following Mircea Eliade (1968: 78 ff., 93; 1976: 324), who considers ritual fights between opposing groups as a typical trait of New Year festivals in general and of those of the Indo-Europeans in particular (Eliade 1979: 211), the race and its violent outcome could be seen in the light of the chaos/cosmos dichotomy: on one side the competition generating the fight representing chaos, and on the other the return of an ordered cosmos when the communal dancing and singing are resumed. At the root of the ritual race, however, the dichotomy light/darkness is quite manifest. The winner of the race, on the eve of the winter solstice, lights the fire that symbolizes and propels the return of the sun at the end of the darkest part of the year. The race hence represents the victory of light over darkness. On one side we have darkness, chaos and conflict; on the other sunlight, ordered cosmos and social solidarity. The race has therefore also the traits of a fertility rite (cfr. Frazer 1987: 316-17). Something due, for Eliade (1976: 214) ” … to the archaic concept that blows, competitions, rough games between groups of opposite sexes etc. increase and stimulate the energy of the universe.”

After the brawlers were pacified, the singing and dancing resumed. At a certain moment I was summoned to the nearby goat sheds where a very ‘onjishta rite was taking place…. 

a group of men led by an officiant holding a leafy branch was murmuring a secret prayer (gac) near a small fire while the drum was beating a slow and solemn rhythm. The rite lasted some minutes and ended with the cry zh’awi! A connection with fertility and reproduction seems apparent. The secret prayer, I was later told, was addressed to Indr. We returned to the dancing ground but the feast was approaching its end. The man who had led the secret prayer–a religious expert belonging to the Aliksherdari lineage who is the holder of the secret text–irrupted at a certain point among the dancers and took the lead of a chain of men and women which grew longer and longer finally involving all the dancers in a wiggling serpentine that was stamping the ground at a fast pace, knocking down whoever stood in its way. Gradually everyone joined the long chain that seemed a concrete enactment of the unification finally achieved between the different components of the society. It was the dance of the markhors. While dancing, everybody sang the sharacath’aki song which announced the arrival of the markhors, the wild caprids (Capra Falconers) deemed to be the domestic goats of the fairies of the mountains, which are therefore connected to the high ‘onjiSTa sphere:

The dance enacted the irruption of the wild, ‘onjiSTa sphere of the high mountains into the symbolic centre of the village, the dancing ground, the heart of the domestic sphere. Another basic polarity was being integrated. In the pastoral ideology of the Kalasha the wilderness of the mountains is the spatial locus of the ‘onjiSTa sphere….

At the climax of the great celebration, all oppositions–human/ divine, male/female, up-valley/down valley, wild/domestic–are brought to unity. In the course of this central day, the communion of man with the divine is first represented with the holocaust sacrifice held at dawn at Praba’s shrine; then the communion between men with the overcoming of the contraposition between the two moieties; and finally the communion of man and nature is celebrated with the symbolic descent of the markhors who, as sung in the song, “mix with men”. Condensed in the rites of just a single day, the essential concerns are expressed which are at the core of the festival and which, as remarked by Izard & Smith (1988: 14) are “at the core of all cultures: to account for the relation of man with nature, of man with society and, in the last instance, of humans with their individual destinies.” We have witnessed, in the course of the festival, a gradual descent of the ‘onjiSTa sphere into the r’ela one: a gradual penetration of the male into the female principle, from which life arises. With the integration of all polarities, the beginning of a new cycle is celebrated together with the regeneration of all that lives.

The carrier of the leafy branch finally danced through the fire around which the serpentine had been whirling, stepping resolutely on the flames to extinguish them, and leading the whole chain of dancers through it. Thus the fire was put out and the long day of celebration was over. The leafy branch the officiant was holding, surprisingly was not juniper, the most ‘onjiSTa tree. It was the mistletoe, Frazer’s Golden Bough. …

Meanwhile, since the morning, the little girls have been making the round of the villages collecting beans, another symbol of abundance and fertility, well known in Europe as well. Beans are seeds, as well as fruits, and thus they contain the principle of life (cf. Propp 1978: 47). After all polarities have been reintegrated in the great feast, and the ‘onjiSTa principle has penetrated its opposite, fertility becomes the dominant theme. The treat is for the women only. The beans are cooked by the girls in the temple where at night the youths gather, and they are then distributed to the families in proportion to their members. 

In the time when the community is all turned towards the ‘onjiSTa sphere, the human and the divine are brought together: the god Balimain descends to earth. It is to this central event that all the other structural differences are due: the drums cannot be played because such is the will of the visiting god, expressed through a shaman; and the period of “village cloistering” and separation of the sexes is conceived as preparation for his arrival. We have seen that in Birir as well, the descent of a divinity is announced in the chants, but he is not called Balimain, the set of sacralizing prescriptions is lacking and the ritualization of his arrival is reduced, possibly, to the nocturnal sacrifice at Praba’s shrine…

Balimain, the visiting god of Bumburet/Rumbur arrives on a winged horse with hooves of burning embers in the most sacred days of the festival, during the period of seclusion. Behind his name emerges the figure of Indra, the ancient tutelary deity of the Indo-Aryans, to whom many hymns of the Rig Veda are addressed. The most likely etymology of the god’s name is in my opinion bal’ima-in, where bal’ima would be an epithet borrowed from Kati, the geographically closest Nuristani language, meaning ‘most-powerful’ and used in hymns as an attribute of divinities (Morgenstierne 1951: 180, 184; cfr. Jettmar 1975: 358), while in stands for Indra. (27) Just as Indra is depicted as the founder of the New Year festival in Indian epic literature (Dumezil 1929: 111, 122-24), so is Balimain considered the re-founder of Chaumos in this version of Kalasha mythology (Jettmar 1975: 354-55). It is believed that it was he who established the prohibitions mentioned above and instructed the Kalasha in the rituals to be performed for his arrival. In fact we may say that the identification of Balimain with Indra is quite explicit: he is called often In or Indr in songs and prayers (e.g. Jettmar 1975: 384); the holy place dedicated to him, in Bumburet, is called indr’eyn; the place where the sacred fire is lit for the ritual performed to receive him is called ‘indras kot (cfr. Jettmar 1975: 356), the fortress of Indra; and the name of his horse, we were told, is ‘indras, which is a genitive. We have already seen, on the other hand, that in Birir as well Indra is the god of Chaumos.

Though Indra is a complex deity, to whom many activities are attributed in the texts, some of his main aspects can indeed be found in Balimain. In a hymn of the Rig Veda, Indra sets the sun alight (Eliade 1979: 228), in another text he is described as “the one who inflames”, and the original meaning of his name is possibly the one stated in the Rig Veda where generative power and vigour are indicated as his main characteristics (Stutley & Stutley 1980: 170). Balimain is explicitly connected to fire as shown by the burning embers of his steed and the bonfires and torch processions with which he is welcomed; while his connection with the power of generation is stated clearly in the prayers with which he is addressed: “gum bi zhe putr bi de”, ‘give us seed of wheat and seed of children’. If we further consider that the reproductive power of Indra is identified with the energy of the stallion and is associated with his bay horses, we find in Balimain’s representation as a rider another strong indication of the basic identity of the two figures.

Most interestingly, another Vedic divinity is associated with Balimain. The attendant of the god, we were told in Rumbur, is called Pushaw (p’ushaw), a name which leads quite directly to Pushan (p’ushan) “a divinity whose name derives from the root puS ‘to nourish’, with reference to his role of divine dispenser of fertility” (Stutley & Stutley 1980: 350). Pushan is a deity associated with the sun and the partition of the solar year, and he is the guide of wayfarers (ibid; cfr. Sergent 1997: 318-19). The etymology of his name is connected with the term puSya, which in the Rig Veda indicates vigour (T-8306) as well as the month of December-January (T-8307). There could have been no more appropriate companion for a god like Balimain who arrives for the winter solstice to bring reproductive energy to animals, plants and humans; and it is interesting to note that the two deities are found associated in a Vedic hymn (RV, VII. 35, 1) where Indra and Pushan are reunited in a dual divine being, called Indra-Pushan (Stutley & Stutley 1980: 174)….

The place of the god’s descent in the Bumburet valley is called, as we have just seen, indr’eyn. By the express will of Balimain, oral traditions state, no altar was to be built there, for the god wished its worship to be different from that made to the other divinities (Jettmar 1975: 355, 362). The holy place is therefore only a stony clearing surrounded by a thicket of evergreen oak trees, at the foot of a steep rocky cliff. On the west side of it, by a holly oak tree, a level grassy space has been created through some terracing where the god’s ‘nest’ is prepared–a small structure of willow reeds–while on the east side a stone set upright marks the place where a lamb is sacrificed on the night of his arrival (Fig. 4). The holy place is located in the side valley of Batrik which parallels the sacred Jagar valley of Birir, and can be considered the main ceremonial area of Bumburet.

In the evening, torchlight processions proceeded from the whole valley to Batrik. While the women stayed behind at the village, the men went on to the holy place where a sowing rite was performed by seven pure boys–the inw’aw g’Uak (In’s boys) (28)–by dipping some wheat grains into the blood of a lamb sacrificed for the purpose. At this point, the deh’ar, the shaman, fell into a trance and made divinations for the coming year. Contextually a functionary was nominated (r’oy) who is charged with a number of ritual duties for the year to come. All men then withdrew to the village where obscene songs and dances were staged, while the seven pure boys, chaperoned by some adult custodians, stayed at the holy place where, having lit seven fires representing the seven gods of the valley gathering there to greet Balimain, they remained in vigil to welcome the god. The climax of the event was reached in the early hours of the morning. The impure adults (m’Aka moc) left the dancing ground of Batrik village and headed back to indr’eyn as a menacing throng, bragged of having raped the women, and launched an assault on the virgin boys, threatening to rape them as well; a ritual that enacts on a grander scale the same theme of the pure/impure contrast that is played out in Birir’s nog’or grik. The inw’aw g’Uak then struck up the Nangairo song welcoming the return of Balimain, while their custodians defended them with sticks and stones. At this very moment Balimain discharges his blessings on the boys and leaves the valley. The resistance of the custodians then relented, and the m’Aka moc finally succeeded in symbolically touching the boys thus participating in the benediction; a conclusion that seems to differ from that of the Birir rite. The merging of the two basic opposites–‘onjiSTa and r’ela–had now taken place and a long line was formed by the men, each holding from the back the hips of the person in front. With a wordless chant the long line slowly proceeded with explicit copulating movements down to the village where the women were waiting (Jettmar 1975: 384-386). (29)

The theme of fecundity and reproduction is quite obviously in the foreground. In one of his main aspects Balimain is no doubt a god of fertility. His cult is connected specifically to the cultivation of wheat, as shown by the rite just briefly described and by the circumstance that, in the myth, he presents the first Kalasha who welcomed him with two ears of wheat (Jettmar 1975: 354). This aspect of Balimain is further underscored by the obscene songs that are typical of Chaumos and of his cult in particular (Loude & Lievre 1984: 272, 282-285). As is well known, indeed, obscene language contributes to that orgiastic dimension which is largely attested in fertility rites (Eliade 1976: 371-375).

The fear that the world may not re-emerge from the depths of darkness and coldness into which it is plunged at the heart of winter has been highlighted as characteristic of archaic thought (Brelich 2007: 57; Buttitta 1996: 280; Eliade 1976: 359-360). The affirmation of life can only be ensured by a renewed contact with its source, which lies in the supernatural. For the Kalasha this means an immersion into the ‘onjiSTa sphere, where gods and pure spirits dwell.

In Birir the task of re-establishing the contact with the source of life is entrusted to the children, the novices, and the other ‘onjiSTa boys, the prabal’on g’Uak. The society, as we noted, identifies with its children. The novices face the trial that will give them a new individual status, just as they perform a ritual duty for the whole community. Their rebirth is one with the regeneration of the society.

In Bumburet the virgin boys–though not the initiates themselves–play a similar focal role. Like the prabal’on g’Uak in Birir, the inw’aw g’Uak bear the responsibility of performing the most sacred rituals on behalf of the community in the course of the Nangairo night, when they are confined in the holy place dedicated to Balimain. In Bumburet too the virgin boys are mediators between the world of life and death and that of immortal life. But there the success of their task is more fully ensured by the descent of the god to the very place of their confinement.

In both cases the virgin boys have to go through a symbolic ordeal when they are attacked by the r’ela forces. An attack enacted in Birir in the ritual games of nog’or grik and law’ak bih’ik, and in Bumburet in the assault of the m’Aka men trying to touch them and symbolically rape them. … The idea of bringing together the opposites, we have seen, is present in Birir as well. There too the festival is pervaded by the theme of unification through the integration of all polarities.

In more reasonable terms, Snoy suggests that the cult may pertain to a more recent layer of Kalasha culture, associated with the cultivation of wheat, as opposed to an older layer, represented by the other rites of the Chaumos festival, associated instead with the cultivation of millet and beans (in Jettmar 1975: 394). That millet preceded wheat in the agricultural world of the Kalasha is indeed quite likely: the fact that the sowing ceremony of Birir is done, as we have seen, with millet instead of wheat would seem to confirm this point. But, on the other hand, the Balimain cult has itself very archaic traits. It is indeed an example of what has been termed “the cultual complex of the visitor” which for Eliade (1968: 96) is rooted in prehistory.

Kati oral tradition however relates that Inthr originally dwelt in the upper Bashgal valley, from where he was expelled by Imra, their own chief god (Robertson 1896: 388). The myth seems to convey the memory of a time when the cult of Indra was practiced in that area. This could refer to the times preceding the arrival of the Kati from western Nuristan, a migration related by Kati oral traditions, which can be considered a quite certain fact, that should not have taken place much earlier than the middle of the second millennium C.E.

If it is actually the case that the cult of Indra was formerly widespread in upper Bashgal–and the place name Indr-Zyul (Jettmar 1986: 64) lends some support to the myth–where accessible passes lead to both Bumburet and Rumbur, we can surmise that from there it may have spread into the two northern Kalasha valleys. Indeed in some accounts Balimain is said to come every year from Bashga1. (32) The circumstance that the myth explicitly refers to upper Bashgal and not to the lower part of the valley which adjoins the southern Kalasha area, could mean that his cult was not prominent there; which would explain the absence of the Balimain complex in Birir.


From the historical point of view we are therefore confined, as noted earlier, to the realm of conjecture. Some conclusions can however be drawn from the structural comparison we attempted of the two varieties of the Kalasha Chaumos.

In the first place it is quite certain that Balima-In (or Indr) is to be identified with Indra. (33) Indr is without any doubt the god of Chaumos, both in the Bumburet/ Rumbur and in the Birir versions of the festival, and he is conceived as a visiting god of fertility (34). Secondly, though it is confirmed that the Balima-In complex does not exist in Birir, we may say that the cultual complex of the visiting god is latent in the Chaumos of that valley, because there are several references to Indr in the course of the festival and his descent is clearly announced, if apparently not fully ritualized. Yet the focalizing element of the two versions is different: in Birir the celebration is focused on the initiation rituals, while in Bumburet and Rumbur the focus is the descent of the visiting god.

Apart from the Balima-In complex, which entails, as we have seen, some major structural differences, we find in the winter sequence of Birir just about all the elements of the winter solstice festival of the two northern valleys, though differently arranged. The descent of the dead, however, is more simply ritualized, while the emphasis on dangerous and ‘chaotic’ forces–spirits (bhut), witches (rhuzh’i) and monsters (nong) that loom over the first pre-liminal phase of the festival–appears to be a peculiar trait of Birir.

… it seems that the Balima-In complex brings with it a deeper appreciation of the quintessential identity of opposites, expressed by their coexistence in the representation of the divinity. … 

If indeed, Baliman and Indra are all grain deities, we might be looking to the locations where  cereals were first domesticated as the likely origins of these deities:

Michael D. Frachetti makes a case that grain (wheat, barley and rye) domestication took place along the Inner Asian Mountain Corridor (diffusing in the earliest times from the SW to the east from the northerneastern boundaries of the Iranian plateau)  while millet domestication is attributed unequivocally to China so far:

Newly discovered botanical evidence of ancient domesticated wheat and millet at the site of Begash in Kazakhstan, however, show that mobile pastoralists of the steppe had access to domesticated grains already by 2300 BC and that they were likely essential to the diffusion of wheat into China, as well as millet into SW Asia and Europe in the mid-3rd millennium BC. Currently, Begash provides the only directly dated botanical evidence of these crisscrossed channels of interaction. Whats more, the seeds from Begash were found in a ritual cremation context rather than domestic hearths. This fact may suggest that the earliest transmission of domesticated grains between China and SW Asia was sparked by ideological, rather than economic forces. This paper describes the earliest known evidence of wheat in the Eurasian steppes and explores the extent of ritual use of domesticated grains from China to SW Asia, across the Inner Asian mountains. Source:  Seeds for the Soul: East/West Diffusion of Domesticated Grains by Michael D. Frachetti  (Earlier writings put the cradle of grain domestication in Turkey or various areas of the Near East (Source and  Source: “Ancient waves of (wild) grain. )

Other readings:

Genomic Diversity: Applications in Human Population Genetics ; [proceedings

 edited by Surinder Singh Papiha, Ranjan Deka, Ranajit Chakraborty

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