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Chaumos: The Kalasha Winter Solstice Festival


The Kalasha Winter Solstice Festival, known as Chaumos, is a vibrant and intricate celebration that revolves around three interconnected themes: regeneration, fertility, and communion. This festival, observed by the Kalasha people, marks the transition from one life cycle to another and is a time of renewal, both for the world and its inhabitants.

Day 1: The Beginning of Chaumos

The festival kicks off with the sun setting behind a specific tree in the west, signalling the start of Chaumos. The kazi, guardian of ancestral tradition, declares Chaumos time has come. On the first day, individual offerings of juniper smoke take place at sacred locations believed to be inhabited by gods. This sets the stage for the upcoming rituals.

Day 2: Cleansing and Offerings

Juniper is burned on the second day, accompanied by offerings in the goat-sheds after they've been thoroughly cleaned. The day concludes with a dance, where dried fruits are collected and distributed. Interestingly, drum use is prohibited during the entire festival, and the rhythm is provided solely by traditional songs.

Day 3: Ritual Clash and Communion

The third day is marked by a ritual clash, involving nubile girls from different sections of the community. This symbolic conflict, often characterized by playful insults, represents the historical territorial division between up-valley and down-valley communities. The tension is ceremonially dissolved, paving the way for communal unity and a ritual celebration of union in the evening.

Day 4: Consolidating Social Ties

On the fourth day, the down-valley section returns the invitation, solidifying social ties that are based on both remote common descent and the exchange of women through marriage. The up-valley and down-valley polarity is reintegrated, emphasizing the importance of communal bonds within the Kalasha community. These initial four days of Chaumos focus on consolidating and strengthening social ties, manifesting the onjeshta principle—communion of man with man. The festival then pauses for two days, during which wheat is processed into flour for the sacred days to follow.

Days 5 and 5: Purification and Preparation

The central part of the Kalasha Winter Solstice Festival approaches as the next two days are dedicated to purification and preparation. Houses are thoroughly emptied and swept, symbolizing renewal as the old gives way to the new. Women actively contribute by weaving new baskets, adhering to the tradition of refreshing everything during this closing cycle. This marks the beginning of the most sacred week of the year, initiating a series of prohibitions and obligations for the community.

Day 7: Purification of Women

The seventh day, known as Shish au adua, is dedicated to the purification of women. The community turns inward, focusing on the onjeshta pole, enforcing prohibitions such as the replacement of kitchen implements with new ones. Drinking milk, tea, smoking cigarettes, and contact with foreign objects like soap are forbidden. Those who converted to Islam must leave the villages, and sexual intercourse is prohibited for the entire week. The separation of the onjeshta-pragata polarity is emphasized, reinforcing the idea of purity.

Day 8: The Most Sacred Day

The eighth day, Pushau adua, marks the most sacred moment of Chaumos. The festival unfolds in a gradual crescendo, beginning with communion among the group members. Symbolic representations of the markhors, representing nature wild and untouched, arrive. The souls of the ancestors follow, and finally, the divine source of immortal life makes its appearance. This day encapsulates the synthesis of events, drawing the community into a sacred space.

A solemn chant led by women precedes a procession, guided by the kazi, descending from the village of Grom. The procession, accompanied by sacrificial goats, advances slowly through the narrow valley, culminating at the sacred wood concealing the shrine of the god Sajjigor. Amid heavy snowfall, a fire is lit, prayers are offered, and sacrificial goats are ceremonially slaughtered, signifying the presence of the god Balimahin.

Balimahin, a male god associated with fertility and reproduction, arrives on his woman-faced winged horse with hoofs of burning embers. This divine being connects the realms of beyond and life. The ritual sacrifices and offerings, including bread made during the night, symbolize the unity of opposites. After the rituals, breadcakes are distributed to the community, and gender roles are playfully inverted in a dance celebrating the identity of opposites.

Day 9: The Continuation of Festivities

The festival's ninth day, Chettai adua, commences with a grand ceremony at the Sajjigor shrine. Young initiates open the proceedings by throwing small bundles of red willow twigs onto the shrine, representing the first visible signs of spring. Unlike previous days, there are no blood sacrifices; instead, offerings of bread and juniper smoke are presented to the god. Back at the village, women engage in cheerful dancing until the men return. In a solemn procession, the men chant to Balimahin, marking the continuation of the sacred festivities.

Day 10: Night of the Torches

As the festival reaches its climax, the "night of the torches" (Chanja rat) begins. Late at night, a slow procession led by the kazi moves through the narrow valley. Each person holds a torch, creating a mesmerizing spectacle. Upon reaching Balanguru, the solemn chant transitions into a cheerful dance accompanied by laughter and hand-clapping. Young men release their energy, and the dehar, the tribe's shaman, performs a running dance around the huge bonfire, symbolizing the departure of Balimahin.

During this sacred time when all sexual contact is forbidden, the energy of sex, repressed in homes, is ceremonially unleashed. The dance celebrates the triumph of life, subverting the normal order and reintegrating sex, a source of impurity, into the realm of the pure. The dance abruptly stops when the dehar, in a trance, imparts a message from the gods, reminding the community to respect ancestral tradition and keep their distance from Muslims.

Day 11: Lawakbirk - Dancing with Role Reversal

The following day, Lawakbirk, remains one of the most sacred. Contact with the source of life established, the community celebrates the relative nature of opposites and their substantial unity. In a dance of thorough role inversion, couples of men and women cover their faces, don opposite-sex clothes, and dance for hours while younger members sing and clap, teasing each other with verses of a sexual nature. In this dance, irreconcilable opposites reveal themselves as mere appearances, dissolving into the primordial Indistinct, the Unformed from which life springs.

Day 12: Moss au adua and Shish Kurr

The festival continues with Moss au adua, where men at the goat sheds make meat-filled breadcakes. The heads and legs of goats sacrificed at Sajjigor's shrine are consumed the following day, Shish Kurr (heads and feet). All prohibitions are lifted, allowing men to sleep with their wives, marking the end of the great festival.

Day 16: Dahu Tattu - Singing for Abundance

Three days of normal life pass, and the fourth day, Dahu Tattu (dahu – beans), is once again a festive one. Groups of girls from both sections of the community make rounds singing a song, seeking a good crop for various beans grown in the valley. They stop at each house, collecting dried fruits and expressing wishes for an abundance of children and food. In this ritual quest, women symbolize reproduction, embodying the fecundation of the male principle represented by Balimahin.

Day 17: Dagarik - Closing the Long Festive Period

Four days later, Dagarik marks the closing of the long festive period. In the late evening, each village organizes a vigil in a chosen house to await the arrival of the mythical white crow, the invisible spirit of the black crows. This crow carries the wishes of the Kalasha to the gods. Before dawn, the eldest woman of the house distributes beans and walnut kernels to each member. They stand outside, scanning the sky for the crows. When the birds arrive, the contents of the left hand are thrown out, and the beans and kernels in the right hand are quickly eaten. Women burst into a relieving dance, signalling the end of the Winter Solstice Festival.

As the festival concludes, the Kalasha community reflects on the profound significance of the rituals, symbolizing regeneration, fertility, and communion. The Winter Solstice Festival, with its intricate ceremonies and symbolic acts, showcases the Kalasha's deep connection to their ancestral traditions and their unique way of harmonizing with nature and the divine.

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