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A Visit to the Mountain Kalash, the Vanishing Pagan People of Pakistan (Part I)

posted by Brian Glyn Williams

While Pakistan is predominantly a Muslim nation, it is home to an ancient pagan people known as the Kalash who claim descent from Alexander the Great. Known for the love of wine, unveiled women, wooden idols, and bright folk costumes, the Kalash of the Hindu Kush have survived in a Muslim sea for centuries but have come under pressure to convert to Islam in recent years. In June a colleague and I traveled to the Kalashs’ remote homeland on the Afghan border of Chitral Province (North West Frontier Province) to see how this vanishing mountain race has fared since the Taliban took over the neighboring Swat Valley. There we found an ancient way of life that has come under threat following the surge of Taliban violence in recent years.

The Children of Alexander

According to popular tradition the Kalash are the descendents of Alexander the Great’s garrisons in the Swat and Chitral Valleys. The neighboring Muslim people point to the Kalashs’ love of wine, blue eyes and light complexions, and free women as evidence of this theory. While such a lineage is difficult to prove, the Kalash are more likely an Indo-Aryan race whose language is Dardic and culture is Vedic, it has currency in the common imagination of both the Kalash and neighboring peoples.

Previously known as Kafirs (literally “Infidels”), the Kalash lived on both sides of what is today the Pakistani-Afghan border. In the late nineteenth century those Kafirs who found themselves in Afghanistan were brutally conquered by the Afghan ruler Abdur Rahman, the Iron Amir. Abdur Rahman forcefully converted the Kafirs to Islam and purged their lands of their ancient traditions. Previously-free women were forced into the veil, pagan temples were destroyed, idols burnt and shariah-Islamic law enforced. A small community of several thousand Kafirs living in three side valleys in Pakistan’s remote Chitral Valley were all that remained of the ancient pagan Kafirs.

For their part, the Kalash or Kafirs of the Chitral Valley, were conquered in the 1700s by the Mekhtar of Chitral, the Muslim ruler of this remote valley. The Kalash were subsequently forced to do corvee work and pay taxes to the Mekhtar, but were otherwise left unmolested by the Chitralis who practiced a more moderate form of Islam than their Afghan neighbors. This situation did not change much when the kingdom of Chitral was annexed into the state of Pakistan. Since then the Kalash have been protected by the Pakistani state that sees the existence of this small community as evidence of its official policy of toleration. But for all of the Pakistani government’s official protection, the Kalash have come under pressure in recent years.

A Community under Threat

In the last two decades Pakistan’s Islamic parties have begun to infiltrate the high Chitral Valley. While the Chitralis have traditionally been moderate and have accommodated the Kalash who pretty much keep to themselves in their three remote valleys, the new Islamicists have not been so accommodating. When an elder of the Kalash community of Rumbur Valley, the most remote of the three Kalash Valleys, named Saifulla sought to defend his people from the loss of vital mountain pasture lands he incurred the wrath of nearby Islamicists.[i] In court this elder was harassed by bearded Islamicists who threatened his life (the Kalash never wear beards, in contrast to local Muslims). These threats were carried out recently when the Saifulla’s brother was killed by assassins who threw a hand grenade at him. Despite this setback, the Kalash have continued litigation in court to prevent the incursion of neighboring Chitralis into their mountain pastures. For their part the Islamicists have threatened to kill all Kalash who leave their valleys to defend their community. According to several Kalash interviewees, the Islamicists take great umbrage at the notion of non-Muslims using a “Muslim” court to get rulings against Muslims.

But not all threats are so obvious, there are more subtle threats to the dwindling Kalash community. In recent years there have been efforts to convert the Kalash who now number no more than 4,000 to Islam. In the largest of the Kalash Valleys, Bumboret, this process has proceeded apace. Thousands of local Kalash have converted and mosques now dominate the valley. There are now more Muslims in Bumboret than Kalash (the Kalash evict someone who converts to Islam from their community and no longer refer to them as Kalash). Muslim missionaries have also been active in the other two valleys, Birir and Rumbur, but they have had less success there due to these valleys’ inaccessibility.

We were told by Siraj ul Mulk, the heir to throne of Mekhtar of Chitral, that there are also internal pushes to convert. When a Kalash dies, dozens of sacred goats are slaughtered in his or her honor. This is an expensive ritual for the poor Kalash shepherds and farmers and many go into debt. Muslim missionaries promise to pay off the debt if the person converts to Islam and many have converted as a result.

The surrounding Muslims have also been aggressive in going after the Kalashs’ paganism. During our time in the Kalash village of Rumbur, we were shown an outdoor temple on an oak-covered mountain side that had recently been vandalized by Muslims. The main alter previously had wooden horse heads protruding from it but the horses’ heads, which we were told were ancient, had been recently hacked off as pagan idols by neighboring Muslims. We were also told that the vast majority of wooden effigies placed over the centuries on graves had also been stolen by Muslim intruders to the Rumbur Valley. The Kalash bemoaned the loss of these priceless artifacts that are said to represent the spirits of deceased loved ones.

There were other threats as well. The local government allocated several slots for Kalash in the Frontier Corps which guards the nearby Afghan border as a means of financially assisting the Kalash. But those Kalash young men who joined the army were harassed for being non-Muslims and either forced to convert to Islam or quit the army.

The Kalash community was particularly unsettled by the conquest of the neighboring Swat Valley by the Taliban in 2007/2008. There were regular reports of Taliban infiltration in the Chitral Valley and calls were made for a jihad against the Kalash to finish the conversion process begun by Abdur Rahman in the late 19th century. Those Kalash who we spoke to claim that local Chitralis did not respond to these calls which were made predominantly by Pashtuns from Swat, but the threat was nonetheless unnerving.

For a beautiful set of images of Kalash, visit Brian Glyn Williams’ on-line gallery.

[i] In my interview the Kalash referred to their antagonists only as “Muslim Brotherhood” or “Islamic Party members”.

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