01 Jan 2008 01:00
NORTHWEST FRONTIER PROVINCE, Pakistan —
High in the Hindu Kush Mountains of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province in a barely accessible area, live the Kalash People, Pakistan’s last remaining non-Muslim tribe. The Kalasha live in small villages built into the sides of idyllic valleys with gurgling streams, wheat and cornfields and fruit trees. Wooden houses stacked one on top of another, climb up the sides of steep cliffs. Children play freely and attend co-ed schools, while parents harvest crops and till the land.
Though they once numbered in the tens of thousands, the Kalasha have seen their numbers dwindle over the past century. Most experts put the current Kalasha population between 3,000 and 4,000.
The polytheistic Kalasha — whose women wear vibrant-colored embroidered dresses and beaded headdresses called “susutr" — are viewed with both admiration and suspicion by the Islamic majority.
After tens of thousands of Kalasha people, also called Nuristanis, were forcibly converted to Islam during the last century, only a few thousand retain their ancestral religion and traditions.
Wynn Maggi, anthropologist and author of "Our Women Are Free," says they were "brutally and forcibly converted to Islam, horribly persecuted, put in jail ... the Kalasha suffered a lot in their history.” Kalasha women were sometimes abducted and forced to marry Muslim men. Stories circulated of Kalasha men being forcibly circumcised.
With their light coloring — some even have blue eyes — the Kalasha are rumored to be the descendants of Alexander the Great’s army, which conquered the Hindu Kush along with “the known world” in the 4th century B.C. In Kalasha oral history, the people are the children of "Salaxi," their name for Alexander.
Most scientists and anthropologists dispute the legend: No genetic ties between Kalasha and Greeks have been discovered, and scientists believe the Kalasha are Indo-Aryans whose religion has some commonalities with pre-Zorastrian Iranians.
But regardless, the legend once lured busloads of Greek tourists to the valleys, seeking a link to their ancestral past.
“The tourists would always bring Greek coins and small perfume bottles with a portrait of Alexander the Great. Greek filmmakers have come to film the Kalasha. Some Greeks even brought Kalashas back to Greece to dance,” Maggi explained. Hellenic Aid has funded several projects in the Kalash Valleys, including the construction of two magnificent, wood-hewn Kalasha schools and several bashalis, women’s menstrual homes. "Their culture is a treasure belonging not only to Pakistan but to the whole world," said Athanasios Lerounis, a Greek teacher and activist who in 2009 was kidnapped and kept hostage for eight months—presumably by Islamic militants who disapproved of his work. There are just a few thousand Kalasha living “among a sea of Muslims,” he said — more than half of the remaining Kalasha have converted to Islam.
"We are here to support these cultural islands." Kalasha culture is threatened over pressure to convert to Islam.
The pressure to convert to Islam comes in various forms. Some Kalasha convert for love or in hopes of bettering themselves, while others bow to peer pressure in the government-run schools, where students mix with Islamic students, and curriculum includes Koranic study. Recently, Kalasha girls began covering their hand-beaded headdresses with gauzy veils.
Since Kalasha has religion is its center, “Kalasha people see [Islam as a] threat — once you convert you are not 'Kalasha' and you can never be again," Maggi explained.
In the center of the Bumburet Valley, home to the largest Kalasha community, a mosque serves the area's Muslims, and the call to prayer permeates the village five times a day.
On the surface, it appears that Muslims and Kalasha coexist peacefully. Many are related — some converted, some not.
But incidents of ethnic hatred occasionally bubble to the surface. A wooden alter had it’s horse motif’s “decapitated” explained Akram Hussain, a Kalasha teacher at the Kaladasur School.
"This altar ... is sacred and historic," Nearby, a madrassa was built next to the Kalasha's sacred dancing ground. "Why couldn't they have put it any other place?" asked Hussain. Disrespect toward Kalasha religion is not new. Maggi said that a decade ago, “Kalasha gravestones were constantly being desecrated. Punjabi kids would pose and take photographs with the bones of Kalasha ancestors.”
Kalasha leaders can’t help but think that local Muslims damaged their sacred altar, despite protests by the town’s only imam.
“I worry because the tide is turning in Northern Pakistan due to the rise of fundamentalism. If fundamentalism spreads, the Kalasha will be easily targeted and could be wiped out or weakened," Maggi said. “The ironic and sad element is that the situation is destabilizing and escalating," said scholar Saima Saiddiqui. "If the situation remains the same, Kalasha will also suffer and what will be the outcome for the people already few in number?”