The Kalash People of Pakistan

The Kalasha are a Dardic indigenous people residing in the Chitral District of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. They speak the Kalasha language, from the Dardic family of the Indo-Iranian branch, and are considered a unique tribe among the Indo-Iranian peoples of Pakistan.

The neighboring Nuristani people of the adjacent Nuristan (historically known as Kafiristan) province of Afghanistan once practiced the same religion as the Kalash. By the late 19th century much of Nuristan had been converted to Islam, although some evidence has shown the people continued to practice their customs. Over the years, the Nuristan region has also been the site of much war activity that has led to the death of many endemic Nuristanis and has seen an inflow of surrounding Afghans to claim the vacant region, who have since admixed with the remaining natives.The Kalash of Chitral maintained their own separate cultural traditions.

The culture of the Kalash people is unique and differs completely from the various contemporary Islamic ethnic groups surrounding them in modern northwestern Indian subcontinent. They are polytheists and nature plays a highly significant and spiritual role in their daily life. As part of their religious tradition, sacrifices are offered and festivals held to give thanks for the abundant resources of their three valleys. Kalasha Desh (the three Kalash valleys) is made up of two distinct cultural areas, the valleys of Rumbur and Brumbret forming one, and Birir valley the other; Birir valley being the most traditional of the two.

Kalash mythology and folklore has been wrongly compared to that of ancient Greece, but they are much closer to Indo-Iranian (pre-Zoroastrian Vedic) traditions. Some of the Kalash people claim to be descendants of Alexander the Great’s soldiers; however, extensive genetic testing has shown no connection.The Kalash have fascinated anthropologists due to their unique culture compared to the rest in that region.

The language of the Kalasha is a sub-branch of the Indo-Aryan group, itself part of the larger Indo-European family. It is classified as a member of the Chitral sub-group, the only other member of that group being Khowar. Norwegian Linguist Georg Morgenstierne believes that in spite of similarities, Kalasha is an independent language in its own right and not a dialect of Chitrali language.

These deities have shrines and altars throughout the valleys, where they frequently receive goat sacrifices. In 1929, as Georg Morgenstierne testifies, such rituals were still carried out by Kalash priests, “ištikavan” ‘priest’ (from ištikhék ‘to praise a god’). This institution has since disappeared but there still is the prominent one of shamans (dehar) The deities are temporary visitors. Mahandeo shrines are a wooden board with 4 carved horse heads (the horse being sacred to Kalash) extending out, in 1929 still with the effigy of a human head inside holes at the base of these shrines while the altars of Sajigor are of stone and are under old juniper, oak and cedar trees.

Historically a goat herding and subsistence farming people, the Kalash are moving towards a cash-based economy whereas previously wealth was measured in livestock and crops. Tourism now makes up a large portion of the economic activities of the Kalash. To cater to these new visitors, small stores and guest houses have been erected, providing new luxury for visitors of the valleys. People attempting to enter the valleys have to pay a toll to the Pakistani government, which is used to preserve and care for the Kalash people and their culture.

The Kalash people’s reputed connection to Alexander the Great is the basis of the famous Rudyard Kipling story “The Man Who Would Be King”, however it takes place among the Kalasha of Nuristan, then known as Kafiristan, in nearby Afghanistan. The story was made into a film in 1975 starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine. The Kalash are briefly visited in the first episode of the 2004 BBC television series Himalaya with Michael Palin. The program featured some cultural background and current customs, highlighting the claim to be descendants of Alexander the Great as well as some of the stunning scenery of the Kalash homeland.


Originally published at kufarooq.blogspot.com on August 6, 2015.

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