Are the Distinctive Kalash People of Pakistan Really Descendants of Alexander the Great’s Army?
The Kalash (known also as the Kalasha) are an indigenous people living in what is today Pakistan. Although Pakistan is an Islamic Republic, with more than 95% of its population being adherents of Islam, the Kalash hold on to their own religious beliefs, along with their own identity, way of life, and language. The Kalash people are also noted for their fair skin and blue eyes, leading to a popular hypothesis that they were of Greek origin, specifically the descendants of Alexander the Great’s soldiers who followed him on his campaign in India.
The Kalash can be found in the Chitral District, which is situated in the northwestern Pakistani region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. They live in three specific valleys in this area, Bumboret, Birir, and Rumbur. In an article from 2016, it was estimated that the Kalash community consist of about 3000 people, which makes them the smallest minority group of Pakistan. Nevertheless, this group is best known for their unique and well-preserved culture, which has led to it being listed by UNESCO for consideration as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. As a matter of fact, this bid for recognition is an attempt by the Kalash to safeguard their culture.
Kalash Valley is situated in District Chitral of province Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )
The unique nature of the Kalash culture has also allowed these people to turn to tourism as a source of income. It has been pointed out that scholars, specifically sociologists, anthropologists and historians, as well as photographers, are particularly drawn to the Kalash, and many visit them each year. In the 1990s, for example, thousands of people visited the area annually, though these figures have dropped since 9/11. One aspect of the Kalash that fascinates these scholars and tourists is their origin.
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A drummer during the Joshi festival in Bumberet, Pakistan. Drumming is a male occupation among the Kalash people. ( CC BY 2.0 )
There are two major hypotheses regarding the ancestry of the Kalash. One is that they are the descendants of the Greek soldiers who followed Alexander the Great on his Indian campaign. This link between the Kalash and the Macedonian king is perhaps best seen in Rudyard Kipling’s well-known story, The Man Who Would be King , in which this supposed connection forms the basis of the tale.
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Alternatively, it has been hypothesised that the Kalash are in fact of Indo-Aryan stock. It has been reported that in recent times, DNA tests have been conducted to determine if the Kalash were indeed of Greek origin. The results indicate that the Kalash did not have Greek origins, thus lending support to the hypothesis that they were Indo-Aryans who migrated to the area perhaps several millennia ago.
Unlike their Muslim compatriots, the Kalash have a strikingly distinct lifestyle and culture. For example, the way Kalash women behave, and the rights they have, is quite different from the conservative Islamic outlook held by their neighbors. Kalash women are allowed to marry whomever they wish, to divorce their husbands, and even to elope. In addition, the Kalash are also considered to be polytheistic, and continue to practise their ancient pagan religion. In Kipling’s The Man Who Would be King , the Kalash who held on to their ancient ways were referred to as the ‘black kafirs’, whereas their neighbors, i.e. the Kalash who were brutally converted to Islam at the end of the 19 th century, were known as the ‘red kafirs’. They became known as the Nuristanis (meaning ‘enlightened ones’) following their conversion.
Kalash women and children in traditional bright costume. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Indeed, conversion to Islam has become one of the issues afflicting the Kalash people today. It has been claimed that there is pressure, both direct and indirect, to convert the Kalash to Islam. The former, for instance, involves extremists who prey on the weak, and create internal division between the Kalash, whilst the latter involves the promise for better treatment and services for converts. At times, this issue even erupts in violence. In 2016, for example, it was reported that clashes broke out due to a row over a teenage girl’s conversion to Islam.