Are the Distinctive Kalash People of Pakistan Really Descendants of Alexander the Great’s Army?
The Kalash (also known 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 consists 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. 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)
The Legendary Origins of the Kalash People
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.
In 2014, geneticists looked into the claims and they found that the Kalash people do have portions of their DNA coming from ancient European populations. And when Kalash elders discuss their ancestors’ epics at festivals, they often mention a man they believe was one of Alexander’s generals, Shalakash, who they say settled in the region. Some scholars have suggested the name may refer to Seleucus Nicator, one of Alexander’s generals who did rule over the region after the Greek armies had departed.
Furthermore, the names of Kalash deities also resembles Greek gods and goddesses and there are many words in the Kalash language (also called Kalasha) which resemble Greek words. But this language has no script to compare to Greek and the traditional Kalash stories are passed down orally.
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Alexander and Porus by Charles Le Brun, painted 1673. (Public Domain)
Alternatively, it has been hypothesized that the Kalash are of Indo-Aryan stock. A 2015 study suggested that the Kalash have genetic linkages to Paleolithic Siberian hunter-gatherers “and might represent an extremely drifted ancient northern Eurasian population that also contributed to European and Near Eastern ancestry.” This research did not support the idea that the Kalash people have any link to Alexander’s soldiers. There is also a belief among many Kalash people that their ancestors arrived in the region from an unknown land called Tsiyam, which may have existed in southeast Asia. But no one can say for certain where exactly it was located.
When compared to 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.
The Kalash are polytheistic and continue to practice their ancient pagan religion. In Kipling’s The Man Who Would be King, the Kalash who held onto their ancient ways were referred to as the ‘black kafirs’, a term Kalash people dislike, whereas their neighbors, i.e. the Kalash who were brutally converted to Islam by a campaign of the Afghani ruler Abdur Rahman Khan at the end of the 19th 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. 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 and since then, Pakistani authorities have banned Tablighi (a Sunni Islam missionary movement) from entering the valley where the violence occurred.
However, a report on the Kalash people on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty shows that missionary work continues in other ways, such as through converted Kalash people encouraging family members to follow their lead and the lack of education discussing Kalash culture, language, and history in schools; though Kalash children are taught about Islamic theology and Koranic scripture alongside their Muslim peers.
Estimates suggest that Kalash converts to Islam may number some 300 people since 2016, though some local reports suggest the numbers are not that high. With only 3,000 people in the community, local leaders have been alarmed and concerned about the number of people that have left the Kalash belief system. Moreover, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports that Kalash elders “have strictly prohibited the reentry into their own by those who have converted to Islam.” However, this may not be seen as a punishment, per-se, instead it has been suggested that the “move was driven in part to protect the converts from potential reprisals for leaving Islam.”
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Individual people of the Kalash culture. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Kalash People and Modernization
Yet another perceived threat to the Kalash culture is modernization. Local people have mentioned that many of the educated Kalash young women have converted to Islam and married outside the community. Young people sometimes move to a city to seek work and due to the temptation of modernity and technology. There are fears that these moves lead to abandonment of their culture.
Nonetheless, while modernization generally kills traditional cultures, it has been indicated by some that it is doing the opposite to this particular culture. By having contact with the outside world, for instance, the Kalash are teaching others about their culture. The pride that the Kalash have in their way of life, as well as their awareness of its remarkable nature would undoubtedly go far in their efforts to preserve it for future generations.
Top image: This is a woman of the Kalash culture. The Kalash people of Pakistan have a fascinating history and culture. Source: Mr. UmerFarooq/CC BY-SA 4.0
By Wu Mingren
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