The Kalash struggle to preserve their culture

Published: April 19, 2011
Kalash women fall for non-Kalash men. PHOTO: FILE

Kalash women fall for non-Kalash men. PHOTO: FILE


For Wazir Kalash, Athanassios Lerounis was a godsend whose charity work largely addressed the socio-economic woes and reasons forcing Kalasha people to leave their unique ancient values and belief system.

Since the Greek aid worker’s abduction in September 2009 by the Taliban and subsequent release after eight months in captivity, the elders of the last surviving non-Muslim community living in the wilderness of the Hindukush mountain range have been facing an uphill task in preserving their ancient belief system, language and culture.

“Lerounis’ philanthropic work helped address the reasons for the conversion of the Kalasha to Islam,” said Wazir Kalash, the Kalash community leader in the village of Anizh, Bumburate Valley. He said Lerounis had given scholarships and many other incentives to the Kalasha for preserving their religion and culture.

In Birir valley, many of the Kalasha live in abject poverty. Yet their traditions dictate that they perform funeral rituals that can cost millions of rupees.

“The [expenses of] Kalash rituals became the primary reasons for families in Birir abandoning their belief system”, Wazir added.

Lerounis began by building the Kalash-Dur, a wood-hewn museum in Baroon village in Bumburate with financial assistance from the Hellenic Aid Society of the Greek ministry of foreign affairs to preserve and showcase the Kalash culture. He also constructed a school designed exclusively for the Kalash community.

His efforts helped revive the community and slowed the rate of conversion to Islam from 2005 onwards, when he first began working with the Kalash community. Without the assistance of his cultural preservation efforts, it remains unclear how this community will be able to survive.

A dwindling community

The Kalasha are the last surviving non-Muslim tribal community in Northern Pakistan, living at an elevation of 8,000 feet. A decade ago, there were 15,000 non-Muslim ethnic Kalasha in the three valleys of Bumborate, Rumbur and Birir. Now there are just 4,000.

One of the major reasons for the dwindling of this community is love. Young Kalash women fall for non-Kalash men. When the couple marries, the woman typically converts to Islam and adopts the non-Kalash culture.

Huma Saeed, 16, a resident of Anizh, says that love is one of the main causes encouraging young Kalasha girls to say adieu to their families and the centuries-old Kalash religion. Two of her aunts became Muslim the same way. However, she still feels that there should be no restriction on women marrying whom they choose.

The trend of entire families converting to Islam is more painful to the Kalasha than simply one or two people converting, even though conversions often tend to create rifts within families, especially if only one or two members have left the Kalash religion.

Wazir said if a member of a Kalash family becomes Muslim, they have to leave their home because the differences between Islamic traditions and Kalash rituals makes it very difficult to live under one roof.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 19th,  2011.

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Reader Comments (15)

  • Saleem
    Apr 19, 2011 - 10:29AM

    Let them live the way they are, with thier unique traditions. I know they are very simple people with crime rate almost non existent in thier community. We already have enough Muslims in Pakistan:)Recommend

  • Yousaf
    Apr 19, 2011 - 10:30AM

    Very sad..very very sad… I mean, we are on the way to destruction of culture, love & harmony. Recommend

  • Ashok
    Apr 19, 2011 - 10:43AM

    Shabaz, shame on you for this awful reporting – “Young Kalash women fall for non-Kalash men”. How do you know it is not the other way around? Organized religion has systematically targeted these indigenous people and somehow tries to convey the message that they are trying to do them a favor by asking them to remove them of their original indigenous customs. The fact of the matter is, these people, along with many Pashtuns and what you call ‘Nuristanis” are all related people and have been on that land since the War of the Ten Kings, the first major war depicted in the RgVed when what are the ancestors of Iranians and the ancestors of Indians (originally one big family of tribes) had a war and split into two different nations. Some of the tribes that fought in this war remained on this land going neither to Iran nor to India and stayed put. The descendants of these tribes are what the Kalash, Nuristani’s, Baltis, those living in the Wakkan corridor and many Pashtuns are. The last time something like this happened was when many religious zealots in Afghanistan waged war on an indigenous people they humiliatingly called ‘Kafiristanis’ and patronizingly converted them into ‘Nuristanis’. The little research that was done before this war to convert them revealed that they (Nuristanis) spoke in a Sanskrit derived language and had customs which Hindus have today (including wearing a Bindi) and worshiped Lord Shiva and Lord Yama. These people keep our common history alive. Shame on Pakistan for trying to convert these people. The tribes may wish to move to India if they are not given adequate measures to protect their identity.Recommend

  • b
    Apr 19, 2011 - 12:17PM

    yup, this is dreadfully thin on reporting and makes very little sense. since the greek man left they have been facing issues? no. this has gone on much longer – it’s what happens when you have a tiny minority population – this should have been focused on the economy and development of opportunity in the kalash, not on some half-baked notion that the valleys are falling apart because girls fall in love. why is there nothing from maureen lines? if anyone knows the situation it’s her. poor effort, and another embarrassingly thin piece from the tribune. why do you squander you opportunities to report from across the country in english? learn who your readership are – we want informed comment and analysis.Recommend

  • joy
    Apr 19, 2011 - 12:19PM

    they are the real aryansRecommend

  • Sumair
    Apr 19, 2011 - 1:03PM

    Nobody is forcing them to get converted into Muslim. They are accepting Islam with their free will, so let it go the way it goes.

    At least, if they remain with the non-existent crime rate even after get converted into Muslims, then their chances of brighter hereafter is more worthwhile than their worldly culture. Recommend

  • Pakistani
    Apr 19, 2011 - 2:07PM

    Pakistan Govt should help to preserve their culture and religion. Recommend

  • Unar
    Apr 19, 2011 - 2:07PM

    You see to be quite good follower of Guardian, I am surprised.

    Article on Kalash culture in the guardian 2 days back:

  • Eg
    Apr 19, 2011 - 2:10PM

    What is sad and wrong with this. I mean if someone wants to accept Islam its very good and appreciable, given that they are not forced to do that because that is not allowed in Islam. I have been to Kalash and irrespective of the difference in religion they are very welcoming and lovely bunch of ppl.
    So if they are accepting Islam well and good. We can have Greek Muslims living in Pakistan :)

    @ Ashok
    Who told you that anyone is forcing to convert them. Just naming your country secular does not hide the realities. Babri Mosque was demolished in India not in Pakistan. And Gujrat massacare happened in India not in Pakistan. Samjhota express was burned by… Do I need to reiterate some more incidents mate :PRecommend

  • meena gabeena
    Apr 19, 2011 - 2:14PM

    How unfair…let them live the way they want to… very sad. :(Recommend

  • meena gabeena
    Apr 19, 2011 - 2:18PM

    There is another solution to it…they should have inter marriages for some time so that they can populate their area with people of the same culture. they should be provided proper awareness to keep their culture alive for good.Recommend

  • Sverige
    Apr 19, 2011 - 3:45PM

    To sort out who is an Indian and who is a Pakistani when commenting on Pakistani media one can think of asking his or her Facebook, Twitter or Yahoo account so that one day its not just become commenting area full of Indians.

    Also you need a real account for commenting on Indian media like NDTV.Recommend

  • Skeptic
    Apr 19, 2011 - 3:58PM

    Poor reporting at its best. The author traveled around a 1000 kilometers to get there and only talked to two people.The biggest challenge faced by these people is unplanned urbanization-as this Boumbret valley has more than 25 hotels and guest houses within a less than 5 kilometer valley.These poor people will die of malnutrition but not from conversion. As they sell every kind of their produce to these hotels. You will astonished to know that an egg costs thrice of its price in these valleys and all they produce goes to deep pocketed tourists, who have thick wads of cash with them to purchase. Secondly, there are no forced conversion in this area. Now if you someone converts in love, than you can do nothing about it. Don’t blame conservatives for this, their is no conspiracy in it.
    Thirdly, there are also no Taliban in this area, as mentioned in the Observer article.Actually they make incursion from Nuristan in Afghanistan-and that too on two occasions. There are dozens of books from very good ethnographers, travel writers and historians on these people. If you have tried your hands on one of these before embarking on such a lengthy journey then it has been very good and there could have been some “Jaan” in your piece, which it lacks at present. Recommend

  • Bahrain Islamic Revolution...
    Apr 19, 2011 - 4:17PM

    @ writer…..Culture is not important…………Islam is important you …i think you didnt read Quran…what will be the result for not accepting islam is mention in quran ….Recommend

  • Apr 25, 2011 - 3:55PM

    Dear Ashok its matter of perception rather than knowledge, I appreciate you have knowledge of History but unfortunately you are biased, your approach towards History is value loaded. You think that all is bad in Pakistan. Dear you know perfection is nowhere, if I get biased towards the Hinduism, I can find many social evils from holy Vedas and Maha Baharat, but I respect all religions of the world.

    So, dear it’s not only Pakistan’s government behind the fall of the Kalasha culture; there are different factors like, social pressure, economic pressure, the Kalasha people don’t have unity and any leader, NGO (especially Intel NGO’s), religious conversion etc.

    You know when a Kalasha tribe fellow expires, the expenses of burial stuck the deceased family. The cost of burial rituals is approximately 400000 PKR or 4650 US$, its too much. Infact death of a person is death of whole family. So, sometime an older Kalasha man changes his religion to avoid ‘costly burial rituals’. So, it is death which is very pricey and is the major factor of conversion. Din Muhammad Kalash (Headmaster of Kalasha School & my informant during my anthropological field work) says that some Kalasha want to reduce the expenses of death rites, to halt the conversion, but kazis disagree as they believe that it would knock out the Kalasha culture.
    There are many reasons for conversions like:
    There are many reasons for conversion of religion for the Kalasha of Chitral, some of them are:
    Attraction towards Islam
    To marry more women
    Costly Marriages
    Death Rituals are too costly in Kalasha Society
    Ambiguities about Kalasha Religion
    Tablighis etc.

    You know there are many Intel NGOs in three Kalasha valleys (Bumboret, Rumbor and Birir) and these NGOs divided the community in fractions, these NGOs hit their unity.
    There are many things to discussed, but I am not going to write paper hereRecommend

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