Shrouded in myth and mystery: the origins of the Kalasha

A popular narrative links them to Alexander the Great. Their true origins, however, perhaps lie much closer to home


Hamid Hussain April 25, 2021

The Kalasha community of Chitral district has long captivated the imagination of both visitors and researchers. But one aspect that to date eludes and confounds historians and archaeologists is their origin. Starting with the once popular and now discarded narrative of their descent from Alexander the Great’s Macedonian troops, various theories have been put forth to explain the enigmatic identity of the Kalasha. But some more recent studies now suggest that their lineage is perhaps more close to home than it seems at first glance.

The Alexandrian myth

The Kalasha community lives in three specific valleys of Chitral: Bumboret, Birir, and Rumbur. It is estimated that the community has a population of over 3,000 - making them the smallest minority group in Pakistan.

A Global Human Rights Defence paper titled, ‘Tribe of Kalash: The last Kafir’ describes the Kalash people as animists and nature worshippers who refuse to convert to Islam and states that their refusal to convert as the ‘root cause of their marginalisation in the region.’ The Kalash people who don’t even make up one per cent of the population in the region, are considered ‘ethnically marginal’ and demographically insignificant.’

Creative: Ibrahim Yahya

According to that paper, the Kalasha are the last of the people of ‘Kafiristan’ – an area that once encompassed the entirety of northwest Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan before being divided by the Durand line – who retain elements of their ancestral cultural identity.

“While some long believed them to be in some way linked to the Greeks who arrived in South Asia with Alexander the Great, there is little in the way of concrete evidence to support that suggestion,” shared Professor Noorul Amin of the Pashto Department at the Islamic College University. “Even so, the Kalasha themselves have come to believe that they descended from one General Shalakshah of Alexander’s army,” he said.

According to Professor Amin, the author of several Pashto books, the Kalasha hold onto their own religious beliefs, along with their own identity, way of life, and language. “The fair skin and blue eyes of the Kalasha people has resulted in a popular assumption that they were of Greek origin, specifically the descendants of Alexander the Great’s soldiers who followed him on his campaign to India. The hypothesis that the Kalasha people were originally Greek has also been promoted officially in Pakistan,” he noted.

 

Professor Amin explained that the Kalasha people settled in the Chitral region during the reign of Cyrus the Great, another conqueror whose campaigns match those of Alexander the great himself. “The Kalasha people had been living in the Chitral region for over four thousand years,” he said, adding that to him the assumption that they are the descendants of Alexander holds no credibility because they were already present in the area much before the arrival of Alexander the great.

The ‘Aryan’ hypothesis

Chitral-based senior journalist Gul Hamad Farooqi who has extensively covered all cultural festivals and other relevant aspects of the Kalasha people says these people are ‘Indian Aryans’.

According to Farooqi, the provincial Archeological Department with the assistance of international archelogy experts had recently discovered a 5,000-year-old graveyard in the Shindor area of Chitral. “The experts in their study of the graveyard had stated that the people inhabiting the region are Indian Aryans. However, the authorities do not force the Kalasha community to accept that they are not the descendants of Alexander the great. The Kalasha people take pride in associating themselves with the great conqueror,” he added.

A genetic study conducted in 2015 found no evidence to support the theory of their descent from the soldiers of Alexander. Interestingly, however, the study did find that they shared a significant portion of genetic drift – a term used to describe a random effect that removes genetic variation in populations of living beings – with a 24,000-year-old Paleolithic Siberian hunter-gatherer fossil. The link is thought to hint at some shared lineage with the steppe pastoralists of the Yamnaya culture, who lived in a region known as the Pontic-Caspian steppe.

 

The people of the Yamnaya culture are believed to have migrated eastwards and westwards in waves, settling in regions as far apart as South Asia and Great Britain. Their migrations led to the proliferation of languages that are classified under the Indo-European language family. In the Indian sub-continent, the Yamnaya migrants are believed to have been among the forefathers of the ‘Ancestral North Indians’, one of the many ancestral populations the modern inhabitants of the region are descended from.

According to the 2015 study, the Kalasha, due to their uniqueness, may have been the earliest group to separate from the ancestors of the modern population of the subcontinent, sometime around 11,800 years ago.

A tale for tourists

Renowned historian, author, scholar Parvesh Shaheen says he has explained the origin of Kalasha people in the third chapter of his book titled as ‘Kafirstan’. “The Kalasha are indigenous people but this theory that they are Greek is being promoted which is aimed to promote tourism.”

Shaheen who is the author of several books on the history of Kalasha community said Georgios Papandreou, former Greek prime minister had also visit the Kalsha community Greek in late 1960s when he was on official visit to Pakistan. “The media reported that Prime Minister Papandreou spoke to Kalasha people in their language, which was an exaggeration. Since then, the theory about the Greek roots of Kalasha people has been promoted which is not based on evidences but merely to promote tourism.”

The historian added that the Kalasha people who are also known as Waigali are indigenous people residing in the region just like other ethnicities. “The only difference between them and other communities is that they still practice their centuries old culture while cultures of the rest of the ethnicities have changed with the passage of time. These people are considered unique for being Pakistan’s smallest ethnoreligious group with a distinct culture and religious beliefs, he informed.”

 

The scholar explains that the religious beliefs, which the Kalasha people practice, are labelled as animism or ancient forms of Hinduism. To question, the historian says there the key hypothesis regarding the ancestry of the Kalasha is that they are the descendants of the Greek soldiers and 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.’

Shaheen who has studied the Kalasha community and other indigenous people of the region for over three decades says, “It is an established fact the Kalash are indigenous people who may migrated within the region just like other communities.” The religion of the Kalasha is very much close to the Hinduism than to the religion of Alexander the Great, which is yet another evidence that they are indigenous people, he explained.

The author of the ‘Kafiristan Takreekh Nasal Zuban Saqafat Aur Sayahti Jayza,’ says the people of Nuristan– the bordering province of Afghanistan– which is historically known as Kafiristan once had the same culture and religious beliefs before their conversion to Islam during the era of Afghan ruler Abdur Rahman Khan at the end of the 19th century.

 

Shaheen who hails from Manglawar area of Swat valley and has been visiting the Kalasha community for over 30 years and have studied their way of living, houses, culture, food, dressing and how they do their daily household chores. According to him, the way Kalash women behave, and the rights they have, is quite different from the Muslim women in the neighboring areas. Kalash women are allowed to marry whomever they wish, to divorce their husbands, and even to elope, he explained.

Another belief, the educationist says, among many Kalash people is that their ancestors arrived in the region from a place called Tsiyam, which is also mentioned in their folksongs. The historian says to date noone has located the country or region of this name.

The challenge of modernisation

Professor Amin of the Islamia College University says the Kalash culture has evolved with the passage of time due to its geography. Their folklore have changed.

“Kalasha people have a special a culture, which is neither Greek nor local; they developed their own culture,” said the educationist. The specialty about their culture is that they celebrate when someone dies while their spiritual leader is called Chilamche. When someone solemnises their into a marriage, they respect him more. They have no societal pressures and live a free life. “The Kalasha people have developed their own norms which are free in nature,” he added.

 

Professor Amin further says that the life of Kalash community was affected when the world became a global village. The dressing of Kalash men have changed while they now eat foods somewhat similar to what other people in the region eat.

A threat to the culture and lifestyle of Kalash community has been witnessed in the recent past as Muslim people living in the Ayoun area, which is adjacent to the three valleys of Kalasha people, have begun luring Kalash girls in order to convert them to Islam after marrying them. However, most of these girls end up divorced after few years and are sent back to their people and when they resume their lives according to their own beliefs and culture, they are threatened for leaving Islam. Several such incidents have happened in the recent past and the authorities need to take some measures to prevent them.

According to Farooqi, another perceived threat to the Kalash culture is modernisation. Young Kalash people sometimes move to bigger cities for work and education, and due to the temptation of modernity and technology, it is feared that they may abandon their culture.

Abdul Qahar, a resident of Lower Chitral, says that even though modernisation usually kills traditional cultures, but this particular culture has not been affected so far. “The Kalasha people have exposed their culture to the rest of the world. The Kalash love their way of life and take pride in their culture and this has definitely helped in preserving it for future generations,” he said.

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