Anxious Times In Pakistan’s Pagan Valley
Rising Islamic Influence Pressures An Ancient People
Nine-year-old Naveed Iqbal frequently accompanies his grandfather to mosque in this valley surrounded by the soaring peaks of the Hindu Kush mountains. But he doesn’t go inside — not yet, at least.
“When I go inside to offer my prayer, he waits outside on the mosque stairs until I come out,” his grandfather, Bilal Shah, told RFE/RL in an interview in this hillside village in Bhamborit, one of three idyllic valleys in the Chitral district of Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.
Naveed is a member of the Kalash, a pagan community known for their fair skin that has long inhabited this area near the border with Afghanistan. The Kalash people, many of whom believe they are the descendants of the armies of Alexander the Great, have held on to their religious beliefs and colorful rituals for centuries, even as a sea of Islam has encircled them.
But the unique traditions of the Kalash are coming under mounting cultural pressure as the pace of conversions to Islam accelerates within Pakistan’s smallest ethnoreligious community. The Kalash population currently numbers between 3,000-4,000, and locals estimate that some 300 of their members have converted to Islam over the past three years, The Washington Post reported in November. Some local reports, however, have said the figure is not that high.
Kalash children are not taught about their own culture, religion, or history in schools, where most of the teachers are Muslims. Calls to prayer now ring out five times a day from 18 mosques across the valley, the result of a recent boom in the construction of Muslim houses of worship. The swelling influence of Islam in the area has alarmed many in the Kalash community who worry that their traditional way of life is slipping away before their eyes.
The origins of the Kalash remain shrouded in mystery. Many Kalash believe their ancestors came to the area from a distant place known as Tsiyam, which Kalash priests and bards invoke in songs about their ancestors during colorful and exuberant festivals. Tsiyam is thought to be an area in southeast Asia, though no one knows precisely where — or what — it was.
Others in the community trace their ancestry to Alexander the Great’s armies that invaded this region in the 4th century B.C. A study by a team of geneticists published in 2014 found that the Kalash had portions of DNA from an ancient European population, suggesting a possible link to Alexander’s armies, The New York Times reported.
While recounting epics about their ancestors during festivals, Kalash elders speak of a man they believe was a general of Alexander’s, called Shalakash, who settled in the region. Historians believe the name refers to Seleucus Nicator, who indeed served as a general under Alexander and ruled over this region after the Greek armies left.
A genetic link between the ancient Greeks and the modern-day Kalash remains disputed. Some Pakistani anthropologists say they have found evidence of a Kalash presence in the area well before the arrival of Greek armies in the region. And a 2015 study by Pakistani, Italian, and British scientists found that the Kalash share genetic likeness to Paleolithic Siberian hunter-gatherers “and might represent an extremely drifted ancient northern Eurasian population that also contributed to European and Near Eastern ancestry.”
“The genetically isolated Kalash might be seen as descendants of the earliest migrants that took a route into Afghanistan and Pakistan and are most likely present-day genetically drifted representatives of these ancient northern Eurasians,” the researchers said, adding that their study did not find support of a Kalash link to Alexander’s soldiers.
The names of the Kalash gods and goddesses, however, resemble those of the Greeks. And many words in their language resemble Greek as well. Their language, called Kalash or Kalasha, is a Dardic tongue that is in a subgroup of Indo-Aryan languages spoken in the area. It has no script and the traditional Kalash stories are passed down orally from generation to generation.