Meet the Kalash tribe, a people that live in Pakistan’s Chitral province, which historians believe are the descendants of Alexander the Great’s army who settled in the area around 23 centuries ago. With a population of only 4,000 people, their distinctive culture is on the verge of extinction.
The Kalash are a small ethnic and religious group with a number of features that set them apart from the rest of the population. Many Kalash are fair-skinned and have blue or green eyes, which contributes to the age-old historic claim that they are descended from Greek warriors who fought alongside Alexander the Great in Pakistan in 300 B.C.
Despite being surrounded by Muslim populations, the Kalash have maintained their ancient traditions and rituals. Like the Ancient Greeks, they are polytheists who worship many gods, and nature plays a crucial and spiritual part in their daily lives. Animal sacrifices and festivals are held as part of their religious practise to give thanks for the plentiful resources of their three valleys. The ancient Greeks’ polytheism, mythology, and folklore have all been compared to theirs. They are, however, considerably more closely related to Indo-Iranian (pre-Zoroastrian-Vedic) traditions.
The Kalash hold three festivals a year, each of which has become a tourist draw in the area. The Kalash consume homemade wine and dance to the beat of drums during the festivals, which are completely forbidden to Muslims. In addition, unlike Muslim women, Kalash women are able to not only choose their own spouses, but also divorce them and even elope.
Despite their differences, the Kalash are in danger of being absorbed by their Muslim neighbours. As more people convert to Islam, their customs are rapidly fading. Many Kalash were forcibly converted to Islam in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Forced conversions and forced marriages with non-Kalash people are still reported in the media today.
Furthermore, modern society is catching up with the younger generations, and Kalash culture is eroding from within. Young people are learning to adjust to new and modern ways of life. Many people who wanted to have a formal education and pursue modern careers left the region to work in a variety of professions.
Illegal logging and land encroachment are two further concerns that threaten their distinctive culture. Economically, the Kalash community is under strain, and many of its members are being compelled to renounce their traditions in order to find employment in the outside world.
As a result of feeling excluded in their new environment, an increasing number of people are abandoning their culture in order to blend in and thrive in the contemporary world. Human rights organisations have been pushing for the Kalash culture to be added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List since 2008, but their efforts have stagnated.
The Pakistani government has also made efforts to safeguard and preserve the Kalash culture. The authorities are concerned that it is being threatened by exploitative tourism, which is becoming more prevalent as more tourists flock to the festivals each year. Pakistani laws provide equal rights to minorities, Kalash customs are legally protected, allowing many centuries-old behaviours to survive.
A cultural centre is being built partly funded by the Greek governement and with an Athens based group of volunteers. The columns will be Ionic style and have the Macedonian Greek star of Vergina on the cultural centre.