The Kalasha of Chitral or simply Kalasha, are an ethnic group living in the Hindu Kush region of Pakistan. They are [probably] an ancient Dard people who speak the Kalasha-mun language, have light skin, eyes, and hair, similar to what one would find in Southern Europe.
Many Kalash claim that they are the direct descendants of either Greek settlers, Alexander the Great’s army, or even Alexander himself. The claims are questionable, as there is proof of their existence before Alexander’s invasion of the Persian Empire.
One theory suggests that similarities in the culture of the Kalasha and Greek people stem from the expansion of Proto-Indo-Europeans.
It is important to note that there is no current connection between the Kalasha of Chitral and the Kalasha of Nuristan. These two populations descend from different branches of the Indo-Iranians, a division that goes back some 5,000 years.
According to linguist [Richard Strand], a professional in this area, the people of Chitral apparently adopted the name of the former Kafiristan Kalasha, who at some unknown time extended their influence into Chitral.
There is still controversy over what defines the ethnic characteristics of the Kalasha and what exactly is their number. An estimate puts current population of ethnic Kalasha around six thousand; who continue to worship their polytheistic gods, while many thousands more have converted to Islam (whether genuine or for economic and social gain), yet still live within the Kalasha villages and maintain their language and their traditional centuries old way of life.
KALASHA – THE WHITE TRIBE OF PAKISTAN
The Kalasha are indigenous people residing in the Chitral District of Pakistan. They speak the Kalasha language, from the Dardic family of the Indo-Iranian languages, and are considered a unique tribe among the Indo-Aryan peoples of Pakistan.
They are related to the Nuristani people of the adjacent Nuristan (historically known as Kafiristan) province of Afghanistan. An autochthonous and polytheistic by the late 19th century much of Nuristan had converted to Islam, while the Kalasha of Chitral maintain their own separate cultural traditions.
The culture of Kalash people is unique and differs completely from the various ethnic groups surrounding them. They are polytheists and nature plays a highly significant and spiritual role in their daily life.
As part of their religious tradition, sacrifices are offered and festivals held to give thanks for the abundant resources of their three valleys. Kalasha Desh (the three Kalash valleys) is made up of two distinct cultural areas, the valleys of Rumbur and Brumbret forming one and Birir valley the other, Birir valley being the most traditional of the two.
Kalash mythology and folklore has been compared to that of ancient Greece, but they are much closer to Indo-Iranian (Vedic and pre-Zoroastrian) traditions. Some of the Kalash people in their own traditions claim to be descendants of Alexander the Great’s soldiers, however, extensive genetic testing has shown no connection.
The Kalash’s origins have fascinated anthropologists due to the unusually high frequency of light hair, skin, and eyes (particularly green). Some Pashtuns and Persians too have been known to have blond hair or green eyes (such as Sharbat Gula).
In the mountains of the Hindu Kush in Pakistan, six thousand or so people live who look and sound very different from their neighbors. They claim to have lived in the area for thousands of years and they look to all intents and purposes, European.
Many of the Kalash are blond haired and blue eyed, somewhat of an
anomaly in Pakistan! Some believe that they are descendants of
Alexander the Great’s army though their true ethnic origins are still unproven.
They have a significantly different outlook on life from the Muslims
surrounding them – they are polytheistic and have a completely different folklore
(which has been compared to that of ancient Greece).
DNA testing has not, however, produced any connection to Greek people.
Yet although there is no genetic support for a Greek origin, the tests
on the Kalash also showed no detectable East or South Asian lineages.
Taking in to account genetic drift it was then thought that the Kalash
blood line originated in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and
the Caucasus. However, another series of tests suggested that
perhaps the Kalash are in fact aboriginal to the area with only
negligible contributions from external peoples. In other words,
the jury is still out as to where they actually come from but it
might well be exactly where they are right now.
They live in Kalasha Desh – which translates as the three valleys
of the Kalash – and that is the limit of their people’s range. There are
only around five thousand speakers of the language, Kalasha, left which
in terms of a language means that it is critically endangered. However,
it is thought that the language probably never had more than a few tens
of thousands of speakers at any one time.
As their numbers are very small, the culture of the people who
surround them have had an impact. Many of the Kalash in two
of the valleys have converted to Islam, probably around fifty percent.
They still practice many of the traditional aspects of Kalash life
though the non-converts call them ‘sheiks’. A third valley,
known as Birir, still clings to the traditional way of Kalash life.
By some standards, the Kalash are very poor and it is true that they are subsistence farmers. Kalash houses are typically made from Deodar trunk to an ancient design. They appear singly or stacked up against each other up vertiginous hillsides.
Yet even though the houses often look precarious, they are built on solid stone foundations. Many have inbuilt beehives, given the villagers access to honey close by. Life is, however, hard. Outbreaks of cholera still happen regularly in these remote villages.
In stark contract to the culture of Pakistan the Kalash do not separate the sexes or disapprove of contact between men and women of different families. However, there is the ‘bashelini’ – a house in the village where menstruating women are sent until they regain ‘purity’ and rituals must be performed before she can return to her husband.
Elopement is regular in Kalash society and – strangely – it occurs often among married women. The woman herself will ask the prospective groom and offer her hand, informing the new man how much her previous husband paid for her.
The Kalash have, for however long they have been in the Hindu Kush, made their livelihood by herding goats and farming. Yet tourism does not play a major part in their lives with many urban Pakistanis making the journey from the big cities to meet their light colored rustic neighbors.
The Kalash are protected by the government of Pakistan but their future is uncertain – particularly if the religion declines in to theocracy. There have been recent Taliban incursions and a Greek aid worker was kidnapped in 2009 (she was returned unharmed four months later after an outcry). However, their relative isolation may well ensure the Kalash survive.
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