A Kalash woman in the Rumber valley. The Kalash lead a centuries-old primitive way of life with a religion which has no name and no written book. Image Credit: ATIQ-UR-REHMAN / Gulf News

Kalash Hazrat Gull, 23, was not wearing her traditional headgear as a sign of mourning for her uncle who had passed away a few days back but the community accorded him a burial after three days of celebrations over his body with dancing, feasts and a sacrifice of 40 goats. Welcome to Kalash.

"Please don't take my picture as our culture doesn't allow us to do so in mourning," Gull told me as we went to her house in the middle of wheat fields in Bumburet, one of the three valleys that the Kalash inhabit.

Gull, who is relatively well off in the community and also proud of her education, is among a few Kalash women who have completed secondary school. She invited us to her house and treated us to tea and walnuts, a staple for most people in the area.

Several historians have written about the Kalash and most of them have linked them to descendants of the army of Alexander the Great since many of their rituals, customs and traditions are indicative of the way of life of the ancient Greeks.

Gulf News travelled to the valleys inhabited by the Kalash in an attempt to glean more information about them and to find answers to the mystery of their heritage.

"Are you [the Kalash] descendants of Alexander?" My first question evokes laughter from Gull. "Not sure," she answered when she had composed herself and I felt a tinge of disappointment thinking my visit had lost its purpose. But I was wrong, for there was much to learn from the beautiful woman.

"We are not bothered whether we are descendents of Alexander or not but we are worried about the fact that our community is on the verge of extinction," she said.

There are less than 4,000 Kalash left. They were 3,554 to be precise when the last count was done in 2009.

Unique life

The Kalash with their unique culture, traditions, rituals, values, festivals and attire are not be found anywhere else in the world. The Kalash are considered ‘infidels' and their habitations are known as ‘Kafirastan' — the land of infidels — amongst the local Pakistani community. The Kalash valleys are located in Chitral in the northern district of Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa province bordering Afghanistan.

They lead a centuries-old primitive way of life with a religion which has no name, no written book or prophets. They are now concentrated in three valleys which are called ‘Kalash gooni' among the Kalash and the ‘Kafir Kalash' (land of infidels) amongst others.

The three Kalash valleys — Bumburet, Rumber and Birir — are situated to the south west of Chitral town at distances of 40, 43 and 36 kilometres respectively. The biggest valley is Bumburet while the smallest is Birir.

While Gull believes that her forefathers were Aryans, she does not deny the fact that many people in Kalash hail from Alexander's army including a certain general by the name Shalek Shah who, it is believed, deserted Alexander and came to Chitral. Many believe that Shah's descendants settled in the Kalash valleys.

Kalash, with its fresh water streams, lakes, waterfalls, forests, orchids and plentiful sustenance by way of walnuts, apple, mulberries, pears, graphs, apricots and peach is a virtual natural haven. Wildlife abounds as do goats and cows. The mellow sun during summer compensates for the heavy snow in winter.

But it is not just the place which fascinates, also the women of Kalash — who legend says are part-fairy and part-human because of their ethereal beauty. Local people say the Kalash woman can make a man lose his religion. As the story goes, when a Kalash woman drinks water, you can see it streaming down her throat. But still they are considered impure in their own community; they are also called "whiter than the white".

Coming back to the origins of the Kalash, Saifullah Khan, 55, headman of the Kalash tribe in Rumbur valley, insists the Kalash are descendents of Alexander. I met Khan in Rumbur, which is just 20km away from Bumburet, the main valley, but it takes more than an hour's drive in a four-wheel drive vehicle to get there through the mountains.

"Our forefathers told us that some soldiers of Alexander's army came to Chitral and ruled the area for a couple of centuries before being pushed to these valleys," he said while sitting on his rooftop set against the backdrop of smoky black houses built with stone and wood on the mountain slopes in such a way that one house's roof serves as the terrace or courtyard of another.

For Khan (the Kalash have Muslim names), their origin is not important to them. "All I am trying [to do] is to keep our unique culture alive as we are seriously threatened with extinction if our people keep on embracing Islam," he said. His views were seconded by Turab Khan who is also known as Irfan. I met him in Birir Valley after two hours of travel on the raw mud-and-stone pathways carved into steep mountains that offer a clear view of the rivers and streams snaking through the deep valleys.

"All I know is some people of Alexander's army stayed back and settled in the areas known as ‘Red Kalash' now known as Nooristan in Afghanistan but later they were eliminated by Muslim armies," he said. Some of the vanquished moved to Chitral and then settled in Kalash centuries ago, he added.

Durdana, a 25-year-old woman with big blue eyes is well known in the Kalash community and has also been to Athens on a trip arranged by the Greek government. She insists the tribe's forefathers were from Greece.

"I went to Greece and our blood samples and DNAs also matched their blood when they conducted tests on us. Most of our community also believe that some of Alexander's soldiers stayed back and settled in Chitral," said Durdana, who works as an assistant at the Kalash museum set up by the government.

Rehmat Deen, a Kalash school teacher, also held firm to the view that some descendants of Alexander came to the region from Nooristan in Afghanistan. "Some customs, rituals and traditions do match with Greeks and this leads us to the conclusion that most of us are of Greek origin, though Alexander's soldiers joined him from different countries around the world," he added.

The Kalash feel threatened by the outside world as their number are dwindling with every passing day. Many Kalash are accepting Islam and the influence of other cultures. With more members of the community getting educated, people are also reluctant to follow their primitive traditions and rituals.

"We want government to move all of us at one place and make a protected sanctuary for us," said Irfan espousing the view that the world would be deprived of the Kalash's unique culture if immediate steps were not taken to protect the tribe and its unique way of life.

Irfan, who also runs a social organisation in Birir said the tribe did not face any threat from militants but the pressure was more from members who were embracing Islam. "Though, no one forces us to convert, we are under constant pressure from own converts to quit our way of living," he added. "Recently, a couple of our sacred worship places were also ransacked but we did not react because we the Kalash are very peace-loving people," he said. Saifullah Khan said the government did provide protection to the tribe even as it lived in fear of the increasing Muslim population in its areas.

Akhtar Hussain, in-charge of the Kalash Museum in Bumburet, alleged the young Kalash were being constantly brainwashed to convert. "Some 12 to 15 Kalash, mostly girls who get married to Muslim boys, get converted every year and this number is on the rise," he said.

Hazrat Kareem, a Muslim teacher at the only high school in Bumburet, did not agree with the claim that the Kalash population was dwindling but seemed to agree that there is an immediate need to preserve the Kalash culture as it is fast losing its identity in contact with the modern world.

Timeless fashion

The Kalash are known for their unique way of dressing, especially the attire of their womenfolk. All women wear black robes called ‘Piran' and it takes at least nine metres of cloth to make one dress. With the passage of time, the black robe has started drawing on diverse fashion influences and has come to be decorated with accessories and colourful embroidery coupled with beads, shells and coins.

The Kalash attire is centuries old and has not changed much from its original form. As the belief goes, the women of Kalash started wearing black in honour of a prince called ‘Kala Shehzada' (black prince) who ruled them centuries ago.

The women wear an extraordinarily large headgear called ‘Kopus' embellished with buttons, beads and shells, which in some cases tops two kilogrammes in weight.

The cost of one dress varies from Rs2,500 (Dh110) to Rs6,000 (Dh180), which is a lot of money for the average Kalash.

Women's robes cover the entire body right down to the feet and are tied around the stomach with a belt called ‘Chehare'. They make four to five dresses a year to coincide with festive occasions.

Kalash men normally wear shalwar-kameez, a combination of long tunics and trousers, with Chitrali caps that could be black or white.

Boy's birth

A woman has to move to Bashali (secluded house) to give birth and has to stay there for at least 10 days. Even if a boy is born, he is not considered a ‘man' until he is six years old. The boy has to live with women and he is not allowed to wear pants or pyjamas for six years since his birth. A big celebration is held when a boy turns six and wears a ‘shalwar' or pants. After that he eats only with men and not with women. A goat is also sacrificed to mark the occasion and the meat is eaten only by the men.

Hostoric link

Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), who conquered the Persian empire and annexed it to Macedonia, is considered one of the greatest military geniuses of all times. In the winter of 327 BC, Alexander passed through what is now Pakistan during his campaign to invade the Indian subcontinent. It is not known exactly where he crossed, but it's believed that he went up the Kunar River in Pakistan, close to where the Kalash live now, and crossed a mountain pass into what is now Bajaur Valley.

— Agencies