The Kalash (Kalasha) is a tiny group of animists living in Pakistan near the Afghanistan border in the Birir, Bumburet and Rambur valleys off of the Chitral Valley in the North-West Frontier Province. Purported to be descendants of five of Alexander the Great's warriors, this tribe is famous for the their pagan beliefs and strange costumes. The women wear black robes, dozens of red bead necklaces and cowrie-shell head-dresses that look like a carpet with paint brushes, feathers or flowers sprouting from the head. The Kalash are also known for their lewd songs, provocative dances and partying ways. The Kalash Valleys can be reached by 40 kilometer mile jeep roads from the Chitral Valley. [Source: "People of Fire and Fervor", Debra Denker, National Geographic, October 1981 ♂]

Reporting from Kalash Valley, Pakistan in 2016, “Tim Craig wrote in the Washington Post: “ Hidden up in the mountains near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, the Kalash tribe loves homemade wine and whiskey, dances for days at colorful festivals, and practices a religion that holds that God has spirits and messengers who speak through nature. Though the area is called the Kalash Valley, Kalash settlers actually live in three separate valleys that make up an eastern prong of Pakistan’s 1,000-square-mile Chitral Valley. The Kalash religion was once widespread in Central Asia, but the 4,200 villagers who live here in the Chitral Valley make up the last known Kalash settlement in the world The Kalash villages are accessible only by one-lane jeep trails, and residents live in wood-and-mud houses that contain few furnishings except for cots. They eat mostly what they can produce, including hundreds of pounds of butter each year. [Source: Tim Craig, Washington Post, August 16, 2016]

The Kalash have Caucasian features — sometimes blonde hair and blue eyes — which gives some credence to their claim they descended from soldiers in Alexander the Great's army. There are only about 4,200 of them and the have remained animists despite the fact that everyone around them is Muslim. The tribes around the Kalash call the area where the Kalash live Kafirstan — the "Land of Unbelievers." They were originally called Kafirs by the Emir of Kabul. After he ordered their extermination for being pagans, they fled to remote valleys to escape persecution. [Source: "Vanishing Tribes" by Alain Cheneviére, Doubleday and Co, Garden City, New York, 1987]

According to the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: The Kalash are culturally associated with the people of Nuristan, who live across the border in Afghanistan. The Afghan ruler Amir Abdul Rahman Khan forcibly converted the Nuristani to Islam during the nineteenth century, but the Kalash have maintained a shamanistic religion and have retained their distinct ethnolinguistic identity. Despite their relative isolation, they have not escaped the notice of the Islamists and have been under continual cultural pressure to convert to Islam. [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, Thomson Gale, 2006]

Kalash Home in the Chitral Valley

The Kalash live in the shadows of mountains near Chitral, a tourist town in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. New roads built to the Kalash area have brought tourists and timber exploitation neither of which seem to have benefitted the Kalash that much. The Kalash are in danger of extinction. An effort is being made to get their land taken away by outsiders restored to them. Many Kalash are cut off from the outside world by snow-covered passes for five to seven months a year. They are often spotted in Chitral, where many of them sell fabric they weave to earn money. The tribe is being threatened mainly as a result of as Kalash women get married to Muslim men.

The Chitral Valley is located between the Karakoram Range and the Hindu Kush near the Afghanistan border. While most much the region along the Afghan is unsafe for travel quite a few tourists visit the Chitral Valley which is towered over by 7,878-meter (25,550-foot) -high Trichmir, the highest peak in the Hindu Kush. The southern part of the Chitral Valley is more heavily forested than the north.

The Chitral Valley lies near an important Hindu Kush pass and is situated on an invasion route used by Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and others. Ruined forts here and there are a reminder of this era.. The valley has rich alluvial soil is especially beautiful in the autumn when birch and willow erupt in blaze of yellow and orange. The large open fields of Shandur Top between Gilgit and Chitral is where Roof of the World Polo matches are played in July. There are scores of lovely places for trekking, when the area is safe.

The Chitral Valley is 322 kilometers (200 miles) long and features rugged mountains, sulphur springs, rivers teeming with trout, orchard-dotted slopes, friendly people and enchanting annual festivals. Alexander the Great and his army of 70,000 men march through Chitral on their way to India in 323 B.C. Chitral District is bounded on the north, south and the west by Afghanistan and is separated from the Tajikistan by a narrow strip of Wakhan, a province of Afghanistan and, from China by Gilgit Baltistan. It lies between latitude 35 51 N and longitude 71 47’E.. It is easily accessible by air from historic city of Peshawar.. [Source: Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation. tourism.gov.pk ]

Chitral is one of the most isolated places in the world. When winter snows stop flights and close the passes the valley is completely shut of from the outside world. Villages have changed little since the time of Alexander. It is not unusual to see people with blue eyes and blonde hair. Water is directed through channels that not only irrigate crops but also turn water mills that thresh and grind grain. To the south are Pathan tribal areas. During the Afghanistan War Chitral town became flooded with Aghan refugees and became a smuggling center and boom town. . The town of Chitral is reached via a hair-raising road from Gilgit with some steep drops to rivers, sometime hundreds of meters below. It takes about two days to traverse this route. .

Chitral District covers an area of 14504 square meters (5,600 square miles) and lies at elevations ranging from 1278-7700 meters (3700-25264 feet).. Summers are generally pleasant but the winters are extremely cold. Chitral has unpredictable weather during spring with frequent rains and snowfall. Autumn is pleasant with mild temperatures.. Ideal time for visiting Chitral is from June to September.

The Population of the Chitral Valley is around 160,000 people. Majority of the people are Muslims. The only non-Muslim ethnic minority in the Chitral valley are the Kalash. Numbering about 2,500 to 3,000 they inhabit Birir, Bumburet and Rambur valleys in the south of Chitral. Their life style is characterized by their own ancient and religion.. The local dialect is ‘Khowar’ (Chitrali). Urdu is understood by a large number of people while Pushto is spoken and understood in Chitral and Drosh.. The women wear ‘shalwar-kameez’ (long shirts with baggy trousers) and ‘dupattas’ (flimsy scarves draped round the Shoulders).. In winter the man wear ‘shuqa’, loose ,long woolen gowns with long sleeves. The popular headdress is ‘pakol’ which is also of woolen material..

Kalash: Descendants of Alexander the Great?

The Kalash are said to claim descent from Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and there is a a story of Alexander the Great enjoying 's bacchanal with mountain dwellers in the Hindu Kush. The mountain dwellers of Alexander the Great’s time "were likely the forbears of the Kalash, who still worship a pantheon of gods, make wine, practice animal sacrifice — and resist conversion to Islam."

Paul Raffaele wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “In contrast to most Pakistanis, who tend to be swarthy, most Kalash men and women have pale skin; many are blond and some are redheaded. They have aquiline noses and blue or gray eyes, the women outlining them with black powder from the ground-up horns of goats. "Wherever Alexander passed, he left soldiers to marry local women and establish outposts of his empire," Siraj tells me. [Source: Paul Raffaele, Smithsonian magazine, January 2007]

“That contention, oft repeated in these parts, has recently gotten scientific support. Pakistani geneticist Qasim Mehdi, working with researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine, has found that Kalash blood, unlike that of other Pakistani peoples, shares DNA markers with that of Germans and Italians. The finding tends to support descent from Alexander's troops, Mehdi said, because the general welcomed troops from other parts of Europe into his army.”

Although Alexander’s armies passed through the Chitral region there is little evidence that they reached the remote valleys where the Kalash live today. The stories linking the Kalash to Alexander the Great seem to have been mostly attached to them by outsiders. Scholars and villagers say that neither the tribe’s written history nor its oral traditions, including song and poetry, mention reference to Alexander.

Kalash History

Paul Raffaele wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “In the 1890s, some 50,000 Kalash were spread across the frontier in a secluded land called Kafiristan (the name comes from kaffir, the Urdu and Arabic word for "unbeliever"). Westerners may remember it as the setting for Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King, which was made into a 1975 movie starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine. In 1893, the Afghani sultan Abdur Rahman invaded the land and renamed it Nuristan, or "Land of the Enlightened." He offered the Kalash a choice — forsake their many gods and convert to Islam, or die by the sword. Most converted and assimilated into Muslim villages. But not all."There are just 3,000 left, the only pagans in a sea of Muslims from Turkey to Kashmir," says Siraj, who adds that his ancestors include a holy man who married a Kalash princess six centuries ago. [Source: Paul Raffaele, Smithsonian magazine, January 2007]

As outsiders and Muslim moved into what is now northern Pakistan and Afghanistan the Kalash descended down the status scale. Until Pakistan independence the Kalash were virtual slaves of the rulers of the semi-autonomous Muslim state of Chitral, and were subjected to forced labor. Laws required Kalash who visited the town to wear hats and beads or feathers to differentiate them from Muslims. [Source: Debra Denker, National Geographic, October 1981 ♂]

During the 1950s several Kalash villages were forcibly converted to Islam because of the purported “immorality” of their women. There have been periodic disputes between the Kalash and local Muslim people. Muslims have encroached in the valleys that traditionally belonging to the Kalash. There have been many property disputes on the dockets of the Pakistani courts related to the Kalash. Most of the hotels in the area are owned by Muslims.♂

By the 1990s relations between the Kalash and their Muslim neighbors was somewhat improved through the building of schools in some valleys, which Kalash children could attend. In the late 1970s some roads were built into the area. As a result there has been an increase in tourism and timber exploitation, which benefitted local Muslim more than it did the Kalash. [Source: Paul Hockings,“Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992]

Kalash Religion

The Kalash have their own religion which some describe as animist or shamanist but is related to Hinduism and appears to have roots in early Vedic religion. The Kalash believe every aspect of their lives is ruled by their gods, which feature one Creator God and several lesser gods. . The will of the gods is transmitted through a prophet-priest who goes into trances. Complex sets of codes, taboos and ancient customs, underlined by a concept of pure and impure, are antagonistic but complimentary. Some of the Kalash gods include Dezeao, the all-powerful creator god; Jestak, goddess of home and family; and Mahandeo, god of the honeybees. [Source: Debra Denker, National Geographic, October 1981]

Tim Craig wrote in the Washington Post: “The Kalash believe in one god with several messengers. To communicate with them, the tribe erects altars where worshipers offer sacrifices, usually goats. Some scholars say the Kalash religion originated during Alexander the Great’s conquest of South Asia around 300 B.C. The Kalash religion at one time flourished in the Hindu Kush region. [Source: Tim Craig, Washington Post, August 16, 2016]

In a vision similar to the one experienced by Moses the Kalash prophet, Naga Dehar, was told by a great god to lead his people to Bashgal. After the prophet lead his people to the promised land three gods appeared to rule over the valleys inhabited by the Kalash. Two of them wanted to rule the first valley and Naga Dehar told them the one that cold dig a canal from the mountaintop to the valley the quickest wins. This contest ended in a dispute and another contest was lost by the god Balumain who was tricked by the winner. In a fit of anger he declared he would only visit the valley once a year The winner, Mahendeo, showed that he was willing to care for the third valley by turning a branch into a tree and a pebble into a bolder. ♂

Animal sacrifices are key events in many Kalash ceremonies. Goats are sacrificed to gods and ancestors as a form of protection again the pollution of females and demonic possession. Every man is expected to make at least one sacrifice a year. Women are strictly separated from the sacrificial activities. They can not attend sacrifices, eat the meat from the animals, especially male goats, approach the sanctuaries of God, milk cows or even be in a barn where cows are kept and approach a pasture where the animals graze. Women can not eat honey because it believed that honey is only made by male bees. ♂

"Bow shakers" are Kalash fortune tellers. The bow is made of a twig strung with goat hair yarn. The bow shaker pulls on the yarn and when the bow starts to swing the fortune is revealed. An important rite of passage ritual is becoming a "blood brother" or "blood sister." To achieve this a ceremony is held in which two goat kidneys are roasted and then cut in half and shared by the two people who wish to become related. ♂

Kalash Holidays and Festivals

There are four major Kalash festivals: one on the spring, one in mid-July to mark the harvest, one in the autumn to celebrate the walnut and grape harvest, and a New Year festival at Christmas time. During Kalash festivals there is lots of singing and dancing and food offerings are left outside of houses for evil spirits to "suck the taste" from. Many the dances are performed exclusively by women

Chaumos is their biggest festival. The week before the festival, no one is allowed to make love. This means that everyone will be pure when the festivities begin. During Chaumos men sacrifice 30 or so goats and then sprinkle the blood on their faces. After this men and women hurl insults, and sometimes clods of earth, back and forth at each other. The cite each others inadequacies and transgressions, and the girls gloat over the frustration of the boys during their seven days of sexual purity.

Visitors are allowed to sometimes sit in on the festivities unless they have shared a jeep with a Muslim which has made them impure. If this the case a sacrificed goat and some sprinkled blood can usually remedy the situation. [Source: Debra Denker, National Geographic, October 1981]

Death is regarded a form of release and the deceased should be given a proper send off. When a Kalash dies a funerary statue is placed on his grave and in front of his house. The dead have traditionally been placed in walnut coffins that stand above the ground in special graveyards. During festivals food and offering are brought to the statues. Descendent often have conversations with the statues as if they were still alive. In recent years outsiders have desecrated the graveyards. Some tourist have even taken skulls out of the coffins and had their photographs taken with them. For their part the Muslims abhor the Kalash custom of putting carved effigies in their graveyard. Muslims believe images of people and animals are sacrilegious.

There are ritual dances performed at harvests, births and deaths. The women wear lose blouses and full skirts and headdresses with cowrie shells and coral and silver wrist bracelets.

Kalash Men and Women

Kalash men and boys wear the same kind of hat as their Afghani and Pakistani neighbors. They distinguish themselves from Muslims by putting flowers in their hats. Villages have traditionally had a man’s area identified by the skull of a ram. This is the place where animals are sacrificed.

Women enjoy more freedoms than their Muslim counterparts and do not wear the veil. They do most of the field work and are responsible for crops while men are responsible for animals. Women are initiated after their first menstruation and are preoccupied with their appearance and powers of seduction. .

The life of Kalash women is defined by tribal customs regarding purity. During menstruation they are banished to the “bashali” house where child births are also performed. Men can not even approach this house and Muslim are called in perform repairs. Women emerge after five days of menstruating and take a ritual bath and purify themselves and braid their hair.. Hair combing is regarded as unclean and women keep their combs by the river. Women are bared from temples and sacred sites. Only a sanctuary whose entrance is guarded by carvings of goats in the village of Brun admits them.

Women willingly embrace their state of inherent impurity. Often they eat separately so their impurity doesn’t pass on to the food eaten by pure men. Ironically the female fairies are the good ones and they inhabit the rocks and trees. The evil male spirits roam around and must be placated with sacrifice.

Marriages have traditionally been arranged during childhood and involve a payment fo money from the family of the groom to the family of the bride. The bride also receives a dowry from her family. It is common for an unhappy wife to elope and then negotiate a divorce with her husband for a divorce. There are many cases of marriage by elopement involving women who are already married. There have traditionally been many disputes regarding women.

Kalash Villages and Homes

Kalash live in green valleys at the bottom of barren slopes. Houses are built on the slopes and on top of one another, with one house’ veranda being another house’s roof. The house are built this way so the valleys can be used for agriculture. They houses are constructed of flat stones placed in layers on mortarized planks. Thick columns support a roof made of branches, slate and earth. Roofs are used for drying crops.

Kalash houses have ornately carved and ornamented features, especially the doors and lintels. The designs are believed to be very old and are generally curvilinear in shape. .

The inside of Kalash houses is dark and the floors are made of packed earth. Cooking is done on an open hearth, leaving the walls blackened with soot. The Kalash sit on low chairs which distinguishes them from Muslims who like to sit on the ground. [Source: Debra Denker, National Geographic, October 1981]

Kalash Life

The Kalash grow wheat and corn. They make a special bread with goat cheese and crushed walnuts. In the 1980s, they found it amusing that Americans bought their food in stores. [Source: Debra Denker, National Geographic, October 1981]

The Kalash love to drink wine and sing. Many of their songs have sexually explicit lyrics. The local Kalash wine is not strong and the bottles are corked with corncobs. It is thick and sweet and like ancient Greeks, the Kalash drink it diluted with water.

In the 1980s, few Kalash were educated in local Muslim schools. Those that were often had to commute 16 kilometers to school and put up with teachers telling them: "Stand up and read the lesson dirty Kalash." In recent years some schools for Kalash children to attend have been set up.

The Kalash dislike cutting trees which they believe are inhabited by spirits. Since many of their gods are thought to be invisible the are often depicted with drawings of a horse. The horse is the invisible god's mount.

Kalash Clothes

The Kalash women are known for their ornate costumes and headdresses. The wear black robes of coarse cotton in summer and handspun wool dyed black in winter. They also wear a picturesque headgear, which weighs between three and four pounds. It is made of woolen black material encrusted with cowry shells, buttons and crowned with a large coloured feather..

Men mostly wear shalwar kameez, the national Pakistani costume. The Kalash men distinguish themselves from the non-Kalash by wearing Chitral woolen hats to which they add feathers or little metal bells. Traditional dress, reserved for blue, very simple with a hole cut out for the neck. The wear long woolen belts and their shoes are often of goat-skins, usually rigged directly to the feet and laced with woolen or leather thongs..

As a sign of growing Kalash poverty many Kalash who used to wear shoes now go barefoot ot wear sandals. The dresses of the women also look tattered. Some of the nicer ones are for sale in tourist shops.

Kalash Beauty and Adornments

The Kalash women are known for their ornate jewelry. They wear girdles embroidered with cowry shells and have piles of red-bead necklaces hanging from their neck. Cowrie shells were once a form of currency in northern India and possessing a lot of them was a sign of wealth.

Kalash women twist their hair into long braids and wear a carpet of cowrie shells and wool that hangs over the back of the head as if it were part of their hair. Tassels on the front of the headdress are made of everything from feathers to wool scraps. The women garner a spooky look when they apply burned millet paste on their face which gives them a raccoon-like mask. [Source: Debra Denker, National Geographic, October 1981]

Kalash women used to wear lots of necklaces made with coral, beads of ivory, and fresh and saltwater pearls. But these are not as visible as they once were and probably were sold off to earn money. Some are for sale in tourist shops. Jewels symbolize the sun, stars and gods. In addition to being measure of husband's wealth, cowries are thought to bring happiness and protection. The best kupas (headdresses) have fourteen rows of cowries.

Kalash Economic Activity

The Kalash have traditionally raised sheep and goats and produced walnuts for sale and trade. Because of poverty and exploitation they have lost much of their land and the walnut trees are in the hands of outsiders. To make money they raise chickens and eggs, which they do not consume themselves but sell to outsiders and businesses that deal with tourists. [Source: Paul Hockings,“Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

Agriculture has traditionally been woman’s work. The growing season in short. The Kalash grow wheat, maize, millet, vegetables, mulberry, apricots, plums, apples and pears. Irrigation water is brought from mountain streams by channels.

Animal herding has traditionally been men’s work, with the animals being take to mountain pastures in the summer and brought to the lower valley in the winter. Goats are the primary herded animal. They are regarded as sacred and gifts of the gods.

Kalash and Their Muslim Neighbors

Tim Craig wrote in the Washington Post: “ Over the centuries, however, armies and members of competing faiths moved in, and many Kalash were converted. Others fled into the mountain passes, largely left alone when the area was a western frontier of British colonial India. Pakistan became a country in 1947, Muslim families began moving into the Kalash Valley, drawn by the crisp climate, undisturbed forests and rich grazing lands. Salamat Khan, who does not know his age but estimates it to be at least 75, said that for much of his life, the Kalash and their new neighbors lived in relative harmony. [Source: Tim Craig, Washington Post, August 16, 2016]

“But he and other villagers said the mood has changed over the past decade as a less-tolerant form of Islam began taking hold here. Traveling Islamic scholars are increasingly showing up in the valley, and after each visit, villagers say, their Muslim neighbors appear less tolerant. “They will say, ‘Why do you people make wine?’ ” recalled Yasir Kalash. “We make wine because it’s our culture. We use wine in our rituals, we use wine to cook, and we use wine because, in our mind, wine is purification.” [Source: Tim Craig, Washington Post, August 16, 2016]

“The villagers” have “fretted over whether they needed walls or do-not-enter lists to protect them from their more-conservative Muslim neighbors — ultimately deciding that the towering heights of the Hindu Kush would protect them. The Kalash tribe is so fearful of being overrun that its members are considering packing up their children and goats and embarking on a modern-day pilgrimage in search of a new country. “The younger generation think they cannot live here anymore,” said Zahim Kalash, 34.

What makes the Kalash community especially frightened is a feeling of being “isolated and alone,” Yasir Kalash said, chairman of the Karachi-based Pakistan Minorities Front. He said Christians can turn to the Vatican or the West for support, while Hindus can look to India, and Shiite Muslims can seek some protection from Iran. Kalash villagers, he added, feel as if no other country cares about them.

Kalash Villages and Muslim Intruders

Paul Raffaele wrote in Smithsonian magazine: The drive to the secluded valleys where the Kalash live will take just a few bone-rattling hours. An hour out of Chitral we cross a suspension bridge over a surging river and ascend a mountain track more suited to goats. I try not to look down as our jeep inches up steep gorges strewn with boulders. [Source: Paul Raffaele, Smithsonian magazine, January 2007]

“The Kalash village of Bumboret is almost hidden in a cleave cut by a glacial river between two steep mountains lined with dense cedar stands. Eight years ago, there were few Muslims living here, but Siraj says that Saudi-funded Pakistani Muslim missionaries have been moving in. We drive for more than half an hour through Muslim villages before we reach the first Kalash settlement. One of the most visible distinctions between the two peoples is that Kalash women go unveiled. Their clothing, worn from infancy to old age, is a homespun black robe and headdress that falls down the back like a horse's mane and is festooned with cowrie shells, beads and bells. Women and young girls sport facial tattoos of circles and starbursts. As I get out of the jeep, I greet some villagers with "Ishpadta," or "Hello" — but most stare silently at me or turn away. Perhaps they feel that no good can come from contacts with the outside world.

“An hour's drive deeper into the mountains we come to the village of Rumbur, where I check in with another friend from my previous visit, the Kalash leader Saifulla January His eyes dim when I express surprise at seeing so many Muslims at Bumboret. "I've been fighting in the courts to get back our land from the Muslims for 13 years now, but the case still goes on," he says. Why does it take so long? He shrugs. "Pakistani justice moves slowly. I go to court once a month, but somehow the matter never gets resolved." Despite Muslim incursions, Saifulla says, the Kalash are defiantly keeping their culture intact through a simple sanction: "If any Kalash converts to Islam, they can't live among us anymore. We keep our identity strong." The Kalash will need their strength. The region's Muslim tribes have a centuries-long history of enthusiasm for feuding — especially the Ulmulk royal family, entrenched in their capital back at Chitral.

Hostilities and Clashes Between Kalash and Muslims

Tim Craig wrote in the Washington Post: “Now villagers say their Kalash culture and religion are threatened by forced conversions, robberies and assaults. “We are scared,” said Yasir Kalash, the manager of a hotel in Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. “They capture our lands, our pastures and our forests, and sometimes take our goats and women. . We are afraid in the next few years we will be finished.” [Source: Tim Craig, Washington Post, August 16, 2016]

In July 2016, two Kalash goatherds were killed in a mountain pasture, the latest in a series of attacks on the tribe. And heated arguments are erupting over practices as simple as using the local spring water. According to our traditions, we consider all the springs to be holy,” said Imran Kabir, who lives in the valley and acts as an unofficial spokesman for the tribe. “We don’t allow anyone to wash clothes or take baths in the springs.” Last month, several of their Muslim neighbors started doing just that — bathing and washing clothes in the cool, emerald waters that flow from the nearby heights. “We said, ‘Please don’t do that. People drink from those springs,’” Kabir said. “They said, ‘You people are stupid.’” And then a scuffle broke out.

Kalash villagers also are fearful of violent attacks, including raids by Taliban militants. Zabir Shah, 26, a Kalash villager, said that in 2014, Taliban militants from Afghanistan sneaked into Bumberet, the unofficial capital of the valley, and stabbed a 15-year-old boy to death. “I saw 25 Taliban, from a distance, surrounding the guy and killing him,” Shah said. “There can be no reason for them to kill him except that he was a non-Muslim.”

Villagers say the killing of two Kalash goatherds underscores the threats to the tribe’s way of life. “If we cannot take our goats high up in the pasture, then our culture cannot survive,” said one Kalash villager, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared for his safety. “The goats are part of [our] religion, and we sacrifice our goats, and down in the valley there is not enough grazing land.” Kalash men use goat blood in religious cleansing rituals.

Not everyone believes tensions are rising between the Kalash and their neighbors. Qimat Shah, 24, a local Muslim man who spends his day making flatbread in a wood-fired oven, noted that young Muslim and Kalash villagers go to school together. He said that whatever problems exist stem from a lack of education among village elders. “We are people from both religions living together,” Shah said.

Conversion of 15-Year-Old Kalash Girl to Islam Causes Riot

In June 2016, a two-day riot erupted in Kalash Valley after Kalash villagers said a 15-year-old girl was tricked into converting to Islam. Tim Craig wrote in the Washington Post: “According to police and local officials, a 15-year-old girl named Rina wandered away from home and ended up at a local Islamic seminary. After a few hours, the cleric declared that Rina had converted to Islam. She later returned to her village, saying she had not intended to convert. But angry Muslim villagers began pelting Kalash villagers with bricks and stones, arguing that a conversion to Islam cannot be undone. A judge agreed, effectively severing ties between the girl and her parents.“The conversion rate is very high, and we are afraid if this goes on, our culture will be finished within the next few years,” Yasir Kalash said. [Source: Tim Craig, Washington Post, August 16, 2016]

“According to police and local officials, Rina showed up at the seminary and said she wanted to convert to Islam. The local cleric embraced her and started reading her the Quran. After a few hours, the cleric declared that Rina had converted to Islam, which entails reciting a pledge that there is “no God but Allah. The prophet Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” The next morning, according to police, Rina’s parents and other members of the Kalash tribe went looking for her. They found her at the seminary and demanded that she return home, noting she is only in the ninth grade and too young to leave her parents. [Source: Tim Craig, Washington Post, June 20, 2016]

“What happened next underscores the combustible role that religion can play in rural Pakistan. There often is no safe way for a Muslim person in Pakistan to abandon Islam. The Muslim inhabitants of the area, who form a majority of the population, claimed that Rina converted voluntarily. They refused to hand her over to her parents, saying Rina was now and should forever be considered a Muslim. A fight broke out. As stones and punches were thrown, the fighting quickly escalated into a bloody battle involving hundreds of villagers. At one point, the violence became so intense that police began firing bullets into the air to try to disperse the crowds, the BBC reported. “The Muslims living in the area said nobody is allowed to go back to his or her old religion after embracing Islam,” said Asif Iqbal, the local police chief. “According to the Muslim faith, if someone tries to apostate, he or she could be killed.”

Rina’s case demonstrates how it is often violent mobs — not the courts — that get the first crack at judging someone’s guilt or innocence after allegations of apostasy. Kamal Uddin, a Kalash tribesman, said in an interview last week that Rina “isn’t that mature to make such a big decision on her own. She is now willing to go back to her family … but the Muslim community doesn’t allow her and is demanding she live with them." “We have been living and enjoying our religious affairs here in Kalash for the past 2,000 years,” Uddin added. “Both the Kalash and Muslim communities of Chitral are peaceful, but it seems some religious people provoked the Muslims not to let the girl go back to her family.”

As the fighting dragged on, local authorities decided to haul Rina before a judge. During the court appearance, Rina “confessed that she embraced Islam of her own will,” said Abdul Mufttah, a police officer. The judge ruled that Rina was an official convert to Islam, effectively severing ties between her and her family. Religious diversity among the same family is rare in Pakistan, especially in rural communities. And in a country with no law against child marriage, a wedding between Rina and a local Muslim boy or man is likely to be arranged soon. The Kalash tribe, meanwhile, says it is ready to move on from the dispute.“If this was her own decision, then we will just say, ‘May God help her in every way of life,’ ” said Shamsher Khan, a Kalash tribesman. “Although her parents are grieving ... we are a poor community …we are a very peaceful community, and we will accept the decision.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (tourism.gov.pk), Official Gateway to the Government of Pakistan (pakistan.gov.pk), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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