NORTHWEST FRONTIER PROVINCE, Pakistan — High in the Hindu Kush Mountains of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, about 25 miles on harrowing dirt roads from the nearest city, Chitral, live the Kalasha people.
Though they once numbered in the tens of thousands, the Kalasha have seen their numbers dwindle over the past century. No census has been performed since 1998, but most experts put the current Kalasha population at about 3,000.
The polytheistic Kalasha — whose women wear vibrant-colored embroidered dresses and beaded headdresses called “susutr" — are viewed with both admiration and suspicion by the Islamic majority. As militant Islam gains hold in regions surrounding the Kalasha — most recently with Pakistan's cease-fire agreement with the Taliban in the nearby Swat Valley — the fate of Pakistan's indigenous tribes hangs in the balance.
The conflict between Islamic militants and the Pakistani military in this region has killed hundreds of civilians and created a refugee situation that Doctors Without Borders put on their annual top-10 list of under-reported humanitarian crisis.
After tens of thousands of Kalasha people, also called Nuristanis, were forcibly converted to Islam during the last century, only a few thousand retain their ancestral religion and traditions.
Wynn Maggi, anthropologist and author of "Our Women Are Free," says they were "brutally and forcibly converted to Islam, horribly persecuted, put in jail ... the Kalasha suffered a lot in their history.” Kalasha women were sometimes abducted and forced to marry Muslim men. Stories circulated of Kalasha men being forcibly circumcised.
With their light coloring — some even have blue eyes — the Kalasha are rumored to be the descendants of Alexander the Great’s army, which conquered the Hindu Kush along with “the known world” in the 4th century B.C. In Kalasha oral history, the people are the children of "Salaxi," their name for Alexander.
Most scientists and anthropologists dispute the legend: No genetic ties between Kalasha and Greeks have been discovered, and scientists believe the Kalasha are Indo-Aryans whose religion has some commonalities with pre-Zorastrian Iranians.
But regardless, the legend once lured busloads of Greek tourists to the valleys, seeking a link to their ancestral past.
“The tourists would always bring Greek coins and small perfume bottles with a portrait of Alexander the Great. Greek filmmakers have come to film the Kalasha. Some Greeks even brought Kalashas back to Greece to dance,” Maggi explained.
Hellenic Aid has funded several projects in the Kalash Valleys, including the construction of two magnificent, wood-hewn Kalasha schools and several bashalis, women’s menstrual homes.
"Their culture is a treasure belonging not only to Pakistan but to the whole world," said Athanasios Lerounis, of the non-governmental organization Greek Teachers which operates schools in the Kalash Valleys. "And we are here to support these cultural islands."
There are just a few thousand Kalasha living “among a sea of Muslims,” he said — more than half of the remaining Kalasha have converted to Islam.
Now, Kalasha culture is threatened on several fronts: from exposure to tourism, the impact of foreign aid and its resulting dependence, and pressure to convert from both Christians and Muslims.
Since Kalasha has religion is its center, “Kalasha people see [Islam as a] threat — once you convert you are not 'Kalasha' and you can never be again," Maggi explained.
The pressure to convert to Islam comes in various forms. Though some Kalasha convert for love or in hopes of bettering themselves, others bow to peer pressure in the government-run schools, where students mix with Muslim hijab-wearing girls. Many Kalasha girls cover their hand-beaded headdresses with gauzy veils.
In the center of the Bumburet Valley, home to the largest Kalasha community, a mosque serves the area's Muslims, and the call to prayer permeates the village five times a day.
On the surface, it appears that Muslims and Kalasha coexist peacefully. Many are related — some converted, some not. But last summer, a simmering tension bubbled to the surface. Using an an axe, someone decapitated a Kalasha altar's symbolic carved horses.
"This altar ... is sacred and historic," explained Akram Hussain, a Kalasha teacher at the Kaladasur School.
Portions of the wooden fencing surrounding the enclosure used for animal sacrifices also showed fresh axe marks.
Adding insult to injury, a Muslim school was built next to the Kalasha's sacred dancing ground.
"Why couldn't they have put it any other place?" asked Hussain.
Disrespect toward Kalasha religion is not new. Maggi said that a decade ago, “Kalasha gravestones were constantly being desecrated. Punjabi kids would pose and take photographs with the bones of Kalasha ancestors.”
Kalasha leaders can’t help but think that local Muslims damaged their sacred altar, despite protests by the town’s only imam.
“I worry because the tide is turning in Northern Pakistan due to the rise of fundamentalism. If fundamentalism spreads, the Kalasha will be easily targeted and could be wiped out or weakened," Maggi said.
“The ironic and sad element is that the situation is destabilizing and escalating," said scholar Saima Saiddiqui. "If the situation remains the same, Kalasha will also suffer and what will be the outcome for the people already few in number?”
(Joel Elliott contributed to this story.)
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