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The fate of the Kalasha

The Kalasha of Pakistan face threats on several fronts.

“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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