The Kalash People in Northern Pakistan

By Dimitra Stasinopoulou

See more photos of the Kalas by Dimitra Stasinopoulou HERE

The ancient ethnic group of the Kalash people, live high in the remote mountains of Pakistan’s Hindu Kush (an extension of the Himalayas) deep in the valleys of Bumboret, Rumbur and Birir, near the inaccessible mountain border of Taliban-controlled zones of Afghanistan and more specifically in the greater area of Chitral valley, in the NW Frontier Province of Pakistan. The 7,788m Tirich Mir, the highest peak of the Hindukush Mountain, dominates this 322km long exotic valley. Chitral shares much of its history and culture with the neighboring Hindu-Kush territories of Gilgit-Baltistan, a region sometimes called “Peristan” because of the common belief in fairies (peri) inhabiting the high mountains. One of the major attractions of Chitral is the Kalash valleys-the home of the Kafir-Kalash or “Wearers of the Black Robe.

For centuries this light-skinned, pagan people have claimed to be the long-lost descendants of Alexander the Great’s world-conquering armies, which invaded this region in the 4th BC and are the direct descendants of the ancient Greek-Macedonian armies, who set up outposts in this region 2,300 years ago. How they got there is a mystery. How they manage to survive is another. The Kalash have links with Greece in almost everything but proximity. They dance around night-time fires; they make wine and indulge in ancient Olympic sports, such as wrestling and shot-put. With their piercing blue-green eyes, strong features and olive skins, even Alexander the Great was convinced of the Hellenic connection. Alexander the Great snatched the territory of modern-day Pakistan from the Persians but was unable to motivate his exhausted army any further than the Jhelum River. While occupying the region, the Macedonian Greek leader established settlements and is known to have contributed to the development of local hybrid cultures. Some of these cultures exist today; the non-Muslim Kalasha people who occupy an isolated valley in far northwestern Pakistan are widely speculated to have Greek heritage dating back to this time. Alexander the Great died in 323 BC, and his successor in Pakistan, Seleucus, established the Seleucid Kingdom and later the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom which never came close to its predecessor’s glory.

A Kalashi tribal man, kazi Khushnawaz was quoted saying;

Long, long ago, before the days of Islam, Sikander e Aazem came to India. The Two Horned one whom you call Alexander the Great. He conquered the world and was a very great man, brave and dauntless and generous to his followers. When he left to go back to Greece, some of his men did not wish to go back with him but preferred to stay here. Their leader was a general called Shalakash (i.e.: Seleucus). With some of his officers and men, he came to these valleys and they settled here and took local women, and here they stayed. We, the Kalash, the Black Kafir of the Hindu Kush, are the descendants of their children. Still, some of our words are the same as theirs, our music and our dances, too; we worship the same gods. This is why we believe the Greeks are our first ancestors.”

This is one of the most popular theories but, in fact, over the last decades, the Kalash people have called the attention of numerous anthropologists from all over the world, who conducted several studies, trying to figure out where from do they actually come from. Many of them have shown different results and conclusions, which means that the actual origin of the Kalash tribe remains unknown. Nevertheless, wherever do they come from, all anthropologists agree that the Kalash people have a clear European descending and many experts, scientists and authors agree that they show all the signs, rites, history and possibly the DNA of the ancient Greeks. For example, in 2014, the New York Times reported that “The Kalash people of Pakistan were found to have chunks of DNA from an ancient European population”. A study prepared by Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University English Language Department assistant professor Elisavet Mela-Athanasopoulou shows the common elements shared by the language of the Kalash ethnic group in the Himalayas and Ancient Greek. The Kalash people are best known for their unique and well-preserved culture, which has led to it being listed by UNESCO for consideration as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. As a matter of fact, this bid for recognition is an attempt by the Kalash to safeguard their culture.

Tragically, in the 19th century, the Kalash were brutally conquered by the Muslim Afghans. Their ancient temples and wooden idols were destroyed, their women were forced to burn their beautiful folk costumes and wear the burqa or veil, and the entire people were converted at sword point to Islam. Only a small pocket of this vanishing pagan race survived in three isolated valleys in the mountains of what would later become Pakistan. During the past decades, around 50% of the total population in Kalash have converted to Islam. In addition, a large population of original Muslims has decided to settle in the valleys and, as you may imagine, they are also building mosques and complaining about Kalash women for not being covered.  

The Kalash have one of the most remarkable cultures on the planet. With a population of just over 3,500, the largest minority group in Pakistan, they are an oasis of colour and warmth in stark contrast to the seemingly inhospitable land that surrounds them. The valleys are idyllic and a heaven from the hustle and bustle of Pakistan’s major cities and tourist attractions. Walnut and jujube trees cling to the lower slopes, while carefully cultivated sugar-cane fields thrive along rivers at the bottom of each. It is here, deep within the Hindu Kush, that travellers come for a taste of another life, another time. Villages are little more than a scattering of wooden homes.

If the first thing that strikes you about the Kalash is their disarming hospitality, then the second is their appearance. The word “Kalash” means “black” and refers to the clothing worn by the women and girls. When it comes to the way the Kalash people dress, it is usually the female clothes that grabs someone’s attention. Kalash men have abandoned their traditional goat-hair tunics for shalwar-kameez, the pajama-like outfits worn throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan. But Kalash women still wear cheos, baggy black cotton dresses brilliantly embroidered at the collars, cuffs, and hems. Glass beads drip from slender necklines. Long head-dresses are decorated with regimented waves of cowrie shell and elaborate embroidery, with blood reds, shocking pinks, Byzantine blues, canary yellows and emerald greens woven together in kaleidoscopic tapestries. Colourful wool headdresses cascade to the women’s shoulders. These kupas are packed with tight rows of cowry shells brought from the Indian coast. The shells are believed to embody prayers for fertility. Unlike many Muslims, Kalash women remain unveiled and are famous for their beauty.

Because the Kalash are pagans and worship a pantheon of gods including Dezao, the creator, or Jastak, the goddess of family, love, marriage, and birth, rather than Muhammad, they are free from the restraints of Purdah and they have very distinct customs from the neighboring communities. Due to their remoteness, very far away from the civilization, today, the Kalash people live a traditional, rural life which still remains pretty untouched. Most families rely upon the sun to have electricity, don’t have running water, are self-sufficient and live in wooden shacks. Life is quite hard here as they have very long, freezing winters and, unlike people from other parts of Pakistan, during winter, they don’t move to the cities but they remain in the valley.  

There’s a popular misconception among neighboring Muslims that the Kalash are kafirs, or non-believers, but this is not true. The Kalash follow a strict code of customs and have myriad religious quirks, something that has brought them notoriety among anthropologists, writers (the Kalash are the mythical tribe depicted in Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King) and, most recently, travelers. Promiscuity is frowned upon and incest taboos dictate marriage must occur outside the valleys. The cost of fulfilling this cultural requirement is high. With an already depleted population, villagers often have little choice – either marry out or invite insiders, Muslims, to marry in.

Concepts of religion, spirits and good and evil are intertwined with daily life in the Kalash societies. Rituals are common and routinely practiced. Local families worship at their family’s group of shrines or altars, located at various point through the villages and the countryside of the valleys. These shrines represent a weaving of family lineage traditions with religious belief and daily spirituality. Other traditional customs involve marriage and childbirth; both are associated with unique rituals, including a common practice of “wife-elopement”, whereby a wife leaves her husband for another man, and the resulting divorce is settled (often semi-amicably) within the community. Menstruating women spend their days in a special “menstruating house”, separate from wider society, although this is one of only a few examples of women and men being segregated in Kalash culture. After a person’s death, several elaborate rituals are held in community halls, including one in a men’s temple which involves dancing to invoke good spirits and banish bad spirits. Graveyards are sensitive areas that some Kalash people avoid, due to their belief about spirits.

Another remarkable custom is that of the Bashali, a wooden hut in each village where, every month, the women retreat for the duration of their period. These houses don’t just represent a monthly break from work commitments for the women, but are a fundamental part of Kalash religious beliefs and demonstrate that everything, from location, behavior, gender, and objects, is separated into the spheres of pure (Onjesta) and impure (Pragata). The pollution theory also explains why men are permitted to look after the goats in the higher pastures while domestic chores remain strictly the women’s realm on the valleys below.  

The Kalash are a culture where their festivals form a central point of their lives. Impure persons are not admitted to the celebrations without purifying themselves beforehand. The purifying ritual consists of fire and of brands of juniper being waved above the uninitiated’s head.

While during the harsh winter there is very little reason to celebrate, once the spring comes in the valleys, people are greeting the new season in a massive celebration. This is the yearly Joshi Festival that occurs at the end of each May. Milk plays an important role during this festival. But not just any milk, but milk that was saved ten days prior for this very special occasion. Kalash people use this milk to purify newborns and houses. Newborns are fed the milk, but it is thrown on houses and objects as well. At the end of the festival, leaves are thrown on participants’ heads to show the arrival of the spring.

Another festival of the Kalash is the Uchau and it is celebrated every autumn. But the most important of all festivals is the Chawmos, celebrated in the middle of the harsh winter, in the month of December. This festival marks and celebrates the end of the harvest and during this time, the animals are sacrificed to provide the food source for the winter.

Impure persons are not admitted to the celebrations without purifying themselves beforehand. The purifying ritual consists of fire and of brands of juniper being waved above the uninitiated’s head.

The Kalash have always been proud of their way of life and recently so is the rest of Pakistan. Traditionally, they were ostracized by their majority neighbors and forced deep into the mountains for their religious beliefs, they have been tolerated through gritted teeth. It is only recently, once communications improved and the tourist interest soared, that the Pakistani authorities have tried to understand this wonderful culture. 

In April 2017 a Provincial Court in the northern city of Peshawar officially recognized the much-maligned community as a separate ethnic and religious group. As a result, the Kalash will be counted separately as Pakistan conducts its first national census in nearly 20 years. Recognition was the culmination of a lengthy fight in the predominantly Islamic country, where religious and other minorities often come under scrutiny by authorities and even attack by militants.  Recently, the Kalash gained their first-ever voice in government. Wazirzada Khan, 34, a political activist from the valley, was named to the provincial assembly under the law reserving seats for minorities. His nominator was Imran Khan, then a political leader in the province and now Pakistan’s prime minister. The Kalash are the indigenous owners of the land, forests, and mountains. We need laws to preserve our community,” Wazirzada Khan said.  

In recent years, the Kalasha have attracted European researchers and support, resulting in community benefits including a school that teaches their dialect. But some visiting foreigners also have been victims of criminal and insurgent attacks.  Source of tension is the aid that the Kalash receive from NGOs and the government. The Greek government has shown interest in preserving the Kalash’s ancient way of life. In 2004, Athens funded the building of the Kalasha Cultural Center, which houses a museum of Kalash artifacts, including clothing, musical instruments, jewellery, and sculptures.

In 2009, a Taliban unit stole into the valleys at night and kidnapped Lerounis. They had been tipped off by locals sympathetic to their cause and came to the Kalasha Dur during a night when only two security guards were posted. One guard fled while the other stood his ground and was killed. Lerounis was taken swiftly across the Afghan border to Nuristan. The Greek teacher’s ransom, thought to be up to £1m, was paid and he returned to Greece. The security services will not let him return to Pakistan because they believe his presence in the country is dangerous.  

Compulsory registration and guard

All foreigners who visit the Chitral Valley must register upon arrival, and are automatically assigned an armed guard from the local police force, free of charge. There are no exceptions to this rule. Why? The registration is required to monitor who is visiting this sensitive border region, where Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and China are all within a few hundred km of each other.  Chitral has been almost completely untouched by the problems which have plagued the tribal regions to the south, the main road through Chitral links regions which were held by the Taliban until relatively recently.





www.huffpost.com/entry/pagan-kalash-people-of-pakistan_b_4811627  By Brian Glyn Williams

www.rferl.org/a/28439107.html  RADIO FREE EUROPE, RADIO LIBERTY

en.sae.gr/?id=15425 Study proves common elements shared by Kalash language and Ancient Greek



Blight, Tim. Pakistan Traveller – Kindle Edition.

Safia Haleem. Pakistan – Culture Smart:    Kindle Edition



www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/a-little-known-pakistani-tribe-that-loves-wine-and-whiskey-fears-its-muslim-neighbors/2016/08/15/9a8483aa-5273-11e6-b652-315ae5d4d4dd_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.29971072bcd7 TIM CRAIG

www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/an-ancient-community-in-pakistan-fades-as-conversions-to-islam-take-a-toll/2018/11/11/a5187be6-dd22-11e8-8bac-bfe01fcdc3a6_story.html?utm_term=.438e4a6b1e89  Haq Nawaz Khan

Dimitra Stasinopoulou’s photo books in INDIKA

Kolkata Slums – Hubs of hope and dignity, INDIKA 2016

Life in Nagaland, INDIKA 2017

Assam – India’s northeastern state, INDIKA 2017

A trip to North Pakistan – from Peshawar to Kalash, INDIKA 2018