There are about 3,500 Kalash people living in northern Pakistan. Their culture and language are endangered. They are a remarkable, spiritual and peace loving, animistic people.
In the time of the Moghuls (rulers in this region in the 15th till the 19th century) wine was taken from the valleys of the Kalash to the tables of the moghuls. The Moghul Emperor Babur “the tiger” invaded the Kalash area because he did not recieve the taxes (Jizya).The tribesmen who did not know the power of gunpowder were blazed away. They reacted, Babur said, with unseemly gestures. He introduced new taxes at the time of harvest, which was later abolished by Akbar (1504) with a sense of fairness, because he was a man of culture and wisdom.
Young Kalash Shepard
History of the Kalash
The history of the Kalash is shrouded in mystery. A long held romantic view is that they are descended from the deserters of Alexander the Great’s army, but there appears to be little concrete evidence to support this theory. The Kalasha themselves say they are descended from a General Shalakshah in Alexander’s army.
According to Professor Paolo Graziosi, Professor of Anthropology and Prehistory at the University of Florence, in an abridged text published in the Illustrated London. News, March 30th 1963, the Kalash have purely Europoid traits reminiscent of Mediterranean or, under certain aspects, Alpine peoples. He found the Kalasha to have light skin, sometimes light coloured eyes, regular features and were of medium height. Some of the women he found truly beautiful.
According to Wazir Ali Shah in his ‘Notes on Kalasha Folklore’ (Selected Papers from the first Hindu-Kush Cultural Conference) the Kalasha themselves state that they are descended from the sixteenth and youngest son and daughter of Adam. They were married to one another and the place they first settled in was called Tsiam. To date no one has located the country or region of this name. Peter Parkes, in his thesis ‘The Social Role of Historical Tradition Among the Kalasha Kafirs of Chitral’, states that in ‘Kalasha History’ there are a number of fragmentary ‘Creation Stories’, which in his view, are clearly borrowed from Islam.
Wazir Ali Shah goes on to state that the Kalasha believe that God had kept the three Kalash valleys as his own preserve and then gave it to their ancestors when they were unwilling to marry. He also refers to the popular belief among foreign historians, that the Kalasha are descended from the soldiers of Alexander. He mentions that, in records to Alexander’s campaign in the Hindu Kush, there are accounts of skirmishes with pagan tribes with a culture similar to the Kalasha. Other scholar, including G.A. Grierson and Ghulam Murtaza, think that possibly the Kalasha inhabited the area between lower Bashgul Valley and Ghaga Serai (in Afghanistan) for approximately three centuries. Then, around the tenth and eleventh century A.D, they were driven north towards Chitral by the Bashali Kafirs.
In his book ‘Bolor and Dardistan’, Jettmar puts forward a number of parallels between the Kalasha and other remote tribes. He mentions that there is a possible relationship between the wooden images of the Kafirs and those made on western Nepal. Jettmar also draws a link between goat worship among the mountain tribes of Iran and the region of the Karakorams in the east where there is intense goat breeding, and the Kalasha who are famous for their peculiar rites and beliefs connected with wild and domestic goat.
With the help of Wazir Ali Shah, who translated some relevant portions of a history called ‘Tarik-e-Chitral’, by the Persian scholar Ghulam Murtaza, Gillian Darling records that, during the first millennium B.C., the whole area of Chitral (which, according to Jettmar, is close to two important migration routes used by the Indo-Aryan invaders-the Oxus-Wakhan Corridor in the north and the Kabul valley in the south), was controlled by the early Darian Iranians. The Chinese assumed power in the first Century B.C. They were overcome in the second century A.D. by the Kushans under the King Kanishka. Under the Kushans, Budhism flourished along with the early pagan religions of the region.
During the seventh century A.D., much of the area was invaded by Arab forces and converted to Islam. The Kalasha, themselves, are believed by Murtaza to have arrived in the Chitral area in the tenth century, and came from the Bashgal region which is now Afghanistan. They had been pushed out by other Kafir tribes who in turn were being pressed by invading Islamic armies from the west. Darling goes on to say that in Kalasha oral histories, ‘Tsiam’ is their traditional home. One theory put forward is that it is the town of Chaga Serai in eartern Afhganistan, but Darling is doubtful of this. According to the Kalasha, Tsiam is reputed to be the original home of both General Shalakshah and the Kalasha ‘Messenger of God’- during the winter solstice – the festival of ‘Chau-Maus’. Again, according to Darling, the Kalasha oral histories mention a place called ‘Yarkhan’. Yarkhan was an ancient Buddhist centre which is now in the Chinese western province of Sinkiang. A number of beliefs and institutions of the Kalasha are thought to have originated there. Whether the Kalasha, as claimed by Morganstierne, did indeed move from Tsiam to the Wagul valley to the Chitral area or not, it is obvious, if one reads Robertson’s classic work on the area, that the Kafirs of Nuristan (Eastern Afghanistan) and the Kalasha, who inhabitedthe area east of the Durand Line, are closely related.
When this author was in the valley of Waigul, in Nuristan, a village elder told me that he believed the Waigalis, who say that many centuries ago their people migrated to the Kalasha valleys (the Kalasha also give the same story) are descended from the kurds. The Kurds, too, believe they are descended from a regiment of Alexander’s army. They are also of Aryan appearance, are mountain people and are goat herders. Having travelled across Turkey and Syria, this hypothesis seems to me to have some credibility.
Ethnic Cleansing of the Kafirs in Pakistan By Abbas Zaidi
In all the languages spoken in Pakistan, Kafir means “Infidel” and Kafiristan means “Land of the Infidels.” (Kafir also means “infidel” in Arabic.) Yet, ironically Kafiristan in Pakistan is believed to be a paradise located in the northwest part of the country: lakes, waterfalls, green forests teeming with wildlife, snow and a mellow sun.
But it is not just the place itself that fascinates; it is the women of Kafiristan, part-fairy and part-human whose beauty, as the story goes, can make a man lose his religion. “When a Kafir woman drinks water, you can see it streaming down her throat. One can count the veins on her body,” is the standard text regarding the Kafir woman’s delicateness. They are believed to be whiter than white.
But who are these Kafirs?
The advent of the Kafirs in Northwest of Pakistan
–what is known now as the Kalash Valley consisting of the Birir, Bumboret and Rumbor sub-valleys–and southern Afghanistan, predates the birth of Islam by several centuries. As of now, the Kalash Valley is a part of Chitral, a very large administrative region in Northwest of Pakistan. The Kafirs are believed to be descendants of the warriors who arrived with Alexander the Great and decided to stay on. Historically, the Kafirs have remained an isolated ethnic group who were left undisturbed by both the Muslim rulers of India and by the British Raj. Many Western historians during the Raj were surprised to find the Kafirs’ physical resemblance to be so similar to their own that they proudly declared that they and the Kafirs were of the same stock. As such, the Kafirs were allowed to freely practice their ancient customs, including ritual alcohol consumption, promiscuous dancing and ritual free sex.
The tragic watershed in Kafiri history came towards the end of the 19th century when in South Afghan- istan their population was decimated in the name of Islam. The Afghan ruler at that time declared that either the Kafirs would be converted to Islam or be wiped off the face of the earth. The Afghan campaign was a total success, and the dawn of the 20th century did not see a single Kafir living in Afghanistan as a Kafir. Even the names of their villages were Islamised.
The Kafirs on the other side of the border were spared genocide due, one might suppose, to the Raj. In 1947 the Raj ended and Pakistan came into being, but the Kafirs continued to lead their lives as they had lived them for centuries. The legends about the beauty of the Kafir women and the landscape contin- ued in a quasi-Orientalist mode. Every so often one heard about someone marrying a Kafir woman and bringing her home, though no one ever actually saw one. (In the legends and tales about Kafiristan the Kafir men are significant by their absence.)
It was only in the early 1970s that the people of Pakistan began to hear about the Kafirs in the national media, when Kafiristan was facing famine. Thanks to then Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, a tragedy was averted and he became the Kafirs’ hero.
But then came the CIA-sponsored Afghanistan jihad and Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979. Ayatollah Khomeini challenged, inter alia, the US, the Arab monarchies and Pakistan’s military dictatorship. Pakistan’s progressive religious groups also became inspired by the Iranian Revolution and started planning in terms of a revolution for Pakistan too. They were a curious mix of Islam and Marxism. Some of them were extremely anti-American and anti-Soviet; some of them preferred the atheistic Soviet Union to the anti-Islamic United States and had their socialist friends in Afghanistan; and some of them pro-Khomeini, and Khomeini had challenged the US as no one had ever done before. Hence, the Iranian Revolution unfied them into an anti-American front. They called the Afghan refugees of those days “the absconders” and the jihad-wagers “the CIA agents.”
General Zia ul Haq, Pakistan’s longest-reigning dictator to date, was the enfant gate of the Saudi Royal Family, with a proven track record of loyalty to his masters in Jordan as well. The US needed a strongman in Islamabad to offset pro-Iranian and anti-American sentiments and to oppose the Soviets on its behalf. Hence it became vital to divide Pakistan along sectarian lines. Only the Deobandi-Wahabi (see end note #2) version of Islam could produce the desired results. So, in order to out-Khomeini Khomeini, the General introduced his own brand of Islamisation. That same year Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was hange, with the full blessing of the US government. 1979, that annus mirabilis, marked the beginning of the end for the Kafirs.
In 1981 Ronald Reagan provided a multi-billion-dollar “aid” package in order to help Pakistan intensify the Afghanistan jihad. General Zia called upon the nation to go one step further than the Government in bringing Islam to every nook and corner of Pakistan. As a result, countless Tablighi (proselytizing) parties confronted every Muslim and non-Muslim Pakistani preaching the Deobandi-Wahabi version of Islam. Coincidentally, that year saw klashnikovs and heroin begin to penetrate every nook and cranny of Pakistan. The Kafirs got the first taste of things to come when some Tablighi zealots illegally occupied a large cultivated piece of their land in Bumboret and built a mosque.
What happened after that is not hard to discover. The Afghan refugees and the Pathan Tablighi parties (now known as the Taliban) seized nearly 70 percent of Kafir land during the period 1981 to 1995. They built mosques and seminaries where, in addition to learning the Koran by rote only, students learn the arts of war, techniques that are used against India in Kashmir and against Muslim and non-Muslim religious minorities within Pakistan as well as against “infidels” elsewhere. The first fruit of the Afghanistan jihad for the Kafirs was the decimation of the Kalash forests and wildlife by the Afghan refugees. As the vegetation grew sparse, the Kafirs’ cattle met the same fate as their forests, and the traditional Kafir means of livelihood was irreparably destroyed.
Once the Afghan refugees and the Tablighis became entrenched in Chitral, the forced conversion of the Kafirs began. Gun-toting Tablighis made it clear that in order to go on living in Pakistan (Pakistan means “Land of the Pure”) the Kafirs must convert to Islam. For the Kafirs any place beyond the Kalash Valley is as alien as Mars. The kidnapping and forced marriage–and hence forced conversion–of the Kafir women to the Muslims, mostly Tablighi Pathans, continues to this day. These women are not allowed to see their relatives unless the relatives also convert. It is no secret that many of these women are sold at auction. Men are circumcised against their will. The Tablighis carry klashnikovs as a matter of routine and have killed many Kafirs who resisted conversion to the Tablighi Islam. No Kafir is allowed to carry a gun.
The poverty of the Kafirs has also been a big factor in their conversion to Tablighi Islam. Within the Chitral society they are completely ostracized for being “Kafirs”, a term that illiterate people (and illiteracy in Chitral is the norm) understand to mean “infidels.” The government does not give loans to Kafirs; the police and the judiciary have never taken any action against the appropriation of Kafir land by the Tablighis. The only source of income for the Kafirs are the Tablighis who lend them money at high interest. Since the Kafirs cannot pay off these loans, the only course left for them is either to convert or surrender their properties to the Tablighis.
While electricity, available through gasoline generators, and tap water are available to every Muslim in the Kalash Valley, and loudspeakers relay azzan and Koranic recitations throughout the day, there is not a single Kafir house that has electricity or a water tap. Their living conditions are indescribable. The Chitral winter is Siberian. The mosques and seminaries have heaters and warm water. The Kafirs’ houses remain dark all winter, and they have to melt snow for drinking water. They cut wood to make fire. Their houses are actually large single rooms that remain shut for the six months of winter. Humans and animals live in them together. One can only imagine the stink and the lack of sanitation. There are no toilets. In summer, people use the open fields to relieve themselves; in winter they relieve themselves inside their houses, the same as their animals. One finds human and animal waste everywhere.
There is not a single hospital nor even a minor dispensary in the whole of Kafiristan. The Tablighis have 4×4 jeeps, but few Kafirs have any kind of vehicles. Many Kafirs have died, when basic emergency aid could have saved them, such as during childbirth. The Kafiri diet is basic and monotonous, and one rarely sees either a male or female Kafir who looks physically strong. The women’s veins show plainly because of their malnourished state. Their characteristic long necks are dirty, and you only have to come close to one to know that they seldom get to take a bath.
Needless to say, Kafir culture is now nonexistent, thanks to the Tablighis. In the 1980s it was thought that the Kafirs as a distinct cultural group would become extinct by the end of the century. But they still linger on, though their number now is no more than two thousand. The government of Pakistan takes great pride in having established the Kalash Foundation “to preserve and propagate Kafir culture.” But the facts speak otherwise. It is true that the Kalash Foundation has somewhat slowed the steamroller of the Tablighi Islam. But it has not done anything positive for the Kafirs. No effort has been made to give their language written documentation, and there does not exist even a single standard text devoted to Kafiri culture.
Visitors to the Kalash Valley have to pay a toll to enter. The toll ticket given to the visitor is jokingly called “the zoo ticket.” The Kafirs and what is left of their culture have been preserved merely to cater to the tastes for the exotic of generals, bureaucrats, politicians and foreign dignitaries. Thanks to the Kalash Foundation, the Kafirs have become little more than anthropological artifacts. The World Wildlife Federation has been crying blue murder over the fact that only five thousand tigers remain in their natural habitat. Who cares that only two thousand Kafirs remain, despite a captivity-cum-protection program supposedly accorded them by the Pakistani government?
Meanwhile, the Tablighi are pushing to convert these few remaining pagans, and it is unlikely that the Kafirs will last very long into the 21st century. Kafir culture will end up–like so many indigenous cultures elsewhere–in the “cultural centers” of the big cities under the oversight of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. One may surmise that in future the converted Kafirs and their progeny will be engaged in fighting Indians, the religious minorities of Pakistan and “infidels” elsewhere. Meanwhile, in order to edify and entertain their audiences, Muslims employed by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs will stage exhibitions of Kafiri culture, dressing up and posing as the Kafirs whom the government and the Tablighis have systematically eliminated.