Once they inhabited a significant portion of the Hindu Kush region till the center of Afghanistan, now they are limited to only three valleys, namely Rumbur, Bamborit, and Barir of Chitral District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in North-Western Pakistan.

Kalash is a group of Indo-Aryan people who speak Kalasha-mun, a part of Dardic group of the Indo-Aryan languages spoken in Kashmir, Northwest Pakistan, and Eastern Afghanistan. Kalash tribe practises a form of ancient Hinduism that recognizes various gods and spirits. They also practice animist traditions of nature worship. UNESCO had listed them as an intangible cultural heritage in 2018. They are the only polytheistic tribe in the region surrounded by overwhelming monotheistic Muslim neighbors.

Kalash is closely related to their neighboring Nuristanis (earlier known as Kafiristanis) people of Afghanistan who once followed the same set of traditions with some cultural distinctions and adhered to the same Rig-Vedic faith as them. Up until the late nineteenth century, many Nuristanis practiced a primitive form of Hinduism. They were the last non-Muslim stronghold in entire Afghanistan. But, after repeated attacks and constant persecution, the Nuristanis acquiesced and converted to Islam. Hence, the historical region of Kafiristan become – Nuristan, which means the land of the enlightened.

Nuristan was historically known as Kafiristan (lit. the land of infidels), as the predominantly Sunni Muslim populated Afghanistan viewed the Nuristani Rig Vedic practices and the tradition of nature worship as antithetical to Islam.

Although the Nuristani people have converted into Islam in the late 19th century. The Kalash tribe has managed to preserve their unique religion and practices in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, mainly because Kalash is guarded by the towering mountains of the Hindu Kush, so they were cut off from the outside world for so long. Historically, they dominated these valleys for over 2400 years now Kalash makes up only 20% of the population. Most of the Kalash have already converted to Islam.

The total population of Kalash in the Kalash valleys was estimated at around 30 thousand at the time of the partition of India. However, their numbers sharply declined after the creation of the Islamic State of Pakistan. Now, there are only 3800 Kalash residing in these three valleys of Chitral District. This sharp decline in the population of Kalash is the result of various accompanying factors. Most of the Kalash are very poor as they are mostly dependent on agriculture, cattle rearing, and the produce from the valleys. People from cities often promise them employment if they agree to convert to Islam.

Previously, as the valleys were inaccessible by the masses of Pakistan, their customs and traditions were untouched and unadulterated by the predominant Islamic lifestyle of Pakistani people. In the last 2-3 decades, with rough motorable roads, Islam and the ensuing conversion menace also arrived in the valleys. Forced religious conversion of young Kalash has gone up since then. The minor Kalash girls are now being abducted and married off to any Muslim man, Kalash culture and traditions have subdued in their very own homeland. Kalash tribe is indoctrinated at the public schools of Pakistan (where Islamic instruction is mandatory). The younger generation of Kalash is proselytised at schools and colleges as they drift further away from their culture. Kalash is facing irreparable changes in their lifestyle because of their proximity to the Islamic culture. Consequently, it becomes easy to convert the young and credulous Kalash.

Some elder Kalash is worried about the rapid conversion rate as their unique practices are now on the verge of extinction. So, few Kalash has decided to take the responsibility to preserve their age-old culture and religion from the Islamic onslaught.

Despite facing grave threats and harassment, they celebrate their lives to the fullest. During festivals, Kalash women and men dance and sing together. Their culture is so vibrant and uniquely popular that when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge Kate and William visited Pakistan in 2019. They traveled to the Kalash valley to witness Kalash’s traditional songs and dance.

During festivals, any girl can declare their love for any boy. A girl can even elope with any man, yet the society does not oppose this since eloping during the festival has become a custom practiced frequently and accepted widely by the Kalash. The Kalash women can also divorce their husbands as per their wish. Their liberal and progressive society is in contrast to the conservative Islamic society that governs women’s behaviour and their possession of some rights.

Although Kalash men have long embraced the prosaic Pakistani dress of shalwar kameez, Women still stick to their colorful traditional attire. Their attire consists of an attractive headdress, an intricately embroidered long black dress, and also various beaded necklaces. It is because of the traditional clothing worn by the Kalash women that they are known as the Black Kafirs in northwest Pakistan.

Every Kalash takes birth in the ‘bashali’, a building far from the village. The building accommodates the menstruating as well as pregnant women. Westerners term it as a sort of oppression but according to the Kalash, it gives the women time away from their daily chores and other strenuous work typical of the hilly region.

British novelist Rudyard Kipling wrote the story “The Man Who Would Be King” in 1888. He proposed a hypothesis that the Kalash tribe (Kafiristan People) has greek ancestry and he traced it to Alexander’s soldiers who stayed in the Hindu Kush region after the Battle of the Hydaspes River (Jhelum River) which was fought against King Porus in 326 BC.

Some of the Kalash practices and customs match the traditions of ancient greek people. The tribe also claims that they are the descendants of Alexandar soldiers. Many anthropologists and archaeologists used to believe this theory. But after the recent excavations near Chitral, they opined that the Kalash are inhabiting the Hindu Kush region before the Alexandar campaign of India. Also, the recent DNA testing dismissed the Kalash link with the Greek soldiers. A study conducted by Qasim Ayub, Massimo Mezzavilla, and Chris Tyler-Smith found no traces of their claimed Greek ancestry. So, Kalash European descent has now dismissed.

Historians and archeologists now believe that the religion of the Kalash adheres to the Rig Vedic practices of Hinduism than that of ancient Greeks. Some of their deities bear strange similarities to the Hindu pantheon of gods and goddesses. Hindu god Lord Shiva is known as Mahadeo in Kalash Tribe, Lord Indra as Indr or Varendr, and Lord Yamaraja is known as Imra. These are all Rig Vedic deities worshipped by the millions of Hindus even today.

Indra is the most revered Rig Vedic deity. He has been mentioned 250 times as the highest god in the hymns of the Rigveda. No wonder that he is also the prominent deity for the Kalash, as their most important festival of Chawmos exalts Lord Indra. Their festivals are also indicative of the prominence of Lord Indra and Lord Shiva in ancient Hinduism.

Their Rig Vedic customs are so intact that it seems no religion, even Buddhism that once spread and thrived in the adjoining regions of Afghanistan, ever entered the remote valleys of the Hindu Kush, where the people continued to practice their Rig Vedic traditions and customs. Kalash customs and traditions surprisingly differ from the other ethnic groups of the Chitral region. But are eerily similar to those practiced by the neighboring Nuristanis before their forced conversion to Islam.

Richard Strand, a researcher who spent three decades in the Hindu Kush had mentioned that: “Before their conversion to Islâm the Nuristânis practiced a form of ancient Hinduism, infused with accretions developed locally. They acknowledged several human-like deities who lived in the unseen Deity World (Kâmviri/deva lok’a).”

Being a micro minority community in a predominantly Muslim region, Kalash faces constant threats to conform to the Islamic standards of living, and they are asked to leave their antiquated animist belief and their Rig Vedic practices. They have been forced to accept Islam for economic benefits and better treatment by the locals. The Kalash valleys have now riddled by Islamic extremism. There are reports of a rise in recent attacks on Kalash and even the Shias of the region. The creeping Islamisation of the valleys is very concerning. Locals believe that in the next 10-15 years whole tribe will convert to Islam if the government and the world organizations do not intervene. For we Hindus, we lost one of our oldest tribes to oblivion yet again !!

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