Pakistan’s Alexander the Great-descended Pagans

Daniel Carvalheiro-Santos, Staff Writer

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High in the mountains of this war-torn country, there lies a group that claims to be descended from Alexander the Great and his great armies. With this description, one might think this group inhabits the valleys of an Eastern European country close to the epicenter of Alexander’s vast empire. One may be surprised to learn that this unique ethnoreligious group lives in the northern hills of Pakistan. This community of 5,000, the Kalash, exhibits cultural and religious features that have been extinct in Pakistan since the introduction of Islam and the integration of Pakistan as the religious Islamic Republic. Outside their distinct fair-skinned complexion and their light green and blue eyes, the Kalash people practice a unique religion, speak what some consider a language isolate, and participate in a number of Kalash traditions. Today this group is endangered and runs the risk of being completely exterminated, and with this imminent extinction, all of its traditions would die, taking away one of the world’s last pre-Islamic cultures of this region.

One of the most distinguishing factors of this community’s cultural identity is its language: Kalasha. Despite its classification as a Dardic language (languages with Indo-Aryan origins from Northern Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India), some consider this to be a language isolate on account of it being “phonologically atypical because it contrasts plain, long, nasal and retroflex vowels as well as combinations of these” (Heegård & Mørch 2004). Kalasha has developed greatly over the past decades due to increased international interest and it has gained a written form in efforts to avoid extinction. This written form has helped the promulgation of the language among the Kalash youth and record oral traditions. Interestingly, Kalasha is in no way influenced by the languages of their alleged genetic ancestors. According to a report done by the New York Times, the Kalash people could trace their genetic origins back to far European regions, including Lithuania, Wales, Scotland, and, predominantly, the Mediterranean. Although there are other ethnic groups that claim similar connection Alexander the Great, the Kalash people are the group that has managed to retain the most traditions and customs Alexander and his armies would have participated.

One of these traditions that distinguish them from their Islamic neighbors is their religion. Although some Kalash people have succumb to practicing Islam, the majority of Kalashis are adherents of a traditional ritualistic polytheistic religion, similar to a complex form of animism, combined with ancestral worship. Their pantheon of gods and goddess are heavily influenced by the gods of the Hindu religion and their respective roles in the religion. However, some think that this theory is turned upside down: the Hindu gods and goddesses were based off early Kalash gods. Today, their belief in a god that is supreme and superior to all others and their use of certain Arabic and Persian words to describe the aforementioned god is evidence of the pressure to assimilate into a Muslim world. Despite living under a Muslim government and education system, the Kalash people are proud of what appears to be the last surviving Indo-European religion. Nevertheless, the Kalash people are constantly under threat, but to combat this, the Kalash community vibrantly celebrates the Chaumos, Chilam Joshi, and Budak. The most interesting (in my opinion) is the festival as Chilam Joshi where prayer, dance, song, and other rituals are performed in order to create the perfect ambiance to breed happy and fruitful relationships between the Kalash youth. These thriving traditions and the touristic appeal that they convey attract enough tourists to maintain this dwindling community of ancient foreigners.

Most people are intrigued by this mysterious ethnic group in the mountains because of their alleged European descent. Their distinct genetic background is different to any group in the surrounding region. Obviously, the Kalash people are going to take advantage of their famous ancestors (Alexander the Great and his armies), exploiting the extremely small Pakistani tourism industry. Despite the impending threat of Taliban attacks in this area, the Kalash people are not afraid of accommodating tourists. Their community has managed to build a hotel and a restaurant, however, the few brave travelers who do trek to the Chitral Valleys (home of the Kalash) prefer to embrace the local culture and simply observe the people and their daily routines. Recently tourism has skyrocketed and many adventurous tourists have visited the Chitral region in the last couple of years. However, a number of natural disasters, such as floods and landslides, have detrimentally affected transportation in and out of the community and the accommodations for both tourists and locals. This has completely halted both tourism and any profit that the community makes from the minor industry. Who knows what will become of this group in the next decades. This ethnoreligious Pakistani group descended from Alexander the Great and his massive armies have lived in happier times. Today, their culture, traditions, language, and religious are all under threat of being dominated by those of their neighbors. With pressure from Pakistan and the Taliban to assimilate into the culture of the area, and many giving in to these demands, the Kalash people may become extinct as have many of their neighbors. Hopefully, they are able to become an intangible UNESCO World Heritage Site, raising awareness and funds to maintain and revive this dying group.


Photo Credits to Wikipedia