The whole world looks at us and sees a ‘unique treasure of civilisation’, but here at home we are facing a ‘silent extinction’ every day.
This was stated by Barazangi Kalasha, an elder of Rumbur Valley, a remote locality of Chitral, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Several myths exist about the historical and ancestral linkages of the Kalasha community settled in this remotest of land in the heart of the Hindukush. Some historians claim Kalashas as Greek remnants, while others say they are of Tajik origin or have Aryan linkages. There complete cultural and religious disconnect from Islamic and Christian influences is evidence that their existence in this region is from an era before even the advent of these two religions. Likewise, as they stand apart from even Hindu and Buddhist cultures, it could mean that they came to this part of the world along with invaders from foreign lands. Perhaps their forefathers had to leave their homeland fearing for their life and hid themselves here in the deep gorges of the Hindukush.
The small Kalasha community remained hidden to the outside world for almost a millennium until development resulted in increasing their vulnerability as well as avenues of growth.
Although the roads linking the three Kalasha valleys — Bumburet, Rumbur and Birir — to other parts of Pakistan are still not in a good shape, the development in these localities is gradually increasing. With the money that Kalasha men send from abroad, especially Greece where they have been employed in various jobs in large numbers, the building of schools, bridges and road pavements take place thereby ameliorating living conditions of the local population.
According to some community members in the three valleys, due to governmental and non-governmental efforts, the Kalasha are now doing better than ever before in terms of finding jobs and earning livelihoods. Local boys and girls are eager to get educated. Likewise, the lives of Kalasha women have also gotten better with the availability of more friendly Bhashlanis — safe places for women to stay during their menstrual cycle and for giving birth.
“We are not poor anymore as we have earning opportunities in the shape of small businesses or government jobs,” said a Kalasha girl, adding that the development, however, bears a heavy cost. Locals lament that every second person who interacts with educated Kalasha youth tends to be a preacher trying to influence boys to convert or tempt young girls to marry them and thus convert. Therefore, the numbers of an already smaller community continue to decline, with the total number of Kalashas remaining at around 3,800.
Though the Kalashas say local Muslims treat them well and there is religious harmony in the valleys, the problem is with outsiders who either visit or settle anew here and then begin proselytising. Locals narrated several instances where this pressure to convert overpowers their youth, especially those in other parts of the country seeking work or studying.
Other than issues of conversion and some isolated incidents of theft, Kalashas do not feel any hostility from anywhere in Pakistan. However, frequent attacks and theft of cattle by armed persons from Nuristan, in the bordering province of Afghanistan, is a matter of grave concern for locals and demands serious attention.
Shafqat Aziz is an independent analyst based in Islamabad and can be reached at [email protected]