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Pakistan's Forgotten Pagans Get Their Due

The Kalash, who claim to be descendants of Alexander the Great's invading soldiers, have lived in isolation in Pakistan for centuries. Now the tiny pagan tribe is getting long-due recognition as a distinct religious and ethnic group.

For centuries, members of the ancient pagan Kalash tribe were left behind and largely forgotten, shielded from the outside world by the towering, remote mountains of northwest Pakistan.   The Kalash consider themselves descendants of Alexander the Great's soldiers, and have lived mostly in isolation since the warrior invaded the region more than 2,300 years ago.   The community, which numbers around 4,000 people today, was able to preserve its unique language, religion, and lifestyle. However, the Kalash were long denied recognition as a distinct community by the Pakistani government.
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For centuries, members of the ancient pagan Kalash tribe were left behind and largely forgotten, shielded from the outside world by the towering, remote mountains of northwest Pakistan.
 
The Kalash consider themselves descendants of Alexander the Great's soldiers, and have lived mostly in isolation since the warrior invaded the region more than 2,300 years ago.
 
The community, which numbers around 4,000 people today, was able to preserve its unique language, religion, and lifestyle. However, the Kalash were long denied recognition as a distinct community by the Pakistani government.

That changed in April, when 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.
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That changed in April, when 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.

The man behind the petition to recognize the Kalash fought legal battles and lobbied for years trying see his dream realized.   "The news spread throughout the Kalash villages like wildfire," 32-year-old Wazir Zada says of hearing that the initiative had succeeded. "People are very happy. Even our Muslim neighbors are very happy. They said 'our brothers have gotten their identity.'" Zada says the "historic" decision will give the Kalash the same rights and protections enjoyed by other ethnic and religious minorities, including reserved seats in the provincial assembly and the recognition of Kalash as an official language in Pakistan.
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The man behind the petition to recognize the Kalash fought legal battles and lobbied for years trying see his dream realized.
 
"The news spread throughout the Kalash villages like wildfire," 32-year-old Wazir Zada says of hearing that the initiative had succeeded. "People are very happy. Even our Muslim neighbors are very happy. They said 'our brothers have gotten their identity.'"

Zada says the "historic" decision will give the Kalash the same rights and protections enjoyed by other ethnic and religious minorities, including reserved seats in the provincial assembly and the recognition of Kalash as an official language in Pakistan.

The Kalash people are unlike any group in Pakistan. About half of the Kalash practice a form of ancient Hinduism infused with old pagan and animist beliefs. They celebrate religious festivals with music, dancing, and alcohol -- which they brew themselves.   Their rituals include married Kalash women eloping with other men, and boys having sexual intercourse with any woman they choose after reaching puberty. Other rituals include sacrificing dozens of goats.
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The Kalash people are unlike any group in Pakistan. About half of the Kalash practice a form of ancient Hinduism infused with old pagan and animist beliefs. They celebrate religious festivals with music, dancing, and alcohol -- which they brew themselves.
 
Their rituals include married Kalash women eloping with other men, and boys having sexual intercourse with any woman they choose after reaching puberty. Other rituals include sacrificing dozens of goats.

Every May, the Kalash celebrate the arrival of summer with the Chilam Joshi festival. The community gathers for dance and music, showers homes with flowers, and offers libations of milk.
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Every May, the Kalash celebrate the arrival of summer with the Chilam Joshi festival. The community gathers for dance and music, showers homes with flowers, and offers libations of milk.

The Kalash are easy to spot. Many wear rings in their hair and sport brightly colored hats. The women sometimes have tattooed faces and wear black robes with colorful embroidery. They speak Kalash, also known as Kalasha, a Dardic language that is a subgroup of the Indo-Aryan languages spoken in northwest Pakistan, in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, and in eastern Afghanistan.
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The Kalash are easy to spot. Many wear rings in their hair and sport brightly colored hats. The women sometimes have tattooed faces and wear black robes with colorful embroidery.

They speak Kalash, also known as Kalasha, a Dardic language that is a subgroup of the Indo-Aryan languages spoken in northwest Pakistan, in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, and in eastern Afghanistan.

The Kalash face a growing battle to save their traditional ways of life.   Their numbers have dwindled over the past few decades due to violence, conversions to Islam, and natural disasters. Their home area, in Pakistan's remote and restive northwest, is also extremely poor. Many Kalash rely on the small numbers of tourists who brave the treacherous mountain roads to make a living.   Zada hopes formal recognition of the group will convince the government to allocate funds for education, which he says is "key" to protecting the group's heritage and language.   The Kalash are known by conservative Muslims in Pakistan as "black kafiris," meaning nonbelievers. In recent years, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban militant groups have attacked and killed members of the community.
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The Kalash face a growing battle to save their traditional ways of life.
 
Their numbers have dwindled over the past few decades due to violence, conversions to Islam, and natural disasters. Their home area, in Pakistan's remote and restive northwest, is also extremely poor. Many Kalash rely on the small numbers of tourists who brave the treacherous mountain roads to make a living.
 
Zada hopes formal recognition of the group will convince the government to allocate funds for education, which he says is "key" to protecting the group's heritage and language.
 
The Kalash are known by conservative Muslims in Pakistan as "black kafiris," meaning nonbelievers. In recent years, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban militant groups have attacked and killed members of the community.

The Kalash are the last survivors of the people of Kafiristan -- or Land of Unbelievers, an area that encompassed northwest Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan before the region was divided by the Durand Line, the border established between Afghanistan and British India in the 19th century.   The Kalash in Pakistan share close cultural and linguistic links with their kin in Afghanistan known as Nuristanis, who live mostly in the eastern province of Nuristan.   The inhabitants of Kafiristan were repeatedly targeted by successive Afghan kings who ransacked the area and forced locals to convert to Islam. The name of the area was subsequently changed to Nuristan, which means land of the enlightened.   The Kalash, who remained in British India and then Pakistan, were shielded by the border.
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The Kalash are the last survivors of the people of Kafiristan -- or Land of Unbelievers, an area that encompassed northwest Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan before the region was divided by the Durand Line, the border established between Afghanistan and British India in the 19th century.
 
The Kalash in Pakistan share close cultural and linguistic links with their kin in Afghanistan known as Nuristanis, who live mostly in the eastern province of Nuristan.
 
The inhabitants of Kafiristan were repeatedly targeted by successive Afghan kings who ransacked the area and forced locals to convert to Islam. The name of the area was subsequently changed to Nuristan, which means land of the enlightened.
 
The Kalash, who remained in British India and then Pakistan, were shielded by the border.

Like the Nuristanis, the Kalash claim lineage to soldiers of Alexander the Great, and were left behind as Alexander and his army marched on to fight the Battle of the Hydaspes in what is now Pakistan's Punjab Province. His victory over King Porus resulted in the annexation of the Punjab into the Macedonian Empire.   A statistical analysis, published in the journal Science in 2014, found that the Kalash have "chunks" of DNA from an ancient European population.   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, jewelry, and sculptures.
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Like the Nuristanis, the Kalash claim lineage to soldiers of Alexander the Great, and were left behind as Alexander and his army marched on to fight the Battle of the Hydaspes in what is now Pakistan's Punjab Province. His victory over King Porus resulted in the annexation of the Punjab into the Macedonian Empire.
 
A statistical analysis, published in the journal Science in 2014, found that the Kalash have "chunks" of DNA from an ancient European population.
 
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, jewelry, and sculptures.

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