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Saving Pakistan's Last Pagan Tribe

A Kalash girl in traditional dress
A Kalash girl in traditional dress
In the coming weeks, Shaheen Buneri will explore Kalash culture, shedding some light on ''Pakistan's Last Pagan Tribe."

Some call members of the Kalash tribe the descendants of Alexander the Great. A unique race living in the lap of the mighty Hindu Kush range for centuries with an independent socio-cultural identity that follows traditions similar to Indo-Iranian culture (Vedic and pre-Zoroastrian), the Kalash are often referred to as “the only pagan tribe in Pakistan.”

Before the 20th century, there were tens of thousands of Kalashas, stretching from Nuristan Province of Afghanistan to the northern valleys of Pakistan. Now the tribe's population is no more than 5,000 people spread across the three mountain valleys they call home -- Birir, Rumbur, and Bambouret.

When I visited their valleys in Chitral district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2005, Abdul Khaliq, 50, a leader of the Kalash community told me that the group know more about "nature, beauty, and dance than our origins.'' During my visit I noticed that the surrounding, mainly-Muslim communities had constructed mosques and madrasahs around Kalash Valleys. Locals told me that ''the Kalash girls are pretty and poor,'' and that the youth from the majority tribes are constantly trying to lure the girls to their communities to convert them to Islam and marry them.

For thousands of years, the Kalash people have survived with their unique cultural, social and linguistic identity. But the new century has confronted them with two serious challenges: religious fundamentalism and climate change

In September 2009, Taliban militants from bordering Nuristan Province in Afghanistan kidnapped Athanassios Lerunis, a Greek sociologist working in the Bambouret Valley. He was freed after eight months of captivity when Pakistan authorities released two Taliban commanders and paid ransom money..

Taliban militants are bent on eliminating everything contrary to their extremist agenda. This, coupled with the presence of Al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden and some senior Pakistani Taliban commanders in the areas along the Hindu Kush, creates feelings of acute uncertainty and fear among the local inhabitants -- especially nontraditional groups like the Kalash.

On top of that, deforestation, climate change, and brazen commercialization in and around the Kalash valleys are leading to heavy glacial melting, causing drastic changes to the geography of the region. This summer’s devastating floods uprooted forests and families there, and now officials and locals say that winter has descended and heavy snowfalls are expected in the region, certain to bring further hardship for the already beleaguered residents of the area.

This series of posts will (hopefully) educate readers about the ''lost'' Kalash culture. The rest of the world deserves to know about this amazing community and what it represents.

- Shaheen Buneri, Radio Mashaal