Aug 9, 2012

Nikos Deja Vu - The Kalash People - A lost Greek tribe struggles for survival

The Kalash People
A Lost Greek Tribe

"...When the great hero and general, Alexander, who was as great as the god Apollo and Zeus, left his troops here, he asked them to stay here in this land without changing their Hellenic beliefs and traditions, their Hellenic laws and culture until he returned from the battles in the East..."

This is a story that is told not in a village in Greece but on the the mountainsides of the great Hindu Kush. In this remote area of the northwestern region of Pakistan lives a peculiar tribe, the Kalash. The Kalash proclaim with pride that they are the direct descendents of Alexander the Great.

There are many similarities between them and the Hellenes of Alexander the Great's time. Similarities such as religion, culture, and language reinforce their claims to Hellenic ancestry.

The Kalash are a polytheistic people, meaning that they believe in many gods. The gods that they believe in are the twelve gods of Ancient Greece which makes them the only people who continue this worship!

Gods such as Zeus, the god of gods, Apollo, the god of the sun, and Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, are such gods that they pay homage to. Shrines which are found in every Kalash village remind us of the religious sanctuaries we would stumble across in Ancient Greece. They serve as houses of worship where prayers and sacrifices are offered. Oracles who played a major role in acting as mediators and spokespeople between the gods and the mortals still hold a position of importance in the social structure of the Kalash.

Every question or prayer towards the gods is usually followed by a sacrifice of an animal. It is reminiscent of the sacrifices the Hellenes gave to the gods to assure them a victory over the city of Troy.

Religions always possess certain traditions and rituals which are observed by their followers. The Kalash practice a ritual that is celebrated on August 6th. This feast day is named the Day of the Transfiguration. It is the day where the grapes are brought out to the god Dionysus to be blessed and to guarantee them of a plentiful crop.

This ritual can be traced back to Ancient Greece where it was practiced by the cult of Dionysus who paid their respect to the god of fertility and wine. An active member of the cult of Dionysus was Olympia, mother of Alexander the Great, who is said to have recruited many of her son's soldiers and who in return practiced it throughout their expedition (Alexandrou, pg. 184).

The Kalash also live a lifestyle that can be positively compared to that of the Ancient Greeks. Let us start with the observation of their homes. The Kalash are the only people in the East who make and use accessories such as chairs and stools that cannot be found anywhere else in the surrounding regions!

Their chairs are decorated with drawings such as the ram's horns which symbolize the horns that decorated Alexander the Great's helmet. Battle scenes depicting Greek soldiers are also observed. In the recent archaeological discoveries in Vergina, Greek archaeologists found the exact same replicas as the ones the Kalash use in their homes.

As we know, Pakistan is a nation ruled by Islamic law. Under the law of the Koran alcohol consumption is prohibited. When we enter the region of the Kalash we encounter fields that are inhabited by grape vines. The Kalash are the only people who produce and consume wine and indulge themselves in feasts such as for the aforementioned feast of Dionysus. Greeks such as Socrates would participate in wine feasts such as we come across in the Symposium.

Their feasts are always followed by songs and dances. The Kalash dance in a cyclical motion and the men usually follow it by loud cries of i-a and i-o which can be traced back to the battle cries let loose by Alexander's soldiers. There is a saying held by the Pakistanis who state that only the Greeks and the Kalash whistle in such a way (Alexandrou, pg 87).

In 1896 a British explorer by the name of George Robertson visited the Kalash and did a study on them. He concluded that fifty percent of the Kalash's language derives from Ancient Greek. Such similarities can be found in their gods' names. Zeus is called Zeo, Aphrodite is called Frodait, the name Dionysus has kept the same pronounciation.

The Kalash have words such as demos meaning city-state and use the word 'ela' as an imperative command meaning come here. There was recently a tablet found in a village of the Kalash whose message was in the form of hieroglyphics. When the code was deciphered the message read, 'Alexander the Great lives forever' (National Herald, pg.8).

In this article we have observed similarities between people of the past, the ancient Greeks and people of the present, the Kalash. Through these similarities the Kalash have justified their claim as descendants of Alexander the Great.

Ancient Greece and the tales of Alexander the Great were once believed to exist only in history books. However as the article insists, these great legacies live on with the Kalash of the mountainous Hindu Kush.

The Kalash People

Lost tribe struggles for survival
Isolated corner of Pakistan at risk from tourists and missionaries Declan Walsh in the Kalasha Valleys

More than 2,000 years ago Alexander the Great tore across the mountains of northern Pakistan, plundering, conquering and, according to legend, sowing the seeds of a tribe that endures to this day. And today, the Greeks are back.
In a valley high in the Hindu Kush a three-storey building towers incongruously over a scattering of low-roofed huts. The €300,000 (£200,000) centre - part school, part health centre, part museum and conference hall - is being built by the Greek government in an effort to save the Kalasha, Pakistan's tribe of "infidels".

Reputed to have descended from the armies of Alexander, the Kalasha have lived for thousands of years in a nest of idyllic valleys near the Afghan border. But their identity is being threatened by Muslim missionaries, tourism and neglect by central government.

The Kalasha are the last remnants of the population of Kafiristan, the ancient "land of infidels" that straddled the borders of present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan. About 4,000 of them survive in three majestic valleys that awe visitors as a sort of paradise lost.

Turquoise streams rush through leafy glades of giant walnut trees and swaying crops. Clusters of simple houses cling to steep forested slopes. Compared with many compatriots beyond their valleys, the Kalasha are charmingly liberal: drinking wine, holding dancing festivals and worshipping a variety of gods. Women wear intricately beaded headdresses, not burkas, and may choose their husband.

"For me, the Kalasha are heroes, because they have reached the 21st century still living like their fathers," said Athanasius Lerounis, a 50-year-old schoolteacher from Athens supervising construction of the centre, which is due to open next month. "We want to help them preserve that."

The centre, which aims to provide everything from schooling to surgery, has reignited debate about how best to save the Kalasha way of life. Some community leaders feel the Greek initiative is good-hearted, but wrong-headed. "I don't blame them for wanting to help, but that help could damage us," said Saifullah Jan in Rumbur valley. "There is too much interference. Our people are getting spoilt. They should just let us be."

Theories of ancestry with Alexander the Great are fuelled by some Kalashas' fair skin and Caucasian features, but ethnologists say the link remains unproven. "The Kalasha language was never written, so we have no proof. But I respect this story like I respect all of their traditions," said Mr Lerounis, a volunteer who has visited every summer for 10 years.

Modern life is tough for the Kalasha. The valleys are cut off for months each year by snow; there is no doctor; education levels are low; and bad hygiene has triggered a plague of diseases.

The construction of a rocky access road across the mountains in the 1970s ended centuries of isolation, but not all of the visitors have been welcome. Muslim immigrants now outnumber the Kalasha by almost two to one. Eleven madrasas have been built. Two more are being built. Community leaders say missionaries offer money, clothes, land and educational scholarships in exchange for conversion.

"They offer money to the poor and wives to the wifeless," said hotel owner Abdul Khaliq.

Muhammad Salim, a shopkeeper who converted to Islam eight years ago, said he had a store of free winter clothes for distribution to the needy. "But they are only for the Kalasha who convert," he said.

Many Kalasha believe the missionaries are funded by foreign zealots, but admit that the initial flood of conversions has not slowed to a trickle.

Gul Bahadar, a 28-year-old mullah of a mosque in Bamboret valley, denied that serious tensions existed between the communities. "We come from the same blood," he said. Conversions to Islam were "the work of God, not man", he added.

Tourists and aid workers pose another threat. The number of British visitors has dramatically increased since the Kalasha featured last year on Michael Palin's television series Himalaya, according to Siraj ul-Mulk, a leading member of the community in nearby Chitral.

But little of the extra income finds its way into Kalasha pockets. A string of small hotels has sprung up along the valley floor. Many sport garish cola advertisements and unlikely menus offering macaroni and "franch fries". Nearly all are owned by Muslims or outsiders.

Other visitors, like the Greeks, come offering development aid. But such projects have a mixed track record.

"Too much money, too fast, takes away the community's responsibility to help itself. Now if the temple is broken, people just wait for it to be fixed instead of doing it themselves." said Akiko Wada, a Japanese woman who married a Kalasha.

Others point at the government in Islamabad, which has allocated billions for defence but has spent just 2% of its budget on health and education. "They are the ones that should be providing these services," said Lakshan Bibi, a pilot and one of the first Kalasha women to get higher education. The best solution to the Kalasha problem would be to "put them under a glass bowl and leave them there," said Mr Lerounis. But, he smiled, "that would not be very practical".

Nikos Deja Vu

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