Alexander's Pakistani clan Descendants: The Kalash people, who claim to be descended from Alexander the Great's army in the 4th century B.C. tenaciously cling to their culture in Muslim northern Pakistan


August 06, 1998|By Dennis Drenner | Dennis Drenner,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BUMBURET VALLEY, Pakistan -- Din Mohammed rises at 4 a.m. and heads out into the pre-dawn chill. The village and surrounding hills, cast in blue moonlight, take on the quality of a dream. He picks his way down rocky paths and along gurgling irrigation canals, gathering children as he goes.

It is the day before Joshi, the annual Kalash spring festival, and a pack of young girls and boys have risen early to gather yellow flowers from the hillsides.

As dawn begins to glow behind the mountains, the children clamber sure-footedly up steep goat paths. The girls wear tennis shoes with their traditional black dresses.

According to British historian Michael Wood's recent public television documentary, the Kalash people of Pakistan claim to be descendants of Alexander the Great's Macedonian army. They speak a language distantly related to Greek and follow ancient gods.

Reduced to three small isolated valleys in northern Pakistan's Hindu Kush range, the Kalash have survived centuries of foreign invaders and harsh winters.

Now they face what may be the final threat to their unique culture. New roads and air routes have brought their once inaccessible valleys within easy reach of Peshawar, the regional capital.

The trickle of contact the Kalash have long had with the outside world is turning into a torrent of anthropologists, missionaries, tourists and other visitors.

In the early part of this millennium, the Kalash ruled over a large mountainous area of what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Since then, they have been slowly pushed back by expanding Islamic civilizations.

The past two centuries have witnessed an exponential increase in the Kalash's decline. Numbering about 50,000 in the early 1800s, the Kalash have been reduced to about 3,000 today.

Perhaps their worst moment came in 1893 when the Durand Agreement drew the official border between Afghanistan and what was then British India. The Afghan emir began killing and forcibly converting all the Kalash who hadn't fled across the frontier.

Today's Kalash villages are tiny islands in a sea of Muslims stretching from Turkey to India.

Coming down from the hills, the children carry large bundles of yellow flowers wrapped in their shawls.

Bumburet Valley spreads below them, a beautiful green quilt stretched between steep mountainsides. Stone walls line bright green fields of waving wheat. Walnut trees shade stacked stone and timber houses.

The children pass shepherds heading off to graze their herds of long-haired goats on hillside pastures. Women clad in traditional long black dresses and cowrie-shell embroidered headpieces wash clothes in an icy mountain stream.

The idyllic appearance is dispelled by the hacking coughs and runny noses of the children, a result of lingering colds and poorly ventilated rooms heated by smoky wood fires.

The men and women with their broken teeth and deeply lined faces are aged beyond their years. Despite their beautiful communities, the Kalash are not exempt from Pakistan's endemic poverty.

In the evening, over a traditional dinner of goat cheese, walnut bread and a bottle of cloudy local wine, Din Mohammed complains of the Pakistani government's reluctance to finance schools teaching the Kalash language, and of Muslim missionaries, many of them former Kalash, converting the Kalash youth.

Din fears the near extinction of his culture in just a few generations. Even in their final refuge in the valleys of Bumburet, Birir and Rumbur, the Kalash are outnumbered by Muslim settlers and converts to Islam.

Perhaps the tourists who flock to see the colorful Kalash festivals, costumes and unique village homes each summer are an invaluable source of income in their subsistence economy. Perhaps the modern world, which threatens to extinguish the Kalash culture, may at least help to preserve its outward trappings.

Pub Date: 8/06/98

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