Nine-year-old Naveed Iqbal frequently accompanies his grandfather to mosque in this valley surrounded by the
peaks of the Hindu Kush mountains. But he doesn’t go inside — not yet, at least.
“When I go inside to offer my prayer, he waits outside on the mosque stairs until I come out,” his grandfather,
Shah, told RFE/RL in an interview in this hillside village in Bhamborit, one of three idyllic valleys in the Chitral
district of Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.
Naveed is a member of the Kalash, a pagan community known for their fair skin that has long inhabited this area near
border with Afghanistan. The Kalash people, many of whom believe they are the descendants of the armies of Alexander
Great, have held on to their religious beliefs and colorful rituals for centuries, even as a sea of Islam has
But the unique traditions of the Kalash are coming under mounting cultural pressure as the pace of conversions to
accelerates within Pakistan’s smallest ethnoreligious community. The Kalash population currently numbers between
3,000-4,000, and locals estimate that some 300 of their members have converted to Islam over the past three
The Washington Post reported in November. Some local reports, however, have said the figure is not that high.
Kalash children are not taught about their own culture, religion, or history in schools, where most of the teachers
Muslims. Calls to prayer now ring out five times a day from 18 mosques across the valley, the result of a recent
the construction of Muslim houses of worship. The swelling influence of Islam in the area has alarmed many in the
community who worry that their traditional way of life is slipping away before their eyes.
And it is stoking tensions within families as well.
Naveed, the nine-year-old who accompanies his grandfather Bilal Shah to mosque, is the son of Iqbal Shah, 33, who
remains committed to carrying on the traditions of his Kalash ancestors. Bilal wants his grandson to grow up as a
“He loves me. He stays most of the time with me rather than with his father,” said Bilal, a Kalash who converted
Islam 20 years ago.
Iqbal confronts Bilal whenever the grandfather raises the issue of the boy’s potential conversion.
“He is my son. I have the right to decide his future, or he himself has the right,” Iqbal said while sitting
cast-iron wood oven in the guestroom of the family’s single-story house.
Asked by this reporter whose side Naveed takes in the matter, Iqbal translated the question for his son. Dressed
school uniform, Naveed gave a shy smile as he raised his index finger and pointed it toward his grandfather.
‘Foundation For Conversion’
Tense relations between the Kalash and their Muslim neighbors are not new. The Kalash previously inhabited what is
the Nuristan Province in Afghanistan, just on the other side of the border with Pakistan. The area where they
at times called Kafiristan, or “Land of the Infidels” — a reference to their paganism. But in the late 19th
the ruler of Afghanistan, Abdur Rahman Khan, launched a violent campaign against the Kalash to convert its members
Islam by force. Known as the “Iron Amir,” he proceeded to name the area Nuristan, or the “Land of Celestial
Many Kalash took refuge in the remote valleys of Bhamborit, Berir, and Rambur, in what is now Pakistan, where they
continue to safeguard their religion and ethnic identity to this day. The local Muslims previously referred to the
“infidels” of Nuristan as “red Kafirs,” who feature in the Ruyard Kipling story The Man Who Would Be King. Those
found shelter in the three valleys, meanwhile, were called “black Kafirs.” The moniker, which the Kalash abhor, is
likely rooted in the black dresses that were worn by the women of the community. The word “Kalash” means “people
The origins of the Kalash remain shrouded in mystery. Many Kalash believe their ancestors came to the area
from a distant place known as Tsiyam, which Kalash priests and bards invoke in songs about their ancestors during
colorful and exuberant festivals. Tsiyam is thought to be an area in southeast Asia, though no one knows precisely
where — or what — it was.
Others in the community trace their ancestry to Alexander the Great’s armies that invaded this region in the 4th
B.C. A study by a team of geneticists published in 2014 found that the Kalash had portions of DNA from an ancient European
population, suggesting a possible link to Alexander’s armies,
The New York Times reported.
While recounting epics about their ancestors during festivals, Kalash elders speak of a man they believe was a
general of Alexander’s, called Shalakash, who settled in the region. Historians believe the name refers to
Nicator, who indeed served as a general under Alexander and ruled over this region after the Greek armies left.
A genetic link between the ancient Greeks and the modern-day Kalash remains disputed. Some Pakistani
say they have found evidence of a Kalash presence in the area well before the arrival of Greek armies in the
And a 2015 study by Pakistani,
and British scientists found that the Kalash share genetic likeness to Paleolithic Siberian hunter-gatherers “and
might represent an extremely drifted ancient northern Eurasian population that also contributed to European and
“The genetically isolated Kalash might be seen as descendants of the earliest migrants that took a route into
Afghanistan and Pakistan and are most likely present-day genetically drifted representatives of these ancient
northern Eurasians,” the researchers said, adding that their study did not find support of a Kalash link to
The names of the Kalash gods and goddesses, however, resemble those of the Greeks. And many words in their
resemble Greek as well. Their language, called Kalash or Kalasha, is a Dardic tongue that is in a subgroup of
Indo-Aryan languages spoken in the area. It has no script and the traditional Kalash stories are passed down
from generation to generation.
There is no separate curriculum for Kalash children in local schools that would teach them the language and
traditions of their people. But they are taught Islamic theology and Koranic scripture alongside Muslim students.
Kalash schoolchildren sitting behind their Muslim peers during lessons on the Koran
and Islamic studies. Locals say such
instruction is laying the groundwork for future conversions to Islam among the Kalash community.
“This lays the foundation for the conversion of the Kalash at this stage,” a teacher, who spoke on condition of
anonymity, told RFE/RL during a visit to a school in Karakal, which has a population of around 350.
Wazir Zada, who represents the Kalash community in the provincial legislature, said he intends to raise the issue
the assembly. “I hope we will be able to introduce the teaching of Kalash culture and religion in schools,” Zada,
35, told RFE/RL.
‘Abandoning’ A Lifestyle
Bilal Shah, who hopes his grandson Naveed becomes a Muslim, says he converted 20 years ago after attending a
gathering of Tablighi, the missionaries who travel around the country preaching a conservative, apolitical, and
pacifist version of Islam. “I was impressed by the presence of religious scholars and, thanks be to God, entered
into the fold of Islam,” he told RFE/RL.
As he spoke, Bilal guided this reporter through a cemetery just behind his house to the grave of his mother, who
died as a Kalash. Those who convert to Islam here opt to be buried in Muslim cemeteries.
Pakistani authorities have now banned Tablighi from entering the valley following a clash between members of the
Kalash and Muslim communities over the conversion of a Kalash girl to Islam in 2016. But the Muslim missionary
continues within the Kalash community and families like the Shahs: With their relatively liberal and tolerant
approach toward religion, they do not expel or otherwise pressure a family member who converts to Islam or adopts
“Once someone converts in a family or neighborhood, he or she becomes a local source of inspiration and influences
the others’ beliefs to attract them to Islam,” Iqbal Shah, the son of Bilal and father of Naveed, told RFE/RL.
Iqbal’s parents, sister, and one brother have already adopted Islam, while his other brother continues to adhere
the traditions of the Kalash. This coexistence has a negligible impact on the routines of the family’s daily life,
though occasionally the choice of food or drink can be a source of annoyance. Bilal, for example, does not approve
when Iqbal partakes of the locally produced wine — another cultural tradition that the Kalash share with the
Many locals say that educated young women here more frequently convert to Islam and marry outside the Kalash
community than their less-educated peers. Some elope with Muslim men from cities, and parents and relatives say
temptations of modern life and technology play a role in these marital decisions — and are gradually damaging
The Kalash subsist largely on farming, growing crops such as maize, and raising livestock for milk, cheese, and
meat. Women toil in the fields and collect wood, while others work as masons and artisans. Otherwise the
opportunities in the area are sparse beyond working as teachers, security or border guards, or at local guest
that operate mainly during the festivals.
“When young people get an education, they seek jobs in cities far away from the valley and don’t return here for
months and even years,” Shahzada Khan, a 55-year-old hotelier from Krakal, told RFE/RL. “Their detachment keeps
away from their culture and religion, and they totally abandon this lifestyle in due time.”
Shaira, a 27-year-old Krakal resident, is one of the educated young women here who says she wants to remain within
the Kalash community and uphold its centuries-old traditions. Shaira, who holds a master’s degree in international
relations from the University of Peshawar, says her older sister eloped with a young Muslim man from the
southeastern Sindh Province a year ago. The family has only spoken with the sister periodically. The young man’s
family strictly follows Islam and does not want her interacting with “infidels,” Shaira said, adding that she
herself wants to marry a Kalash man.
“My culture gives me the freedom to choose my life partner, and if I am not happy with him, I have the right
another man. No other religion or culture gives me that choice.”
The Kalash are distinct from the rest of Pakistan not only in terms of their religion, colorful dresses, and
comparatively fair skin, but
also with their liberal approach to marriage. A woman is free to marry for love, and if she sours
her husband, she is allowed to divorce him and even elope with another. The only condition is that the new husband
must pay a dowry to the previous one that is double the original.
In most of rural Pakistan, Muslim women largely remain behind the four walls of their homes, cover their faces in
streets and markets, and are not allowed to speak to men other than their close family members. Kalash women
interact with local and visiting men.
In rural areas, young Muslim couples who elope are sometimes targeted
in so-called “honor killings” — a practice putatively aimed at preserving a family’s honor that Pakistani
have tried to stem by introducing harsher punishments for these crimes.
“My culture gives me the freedom to choose my life partner, and if I am not happy with him, I have the right to
choose another man. No other religion or culture gives me that choice,” Shaira, who proudly wears traditional
robes and dresses, told RFE/RL.
While the Kalash are highly tolerant of other religions, the community’s elders have strictly prohibited the reentry
into their own by those who have converted to Islam. That move was driven in part to protect the converts from
potential reprisals for leaving Islam. Unlike blasphemy, apostasy is not punishable by death under Pakistani law,
but a 2013 Pew Research Center survey found
that 62 percent of Muslims in Pakistan are in favor of capital punishment for those who leave Islam
The crime rate is almost zero in the area, where the locals can enter one another’s homes without a knock. But in
2016, violent clashes — which prompted the ban on Tablighi in the area — erupted between Muslims and Kalash in
Bhamborit Valley after rumors that a 14-year-old girl had backtracked on her conversion to Islam and returned to
The girl, named Rina, later claimed at a news conference alongside Kalash and Muslim leaders that the violence was
the result of confusion over her choice of garb — and that she had not given up Islam.
“I wore the robe after a Muslim relative told me I was still a minor and could dress up in our traditional attire.
told me I could revert to Muslim shalwar-kameez dress once I had grown up, so I wore the dress,” she was quoted by the BBC as saying.
Attempts to locate Rina were unsuccessful, and locals declined to give details about her whereabouts.
A House Divided
Kalash men and women mingle at the flurry of festivals they stage throughout the year, where the
feasts are lavish and the wine flows. Singing and dancing are at the heart of these festivals celebrating
flowers, each of the four seasons, and the weather. At each event, the Kalash pay tribute to their gods and
including by sacrificing goats — as music from flutes and drums fills the air. The local Kalash museum features
other types of traditional instruments, but almost no one knows how to play them.
The mood is even celebratory when someone dies. The Kalash take the body to the temple, known as Jastkan, and
community members from all three valleys to dance and sing around the recently deceased for two days. The burial
marked with a large feast for which dozens of goats are sacrificed to feed the guests, who use song to praise the
The final annual festival each year, a week-long celebration, known as Chomas in the mountainous world of the
begins on December 16. Like other festivals throughout the year, it features song and dance and animal sacrifice.
Chomas, the Kalash ask their deities to protect them from a cold and snowy winter.
One unique feature of this winter festival is that the Kalash and Muslims are segregated for a three-day period
during the festivities. The Kalash living in the predominantly Muslim part of the village leave their homes to
their fellow pagans for the festivities, while the Muslims in the Kalash section voluntarily leave their homes as
Iqbal Shah and his family live in the home of his father, Bilal, which stands in the Muslim section of Krakal some
meters from the mosque that Bilal takes his adoring grandson Naveed to. On the first day of the most recent winter
Iqbal prepared to depart the home with his wife and family.
“This is now becoming pretty common in these valleys, because each family has [converted] Muslim members,” Iqbal
Just before Iqbal left the home with his wife and four children, Bilal kissed Naveed on both cheeks and bid
to half of his family.
“This was not happening a few decades ago,” Bilal said.
Bilal added that he prays that Allah will help other Kalash convert to Islam, and that such sendoffs “will not
“I invite them to Islam,” Bilal said. “What else can I do? I can invite them and only Allah can guide them to the