The Hindu Kush, which cuts through Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, is inhabited by extraordinary multi-ethnic tribes.
Among them are the reclusive Kalasha tribes that inhabit three major valleys at the foot of the Hindu Kush range.
Some 50km away from Chitral, the administrative centre of this far-northern region, the valleys – Rumbur, Bumburet and Birir – are peopled by about 4000 Kalash of Hellenic origins.
They are battling to preserve their cultural identity from an onslaught of foreigners, researchers and development workers.
The origins of the Kalash have remained the subject of intense academic debate, but Anees Umar, a Kalash schoolteacher, has no doubts about his Greek roots.
“I think these people are descendents of Alexander the Great, because I found similarities in Greece. The Ancient Greek culture was similar to the Kalash people,” he says.
The Kalash are animists living in the pre-dominantly Muslim Pakistan and several local and foreign groups are endeavoring to assist their community.
They believe the earth is the real heaven; they interpret the fruit orchards, waterfalls and the snow-melt streams running through the valleys as “the god’s bounty”.
Their religion is based on nature and the major god is Koda (Sajigor).
“It is a strange belief, which makes Kalasha religion different and somewhat intricate, inviting researchers to explore the still unexplored facets of the mysterious lifestyle there,” says Pakistani writer Mughees Baig.
Tourists could swamp Kalashas
Curiosity had taken Baig to the three Kalash valleys and he returned stunned with the beauty of the region.
Some of the traditions in the areas are quite strange.
The Kalashas, for instance, maintain Bashali, the house of isolation, where women going through their menstrual period and pregnancy are put in.
Kalasha belief treats such women as impure, and bars them from interacting with other members of the society during that particular period.
Moreover, a pregnant woman, accompanied by a midwife must stay there at least for one week after her delivery.
The Kalash think of themselves as fun-loving people. To mark the advent of the new season, they celebrate four festivals – even in sub-zero temperatures in winters – involving religious rituals, music and dancing.
Wine-making is another passion of the Kalash community, which they do during the festivals.
Even a male Kalash’s death is accompanied by drumming, dancing, and aerial shooting. Yet, a female death within the community is a serene and silent affair.
The burial takes place the third day, by sunrise.
Afterwards the Kalash ‘purify’ themselves in the river – a tradition strikingly similar to that of Hindus, who take a dip into the Ganges for “Ashnaan” – the holy bath on or before important social occasions.
Located in the remote and hard-accessible areas through a narrow winding dirt road, cut at place out of extended rocks, the Kalash valleys have until recent past been a big attraction both for tourists and anthropologists.
Under threat by economic realities, some Kalash believe foreign tourism might be their ultimate saviour.
Hotels and guest houses now rise across the Kalash valleys – despite bitter opposition from the Greek aid workers.
German and Greek scholars and anthropologists think this might endanger the fundamental character of the Kalash community. They are busy building schools and clinics adorned with “traditional Kalash” Ionic columns.
“Tourism has destroyed my culture. Of course tourism gives us money, but little by little Greek culture is finished because of tourism. If it happens here, the Kalash tradition will also be finished” says Athanasios Lerounis of the group Greek Volunteers.
But there is indigenous opposition even to this style of development and preservation.
“Tourism has destroyed my culture. Of course tourism gives us money, but little by little Greek culture is finished because of tourism. If it happens here, the Kalash tradition will also be finished”
“They are building in a Greek way – but I think that’s not fair. They should build schools like Kalash way,” Mark Corcoran, an American journalist working for the ABC-News quoted a Kalash villager as complaining.
Saif Allah Jan, a local activist, criticises the foreign initiatives as “needless interference in the Kalasha religious culture.”
“We don’t need to be told what we already know ourselves…we don’t need to be shown pictures of what we can see every day…we need no more NGOs,” Jan says in a reference to scores of foreign-funded projects for the socio-political uplift as well as awareness on environment.
Jan has himself launched some education and health-related programmes in Kalasha language to familiarise poor and ignorant people with concepts such as hygiene and environmental protection.
Despite its cultural attraction, tourist traffic to the Kalash region has plummeted by 70% in the past two years as a result of the fallout of 9/11.
As a consequence of the US declared “war against terrorism”, and a series of attacks in Pakistan on western targets, the United States and leading European nations have been advising their nationals after 9/11 against travelling to Pakistan.
“Over 2500 foreign/domestic tourists used to visit Kalash valley alone before 9/11, but the figure dropped considerably thereafter,” said a spokesman for the state-run Pakistan Tourism development Corporation (PTDC).