An Oasis Of Indicness: How The Kalash Of Pakistan Are Battling Extinction 

by Mallika Nawal - Jul 15, 2018 11:17 AM +05:30 IST
An Oasis Of Indicness: How The Kalash Of Pakistan Are Battling Extinction Girls and boys from the Kalash tribe during the Joshi spring festival on 15 May 2008 in the remote Chitral village of Rumbur in northwestern Pakistan. (John Moore/GettyImages)
  • The Kalash kafirs of Pakistan, who practise an ancient form of Hinduism, are facing an existential crisis and are being forced to convert to Islam.

George Orwell once said: “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” Which is why it almost became my Orwellian neurosis to work on this piece in pursuit of a simple truth… in search of the kafirs of the Hindu Kush. (Or were they Hindus of the Hindu Kush?)

The Hindu Kush, which was referred to as Caucasus Indicus by the ancient Greeks, is an 800-kilometre mountain range that runs from central Afghanistan to northern Pakistan. Even as a young child, I remember asking my father, a veteran journalist and an ardent historian, “Why was Hindu Kush called the Hindu Kush?” Frankly, I don’t remember his explanation, although I’m sure he’d surely have offered me one. When I went back in search of the long-lost explanation, I was amazed at the myriad theories, which I found by happenstance in a popular book called Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, and of Kindred Terms, authored by Colonel Henry Yule and Arthur Coke Burnell in the year 1886:

“Hindoo Koosh [sic], n.p. Hindu-Kush: a term applied by our [British] geographers to the whole of the Alpine range which separates the basins of the Kabul River and the Helmand from that of the Oxus. It is, as Rennell points out, properly that part of the range immediately north of Kabul, the Caucasus of the historians of Alexander, who crossed and re-crossed it somewhere not far from the longitude of that city. The real origin of the name is not known; [the most plausible explanation is perhaps that is a corruption of Indicus Caucasus]. It is, as far as we know, first used in literature by Ibn Batuta, and the explanation of the name which he gives, however doubtful, is still popular…

“c. 1334 — ‘Another motive for our stoppage was the fear of snow; for there is midway on the road a mountain called Hindu-Kush, i.e. “the Hindu-Killer", because so many of the slaves, male and female, brought from India, die in the passage of this mountain, owing to the severe cold and quantity of snow.’ — Ibn Batuta, iii. 84. The Britannica, however, asserts that the name Hindu Kush derives from the Arabic for ‘mountains of India’, whose earliest known usage occurred on a map published around 1000 AD.”

Whatever be the genesis of its name, the fact remains that the high passes of the Hindu Kush were of great military significance to invaders like Alexander the Great, Timur (Babur’s ancestor) and then Babur himself, for it was the Hindu Kush that provided them access to the plains of India; which is why it should come as little surprise that the Britishers too were concerned with the security of its passes.

Thus, it is with the advent of the British that we finally begin to collect the first few pieces of this interesting anthropological puzzle of Kafiristan, or the “land of infidels”. The man who made it possible was Mountstuart Elphinstone, who entered the civil service with the British East India Company in 1795 and was primarily responsible for the creation of a British administrative system in the Maratha territories annexed in 1818. It was in his book, An Account of the Kingdom of Caubul [Kabul], where we first find the mention of the siah-posh kafirs or black-clad infidels.

According to Colonel H C Tanner (1881), however, “He [ie Mountstuart Elphinstone, who was a British envoy to the then Afghan ruler] had neither visited them [ie the kafirs] nor seen more than one of their tribe; he knew their geographical situation only vaguely, and little of their history. He notes, [however], that they were pagans, in constant hostility to the Mahommedans, and that their numerous languages had all a near connection with Sanskrit”. [“Notes on the Chugani and Neighbouring Tribes of Kafiristan”, from proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography]

Twenty years subsequent to Elphinstone, the British explorer Sir Alexander Burnes became interested in Afghanistan and spent three years in Kabul, where he too encountered the siah-posh kafirs and described them as people of exquisite beauty, with arched eyebrows and fair complexions. A native of their country seen by Burnes at Kabul was a remarkably handsome young man, tall, with regular Grecian features, blue eyes, and fair complexion. [Tanner (1881)] [Note: He was knighted for his explorations, but met a dreadful end when he was hacked to death in Kabul by an Afghan mob in 1841 along with his younger brother and staff.]

Subsequently, in 1859, in Notes on Kafiristan, Captain H G Raverty, 3rd Regiment, Bombay, remarks on the meagreness of Sir Alexander Burnes’ references to the siah-posh kafirs and draws the reader’s attention to the criticism levelled by the Edinburgh Review, which, in the number for January 1835, called Burnes’ remarks on the siah-posh kafirs, or black-clad unbelievers as “infelicitous as well as scanty”.

Captain Raverty goes on further to write: “During a residence at Peshawar in 1849 and ’50, I naturally felt great curiosity respecting these interesting tribes, who, centuries ago, had resisted the hordes of Timur-i-Lang; baffled the legions of Akbar; and although surrounded on all sides by the fanatic, warlike, and ambitious enemies of their faith, have, up to the present day, preserved their independence.” However, he too did not make a personal visit to Kafiristan.

Thus, “it should be mentioned that the only previous European who had attempted to enter Kafiristan was General (then Colonel) Lockhart, when in command of a Mission to examine the Hindu-Kush passes in 1885-86. He had penetrated into the upper part of the Bashful Valley, and remained there for a few days; but jealousies having broken out amongst the Kafir headmen, he had been compelled to leave the country and return to Chitral.” (The Kafirs of the Hindu-Kush (1896), Sir George Scott Robertson, British soldier and author) Sir George became the first Victorian ever to tour the inhospitable terrain of Kafiristan in the year 1889.

Sir George writes: “It seems probable that eventually the view will be accepted that, to speak broadly, the present dominant races of Kafiristan, the Katirs, the Kam, and the Wai, are mainly descended from the ancient Indian population of Eastern Afghanistan, who refused to embrace Islam in the tenth century, and fled for refuge from the victorious Moslems to the hilly countries of Kafiristan.”

What Sir George alludes to with regards the kafirs’ ethnic origin may come as a surprise to all of us, who for some reason have come to accept and regard Afghanistan as a 100 per cent Islamic country for all intents and purposes. This despite the fact that we have evidence to the contrary. (Remember the towering Bamiyan Buddha statues at the foot of the Hindu-Kush that were blown to bits by the Taliban?)

Let me present another piece of evidence from the work of British physician and ethnologist, James Cowles Prichard (1786-1848) and British philologist and linguist, Edwin Norris (1795-1872), who write: “But the Siah-Posh, or the race of Kafirs who inhabit the high region of Kohistan, and the country on the Hindu-Kush, called from them Kafiristan [sic], afford the most striking and curious instance of a branch of the Hindu race settled for many centuries in a cold country, and existing under circumstances extremely different from those which surround the natives of Hindustan. The Siah-Posh, as it has been proved by Professor Ritter and the celebrated linguist Bopp, from the vocabularies obtained of their language, speak a dialect of the Sanskrit. They are undoubtedly a branch of the Indian race. They worship Mahadeo, but know nothing of the other Hindu gods, and have customs of their own.” (The Natural History of Man, 1843)

Moreover, if we were to turn to our own historical facts and texts, we would have plenty of reason to believe that the kafirs of the Hindu-Kush may actually be the Hindus of the Hindu-Kush. For example, the presence of the Ashoka pillar in Kandahar, Afghanistan, discovered in 1958, lends credence to the prevalence of Buddhism in Afghanistan (maybe now the Bamiyan Buddhas may not seem so surprising, after all). Thus, even before the arrival of Islam in the 7th century, many religions had found a home in Afghanistan, ranging from Zoroastrianism [Banting (2003), Runion (2007), Naweed (2013), and Levi-Sanchez (2016)], Sun worship and paganism [Markel (1995)], Buddhism [Huu Phuoc Le (2010)] and Hinduism, as already elaborated above.

Of course, with the prevalence of so many religions in pre-Islamic Afghanistan, one does wonder who the kafirs were. Were they followers of Zoroastrianism or Hinduism or Buddhism? Well, on the one hand, we have the British account, which claims they were followers of Hinduism. But what did the others [ie Non-British] think? After much digging around, I was able to find one contemporary and popular book that contained the thoughts of a French author, orientalist and antiquarian, James Darmesteter (1849-1894).

The book in point was actually written by our first prime minister. In Discovery of India, Jawaharlal Nehru remarks, “Among the many peoples and races who have come in contact with and influenced India’s life and culture, the oldest and most persistent have been the Iranians… Racially connected, their old religions and languages also had a common background. [Thus] The Vedic religion had much in common with Zoroastrianism, and Vedic Sanskrit and the old Pahlavi, the language of the Avesta, closely resemble each other… India [in fact] is mentioned in the Avesta…[and] in the Rig Veda there are references to Persia… The borderland areas of Kabul, Kandahar, and Seistan…were the meeting place of Indians and Iranians… Referring to these areas, the French savant, James Darmesteter, says: ‘Hindu civilisation prevailed in those parts, which in fact in the two centuries before and after Christ were known as White India, and remained more Indian than Iranian till the Mussulman conquest’.”

The same was also asserted by the noted linguist Richard Strand, who is regarded as an authority on the Hindu Kush languages, who claims: “Before their conversion to Islam the Nuristanis [former Kafiristanis] practiced a form of ancient Hinduism, infused with accretions developed locally.”

However, before their ethnographical identities could be firmly established or communicated to the rest of the world, the Kafirstan and its kafirs were lost forever. And Kafiristan (the land of infidels) officially became Nuristan (the land of light) in 1896. According to the United States Department of Justice website, “The Nuristanis’ scattered settlement is another result of Amir Abdul Rahman’s late-nineteenth-century expansionism. During his rule, what was then called Kafiristan was converted to Nuristan by forced Islamisation of the tribe.”

This forced conversion was also referred to by Sir George, who wrote: “If there be points of resemblance between present Kafir and ancient Greek sacrificial observances, and if certain of their domestic utensils — such, for instance, as the Wai wooden dish-stand — may seem fashioned in Grecian mould, it may fairly be conjectured that some of the Kafir tribes, at any rate, are still influenced, as the ancient Indian populations of Eastern Afghanistan were also influenced, by the Greek colonists of Alexander; and that these Kafirs having never been under the rule of Musalmans, may possibly represent some of the people of Eastern Afghanistan as they were before the victorious Moslem defeated and converted them to Islam.”

And just in case you’re now wondering what is the point of this article, if we have already lost the kafirs of the Hindu-Kush, let me give you some good news. We may have lost the kafirs of the Hindu-Kush in Afghanistan, but we still have an opportunity to save the kafirs of the Hindu-Kush of Pakistan.

Unbeknownst to the rest of the world, there is a tribe in Pakistan that lives high up in the mountains of Hindu-Kush and practise a pagan religion (ie a form of ancient Hindu religion as asserted by historians) called Kalash. In fact, on 2 February 2014, a news article in Daily Dawn highlighted how the Kalash tribe and Ismailies in Chitral were being coerced to convert to a different sect within Islam or to face death, which prompted the Pakistan Supreme Court to take suo moto cognisance. [Of course, many have already converted to Islam.]

Thus, numbering only a few thousand, these Kalash kafirs of Pakistan are facing an existential crisis and are being forced to embrace Islam, just as their Afghan kafir counterparts were. Hence, unless we do something about it, this tribe too would be rendered extinct. Alas, it’s unfortunate that we have legislation to save endangered species of animals, but cannot extend the same legislation to the kafirs of the Hindu Kush!

Mallika Nawal is a professor-cum-author, about to complete her doctorate in marketing from IIT Kharagpur. She is the author of three management books which serve as prescribed textbooks in several universities across India. She has taught at premier institutes like IIT Kharagpur, and S. P. Jain Centre of Management, Dubai.
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