Culture and language of the Kalasha

Denmark has a special connection with the Kalasha people in northern Pakistan. The Danish scholar of religious sciences Halfdan Siiger visited the Kalasha people in 1948, and he wrote a book – not yet published – about their religion. Later, the anthropologists Mytte Fentz and Svend Castenfeldt undertook field work in the Kalasha valleys. They wrote several articles and books about their observations, in particular Myth Fentz’s wonderful book The Kalasha: Mountain People of the Hindu Kush, published in Denmark at Forlag Rhodes.

fentz the kalasha 1
Mytte Fentz’ book on the Kalasha people

The Moesgaard Museum in Aarhus possesses a lot of objects from the people, including some gand’aw, or wooden sculptures of ancestors. In addition, Copenhagen linguist Ida Mørch and Jan Heegård visited the area and studied the Kalasha language, and wrote articles and more about it. Recently, Jan Heegård has published a collection of Kalasha texts in a Copenhagenbased international linguistics journal Acta Linguistica Hafniensia. And in 2016 a book was published about Halfdan Siiger’s life and works, with some articles about the Kalasha people and their language. Sometimes Kalasha people visit Denmark in order to collaborate with anthropologists, historians, museums, and linguists.

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Halfdan Stiger studied the old religion of the Kalashas
Jan Heegård studied the Kalasha language

Why are the Kalasha so interesting? Firstly, they have preserved their traditional religion. They are the only ones who have held their original religion in an area where everyone else has converted to Islam. Secondly, their appearance is special. The women’s colorful clothes are very nice and many men and women really look very European. Indeed, there are some Europeans who say that Kalasha or some other tribes in the Himalayas are their descendants. Alexander the Great from Macedonia took a major army to the Himalayas, and has left a lasting impression with a number of peoples in Asia: they still tell stories about “Sikandar” (Alexander) who came to their territories many years ago. And the Kalasha people are one of them. Some people also claim that they descend from Alexander the Great’s soldiers. And the Kalasha grow and drink wine.

Scholars today really do not know what language Alexander the Great spoke, but probably he did speak Greek. Not surprisingly, the Greeks, but also some people in Macedonia, or FYROM, or Republic of North Macedonia, have a special interest in the Kalasha people, like their lost brothers, or cousins, in the Himalaya. The Greeks have sponsored a Kalasha Museum in the Kalasha Valley, and there have been Greek teachers visiting – one of them was even abducted by Taliban.

And now a book about Kalasha has been published in Greece. The book is written in English, evidently for the international market. Authors are a team of a Greek linguist and a Kalasha cultural activist. It is not clear how their role distribution was.

The first chapter deals with the original Kalasha religion (it has to be said that a minority of the Kalasha converted to Islam) and the origin of the people, while the next three chapters describe the rituals that they observe in the spring festival, autumn festival, winter festival and traditions of the highlights of life: birth, first teeth, their special clothes, finding a partner, weddings, death, mourning. The last chapter deals with women’s roles and men’s roles. The sexes are relatively equal, even though men and women mostly have very separate tasks in the local society. In addition, there are hundreds of very beautiful photos that illustrate many events described in the text.

Descriptions are detailed and without theoretical reflection. Fortunately, I would say, we do not know what Bourdieu, Foucault or Derrida would have thought about these rituals and customs.

When you read the text and look at the pictures in the book, it is as if the Kalasha people live in another age and in complete isolation. The descriptions in the book focus on special events, not on daily life or family life. On the pictures there is no radio, television, car, or mobile phone. The most modern item visible is an iron oak or cookware made of metal. In addition, it’s as if they make everything themselves: clothes, beds, decoration, houses, really everything.

What is interesting in the book for language users? On each page, many Kalasha words are used to describe tools, clothes, animals, for example. There are also citations from ritual songs in the text. In addition, there are some transcripts of improvised songs and a traditional narrative as an appendix, all along with English translations. This would not be enough to learn the language, but it’s good for language nerds to try out which words mean what, and whether there is a case ending and how the verbs are conjugated. There are also other materials for language learning.

The Kalasha language otherwise does not play a very big role in the book; rituals fill more. We are told that, according to their own survey of 2008, there are about 3,000 people who speak the language (more precisely 3,998 in 2008). And it’s a threatened language: people who convert to Islam, quit using the language. In addition, in one of their videos, the Taliban threatened the entire infidel Kalasha people with death via a fatwa. After conversion, people switch to Urdu (one of Pakistan’s official languages) or Khowar, the locally important language in that part of the Himalayas.

The authors write that Alexander the Great had built 70 colonies in Bactria (Central Asia) and India. And so they write “Hellenic influence on the Kalasha is indisputable”. What is the evidence? Some objects have names similar to the Greek, there would be Greek toponyms in the area, and they have found otherwise unspecified Greek influences in both vocabulary and grammar of the Kalasha language. I am skeptical. Some rituals, such as those around wine, resemble those of ancient Greek God Bacchus. There are unfortunately too few examples of these influences.

The book is read easily, the pictures are interesting and generally of good quality.

Peter Bakker is a linguist at Aarhus University. Some years back he organised a summer course in fieldwork where Kalasha was the field language.


About the book:

Elizabeth Mela-Athanasopoulou & Taleem Khan Bazik.

The Kalasha of the Hindukush, Himalayas.

Athens 2017: Eleftherudakis.

ISBN: 978-960-200-191-2

223 pages.

Read more: Kalasha Grammar Based on Fieldwork Research, by Elizabeth Mela-Athanasopoulou. Thessaloniki: University Studio Press.

kalasha grammar

Kalasha texts – With introductory grammar. Petersen, Jan Heegård; Khan, Ghulam Sikander (Translator); Nabaig, Nabaig (Translator); Khan, Taj (Translator). Special issue of Acta Linguistics Hafniensia. London / Copenhagen: Routledge, 2015. 275 p

In the Footsteps of Halfdan Siiger – Danish Research in Central Asia, ed. By Ulrik Høj Johnsen, Armin W. Geertz, Svend Castenfeldt and Peter B. Andersen. Aarhus: Moesgaard Museum.

See also: Kalasha In Denmark, 2010:

Oliver Stone’s film about Alexander the Great is boring; do not watch it.


5 thoughts on “Culture and language of the Kalasha”

  1. Danish scholars have contributed a lot to the knowledge on the Hindukushs region. The First Hindukush Cultural Conference was held at Aarhus in 1970. We the people of Chitral, Pakistan have been trying to uphold this academic tradition, and have held three more such conferences since then. The latest was held here in Chitral in September this year. Prof. Birgitte Glavind Sperber was one of the keynote-speakers of the conference.


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