“The Kalasha are not all being lost to conversions, that’s a story,” Maureen Lines says.

A well-known conservationist, author, a ‘barefoot doctor’ and photographer, Lines has seen it all, from up-close. She is an adopted member of the Kalasha – Pakistan’s, and perhaps one of the world’s, most intriguing tribes.

A north Londoner, Lines, who was granted Pakistani citizenship in 2004, candidly says it’s not the Taliban that are going to “kill off” the Kalasha, rather development in the “name of progress”.

In other words, ‘tourism not terrorism’ is the biggest threat to the Kalasha.

The fascination around the tribe has often centered around their rumoured ancestral links to Alexander the Great, their pagan lifestyle and the fact that they produce their own wine in the deeply conservative frontier regions. Their vibrant dress, Indo-Aryan features and hypnotic ritual dances have also added to the pull of tourists to Chitral and the Kalash valley.

Thus, when militants threatened this somewhat mysterious tribe, there was much media hype. Yet, amongst the ‘save the Kalasha’ clamour that followed, a vital aspect was missing from discourse – the land rights of the Kalasha and the issue of their displacement due to increased deforestation which is robbing them of their sustenance.

“All this worry of the Taliban, the real threat is the land problem,” says Lines. She goes on to add that hotels are taking up scenic land and illegal logging is leaving the area susceptible to flooding.

What is left for us? Our land is taken by strangers, our trees are used as pledges for a cap, we live like animals in a zoo, where the spectators stare at us. We are forced to dance for strangers and our women are troubled. All we want is to be left alone. (Ansaari, Bugi)

Along with land issues the sudden influx of outsiders has led to the building of “walls, hedges and boundaries”, slowly the entire social order of the tribe is going to change says Lines, who was taken in by a Kalasha family in 1981 and is popularly known as Bibi Dow in the valley.

Increasingly, such activity has started in the Bumburet (also spelt Mumret) valley of the Kalash region, which also consists of Rumbur (Ramboor) and Birir valleys. According to the Hindukush Conservation Association, the entire population of this region is around 10,000 people of which less than a third are the Kalasha.

With such a tiny population, and invasive development of the region by businessmen from outside of the province, many are afraid the Kalasha way of life may be a thing of the past very soon.

Education is the only way out

“We are survivours and we have survived for over 3000 years. The Kalasha people are not relics to be put up in museums,” an outspoken and defiant Sayed Gul Kalash says.

The 27-year-old Gul, who is the first Kalasha archaeologist and also the first scientist from her community, says a profound lack of education has kept her tribe ‘backward’ and unaware of their rights. Their centuries old traditions and history is yet to be accorded an official identity in the national database.

“I wouldn’t be anywhere if I hadn’t been educated. I value my traditions and realise the significance of our culture much more after being educated,” Gul, who as a strong representative of her community works to keep language, art forms and other elements of Kalasha heritage alive, adds.

“We have to get out and seek education and jobs but at the same time stay true to our values and cultures. There are many like me who are getting educated but not abandoning our way of life. In fact, we are better equipped to preserve our way of life.”

There have been calls to put the Kalash Valley and the Kalasha under the protection of UNESCO's World Heritage but before that they must be recognised and valued at home.

(Text by Taimur Sikander)