Alexander's Reputed Kin Cling on in Mountain Idyll

High in the Hindu Kush, in a land that time forgot, live remnants of a tribe some believe descends from the ancient armies of Alexander the Great.

The Kalasha, who number only about 3,500 in all, are the last survivors of Kafiristan, a land that once extended from eastern Afghanistan into present-day Pakistan's northern Chitral region.

In the 19th century British Empire, Kafiristan was thought so remote and mysterious Rudyard Kipling chose it as the setting for his adventure story "The Man Who Would be King," which became an film starring Michael Caine and Sean Connery in the 1970s.

Today the land of the Kalasha is confined to three valleys -- Birir, Bumburet and Rumbur -- hidden up steep mountain tracks southwest of the town of Chitral.

To outsiders, it's a paradise of turquoise rivers and verdant valleys overlooked by snow-capped peaks, for all the world like a latter-day Garden of Eden.

But the tranquillity and beauty mask pressing problems of a tribe fighting for survival.

The Kalasha are non-Muslims in an Islamic state and last year, the province in which they live -- North West Frontier -- came under the control of Muslim groups accused of trying to emulate the intolerant Taliban who ruled Afghanistan.

The intricately embroidered, rainbow-colored costumes and headdresses of the Kalasha women set them apart from the majority Muslims.

The women, some with fair hair and blue eyes, forgo the veils worn by Muslims and even draw attention to their faces with blue tattoos made from mulberry juice and eyeliner made from crushed goat's horn.

The former Kalasha state, Kafiristan, meant literally "land of the infidels," and the tribe suffered severe persecution in the past at the hands of the Muslim majority.

In more recent years, they lived largely undisturbed in a traditional, self-sufficient agrarian society operating on age-old collectivist principles with virtually no need for money.


That started to change in the late 1970s when new roads made the valleys more accessible to outsiders and enabled the tribal people to travel into Chitral to market crops like maize and wheat, walnuts, apricots and mulberries.

Better communications made the tribe vulnerable to energetic efforts by Muslim extremists, as well as Christian missionaries, to convert them from traditional beliefs.

As non-Muslims, Kalasha face discrimination when it comes to finding jobs, so many find life easier if they convert. If they do, they are no longer considered members of the tribe.

Activists say that while the population is rising, conversions mean the size of the tribe has stayed static and Kalasha are now outnumbered by Muslims in their valleys.

Lakshan Bibi, 25, is one of the few Kalasha who has managed to break out of a cycle of poverty and discrimination that has made the tribe second-class citizens in the land they used to rule.

The daughter of a local politician, she persevered with her education and eventually became a pilot. But she gave up the prospect of a lucrative career to fight for Kalasha rights.

"I wanted to get an education and to educate people in the area and tell them that if you get an education then you will have power so that you can speak for your rights without being pressurized by society or government agencies," she says.

"If I had left, people would have thought that 'she has left us and forgotten our existence, so why should we bother sending our children to school?'."


She said she was concerned that the hard-liners in the new provincial government might step up the conversion drive.

"It really becomes a problem for the Kalasha people to survive. I am concerned and worried. They should accept the Kalasha as human beings and not interrupt their religion."

Bibi has found standing up for tribal rights a risky business: earlier this year, six armed men attacked the guard at her home in an apparent attempt at intimidation.

Another Kalasha representative, Saifullah Jan, said resisting conversion was difficult for many.

"We are in a minority here and there are less opportunities for many things, whether it's a government job or in business."

The Kalasha used to make some money from tourism, but that dried up when foreigners stopped coming to Pakistan after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States in 2001.

The Kalasha were a popular draw, given their colorful clothes, love of festivals and reputed ancestry to Alexander's invading armies of more than 2,000 years ago, even if the reality might be more prosaic, with some anthropologists suggesting a Central Asian origin.

In any case, the Kalasha complain that little of the income that did come in from tourism actually found its way to the tribe, staying instead in the hands of tour operators.

To reduce an unemployment problem forcing many members of the tribe to leave the valleys to seek work in big cities, the Kalasha want to see the government offer them job quotas.

There is little optimism these will come about.

"We are just unbelievers -- we are Kaffirs," said Saifullah. "So who is going to pay us attention? You know the majority always try to eat the minority everywhere."

But Saifullah said the Kalasha would survive, one way or another. "Nobody can impose anything new on us, we have our own way of life," he said.