BATRIK, PAKISTAN — If Osama bin Laden is hiding in the remote mountains and valleys of Chitral, he has an ancient pagan race for uncomfortable company.
On the northwest tip of Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan’s Nuristan province, Chitral has long been thought a possible refuge for Mr. bin Laden, speculation that was re-ignited at the end of May by news reports of his presence there. The area is inaccessible, tucked into the high peaks and narrow valleys of the Hindu Kush range. From there, it would be easy to dodge through secret mountain routes between the two countries.
Chitral is the home of the Kalasha, a unique pagan civilization that has lived in the area for as much as 2,000 years or more.
According to locals, Mr. bin Laden sheltered with a Kalasha family in Chitral during his first Afghan jihad in the 1980s against the Soviet Union. But with his views having hardened since then, Mr. bin Laden is unlikely to feel at home now among a polytheistic people whose men and women mix freely.
The Kalasha are relaxed and music-loving, fond of wine and colourful display. Their culture faces pressure from an increasingly conservative mainstream in Pakistan, from militant Islam and from a planned new road that will open the door to the outside world.
There are only about 3,000 Kalasha, pushed into three tiny valleys in southwest Chitral, and they complain that even here their farm and forest lands are being taken over by an advancing tide of settlers. Today, they struggle to keep their faith and way of life alive, with creeping technology, poverty and the spread of Islam pushing their culture to the edge of extinction.
In recent times, the threat to the Kalasha has come from Afghanistan. From the 1950s, aggressive Afghan mullahs came to try to convert the remaining Kalasha. Geographically, Chitral is tied much more closely to Afghanistan than Pakistan. In winter, the only road out is through Afghanistan.
It was the coming to power of the Islamist Taliban movement in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s that finally threatened to annihilate the Kalasha, with their numbers dropping to about 2,500. Mosques and madrassas were established in the three Kalasha valleys with foreign funding. Extremist sermons were preached. Travel to Afghanistan became dangerous.
“During that period, the Kalasha’s lives were made miserable. The Taliban put a lot of pressure on them. There was also a lot of Arab money coming into the area, making it attractive to convert,” said Siraj ul Mulk, who runs a small luxury hotel in Chitral.
The proselytizing mullahs continue to gnaw away at the Kalasha, while the attractions of the modern world draw away the young. Muslim men from other parts of Pakistan come in search of pretty Kalasha brides. The suitors provide much-needed money to the woman’s family but they deprive the community of another member. Any young Kalasha woman who marries a Muslim must give up her faith.
Now, there is a fresh threat looming to the Kalasha and the Chitralis.
By the end of next year, a new land route will make access to Chitral from Pakistan much quicker, with the opening of the Lowari tunnel. The 8.6-kilometre passage through the mountains is a project of the Musharraf regime. The existing road, over the mountains, is also closed by snow for half the year. That means that food is in short supply in the winter months.
“There’s no doubt that the moment this tunnel is through, our culture [Kalasha and Chitrali] is ruined; iPods and teenagers will take over,” Mr. ul Mulk said. “But you have to make a choice, do you want culture or do you want food?”
The Kalasha have been described as an aboriginal people but they are more ancient civilization than primitive tribe. One legend has it that the Kalasha are the descendants of the army of Alexander the Great, who invaded India in the fourth century BC, while another story also has them coming from Thailand. No one really knows their origins.
Their religion may be a survivor of the early beliefs of the Indo-Persian area, embodying an early Hinduism and pre-Zoroastrian faith. The high point of the Kalasha civilization came between 900 AD and 1320 AD, when their kings ruled over much of present-day Chitral.
“It would be a great pity to lose one more ancient tribe [in the world],” said Greek aid worker Athanasios Lerounis, whose non-governmental organization has set up a museum for the Kalasha in Bumboret valley.