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The fate of the Kalasha

The Kalasha of Pakistan face threats on several fronts.

NORTHWEST FRONTIER PROVINCE, Pakistan — High in the Hindu Kush Mountains of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, about 25 miles on harrowing dirt roads from the nearest city, Chitral, live the Kalasha people.

Though they once numbered in the tens of thousands, the Kalasha have seen their numbers dwindle over the past century. No census has been performed since 1998, but most experts put the current Kalasha population at about 3,000.

The polytheistic Kalasha — whose women wear vibrant-colored embroidered dresses and beaded headdresses called “susutr" — are viewed with both admiration and suspicion by the Islamic majority. As militant Islam gains hold in regions surrounding the Kalasha — most recently with Pakistan's cease-fire agreement with the Taliban in the nearby Swat Valley — the fate of Pakistan's indigenous tribes hangs in the balance.

The conflict between Islamic militants and the Pakistani military in this region has killed hundreds of civilians and created a refugee situation that Doctors Without Borders put on their annual top-10 list of under-reported humanitarian crisis.

After tens of thousands of Kalasha people, also called Nuristanis, were forcibly converted to Islam during the last century, only a few thousand retain their ancestral religion and traditions.

Wynn Maggi, anthropologist and author of "Our Women Are Free," says they were "brutally and forcibly converted to Islam, horribly persecuted, put in jail ... the Kalasha suffered a lot in their history.” Kalasha women were sometimes abducted and forced to marry Muslim men. Stories circulated of Kalasha men being forcibly circumcised.

With their light coloring — some even have blue eyes — the Kalasha are rumored to be the descendants of Alexander the Great’s army, which conquered the Hindu Kush along with “the known world” in the 4th century B.C. In Kalasha oral history, the people are the children of "Salaxi," their name for Alexander.

Most scientists and anthropologists dispute the legend: No genetic ties between Kalasha and Greeks have been discovered, and scientists believe the Kalasha are Indo-Aryans whose religion has some commonalities with pre-Zorastrian Iranians.

But regardless, the legend once lured busloads of Greek tourists to the valleys, seeking a link to their ancestral past.