ON THE north-west tip of Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan's Nuristan province, Chitral has long been thought a possible refuge for Osama bin Laden.
Rendered almost inaccessible by the high peaks of the Hindu Kush range and narrow valleys, its secret mountain routes make it easy to dodge between Afghanistan and Pakistan. .
This district of North-West Frontier Province is the home of the Kalasha, a unique pagan community that has lived in the area for 2,000 years or more, and it is boxed in by an increasingly militant Islam. Thinly populated, Chitral covers 15,000 sq km, with war-torn Afghanistan to the north and west, and the extremist strongholds of Swat and Dir to the south.
This week, Afghan intelligence sources again named the area as a probable hiding place of the al-Qaeda leader. According to locals, bin Laden sheltered with a Kalasha family for some time during his first Afghan jihad, against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. With his now much more severe ideology, he would not be able to live easily among these polytheistic people, whose men and women mix freely.
Earlier this month, the Kalasha celebrated their spring festival, Joshi, with a verve and passion that few cultures, ancient or modern, could match. Men and women danced tirelessly to a pounding, primeval drum beat, haunting singing and rituals so old that their meaning is almost lost.
The women wear long black dresses with vividly coloured embroidery, their hair in long plaits and regal headdresses decorated with shells. Garish belts and layers of brightly coloured necklaces add to their exotic appearance. This is not a special costume for Joshi – it is what they wear every day. On their cheeks are painted dots and tattoos.
There are only about 3,000 Kalasha left now, pushed into three tiny valleys within Chitral by the advancing tide of settlers. There, they struggle to keep alive their faith and way of life, with creeping technology, poverty and the spread of Islam pushing their culture to the edge of extinction. But last week's Joshi showed Kalasha traditions remain strong and utterly unlike anything seen in the rest of Pakistan – perhaps unlike anything anywhere in the world.
"This is a religious ceremony. It celebrates spring. It is not a festival, it is much more than that – there is a spiritual meaning behind it," said Tach Sharakat, a Kalasha man, who is one of the few members of his community to receive a foreign university education.
One legend has it the Kalasha are the descendants of the army of Alexander the Great, who invaded India in the third century BC. No-one really knows their origins. Their religion may, in fact, be one of the early beliefs of the Indo-Persian area, embodying an early Hinduism and pre-Zoroastrian faith. They are known as kafirs – infidels – to most Pakistanis, but call themselves Kalasha.
Mr Sharakat thinks he is in his late twenties, but, as the Kalasha do not record birth years, he and other members of his race can only guess at their age. They do not have a written language, so all knowledge has been handed down by word of mouth.
That is why celebrations such as Joshi are so important to the Kalasha. It is a way of passing on their culture to younger generations. While it is easy to be mesmerised by the joyous dancing, round and round, the really important message is coming from within the circle, where old men in long golden coats sing and chant the Kalasha beliefs and narrate their history. The dancers then take up the song.
These are a people who love drinking wine – banned in Islam – and who can freely choose their husband or wife: arranged marriages are the norm in Pakistan. The women make no attempt to hide their faces and dance with gaiety in public, a sight now so rare in increasingly conservative Pakistan that it is shocking for most of their countrymen.
Bewildered Muslim tourists from other parts of the country, typically groups of men, stare at the festivities, seemingly unable to fathom that this, too, is a religion. Islamic culture is totally dominant in Pakistan and religious minorities are few. It seems it is lurid tales of the Kalasha women that have brought them here, confusing the women's freedom for free love.
"We marry who we like," said Gul Shaheen, a young teacher. "And there are no class distinctions in the marriage match. It does not matter if you are rich or poor. If a girl is ill-treated, she can leave for another man."
The three-day festival moves from valley to valley, with the Kalasha all gathering in one place each day, for the singing and dancing.
One reason the culture has been preserved is its geographical isolation. But that is coming under threat from domestic tourism – few foreigners venture to Chitral since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Much more serious disruption will follow, from the opening of a simple land route into Chitral, through the Lowari Tunnel, which should be completed by the end by next year.