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Friday, March 07, 2008
Footloose: Greeks in Pukhtunkhwa? —Salman Rashid
Watching from the rooftop that April afternoon many years ago, I could see a clear Greek connection here; a worship of Dionysus. A reading of the DNA test report mentioned last week in this space shows that to be true. While the Kalasha have no Greek strain, many tested Pukhtuns doThe DNA tests I mentioned in my column last week that showed there was no Greek strain in the Kalasha people of Chitral brought up an interesting proposition from correspondent Lubi Uzunovski. She writes that the test does indeed show a total lack of Greek genetic traces among the Kalasha. But has anyone tested them for a possible genetic link with the Macedonians?She goes on that a bulk of modern Greek population is as recent to the region as about one hundred and fifty years and that they were Christian migrants from Asia MinorWhat does one make of this then? Who then were the people who lived in, say, Sparta or Athens over two thousand years ago when the Macedonian prince set out for India? I find Uzunovski’s idea about all modern Greeks being outsiders absurd for that hints at an unpopulated Greece in the classical age. Her suggestion regarding re-testing to establish a Macedonian connection certainly makes sense, however.That having been said, I nevertheless still maintain that history shows us, not even in the vaguest terms, that Alexander never led his army across the great snow-draped ridges of the Hindu Kush Mountains in mid-winter. On the contrary, his itinerary across modern NWFP and the rest of Pakistan is now virtually with any doubt and in it Chitral features nowhere. Historians bent upon ‘proving’ that Alexander was in Chitral hang on to one place name — just one. And that is Nysa which fits nicely with the village of Nisa on the road from Chitral to Mastuj and nearer to the latter.From my memories of 1986, Nisa is a delightfully sylvan spot where huge and luscious peaches, succulent apricots and riotously sweet mulberries and plums abound. And Nisa is where the average landlord will accost you, firmly grasp you by the arm and lead you home to feed you a lavish meal followed by platters of fruit picked straight off his trees. But then, if truth be told, that is what the whole lot of Chitralis are — and not just the well off ones like my good friend Siraj ul Mulk and his charming wife Ghazala. Even the poorest Chitrali will never let a traveller by without feeding him.But I digress; so back to the main story. It is delightful Nisa that tells the charlatan that Alexander was in Chitral because in the context of his Swat campaign, Alexander’s histories do mention a place called Nysa. If anything, that is the flimsiest of grounds to base a whole theory on. A careful reading of the histories show that this Nysa would have been somewhere in the modern district of Dir. But the reference is always vague and one can scarcely assign it a proper location in modern geographical context.So I return to my primary premise that the Greeks (or the Macedonians) did not cross the high ridges into Chitral. We know that a hundred and fifty years after Alexander, another branch of the Greeks who were the progeny of Seleucus Nicator, one of Alexander’s generals who inherited Syria and Persian after the passing of the conqueror, invaded Bactria (Balkh), Kabul and eventually overran Taxila. Indeed, their kingdom spread across all of modern Pakistan. Like Alexander, they too were not proper Greeks, but Macedonian. Scattered liberally across this great and wonderful land, they have left behind more than ample archaeological evidence of their long years here. In Chitral we have so far found no evidence of these latter Indo-Greeks.Back in 1999, I was in Bannu with my head full of descriptions of this wonderful, now sadly Talibanised, city left by Chinese pilgrims of the early Middle Ages. My guide, a local government official, initially failed to understand what it was I wanted to see. After several hours of bumbling about and one heated outburst between us, he drove me ten kilometres southwest of town to the village of Bhurt. There above the houses and amidst neatly parcelled farmland loomed a large clayey mound called Akra. I was eventually to learn that this was the remnant of a huge city that thrived from the 3rd century BCE (Indo-Greeks) through the Kushans, Parthians, Ghaznavides and into the time of Iyultimish. That is, this was a living city for a millennium and a half.Later that same evening I saw a spectacle in Bannu city. About sundown, Chowk Bazaar in the city started to fill up with lean-bodied young Pukhtun lads. Soon it was a milling, pressing multitude so my guide and I climbed the roof of a roadside build to witness the proceedings. Here were dancing processions complete with drummers and pipers each led by a beaming, glowing young man bedecked with garlands of marigold and rose with his friends on either side of and behind him. Pukhtuns being what they are, they sported their garlands over one shoulder and below the other crossing their chests with them, just as they would wear their bullet-studded bandoliers.The entire bazaar was virtually choked with such processions and the din of music and the roar of young, jubilant singing and talking was ear-splitting. Though there must have been nearly twenty such processions in that tight little bazaar, there was no harsh word, no scuffling. There was very palpable air of goodwill and merriment. If it got too crowded, arriving processions patiently waited their turn for room to be made before they entered with their own music and dance. And going around all this were copious (that is an understatement!) amounts of confectionary. Among much laughter and joshing, virtually tons of gulab jamun and barfi were forced by friends down each other’s gullets.The heavily flower-bedecked leader of each procession was the soon-to-be groom. For long years it had been tradition that the young groom would celebrate his impending wedding by leading his friends in a musical procession to let the world know that the big day had come for him. As I watched from the rooftop the orgies of gaiety, song, dance and eating, I suddenly saw in them undertones of a Dionysian revel from the distant past when Bannu occupied the now ruined and deserted mound of Akra by the village of Bhurt.When the Greeks were here, they would have indulged in similar revels to please their god Dionysus. Then there would have been bulging wine-skins, not mere cardboard boxes of confectionary. There would have been women also and all and sundry well and properly inebriated. But they all, every single one of them, would have been decked with garlands just as these jubilant Pukhtun lads were in the spring of 1999. Over the years the wine-skins may have given way to pitchers of bhung or perhaps vast quantities of hashish. But with the coming of the hypocritical dictatorship of the late 1970s, the Pukhtuns settled for confectionary — though it is another thing what they would consume in private.Watching from the rooftop that April afternoon many years ago, I could see a clear Greek connection here; a worship of Dionysus. A reading of the DNA test report mentioned last week in this space shows that to be true. While the Kalasha have no Greek strain, many tested Pukhtuns do.Salman Rashid is a travel writer and knows Pakistan like the back of his hand.
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