EARLY in the 19th century the Sikh army of the great Ranjit Singh found its advance blocked by a swollen stream. On the far bank several dozen tribal Pathans rounded up a few cows - an animal sacred to Sikhs - killed them, roasted their meat, and stood defiantly munching kebabs and shouting insults. Into the stream went several companies of Sikh infantry; they were swept away and drowned. Only when a squad of cavalry came out of the woods and struggled across did the Pathans meet their fate. The anecdote speaks volumes about the fiercely independent Pathans, who remain largely outside the control of Pakistan's central Government. The Raj had great difficulty subduing them, and Islamabad today grants them autonomy in designated tribal areas in return for peace. Though many Pathans have come down from the hills, others still govern themselves in the time-honoured ways of their various tribes. The Pathans of Pakistan and Afghanistan constitute the largest population in the world still living tribally. To know Pathan history is to feel they probably never will be fully integrated into Pakistan. 'The tribesmen, active in mind and body, lead appallingly dull lives in their barren hills,' wrote British officer Sir John Maffey to Viceroy Reading in 1922. 'They fidget the triggers of their rifles till their fingers itch.' Pathans are 'tribesmen first, Muslims second', they say. They live with a sly twinkle in their eyes and an ineradicable love of freedom in their hearts. 'They seem invincible in a way,' says Peter Johansen, a scholar studying them. 'They maintain an ironic distance to things.' On a recent ride from the town of Darra to Peshawar, a police officer climbed on to the roof of a bus and tried to enforce his right to search for firearms and other contraband. The Pathan passengers teased him and laughed in his face. Pathans have little respect for authority. The story is told of the time a Southeast Asian monarch noted for his love of photography visited the Khyber Pass. He wanted to photograph a woman working in a field. Armed Pathans promptly appeared on the hillsides, determined to deal, if necessary, with the foreign king's effrontery if he did. A few weeks ago, to achieve the biggest drug bust in Pakistani history, 3,000 men of the Frontier Constabulary supported by armoured vehicles entered Chora in the Khyber Agency, in the first attempt to establish law there since the British time. They captured seven tons of heroin, 31 tons of hashish and 15 heroin laboratories. 'It's kind of a grey zone in the country,' says Mr Johansen. 'It is technically a part of Pakistan, but they have their own way of doing things.' Maffey, the British officer, noted the reasons he believed Pathans enjoyed warfare, including: 'It is a holy war against the infidel', 'the few who will be killed will go to paradise' and 'there will be a loot of rifles, ammunition, and stores'. Little seems to have changed in the seven decades since.