Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The old man of Ghund

Salman Rashid

When he was finally himself again, Baba Ghundi told the woman that under no circumstances was she to leave her home because he was bringing down a flood of mud and stones to destroy the evil folk of Chapursan. For her kindness, she alone was to be spared

Chapursan is a right picturesque valley that stretches from the Karakoram Highway at Sost a full sixty kilometres westward to the watershed of the 5185 metre-high Chilinji Pass. Well-watered by many silvery streams and fertilised by the fine loam left behind by a glacier that melted perhaps about four hundred years ago, Chapursan has rich farmlands and orchards. The people, of old Kirghiz stock who speak Wakhi, a language that descends from archaic Persian, are notable for their extreme hardihood and cheerfulness.

Nestling in remote Gojal (as the upper part of Hunza is known), few Pakistanis know of this little paradise. But some may instantly recognise Chapursan as the home of a man who has single-handedly won more laurels for Pakistan than anyone else: the valley is home to the dashing Nazir Sabir (of movie-star good looks to boot), who has climbed the greatest peaks not only at home, but is also the only Pakistani to have summitted Mount Everest.

But that is an aside; a mere introduction to Chapursan Valley. The central part of the valley is home to a tale that is shared by all the villages. This is the story of Baba Ghundi — the Old Man from Ghund. Ghund, they say, is a tiny village that lies somewhere across Wakhan. The Baba, so the tale goes, once came travelling through the valley.

Scenic Chapursan that seems so very much a part of paradise, was in those days afflicted by one terrible bane: the man-eating dragon that dwelt in one of the valley’s lakes and took a daily sacrifice from the people. Lots were drawn and one unfortunate person ordained by fate was left by the lakeshore to be taken by the monster. One day the victim, a young a beautiful girl, sat by the lake tearfully waiting to be devoured when Baba Ghundi chanced upon her and asked her why she wept.

Having heard out her story, the man told her to happily return home for the dragon had already eaten its last meal. With the girl gone, Baba Ghundi waited by the water and when the fiend emerged, hacked it pieces with his sword. There is of course the implication that the man was gifted with spiritual powers to have done what no one, not even the strongest brave in the valley, could do.

The people were overjoyed and asked the Baba what they could do for him. Nothing, said he. But whenever calamity befell them, they could invoke his name and he would return to help them. And the man walked off into the mountains. Time passed and gradually the memory of the saint’s benevolence waned and people began to doubt if he would ever return to help them. And so, simply in order to check the veracity of his promise, they one day called out to him. Sure enough the saint appeared but he took umbrage at the people’s frivolousness and strongly rebuked them before again going off.

The folks of Chapursan thought this was good fun. They repeatedly called to him and when he made an appearance they became increasingly abusive to the saint. The snapping point came when they pelted him with dung and stones. As he fled the malevolence of the very people he had only a few years before helped, he was rescued by an old woman (kampere in Wakhi). This kind-hearted soul took the man into her home, washed the filth off him and fed him on goat’s milk.

When he was finally himself again, Baba Ghundi told the woman that under no circumstances was she to leave her home because he was bringing down a flood of mud and stones to destroy the evil folk of Chapursan. For her kindness, she alone was to be spared. The saint left and not long afterwards there came tumbling down the valley a cataclysmic flood of rocks and mud. It obliterated all; fields, orchards, homes. All but Kampere Dayar — House of the Old Woman. To this day, a large, straight-sided rock is said to mark the site of the kind woman’s home.

To explain that the flood did actually take place, the good people of Chapursan solemnly point out the cones of sand and gravel and the huge stones that liberally litter the higher and middle part of the valley. These they tell you are the remnants of Baba Ghundi’s flood. There are also some who have lumps of calciferous rocks which they pass off as the bones of the dragon slain by the Baba. In fact, in Gulmit (in the main Hunza Valley), a hotel owner proudly exhibits these rocks as the dragon’s bones. But it is another thing that having named his hotel after Marco Polo, he tells you that Mr Polo was an angrez who passed through Gulmit in 1860 or thereabouts!

At the very western end of Chapursan, there sits the shrine of Baba Ghundi. Picture perfect under the grey wall of rock, the white-washed stone building with its pitched roof is a sight to see — especially when it is adorned with coloured flags for the annual festival. Even though they may have been rude to the old man in his life, the good folks of Chapursan now acclaim him as their patron saint.

We do not know who this man was, when he happened to be in Chapursan and how he died here. But there is in the valley a small side glacier known as Qalandar Goom — the Lost Saint. I suspect, that some poor soul of a wandering mendicant happened into Chapursan where he may or may not have been treated indifferently by the people. He may have come by an easier route, and got it into his head to exit by some difficult way that entailed a bit of glacier walking as well.

There he may have met his end, either because of exposure or by falling into a crevasse. The people of Chapursan may have recovered his corpse for burial. Conversely, the man may actually have made it across (slim chance, though), but because he never returned, it was believed he was lost on the glacier. Hence the name of the glacier and the shrine.

The dragon and flood story had to be invented to explain something that simple people did not understand: the great litter of rocks, sand and gravel. This is the debris of a glacier that once choked the entire valley, perhaps as recently as the 17th century, or even later. Any well-read and observant mountain-walker knows that as a glacier melts, it leaves behind mounds of material that actually looks like the remains of a flood. That is exactly what we have in Chapursan that had to be explained.

And so the story of the flood in return for the people’s cheekiness was invented. At hand were lumps of veined and porous calciferous rocks that, it must be admitted, would look like bones to the layperson. It is another thing that with bones like these, the poor dragon would have been a rather lumpy sort of shambling creature; scarcely the kind who could have chased and gobbled up a fleeing victim.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Let's eat ‘rice masaala’

Owais Mughal

In my not-so-limited vocabulary, Pakistani food can be divided into two categories viz., Any-day-dishes and Many-day-dishes.

Any-day-dishes are those for which one prays to God to get any day e.g. nihari, qorma, biryani, haleem, halwa puri etc.

Then there are Many-day-dishes. These are generally good for health therefore less popular. These are eaten widely because they are light on pocket and stomach. Once made, they usually last for many days, hence their title. To top this list are few like tinda, loki, kaddoo, torai, bengan, daal (lentils) etc. This situation reminds me of a sher:

ya rab meray naseeb meiN rizq-e-halal de
khaane ko qorma aur khilaane ko daal de

While many web sites are dedicated to the recipes of festive foods, we will today present to you a recipe’ of common food. Yes, it is a many-day dish and it is called ‘rice masaala’. To cook it is as simple as the equation: rice + masala = rice masala. The recipe’ is so simple that it has now made me think whether I should spend more time writing following post or not? I’ll give you a sneak peak of our final product. Please look at the photo below and then decide for yourself whether you want to read further or not. My ‘istehqaaq’ (I want to say ‘ego’) will not get ‘majrooh’ (hurt).

Congratulations! So you have decided to stay on and learn more about this dish. I will not disappoint you. Ok here we go.

Ingredients and Apparatus:

  1. Onion - one - mota wala (healthy one)
  2. Tomoatoes - four - medium and pilpilay (flubbery)
  3. Coriander leaves - one hundred - don’t count but visualize.
  4. Yogurt - plain - buy more - use less - only 4 spoons.
  5. White Rice - 1 glass - adjust the size of the glass according to family size.
  6. Olive Oil - 4 spoons - because cooking dil ka moaamla hai (is a matter of heart) and olive oil is good for your heart - wizarat-e-sehat ATP!
  7. Shan masala packet of any type of rice. I’ve used pulaao biryani.
  8. Pots and Pans: 1 Pot and 2 Pans

Step 1: Take an onion and cut an onion

It is better to cut the same onion that you took. Yes I am talking about the same one onion. Cut it so that it looks like the one shown in the photo to the right. This type of cutting is called ‘chop chop’ in English and ‘chaap-o-chaap’ in Urdu/Punjabi mix. Now you can ask me, why cut an onion first? Very good question - Very good question. You see, there is a story behind it. Our farigh readers should read the story and the time-constrained readers can jump to Step 2.

I first learned cooking at the tender age of 27. My cooking teacher was a good friend of mine, who by profession is also a rice scientist. I am not kidding. The rice fields near kala-shah-kaku, Lahore are partly the result of his research. His first sentence of my first cooking lesson was: dekheN! (respectfully look)..all foods in India-Pakistan sub-continent are onion based. We must cut an onion first no matter what we cook… To this I asked, but how do we cut an onion? And my teacher suddenly realized how difficult of a case he had on his hands. He was patient and I was keen so I finally learned cooking. I think I did. Anyways, from that day to this day I always cut an onion first, no matter what I cook. Sometimes I cut an onion and then realize that I was supposed to make dessert. Ok. see if you let me talk then we’ll never finish this recipe’. Let me now quicky go to step number two.

Step Two and Three: Cut 4 medium tomatoes and some coriander leaves.

To save everybody’s time I have decided to combine step 2 and 3. Look at the photo to the left below and look at the tomatoes infront of you. Do anything to make your tomatoes look like mine. If 4 medium tomotoes are not available then 2 large ones or 8 small ones will do. Now look at the photo to the right below. This is how washed and cut leaves of coriander should look like. Put coriander leaves aside now. We don’t need them until the very end.

Step Four: Put Onions in a Pan and Fry them

Photo to the left shows this step of cooking. I’ve used so little of olive oil that you cannot see it in the photo. But be rest assured that it is there. Just use bare minimum oil that is needed to fry the onions. Fry the onions until they start to become transparent. To test their transparency lift an onion piece with a fork and try to ’see through it’ towards an electric bulb. Of course you will fail, becuase I’ve tried and failed. Anyways, sometime soon the onion pieces will start to look like a little bit transparent i.e. translucent - in case you needed the exact scientific term. That’s it guys! Stop what you were cooking and now immediately go to Step 5 of this recipe’.

Step Five and Six: Put tomatoes and Yogurt in the Pan

..and continue to fry. The visual of this step is shown in the photo to the right. The goal of this step is to create an amalgum (or bubble gum) of onion-tomato-yogurt paste and add masala (spices) to it.

Now ’stir and wait’ for two minutes and then ‘wait and stir’ for two more minutes.

Look yonder! Lo behold. your paste is ready. Now pour half packet of Shan rice spice in it and ’stir and wait’ for 5 minutes. For a family of three, half pack of Shan spice is plenty spicy. Now that the ‘masala’ part of your ‘rice masala’ dish is ready, put it aside and concentrate on next step.

Step Seven: Cook White Rice

Take a pot. Don’t take the pan. Learn the difference between the two, if not known already. For me the easiest distinction is that if needed a pan can be used as a cricket bat - and I’ve used it as such (see #20 of this post by clicking here), where as a pot cannot. So now that we’ve got our pots and pans straightened out pour one glass of rice in the pot. Pour two glasses of water on it and boil on medium heat. Keep boiling until enough water has evaporated and you can see the surface of rice. Now cover the rice pot and reduce heat. Wait, wait and wait. Take a fork and pinch the rice from here and there to make sure water has evaporated all the way to the bottom of the pot. Your rice are now ready to be devoured. Make sure you don’t eat them too fast otherwise your mouth may get burned. kehtay haiN (it is said) that:

husn ko chahiye andaaz-o-adaa naaz-o-namak
kia hoa gar hoay chaawal ki tarah gaal sufaid

Step Eight: The Last Step

Take your second pan - which has remained empty and out of action so far.

  1. From the rice pot take some rice and spread in the empty pan
  2. From the masala pan. take some masala and spread as a layer over rice.
  3. From the rice pot take some more rice and spread over masala layer
  4. Repeat Step 2
  5. Repeat Step 1 through 4 until nothing is left in rice pot and masala pan
  6. Sprinkle one hundred coriander leaves on the top.

This is your finished product. Your very own dish of rice masala.

Following are two photos of ‘rice masala’ dish which I made few days ago. It indeed lasted ‘many-days’.

  1. Rice masala photo with Camera Flash ON
  2. Same Rice masala photo with Camera Flash OFF

khatam shud - The END {And now let's eat...}

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Built Heritage

Traveling through Pakistan countryside away from the main highways, it is best to keep remember that petrol stations are few and far between on relatively deserted roads. Also the road, drive slowly and keep close to the edge of your road when encountering large trucks. Watch out for animals transport and animals on the road. Be sure your motor vehicle is roadworthy. You do not want to suffer a breakdown anywhere back o’ Bourke, ie, away from civilization. Or else be ready to what happened to us while going to see the mosque in Bhong.



After having famous ‘Doodh Mesu’ from a hotel in Sadiq Abad, we turned off the Road towards village Bhong. In the areas as the harvest approaches, the traveller, especially in the irrigated tracts, ride through endless expanses of waving crops of different shades of colour, out of which the villages seem to rise like islets in an ocean of green. After the harvest all is changed: the dull brown of the fields is relieved by the trees, solitary or in groves and avenues, and by the hamlets and village ponds. Or one sees the haystacks and threshers kicking off dust.

The modern demographic trends are changing the relations between rural and urban areas. Insufficient infrastructure, non-existing civic services and lack of opportunities in rural areas have increased rural-to-urban migration. There is a lack of human capacity in the Punjabi villages in general.

Bhong Mosque is famous the world over. Late Rais Ghazi Mohammad, the direct descendent of Abbasi family of Bahawalpur and landlord of a large estate, began the mosque project in 1932 in Bhong village, the most important of the scattered villages on his vast property. The mosque was to be the most glorious building in his palace compound which also included a smaller mosque, a madrasa and rooms for students.

The work of specialists gathered from all over Pakistan and India (master masons and craftsmen from Rajasthan, calligraphers and painters from Karachi), the compound was designed and constructed over a period of nearly 50 years. And it is. Broadly assorted in their use of sources, the builders have combine stylistic elements from Lahore, as well as Iran, Spain and Turkey, and combined them with almost all known elements of the time. Materials and crafts used range from the traditional (teak, ivory, marble, coloured glass, onyx, glazed tile work, fresco, mirror work, gilded tracery, ceramic, calligraphic work and inlay) to the modern and synthetic (marbleised industrial tile, artificial stone facing, terrazzo, coloured cement tile and wrought iron). Only traditional materials were used in the mosque interiors. Gold leaves have been used for the intricate decorative work in the mosque which has made it famous. It is a site worth visiting for its beauty and the stylish calligraphic work.

The Bhong Mosque stands on a majestic citadel like a pearl. It is a part of a complex that consists of a prayer hall, library, a madrasa, and residential dormitories for students and visitors. The complex is utilized by the local population. The madrasa is functional, although with less importance than in the past when students came to the school from as far as Turkey, Afghanistan, and Iran.

Bhong Mosque received the Aga Khan International Award for Architecture in 1986. In the words of the jury: “Bhong (Mosque) enshrines and epitomises the popular taste in Pakistan with all its vigour, pride, tension and sentiment. Its use, and misuse, of signs and symbols expresses appropriate growing pains of architecture in transition.” Earlier, the shrine of Shah Rukn-e-Alam was given the prestigious Aga Khan award. The Tughlaq built shrine marks the climax of Multani architecture and is surprisingly original.

Since conference of award, the Mosque has become a site of interest for architects from all over the world. “To many architects and intellectuals, the Bhong Mosque complex is a product that negates the very purpose of an architectural enterprise rooted in the deep understanding of the culture,” writes steering committee member and architect Ismail Serageldin. “To many others, it is a wonderful, exuberant structure that evokes an almost palpable joie de vivre, and that represents a bow to the prevailing taste of its users,” stated (along with the majority’s final thoughts and statements) by Hans Hollein and the Turkish architect Mehmet Doruk Pamir in their work. Much more have been written by the international architectural press about the mosque that is a thing of beauty.

The Aga Khan International Award for Architecture, established in 1977 by His Highness the Aga Khan, recognises examples of architectural excellence that encompass contemporary design, social housing, community improvement and development, restoration, re-use, and area conservation, as well as landscaping and environmental issues. Through its efforts, the Award seeks to identify and encourage building concepts that successfully address the needs and aspirations of societies in which Muslims have a significant presence. The award enhances the understanding and appreciation of Islamic culture as expressed through architecture. Through its efforts, the Award seeks to identify and encourage building concepts that successfully address the needs and aspirations of societies in which Muslims have a significant presence.

Beyond the architectural wonder and potential for development of pollution free, serene and quite sleepy place, the village is a dwelling where farmers live like rustic in the face of modern urban attractions and in the state of total neglect. Main bazaar is lined with modest shops selling meat, sweets, fresh vegetables and other commodity items. There are few hotels. Sturdy tonga is the vehicle of convenience here for going to and coming from place to place. But the moment some automobile passes through the bazaar, it kicks thick clouds of dust that keep hanging for some time before it settles on eatables on sale in the open.

Tractors, Suzuki pickups and small tucks are edging out animal drawn carts seen roaming on the dusty trails and tracks of rural Pakistan now. But animal power can not be written off in and around Bhong village. Bullocks, donkeys, horses and camels drawn carts still move large quantity of freight in rural areas (as well as cities). They go where trucks can not go; they are cheap; they are invaluable when speed is not important. They have not outlived their utility so they will be with us for at least another 50 years.

Similarly, agricultural implements like axes; hatches, shackles and ploughs produced by village lohar (blacksmith) are being replaced by modern farming machinery. The tradesmen like lohar, tarkhan (carpenter), nai (barber) and darzi (tailor) traditionally working in the villages since centuries - mostly paid in the form of grain at the end of each rabi and kharif seasons - are no more pursuing their vocations. They are putting their children in schools for education, instead, And, without the agricultural land holding, it is easier for these tradesmen to shift to the cities. But the Bhong Mosque will stay there for ever for people to come and see.

It is on our way back that only seven kilometers from the National Highway, engine of our vehicle (RKR Toyota Jeep) coughed and died down. Driver opened the bonnet, fiddled around some and gave a blank look. Every one else also tried to figure out what has happened but no results till Captain Jamal pointed out that we should also check the petrol level. That was it. The driver was sent to get the petrol with empty container hanging at the back of the vehicle on a local bus who came after one and half hour. And while waiting under a shady tree, we had a cribbing and bickering session.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Salman Rashid on a line less travelled

Salman Rashid

From Bostan, a short way north of Quetta, the railway line stretches a full 320 km in a northeasterly direction through the picturesque valley of the Zhob River. By this relation, when the government laid it out in the 1920s, it was called the Zhob Valley Railway (ZVR). Because railway engineers of the time envisioned it penetrating through the narrow defiles -- so rugged that at that time they were deemed hard to be traversed by broad gauge locomotives -- between the Shinghar Mountains and the main massif of the Suleman Range to reach Dera Ismail Khan, they laid out the tiny narrow gauge.


Simultaneously, the line was also to penetrate across to the two Waziristans and eventually connect with Bannu. The narrow gauge connection between Bannu and Mari Indus, whence the broad gauge line went up to Cambellpur (Attock), would thus have made this the shortest connection between Quetta and Peshawar or Rawalpindi. But in the late 1920s, other imperatives came up followed by the onset of the World War. ZVR therefore never went beyond Fort Sandeman, as Zhob had been renamed by the Raj to commemorate one of its finest officers.

Now, time was when North Western Railway, the predecessor of today's Pakistan Railway, operated three different gauges of line. The broad gauge (5 feet, 6 inches) was the favoured gauge connecting most railway destinations. There was a metre gauge (3 feet, 3 inches) that operated in parts of Thar Desert in Sindh and there was the even smaller narrow gauge (2 feet, 6 inches) that ran in parts of Pukhtunkhwa and Balochistan. The ZVR connection between Bostan and Zhob town, a narrow gauge line, was the longest in this gauge in the subcontinent, perhaps also in the entire world.


I first travelled along this line in the autumn of 1993. At that time the line had been dead for about six years, the last passenger train having run early in 1985. For a year thereafter, freight trains continued to haul chrome ore mined near the town of Muslimbagh. But faster road transport that loaded at the mines and unloaded at Pakistan Steel Mills in Karachi, won over the tedium of hauling the ore by lorry to Muslimbagh, transporting it by narrow gauge train to Quetta and then trans-shipping it to broad gauge for Karachi.

And so sometime early in 1986, the last ore train pulled into the Bostan siding, off-loaded its chrome hoppers and shunted the empty rolling stock to the siding by the loco shed where I found them in 1993. The locomotive was run to Bostan under the tin roof of the shed and when it dropped fire that was the last time steam coursed through its flues -- at least with the purpose of hauling a train. An era had come to an end.

But many in the railway did not believe that to be true. Finding me pottering about the loco shed, I was accosted by a man who introduced himself as, if memory serves, Tahir. He said he was the Station Master at Bostan. Tahir remembered the glory days of ZVR. We talked for a long time and he seemed to believe that sooner or later the line will run again.

For some years after the closure, he said, the three locomotives in the shed had been fired once every week to keep their boilers in good fettle. But then funds became scarce and the test firing stopped, nevertheless he knew that the engines were in working order. That was in November 1993 -- seven years since the line had last operated.

I drove on. With the sun dipping behind the western hills, Muslimbagh had so romantic an aura that my body erupted in goose bumps. The dramatic autumnal light, the deserted station building and the forlorn chrome hoppers sitting on the siding like some dumpy animals unknown to science came from another world. Near the loco shed was a curious piece of machinery that turned out to be meant for unfreezing furnace oil – a reminder of the harshness of winter in the Zhob Valley.


There was also a rail-mounted coal crane that had not been in use since the time the locomotives were retro-fitted to take furnace oil instead of coal. The most interesting feature on this crane was a plaque that read, 'The Great Indian Peninsular Railway'. It had come a long way; a very long way indeed. Since it was rail-mounted, it showed that somewhere on the GIPR there was at sometime a narrow gauge line. When that was converted to broad gauge, the crane found its new home at Muslimbagh. But that was before partition; that was in another country.

Kan Mehtarzai railway station was a dream. At 2222 metres above the sea, it was the highest railway station in Pakistan. I had at that time written that this was also the highest in the subcontinent, but have since learned that that honour is kept by Ghoom station on the Darjeeling line. That line, incidentally, is Decauville gauge, that is, just two feet wide.

In Bostan, Tahir had told me of the time in 1971 at the height of a very severe winter when a train had become snow-bound near Kan Mehtarzai. After struggling to free the train for a couple of hours, the driver dropped fire to wait for a rescue locomotive. The rescuer from Bostan did not fare very well either: the snow lay thick just below the station and it wedged itself hard into the drifts. That was old-style journeying and high adventure.

In February 2005, on my way back to Quetta from the Torghar Mountains of Qila Saifullah, I stopped at Kan Mehtarzai to get a taste of that long-ago adventure. After eight years of severe drought this was the first winter of good snowfall. At nine in the morning, Kan Mehtarzai was one railway station to die for. Icicles festooned its shaded eaves above deep snowdrifts and snow draped the pitched roof. The platform was carpeted with untrodden white and on the track sat three forlorn covered wagons, the snow reaching half up their wheels.

Beyond Kan Mehtarzai, the countryside belonged to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone: wide-open valley with scarcely a sign of human intervention hemmed in by dark, brooding hills. As I stood on the deserted platform of one railway station near a distance marker reading '208' (kilometres to Zhob), shot full of holes, the gusting wind sent clumps of Amaranthus bushes tumbling past and I half expected to see Clint Eastwood come galloping in.

Most of the railway stations on this line were mud-plastered brick buildings with a unique octagonal turret-like structure serving as the ticket window. Such an architectural feature I have not seen on any other line in Pakistan. Qila Saifullah with its blockhouse of a railway station had another very picturesque building: the residence of the Assistant Engineer. It was ramshackle and uncared for because the Permanent Way Inspector (PWI) whose home it then was, was a charlatan not interested in his duties. He was making a pretty packet on the side administering to the superstitions of an illiterate population. Even so this fraud hoped to soon be promoted to Assistant Engineer (AEN). I now hear that he has indeed been promoted and is not serving the railway somewhere in Punjab. Deadwood that we so carefully nurture shall forever remain deadwood.

At Zhob, the last railway station, the fa├žade still bore the name Fort Sandeman and the end of the line was marked by a pair of stout timbers stuck upright to prevent locomotives from rolling over. The station building had been taken over by several families of Afghan refugees.

Three or four years after this first trip, I returned to Bostan. In the loco shed I found to my great surprise three absolutely prim-looking narrow gauge steam locomotives. The stationmaster (no longer Tahir) told me that Yaqub Nasir the railways minister, a native of the Zhob Valley, had resolved to get this line up and running again. In anticipation he had got the three locomotives overhauled at the Mughalpura workshop in Lahore. But even in 1993, I had seen that at level crossings the track had been tarmacked over when the road was carpeted. However, the stationmaster was convinced that if the minister wanted it, he would get his way and the line would one day run again.

I left with the hope that Yaqub Nasir would make that dream come true. But the 1990s were a period of uncertain governments and not long afterwards, the government went under taking Nasir with him. That was the end of the ZVR.

On a recent visit to a village near Khanozai (a ZVR railway station), I learned that the line had been auctioned and uprooted. A quick trip up to Zhob showed that to be heart-breakingly true. At Muslimbagh, Qila Saifullah and Zhob the station buildings were in the possession of squatters. The oil melting furnace and the coal crane from Muslimbagh were gone. So were the chrome ore hoppers. The only memory of the over 300 kilometres of track was the slightly raised rail bed discernible in bits along the route. Only at Bostan was a bunch of passenger wagons still parked as a last reminder of the narrow gauge ZVR.

In India the narrow gauge Kalka-Simla line operates to this day. And so does the Darjeeling train. And this is just to mention two. Since partition Indian railway authorities have laid several thousand kilometres of new railway lines. In contrast we in Pakistan have closed line after line after line. We have lost the metre gauge Mirpur Khas-Jhuddo-Mirpur Khas loop and the narrow gauge Nawabshah-Mirpur Khas stretch in Sindh. In Pukhtunkhwa we have obliterated the Bannu-Mari Indus and Tank-Mari Indus as well as the Kohat-Thul line. All three were narrow gauge. And in Balochistan ZVR has been laid low.

Other than the upgrading to broad gauge of the Mirpur Khas-Chor line, we have not laid a single inch of new track. Shamefully enough it is only now, a full 62 years after independence that we struggle to double track our main railway artery between Karachi and Peshawar. And you can just forget about the up-grading of branch lines.

As for the ZVR, if there was ever an open air railway museum, it was this line. Auctioning the steel fixtures was all right to bolster a cash-strapped railway, but ruinous bridges festooned with a stretch of line could have remained. Or those features called 'dip' where no bridge spanned a shallow stream and the line dipped into the bed. The AEN's bungalow at Qila Saifullah with its unique architecture could have been saved, but its current dilapidation forewarns of an early demise. Shame on us, shame on Pakistan Railway.


The new pipe dream which I heard in Quetta was about the building of a broad gauge line in lieu of the old narrow gauge ZVR. This line, it is said, will connect with Dera Ismail Khan. Going by the record of our national railway, it is doubtful if this scheme will ever see the light of day. Meanwhile, by auctioning ZVR Pakistan Railway has destroyed one of its finest heritage pieces. Today only the steel has been removed and smelted; tomorrow the unique and beautiful station buildings will crumble away into the dust. Shame on us, we who are the custodians of our national heritage.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Bilawal Noorani

Salman Rashid

We saw last week that Ari Pir on the Saruna River was a midway stopover on the pilgrimage from Sehwan to Lahut and Hinglaj. Now, Lahut is a valley of perfect adventure tourism kind of beauty: stark hills rising to rounded summits here, razor-sharp crags there, rills that flow with thin streams of water that sometimes open up to form lovely tarns where one can swim au naturel (but only if it is not festival time), hardy acacia clinging to the hillsides and narrow valleys so desolate you would think you were on another planet. And grottoes. There are caves and caves which are mostly taken over by lunatics attempting the chilla to capture jinns.

Just about five kilometres north of this romantic valley is a shrine. Twenty-five years ago when I first saw it, it was an unpretentious building with thick walls and a squat dome. The latter painted a glistening deep green. It was surrounded by majestic tamarind trees that rose upward of thirty metres into the air. Their trunks were huge and their crowns so thick they effectively protected you from the harsh midday sun.

There are also mango trees. Gnarled, twisted and hugely spreading, they are obviously of great age. Yet many of them still fruit — at least they did a quarter century ago. These and the several jamun trees give the impression that the shrine containing the mortal remains of some Shah Bilawal Noorani is situated in the midst of an orchard.

Those who believe in this saint accord him divine status: he is the one to save Sindh and Balochistan from disasters, he is the one to grant all wishes. Every Thursday they ride rickety buses that used to originate in Karachi’s Lea Market and took nearly twelve hours to complete the journey of a hundred odd kilometres. This because the road onward from Hub Dam is unpaved. Besides the weekly affair, the big annual festival takes place on the tenth day of the lunar month of Ramazan. That is when the bhung-drinking fakirs arrive, having trekked three weeks from Sehwan over the Khirthar Mountains. An average trekker would take no more than five days — but then he wouldn’t pause every couple of kilometres to dope himself with a fresh concoction of hemp.

The annual urs is the greatest binge of bhung, hashish and opium that I have ever seen anywhere in Pakistan. A quarter century ago there were no pilgrims’ quarters (I am sure there are now some bleeding eyesores of hutments) and everything was al fresco, yet the tamarind canopy so reeked with fumes that even a non-user got doped to the eyeballs in no time at all.

As I said, Shah Noorani is nothing less than a god. The rattletrap bus that I rode those many years ago was overloaded with humanity and goats (women and goats inside). I sat on the roof with about thirty other men. Every time we approached a dry nullah, the driver would gun the old banger. The engine would built up to a wild crescendo and the rattling of the battered bodywork would be ear-splitting as we went tearing down into the dry river. Our leader would scream at the top of his lungs, ‘Bolo, bolo, bolo jeay Shah,’ just as the bus hit the riverbed.

And then right as it started the upward grind, we were all expected to scream ‘Jeay Shah!’ And, by god, we screamed because it was believed that this encouraged old Shah Bilawal Noorani to push the bus over the rise it was simply incapable of surmounting by itself. A couple of times when we hit some particularly nasty dips, the bus flagged. The screaming crescendo of the engine ground down to a deep growl giving way to a pitiable whine before we came to a stop just, just short of the crest.

The driver let the bus roll back into the river (thankfully always dry when I was there), everyone (but the goats) was off-loaded and with the engine going full tilt, we men, all thirty of us, helped the invisible old Shah get the bus over the top. But the first time Bilawal failed us and we rolled to a stop in the bottom of the gulch our leader piped up, ‘Please, men, put your hearts and souls into “jeay Shah” or we won’t get across.’

My suggestion that the deafening rattle of the bus and the roar of the engine may have prevented the old man from hearing our heartily energetic bawling was not taken kindly by my co-travellers, however.

According to the gazetteer (1907) of Lasbela district, Shah Bilawal came over from Sindh in the year 1495 and took up abode in this garden which was then owned by a rich seth called Gokal. In another source (if memory serves, the Tuhfat ul Kiram written 1767 in Thatta) Bilawal was a loony from that town. Since we take most madmen to be religiously or spiritually somehow gifted, he was considered a saint. At some point he wandered over to the property of the kind-hearted Gokal Seth and made his life there. (The caravan route that Bilawal took between Thatta and the orchard, perhaps in the company of pilgrims, is about a hundred kilometres.)

Now Gokal and his wife were childless and taking pity on the wandering fakir, took him in. When the good people passed away, Bilawal remained and was eventually buried there. The income from Seth Gokal’s orchard probably paid for the shrine and the festival. Over time Gokal, who was unfortunately a Hindu, was turned into a demon and we have a Muslim hero from Arabia battling him. Having vanquished him, the hero is said to have imprisoned him in a cave and bound the entrance with a huge boulder with thick metal strips running across it.

If I am not wrong, the boulder was actually a good deal of loose talus and I remember seeing a couple of padlocks on the bars. Not far, in another arboreal setting, a man doped on hashish shows you a mark on the ground which he promises is the hero’s footprint. I measured it to be eighteen inches long! Any man with feet this size would have been tripping over himself, much less been capable of travelling hither from distant Arabia. But then legend, especially of the religious kind, is never logical.

There is also a subterranean chamber into which one must crawl. Being somewhat claustrophobic I had a bad time, but I did go in there to see the greyish dripping stalactites. These the keeper said were the teats of a holy man’s she-camel and that until twenty years ago they oozed milk which was panacea. Then the keepers got greedy and they started selling the holy item and instantly the teats dried up.

I observed that twenty years ago this same story would have been current about the event having taken place twenty years earlier. I also suggested that the keepers ought to decide between she-camel and mare: at the footprint it is a mare (who also left a hoof-print) and here a she-camel who mislaid her teats. That did it. What with the observation about old Noorani’s deafness and now this, I was ostracised by my group. But logic, sadly, does not constitute these yarns.

Old Bilawal Noorani had not just failed us. In 1984 or the year after he was particularly vengeful, perhaps for my uttered impieties. His annual urs (10th Ramazan) fell in August and the rains that year came as they hadn’t for years. The dry streams where Bilawal had failed to get us across flowed with torrents four metres deep that swept away laden buses. Dozens perished, all roads were cut off, pilgrims marooned and the army had to drop relief by helicopter. I, then living in Karachi, had hoped to be part of the pilgrimage but work had kept me away.

The divine Bilawal Noorani was, I decided, not just a bit hard of hearing, he also was not paying attention to what was going on all round. I dropped out at the last minute and if he had wanted to get even with me by sending down the flood, I once again got to thumb my nose at him.

Puns aside, Lahut valley with its streams, balmy climate and thick vegetation of fruit trees has been an oasis on the pilgrim route between Sehwan and Hinglaj for thousands of years. Bilawal the madman of Thatta just happened along. But the most ironical twist is that Gokal, a decent human being with kindness in his heart, becomes an evil jinn only because he was a Hindu and has to be put away, and a lunatic becomes a saint to worship.

Salman Rashid is a travel writer and knows Pakistan like the back of his hand.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Pilgrimage to the Throne of Solomon

Salman Rashid

I had first attempted this pilgrimage in 1989 and failed. Had it not been for my friends Ejaz Munir and Azhar Rauf working for the government of Balochistan, I would very likely have failed yet again. But thanks to them this time around I went up in style -- on horseback. Lying on the border of Balochistan and the Northwest Frontier Province and cresting at 3300 metres Takht e Suleman (Throne of Solomon) is puny as mountains go in this part of the world. But the magic of the peak is its shrine attributed to Solomon, the prophet of God.

Late on the evening of the last day in September I along with Adam Khan, the levies risaldar, and Said Amin, his assistant, was deposited outside the small village of Sadda Mohammed Kot 65 km northeast of Zhob. In the pale light of a thin sliver of moon hanging in the west, the stone houses hulked darkly and a ghostly white dog barked menacingly as it wafted among the shadows. After much blowing of horns and calling of names a sleepy old man came shuffling out of the darkness to lead us away. Within no time charpais were laid out and we were in the sack.

On the morrow we got a short ride by pick up to the edge of a dry stream, beyond and in the distance rose the stark brown ridge of the Suleman mountain. Past the deserted houses of Karim Kach we saw a group of young boys leading three camels into the mountain. Adam Khan shouted for them, and my backpack got the short lift to Sher Ghalai. At 1800 metres above the sea Sher Ghalai was a narrow gorge running in a north south direction with a few wild pistachio and olive, a couple of chilghoza (Pinus gerardiana) trees and a clear spring of water.

Within ten minutes the promised horses arrived. Ghulam Jan rode tall in the front and the dark, bearded Lal Gul brought up the rear. The backpack was secured behind the saddle and off we went north into the narrow canyon. The gorge walls rose in a stack of giant plates and the valley floor was worn smooth by the passage of thousand upon thousand of feet, both human and pack animal. Two hours later we climbed through a heavily wooded gully to a wide vista to the east. The ground in front fell away to show eroded brown hills receding into the mist and to our right and left rose high ridges. While the one on the left was bare, the other was thickly covered with chilghoza pines that imitated velvet in the thin mist of mid morning.

Autumn being the season for the harvest of chilghoza nuts, a family had come up to the temporary settlement on the knoll that rose above the trail. A great quantity of pine cones was laid out in the sun and a bunch of children spiritedly whacked away at them with willow twigs. Drinking water was brought out in a filthy lota, but we declined the tea and carried on up the trail. Along the contours, sometimes in blinding sunshine, sometimes in dappled shade, we climbed higher and higher until we had crossed the first of the two parallel ridges that make up the massif proper of Takht e Suleman.

We were now in the wide trough between the two ridges. All around was a sparse growth of chilghoza pines and to our right a great chasm gaped. Beyond this rose the high ridge with its series of denticulations, in one of which the Throne awaited us. Thirty minutes later we were at the spot where I had turned back in 1989 for there was no drinking water to be had. Even before I had set out of the village at the foot of the mountain I had been warned of its lack of springs and that I would have to drink out a stagnant water hole. I had mocked these warnings and barely made it back on the verge of dehydration. This time around therefore we prudently carried a goatskin. In the event however this proved useless for the water in it was fouled.

Lal Gul, our horseman, who was supposed to know the route to the shrine because he had once come up with a Deputy Commissioner many years ago, faltered. He could not remember where we were to cross the wide chasm that still ran alongside to our right. Beyond it he pointed out the great shiny crag stark against the deep blue sky under which, he said, lay the Throne of Solomon. Adam Khan shouted to some voices in the forest and a bunch of grubby young men appeared smelling heavily of pine resin.

We were to continue, they said, to the north until we came to the woodcutters' settlement of Mummeh Landai. Indeed. Lal Gul clicked his fingers as he remembered and off we went. Just after midday, five hours and a half since we had left the village of Sadda Mohammed Kot and four since we had met our horsemen, we were in the woodcutters' settlement. The wild, unwashed men (and it was purely a man's world) could well have come out of some time warp, but the tea they served up was very real and refreshing -- just the thing before the final trek to the shrine.

From Mummeh Landai a trail led east through the forest to a windy plateau where we left the horses with Said Amin to guard them. Five or six hundred metres away, across a shallow gorge, rose the wall of limestone that was the ridge of the shrine. Lal Gul and Ghulam Jan hollered for the malang (ascetic) who they said lived near the shrine. But no amount of screaming brought any response from the ridge for the brisk wind blowing from the north would have carried their calls away to the south.

So sheer did the ridge look that it seemed there couldn't possibly be a trail leading up to its summit, and I imagined ourselves to be soon involved in those hair raising heroics that rock climbers habitually engage in. But no. Takht e Suleman was truly to be the most deceptive mountain I have ever seen. With Lal Gul leading and Ghulam Jan behind him singing at the top of his lungs making me marvel at his wind, we followed a faint trail. We passed a rock with a bright green legend in Urdu announcing to the world that on the 26th of July 1995 the "Seraiki Mohemju Group" (Seraiki Adventurers Group) had preceded us. They were good men for their climb surely must have been much harder than ours on account of the greater heat and humidity in that month.

The sun burnt down on us as we scrabbled over the rocks and my water bottle was soon empty. The thought nagged that there was no clean water to drink and that I had forgotten to bring my purifying tablets. The harder, therefore, I worked the more the chances of dehydration. Twice I called for the others to turn back. "But we have come so far and now the shrine is within reach. How can we forego it now?" Dully I followed them until at one point I decided the shrine did not really matter to me.

"How can you give up without visiting the grave of Qais Abdur Rashid?" Lal Gul wanted to know. Qais Abdur Rashid, the imaginary progenitor of all Pathan tribes. And I had not even known he is supposed to be buried on this mountain. It is from here that the Pathans believe they spread forth and for the tribes living around this mountain the name is Kaisaghar; Takht e Suleman is simply the shrine sacred to the memory of King Solomon. In Pushto "ghar" means mountain or rock and I had always wondered what the name Kaisaghar signified. Suddenly it came to me like a revelation: the mountain was named after Qais Abdur Rashid.

With renewed vigour I followed the others up the steep trail. We had left the chilghoza trees behind, the pines that now grew around us were Pinus wallichiana. Soon we were at the "grave" of Qais Rashid. Next to it was another group of graves. One of the latter, Lal Gul said, was of the talib (seeker). But even this Seeker of Truth had died "hundreds of years ago" and his name was lost. The grave of Qais Rashid itself was a ruined pedestal of dressed stones measuring some seven or eight metres square. To my query Lal Gul said that our man was a giant as indeed were all men in those days. Surely, I thought aloud, the name Kaisaghar would have come into fashion sometime in the later years of the 9th century AD, or even later, when Islam had spread to this area and the need had arisen to invent a man called Qais Abdur Rashid.

Having lived for centuries under the strict Vedic system of class distinction, it was only natural for the new Muslims to remain wedded to that order. Earlier the superior caste was the Brahmin, now it was, quite naturally, that which could claim Semitic origin for wasn't that land the fountain head of all revealed and therefore true religions? While most other Indian converts to Islam invented ancestors who had arrived in the sub continent about the time of its conquest by the Arabs, or shortly thereafter, the Pathans went one better by conjuring up Qais whose ancestor Afghana had lived in this land centuries ago. The imaginary Afghana had of course come from the land of Arabia with an ancestry linking him to the prophet Daud. Qais whose home was in these mountains, it is said, travelled to Arabia after the advent of Islam to meet with the prophet of the new religion. There his Hebrew name was given the Arabic suffix of Abdur Rashid by the prophet himself. Subsequently he returned home to become the progenitor of all Pathan tribes.

But the inventors of this fabulous story had never heard of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, the Father of History. Writing around the middle of the 5th century BC he had mentioned a people called the Paktiaka which clearly is another form of the word Pukhtun, the Pathan's name for himself. What then would the hill have been called before the coming of Islam, I wondered aloud. Could it be that the hill was always Kaisaghar and when the need arose to assert a Semitic origin, they invented a man with a similar sounding name? An abstracted look was the only response from Lal Gul.

From the first faint stirring of religious thought in primitive human minds, gods and spirits were always housed on high peaks that were difficult of access. And so, long before Qais Rashid was invented, this was the holy temple of some pagan god. Surely in some forgotten moment of history, the temple would have also worn the mantle of Vedic belief and then again of Buddhist. I knew then that Takht e Suleman, like the peaks of Musa ka Musalla in Kaghan and Ilam in Swat, has at different times been revered by different religions. Through the long and creative passage of time thousands of men and women, each in accordance with their own belief, would have prayed at this spot. In the same tradition my three companions raised their hands to Allah in silent prayer.

Then, as if out of some unreality, the malang appeared. His clothes, of a nameless colour, were as if made from cerement. The kameez was open at the collar and the shalwar was hitched up above his ankles. He was was barefoot and filthy, and through his open collar I saw lice crawling on his dirt encrusted chest. He shook his grimy hand with us and said that it had been many days since pilgrims had come to the Takht. Then he led us to his hut at the edge where the cliff fell off into oblivion. If I had a stereotype for ascetics our malang wasn't to fit in. He was vague about what he was doing all alone in this wilderness and there was nothing remotely religious or spiritual about his persona. I even suspected he was a junkie. After several abstract answers he said, rather irately, that he was there to "serve the shrine", whatever in heavens name that meant.

To one side a couple of tattered flags fluttered furiously in the keen wind. A small enclosure marked a mosque and when they were done with the afternoon prayer Lal Gul hailed me to see the shrine proper. Then I remembered the account of Henry McMahon who had climbed this peak with Major McIvor in June 1891: "The shrine is some 20 feet below the edge of the precipice, and consists of a small ledge of rock about 4½ feet long by 3 feet wide, with a slight artificial parapet of rocks on the outer sides, about a foot high."

This was the most difficult part of the pilgrimage. By that token this was surely the one that wins the maximum merit with whatever deity one believes in, for to reach the Takht one has to clamber down some bulging rocks. Immediately below us, blocking our view to the east, was a swirling sea of clouds. They say it’s a great view with a sheer fall of some 1500 metres below and far away the silver line of the Indus. Now all we could see was this seemingly limitless sea of gray on which our shadows bobbed eerily with haloes around the heads. The climb down surely was the kusht part of Hindu worship, something similar to swimming underwater to reach a submerged chamber in the shrine of Sri Mata Hinglaj on the Mekran sea coast, some 650 km in the south. Pilgrims had the option of taking it or leaving it; I took the second option. In a quick one-two the malang was down angrily haranguing us for being shameless cowards, but only Adam Khan took his dare.

Lal Gul said that this was the exact spot where King Solomon's flying throne had alighted when he sojourned here. The prophet, it is known, had power over the djinns and this god forsaken mountain he used as a jail for recalcitrant djinns, said Lal Khan. With a laugh he added that the Shiranis, the major tribe that straddles the mountain, are the descendents of those evil ones.

We paid our offerings to the malang and turned back for the huts at Mummeh Landai. For me this was the least savoury part for fear of the fleas that would invade my sleeping bag during the night. Needless to say that this did happen. But it was worth it and I was happy my companions had not allowed me to give up our goal when I nearly flagged. The pilgrimage to Takht e Suleman was done. As I cursed the fleas and scratched the night away, the only thing I really looked forward to was the spring at Sher Ghalai and the meal that I would be fed by Azhar Rauf.

Salman Rashid is author of eight travel books including jhelum: City of the Vitasta and The Apricot Road to Yarkand