Saturday, April 23, 2011

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Kan Mehtarzai Railway Station

Jalal Hameed Bhatti

Very few of us would have listen to this place called Kan Mehtarzai – and so did I till I was reading of history of Pakistan in a book I found when cleaning my junk box the other day. Junk boxes sometimes take you by surprise as something added to these years ago suddenly become important when it is time to throw things out for good. I also found autographs of the famous comedian duo Laurel and Hardy from the same junk box, which became part of my post on my other blog Hobby Shobbys a couple of days earlier.

So back to this place called Kan Mehtarzai. The place in present time is just another unknown small towns and villages scattered in some of the most remotely located places in Pakistan. But in the beginning of the 20th century, Kan Mehtarzai figured out very high for the British when Chromate deposits were discovered in an area located between the Muslimbagh and Kan Mehtarzai in the district of Kila Saifullah as far back as in 1901.

The discovery made the British to lay a railway line between Quetta and Muslimbagh (then called Hindubagh). The work on the railway line commenced in 1916 from a place called Khanai, located some 30 kilometres north of Quetta, and completed in 1921 for train traffic up to Muslimbagh. In 1927, the Muslimbagh to Qila Saifullah section was opened and finally the section up to Zhob was opened in 1929. The total length of the railway section was around 294 kilometres and had eleven railways stations including the Kan Mehtarzai.

And before I divert from topic, let me get back to Kan Mehtarzai once again. The place between Kuchlag and Muslimbagh became the highest railway station of Asia of its time, located at a height of 2,224 metres (7,295 feet). The railway station was part of the the Zhob Valley Railway (ZVR). This once the longest narrow gauge railway system of the Indian Subcontinent, served the British and the Balochistan Chrome Ore Company, which incidentally laid this railway line, well for years as it help extract millions of tons of raw chromate and subsequently ship to England through Karachi port. These mines still continue to produce some 300-500 tons of raw chromite daily, which is being exported to many countries, China being its biggest importer.

Today, the dilapidated mud plastered Kan Mehtarzai railway station is a desolate and a rather quiet place, as no longer those small narrow gauge engine hauls passenger and good bogies on this once very active railways of the Indo-Pak subcontinent. No more is there the hustle and bustle of miners, British soldiers and traders and the locals. Nor there is the aroma of typical Balochi cuisines like sajji that once may have been sold here. The last goods train that honked its horn and halted at this one of the highest railway stations of Asia was way back in 1986, the passenger section of the train was done away with a year earlier in 1985. Thereafter, finally the days of narrow gauge came to an end due to wearing out of the narrow gauge engines and bogies. There is nothing much left of the narrow gauge railway tracks as most of it had succumbed to pilferage and theft.

I wish the train to Kan Mehtarzai was still operative, as the place receives heavy snow fall and could have been developed in to a tourist resort and it would have been an adventurous travel with the train stranded in snow as it did many times during winters when the train was operational. India is still maintaining its Darjling railway track to attract tourists to this equally elevated platform. It is sad to see things of the past fading away rather than maintained as heritage and tourism attractions.

I wish there were cellular phones with camera back in 1986 as someone could definitely shot the last journey of the Zhob Valley Railways at Kan Mehtarzai railway station.

Friday, April 22, 2011

In Karachi

A man peels Neem twigs at a sidewalk in Karachi. Branches of the Neem tree are commonly used as traditional toothbrushes for medical purposes. – Photo by Reuters

Thursday, April 21, 2011

In the Karakoram

With the advent of the higher temperatures of spring, vegetation in the valleys and meadows of the Karakoram comes to life in a frenzy of colour. Because of the distinct temperature regimes that exist due to differing altitudes, this phenomenon continues for several months with the wild flowers in the higher ablation valleys being the last to flourish en mass.


The photographs you see here are taken at and around the villages of Shayar, Askurdas and Sumayar in Nagar at altitudes ranging from 2,000 to 2,300 metres. Askurdas, translated from the Burushaski, means “plain of flowers”. The white blossoms are cultivars of apricot and pear while the pinks are two distinct cultivars of cherry.

The profusion of blossoms indicates a vast quantity of fruit to the extent that livestock too feed on the produce. However, due to the lack of infrastructure it rots rather than provide an alternate avenue of resources generation.

Batholith Saltoro is a miner grateful for the opportunity to lay waste to beautiful regions of this very Earth and to pollute pristine watersheds. [Dawn]

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Of those quaint rest houses

Salman Rashid

My friend Kashif Noon called to tell me of a string of forest rest houses stretching from Kallar Sayidan southeast of Rawalpindi all the way to Murree by the road less travelled through Kahuta and Lehtrar. He had heard of them on the good authority of a certain Rizwan Mehboob.


According to Kashif, Rizwan, while serving in the Forest Department nearly twenty years ago, had become very well acquainted with the rest houses and the lore attached to them. It would be useful to travel discover these little known rest houses, some of which owing to a lack of maintenance are now ruinous and may soon be lost forever.

And so, because Kashif can never start on time in the morning, we left Rawalpindi an hour late. Turning off the Islamabad Highway for the Sihala-Kahuta highroad, we were soon at the latter place to stop at the forest Department office in order to peruse one of those old diaries written by officials of the department. Some of these, Rizwan had earlier said, went back to the early years of the 20th century.

Instead we picked up a very talkative sub-divisional forest officer whose name is withheld to protect the guilty. And guilty he was for even now being enamoured of the accursed alien eucalyptus. Now, years since the government has banned eucalyptus, it is people like him who are yet incapable of recognising the damage this imported species has done to our land. The man was in favour of planting it on good farmland as a cash crop. He did not know of the wretched experiment carried out in Mitha Tiwana near Khushab.


Funded by an international donor agency, this 1990s project had, over five years, promoted a mono-culture of eucalyptus on farmland. The pipe dream fed to local farmers was that a paper mill projected to be set up in a nearby district would lap up all these trees making the farmers millionaires. The mill owner absconded with the loan and farmers were left with the trees that they eventually got rid of for as little as a hundred rupees each.

When they went back to their usual crops, the farmers discovered that their produce had fallen to less than half of what it once was. Most of them just barely literate, they did not know that eucalyptus leaf litter had damaged their land, nor too did were they aware that this baneful pest’s root exudates destroy fertility. And here we had an ‘expert’ who would much rather remove all indigenous species to replace them with this imported blight. He was coming with us as a counter-balance to Rizwan’s good sense.

As a junior forest officer Rizwan spent four years walking every inch of the Murree-Kahuta Forest Division to prepare the last ever Working Plan. Of that later, but first a word on the division: after they started building the bomb which should have protected us from all and sundry and which we have ended up protecting with our lives, first from the Indians and now from Al Qaeda, the forest was re-designated Murree-Rawalpindi North Forest Division. Someone somewhere thought that by wiping out the name Kahuta, they would obliterate the place from human memory as well as from the satellite maps that the Jewish-Hindu lobby possessed.

As for the working plan, this was instituted back in the middle years of the 19th century when the British first established the various forest departments. Rizwan, all admiration for the systems those men had established, said they treated the forest as a living entity. They knew a healthy pine (Chir or Pinus roxburgii) lived up to a hundred years and they divided this span into four parts. The first twenty-five years, the tree was a child, the next quarter it was in its youth. From fifty to seventy-five it was a mature tree and could be felled. Thereafter it entered old age.

Those long-forgotten forest officers laid down that no tree would be felled in the first quarter of its life. In the second, only thinning was permitted to remove weak trees. In the last two quarters, the tree was used for resin extraction or could be harvested for timber. Even in the last case, cutting was meticulously planned. In an acre, says Rizwan, five or six mature and healthy trees were permitted to stand while the others were removed. These were ‘mother trees’ for regeneration of the forest.

An over-crowded forest of this species of pine will contain only mature or over-mature trees. And that was how the first British foresters found it and devised the Punjab Shelterwood System and a hundred-year cycle for the Chir pine. Because this tree sheds its needles to lay a thick mat on the floor, a crowded forest can create a carpet so dense that seeds cannot germinate. That necessitated thinning of the forest which followed a thirty-year Working Plan.

The question then is what happened when there were no foresters to intervene? Then, forest fires took control. In the dry, hot months, the carpet of parched needles would spontaneously catch fire. The nutrient rich ash and humus would then percolate into the ground to revitalise it and any new seeds hitting the forest floor thereafter would easily take root. Thus, so said Rizwan, a healthy forest was not a crowded forest of aged trees. It was the one that had trees of various ages and a floor sufficiently clear of tree detritus to permit regeneration.

The last Working Plan in the Murree-Kahuta Forest Division was prepared in the early 1990s. And it was Rizwan, then a young forester, who spent four years roaming every inch of this good land working on it. But by then ‘conservation’ had become a buzzword on the tongues of people who scarcely understood conservation and felling was banned. The Working Plan was put on hold and since then the Forest Department has worked on ad hoc day to day planning. Meanwhile, the forest will by and by turn into a living fossil with over-mature trees and little or no regeneration because of the floor being covered with a thick mat of dead needles.

Our first rest house of call was Rajgarh. From Kahuta with the eucalyptus forester with us, we had taken the highroad to Kotli in Kashmir and had to ask where to turn off the road for Rajgarh. About a kilometre off the road, we were forced to abandon Kashif’s jeep and walk the rest of the way. A man coming the other way said it would take us half an hour to reach the rest house. We took about ten minutes and Kashif said he must have taken our paunches into consideration.

Beautifully set on a flat piece of ground amid wooded hills with a stream flowing below it, this was where Rizwan stayed many nights when he was doing the Working Plan in 1991. Today it is a roofless hulk; the victim of neglect that is endemic to most government departments. Though there was no plate on the premises, I suspected this one would have been built in the first or second decade of the 20th century and just a little tender maintenance would have kept this romantic little place serviceable. But, no, we had to let it go to pot.

As we were leaving Rizwan also spoke of another rest house, a haunted one, where a young forest guard, Niaz, had been murdered. The poor man’s mother still haunts the surroundings and every night wails, ‘Vay puttar Niaz, kithay ai!’

Rizwan said he had heard her back in 1991. I said we ought to spend a night at that one and perhaps tell the woman she should be looking for her son where she herself now resides. But it turned out that the rest house in question was also now a ruin. Kashif suggested we come with our tents and camp out to update the old woman. Rizwan smiled benignly and advised us to be kind. That was what he said every time I launched on one of my many censorious orations.

When the Brits built these rest houses, they paced them at every sixteen miles, the distance a sahib on inspection could easily cover on horseback in a single day and arrive well before nightfall. But with motor transport coming into its own, these distances became redundant and many of the rest houses lost their importance. Within three quarters of an hour of leaving the ruined hulk of Rajgarh we had fetched up at Panjar.

A right lovely little building it was and shaded by, among others, spreading mango trees. At 840 metres above the sea we found them somewhat peculiar. Rizwan said these were not unusual and that he had seen mango and jamun trees in this forest at several places. Time was when people planted these trees because they knew better. Now idiots rule the roost not only on private properties, but also from the Parks and Horticulture to the Forest Department and we have either eucalyptus or all sorts of imported species of trees.

Today nobody, not even these so-called experts heading the various departments, understand that native species should take precedence over all others. Today, having failed to transform this good land into Australia with an over-abundance of eucalyptus, we suffer from the sickness of turning it into everything save what it really is. We are now going overboard with all sorts of exotic species at preposterous prices. If we had any sense at all, we would be planting this land with what has always grown here and what comes free.

As we sat in the mellow afternoon sun, the keeper of the rest house came around to chat. He was surprised that Rizwan knew so much about forestry and asked why and how. Rizwan said he had once worked for the department before moving on in life. The man next wanted to know what Rizwan did now. This dervish among us lesser men hedged shy of telling the chowkidar who he really was. I could not keep myself and blurted out that our friend was the DCO Chakwal currently on leave.

Built in 1902, Panjar rest house was in perfect condition – just the getaway for a few days. The only drawback was the red and white telephone tower right besides it. But thankfully it made no noise; it simply stood their looking as ugly as death. But now word is that someone in one of these tourism development corporations has come up with the bright idea of taking over these largely disused buildings to turn them into resorts. This will be the most foolish thing to ever be permitted. And as certainly as night follows day, it will happen in this blighted land.

We have seen what TDCP did to pristine Kallar Kahar in the Salt Range. The lake shore is infested with rides of all kinds and there are boats let loose in the lake. The migratory ducks that paused there twice every year no longer visit it. In their mindless bid to encourage tourism, the corporation has killed one little piece of ecology.

We can be assured that once they get their hands on these rest houses of this less travelled road, the surrounding trees will be chopped down to make way for the rides. The mango trees that have overseen so many changes to their world will be lost, and so too the pines. In this verdant place the rest house will stand out like a lonely waif in the midst of an ugliness of shuttering and cables.

Will it be asking for too much to encourage not the ride-seeking kind of madness, but eco-tourism? That is, people visit these places to enjoy the bird song and the solitude. And to look up into a velveteen sky studded with stars like they have never seen before. We have examples from neighbouring India where such facilities have been opened up for the public with plenty of good sense. Why cannot we follow suit? If the Forest Department relents and permits whichever tourism development corporation wishes to ruin these lovely retreats, it will be guilty of a great crime against the environment. But I fear the worst will happen.

Having started late from Rawalpindi, we had to drop the other rest houses. The last on our itinerary this day was Lehtrar. Only six months earlier I had been here and well remembered the hordes of butterflies that flitted about painting rainbows as they went. But in early November, they were gone. We lounged on the veranda waiting for the lunch that Rizwan had asked to be cooked on a wood fire. I must concede that wood smoke does give a distinct flavour to the food.


We turned back for Rawalpindi at the end of this unfinished journey. There were still three other rest houses to check out. And there was the one where the inconsolable old mother still sought her son in the dark of night. We resolved to return one day soon to complete the circuit.

Fellow of Royal Geographical Society, Salman Rashid is author of eight books including jhelum: City of the Vitasta and The Apricot Road to Yarkand.

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Friday, April 15, 2011

Pukhtun Stonehenge

Salman Rashid

Out there on the Salisbury plain in England, they have their stone circle they call Stonehenge. Now stones are stones, but henge is an obscure word. According to my Random House Dictionary it is a ‘circular area enclosed by a bank and ditch and often containing additional features included one or more circles of upright stone or wood pillars ….. used for ritual purposes or for marking astronomical events, as solstices and equinoxes.’



Salisbury in England, incidentally, is not the only place with a stone circle – it is the most spectacular and one that goes back some five thousand years in time. There are other sites on the British Isles and elsewhere in Europe and elsewhere in the world – though I am not certain about the Americas.

Sources other than my dictionary also confirm that stone circles were indeed used for some arcane ritual as well as to mark the rising and setting of celestial bodies on particular days. The rising or setting of a specific star on a given between two upright stones marked a special time of year: either it was when night and day were of equal length or when the sun was at its most vertical in midsummer and was beginning its journey to its lowest point in midwinter.

For primitive people living in northern latitudes the length of the day and summer sunshine were of particular importance. At the sun’s annual high point it was time to start laying in provisions for the long cold and dark ahead. The stone circle was their calendar that warned them that they had reached the twenty-first day of June and that three months’ (to autumnal equinox) was all they had to gather food for themselves and their cattle to last through the winter.

In Pakistan too we have stone circles. The one outside the village of Bawata in Balochistan lies by the road from Fort Munro to Loralai. The stones used are plates of shale and limestone that stick out of the ground to a height of no more than half a metre. At some point in time, finding it handy, someone tried to convert this circle into a mosque by creating a sort of mehrab facing west. The Bawata stone circle also has a menhir and people use this site as a shrine of sorts.

The other stone circle that I have seen lies just outside the village of Asota on the Mardan-Swabi highroad. Here the uprights are hefty stelae, as in proper stone circles; some reaching up to a height of about two metres. Others are shorter and there are a few that seem to have been broken off. Part of the circle, to the east, is missing. The Asota stone circle is about twelve to fifteen metres across and that would make it about the same size as the one outside Bawata.

The one time I was at Bawata and twice in Asota, it was the wrong time of year: it was neither midsummer nor winter, nor too either of the equinoxes. And so I could not watch at sundown nor keep the vigil until dawn to be able to check if our stone circles also mark astronomical events. But when one day someone does, they will discover that both these ancient sites served the same purpose as their counterparts in Europe.

Now, we know that Stonehenge was laid out some five thousand years ago. But since our circle in Asota has never been scientifically investigated (so far as I know), I cannot say when this would have been built. However, there is evidence that ancient Pukhtun ancestors were busy in this region a very long time ago. The nearby village of Adina is now well-known for the discovery in the mid 1990s of early Aryan graves. On a low hill outside the village, there are graves containing, besides the bones or ash urns, other relics as well. These relics have been dated between the 14th and 12th century BCE.

This was a time when the Aryans had been in the subcontinent for nearly five hundred years. I suspect that the people who buried their dead with gold and copper ornaments and pottery on the Adina hill were the very ones responsible for erecting the stones of Asota. If my surmise is true the stone circle should be three thousand five hundred years old.

Meanwhile, local people have invented a tale to explain the upright stone pillars: a wedding procession passing by a forest that once grew here was set upon by a bunch of thieves. Having done in the revelling men, the robbers turned their attention to the women who, fearing the worst, prayed to be turned into stone. And so before the evil-doers could lay so much as a finger upon them, the women were petrified. If this were an English-speaking country we could have said that was how the term ‘petrified with fear’ originated.

Moreover, the merry precession seemed not to be going anywhere. If it had, the stones would have been in a file not in a circle. Keeping in view that we have been stuck at the famous crossroads that every usurper evoked over the past six decades, our habit of going around in circles seems to go back a long time in the past! Thus the wedding procession went round and round before being petrified with fear.


But legends by their very nature are generally illogical. One day when some serious-minded people equipped with necessary knowledge turn their attention to the Asota stone circle, they will discover tales that will make sense. And then we might know of a connection between these silent stones and the tombs on the Adina hill.


Fellow of Royal Geographical Society, Salman Rashid is author of eight books including jhelum: City of the Vitasta and The Apricot Road to Yarkand.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Landa Bazzar

Salman Rashid at Kan Mehtarzai


Balochistan was the greatest railway adventure there was in Pakistan. It drubbed the much-flaunted Khyber Pass train by miles. I wish I could talk of it in the present tense, but sadly that is not the case. It was once a great railway adventure.


There was, for example, the magnificent line that ran north of Sibi through Harnai, into the Chappar Rift and on to Quetta. The marvel of engineering on this line was the Louise Margaret Bridge that stitched the gaping crack of the Rift. The line died back in July 1942 after it was washed out by a massive torrent during a rainstorm. This wasn’t the first time such a thing had happened. The Chappar Rift was famous for recurrent maintenance problems and the question of dismantling it had been considered before. The war was on, steel was needed for munitions and in any case the Bolan route was in service. And so the line in the Rift was uprooted. Today all that remains of this glorious piece of railway engineering are bridge piers, line bed and abandoned railway stations.

The other great one was the Zhob Valley Railway (ZVR), so named for following the course of the Zhob River. While the Chappar Rift line was broad gauge (5’-6”), this one was the tiny Narrow Gauge (2’-6”). It ran northeast from Bostan on the Quetta-Chaman route to Zhob – or Fort Sandeman as it had been renamed by the British. Its length of three hundred kilometres made it the longest Narrow Gauge line in the subcontinent. I had once thought that at 2224 metres above the sea, Kan Mehtarzai station was the highest Narrow Gauge railway station in the world. But I now know that it is Ghum on the line to Darjeeling in India. The latter being thirty-five metres higher than our Kan Mehtarzai.

The ZVR was laid during the First World War. But then it ran up only as far as the chrome mines of Hindubagh (renamed Muslimbagh in the 1960s) that was used in the manufacture of munitions. In the 1920s the line was extended to Zhob with dreams of it going across to connect with Bannu in the North West Frontier Province. But that dream became a victim of the uncertainty of the 1930s and the Second World War. What Pakistan inherited at independence, it was the sacred duty of her sons to undo. And so barely forty years down the line we had successfully closed the ZVR.

The first time I travelled the length of the line in 1992, it was not by train but by car: the line had been dead for some six years or so. Whereas India draws train buffs from all over the world to its various railway lines, we have been great ones for shutting down our best showpieces. And so this line became a victim of part apathy and mostly inefficiency and corruption. Half-hearted attempts to revamp the line were made and the locomotives that rest and rust in the sheds at Bostan were overhauled some years ago. But no work was done on the civil works of the disintegrating line. For some time the refurbished locomotives were periodically fired to keep them work. Bye and bye all was forgotten and the last time I saw them in 1999, they were beginning to lose their shine once again.

As I stood on the platform at Kan Mehtarzai on that blustery November morning in 1992, I imagined myself in the First Class Sleeper on the NG-10 pulling in en route from Zhob to Bostan. And I had imagined myself making ready for the bearer to pop into the carriage with his stack of breakfast trays. The idea of toast and eggs at the highest Narrow Gauge station in the country (the world, as I then believed) had tickled me. I found myself wondering if, when the line worked, travellers had paused to consider the uniqueness of their situation.

In Bostan in 1992, Mirza Tahir the Station Master remembered the glory days of the ZVR. Winters were pretty hard on the tiny Narrow Gauge locomotives, he had told me, and it was not uncommon for trains to be caught in snowdrifts. Tahir remembered the great snowstorms of the winter of 1970. So deep was the snow that the snowplough in front of the locomotive just could not make way. The train foundered. The fireman built up steam while the driver tried again and again to nose through. But the snow was too deep – nearly two metres – it was said, and they had to give up. They dropped fire and waited.

While the passengers walked to the highroad that runs parallel to the line and got away as best as they could, the telegraph wires buzzed. Bostan was informed of the snow-bound train and requested for a rescue locomotive. Out came one steaming and puffing through the wintry landscape only to be caught in the snow a few hundred metres short of the stranded train. Bostan sent out yet another one and even that could not make it. Tahir said it took them a few days to clear the line and get it going again.

Since that journey along the ZVR thirteen years ago, I have passed through Kan Mehtarzai half a dozen times. Once or twice I detoured to the station just to check things out. But none of my trips had been in midwinter after a good fall of snow. Kan Mehtarzai station, as I knew it, was always dusty and wind-blown sitting in a treeless openness with a touch of a spaghetti western. I knew I was lucky when I got a chance recently to be there with the area in the grip of what many people would call bad weather: for several days there had been incessant rains and snow on higher altitudes. After years of drought, this was the best thing to happen to the Balochistan plateau and local farmers were joyous at the prospect of the harvest that the summer would eventually bring.

For me this was the chance to get to Kan Mehtarzai and imagine what it must have been like during the blizzards of 1970. The distant peaks and the rolling hills around the village were all nicely couched in deep snow and looked a darn sight better than their normal summer khaki. Snowmen being a Western partiality, there were none to be seen. Strange that when it snows, building a snowman does not come spontaneously to these people. Perhaps unprompted artistic expression is not part of our make-up. Or perhaps it is because we have not yet invented waterproof mittens that will keep the fingers from freezing while we attempt to flaunt our creativity. In town, business was shut and the few open doors showed shawl-wrapped men huddled around fires. Kan Mehtarzai seemed a bit of a ghost town.

Bordered by orchards where the apricot and almond trees were all undressed for the winter, the unpaved lane taking off to the south from the main highway was still unmistakable seven years after my last visit. The only difference was that it was under snow that a tractor gone before us had churned up into slush. We left the jeep short of the station and with snow crunching underfoot walked around a fencing, under the tall water tank and on to the platform.

I did not remember the set of three freight wagons, in their prescription reddish-brown, from my last visit. Surely they must have been abandoned there when the line worked. Only I had failed to register them. They were as bound in the snow as the trains in the winter of ’70. This time round, however, the snow was about a metre deep. On the ZVR, the cutest things on the entire pre-partition North Western Railway are the darling station buildings. I have not seen them duplicated anywhere else in Pakistan. They are, with only a couple of exceptions, all mud-plastered; they come with a pitched roof and, to one side, a neat octagonal tower-like structure with a conical roof. This was the ticket window. But only for those who cared to pay fare, for most travellers on this line considered it their birthright to go free. Indeed, that was one of the reasons for the line’s untimely demise.

Icicles were draped along eaves that were shaded from the sun for most part of the day. Glass-less lamps that once lit up the platform at night emphasised the dereliction of the station. The mud plaster on the fa├žade was beginning to crack and peel and the roof on the north side of the building had caved in. This portion, if I remember correctly, bore a sign in 1992 marking it as the Station Master’s office. The rest of the station had been taken over by a family for we could hear women and children behind the matting that shielded them from prying eyes. A young lad from this family came around to check out my friend Naeem and me. I wondered if others came around to photograph Kan Mehtarzai railway station or he thought we were a pair of loonies with nothing better to do than to have our ears fall off with cold.

Snow completely covered all signs of the platforms and the track. Years ago this is how it must have appeared to travellers on this line. And when in the winter of 1970 the train failed to show up, the Station Master must have sent out a patrol to see what had become of it. Now nothing happens at Kan Mehtarzai. They don’t even build snowmen on the platform. Only the squatters bicker behind the matting.

I lament again the waste of a perfect showpiece of a railway line that could have helped Pakistan earn a few good tourist dollars. But that would have happened if the writ of the State held and if there were dedicated men in the railways. All those I had spoken to concerning the reopening of the ZVR as a tourist line had said it could not be done. There were too many problems and not enough finances. That I know to be untrue: we first permitted a working line to go to seed and now we complain of not enough funds to revitalise it.

India did much better with her Narrow Gauge show pieces in Simla and Darjeeling. But how can we, god-fearing Muslims, be expected to emulate those godless enemies of our beloved country.

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

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Russians and the Saint

Salman Rashid

In the latter years of the 19th century, the British Indian government undertook to delineate the border between their Balochistan possessions and the countries of Afghanistan and Iran. This boundary commission was led by Henry McMahon and with him he had a full complement of ancillary staff like surveyors and draughtsmen etc. The angular lines of the western boundary of Pakistan’s Balochistan that abuts on its Iranian counterpart in the west and on Afghanistan to the north are a result of those four years of hard fieldwork.


One among McMahon’s staff was a surveyor by the name of G. P. Tate, my predecessor as a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Tate went on to write two books: Siestan that deals with the archaeology and history of the part of Balochistan that is shared by Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan and The Frontiers of Baluchistan (sic) that tells of his years of survey work in that harsh and barren land of sandstorms that blister the skin in summer and chill the bones in winter.

In Frontiers Tate has a story to tell of a green dragon that lived in the hills northwest of Dalbandin. The dragon had an insatiable appetite, so the story was told, and demanded a human for lunch every day. The poor folks of this faraway land tried every which way to rid themselves of this bane but failed. Despairing of deliverance, they one day resorted to a man of great piety and petitioned him to save them from the monster. A severe conflict followed and the man of god prevailed upon the dragon. And so the saint became Balanosh – the Eater (or Remover) of Demons.

Tate does not give any detail of the struggle between man and beast, but he likens this tradition to the English one of St George. As for me, the tale recurs a number of times around Pakistan, most famously in the uttermost western corner of remote Chapursan Valley in Gojal north of Hunza. While the Baloch version does not go on to recount any malevolence on the saint’s part, Baba Ghundi of Chapursan, having delivered the valley of the man-eating dragon, is said to have taken umbrage at a slight. In his wrath, he brought down a flood of mud and stones to destroy every house but one in the valley. The mess of glacial debris left over from a melting ice stream perhaps a millennium ago is said to be a reminder of the holy man’s flood. And yet a man possessed of such cussedness is considered holy!

Baba Ghundi has a delightfully picturesque shrine where the valley ends and a great web of glaciers begins. I saw it in the summer of 1990 and now having read of Pir Balanosh, I took it in my head to see where this man rests. And so they drove me north of Dalbandin on the unpaved road to Chagai whose name means Place of Wells (chah being a well). It is said that the ground of Chagai being hard and rocky, it is difficult to dig deep wells. Therefore they dug many shallow ones so that the meagre yield of each was offset by the plurality of wells. And hence the name.

A few miles short of Chagai we turned west and entered a desert strewn with dark lumps of rock and girt with similarly black crags. It was like being in a huge volcanic plain littered with the detritus of past eruptions. But the nearest volcano, and that also extinct, was some two hundred kilometres due west. Past a nondescript little village we sped, the trail climbing ever so imperceptibly until there spread before us a little green splash in the sombre brown hills. The followers of Balanosh credit their mentor with striking the ground with his staff and bringing forth a bubbling spring of clear, palatable water. And so the grasses that fatten the sheep of the tiny population around the shrine, the date and fig trees and tiny vegetable patches are all considered boons of the saint.

If Baba Ghundi was picturesque, Pir Balanosh was no less so. Hemmed in on all sides by utterly barren crags, it was a verdant little spot with the shrine sitting in the middle on a large patch of level ground. Outside the enclosed enceinte were a tall cairn and one circular enclosure that looked like a small-scale sheep pen, very much like the ones I have seen in the summer pastures of Shimshal and Hunza. Indeed, the main enclosure looked less a shrine, more like a cross between the sheep-pens in the summer pastures of the north and a small fortress – this latter because of the turrets interspersed along the walls. Inside the compound were the graves of Balanosh, his wife and some other relatives. And above this complex rise two dozen flagpoles flying pennants of blue, green, white and red.

Dragons evidently are old hat and there being more modern villains, the legend of Balanosh had been adjusted in step with modern history. It was no dragon but Sajadeen, the king and president of ‘Roosi’ infidels, who tormented the Muslims of this remote country. It was against this leader of the infidels that Balanosh fought. The phrase ‘Roosi sadr’ floored me and I asked to clarify if I had heard correctly. No doubt there, said the narrator of the legend who claimed to be a Balanosh descendent, it was Sajadeen the Russian infidel. Desperately I tried to fit this name upon the Russian or even the Afghan leader at the time of the invasion of 1979, but failed. The only name that Sajadeen sounded remotely like was Stalin, but it would be silly to imagine these people had ever heard of this Communist elder.

As all infidels are necessarily wicked, so this Sajadeen was an oppressor who, besides his other tyrannies, fancied virgins and would daily have a new one in his bed-chamber. Then a man called Mohammad having heard of Balanosh, then living in distant Makran, travelled thence to inform the holy man of the wickedness rampant in his far-off country. And so Balanosh arrived and with miraculous powers that paralysed his attackers, defeated Sajadeen the Russian and his vast host. That was, so the narrator claimed, about the year 900 of the Hijri calendar corresponding to 1494 of the Common Era.

To give the tale a semblance of authenticity, this date is recorded on a plaque by the grave. But the plate itself was installed on the last day of April 1958 by a khidmatgar (servant) named Barkat Ali Sanjrani and looks surprisingly new-fangled for its age. This then was history being manufactured exactly the same way as families in Pakistan invent their genealogies: simply by writing out what they want to believe about themselves. The claim always is that the information was copied from an original which was too old and tattered to be maintained.

Now the yarn begins to thicken with irreconcilable additions. Balanosh the Eater of Misfortune, whose real name was Nizamuddin Agha, was a grandson (daughter’s son) of Abdul Qadir Jilani. Now this celebrated Sufi saint died in 1166 at the age of about eighty-five. Even if one were to stretch longevity into absurdity, his grandson could not have lasted any longer than sometime in the first half of the 13th century. Yet here was grandson Nizamuddin not only alive but kicking the backside of an iniquitous infidel at the end of the 15th century. These were terribly long-lived folks. But then legend never lays much store by logic.

The tale is given a farther twist by the Chagai District Gazetteer of 1906. It reports that a family of Syeds were the first to take up domicile in the region of Chagai. They remained here peacefully for many years until a marauding band of Sanjrani Baloch uprooted them after considerable slaughter. As a result the Syeds were pushed into the country where the shrine is now situated. Strangely, the Gazetteer gives no date either for the arrival of the so-called Syeds or the Sanjranis.

But what takes the wind out of the sails of the yarn that the Syeds were the ‘earliest inhabitants of the district of whom there is any authentic record,’ is the fact that pre-Islamic Baloch ancestors were already living here. And those of you who believe the Baloch to be Arabs from Aleppo, need to hone up your critical thinking: the Baloch are clearly of ancient Iranian stock and are believed to have spread out from Mazandran on the southern shores of the Caspian Sea.

If you ask me, this is a cut and dried anthropological study of how legends are born. A hundred years ago Tate heard the tale of Balanosh destroying the dragon. At that time those who prayed at his shrine had evidently glossed over the Sanjrani ingress and resultant massacre of the Syeds and perhaps even of the man who with the passage of time became Balanosh. Then they had very likely never heard of Russia. Along came the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and with refugees pouring in from across the northern border Russia became the loathed villain. Over time, the legend began to change. The dragon died its natural death; in its death throes giving birth to Sajadeen the Roosi. The parent dragon took a human sacrifice daily; Sajadeen the ogre would only have virgins.


With the defeat of Roos by believing Muslims, Sajadeen met his discomfiture at the hands of Balanosh. What the legend-makers missed, perhaps not unwittingly, was the part played by USA without whose dollars and Stingers not even a glut of belief and piety could ever have defeated Roos.

Fellow of Royal Geographical Society, Salman Rashid is author of eight books including jhelum: City of the Vitasta and The Apricot Road to Yarkand.

Bacha bagal mein our kamar pe ghar bandha that