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.
posted by Salman Rashid @ 9:13 AM,
At September 7, 2013 at 5:09 PM,
"...scratched the night away." Lovely!
At September 8, 2013 at 10:34 AM,
Salman Rashid said...
In 1988, two German friends and I trekked up to Mahodhand (Swat). Since I wanted to leave the couple alone, I slept in a shepherds' hut. Man, what a night! The fleas got into my bag in a hurry and I could hardly sleep all night. They were also in my pants. Once you've got fleas you cannot get rid of them until you get to a really warm place. In Lahore, I was so pleased to find hundreds of dead fleas in my sleeping bag. The itching did not go away for several days after leaving Swat!
At September 9, 2013 at 12:03 AM,
A swot in Swat who failed to swat the fleas despite swating up on the trip. A SWOT (analysis) of the place may work better next time, kind sir :)