Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Icthyophagi — the Fish Eaters

Bookmark and Share

Greek chroniclers of Alexander tell us of his near disastrous march from Lasbela westward across the Makran wilderness. They know this desert country by the name of Gedrosia. These same chroniclers also tell us that along the seaboard of this largely uninhabited wasteland lay the country of the Icthyophagi — the Fish Eaters.

They give the coastal area this name because Alexander’s admiral of the fleet Nearchus and his men found no food other than fish in this country. There being scarcely any vegetation, the cattle fed on fish and, so it is recorded, their flesh had a fishy taste. Even the huts that the Icthyophagi lived in were built using the spine and ribs of giant fish. (I have seen giant vertebrae used as stools and rough tables by old and young alike.) These were evidently whales which the Greeks mention as ‘sea monsters’ and whose abundance they report. Sadly this profusion is no longer the case because today’s Makrani fishermen rarely see these wonderful sea mammals.

To the ancient Persians too this land was home to the Fish Eaters — in Persian Mahi Khoran. Since the Persians were in contact with this country long before the Greeks, the latter having heard the name simply translated it into their own language. It is from the Persian name that the modern ‘Makran’ stems.

In fact, Makran is the elided form of the correct enunciation that is heard even to this day from the lips of the true Makrani: they call it Mukkoran which is a clear throwback on the ancient Persian Mahi Khoran.

For the Greeks the land of the Fish Eaters was the seaboard; the inland country Gedrosia. Though, so far as I know, this name is not preserved in any ancient Persian text, Thomas Holdich tells us (Gates of India) that Gedrosia is a Hellenised corruption of the old Persian name Gadroz. Gad, he explains, was the same as bud or bad and roz was day, just as it is now. Gadroz was thus the country where one’s presence meant one was simply having a bad day; it was a hard place to live in.

From the above it appears that in Classical times, geographers viewed the land of the Mahi Khoran (the seaboard) as distinct from Gadroz or Gedrosia. In the roughly one thousand years between Alexander’s passage and the coming of Arab historians in the wake of the conquest of Sindh, the name Mahi Khoran was duly simplified to Makran and applied to the entire country.

Successive Arab travellers mention Kech o Makran, that is, Kech and Makran. Here Kech being the name for Turbat town that some years ago reverted to this old name. The city lying well inland and lumped together with Makran implies that by the 10th century, the name Makran embraced the boundaries of what has until a few years ago been Makran Division.

We again hear of this land from Marco Polo. Having travelled overland to China, the man returned to Europe by sea bringing with him a princess from the court of Kublai Khan to be delivered to Abaka, the Khan’s kinsman then ruling over Persia. As he rounded the cape of peninsular India old Marco listed out the names of the kingdoms he passed — many of which we recognise without difficulty. Then he tells us of Kesmacoran, a kingdom having ‘a king of its own king and a peculiar language’.

He says that some of the people of this land were idolaters, but the most were Muslims and traders who carried ‘much traffic by sea and land in all directions’. In this he echoes the reports of Arab geographers who had written barely a couple of hundred years before him. Marco Polo’s appears to have been a coasting voyage and in those days sailors always put into a harbour for the night. Consequently as he coasted past, he would have paused over successive nights at about a dozen Makrani ports of which he makes no mention.

What he tells is what old Marco probably heard in seafront taverns, yarns narrated by travellers who knew the inland country and the people better. It was perhaps travellers’ fatigue that having spent years abroad, Marco did not care to delve any deeper into the nature of the country he was passing through and its people. Or perhaps he was in a hurry to deliver the princess into the hands of her soon-to-be-husband.

There is an interesting footnote to this discussion. While we hear much of the towns of Kech and Punjgur from the Arabs, we do not get any word on Gwadar. The first clear mention of the place is in 16th century Portuguese annals and their brief possession of it. Indeed, up on the hammerhead of Gwadar where the rich and the famous will soon have their luxury villas, there lie the remains of a water tank believed to have been laid out when the Portuguese took ‘Guadel’.

But back again in the Classical period, Nearchus, Alexander’s admiral of the fleet, tells us of his voyage from the delta of the Sindhu to that of the Euphrates. The description from Karachi to Pasni is fairly straightforward with several place names and geographical features easily identifiable to this day. But from Pasni onward it gets somewhat muddled. John McCrindle who translates this ancient text tells us that this part of the narrative is ambiguous and the distances so exaggerated, that it appears corrupted — perhaps by careless copyists.

Nevertheless, in this vagueness Nearchus mentions putting into a place called Barna. He writes: ‘Here grew many palm trees, and here was a garden wherein were myrtles and flowers from which the men wove chaplets for their hair.’ He also reports that for the first time they ran into ‘natives in a condition above that of mere savages.’ McCrindle points out that the distances are way out of kilter, yet taking into account the past and forward voyage, I suspect this wonderful garden by the sea was none other than Gwadar.

The change from Barna to Gwadar is a complicated one and something that I cannot explain. But the name Gwadar has a beautifully poetic explanation. Gwat in Balochi is a pleasant breeze and dar is door. This quaint and soon-to-change town is therefore the Gateway of the Breeze — a name that rings true: lying smack on the shore of the Arabian Sea, Gwadar is swept by pleasant sea breezes throughout the day.

Labels: , ,

posted by Salman Rashid @ 09:08,


At 23 July 2014 at 18:20, Blogger Rehan Afzal said...

Salman sb, I had always believed the etymology of Makran being the one narrated by you here, however off late some idiot has changed that on Wikipaedia, alleging that it is derived from Maka, a satrapy of the Achaemenid empire; this region having been conquered by Cyrus the Great himself.

Now as I understand, Maka included Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Oman... The ancient Achaemenid texts refer to the satrapy as Magan while the Pathians and the Sassanians refer to it as Mazun...which are so very different from Makran ! I'm amazed you were able to deduce that it is not Gadroz, which I believe included Panjgur & Mashkhel and not Makran !

By the way, even the early Greek texts from the reign of Seleucus Nicator refer to it as Makararēnē.

Could you please throw some light on this Maka predicament, before I go fight it out with the Wikipaedia guys?

At 24 July 2014 at 10:39, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Rehan, I would not even deign to talk to Wikipedia. That having been said, this Maka thing has been said earlier as well. But if you hear closely how the Makoranis pronounce Makoran you'll understand that it can only come from Mahi Khoran. The Seleucid document you refer to is not known to me.


Post a comment

<< Home

My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days