Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Sea Monsters and the Sun God

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Excerpt from Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

The sea heaved gently as we prepared to set out on the dawn tide. The end of October was a good time for a landlubber like me to be putting out to sea. The last of the monsoon winds had already blown themselves out and the sea was going to be calm until the end of next February. Abdul Majeed, the captain, whose crinkly hair stood erect as if his scalp was electrically charged – just as in the comics, and his coxswain Noor Jan, poled the boat away from the jetty. A couple of smart yanks and the two outboard motors puttered to life easing us out of Pasni fish harbour and into the open sea. The jetty fell away, the rock of Jebel e Zareen loomed to our right wall-like in the darkness and behind us Pasni went dark in another power break. Somewhere in the gloom ahead lay the island of Astola – the object of our voyage. We were following up two thousand three hundred and twenty-four years – almost to the day, after Nearchus, Alexander’s admiral of the fleet had set foot on it.

Our ship, scarce bigger than a large rowboat, had no name and the thought that we were to cross twenty-two nautical miles of sea in this dinky little craft petrified me. But Maqsood, the turner, to whom I had been introduced only the day before and who had opted to come out with me appeared unaffected as he calmly pulled on his cigarette. For our captain and helmsman, it was evidently business as usual for no sooner had we cleared the breakwaters that Noor Jan wrapped the ends of the two rudder ropes around his toes and began to nod sleepily.

They have no instruments on board and we might end up in the middle of nowhere, I thought as I took out my compass. Our heading was south by east – the bearing for Astola as I knew from the map. After years of repeated outings to the island the compass, I realised, was no longer necessary for grizzled old Noor Jan. He had charted his course either by the stars, slowly going out overhead, or by Jebel e Zareen, and so true was his reckoning that even when Astola became visible some two hours later, there was need not even to make the slightest adjustment.

The sea was calm, but never having been in the open sea and in such a tiny craft too, I was terrified. I had very nearly backed out just before setting out because Maqsood had been late and I almost took that as an excuse to abort the voyage. Fear had been gnawing at me since the previous evening when I made the deal with the owner of the boat and I had slept fitfully through the night. The moments of wakefulness being filled with the dread of Maqsood failing to show up and us getting lost at sea. When the search and rescue mission would fail to turn up anything, Maqsood would say that since he was to be preserved, Providence had made him oversleep. Strange and inscrutable are her ways, he would say with a shake and wobble of the head.

Even as I got out of bed at four in the morning to make ready, I wanted something drastic to occur to forestall my voyage. The only emotion greater than the fear of being lost at sea was the thought of humiliation, of being marked a coward afraid of the sea that kept me from aborting it myself. As I offered my excuse, my nervousness would be evident to the captain and even before I could flee Pasni, word of my gutlessness would be out. I would never be able to return to Pasni without disparaging whispers following me about.

Now I sat in the bow with my hands gripping the gunwale until the knuckles went white, and any swell that was only slightly bigger than normal sent an electrifying pang of terror through me. I feared giant white sharks (non-existent in our waters) that could chomp our puny craft into half, or monster octopuses (that live only in B-grade films) rising from the deep to grab us in their wet embrace and take us down. My wild imagination gone berserk with fear even conjured up a local version of the Bermuda Triangle. I longed to be off the boat and back on terra firma again. But we were out of Pasni, there was no going back now. With the rising of the sun, the sea snakes made for a suitable diversion. They came in exquisite colours: mauve and gold bands, deep brown, almost black and one that shimmered as liquid silver. They were tightly wound up – the brown one an unmistakable turd; all having come up to warm themselves as the surface warmed in the sunshine.

Astola should normally be visible about an hour out of Pasni. But in the shimmering glare of the rising sun we first saw it only when we were some seven or eight nautical miles from it. The profile it presented us from the northwest was that of a Japanese bullet train. That is not what Nearchus would have seen as he approached from the northeast in November 325 BCE. He would first have seen the towering rock face on the southeast that appears to be a ship under full-blown sail. In an allusion to it, Thomas Holdich (The Gates of India) calls this fascinating formation ‘sail rock.’

Nearchus mentions the island twice, once when he was anchored at Kalama and then again as he describes his passage further west along the coast of the Ichthyophagi (Fish Eaters, as the people of Makran were known to the Greeks). In the first instance he calls the island Karbinê and tells us that it lay one hundred stadia (ten nautical miles) offshore. Then again he names it Nosala at the same distance off the coast. On both counts Nearchus was grossly under-estimating by several nautical miles. Now, Kalama is Kalamat on modern maps, an inland bay of irregular oblong shape with a narrow mouth leading into its crystal-clear sheltered waters. It lies midway between Ormara and Pasni and cannot be missed as one flies over it en route between the latter and Karachi. Astola lies southwest of here, across a channel twenty nautical miles wide and fifteen fathoms deep.

There is a simple explanation for the two names Nearchus assigns to a single geographical entity. As he approached from the east, he docked at a village where the people called the island Karbinê. A right hospitable lot these villagers were too. They brought the admiral gifts of sheep and fish. The mutton, Nearchus tells us, tasted fishy because there being no grass the animals fed on fish. Then, as he sailed westward for his eventual rendezvous with Alexander in distant Babylon, Nearchus encountered another coastal community on the west side of Kalamat bay that referred to the island as Nosala. It is strange that two communities should call the same geographical entity by different names, but it not entirely unheard of. This second community added to Nearchus’s information: the island was uninhabited and sacred to the sun and therefore enchanted.

The admiral noted, ‘No one willingly visited this island, and if anyone was carried to it unawares, he was never more seen.’ Providence only added to this aspect of the supernatural when a transport ship of the Greek fleet manned by an Egyptian crew, perhaps attempting a landing, disappeared just off the rocky beaches of Astola. Concerned for the well-being of the Egyptians, Nearchus ordered a galley of thirty oars to scout around the island with all hands calling out the names of the lost crew. But the hope that some may have swum to the safety of Astola was soon abandoned for no response came forth. If he had toyed with thoughts of going ashore, it was now decided for him.

In a bid to show that the loss of the transport ship and its crew was merely an unfortunate accident and the ‘story about the island [being enchanted] was nothing but an empty fable,’ Nearchus had to force the crew of his own ship to go ashore. This they did with much uneasiness and only when the admiral himself accompanied them. Thereafter centuries were to pass before Astola was to receive notice again. This time, in the late Middle Ages. We learn of it being the dreaded haunt of the ruthless pirates of the Balochistan coast. Here they slaughtered their victims after divesting them of all they possessed.

Nearchus found the island deserted and without a sign of human habitation, but the fact that he was told of Astola being sacred to the sun shows that at some remote time before the arrival of the Greeks, it had indeed been a site of religious pilgrimage. Though we do not know how long before the Greeks the temple of the sun god (if at all it existed) was abandoned, it is remarkable that the memory of the island’s earlier sanctity was yet preserved in 325 BCE.

There is some historical evidence that along the Balochistan and Iranian coast there was a series of temples frequented by the convoys of traders journeying between the great cities of the Sindhu Valley and Mesopotamia. We know that one of these was the famed temple of Hinglaj on the Hingol River. Once it was sacred to the more than five thousand year-old Mesopotamian moon goddess Nania. Today it is holy both for Muslims and Hindus alike. For the former it is the sanctum of Bibi Nani (clearly a derivative of Nania) and for the latter of Durga. (Nania is believed to be an ancient Mesopotamian deity, but once the script of the Sindhu Valley has been deciphered it should not come as a surprise that she was a goddess of Moen jo Daro and Harappa taken west by traders and travellers. She would have greatly appealed to the Mesopotamian church to be assimilated completely.) It is also believed that another hallowed spot in this chain was Astola.

Like the thirty-oared Greek galley, we too did a complete circuit of the island. There were no stricken sailors to call out to, only we wanted to see what the island looked like all around. Its southern shore was either shattered rock or vertical sea walls and caves with nary a landing site. Around the bend, the eastern extremity stood tall and proud like a wind-filled sail: the famous sail rock of Holdich. Along the northern shore was a yellow sandy beach about a kilometre and a half in length, then a stretch of rock wall falling vertically to the sea, and yet another smaller sandy beach. Beyond, in the fold of a crescent-shaped hillock was the whitewashed shrine of Khwaja Khizer, patron saint of rivers and seas.

Our captain and helmsman had all along referred to Astola not as an ‘island’ but as ‘mountain of the sea.’ And for them the name of this ‘mountain’ is Haftalar, from where it is easy to derive the modern title Astola. Now ‘haft’ is the Persian word for seven, but no amount of quizzing brought forth the meaning of the suffix ‘talar.’ Holdich, however, writes that this Balochi word means ‘rocky band of cliffs or hills.’ Haftalar thus was the Seventh Hill (or mountain, as my captain referred to it) – the seventh in the chain of shrines situated between the valley of the Sindhu and Mesopotamia. The language employed being Persian and its derivative (Balochi) and not Sanskrit (where haft would have been sapt), I presume the count progressed from the west to the east.

Some eight thousand years ago Astola was indeed a ‘rocky band of cliffs or hills’, shaped very much like the hammerheads of nearby Ormara and Gwadar and sticking out into the sea. That was when the earth was yet covered with vast ice sheets and the seas were thirty metres lower – today the depth of the channel between Astola and continental Balochistan. Then the Ice Age ended, the ice sheets melted and receded. Water sluiced down the rivers of the world to raise ocean levels destroying innumerable coastal settlements. The Mediterranean broke across the Strait of Bosphorus to turn the sweet water lake that we today call Black Sea bitter. For the ancients it was as if the ‘fountains of the deep’ had burst open for that is what the Bible tells us. Shortly thereafter Astola had become an island.

The hill was suddenly an island; but in the collective memory of the aboriginal people of Makran it continued to live as a sacred hill for they and before them their ancestors had worshipped the sun on its wind-scoured flat crest. They did not abandon their god; those who could venture across twenty nautical miles of open sea in uncertain little craft would surely have taken that voyage of penance to win his favour. At some point in time when coastal travel between the Sindhu Valley and Mesopotamia became commonplace, its route marked by places of worship, the island became part of the chain of temples stretching between the two river valleys. Even though it was an island, they called it Haft Talar – the Seventh Hill, for the ancient collective memory refused to go away. It is a memory that persists to this day prompting my captain to refer to Astola ‘mountain of the sea.’

Majeed beached our boat on the larger of the two sandy strands on the north shore and we climbed up through a maze of boulders to the absolutely flat, wind-swept tabletop. Far away to the west was the solar-powered warning beacon. Nearer to us was the temple: a rude low-walled square constructed from badly eroded limestone blocks that could have been cut five hundred or five thousand years ago, and could possibly have come from an earlier building. A swastika and a crude wheel of life, both Vedic signs, adorned the altar smeared with dried blood and vermilion. Above it a frayed flag, bleached a nameless colour by the harsh sun, flapped in the wind. Neither of my two companions knew which god this shrine was dedicated to, but they did know that rich Hindus periodically made the pilgrimage here and sacrificed goats at the altar. Some way off to the east an area was marked out as a mosque.

Perhaps the existing temple was built on the exact site where the aboriginal Makranis had worshipped their sun god. But I had no way of knowing. I only knew that we stood on ground that was sacred to tens of hundreds of generations of those that peopled the cities of Lothal, Kalibangan, Moen jo Daro and Mehrgarh. And to those who lived in Ur and Nineveh. Today the island is a sort of mid-sea headquarters for the fishermen of Kalamat and Pasni who repair here to dry their nets and cook their meals: even as we walked around the island, there were no less than fifteen fishing boats in anchor, and the small sandy beach was crowded with men cooking and mending the nets.

Friends at WWF in Lahore had told me to keep an eye out for the cats of Astola. Fifteen well-fed feral cats, they said, lived on the island. Since this is the largest number that the meagre resources of the island can support, the number is kept steady by the toms cannibalising on the kittens. But I caught only the merest glimpse of one as it fled down a ravine while we were climbing to the top. Once upon a time there were no cats on Astola, however. It was the haunt of rats, sea birds (by the thousands) and briefly, twice annually, of migratory quails coming in from or going out to East Africa. The rats scavenged the leavings of the fishermen who frequented the island and sometimes robbed sea birds’ nests. They also did plenty of damage to the nets and other equipment laid out by the sailors to dry.

And so one day a fisherman called Rahim, a native of Kalamat, so it was reported by our captain, brought out a pair of cats and shanghaied them on the island. By and by the cats destroyed the rats and when that was done, they turned upon nesting sea birds. Today Astola that was once a crowded bird colony is deserted. The few that do still resort here are careful to nest only on the detached rock off the southern shore of the island. The cats being unnatural, albeit unwilling, invaders, are believed by naturalists to have upset the eco-system. There are schemes now to exterminate the cats and re-introduce the rats so as to let the sea birds return to their lost nesting colony.

Soon it was time for us to return to the boat for the voyage back to the mainland. Nearchus’s sailors had come ashore with great trepidation. But we had kept faith and landed without fear. For me fear set in, as it had early in the morning, when we boarded our tiny craft for the return journey. But Majeed and Noor Jan were both good men who knew how to handle their boat, and three hours and twenty minutes after setting out of Astola we were puttering into the harbour at Pasni. My pilgrimage to the island of the sun had come to pass.

Postscript I: As we were about to set out on the return voyage, there was some commotion in the sea next to us. A pair of marine turtles surfaced and I thought they were struggling to free themselves from a fishing net. I asked my captain to go nearer so we could set them free before they suffocated.

No, they are not dying,’ he said. ‘They are making love.’ Yeh to mohabat kur rahe hain.

The tenderness in his words touched me for it is rare in Pakistan to find a person sympathetic to the natural world. Least of all one like my unlettered captain Abdul Majeed. My mind flew miles to my native Punjab. A Punjabi would have been loud, lewd and profane. It would not have been mohabat for him. He would have jeered the reptiles, harrying them by throwing things at them. And such a person may not necessarily have even been uneducated.

Postscript II: At exactly 9.45 AM just after my captain had called out, ‘Look, sahib! The mountain of the sea,’ and when I was mesmerised by the sight of Astola only a few nautical miles ahead, a swell rocked our boat a little too violently for my well-being. I was terrified out of my wits, but it passed. Had I been looking over my right shoulder, to the southwest, I would have seen the dreadful sight of the ill-starred Orion of the Pakistan Navy going down about five or six nautical miles away. None of us saw it crashing, we only heard of the unfortunate accident in the afternoon at Pasni. The evening news bulletin gave out the time of the crash and I realised that the swell had been caused by the Orion as it went under. By the end of the next day we had learned that the crew had all perished.

The island of the sun god, perhaps, is enchanted after all. We who were landing on hallowed ground were spared. In our stead the sun god claimed the lives of the twenty-one good men who flew above his sacred temple.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 8 June 2013 at 12:24, Anonymous Bukhari said...

I was wondering if this secluded but historic island can be frequented by common people; some ferry service in the calm waters of Arabian Sea, some recreational and or tourism activity on site for which it has potentials.

There was news that some NGO concerned with conservation of nature plans to initiate an awareness raising programme in Astola Island as a step towards a community-based conservation programme to reverse the degradation of the Island's biodiversity. But no idea what is happening now.

Very useful article.

At 8 June 2013 at 12:56, Blogger Faraz said...

Fascinating read, as always, Salman Sahab!

I am afraid the monster octopuses are not the stuff of B-grade movies, but are very real. Luckily, they are not found in the Arabian Sea, but I have heard that the gentle giants of the sea, the whale sharks, do frequent these water.

As you have mentioned the crash of the Orion, I am guessing that you took this voyage in 1999, and this is not something that has happened recently?

At 8 June 2013 at 13:01, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Faraz, you guess right, sir. This story is part of the anthology of the same title.

At 8 June 2013 at 13:03, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Please let us hope that Astola never becomes a tourist resort. it will be destroyed. I have no idea if WWF have removed the cats and re-introduced rats to the island.

At 8 June 2013 at 20:24, Anonymous Dave D said...

Great stuff on your blog. In-depth.

At 9 June 2013 at 13:55, Anonymous Saim said...

History, crystal clear sea and reliving the quiet romance of Astola. Lovely book title "Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan" and even lovelier writing.

At 9 June 2013 at 17:00, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Dave D and Saim, Thank you very much. Glad that you enjoy this blog.

At 9 June 2013 at 21:42, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

Great read though I get sea sickness when I think of it.

At 19 July 2014 at 04:28, Anonymous Anonymous said...

very nice...... tusi chaa gay sir g...

At 19 July 2014 at 10:19, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Anonymous.

At 20 October 2015 at 17:49, Blogger Muzzammil said...

Very Nice Salman Sb. Captivating indeed. Please keep your fingers crosses as we intend to follow your footstep in the coming days!

At 21 October 2015 at 09:34, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Good luck to you, Muzammil. Have a safe and very enjoyable trip.


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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