Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Kohistan - The Land of Chandios

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Kutte ji Qabar (Dog’s Grave)

'The Kohistan – bare, harsh, arid land of gravel wastes, torrent beds filled with boulders, pebbly slopes leading up to range after range, razor-edged and crowned with precipices. Under a June sun at midday refracted from the rocks, the mirages dancing along the maidans, it is indeed a penance to be there. But visit it in the cold season; see, when night is nearly ended – when the eastern horizon begins to glow, and above towards the zenith deep blue pales to steel, and the stars are fading out – see the dim bulk of the Khirthar put off the veil of sleep, awakening to the delicate touch of first light; from gray to lilac, from lilac to pearl and opal, the tracery of cliff and crag and chasm begins to show, and before we, far below, can see the first fiery edge of the sun, that high range bursts into a golden glory, seeming to throw back on us the lower ridges that darken awhile from the contrast.’

Such is the poetry that the Khirthar Mountains inspired in the mind of H. T. Lambrick. He was the man who served in the 1940s as Deputy Commissioner Jacobabad and wrote the definitive biography of John Jacob, the founder of the town that carries his name to this day. It was in those days that Lambrick visited the Kohistan region on hunting trips with Nawab Ghaibi Khan, the chief of the Chandio tribe of Baloch who live in the districts of Larkana and Dadu along the eastern foothills of the Khirthar. (While the Chandios themselves prefer to be called Baloch, some historians contest this claim on various grounds.) And it was in those days that he fell in love with this harsh mountain country on the border of Sindh and Balochistan.

Indeed if it were not the stark beauty, it is the name of the mountains alone that thrills. Khir Thar: ‘Milk Cream’ in Sindhi. Like the bony spine of the southern part of Pakistan, this range, with its highest peak cresting at 2171 metres, stretches almost from Karachi to north of Khuzdar where it blends into the slightly higher Central Brahui Mountains. For a range that is largely a waste of arid river valleys, dry scrub plains, treeless slopes and sparse population, the evocative title of Khirthar sounds a trifle far fetched. But that is exactly what it isn’t. In a long ago moment now lost in the mist of time, some hardy mountaineer travelling through this austere land would have thought of this title in anti-thetical frivolity. Or perhaps it was one whose generations before him had fought long and hard to survive in this grim land and who remembered well the stories told around the hearth – stories of the grinding struggle that was called life in these harsh, dry mountains. Or perhaps the name had been given by one who had hunted the wild sheep and goats that once ranged freely through this country. Whatever the case, the title surely must have come in a light-hearted moment many, many years ago as an anti-thesis to the severe, unforgiving reality of the Khirthar Mountains.

After ten years of the so called ‘dacoits’ rule’ the district was once again peaceful and I could once again travel in the area without fear of abduction. The fact of the matter, however, is that there are men in the district administration whom I can call my friends. Between them Badaruddin Ujan in Larkana, Ajmal Kamboh in Shahdadkot and Wasim Chaudhri in Kambar, had everything sorted out for me even before I arrived. Without them this outing would have come to nothing like four previous attempts to reach Kutte ji Qabar (Dog’s Grave), the second highest peak in the Khirthar range, from this side. Consequently, up in the mountain, it was on more than one occasion that I sent up a silent prayer for these wonderful men.

In Shahdadkot I was introduced to pot-bellied Wali Mohammed Manganhar, lawyer turned journalist. He wanted to spend ‘a few days’ planning what he called a ‘major expedition’ such as ours; I was desperate to get into the hills before someone came around to scare me off yet again. In the end my agitation prevailed and he did whatever preparations there were in a hurry. But a journey into the land of the Chandios (some ‘dacoits’ carried this name!) could not be made without the blessing of Nawab Shabbir Chandio and his younger brother Ali Nawaz. Wasim took care of this and we were picked up from Shahdadkot by the Nawab’s secretary. At Kambar we changed to a beat up old jeep and set off for Rahu jo Aitho where Wali’s friend Raees Hasil Khan Chandio lives. The village was a collection of huts dwarfed by the stark, eroded lump of rock called Bikhor that is washed by the blue-green waters of the Khenji Nai (river). In the west the main ridge of the Khirthar Mountains looms darkly.

Arriving in the early afternoon we were told that Hasil Khan was away attending a saint’s annual festival and that we might have to wait three days for his return. He was, the family said, the only man who new this part of the mountains well. Also because he was the Raees (headman) of a number of neighbouring villages, and well known among the population, we would be well advised to travel with him. I resigned to the enforced hold up and made the best of the chicken curry his household served up. After the meal Ali Akbar of our party prepared bhung for Wali who is given to its pleasures and must have his fix twice a day. It was only then I realised why Wali had been so insistent on bringing Akbar along. While Akbar ground the dry marijuana leaves to a paste, Wali sat by patiently, occasionally helping by adding a little water. When it was ready, he raised the aluminium pan containing the sickly green liquid to his lips eagerly and took a long draught. Then he let out a series of loud burps, rubbed his bloated belly and smiled. The remainder was polished off by Ali Akbar who said he was now ready for the world. This was to be the standard procedure for the next five days that we spent together.

The question of how we were going to employ the next three days of inactivity (especially so because, not anticipating this situation, I had brought no reading material) was answered when Wali Mohammed in consultation with Hasil’s relatives drew up a roster of the sites we could visit. Consequently, that evening we walked along the Khenji River to see Lalan ji Mari – the Mansion of Lalan. In the middle of a low tableland about half an hour west of Aitho rises a small hillock girt with extensive ruins of stone walls, cubicles and what look like large rooms. The top, a spacious turret, was clearly the citadel where the final defense would have been fought. Bits of the corners of this turret stand to this day – the remainder having long since crumbled to a heap. From the top it is evident that the surrounding tableland was once a large settlement that would have been sustained by agriculture on the banks of the Khenji.

None in our party knew of any finds from the ruins and I estimated them to be from five to seven hundred years old. Later, however, browsing through my copy of Sind Through the Centuries I learned that Lalan ji Mari was a Bronze Age settlement. So much for my prowess as an archeologist! Nearby, they said, was a small peak called Lalu jo Jabal – the Mountain of Lalu. This man was either a brother or husband of Lalan. But there were no stories either of their exploits or the time Lalu and Lalan lived.

In the morning I was introduced to Hasil Khan who had returned some time during the night from the festival at the shrine of Shah Godrio, twelve hours away by camel. His sinuous, wiry frame stood no more than a metre and sixty centimetres and had a face to match: hawkish, hollow cheeked and thickly bearded, off set by bright black eyes that burnt with incredible intensity. In fact, the sharp eyes lent him a fierce countenance. But this, I was to learn, was just a façade. Behind it was a quick smile and a hearty laugh coupled with a generous and warm nature and the ability to win friends. As the Raees of several villages, he was the Nawab’s deputy in the outback and had spent two very busy weeks. He was tired, he said, from a fortnight of hard travelling. Nonetheless, he would take us to the village of Sita ji Dath and put us in the charge of one of the Nawab’s trusted men.

In his late forties Hasil Khan could only speak Sindhi for he had had but two years of schooling. But he could fend for himself in Seraiki and Balochi and could easily understand my Punjabi interspersed with Sindhi words. Our relationship began rather coolly, but as we walked together he talked and the cool façade peeled off to reveal the real Hasil Khan Chandio. His favourite phrase was ‘Ji, Sir!’ and every time he uttered it his eyes twinkled merrily as memories of a period that was not the best in his life came flooding back. This phrase he had picked up from the army during the anti-dacoit operations of the late 1980s. Upright and law abiding Hasil Khan had no reason to flee into the hills when operations began, consequently it was on more occasions than he cares to remember that he played host to the army. Mostly there were only questions about the whereabouts of dacoits who may have passed through his village. But there was also the time on a cold winter evening when they came asking for some Chandio outlaws and threatened to give him a dunking in the river that flows past the village.

‘You know how cold winters can be in our Kohistan and I was terrified I’d freeze to death. They took me to the water’s edge and questioned me. I said I had nothing to do with the bandits and prayed to the Lord they’d believe me like I had never prayed before.’ He was spared the dunking. Amid fits of laughter he spoke of his own discomfiture and I marvelled at this wonderful man possessed of the rare capacity to laugh at himself. Again it is a measure of his magnanimity that he remembers Colonel Bajwa who headed the anti-dacoit operations as a good man. Repeated attempts to get him to revile the army could only draw the comment that ‘they were doing their job and some of us may not have liked the way they did it.’

The camel ride to Sita took three hours and a half. En route we stopped for tea at the waterhole of Phung. One hot and humid August afternoon in 1986 a group of bandits headed by the fearsome Manzoor Buriro and Janu Arain too paused here for a bit. With them they had three men kidnapped for ransom from the road between Kambar and Shahdadkot, one of whom was a young athlete, Munir Sheikh by name. As the dacoits dozed off, Sheikh, confident of his own fitness, took it into his head to escape. But without any idea of the topography and the knowledge that the best thing in such a situation is to follow a watercourse (which generally bear east here), he struck off due south across the low, broken hills. He was never to be heard of again. Three months later when the other kidnapped men were released against ransom news of the lad’s escape bid reached his family. The father refused to believe that his son was dead and approached the dacoits who only confirmed what he had already heard. But the loss of a son is hard to reconcile with and the poor man sought the intercession of a Syed from a nearby town. This holy man said he could see where Munir was being held and relieved the elder Sheikh of some money to be paid as ransom to the bandits. But at that point the son had been dead for four years; now the father was also poorer by ten thousand rupees.

At Sita ji Dath the bad news was that Misri Khan Chandio, the Nawab’s man, was not willing to go into the mountain with us. The Chandios and the Chhuttas have a ten year old feud over land and now, he said, there was a great Chhutta lashkar waiting in the mountain to fall upon any Chandio who may venture there. I gave up. I knew this wouldn’t work and we would have to forego the journey. So I simply went to sleep while my companions pleaded and argued. When I was roused an hour later our party’s discussions had come to an end, but another pair, a young man and a withered old bag, was now shouting away at each other. It turned out that they were discussing the forthcoming visit of the older man to the free eye camp at Shahdadkot. To me an ear camp for the old man would have been more appropriate. Everybody else, our party and a bunch of locals, sat around smoking speechlessly. With great finality Hasil Khan ordered me to prepare to depart. That was it, I thought, we were going back.

Instead we went to the otaq (guest room) of Allah Rakhio Gaincho on the far side of the village. Sensing my commitment to get up into the mountain Hasil Khan had decided that Misri could go to hell and that he himself was taking us up despite his lack of rest over the last fortnight. My heart went out to him for his concern. From the way I had snored through the argument, I could have been as interested in the mountain as the goldfish in my cousin’s aquarium in Lahore. This showed that Hasil Khan was a truly gifted man to have determined that I really, really wanted to go up. Then, while Allah Rakhio prepared his best donkey and the gear was transferred from the camels, I promptly went right back to sleep. Yet Hasil Khan still did not falter in his commitment. The camels were sent back to Aitho, I was roused and we set out along the Sita Nai.

Just outside the village, at the mouth of the gorge where the river breaks out into open country the last vestiges of an ancient dam could be seen. The walls of chiselled stone blocks that ended in abrupt jagged ends some way up the sides of the gorge would once have blocked the river bed to form a small lake upstream. Wali Mohammed said Sita, the architect of this dam, was an ancient queen whose history is lost.

In the bleak, treeless Khirthar Mountains Sita Nai is like a gift from the gods. Its rocky bed is a succession of waterfalls and ponds of the purest shades of emerald and turquoise. At a place called Pir jo Kumbh (Pond of the Saint) Hasil Khan pointed out a group of petroglyphs. The drawing depicts a hunting scene with human forms stalking mountain goats and deer. The most striking of these figures is the drawing of a humped ox with huge horns rather in the tradition of those on Moen jo Daro seals and a swamp deer or barasingha with its elaborate set of antlers. Earlier my companions had been talking of the time in the recent past when the barasingha was fairly common in this area and I had thought they did not know what the animal looked like and were simply using the term as a generic word for any deer. This drawing showed that swamp deer did indeed live here from very remote times. The remarkable feature, however, was that the drawings were at least fifteen metres above the valley floor on a vertical wall as plain as a sheet of glass, and over thirty metres below the crest. Hasil Khan said that they were made at a time when the valley floor was ‘up there.’ There were no far-fetched stories of giants that once roamed this land; there was just this plain and simple statement.

This was wisdom as scientific as it was ancient; this was what he had been told by the elders. Without any idea of the geology of this area, I estimated it would have been no less than fifty thousand years ago when the valley floor was as high as that. Later in Lahore a geologist was to confirm that the rate of uplift in these mountains is one millimetre per annum on the average, meaning that the valley floor was at the level of the drawings some fifteen thousand years ago. That then was the time when a group of aboriginal Sindhi hunters had laboured here for days to propitiate their gods of the hunt with this artistic offering. I was perhaps the first outsider to be regarding this prehistoric art show for my companions did not know if any archeologists had ever visited the site.

Night fell and we plodded on in the dark behind Hasil Khan to a small settlement. Amid barking dogs and sniffling children they laid out bedding for us and brought on the tea. The fish that Allah Rakhio had shot (in the crystal water of the Sita it is easy to shoot fish with a rifle) earlier was broiled and served. A discussion about what time we should set off took place and after it was agreed that we would leave before sunrise, we turned in for the night.

At some point I was roused by an ancient man who shoved a lota in my face and said I should wash up for breakfast. I looked at my watch: it was two o’clock AM! I rudely told him to get lost, but he sat down next to me and was presently joined by another. True to form, a debate began. There they sat hawking and spitting, hawking and spitting and yakking away without regard to the early hour and the fact that their guests had barely been asleep for four hours. Through all this my four companions happily snored on. Eventually I roused Wali Mohammed and asked him to tell them to go away and come back at a more decent hour. It took him five minutes to convince them that whoever in our party had said we would leave at sehri didn’t know what he was talking about.

We did leave before daybreak though. Through a broken, dry ravine we went southward leaving the reassuring ponds of Sita Nai behind us. Soon we were climbing up the hill of Kukker to the first great wall of the Khirthar. After about an hour Hasil Khan pointed out a small dark blotch on the khaki hillside. It was a tree with a pond that marked the southernmost limit of Hasil’s property. We were to halt there for lunch.

As we were making our way up to it, the surcingle came undone and our baggage fell off. Since Hasil had loaded the animal in the morning, Allah Rakhio turned on him saying he should have seen that the strap was done before setting off.

‘Now look here, you,’ Hasil said wagging a finger in indignation, ‘I am a Raees not a nobody and I’m not supposed to be getting under the donkey. You do the menial work.’ This was scandalous. I stared in disbelief and he burst out laughing as he secured the baggage properly.

Shortly afterwards we sat under the acacia tree not yet fully in leaf in early March and ate our meager lunch. At 1400 metres above the sea even its patchy shade was cool and refreshing. By three in the afternoon we reached the deserted houses of Ungor. This was now the domain of the Chhuttas and we all joked about the lashkar that had so worried Misri Khan in Sita. The march was along a flat shelf between the vertical rock wall on the right and the ragged, furrowed slope falling away to the plain on our left. Cover was provided by scattered acacia trees and clumps of dwarf palm.

While we collected firewood, Ali Akbar went about his preparation of bhung. Soon the green liquid had been polished off and Akbar and Wali Mohammed began their happy chorus of burps. Conversation turned to the marijuana that grows wild all over Punjab and Ali Akbar said he had tried it once and had no wish to do so again. It was lethal, an instant knockout, and because it came from Punjab, he had given it a name which he thought was rather suitable: Martial Law. The army being largely Punjabi, all martial laws that have afflicted the sorry land of Pakistan are blamed on that province.

‘Punjabi martial law is as noxious as Punjabi bhung,’ Ali Akbar said with a laugh.

We lounged outside the lean-to waiting for Ali Akbar’s concoction of lentils and yesterday’s chapattis to be served up. Overhead, in the crimson sunset, every ten minutes or so a jet liner drew its plume of vapour across the pale sky. Hasil Khan handed me his binoculars, ‘Tell me which kingdom this airplane comes from,’ he wanted to know. A little later he told me that this was a busy ‘road’ for aircraft of many ‘kingdoms.’ He did not know the word for it, but Hasil Khan knew we were under an international air lane. Then he began to speak.

‘Up in the mountain there once lived a Brahui and his dog. A handsome animal it was, and very proud and faithful too that served its master with unflinching loyalty. Now, the Brahui was a poor man and as it happens with all poor folk he too was occasionally faced with insolvency. In one particularly bad situation he came down from the mountain to seek a loan from a rich Bania. With nothing else to offer as collateral, he was forced to leave his dog behind. As he departed the Bania’s place of business he turned to his dog for the last time instructing it to serve the new master as it had served him, and that he would make arrangements for the settlement of the loan with utmost speed so that they could be reunited.

‘And so the Brahui returned to his mountain while his faithful dog settled down to life with the Bania. Now, it came to pass that a band of robbers attacked the Bania’s household one night and, having overpowered the family, decamped with everything of value. In all this the dog was nowhere to be seen. Later, as the Bania sat lamenting with his neighbours, the dog returned to pull at the Bania’s dhoti. With righteous indignation the man chased the animal away for what business did it have to bother him now when it had failed in its duty earlier? But the dog persisted until one in the company realised that it was trying to tell them something. Together the Bania and his neighbours followed the dog to a river outside the village where the animal began to dig in the dry, sandy bed. Presently it had laid bare the wealth the robbers had stolen the night before.

‘Overjoyed, the Bania wrote down the story on a scrap of paper and tied it around the dog’s neck.

“You are free to return to your master,” said the Bania to the dog.

“For you have more than repaid his debt; he owes me nothing. Go now and be reunited with your master.” Happily the dog set off for the Brahui’s mountain home. At that moment the Brahui, having come in for some money, was making his way down to settle with the Bania. In the distance the dog saw its master and raced for him in joyous abandon. The Brahui was horrified: Oh, woe! The dog had humiliated him; it had deserted the Bania. The word had been broken. In a flush of anger the man held out the bhondo (the hand held out with fingers spread wide in a sign of extreme abuse). The shock was too much for the poor animal. It fell down dead.

‘The Brahui came up to the lifeless animal and it was only then he noticed the note tied around the neck. But no amount of lamentation could bring the poor dog to life again. In recognition of its unflinching loyalty and because of his own grief the Brahui decided to bury his dog on the highest peak of the Khirthar Mountains. And there he lies buried to this day.’ (Kutte ji Qabar is the second highest of the Khirthar peaks. The highest is 2171 metres, seventy-five metres higher than our peak, and lies thirty-five kilometres due south.)

Having finished the story Hasil Khan rested his back against the wooden post of the lean-to. The wind moaned softly through the bushes and the firelight danced across his lean, bearded face. Hasil wrapped his shawl around his wiry body for we were already at 1500 metres above the sea and the chill was marked. The elongated tabletop of Kutte ji Qabar, touched by the merest hint of a flush from the crimson sunset, rose above the purple ridges in the south. We were still over three hours from it by foot.

‘Tomorrow you will be at the Dog’s Grave,’ said Hasil Khan. ‘And I am happy that I have been able to help you get to it.’ Earlier, he was surprised to hear that I had attempted reaching it four times before and had been turned away because of the uncertain law and order situation in this part of Sindh.

It had all started twelve years ago when I first read Stanley Napier Raikes’ Folk Tales of Sind and Guzerat (published c 1875). The book’s version of the tale was exactly as Hasil Khan’s. I have always lamented the passing of the art of story telling in a world dominated by the glitz of television. Here in Kohistan where the nearest road-head is eight hours away by camel, where there is no electricity and the accursed television, schools or hospitals, the art lives on.

Over dinner I chided Wali Mohammed. If I have seen unfit men, he tops the list: he smokes thirty cigarettes a day, is fat with a huge pot-belly where he puts away vast quantities of food, has never exercised in the last twenty years and needs his fix of bhung twice a day. Consequently it was no small wonder that he did make it to the top – and without complaining even once. For that the whole party gave him full marks.

Leaving early we walked along a great gash in the mountainside to our left. On our right the rock wall cut off the view to the west. Two hours later we reached a wide flat expanse of clayey land where the wheat stood six inches high. For the first time we had views into Balochistan to the right: below a sheer fall of a thousand metres was a dry river valley speckled with green squares of cultivation. Through the binoculars we could make out the dwarf palm thatch of the Chhuttas’ shelters. Beyond this valley was an endless panorama of range after barren, treeless range stretching in three directions to the horizon which itself was a formless band of gray. To our left was a humpback ridge of bleached limestone. We climbed it to look into the wheat fields of Daryaro – the Bearded One, another Chhutta summer settlement. In the first week of March there wasn’t a soul in sight.

The Chhuttas, whose lashkar we had been warned against, own this part of the mountain. Just before the spring rains they had braved what Hasil called ‘freezing cold’ to come up to prepare the land and plant the wheat, as indeed they do every year. Then they fled to the lowlands again leaving the crop at the mercy of the spring rains and porcupines which, judging from the droppings, were in pestilential proportions in this part of the Khirthar range. They were sure to be doing extensive damage to cultivation as well for we had seen their destructive work on the sparse cover of acacia and dwarf palm. Once the leopard had roamed these hills and preyed on these rodents, but it was hunted to extinction by thoughtless Nawabs and their guests. Consequently with the only natural enemy gone, the porcupine population exploded. Today these rodents only occasionally succumb to the pot shots of armed men.

In April, having harvested their low country wheat, the Chhuttas will return with their herds for the summer to Daryaro and other settlements nearby. ‘Cold’, I knew, was the bugaboo for my Sindhi friends. On an earlier attempt to reach this mountain in December some years ago, I was warned of a cold whose intensity I, being a plainsman, could not even imagine. I had argued that it could only be as cold as a 2000 metre high mountain at this latitude, but that had made no impression. Now Wali Mohammed and Hasil Khan were surprised how pleasant it had been during the previous night and I took my chance of extracting the promise of them travelling with me to another peak nearby during the next winter. But so far as the Chhuttas were concerned, we were nobody to decide when they should come up to their mountain.

Across the flat cultivated patch we sat down for tea before the last haul to the top. There was just enough water to give us a choice between bhung and tea, and since there were more votes for tea Wali had to forego his dream of creating a record of sorts by having his electuary on the second highest peak of the Khirthar. Over tea conversation turned to the possibility of making Daryaro a summer resort. It was a damn good place everyone agreed. We even sited the hotels, restaurants and shopping areas and chose the plots of land we would like to own. There was also talk of the prosperity it would bring to the people living on both sides of the mountain and the shine in their eyes said that if Allah Rakhio and Hasil could do it, they would order the hill station tomorrow. Silently I thought of the unavoidable trade off: the rape of this pristine wilderness. No longer will the Sita and the Khenji be able to flaunt their pure turquoise waters. During the trek I had seen but two empty cigarette packets; after the resort is off and running the place will be littered. But at some point we will have to pick between the one and the other; ideally the resort should follow education and enlightenment. Whatever the case, if the resort was ever to be, we knew the road could not come through the Sita gorge. It would probably have to take off from the Shahdadkot-Khuzdar road running about sixty kilometres to the north.

The last bit was almost straight uphill through thorn bushes and wild almond in glorious blossom. My altimeter read 2060 metres or 6757 feet above the sea; it was short by thirty-six metres. From the top the three sided view was into range after parched range interspersed with desiccated river valleys and, a thousand metres below us, a few variegated fields marking the rare village. To the east there was nothing but an amorphous haze – a sign of man’s intervention. Hasil Khan and Wali wanted to look for the ‘pillar’ that bore the name of some Lucas sahib who had purportedly erected it at some indeterminate time in the past. We found the dog’s grave instead. It was a rectangular arrangement of limestone blocks, the longer axis aligned north-south with vertical slabs at the head and the foot.

‘Allah be praised! The Brahui must have been a very devoted master to give his dog a proper burial,’ said Hasil Khan.

An hour later as we drank our tea before beginning the return trek Hasil Khan looked pensive.

‘What a dog! One bhondo and it dies of shame and grief. And here we are claiming so much for ourselves, facing the worst kind of humiliation day in and day out. Yet there isn’t one man or woman to die from it.’ After a pause he added, ‘Surely it deserved the funeral the Brahui gave it. And if the dog could be so proud and dignified what character the master would have possessed!’

Suddenly it dawned on me: that was the raison d’être for this story. It was the desire of a simple hillman to be acknowledged for his dignity, honour and trustworthiness. Later in Shahdadkot I met a certain Major Saleem from the Corps of Engineers who said the same story was told in his village of Qadirpur in Multan district. Of course there the Brahui was replaced by another. Though there are many folk tales that are not restricted to any particular area, the dog’s story was one that I had not heard being told anywhere else until this chance meeting. There are a number of Baloch tribes (mainly Chandio, Gopang and Jatoi) living around Multan and the districts to the south. It is very likely therefore that from the mountains of Sindh and Balochistan the story travelled thence with these people.

The return journey was fast. Hasil sang the ballad of Tillu Khan, the Chandio general and goose bumps rose on his bare arms. Sometime in the 1820s the Magsis petitioned the Chandios, their sworn enemies, for help against the powerful Rinds. The Chandios under Nawab Wali Mohammed (died 1844) agreed but only after reconciliatory efforts between the Magsis and Rinds failed. In the clash, that took place near the town of Jhal Magsi, the Rinds were routed and their chief, Sher Mohammed, slain. The ballad recalls the heroism in that battle of Tillu and his thirteen hundred warriors. The short, crisp verses clearly made it a marching song and I could almost hear the drums. In two hours of marching to this tune we had passed our overnight camp. At midday we stopped at Hasil Khan’s tree-shaded pond for an early lunch of baked beans and tea.

Thunder boomed ominously as we were coming down the last slope of Kukker. Looking back I could see patchy gray clouds over the mountain and thought it would rain during the night. I had not yet put a full stop to this thought when the first drops came. Within no time at all deluge was upon us in blinding sheets. Drenched, cold and miserable we hurried down the mountain and just as we reached a clump of deserted houses it stopped as suddenly as it had started. Everyone, including the donkey, was shivering violently, and so we decided to spend the night there. That night our meager bedding, having been dried over a fire, smelled horribly acrid. Several times during our journey Wali Mohammed had mentioned an aged friend of his who maintained that unless there was some adversity, a journey was never worth remembering. Now, said Wali, our little excursion had gained that status.

The last part was easy along the Sita Nai. We stopped for a wash in one of the most beautiful emerald ponds. Allah Rakhio shot some more fish and hurried on ahead of us to prepare lunch. Later that afternoon as we lounged outside Allah Rakhio’s otaq waiting for the food, a cry went up: ‘Koonj!’ High above us to the east a great black W inched across the pale sky. There were no less than fifty birds in the flight. As we watched we heard a faint, faraway shot and the cranes veered and broke formation. Happily none was hit and soon the W had re-formed itself.

A little later Hasil Khan asked me if I had enjoyed the journey and we discussed how the stark beauty of the Khirthar differed from that of the mountains in the north.

‘I showed you the airplanes’ road, and now you have seen the cranes’ road as well. This is a great country, isn’t it?’ I saw no reason to disagree.

‘If only people who matter would do something about it.’ There was no mistaking the intensity of Hasil Khan’s feelings.

Politicians, he was convinced, had prevented the building of roads and the provision of health and educational facilities to his people.

‘We ride out with a sick person on a camel. Half way to town the sick one dies; we tie the corpse on the saddle, turn right around and come home lamenting. Sometime the corpse even begins to smell. The fat-bellied politicians come begging for our votes but when they get to the Assembly they do not even remember we live like animals here.’ This was the only bitterness Hasil Khan ever showed.

We had returned to Rahu jo Aitho earlier than planned and since Nawab Ali Nawaz Chandio’s jeep wasn’t coming for us until two days later we decided to get to the road head by camel. I wanted to leave early the next morning, but Wali was not willing to forego Hasil’s hospitality. Consequently we had to wait for the rooster to be cooked so we could eat ‘lunch’ at eleven. Afterwards, on full stomachs, none of us looked forward to the six hour camel ride and we watched without interest as our baggage was secured on the animals.

Just when we were about ready to leave someone said the Nawab’s jeep was coming. Wali was thrilled at the chance of getting a ride back; I thought the man had come hunting partridges and wouldn’t be bothered about us. Presently the young Nawabzada Ahmed Nawaz Chandio was drinking tea with us. I could not believe that he had come out to collect us. But how did he know we would arrive a day earlier? He smiled a mysterious smile and said it was not for nothing they said he was a bit like his ancestor, Hafiz Wali Mohammed alias Ghaibi Khan who is to this day revered as a saint and a maker of miracles. I don’t know about Ghaibi Khan the First, but so far as we were concerned Ahmed Nawaz certainly had done what they say lies within the province of saints.

We left Ghaibi Dero a little before sunset. As we drove into the gathering darkness I observed that we were in a land where, three years ago, none dared to drive at this hour and here we were now happily tooling away to civilisation.

‘It’s not as safe as you think,’ said the driver, ‘Why, only last week they kidnapped two men from the road between Ghaibi Dero and Kambar.’ That was our road, for God’s sake!

If there was ever a conversation stopper, this was it. I wondered what Wasim would say to my wife if such an eventuality befell our little caravan. At length, having read my thoughts, the driver said,

‘Don’t worry, nothing will happen to you. You don’t have to be so quiet.’ I must admit it was with considerable effort that I got back into a conversation with Ali Akbar and Wali Mohammed.

Postscript I: Three years later (February 1999) I returned to Sita ji Dath for the trek to Kutte ji Qabar all over again – this time with a camera team from PTV. We had a replay of the same charade about the feud and the Chhutta lashkar. The only difference was that this time around the tension seemed to be real. At one point in the discussion Allah Rakhio Gaincho got up and left the arguing group wordlessly. He returned with his best camel and his AK-47 assault rifle and said he was taking us up the mountain.

During our overnight stay at the deserted summer settlement of Ungor Allah Rakhio kept the vigil throughout the night. Every time I woke I saw his silhouette framed in the open doorway, rifle on his knee, looking out across the stony open area in front of the houses. I later learned that the Chhuttas had a gripe directly against him and had sent him death threats. Yet the man chose to go with us because he said he and I were friends. That was the truest grit I have ever seen.

Postscript II. The stone pedestal that goes by the name of the Dog’s Grave had been ravaged between my two visits. Allah Rakhio said the Chhuttas had destroyed it to spite the Chandios who regard it with some reverence. Someone had put the stones together to make a sort of rough mound.

Related: Chandios' Tales less Told

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 19 July 2013 at 01:09, Anonymous Aaima Ashraf said...

Nice place....good write up.

At 28 August 2013 at 22:49, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice people.

At 15 October 2014 at 10:27, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I drove past the mountain range on my way from Larkana to Karachi a couple of years back. Khirthur is one spectacular sight. The write up is tempting n I shall plan a dive into the 'details' on next trip. It's infact the landscape n the companions, the likes of those covered here that make this particular part of Sind worth venturing for.....


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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