Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Seat of the Gods

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Safed Koh – White Mountain, once glistened with snow the whole year round. The mountain is so named, wrote Babur the Mughal, ‘because its snow never lessens.’ Having made himself master of the Kabul valley in 1504, Babur described the range as running south of Ningarhar (Afghanistan) dividing that province from the country of the Bangash Pukhtuns. There were, he wrote, no ‘riding roads’ across the mountain – only narrow, precarious footpaths. Little has changed since the time of the Mughals, except that global warming has put paid to the everlasting snow. In grim jest the educated of Parachinar, the quaint little town at the foot of the southern slopes of Safed Koh, now call it Siyah Koh in Persian or Torghar in Pukhtu – Black Mountain.

I arrived in Parachinar with hopes of climbing Sikaram, at 4761 metres (15,620 ft), the highest peak in the Safed Koh range. There on the peak, it was said, was a shrine and also great views not only into Paktiya province but also Ningarhar right up to Jalalabad. Friends in high places made arrangements that introduced me to Major Dil Nawaz Khan of the Kurram Militia. A full-blooded Yusufzai with a stern, hawkish face and small body, he had climbed the mountain only three weeks earlier and was meant to brief me on the route to be taken.
Ten minutes into it, he abruptly brought the discussion to an end by saying there being no proper guides, he was taking me up himself. He said he would make necessary arrangements and I was to call him later in the afternoon for details. And so it was ordained by the good major that we depart Parachinar at 2.00 AM in order to get to the end of the jeep road early enough to be able to climb the mountain and return in time for dinner. He had, moreover, arranged for ‘the old man,’ who knew the mountain well, to be our guide. The Old Man of the Mountain: shades of Hasan bin Sabah, the infamous 13th century leader of the Assassins! Now, that sounded good to me.

We drove out at just after two in the morning. Forty-five minutes out of Parachinar on the old road to the Afghan frontier (by Peiwar Kotal) we picked up our guide from a militia post. With a serious deficit of teeth in his mouth, Juma Khan, a Kharote Pukhtun, seemed about sixty, but was perhaps no more than fifty and as fit as any mountaineer can be. He said he knew the mountain well from the days of his youth spent roaming its wooded slopes both as a shepherd and in search of game. The way to the shrine he could find blindfolded, he added for good measure.

Thirty minutes later, in the quickening light about 3.30 in the morning, we halted on the banks of a dry stream by the summer settlement that goes by the unpronounceable name of Vachakharwalasar – with more letters to its name than the sum total of its population. Besides the major and Juma Khan, our party consisted of Captain Shahid, chubby and seemingly rather ill-conditioned and Aqeeq Bangash, a geologist, with his languorous face and easy, unhurried manner. Corporal Dildar Hussain and Lance Corporal Lal Hakim made up the escort. Cups of tea, the only breakfast that day, were passed around, Major Dil Nawaz apportioned out some dry fruit and toffees and we were ready to go. I asked what we were doing about lunch. ‘We forget it!’ said the Major with simple finality.

The mountain rose darkly against the lighting sky. Pointing out the ridge and the kandao (pass) through which we were to ascend, Juma strode out at the head of the party. Across the dry steam bed we went up the slope, climbed the ridge and turned north along its crest. High above us the peak of Sikaram rose in a jumble of jagged crags. To the west the contours fell to a valley floor still swathed in darkness with a few pinpricks of light marking human habitation. That was Paktiya province, said Juma Khan, and if we took the path winding down to the left we would be in Afghanistan in less than thirty minutes.

Paktiya, an ancient land, culturally rich in prehistoric and Classical times, reverted to savagery in the name of religion by sub-humans who have neither an understanding of religion nor of the norms of humanity. Paktiya, first mentioned by Herodotus, the Father of History, in the 5th century BCE, was just beginning to wake up far below us. In Chapter 102, Book III of The Histories, Herodotus writes of this land of ‘warlike people’ as the ‘country of Paktyika; [whose] people dwell northward of all the rest of the Indians, and follow nearly the same mode of life as the Bactrians.’ Our historian apparently gleaned this information from the work of the Greek admiral Skylax who was ordered by Darius the Great, the king of Persia, to reconnoitre and map the river that my ancestors called the Sindhu and which the Greeks transliterated into Indus. Skylax undertook his journey in the year 512 BCE – a full fifty years before Herodotus wrote his Histories in which he quotes a portion of the Greek sea captain’s undertaking and findings.

It does not take great scholarship to connect modern Paktiya with the classical Hellenised Paktyika. From there of course flows the word Pukhtun, making this unarguably the earliest mention of the name of a people in trans-Sindhu territories. It must be conceded that there are scholars who disagree with the connection between Pukhtun and Herodotus’ Paktyika – on flimsy and uninformed grounds too, but to my mind the link is substantial and very real. However, since Herodotus did not travel to this part of the world, but wrote from hearsay, I have forever been intrigued by the identity of that unknown writer of the Classical Age who would have mentioned this place name the first time ever. The question of who that was can only be answered if assiduous archaeological exploration or some great miracle of science places at our disposal the lost works of classical Persian, Indian and Greek scholars who pre-date Skylax. Until then, we can only thank Providence for preserving for us the works of Herodotus.

Ever upward we went through juniper bushes and what was once a thick pine forest, now reduced to a jungle of ugly stumps. Crossing the 3200-metre mark we were beyond timberline. The path petered out and we picked our way over a shingly slope that, at places, fell sharply away at a nearly dangerous angle. The major and Juma Khan danced on ahead, followed by the two soldiers. I puffed along in the middle with the captain and Aqeeq bringing up the rear a couple of hundred metres behind.

The ridge that we were climbing ended at the foot of a sheer slope and as we paused to catch our breath Major Dil Nawaz pointed out the rock face he and Captain Shahid had climbed only three weeks earlier. That they had made it to the top that way and back within the span of single day said a lot for their tenacity. The jagged, friable slope shooting up at an angle no less than sixty degrees told me that they would have scrabbled up on all fours.

As we started up the sheer slope, the valley of Paktiya lighted up and we could clearly make out two villages. Not long after that the clouds rolled in from the south shutting off our views. At 3800 metres a veritable squall set up bringing with it a stinging spray of freezing sleet. My heart sank for I had not brought any inclement weather mountain gear and getting wet at that height could have consequences rather more serious than just being miserably cold. Thereafter it alternately cleared up and clouded over on regular twenty-minute intervals. Meanwhile, Major Dil Nawaz who had earlier chatted every time I caught up with him had grown quiet, almost sullen, with a very grim set to his mouth. It was only at the end of the day that I learnt how he had suffered severe nausea all along – a common enough problem at high altitudes.

We passed an area strewn with large grey plates of rock; a little farther it was long, thick pencils of dark slate. At 4000 metres the temperature variation between daytime maximum and nighttime minimum can be as high as eighty or ninety degrees centigrade, and moisture caught within the fissures of the porous sedimentary rocks alternately freezes and boils. This sequential cooling and heating works the rocks loose and over time shears and shatters them into these unusual shapes. And so, six hours after having left the jeep we struggled up the shingly slope and onto an elongated plateau laced with large drifts of gritty snow. A couple of hundred metres to the north was the shrine, an elongated heap of stones with a couple of upright poles. To our left was the peak of Sikaram. Over large shattered rocks we clambered to the precipice.

In Parachinar I had been told that an officer of the Raj, having climbed this peak was so impressed by the views into the valley of the Kurram River (of which Parachinar is the principal town) that he gave to a poetic burst of eloquence. Pointing in that direction he said, ‘See Kurram.’ Over the years his utterance was corrupted, so they said, to Sikaram. This officer must have been seriously verbally challenged. Very likely he was autistic, or suffered from Down syndrome or both to have been capable of saying nothing more profound or even richer in syntax.

Frivolity aside, this is just a naïve fable invented to conveniently explain away a name that goes back to our pagan prehistory – a prehistory that we in our converts’ zeal vehemently disown. For one, Kurram is not the only way one can see from the peak. When the clouds cleared we could see all the way into Paktiya and to the northwest was the red and sienna gorge of one of the putative nine rivers that wash the northern slopes of Safed Koh to feed the Kabul River in Ningarhar. To the north, beyond the shrine and snowfield, was yet another narrow river valley that led straight down to Jalalabad obscured in the clouds. Secondly, the name of the peak predates the first arrival of the British.

The major unfurled the national flag and waved it on the peak to mark the success of our little enterprise. As we savoured our few minutes of brilliant sunshine, I marvelled at the similarity of the topography of Safed Koh to that of the great Himalayas. Like a miniature of that greatest of mountain ranges, Safed Koh too stretches on an east-west axis but is a meagre sixty kilometres long as opposed to the almost two thousand kilometre length of the Himalayas. As if making an irrefutable statement of finality, the Himalayas ends in the magnificent Nanga Parbat, which at 8128 metres is its second highest peak. So too does Safed Koh fulfil itself in a great paroxysm of vanity with Sikaram rising to 4761 metres, high above all other peaks in the range. Westward of this high peak, Safed Koh, like the mighty Himalayas, dwindles and fades away into the wind-scoured, eroded valleys of Paktiya.

Done with the flag waving we headed for the shrine. No one knew who was buried under that pile of rocks, but the militiamen had no doubt in their minds that it was a holy man. This, however, was not Syed Karam who, according to another legend, was the eponym for Sikaram and whose last resting place, so the militiamen said, was on the slopes to the Ningarhar side. The frenzy to invent a history that is removed from a pagan original is characteristic of conversion to Islam in our part of the world. Takht e Suleman in Balochistan and Musa ka Musalla in Kaghan, both prehistoric pagan shrines have been similarly converted and their original names lost. While the former very likely was dedicated to the same deity as Sikaram – both being situated in the Pukhtun heartland, the latter was sacred to an earth deity of the nomadic cattle-owning Gujjars. Subsequent to conversion Takht e Suleman became the tomb of Qais Abdur Rashid, the purported progenitor of all Pukhtuns, and Musa ka Musalla the prayer mat of either the prophet Moses (Musa) or a god-fearing Gujjar of that name who followed the creed of Islam.

In my mind there is no doubt that Sikaram was sacred to the earliest ancestors of the Pukhtuns who lived around this magnificent snow-draped mountain three or four thousand years ago. Periodically they would have trekked up its then forested slopes taking with them their offerings of blood and flesh to appease their gods, perhaps to entreat for better harvests or successful hunts, or more offspring, or for the prosperity of a trading enterprise, or perhaps for the success of a long journey. For long millenniums Sikaram, the snow-covered seat of the gods, was sacred for the people that lived around it. And so even with the coming of Islam it remained sacred in the collective memory of the first converts.

It did not take long thereafter for the origin of the name Sikaram to be lost. With that loss the altar where ancient worshippers had made their offerings was adjusted to become a Muslim grave. Only one aspect was overlooked: while the Muslim grave is set in a north-south alignment, the one on Sikaram is out of kilter! With an innocence born out of a purity of belief, the early converts did not bother to properly adjust their shrine in keeping with the norms of the new religion. All they wished was to retain and incorporate into the new belief system the site that had been sacred to their ancestors before them. And so the pagan shrine of Sikaram lives to this day.

An attractive proposition – that occurred to me in a moment of solitude by the shrine, with respect to the name is its possible connection with the Vedic god Rama. For ages the valley of the Kurram River that lies under the southern slopes of Safed Koh has been one of the main routes between Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Surely when they first came this way four thousand years ago, the singers of Vedic hymns, those carriers of the swastika emblem, would have thought the glistening white heights of Safed Koh a suitable sanctuary for one of their gods. Now, the ornate spire of the Hindu temple is called ‘shikhara,’ a word that in classical Sanskrit also signifies ‘mountain.’ Could it be then that those early travellers named this mountain Shikhara Rama – the Mountain of Rama? Thereafter the passage of time and a profusion of usage neatly abbreviated the name to Sikaram.

Postscript: It took us six hours to the top. All that had powered us was the little dried fruit and some water that each one of us carried. On the way back energy levels began to run low. By three in the afternoon when the jeep became visible way below us, with yet another hour’s slog ahead, my legs had turned to jelly. I wished for no more than to lie down in the mellow sunshine and sleep. Major Dil Nawaz Khan was clearly unwell. Only toothless old Juma Khan continued to remain as sprightly as a mountain goat running back and forth to give a hand first to the major and then to me as we stumbled downhill.

Moreover, he kept a watchful eye on the slope behind us where Captain Shahid and Aqeeq Bangash were struggling down after having been delayed by storm clouds and low visibility in reaching the top. Though the major had ordered the two militiamen to remain behind to guide the stragglers down, the trustworthy Juma Khan considered it his sole responsibility to get us all down the mountain in one piece. That then was the kind of man one could put one’s trust in.

In the event, all went well and we were in Parachinar dog-tired and famished but satisfied with the success of our scramble. But one thing must be said: if this adventure was anything, it was a penance. Ideally, we should have carried tents, sleeping bags and a day’s rations to spend the night at the shrine and return the following morning. From his earlier experience Major Dil Nawaz had known it was indeed a punishment, yet he had led us all into it. To me it now seems that he had taken us up in the spirit of those forgotten ancestors who would have visited the Sikaram shrine with their sacrificial rams and bulging wineskins to propitiate their gods.

We did not bear the same offerings. But considering that we had pushed ourselves to our utmost limits to reach the abode of ancient gods, we had not done so badly either.

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At 9 September 2013 at 13:44, Blogger Unknown said...

Enjoyed every bit of it. Well written article.

At 11 September 2013 at 20:31, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Glad. Thank you.

At 12 September 2013 at 16:17, Blogger Unknown said...

All i can say is Thank You. We would have continued to live and eventually died in this land, unaware of the history, its magnificence and the amazing qualities like tenacity, perseverance and bravery of the people of this land, even before Islam had anything to do with them, had it not been your efforts and writings. So Thank you once again for all your writings.

At 13 September 2013 at 12:27, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Farrukh, Grateful to you. Very glad that you enjoyed this.

At 27 August 2014 at 08:44, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your attention to detail is very impressive. Another great read, thanks for sharing!

At 29 August 2014 at 10:59, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Anonymous. Keep your eyes open and you get all the detail there is.


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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

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