Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Return to Ari Pir

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I first saw this magical place in February 1987 when a friend and I trekked from the mouth of Hub River to its source. Here, one hundred and forty kilometres due north of Karachi in the district of Lasbela (Balochistan),   the Saruna River breaks out of its confining rocky gorge and spreads out to form a deep tarn just before it runs into the Hub. On the one-inch map that we were using at that time the place was marked ‘Ari Pir’ giving us the impression that it was a village of sorts.

But all it had was a grave (or two) on a rocky eminence and a solitary shack all but lost in the wide-open landscape that typifies the Khirthar Range of Sindh and Balochistan. The shack was the local inn where pilgrims could rest on their way from the shrine of Shahbaz Qalander at Sehwan, several days’ journey (by foot) to the northeast, to that of Shah Noorani in the Lahut Valley a day’s march to the southwest. Since the festival at Lahut follows a couple of weeks after the Sehwan celebrations and because the followers of the one are also devoted to the other, there is a great once-a-year traffic of bhung-quaffing pilgrims along this route. There is, besides, the incidental traffic of occasional malangs back and forth as well. The inn serves them all. Otherwise it’s very quiet.

Back in 1987 Ahmed, the innkeeper, served up an excellent chicken curry and rice and told us stories. There were crocodiles in this gem of a lake attracting occasional pilgrims from Karachi who, he said, sacrificed goats to Ari Pir and fed the innards to the crocodiles in the Saruna. We had never seen crocs in the wild and Ahmed led us up the rocky slope to see. As we noisily clambered over the top we just managed to spot four or five of the brutes slithering from the sandbank into the emerald green water on the far side of the pond.

In all these years, having read of mindless hunters shooting up all our wild crocodiles, I had always wanted to return to Ari Pir just to check out the welfare of the lake’s inhabitants. Always it was one thing or the other that prevented the expedition until recently when my friend Marvin drove me out of Karachi early one Sunday. Past Hub Dam we headed across wide-open country for the village of Dureji where we hoped to visit my friend Saleh Mohammed Bhotani, the chief. But we arrived to be told that he was in Karachi and I missed his hospitality yet another time.

Another half an hour and about twenty kilometres farther north and we were at Ari Pir. But the prospect had changed altogether in the past thirteen years since my last visit. Ahmed’s solitary shack was replaced by two rows of mud-and-wattle huts that are rented out to pilgrims and travellers. The tomb itself now had a green dome striped with white like a melon. Ari Pir has since risen high in holiness. By coincidence we had arrived on the day after the three-day urs had ended on the fifteenth of the lunar month of Rajab and found groups of stragglers waiting for transport to return to Karachi. Their detritus of discarded plastic packaging was strewed amply around what was, in my memory, a pristine landscape.

Although I knew the disturbance would have driven the crocodiles into the gorge of the Saruna, we climbed up the same rocky slope as thirteen years ago. We saw no crocodiles. But floating on the water were several sets of intestines and one dead white goat that had so far failed to interest the satiated reptiles. The practice of ceremonially feeding the animals obviously still continues.

The man who offered us tea was surprised, and pleased too, that I remembered Ahmed from so many years ago. Ahmed had moved on and had been replaced by this man. Like his predecessor, he kept not only the inn but also had charge of the collection made by the shrine. The dome, he told us, had been constructed about four years ago. Donations for Ari Pir have obviously not been slack. That was also about the time that the annual three-day festival picked up. And he also told us a story which Ahmed had overlooked. More likely, it had not yet been invented at that time.

Ari Pir, related the man, a son of Mahmud Ghaznavi, arrived in the Saruna Valley and liking the place sojourned there. Now in those days Saruna was so fertile it yielded a crop each of wheat and paddy annually. And as bad fortune would have it, the good Pir becoming infatuated with the very pretty daughter of the king of Saruna demanded her hand. The king did not take that very nicely, however. Why, holy man or not, damn the cheek of the lice-infested, bhung-drinking savage from the Afghan highlands. He ordered the man to be driven out. But this great man of God cursed the king and his kingdom calling down pestilence upon the land. The crops dried up, fertility wasted away, the river ran dry and Saruna became the arid valley it is now. It is not told how Saruna was eventually delivered of the scourge of this holy man or how he met his end here, but the moral of the story, says my friend Marvin, is: don’t mess with a man with a hard-on.

I find it singularly uncanny that most of our so-called Pirs are malevolent demons who only turn sweet lakes bitter, fertile valleys barren and gold into worthless sand. It is only about mainstream Sufis that we hear stories of benevolence. And yet vast multitudes of morons all over the country believe in the ‘godliness’ of those insidious characters. What believer in God, I ask, would be as mean and niggardly as to harm His children, even if for some real or perceived belittling? And what sick mind could even consider such a spiteful and pernicious fiend holy? The creators of these stories, mean-spirited cads, translate the poverty of their own soul into that of their invented heroes and saints.

So far as history is concerned, we find no son of Mahmud so named. But we do know of one famous Ari Pir in Lasbela town and another scarcely known not far from this Ari Pir across the Khirthar mountains in Sindh. The former is none other than Mohammed bin Haroon who was the governor of Makran immediately prior to the Arab conquest of Sindh. On his way east with Mohammed bin Qasim, he contracted malaria and died at Armael, as Lasbela was known to the Arabs. Over the centuries Haroon was corrupted to Ari, but his shrine stands to this day in a quiet corner of Lasbela town and is the site of an annual pilgrimage.

Never having visited the third Ari Pir in Sindh, I know nothing about his shrine. But one thing is clear: that Ari Pir of Saruna lies on the timeless pilgrim route from Sehwan via Sri Mata Hinglaj on the Makran coast to shrines that extended in a coastal chain as far west as Mesopotamia. Long before Sehwan was appropriated by Shahbaz Qalander, it was worshipped by the Hindus as sacred to Raja Bhartari, the 1st century BCE prince of Ujjain turned Sufi. Similarly Ari Pir too would have been sacred to a pre-Islamic saint or a god whose name has now either been lost or appropriately converted to Islam.

I have no doubt in my mind that this pilgrim route was in use when the first great cities of the Sindhu Valley were built; before the melting of the ice sheets (c 7500 BCE) raised sea levels and obliterated the chain of coastal temples. Then our pagan ancestors, the aboriginal Sindhis, would have travelled across the scorching sands, over the Khirthar passes between Sehwan and Saruna en route to Lahut and on to Hinglaj just as the malangs do today. In the long and eventful unfolding of history, different religions took precedence in this land but each faithfully incorporating the rites of those that had gone before kept the ceremonial largely unchanged. Sehwan was appropriated by Shahbaz Qalander and Sri Mata Hinglaj (sacred to Kali) by Bibi Nani. Today both are worshipped by Muslims and Hindus alike. And even as that ancient traffic of our ancestors wended across almost five hundred kilometres of harsh country between Sehwan and Hinglaj, so too it does today.

On my first visit thirteen years ago there had been no annual urs for Ari Pir. There were only occasional pilgrims who were surely no more than picnickers looking for a diversion from monotonous lives. And Ari Pir with its lovely lake and crocodiles just three hours from Karachi was a good enough place as any. But now that it is a famous site again it has come full circle: we have returned to a time far back in the past when our earliest ancestors resorted here to celebrate a deity whose name we may perhaps never learn.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 19 February 2014 at 02:24, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It was such a lovely read. I would have enjoyed it more if you weren't that irritated at the innkeepers version of the story. You get so annoyed, why? Isn´t that how fables are created? And the whole goddamn Greek Mythology is full with such stories, gods getting angry, destroying the planet with pest and god knows what and hard on-wow-94 Pink Floyds concert and a greek shag afterwards:) I saw GOD! Seriously, you find no greek tale without it :).

Isn´t that how stories are made up, bit by bit, mouth to mouth, generation to generation?

And look at your source of information and theirs.

I loved this write up-I want both versions-yours and theirs minus gore saab ka ghussa:). Look at your english-yallahhh I had to look up for so many words:).

At 20 February 2014 at 06:08, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Anonymous you accuse me of being angry. And look at you! Hey, give me a break. Don't I have the right to say what I feel. No anger there, only the silliness of the notion of a good evil saint.

At 1 February 2016 at 14:53, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful article.
Last day i visited the Air pir that's why i searched Ari Pir and found your article.
Remarkable journey with five cars from Karachi along with families to explore the beauty of this place.
One more thing for your interest we saw three crocodiles in this green lake and capture in videos/ snaps.

Adnan Hashmi

At 1 February 2016 at 15:22, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Anonymous, please check this:

At 4 September 2016 at 05:29, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is there any dam located in ari pir? Is this place is safe? I like fishing at hub dam, is there any fishing area? Please guide me. Thanks

At 6 September 2016 at 15:49, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

They have a low dam. I am not certain about fish. But surely like the Hub, this river two must have mahasher.


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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

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Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

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Riders on the Wind

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