Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Bibi Nani

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Below a road bridge across a usually dry stream at the bottom end of the Bolan Pass there is a simple grave thickly draped with the prescription green satin of a holy burial. An untidy scrawl on a nearby rock tells visitors that this is Bibi Nani —Venerated Old Lady. For some peculiar reason, Bibi Nani never made it to the stardom of sainthood and remains a rather obscure sort of figure: there are no yarns of the miracles she wrought or the heathens she converted to the true faith.

There is just one, rather insipid, tale, however. It was in the time of the Fire Worshippers that Bibi Nani and her brother (whose name remains unknown) came to this country to spread the word of Islam. But the kafir king would have none of that and he sent out his soldiers to bring in the pair in chains. As the holy brother and sister saw the kafir army bearing down, they fled. But at one point, despairing of ever getting away, they decided to split up. The soldiers chased the brother into the Bolan Pass and then when he was but a sword's length from his pursuers, he calmly walked into the rock wall.

Since that day he has been called Pir Ghaib — the Invisible Saint. An ancient spring of copious, tepid and slightly sulphurous water is believed to mark the spot where the saint walked into solid rock. This outflow cascades over a rock wall richly festooned with brown, blue and green lichens and splashes into a limpid pool below. Ten kilometres southwest of Mach, this setting is what any film producer would die for. Muslims attribute the water to Pir Ghaib and the Hindus to Mahadev or Shiva. On holidays adherents of both faiths co-mingle to celebrate their own deities.

The nameless brother is celebrated because of the spring and has over time become a giver of sons. A tree outside the domed shrine near the spring is adorned with dozens of miniature cribs donated by parents whose prayers for sons were answered. Bibi Nani, buried under a road bridge some ten kilometres to the south of the spring, on the other hand, has no miracles attached to her. Nor indeed do we know how she died. Her tomb is simple and open to the sky. Only the sheets of green signify its importance.

Several hundred miles to the south, on the Balochistan seaboard, there is another shrine once again worshipped by Hindus and Muslims alike. For the former Sri Mata Hinglaj is where one part of goddess Durga is buried; for the latter, it is the last resting place of Bibi Nani. Like Pir Ghaib, Hinglaj too is one delightful little spot on a subsidiary stream of the Hingol River. Here too palm and mulberry trees grow and birds sing in an otherwise arid setting.

For the curious mind, there is no legend concerning Bibi Nani at either of the two places: she is simply the Venerated Lady. It is very interesting that both these Nani shrines lie athwart of ancient east-west highways connecting the subcontinent with Mesopotamia. One ran through Moen jo Daro and Mehrgarh, the other along the coast; the ancient precursor of the modern Coastal Highway. These were roads that we now know were in use as far back as the 9th millennium BCE.

For the learned mind, the identity of Bibi Nani is no enigma: she is Nana or Nania, the goddess worshipped in ancient Mesopotamia and Persia. Back in the year 2280 BCE, Kudur-Nankhundi, king of Elam (southwest Persia), sacked the city of Erech in the kingdom of Ur (Mesopotamia). Among other treasures the victor carried away from Erech to his capital city of Susa was the highly revered idol of the goddess Nania. This was duly installed in an Elamite temple and worshipped. Such was the esteem for Nania among the people of Mesopotamia that for no less than one thousand six hundred years successive Mesopotamian kings smarting under the humiliation of that defeat and theft, vainly sought the recovery of the idol. It was only in the year 645 BCE that king Assurbanipal, taking advantage of the weakness of the Elamite kingdom, set out to right that ancient wrong. A bitter contest followed and after fourteen Elamite cities had been sacked, Susa fell to the Mesopotamians. The city was pillaged and trashed, but before that came to pass, the idol of Nania was preserved and restored to the temple of Erech.

The cult of Nania, or Bibi Nani as we know her, is thus one of the oldest in the world: it has survived for over four thousand three hundred years. And so over the millenniums, caravans carrying trade and philosophy back and forth between Mesopotamia and the cities of the Sindhu Valley dispersed the name of this goddess across the countries. The name persisted in human memory in our part of the world (albeit with a slight modification) while in the west it was confined only to cuneiform tablets. The question then is why it was not forgotten in the Sindhu Valley.

Mark Kenoyer, the renowned archaeologist who has worked on the Indus Civilisation tells us of the great traffic of trade, art, crafts and culture between our part of the world and Mesopotamia. And that the Sindhu Valley had some superior arts and culture to transfer to the west. I suspect that long before the king of Elam stole her statue from the temple at Erech, traders and craftsmen from the Sindhu Valley were carrying the cult of Nania westward to Mesopotamia.

She was favoured there, became deeply entrenched in their pantheon and around her an entire cult grew. Of the cult we know from the multitude of cuneiform tablets that have been discovered and deciphered. But in her own home, the written word has been so scant as to defy interpretation. I tend to believe that Nania was known by the same name in her original temples in the cities of the Sindhu Valley. Over time as the great cities crumbled and were smothered by dust and a new culture took over, Nania changed form. Her name nonetheless persisted in a tiny corner of the collective human memory. And so the goddess of the unknown name who was worshipped thousands of years ago on the banks of the Sindhu became Nania or Nana to the ancient Mesopotamians and Bibi Nani to modern Pakistanis.

As for Bibi Nani's sibling whose name we do not know, he too seems to be an ancient deity worshipped for protecting sources of water. Eight thousand years ago, caravaners bound for Mesopotamia would have taken the six-kilometre detour off the Bolan Pass road to pay homage to this nameless saint at the spring that has never ceased to spew. Long afterwards the Hindus and then the Muslims appropriated the ancient god to call him Mahadev or Pir Ghaib.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 6 April 2014 at 06:19, Blogger Amardeep Singh said...

Another example of common links across faiths. Thanks for sharing.

At 8 April 2014 at 20:23, Blogger syed akbar said...


At 8 April 2014 at 20:25, Blogger syed akbar said...

awesome article summarizing 2 or 3 millennia in "nano" article

At 9 April 2014 at 09:32, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you. Glad to know it has been appreciated.

At 23 September 2014 at 22:09, Anonymous muhammad athar said...

Really a master piece

At 2 January 2016 at 22:04, Blogger Naseem Ameer said...

There is someone who is pooling the history of a forgotten land in one place. Great piece Sir!

At 3 January 2016 at 13:29, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Naseem Ameer and Athar.


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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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