Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Khir Thar Mountains

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They rise modestly at Cape Monze, west of Karachi, and run in a great jagged line 450 kilometres northward into the somewhat higher Central Brahui Mountains of Kalat. On the east, they look down into the flood plain of the great Sindhu River; on the west, lie the burnished gold and brown valleys and peaks of the various minor ranges of the Jhalawan uplands of Balochistan.

The highest peak, curiously unnamed, rises to 2,171 metres while the second highest (2,096 metres) is known as Kutte ji Qabar (The Dog’s Grave). A much lower peak, Gorakh, at 1,735 metres is touted as the summer resort of Sindh. However, it seems to be going nowhere because of the non-availability of water and the difficulty of piping it in from afar. The higher peaks have occasional snow that runs before the sun when it re-emerges from the clouds.

Besides sparse grasses and shrubs, acacia trees are occasionally met with on the slopes while dwarf palm is plentiful. All vegetation shows clear signs of damage by porcupines. Once the leopard roamed proud and free in these hills, living off wild ungulates and porcupines. But both these larger mammals have been hunted to near extinction. With its only natural predator gone, the porcupine has become a pestilence.

The finest and certainly the only description by an outsider comes to us from Hugh Trevor Lambrick who, as deputy Commissioner, Larkana in the late 1940s, travelled widely in these beautiful mountains. He wrote: “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.”

There is no more lyrical description of these mountains that I have always called the Backbone of Sindh and Balochistan. The Sindhis call them Khirthar, endemically, and incorrectly, written ‘Kirthar’. Now, kheer in Sindhi is milk and thar cream. The compound name Khirthar, therefore, means Milk-cream Mountains.

The valleys, clenched within ridges with sawtooth precipices, are mostly, terrifyingly bone dry. Sometimes, there is a stream meandering through them that fans out every now and again to form a deep pond that teems with mahasher. The shimmering emerald of these ponds is set to dazzling advantage against the predominance of shades of brown. Their beauty is so incongruous in the barrenness that they seem to spring out of a film set.

Travel in them in high summer and you know what Lambrick meant by penance to be there. The heat of the sun flares off the rocks, multiplying many times to turn the valleys into furnaces where the thermometer easily crosses the 55-degree Celsius mark. Water runs scarce in this season.

It was through this setting that a poetically inclined Sindhi shepherd must have led his herds to the summer settlements in the uplands. With the merciless sun beating down on him, he would have surely reflected upon the need to name these mountains. He may have played with the idea of giving this bleak place an appropriately harsh title. But then, the poet in him would have rethought: an antithesis would be more appropriate.

And so, as a sort of an antithetical tease, he called these stark, lonely mountains Milk-cream. The name stuck. But what surprises me is that neither Lambrick nor any Sindhi intellectual ever commented on this wonderful name for these enchanting mountains. It seems to have struck no one as poetic and peculiar.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 25 April 2014 at 10:16, Blogger Ammar Akhtar said...

you are a great source of knowledge sir, it is sad that no one has yet realized this

At 25 April 2014 at 10:34, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

You, sir, have realised this. And you are someone! My prize is won.

At 25 April 2014 at 12:22, Blogger Amardeep Singh said...

Lonely mountains......thanks for sharing these wonderful insights.

At 26 April 2014 at 11:43, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Glad you liked it, Amardeep


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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