Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Menhirs, Stone Circles and Graves

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There is, it was reported, a series of menhirs (free-standing upright stones) and stone circles in the vicinity of Fort Munro, the hill in Dera Ghazi Khan trying so hard – and failing – to hit it off as a summer resort for southern Punjab. And so it was that my friend Khurram Khosa and I drove over the divide between Punjab and Balochistan at Fort Munro. We were on an ancient highway that has carried murderers, ascetics, traders and adventurers back and forth. Beyond the village of Rakni (busy bazaar and a police station with over a dozen brand-new smuggled cars waiting to rust to pieces) we drove on to Bawata.


Outside Bawata, to the south of the road hard by the Balochistan Levies checkpoint, were the menhir and stone circles – entirely unknown outside the area. To my untrained eye the stone circles looked like foundations of corrals and so far as I was concerned could be from two hundred to two thousand years old. The largest of these circles even had a time frame: an angular mehrab to the west told us that even if this was a prehistoric circle, something similar to Stonehenge, it had been appropriated at some point and turned into a mosque. Nearby there were several other sets of upright stone slabs that appeared to be the foundations of small rooms. Khurram said so far as he knew the Department of Archaeology had never investigated these puzzling stone relics.

The menhir, standing solitary and upright a little distance away, was remarkable. This was particularly true for I had never before seen one and also because I had no idea such things could be found in Pakistan. Carved out of a single block of blanched limestone it stood about three and a half metres tall. Next to it was a mesquite bush decorated not with coloured rags, the stock in trade of all shrines, but with a largish piece of someone’s discarded bed linen. Leaning against the menhir was a slab of rock and on the ground was some rubble in the shape of a rude grave. To this ‘grave’ the menhir served as a headstone.

Only this was no grave. While the Muslim grave is on the north-south axis this one was out by the perpendicular. Our guide did not know the legend concerning the place. But he did tell us that the slab resting against the menhir was for people afflicted with abdominal pains to climb on and rub their stomachs against the menhir. It was, he reported, a foolproof cure. I asked why it was necessary to climb up the single step instead of doing the rub from ground level. There was no answer, but then that is the way all superstitions must necessarily be.

The guide said there were three other similar megaliths. The one by village Tagha outside the town of Barkhan about thirty kilometres to the southwest; the second the same distance south of Bawata by village Checha, and the third some twenty odd kilometres northwest of Bawata outside village Mohma. All three, he said, were of similar material and shape.

If we didn’t know a darn thing about our menhir, we were in good company: even megalith experts around the world have thus far been unable to assign any meaning to these mysterious stones. While stone circles like Stonehenge in England and our own all but unknown circle of village Asota (Swabi district in Pukhtunkhwa) may have religious or even astronomical significance because of their alignment with stars or constellations at certain times of year, free-standing menhirs have remained tantalisingly unexplained.

In Europe menhirs (the word, from the language of the ancient Bretons, means men, ‘stone,’ and hir, ‘long’) are sometimes associated with ancestor worship. Mostly, however, nothing can be made of them. Nonetheless, experts agree that they are the manifestation of a great diversity of beliefs. This stone, then, where men and women afflicted with abdominal cramps rub themselves could well be the seat of the earliest ancestors of the Baloch or of other tribes now long since lost and forgotten. Or of tribes that have migrated away, or indeed of peoples that paused here on their great trek into the Sindhu Valley. Alternatively, could these monuments have been erected by the inhabitants of the great cities of the Sindhu River Valley? This stone could have well been erected by traders, artisans and teachers that we know went west to take their crafts into Mesopotamia six thousand or more years ago.

But we do not know with any certainty. We must wait for the answers.

Done with the menhir, we turned north along a stony trail and were soon driving though one of the most desolate landscapes that I have ever been in. To our east and west ran two parallel ridges separated by the fifteen kilometre-wide valley of the Rakni River. Dry and barren, it afforded meagre pockets of cultivation only in the vicinity of the few hamlets that very likely grew around a spring. In the heat of the March afternoon, there were no people about and we passed only one man, rifle across his shoulders, leading a train of three camels.

Late afternoon found us in the remote village of Hinglun where we were to spend the night at the BMP check post. The village’s claim to fame is the nondescript shrine of Muntoor Shah who admonished a passing lashkar of brigands for their waywardness. As thieving lashkars are, this bunch did not take very nicely to the homily, and one from this party struck off the man’s head. Then, as it never fails to happen, Muntoor Shah picked up his severed head, tucked it under his arm and calmly walked into a nearby cleft in the rock. With his head under his arm, he obviously could not see which way he was going or he might not have bashed himself into the rock. The moral of the story, as I see it, is that it doesn’t pay to lose one’s head over another person’s wickedness.

Those who believed in him built his shrine (a rude cubicle), tied some rags to the adjacent tree, a bell to the door jamb and the house was in business. But compared to some other similar business houses, this one does rather poorly for its remoteness prevents a regular and populous pilgrimage. No one was about to unlock the door of the shrine for us, or to explain the significance of the bell that is essentially an adjunct to a Hindu (or Jain) temple. I wondered if there would ever come a time that some shrine attendant would be irreverent and truthful enough to tell visitors that the bell of course was a reminder that the shrine was primarily Hindu (or Jain) converted at an unknown point in time to the true faith.

The village also had three school buildings. The largest one with a high compound wall served as the school master’s residence. The others were deserted. The story was that the local politician (who lived in a town nearer the main highway) had machinated during the last democratic government to get these buildings sanctioned and built at official expense. Ostensibly to increase literacy in the area, they were meant only to be used as cattle pen by the politician. Moreover, in order to gratify a needy relative, he had also had that man employed as teacher. This shameless person now tended the big man’s cattle, lived in a spacious school building and was home dry with a monthly salary to boot. So much for literacy and so much for the government’s much vaunted nab-the-corrupt programme.

But I had come to Hinglun for the tales I had heard of old Khan Mohammed. About thirty-five years ago this man shot and killed another in a gunfight. He was locked up in the BMP post while outside a crowd gathered demanding justice. Then suddenly there rose above the commotion a single gunshot and a cry went up that Sobdar (Mohammed’s brother) had been shot. Inside his cell, Mohammed pleaded with the sentry to let him out because outside his brother, very likely in the throes of death, had no assistance. But the man understandably wouldn’t oblige. And then, much to the astonishment of all present, they had Khan Mohammed standing beside them outside his cell.

He was restrained by three men and put right back in. Meanwhile, it became known that Sobdar was alive and well and that it was only a rifle gone off accidentally. For people who do not understand the capacity of the human mind, there had to be some quasi-divine explanation and for them Muntoor Shah was at hand. Mohammed, it was said, invoked the saint’s help who spirited him through the bars miraculously. But Dafadar Rehmat Khan the post commander showed us the slightly bent bars (an inch thick) and said they are reported to have required straightening after the incident. In a paroxysm of frenzy Khan Mohammed had bent, with his bare hands, the bars of his cell and squeezed himself out. A truly superhuman feat, if there were one – just the right recipe for saintly intervention. But the man would have required no supernatural help; this was only the local version of karate: in that one moment of frenzy he had forced his mind to accomplish what karate experts, having trained their minds, habitually practice by smashing their fists through piles of kiln-fired bricks.

On my request men were sent out to fetch Khan Mohammed. But they all returned to say that he had gone off into the mountains with his sheep. The good Rehmat Khan sent his own brother into the mountains and said that he would be back by dawn with our man. In the event, however, that did not come to pass for the brother returned unaccomplished. Khan Mohammed was elsewhere and we had to leave Hinglun without shaking the hand of this superman. As compensation, on the morrow we were to meet in the village of Barthi with Allah Baksh, the shopkeeper, who swore he was right there in the compound of the BMP post when all that had happened.

‘One minute Khan Mohammed was inside his cell, pleading to be let out to assist his brother,’ said Allah Baksh. ‘The next he was standing right there with us. There was no mistake; I saw it all. He was like a man possessed and I helped restrain him.’

‘But what of his invocation to Muntoor Shah that everyone talks of?’ I asked.

‘Horse feathers! He did nothing of the sort, he only let out an anguished howl like that of a wild animal and sprang out of the cell.’ It was so swift that neither Baksh nor the others noticed him struggling with the bars.

Leaving Hinglun we passed northward through scenery of yet more desolation, pausing to examine the ruins on the knoll of Dishtak Sar in the hills of Krimar: stone foundations of an ancient settlement and a graveyard with a view. Below us a stream meandered and all around us looming hills frowned out of the blue midmorning haze. Believing I was an expert Khurram asked how old the ruins could be. I hadn’t a clue.

The desolation gave way to the wheat fields of Saura: acre upon acre of swaying gold and scattered trees dwarfed under brown hills. Through the great cleft of the Saura Pass we went. I called for a brief pause for this was where every school child should be taken so that the phrase ‘mountain pass’ turns from mere phrase into geographical reality, but where, I know for sure, no teacher will ever resort to avail this unique opportunity. To Barthi did we go, yet another one of those straggling villages with school, stores and even a restaurant.

Raheal Siddiqui, who had arrived direct from Dera Ghazi Khan, sat in the sun outside the BMP post at the edge of the escarpment. My first thought upon seeing him: why must he fry his brains in the sun, even if he is wearing his pith helmet? But my friend is like that: entirely impervious to heat and cold. He was looking out on the view he had wanted to show me. And it was indeed a great view with the hills in the distance, glinting water and hutments below. At one end of the escarpment was the abandoned rest house. On the other, another scattering of ruins. Raheal said this was very likely a fortress to protect the route that passed below. Yet another ancient route that is still in use between Taunsa in Punjab and the Pushtun highlands of Musakhel Bazaar in north-eastern Balochistan. Many years ago Dr Saifur Rahman Dar, the eminent archaeologist, had told me that even in ancient times there was a web of roads criss-crossing this great land of the Sindhu River. Here, in the backwaters of southwest Punjab, we found yet more testimony to his theory.

We had reached the end of our journey. Having set out to walk the high peaks of the district, we had been denied the adventure by circumstances. The peaks would have to wait for another time. That would be another journey. Another story.

Excerpted from 'Sea Monsters and the Sun God' - the book is available at at Sang e Meel (042-3722-0100), Lahore

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,

3 Comments:

At June 24, 2014 at 10:45 AM, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

A great story with lot of knowledge. Now a days a teachers & students are only bookish, no one tried to visit the field for acuaring knowledge

 
At June 25, 2014 at 11:20 AM, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

Amazing. I only knew of Stone Circles that came up in Sample photos of Windows OS. Great that they actually exist in Pakistan.

 
At June 26, 2014 at 10:50 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

These are only two examples at Bawata (Balochistan) and Asota (K-P). There might be more to find if I were to travel deeper into remote parts of Balochistan.

 

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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

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