Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Island of the Sun

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If it hadn't been for Nearchus, Alexander's general and admiral of the fleet that set sail from Patala (Hyderabad) for the delta of the Euphrates River, we would never have known about Astola Island. At least not that it was sacred to the sun and, according to the people of Makran, enchanted as well. That was back in the autumn of the year 325 BC.

Nearchus tells us of his arrival in Kalama and a rousing welcome by the natives. Kalama, by the way, is modern Kalamat on the Balochistan seaboard with its bay of crystal waters which makes it an undiscovered scuba divers' paradise. The natives also reported an island called Karbine. Later, having sailed on, Nearchus heard of the same island but referred to by another name. Now it was Nosala. He was also told that the island was dedicated to the sun god and being enchanted, no one could land on it.

Meanwhile, the admiral's fleet was rounding the island and as luck would have it, a cargo ship manned by an Egyptian crew disappeared on its rocky shores. Nearchus sent out a thirty-oared galley ordering the crew to shout out the names of the Egyptians as they went around Nosala. They were forbidden from landing on the island, however. But if the crew had hoped to find some survivors on Nosala, they were disappointed.

It seems that rumours about the supernatural island began to circulate among the fleet for Nearchus resolved to put them to rest once and for all. He sailed out to it and forced the crew of his ship to land. They were understandably reluctant but eventually did follow the admiral ashore. The island was not after all forbidden and people who landed on it did make it back to the world of the living.

Thereafter, Karbine or Nosala faded from attention. Except for Arab sailors from the Persian Gulf who landed here to kill nesting sea turtles by the hundreds and trade the shells with China back in the 17th century. But as I said before, I would not have known of Astola (or Nosala or Karbine, take your pick) had it not been for Nearchus and his account of the voyage. And so I sailed out of Pasni to check out Astola two thousand three hundred and twenty-four years after Nearchus had landed there.

Two hours out of Pasni and with another two to go still, the captain of our dinky little craft called out, 'Look, the mountain of the sea!' In the distance Astola shimmered against the rising sun. I latched on to the fascinating phrase and asked him if Balochi did not have another name for an island. He thought nothing wrong with the phrase and preferred to use it even if there was a name for it in his language. In any case, what were islands but mountains sticking out of the sea? I could not quarrel with that.

This mountain of the sea was called Haftalar by the people of Makran. Now Haft is seven in Persian (of which Balochi is a derivative), but my captain did not know what the second part of the name signified. Thomas Holdich, a British explorer says talar signifies a 'rocky band of cliffs or hills' in Balochi. That is, Haftalar is the seventh hill. If it is the seventh, then were there other hills, perhaps similarly dedicated to other deities? If so, why has only Haftalar or Astola been remembered and the others not?

Nine thousand years ago, sea levels rose dramatically as ice sheets across the higher latitudes melted. The rise was twenty-seven metres within a couple of hundred years — exactly the depth of the channel between Astola and mainland Balochistan. And so what was a coastal hammerhead hill rising a hundred and twenty-five metres above the sea, suddenly became an island. While this, the seventh and the highest sacred hill where aboriginal Makranis worshipped their gods became an island, the other six were submerged and lost. In order to appease their gods, the Makranis might have braved the hazards of the sea on their puny boats and kept the memory alive.

Not long afterwards, Makran became acquainted with the tramp of feet and clang of camel bells as trading caravans went between the Sindhu Valley and Mesopotamia. Even if these traders did not venture out to propitiate the gods in the temple of the seventh hill — the mountain of the sea — they would have heard of them at the inns. They may also have heard of those six temples swallowed up by the sea. The memory of the ancient gods and their temples persisted.

Long afterwards, the aboriginal Makrani language was replaced by Aryan dialects. Yet the memory persisted. Though they may not have remembered why, but the mountain of the sea was still the seventh. Translating it from the aboriginal word, the speakers of the new language called it Haftalar. Over time, usage corrupted the name to Astola.

The island, about a kilometre wide and three long, has neither a ruined building nor a foundation to mark the ancient temple. All I found were a couple of slabs of carved limestone similar to those of the Chaukandi tombs of Sindh and Balochistan. My captain told me that Muslims and Hindus both resorted here to make sacrifices and offer prayers. One group had outlined a mosque while the other prayed to Kali or Durga at the crude temple marked by the carved vermillion-smeared blocks.

The old gods of Haftalar are forgotten. Today the Hindus and Muslims make periodical outings to Astola and worship in keeping with their own faith. And the old magic that forbade men from landing on this hallowed ground on pain of disappearance is gone. Today fishermen from Pasni and Kalamat routinely land on Astola to repair their nets and rest while fishing in the open sea.

But there is one little footnote. The last day of October 1999 when I took the boat out to Astola, a Pakistan Navy P-3 Orion reconnaissance plane was also flying in the area. At thirty minutes past nine in the morning, it plummeted into the sea only a few miles west of the island. All twenty-one hands were lost. There may, after all, be something enchanting about Astola.

Odysseus Lahori one year ago: Volcano of Koh e Sultan

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 30 July 2014 at 14:35, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

Sir thanks for providing in depth information regarding Astola

At 31 July 2014 at 01:48, Blogger Unknown said...

Enchanting tale of Astola.

At 31 July 2014 at 06:56, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Athar, the full story is part of my book Sea Monsters and the Sun God. But thank you for the appreciation.

At 31 July 2014 at 17:01, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Memoona. Your support is always very welcome.

At 31 July 2014 at 19:41, Blogger Lahoremassagist said...

Mysterious island it is.

At 31 July 2014 at 19:46, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

It is indeed, Nayyar. And a great place to be at for a few hours.


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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