Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The mysterious tombs

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Way out in the boondocks of Balochistan, smack on the edge where Pakistan falls into the land of Iran, where the outline on the map makes a huge M, there is, in this farthermost reach of Kharan district, a sub-division called Mashkel. In this flat, tree-less wasteland of sand and gravel there are few hamlets — and these are spread wide apart. But here in this wilderness, not far from the tiny settlement of Qila Ladgasht, there is group of remarkable buildings.

When I first saw them back in 1987, there were eight of them — if memory serves. But the district gazetteer of Kharan (1906) says there were nine. The last time around (November 1996) I saw only seven, the eighth being entirely ruinous. Constructed of poorly fired bricks, they are square in plan with domed roofs. There is one whose dome has either collapsed or was never built; all of them are two-storeyed. The ground floor contains four brick-sealed vaults running the length of building, while the first floor is a single vaulted chamber.

These are funerary monuments that are now known as the Naushervani tombs, after the leading family of the district. The first floors contain variable numbers of graves, while the ground floor vaults, originally bricked up but broken into at some point in time, have multiple burials. Back in 1987 I found amid the jumble of human bones, skulls, femurs, ulnae et al, pieces of cereous, yellowed shroud as well which was missing on the second visit. Each of these vaulted chambers appeared to have held up to twenty corpses and it was evident then that the graves had been disturbed, perhaps by treasure seekers.

If multiple burials were remarkable, even more noteworthy were the terra-cotta tablets adorning the facades. The tiles bore Catherine wheels, jagged hills, waves, hand and foot prints and different geometric designs. There were also horses, camels and peacocks on some. Even in 1987 there were some that had fallen off and were strewed about the bases of the buildings. Most however were intact in situ. But in 1996 I was horrified to note that nearly eighty percent of the tablets were missing.

The district gazetteer of 1906 records that one of these buildings had the inscription 'Mazar e Nikodar' (Tomb of Nikodar). But this I could not find even on my earlier visit. From their architectural style, some believed these buildings to date back to first few centuries of our era. But there had never been a study and so it was not known what age can be assigned to the Nausherwani tombs.

Now, in history we hear twice of someone called Nikodar. First from Marco Polo as he crosses the desert region near Kerman. He tells us that the villages were strongly defended against bandits who could magically bring darkness upon settlements and passing caravans. Since they themselves were very well acquainted with the country, they descended upon the blinded caravaners to plunder them. These bandits, Polo tells us, were under the leadership of a man call Nogodar.

Now, there was a Nikodar (or Nogodar) Oghlan, grandson of Chaghata Khan of the house of Chengez whose range was northern Iran and Georgia. Here he attempted to dislodge his uncle Abaka Khan who ruled over Iran, but was defeated and disarmed by the Khan. Nikodar died in or about 1278 and his band of freebooters was absorbed in the Khan's army.

In a chronicle of Herat, however, we hear of another Nikodar who was established together with his three hundred adventurers in that city by King Fakhruddin of Herat. The year assigned to this event is 1298. The chronicle goes on to tell us that these robbers plundered and terrorised the country south and east of Herat until Ghazan Khan, the ruler of Mazandaran (northern Iran), sent an embassy to Herat demanding the surrender of these brigands. It appears from both accounts that after the chief Nikodar was done away with, his riders were assimilated into royal forces.

Then again we hear of the Nikodaris from Babur. He tells us that in 1519 these lawless men had to be punished for ganging up with the equally lawless Hazaras to plunder the countryside north of Kabul. The implication is that the charisma of Nikodar who gave his name to his followers lived on well over two hundred years after his death and that these people continued to follow the ways of banditry he had shown them.

The logical deduction to draw then was that the tombs of Mashkel date back to the late 13th century when Nikodar was terrorising the country south of Farrah (Afghanistan) as the Herat chronicle tells us. The rational story then would be that a large number of the Nikodari band was slaughtered during one such raid into this arid country and were buried here by the survivors. That would explain the multiple burials. That or some pestilence that wiped out most of the marauding army.

But one terra-cotta tile throws the dating of Mazar e Nikodar completely out of kilter. This is one that depicted a man with a jazail, that long-barrelled muzzle-loading gun, in pursuit of a trio of fleeing ibex. Now, this was the kind of firearm that was not known in this part of the world before the late 16th century. It also showed that the builders of these monuments were not local desert folks, but who came from a hill country where ibex thrived.

In 1987 the tile was there, affixed on one of the buildings; in 1996 it had disappeared. Word at that time was that a certain architect called Tanvir Hassan working in Cambridge had visited these monuments sometime about 1995. She obviously enjoyed official patronage because, it was alleged, she took down dozens of the clay tablets, had them crated and took them away. Among those thus stolen was the one that gave the unmistakable date of the late 16th century to these mysterious tombs. But now with the tablet gone, investigators can drum up whatever conclusions they want.

As for Nikodar, it seems that we have to look for someone called by this Mongol name as late as the 16th century. Could it be that in that age there rose a man or a group of men descended from Nikodar, the grandson of Chaghata Khan who raised a host and reverted to the old picaroon way of life?

If that is true, then there must indeed have been a great and merry band of marauders who rode under the flag of that latter day Nikodar. This I say for the burials at Mashkel contain the remains of no less than six or seven hundred persons. For such an extravagant funerary arrangement there must have been an equal if not greater number of survivors. Since they would have needed labour in order to fire the bricks and tablets, they must have been strong enough to muster the necessary conscripts.

The one question that continues to niggle concerns is the sudden end of so great a number as to permit collective burials. If one were to suppose these people were killed in battle, it would rationally follow that they took control of this country. In the other case they would have been chased away and the corpses of the dead Nikodaris would have been left to rot in the sun; there would have been no embellished tombs. There seems to have been sufficient time for them to have built and decorated these tombs.

If that is what happened, then investigators need to look for the remains of their settlement. For surely they must have conquered and stayed — even if for a short while. If they did, what was it that finally ran them out of this country and out of human memory? When they went, they practically disappeared from the world. All that they left behind was a little plaque on one of the tombs they had built that said someone called Nikodar was buried there. The chronogram to give an approximate date to that event is the lost tablet with the rifleman pursuing ibex.

Odysseus Lahori one year ago: Classic Travel


posted by Salman Rashid @ 09:40,


At 12 July 2014 at 12:41, Anonymous Dastan Goh said...

Salman sahib did you visit the shrine at Haji sher at Burewalla, that shrine belongs to personality who born at 30 Hijeri, Is it possible at that time some muslim personality reach at sub continent, His orignal name was Mahan chavar. Chavari is said to be make idle with animal hairs. If you have some knowledge please share.

At 12 July 2014 at 12:41, Anonymous Dastan Goh said...

Nikodar is also a village/town or city In Indian side of Punjab, and that some religious significant for Indian Muslim and Skih for large number of shrines.

At 13 July 2014 at 14:54, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

The 30 Hijri years is clearly incorrect. Other than that I don't know anything about it. As for Nakodar, my family comes from this tehsil in Jalandhar district.

At 5 May 2016 at 19:23, Blogger R Saeed said...

I visited these tombs multiple times while working in a project at Mashkel. The size of skulls and femur bones at the site was very big reckoning the extra ordinary heights of these people. Two mummies were also dug out by sardar family in early 2000s one of which was confiscated by the government from Karachi. Local people keep digging the graves searching for the valuable belongings of the dead which were supposedly buried with the corpses. The place is very strange and horrifying. The city mashkel is the neglected one and so is this archeological site. Dr. Rashid Saeed

At 6 May 2016 at 09:16, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Dear Unknown, I am sorry to say that you are a liar and a cheat. The skulls and other bones in the Mashkel cemetery are ordinary size. Please go back there and check out the bones again. Stop misleading people who have never been there. The mummy you refer to is known to have been a total fraud. The woman died in the 1930s. Update your knowledge.


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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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