22 August 2014
Way out in the backyard of Balochistan, smack by the Iranian frontier, not far from the little town of Gwalisthap (G Stop on paramilitary signposts), there sit seven mysterious domed monuments. In May 1987, my first visit, there were eight and according to the Gazetteer of Kharan (1906), there were nine.
In that great wide, treeless wilderness, they are visible from afar. Built of burnt bricks on square plans, most of them are double-storeyed. The largest among these buildings, no more than ten metres square, has three graves on the first floor. These are built like brick caskets and until November 1996, my last visit, they had not been disturbed.
On the ground floor the chambers are stuffed with human skeletons. In 1987, I found pieces of shroud in the grave; a heavy broadcloth, yellowed and cerous with age. I brought home a piece to be dated. But that could not be done and the piece is now lost. At that time I estimated that the eight buildings of this mass burial contained no fewer than eight hundred dead.
At the level of the first floor, the exteriors of the buildings were profusely decorated with square tiles of baked clay adorned with designs. Here were human hands, camels, cows, peacocks with snakes in their bills and ibex. Some tiles also had geometrical designs: wavy lines, pyramids denoting mountains, chequerboards, what have you.
The Naushervani rulers of erstwhile Kharan state claim them as their family burial. But according to the the 1906 Gazetteer, there was a plaque once affixed on one of the three graves in the first floor chamber that said, “Mazar-e-Nikodar” — Tomb of Nikodar. This plaque was missing in 1987. The Naushervani claim being clearly spurious can simply be disregarded. But the Nikodar connection is tantalisingly mysterious.
The first ever reference to Nikodar comes from Marco Polo (late 13th century). While crossing the desert region near Kerman (Iran) he notices that the villages were strongly fortified against a ruthless bunch of bandits. They possessed magical powers and could bring down darkness upon towns and caravans to plunder them at will. This band, says old Marco, was led by one Nikodar.
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.
It seems some of these men, given as they were to a lawless life, carried on with their thieving ways over several succeeding generations. I say this because we hear of the Nikodaris again from the diaries of 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 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. Or some pestilence that wiped out most of the marauding army.
But this tale is not as simple as that.
Next: Naushervani Tombs Part 2
posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,
- At August 23, 2014 at 8:46 AM, Amardeep Singh said...
Very interesting, two piece article.
- At August 23, 2014 at 12:01 PM, Salman Rashid said...
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