Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The fish of Pir Chattal

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Years ago my friend Wali Mohammad Manganhar from Shahdadkot (Larkana district) told me of the fish of Pir Chattal. Deep in the heart of Kachhi district of Balochistan, this shrine lies just below the great brown loom of the Khirthar Mountains at the mouth of the Mula River and pass. Here the chief of the Magsi tribe rules and the good Amir Magsi lent us his jeep and made arrangements for us to stay overnight in the bush.

The Mula Pass has long been used as a quicker connection between the Sindhu valley and the Kalat upland. It was through here that Alexander's general Krateros led his ten thousand-strong contingent of retired veterans back through Persia to Macedonia. That much is recorded in history. But for years before and after, it was a conduit for trade and travel for untold numbers who like most of us passed through this world into oblivion never leaving a trace of their epic journeys.

The legend according to Wali Mohammad was that the fish were sacred to Pir Chattal and thus under his protection. Anyone eating them suffered a painful and embarrassing punishment on the day after as the fish emerged squirming out of the eater's sphincter. Who Pir Chattal was is not told and there are no further legends concerning him. But one thing is certain, this saint whoever he or she was, has been around for a good bit of time.

In 1831, a somewhat mysterious character who called himself Charles Masson and pretended to be an American paused near Pir Chattal. In reality he was a deserter of the British East India Company's army, an inveterate traveller and writer who left behind four priceless volumes concerning his journeys in present day Pakistan.

He camped about a kilometre from the shrine but noticed the conspicuous domed building of the 'ziarat of Pir Chatta (sic)'. He wrote that this was the usual halting place for those crossing the Khirthars between the Sindhi plains and the Brahui upland of Kalat (from where he himself had come). Other than that the observant Masson had nothing more to say of the shrine or the fish and their embarrassing reappearing act.

Masson was in a hurry to get to Jhal Magsi, the seat of the Magsi chief, thirty kilometres to the southeast (where we had started our journey) and probably did not have time enough to explore the ziarat. But I suspect that at that time this tale of the vindictive fish may not have yet been invented or Masson surely would have taken notice of it.

Under the shadow of the great majestic sweep of the brown Khirthar Mountains, the scenery is as pretty as it can get: a vast grove of mainly date palms (for once not planted by morons who have no clue about ecology) and some pipal and acacia trees as well that ring with bird song. Through this green canopy runs a rill of crystal water fed by a bubbling spring under a large lump of bleached limestone. The spring forms a pond and then runs off into the little stream; both bodies teeming with mahasher of various sizes.

Masson had seen the 'conspicuous' dome of the shrine from a distance. We saw nothing of the sort. Atop the hummock below which the spring emanates sits a shoddy roofless cubicle. It has no architectural merit, no embellishment. It is just an ugly wart with a couple of graves inside. The dome it once had presumably collapsed either because of age or of some now forgotten earthquake. Later when we spoke to the keeper, he said he had always seen the shrine in this condition.

Wali Mohammad had said that the fish were so accustomed to being fed by devotees that they actually swarmed where one stood. But any attempt to scoop one out proved futile. I ragged Wali for letting me believe that such would be the ease in landing a few that we did not even consider bringing a net or a hook and line. He said his reason was that he did not wish to see me deliver a flip-flopping mahasher the next morning.

Back at the tree-shaded mud and wattle shed that served as rest house for visiting devotees, I turned on the elderly keeper of the shrine. How was it possible, I asked, for a fish eviscerated, cooked and eaten to emerge alive from the wrong side? And why were they propagating superstition? The man smiled benignly but remained silent. I carried on and then he said something that completely bowled me over. 'Sain, if it were not for this frightful yarn, the fish would have all been eaten. The water would have been empty and humans deprived of a pleasing sight. Why, look in the water and see how pretty the fish are.'

I walked back to the rill. The man was right. In the dappled sunshine filtering out of the acacia trees above and glinting on the rippling surface of the water, the mahasher were indeed a lovely sight. They flashed green and silver now, pink and brown again as they twisted and turned and jostled each other expecting to be fed. I sat there in the cool shade watching them cavort for well over fifteen minutes.

There it occurred to me: the man who invented this fable is the earliest recorded Sindhi conservationist. Others may have done similar things, but no one left a record of their efforts. I do not suppose it was Pir Chattal himself who protected his fish, or Masson would very likely have heard of it. It appears to have been someone after the saint, maybe a keeper of the shrine or just a passing traveller who understood the need to preserve nature as she stands. Whoever did it, they were years ahead of their time.

Like Chief Seattle of the Suquamish Red People of North America and the Mongol shamans of the frigid Steppes who believed it was for man to respect the purity of the air and the water of the good earth, these people on the Sindh-Balochistan frontier passed on the same message in a language that was best understandable for their followers. But for them, the fish of Pir Chattal would not have been. The bubbling spring and the flowing rill would have been dead, lifeless.

Postscript: An echo of this conservation attempt is heard at Kallar Kahar in the Salt Range. Here peacocks range wild filling the valley with their calls, especially at dusk and dawn. Anyone trapping them will go blind, it is said, because the peacocks are sacred to the saint whose shrine oversees the valley from a nearby hill.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 24 September 2014 at 22:13, Blogger Memoona Saqlain Rizvi said...

Wish someone invent a similar tale about Deosai bears & fish.

At 24 September 2014 at 23:15, Blogger Salman ali said...

Same as the fish story at nillan bhotu near pir sohawa .

At 25 September 2014 at 15:50, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

Thanks for providing detail of Pir Chattal fish

At 25 September 2014 at 15:53, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Well said, Memoona! I wish so too.

At 25 September 2014 at 15:53, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Well said, Memoona! I wish so too.

At 25 September 2014 at 15:54, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Salman, is this the Pir Sohawa just outside Islamabad. Are the fish common knowledge. that is, if I get there and ask, will they be able to tell me where the fish are?

At 7 October 2017 at 11:39, Blogger Sajid Siddique said...

Nice information sir.


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

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