Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Mud that Bubbles

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(This journey was undertaken in August 2002. This two-part story appeared in September that year in The News on Sunday)

‘May there be peace between India and Pakistan,’ Marvin intoned solemnly as he finished building his little cairn. ‘Forever,’ he added as an afterthought. ‘Amen!’ I said under my breath.

From the lip of the dead crater looking out to the tall active mud volcano. The third is just visible on the horizon to the right of the high cone
We were standing where the cone of the mud volcano began to rise above the featureless sandy plain and it was only on our way back from the top that Marvin had noticed the hundreds of little cairns sprinkled all around. We did not know what the cairns meant, nor did I remember reading anywhere about a cairn-building ritual connected with the worship at the mud volcano en route to the Hinglaj pilgrimage. Perhaps this was part of the ritual or simply a sort of signature to record a passing devotee’s visit. In the spirit of good pilgrims we built our cairns and prayed for peace to be given a chance.

Having left Karachi in pre-dawn darkness we had motored up the RCD Highway to just over a hundred kilometres north of Karachi where the blue freshly painted sign pointed west to the new Coastal Highway. We zoomed along the perfect surface and Marvin and I decided the army should only be permitted to build roads and do nothing else. If only their governing of this sorry land was a fraction as good as their road-building, we would happily have granted them that task as well.

A few kilometres past the under-construction bridge across the wide, sandy bed of the Phor River we nearly missed the sign saying ‘Chander Koop’. This, the name given to the mud volcanoes found along the coast of Lasbela and Makran districts in southern Balochistan, means Basin of the god Ram Chandra or perhaps the Moon. The other name, prevalent farther west along the coast, for these oddities is Darya Chamag or Eye of the Sea.

The first time ever I had ever travelled along this road was in February 1986. Then it was not a road, simply two tread marks across the sandy plain and I was in an Army Engineers’ lorry ferrying a concrete mixer to a building site near the Hingol River. For the life of me I don’t remember what they were doing out there in the wilderness at that time. That trip, like this one, was also to visit the temple of Hinglaj. Then too we had left Karachi in pre-dawn darkness (in fact at 2.00 AM in the morning) and since leaving the RCD Highway had lurched slowly and bone-jarringly westward with the lorry swaying drunkenly under the weight of the mixer. As we had come abreast of the bleached cone of the mud volcano I had pleaded with our driver to stop and let me climb up and check it out. But he refused saying there was no time for my childish games.

For sixteen years I had wanted to return and walk up the cone to look into its maw but there had never been a chance. In between I had been three times to Gwadar but had kept myself from going up the hill north of town to see the Darya Chamag: I wanted first to see the one I had been denied back in 1986. And now we very nearly missed it as we sped along the Coastal Highway. Though most modern roads follow ancient alignments, the demands of modern road-building sometime call for minor adjustments. And it is just such an adjustment that the new road does not skirt right under the Chander Koop like the earlier track but passes some three kilometres to its north.

Despite the high humidity the perfectly cone-shaped hill of bleached mud was clearly visible on the horizon and we made a bee-line for it across the sandy plain. Fresh tread marks showed that other pilgrims had preceded us by only a day or so and presently we stood in the shadow of the cone. Near the base we noticed several deep fissures. It was only upon returning to Lahore and re-reading the account of Captain Hart (of the Bombay Native Infantry) who travelled from Karachi to Hinglaj in February 1840 that I realised he too had noticed these eroded cracks and marvelled at them. Like him Marvin and I were also at a loss as to their nature. Since the cone had been built over centuries by the continual eruption of gooey mud, we concluded that the mud not being packed hard as it flowed down gradually subsided after the rains causing the fissures to appear.

From the bottom we could see a flagpole on the top, crooked and without a pennant. As we worked our way up we noticed the slope was strewn with coconut skins and I remembered reading that part of the ritual followed by Hindu visitors was lobbing in the nuts as offerings to Lord Shiva. These skins had been thrown up again by the erupting mud whose dribbles ran down the slope in dried and cracked tracks. While some devotees offer coconuts to their Lord, others evidently tender monetary donations for I picked up two verdigris-coated coins: a one rupee and a now-defunct fifty paisa piece. Marvin collected two pieces of quartz (that have come to Lahore with me) just as Hart had done a hundred and sixty years before us.

The last few steps to the rim were taken in great excitement for this was to be our first glimpse into a living volcano. It didn’t matter if it wasn’t a real fire-breather but a tame mud-spewing entity. The wet rim appeared to have been patted into shape by human hands with the remnants of dozens of burnt joss sticks planted in it. I had expected to look into a deep crater with mud boiling at the bottom; instead I was confronted with a flat surface: the cauldron was brimming with a rippled and discoloured goo. The rim was about five metres across with bubbles erupting on the far side. As we stood there regarding our muddy bath tub we became aware of two things. One, that there was no smell of hydrogen sulphide or methane as we had expected. Secondly, and this was rather unnerving, the entire aspect had a haunting quality that did not seem to belong to an earth we have known all our lives: the bubbling cauldron, the gusting wind, the mottled sky above, the featureless plain below utterly devoid of any signs of human activity or indeed of humans and a kilomtere to the south the ocean breaking lazily on a deserted beach. Just ten kilometres off a highway where men were working and where a fair bit of traffic was plying, we seemed to be in an uninhabited land.

Earlier, as we had got off Marvin’s jeep, he had remarked on the eerie landscape. He noted that it was almost like being on the moon and that the loneliness had an almost unnerving quality. Now as we stood there high above the bleak emptiness, I could not but agree with him. It was almost as if the place was possessed by some supernatural powers.

From our vantage (Marvin’s satellite phone, which also doubles as a GPS, said we were seventy metres above the sea) we noticed that the two neighbouring hills were also mud volcanoes. The one to our north, with a cone much lower than ours, had a fresh dribble down its side and was therefore active, but the one immediately to our south had an empty caldera. This, we saw later, was completely dry and about four metres deep. Back in Lahore re-reading Hart’s account, I knew he had visited this same volcano complex. In his time all three were active, however. But Hart somehow got the heights wrong. He believed the highest to be four hundred feet above the sea as opposed to our GPS measurement of seventy metres or 230 feet.

Hart had the advantage of journeying with a group of Hinglaj pilgrims, however, and got to hear tales. At the volcano they told him that ‘every Monday the jets [of mud] rose with greater rapidity than at other times, and then only did any of the mass ooze out of the basin.’ Our trip being on a Sunday, we had no heart to stay overnight to learn if the Koop kept its old timetable or not. But a fresh and still wet dribble told us that the Monday schedule was merely a figment of the imagination of pious believers.

The smaller active mud volcano. Notice the large cone and the dormant one just visible to its left
Of a sudden the bubbling increased. I hoped to see a column of mud shooting up and perhaps soiling our clothing before oozing over the side to add to the accumulation that makes the cone. But the activity subsided back to normal without anything spectacular taking place. We gave up after thirty minutes for we still had a long way to go. The pilgrimage to the temple of Hinglaj had only just begun with this, the first ritual at the Chundar Koop.

Part 2

Odysseus Lahori two years ago: Journey into Kashmir by motorcycle

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The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

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