Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society


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Makran may have been largely an arid desert of sand and rock even before man began to live in ordered cities, yet there flowed through this vast wilderness a number of rivers that gifted the land swathes of greenery and agriculture. Though these areas of verdure were never very extensive, they were nonetheless extremely fruitful.

The major rivers in Makran proper are the Kech and the Nihing which unite a few kilometres west of Turbat town and taking the name of Dasht swing southwest to dump into the Arabian Sea near Jivani. The Nihing has a rather interesting course. Rising in the 1400-metre-high hills around the Kap swamp, it flows west and south to form the Pak-Iran border for a hundred and twenty kilometres. North of Mand (famous for giving us Zubeda Jalal), it veers to the east for its tryst with the Kech. Its perfect u-shaped course wins it a name that signifies dragon in Balochi. The Kech, on the other hand, contains the collective waters of no fewer than six minor streams that wash the hills north and southeast of Hoshab village.

It is to the Kech River that Turbat owes its date orchards and some little vegetable farming. Long ago, in an age of greater precipitation and when the Baloch people built extensive dams (which survive in ruins) to conserve rainwater, Turbat was a more prosperous place. But what intrigues is the name of the town: in Persian Turbat would be a tomb. Rather strange for a living and fairly vibrant little place to have a name as morbid as that.

The first detailed maps of Makran, constructed by British surveyors, all mark Turbat as Kech with various spellings like Kiz, Kedge or Kej. Indeed that is how it was known to the natives in the early Middle Ages. Kech (or Turbat) was evidently a prosperous district of Makran, for the whole country was usually known as Kech-o-Makran. Marco Polo's return journey from China to Europe was by sea and in sailing past he too noticed the country of Kesmacoran. The inhabitants of this country, he tells us, had rich trade and that there was plenty of corn and milk to be had. The Kech River in those days evidently had more water than it does now and husbandry thrived.

One would wonder what trade passed through a place as remote as Turbat. From times immemorial, there were three great trade routes passing east-west though Makran. The southerly route followed the alignment of the modern Coastal Highway; the central route was aligned roughly with the 26th parallel of latitude and thus passed right through Turbat. There was yet another route that followed the 27th parallel and passed through Punjgur. Though the greater part of these three routes traversed very harsh deserts, they were nevertheless the shortest connections between the lower Sindhu Valley and Mesopotamia and had been in use since as early as the 8th millennium BCE.

On his nearly total disaster of a march through Makran in the autumn of 325 BCE, Alexander's army suffered greatly from want of provisions. Although his historians assign no name to a region where, for the first time since entering the desert, they found plentiful supplies, there can be little doubt that this region of comparative abundance was Turbat. It was here after a terrible period of hardship that Alexander was at last able to collect a large amount of grain and fruit for his hungry army.

A thousand years later, following the annexation of Sindh by the growing Muslim empire, a number of Arab geographers wrote on Makran. While most simply copied each other, there were a couple of them who actually visited the countries whose geography they wrote. One such was called Muhammad Abul Qasim better known then and now as Ibn Haukal. During his sojourn in Makran, he was delighted by the sights and sounds of Turbat and he found this place to be 'nearly as large as Multan'.

Interestingly, however, Ibn Haukal does not call the large town Kej as other Arabs did. He calls it Kabar — the Arabic word for tomb. Now Ibn Haukal was a native of Baghdad and therefore an Arabic speaker. En route to Makran, as he paused in the inns of Persian-speaking Kirman, he would have swapped tales with other travellers many of whom may have been Persians. They would have mentioned a place called Turbat which Ibn Haukal would immediately have mentally translated into this native Arabic as Kabar. As an informed geographer, he would have also known that this was the same town that the natives knew as Kech — Kej for him because of the Arab inability to produce the ch sound. Even after he arrived here, Kech continued to be Kabar and that is how it entered his compendium. The question then is why would a very lively staging post for passing caravans and a town that itself had rich commerce and trade be called such a macabre name?

Now, before the coming of Islam, Makran was largely Zoroastrian and we know that these good people do not bury their dead for they believe the human body defiles the purity of the earth. Instead, they have their Towers of Silence where the corpse is exposed to scavenger birds. But there must have been some graves for the Persian-speaking Zoroastrians to give the town that name.

We saw that Alexander passed through Turbat on his way to Babylonia. After that dreadful march through the parched wastes of Makran his men were physically much depleted. Some may have died and been buried during the brief stopover at Turbat. Alexander, smarting under the loss of some thirty-five thousand of his followers who died of hunger and thirst on the march — most of whom were simply abandoned where they fell by the wayside, would have ordered elaborate burials now. This was the king's only way of honouring those who lost their lives to his bidding.

Because of these tombs, the Persians began to call Kech by the name of Turbat. And when Ibn Haukal came around, he simply followed suit. Only he translated the name into this native Arabic, which, by some quirk, never caught on. Meanwhile, the natives continued to know their town as Kech. Over time the Greek graves were lost, but the name persisted. About fifteen years ago the district administration reverted to the original Balochi name of Kech.

Postscript. The Kech of Alexander's time [Sindhia Mein Sikandar] and indeed of the early Middle Ages was a few miles outside the modern town. There the tall clayey mound known as the Castle of Ari Jam stands to this day. Around this castle (where no thorough research has yet been done) would have existed the old town of Kech that the Persians called Turbat.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 2 April 2015 at 09:34, Blogger Rehan Afzal said...

What a beautiful story !

At 2 April 2015 at 10:40, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Rehan.


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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