Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Pilgrimage to Ilam

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My friend Feica, the cartoonist, climbed it in 1987 and had since recounted his experience many times; with each narration adding vigour to my own formless dream of climbing it one day. Hiuen Tsiang, the celebrated Chinese Buddhist pilgrim also visited it – but that was in AD 630, and he came here because Mount Ilam was sacred to Buddhism. My own dream to see sacred Ilam was born several years ago when I read the Chinese pilgrim’s Records of the Western Regions, a book not only intriguing for its exactness of information but also delightful for the charming and naive piety of the writer and the sense of wonder with which he meets the world as it comes to him. My visit, therefore, had spiritual connotations: it was a pilgrimage of sorts.

Hiuen Tsiang wrote: ‘To the south of the town of Mungali 400 li or so we come to Mount Hilo. The water flowing through the valley here turns to west, and then flowing again eastward remounts (to the source). Various fruits and flowers skirt the banks of the stream and face the sides of the mountains. There are high crags and deeps caverns, and placid steams winding through the valleys: sometimes we heard the sounds of people’s voices, and sometimes the reverberations of musical notes. There are, moreover, square stones here like long narrow bedsteads, perfected as if by the hand of men; they stretch in continuous lines from the mountain side down the valley.’ Ever since my first reading of the of the book in the early 80s my imagination had been caught by the stone bedsteads. The stream flowing upward to its source, I knew, was wild fancy.

Now, Mungali is the Chinese version of Manglaur that lies some miles north of Mingora on the highroad to Kalam while Ilam lies twelve miles south of Mingora as the crow flies. The distance of 400 li that equals sixty-seven miles (one li being six miles), therefore, is quite certainly exaggerated. But that is a minor irritant recurring many times in the pilgrim’s narrative. But it is difficult to fault him for this particular miscalculation for the mountainous nature of the country is likely to have led to it. That, or there is the possibility that the original diary containing this part was lost. When he was home sixteen years later and writing, Hiuen Tsiang dredged up detail from a memory crowded with traveller’s tales and such discrepancies were only natural. As for the possibility of lost diaries: on the return journey the pilgrim’s boat capsized on the ford of Hund as he made his way from Taxila to Swat. He lost several books of prayer and other items. Perhaps among those things claimed by the Sindhu were a few of his meticulously written diaries.

Feica had advised me to stay at Hotel Safed Mehel some ten miles outside Mingora and begin the climb very early in the morning in order to return the same day. In case I was benighted on the top I could put up ‘with the wonderful old man and his sons who live just below the peak of Ilam.’ What I had mistakenly understood from Fecia’s many narrations was that the mountain was uninhabited and desolate. It was not, Arif Shah, the manager of the hotel and his assistant Fazle Wahab assured us and suggested we foist ourselves on Malik Shah Nazar, an old gentleman of Ilam village, who had quite naturally fallen into the role of host for all travellers through the village. This, incidentally, is the same village where Aurel Stein, the archeologist, stayed overnight in May 1926.

And so young Nasir Awan and I set out one October morning from Hotel Safed Mehel. It was a lovely day, just the kind that the book Blue Highways describes: ‘... makes a man doubt the reality of death: warm sun, cool air, clear water, bird notes flying out of the hardwoods like sparks from an anvil.’ We followed the brook into the cleft in the rock wall just behind the hotel, passed a tiny village and soon began to climb up the forested ridge along the right bank of the stream.

Men passed us with cheery greeting and questions about where we were heading and then stopped to tell us which way to go lest we lose ourselves on their ‘wild, intractable mountain.’ Their lack of facility with anything but Pashto and my own inadequacy in that language were no barrier and where communication broke down, their genuine warmth and friendliness amply made up. Below us the stream cascaded over polished rock and shimmered in limpid pools swathed in a thin skein of morning mist.

We climbed through a forest that gradually changed from sub-alpine to alpine and were joined by Yusuf, a young lad whose Pashto was barely understandable. When we reached the outskirts of Jawass, the village where he lived, Yusuf insisted that we stay for lunch. Acquiescing to his invitation so early in the morning would have been not only a waste of time but a blatant abuse of good hospitality, so I begged our way out of it.

Beyond the saddle near the graveyard of Jawass was a giant bowl with the path clinging high above it on one side, while terraced corn fields and scattered houses spilled down the steep sides. Far below us, all but obscured by a dusty haze, was the bottom of the bowl. We crossed a slight rise and ran into sheer poetry: corn fields spread on the broad plateau like sheets of gold tinged with pale verdigris laid out to dry in the sun. Bisecting them was the meandering path bordered by a rickety wooden fence, and flowing obliquely across was a clear stream along which a young girl tended a herd of buffaloes. Houses shaded by pine and walnut trees were sprinkled on the slopes. Overhead a flock of ravens raised pandemonium as though warning Ilam village of the arrival of a pair of tramps.

We passed a kindly faced old man with a snow white beard pottering about in a cornfield and asked how we could get to the house of Malik Shah Nazar. He smiled, took me by the hand and without a word led us up the path. And when he started to talk it turned out that we were in the company of the good Malik himself. He took us to his mehmankhana next to which was the village school where his son, Nazar Shah, was the school master. String cots were laid out with bedding in the bright sunshine, tea materialised as if by legerdemain and a small crowd joined us with the Malik and his son.

Jogian Sar (Yogis’ Peak) was our mountain, said Nazar Shah. That was where the Hindus of Swat and Buner came every spring for the Bisakhi festival. High up on that sacred summit is the throne of Ramchandra, an incarnation of the Vedic Vishnu and there his followers resort to cleanse the spirit. Five hundred year before the birth of Christ this land was Buddhist and Ilam sacred to that religion, but with the revival and spreading of Brahminic influence in the later part of the 6th century AD a legend that was in consonance with the new religion supplanted the older one. Mount Ilam became sacred to Hinduism, but not for long. With the coming of Islam it was only natural for the Ramchandra legend to be born and when Stein visited the mountain in 1926 the Muslim populace dutifully informed him of the undiscovered tomb of a Muslim martyr high up on the crest.

When Alexander conquered nearby Brikot and Udegram the tribes, Arrian in his Anabasis tells us, fled to the ‘Rock in that land called Aornos’ – a mountain that was virtually impregnable. The Anabasis goes on to record: ‘On the summit of the rock there was, it is also said, plenty of pure water which gushed out from a copious spring. There was timber besides, and as much good arable land as required for its cultivation the labour of a thousand men.’ The plateau of Ilam village answered exactly to this description and the theory that I had secretly harboured about Mount Ilam being the Rock of Aornos seemed vindicated, although no historian or archeologist, past or present, would agree with me. (Years later I was to learn that it was not Ilam but Pir Sar not very far away that was the Aornos of Alexander’s histories.) Surely it must have been here, almost twenty-three centuries ago, that the tribes rallying to the call for battle from their king gathered to fight their last stand against the Macedonian invader.

A sumptuous lunch was laid out after which we were given a guide to lead us to the edge of the village, and as we were leaving Nazar Shah urged us to return well before dark. If we failed to make the summit before three in the afternoon, he said, we were not to be so foolhardy as to carry on but to return to the village and climb the next morning. It was impressed upon us that we were not only likely to lose ourselves in the dark, but could also meet our inglorious ends in some dark and jagged abyss.

West of the village the mountain rose sharply through a thick pine forest where our foot falls were muffled by the grasses and ferns that grew thickly; the lowing of cattle, mellowed by the distance, the rat-a-tat of an unseen woodpecker and birdsong were the only sounds to be heard. Through the trees I descried a scrap of blue and thought we had reached the summit. This, I thought, was rather strange for the village is about 6000 feet high while the peak of Ilam is 9200 feet. We could not have climbed 3000 feet in less than an hour.

It was a false crest. The ground was scattered with huge slabs of weathered rocks beyond which were the deserted summer houses of the shepherd of Ilam. Suddenly I realised what we beheld were the bedsteads that Hiuen Tsiang had written about: on the slope where we stood and in the clearing beyond were several large flat rocks, perfectly shaped like couches.

Nasir sat down on a rock and said that since he was required to get back on his own steam that was as high as he was going that day. To come this far and not see the throne of Ramchandra and the sacred peak that had drawn so many Buddhist pilgrims from distant lands over the last two millenniums was a spiritual improbity. Leaving Nasir on the rock I carried on. But that was entirely his business.

Beyond the ridge I was alone in the thick forest. The wind was cool and the birds sang with an ardour they can manage only in autumn when they sing as though to relieve themselves of as much song as possible before it is smothered by the winter snows. Somewhere the unseen woodpecker still carried on with unabated industry and from nearby trees magpies scolded me with their harsh calls. Another false crest and another trough and then I was on the summit. Below me in a depression were the ruins of a few houses, and miles away the fertile plains of Mardan – home of the proud and industrious Yusufzais. Behind me beyond the bowl of Ilam village, rose the craggy head of Alak Sar.

I sat on a large flat rock and imagined it to be the throne of Ramchandra that I had sought. It was now three in the afternoon; I had taken just over two hours to reach the top; in another two it would be twilight. There was very little time to explore and if I had thought I would stumble upon some Buddhist relics I had been mistaken for Mount Ilam is vast and to see it in its entirety is to spend at least a full day near the crest.

But just to be on hallowed ground was good enough for me and I revelled in the peaceful solitude of the summit of Ilam when I heard the sound. It came from the distance like the howl of an animal – long drawn and laced with a shade of hysteria. It took me several minutes to realise that it was Nasir calling my name. But to shout back was to defile the sanctity of Ilam.

Thirty minutes later when I got back to him he harangued me for having given him the worst scare of his life for he thought I had either fallen and hurt myself or had been taken by the wolves or bears that he peopled the mountain with. Well before nightfall we were again in the mehmankhana of the generous Malik Shah Nazar sipping tea and revelling in the admiration they poured on us for having made it to Jogian Sar and back again in the space of four hours.

The mountain was already wreathed with a thin blue mist. Toiling up those darkening slopes I could perceive those many pilgrims who came to Ilam through the long and creative passage of time and whose names are now lost. I thought too of those three who led me on this pilgrimage: Feica, Sir Aurel Stein and Hiuen Tsiang. Now the pilgrimage was done; I was ready to go home.


posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 24 June 2015 at 16:23, Blogger Khurshid Khan said...

The Hindu pilgrims used to come here to celebrate Sawan Sangran Festival ( Mela) on the 1st day of Sawan (mid July). Its a Hindu Myth that Ramchndra Maharaaj had spent 5 or 6 years of his Banr Baas (Jungle life) in Elum. Raam Takht is the symbol of his throne rightly on the Top of Elum called Jugyano Sar (Yugi Peak).

At 24 June 2015 at 16:54, Anonymous Saroosh said...

we have rich history if state won't ruined it

At 25 June 2015 at 12:32, Blogger Brahmanyan said...

Thanks. That is a new information for me.


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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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