Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Gateway of the Breeze

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The taxi drove me the winding road up Koh e Batil, the massive sheer-sided hammerhead of Gwadar to see the 16th century Portuguese water tanks. The tanks turned out to be a disappointment being no more than a largish clay-choked, bone dry depression fringed by a few date trees. But the views from the vantage of the peak were priceless: the shimmering blue-grey Arabian Sea to the south, the town of Gwadar sprinkled far below on the narrow isthmus to the north with the graceful arcs of the east and west bays of Gwadar on either side of the habitation. Both bays were dotted with dozens of fishermen’s boats. Far away, beyond west bay, the curiously shaped hills of Pishukan scraped the welkin just like the skyline of some modern city. From my vantage, the idyll spread out below seemed part of a Mediterranean resort.

Here on the Makran seaboard, they have always been fishermen. Alexander’s chroniclers tell us of the Ichthyophagi – the Fish Eaters. The Greeks lament the absence of any other food but fish and tell us that even the Fish Eaters’ cattle ate only fish which gave its flesh a fishy taste. This tradition of a fishing culture giving its name to the land evidently goes farther back into history. The Shahnama of Firdausi, the great Persian poet, relates that Makran was part of the Persian empire during the Heroic Age (about 600 BCE) when Kai Kaus and Kai Khusro ruled that country. Even to the classical Persians this was the land of the Mahi Khoran (Fish Eaters again). No surprise then that the Makranis’ pronunciation of the name of their land ‘Mukkoran,’ is a clear throwback on the ancient Persian name.

While the seaboard was understandably the Land of the Ichthyophagi for the Greeks, inland Makran was Gedrosia. Thomas Holdich, a 19th century British author believes that the name actually was Gadroz. ‘Gad’ in Avestan (ancient Persian), he says, was the same as ‘bud’ (bad) and ‘roz,’ as it is today, was day. The significance, therefore, of the ancient Avestan name was of a singularly unpleasant place, something that we know Alexander discovered much to his unhappiness as he made his way back to Persia at the end of his Indian Campaign. Here, in the sandy wastes of Gedrosia, he lost nearly thirty thousand soldiers and followers besides much of his treasures.

The chronicle of Nearchus, Alexander’s admiral of the fleet, gives a fairly recognisable account from Karachi as far as Pasni. Thence on, it gets somewhat muddled. Yet we can just make out that Barna where ‘grew many palm trees, and here was a garden wherein were myrtles and flowers’ was possibly Gwadar. I cannot comment on how the name would have changed from Barna to Gwadar, but I heard a quaint and pleasing reason for the present name. It came from the Punjabi (a Kharral from Okara!) moharrar of the town police station. According to Alam Sher it was a compound of ‘gwat’ meaning breeze in Balochi and ‘dar’ for gateway. It was, he explained, because of the steady breeze that sweeps Gwadar through the year.

What transpired between the visit of Nearchus to Barna and the arrival around 1550 of the Portuguese at ‘Guadel’ is not known. The reason simply being that the ancient coastal road was not the favoured route any longer. The major roads connecting the Sindhu Valley and Mesopotamia in the early Middle Ages ran through Punjgur or Turbat in the north. Portuguese power waned shortly afterwards and Gwadar reverted to the Baloch. In the 18th century it was held by the Buledis, a Baloch tribe, who relinquished it to the bane come down from Afghanistan under Nadir Shah. In time, the Gichkis, a Rajput clan believed to have migrated from Rajasthan, displaced the Pukhtuns and took control of Gwadar. By 1780 the Khan of Kalat, the supreme power in Balochistan who had shortly before annexed it, had ceded Gwadar to the Sultan of Muscat. There it remained until it was returned to Pakistan in 1958. It is in consequence of this annexation by Muscat that many Makranis still hold dual Pakistan-Muscat nationality and innumerable work in that gulf kingdom to bring home petro-dollars.

Friends in Turbat had organised that I stay with the chief of the Communication and Works Department at Gwadar. When I arrived at Noor Ahmad’s waterfront bungalow on the west bay, he was preparing to go away for a couple of days on business. But he instructed his cook and helper to see that I didn’t starve to death and went away leaving the house to me. That, then, is Baloch hospitality.

If the Portuguese left behind that all but ruined water tank on the hammerhead, the Arabs of Muscat gave Gwadar its fort and police station. The former, a totally dilapidated hulk locked away and inaccessible, lies at the south end of the Shahi Bazaar overlooking the east bay. It awaits the day when some excessive fall of rain or a seismic disturbance will bring it tumbling down. But the stone-built partially whitewashed police station at the other end of town looked prim.

Alam Sher Kharral who told me the story of Gwadar’s name took me around. Underneath one of the first floor rooms he said was the oubliette. Pounding with his feet he produced the hollow drumming which he said was proof of the sealed off room below. In the floor, set evenly with flagstones, a different group of tiles was the spot where the opening had been sealed. Prisoners were lowered through this opening and thereafter nothing ever came out – not even their bones when they died. Rumour had it, said Kharral, that the oubliette was littered with the remains of those who had been imprisoned by successive Arab governors and forgotten. It must have been the almighty stench that prompted a somewhat more faint-hearted governor to close off the gruesome dungeon.

If the police station smacked of peninsular Arabian architecture, the bazaar reminded me of pictures of African east coast port towns. Shahi Bazaar, my favourite market, was named rather pompously: narrow, unpaved street, lined with decrepit and fading buildings nearly all of which flaunt rotting timber cantilevers that once supported ornate balconies with verandas running under them. The name of the bazaar was a hangover of the better times that Gwadar has seen. As little as a hundred years ago it was galvanised by the commercial activity of merchants from as far away as Aden, Basra, Bahrain in the west and Gujarat and the Malabar coast in the east.

All that remains now was a betel leaf seller whose legend read, ‘Malabar Pan House.’ I asked the young man minding the kiosk if there were many Malabaris in Gwadar. The restaurant next door, he said, belonged to the man who also owned the kiosk and he was the one to know. But the man was visiting Karachi for business and I never got a chance to speak to him. Of the Gujaratis few remain, the rest have all made for the more amenable commercial climes of Karachi and, even better, Muscat.
Sadruddin was one who remained, making a living as a government contractor. Introducing me to him, my host Noor Ahmad had said he was great fun. But the dour, sixty plus giant hardly seemed to fit the description. In the evening as I sat on the roof of Ahmad’s home watching the sun set, Sadru arrived with a packet under his arm. It was the spirit of good cheer. As we worked our way through it Sadru opened up and told me of his exploits under the influence of Viagra. Needless to say that his boasts could set any non-user green with envy. He also spoke of a great infatuation with Benazir Bhutto and his longing to one day be able to walk up to her and confess.

Sadru also told me of the gold-panners in east bay. I went out there at low tide the following morning and found dozens of men of various ages busily scrabbling away in the gooey sand. For their labours nearly all of them had tiny balls of gold to show. They did it whenever they had time, said one man, and it appeared a not so tedious diversion from the hard work of minding the fishing boats out in open sea. Even as little as fifteen minutes of working the sand never went unrewarded and paid for incidental expenses.

Miles from any river system that could possibly wash down the metal, its presence was odd. I suspect it was a reminder of a time forgotten when east bay, or more likely, Shahi Bazaar behind the waterfront, was lined by goldsmiths’ workshops. A reminder of an affluence that has long since deserted Gwadar.

From the time I had first arrived, I was convinced that Gwadar held great promise for being the playground of the rich and the famous of tomorrow. I could imagine both bays lined with pleasure houses and the hammerhead with hotels, restaurants and watering holes. So I went to the only restaurant on the hill. Hamid Qaisrani, who runs it, is a Dera Ghazi Khan Baloch and he came down on my high hopes for Gwadar like a wet blanket.

There was nothing for the tourist in Gwadar, he said. I pointed out the vast, empty and unlittered beaches. He didn’t approve. There was, moreover, no infra-structure, not enough water for the present population, leave alone visitors. His list was long. But he had made his restaurant at a prime spot, I said. He had, but it was scarcely earning its keep.

Whatever Hamid may have to say, I am still convinced that Gwadar will one day be a great place to visit. My Baloch friends agree, but they also point out that Punjabi and Pukhtun mullahs will have to be kept out of the place. Indeed, the only religious unrest in recent years was stirred up not by local mullahs, but by bearded miscreants imported from Leiah and Bhakkar in Punjab.

Postscript: Upon leaving Turbat some days earlier a friend had given me a name and said this person would meet me off the bus in Gwadar. As our bus was approaching the town, I saw a car preceding us. Every time the bus stopped, a young man would leave the car to look at all disembarking passengers, once even sticking his head in the door to peek inside our bus. He never even so much as glanced in my direction, even though I was clearly the odd man out. But when we hit the town, he disappeared.

Two days later as I was walking past the ruined fort, I saw the same car again. I hailed it and asked the man if he was my Turbat friend’s acquaintance. Abdul Jalil wasn’t the one, but he knew this acquaintance just as well and said he could drive me to the man’s store. I told him it didn’t really matter anymore and we chatted a while. Then, as he was leaving, Jalil asked if I needed to get on a plane.

‘How do you know that?’ I asked totally taken by surprise.

‘Just asking, since I work for PIA and the bus ride out of Gwadar is so damned tedious,’ said Jalil.

This was too good to be true. He took down my name and instructed me to collect my ticket the following morning! Where else could such a thing happen?

Excerpted from Sea Monsters and the Sun God - available at at Sang e Meel (042-3722-0100), Lahore

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 11 November 2015 at 22:44, Blogger Unknown said...

Having just returned from a trip to Gwadar by road, my third visit in ten years, I came upon your blog while searching for the name of the ancient ocean under which Gwadar and Hingol were once submerged. Everywhere I went i saw ancient sea shells, embedded into the highest cliffs. Would you know what the prehistoric ocean was called. Loved reading your account of the region.

At 13 November 2015 at 08:57, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

This was the Tethys Sea. It existed before Laurasia and Gondwanaland separated to permit the ancient Pacific and Atlantic oceans to meet. Thank you for liking the work.

At 13 November 2015 at 20:19, Blogger Semyne said...

I came back to this blog to say I found the name of the ocean ...Tethys, and saw you had replied. Thank you. (There is a book Vanished Ocean: How Tethys Reshaped the World by Dorrik Stow)


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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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