Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Trek to the Source of the Khenji River

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Two years ago my article on a journey to the Dog’s Grave, the second highest peak in the Khirthar Mountains, and my use of the words of H. T. Lambrick elicited a response from friend Raheal Siddiqui. He said the words I quoted, were used by Lambrick for another part of the Khirthar: the Khenji River and not the Sita that I had trekked along. Ever since he had wanted me to trek on the Khenji as well, but it was always one thing or the other that kept me until ten days ago.

In Larkana  Raheal packed me off to the dusty little village of Warah where my fat, pot-bellied, bhung-drinking friend Wali Mohammed waited at the otaq of Tharo Khan Chandio, the local chief. A tea ceremony was followed by a visit to the local grocery with Tharo Khan’s driver fidgeting endlessly and reminding us how late it was getting and that we would not arrive at the village of Rahu jo Aitho before nightfall if we did not hurry. Yet we did not hurry. The tired Suzuki jeep rattled along raising a thick cloud of cloying dust on the bank of a saline drain. We passed the reedy shores of Daba Lake and then we were clattering over hard, stony ground. On the outskirts of the rare settlement ugly crop-eared brutes came out to bark our wheels out of their jurisdiction. They raced alongside, snarling menacingly and, seeing that our jeep so much the bigger than themselves, did not have the nerve to stand and fight turned back with some satisfaction.

In the silver light of a full moon the familiar loom of the Bikhor hill told me we had reached Rahu jo Aitho. As we unloaded, I searched amongst the dark hulks of the huts for the easily recognisable figure of my old friend, Raees Hasil Khan Chandio. Dressed in his informal lungi and kurta and draped over with an ajrak he came sauntering out of his house. It seemed as if he was not thrilled by the arrival of these guests. We embraced and shook hands and he complained that two years had gone by and not one word, not one greeting, had I sent him. I accused Wali Mohammed for not passing on my good wishes, for we had talked several times on the phone and always Hasil had been remembered. Not once, in these two years, said Hasil, had I ‘shown my beard’ in his village. That was a lovely phrase, and I hung on to it. In a society where every self-respecting man sports a beard, even a clean shaven man does not show his face, but his beard. The plans of climbing the peak of Mian Ghun had remained unfulfilled as too were the plans of participating in the annual festival of Shah Godrio. Of that I was indeed guilty. But the grind of making a living had kept me away.

Nodding in understanding Hasil led us to his otaq. The charpais were laid out and spread with bedding and pillows. We reclined and Wali asked for his evening dose of bhung to be prepared. On our last trip together we had had Ali Akbar to do this chore; this time Wali had to make do with one of Hasil’s factotums. Besides his ability to drum up a reportedly excellent preparation of bhung – and without being asked at that, the many culinary talents of Ali Akbar had, on that last trip, earned him the title of masi (Aunt). Now he was to be sorely missed. Again I was culpable for while Wali Mohammed had sent out a message for Ali Akbar, I had thrown everything out of kilter by arriving a day earlier than planned. Even as we watched Wali down his bowlful of the green concoction, Ali Akbar, having journeyed two hours from his village by bus, was perhaps knocking at Wali’s door in Shahdadkot. Never again, it was resolved, will we travel without this important member of our party.

The otaq was soon crowded, and though Hasil knew the reason of our outing he was bound by ancient custom to inquire formally. I began in my mixture of Sindhi-Punjabi before Wali took over to finish that we wished to travel to the source of the Khenji River that flowed past Hasil’s village in order to investigate if Lambrick had been truthful in his description of the upper reaches of this stream.

‘Allah be praised!’ said Hasil, ‘with His help then, we shall go there tomorrow.’ Again in accordance with ancient Baloch custom ahwal (situation) was related to everyone else present in the otaq. Some of these men were travelling from distant hamlets, stopping here only for the night. By a repeat of this mechanism before tomorrow was out, news of the man from Lahore travelling to the mountain would be sprinkled in otaqs dozens of miles in every direction. Pakistan Telecommunication could scarcely have done better.

Thankfully Hasil sees nothing wrong with vegetarianism and dinner was an excellent daal-chawal. Wali the trencherman, who likes nothing better than demolishing a rooster, or better, a lamb, was thoroughly disgusted and sternly instructed me not to interfere in his administrative arrangements in future. Between mouthfuls I said I wouldn’t, and he knew I was lying. Thereafter, with Wali leading with his unattractive ‘Drrrrk, drrrrk,’ the men in the otaq raised a mighty chorus of burps. If the endless hawking and spitting and universal smoking were bad, this was really the pits. But perfected over generations, this was almost like ancient custom and there was not much one could do but endure.

I thanked Hasil for his generous hospitality and he returned by thanking me for coming to his ‘poor village,’ a procedure that was repeated every time I uttered a word of thanks. Since Israr Ahmed, the son of Tharo Khan (whose jeep had brought us out and who is the chief of Hasil’s sub-clan), was travelling with us, the otaq was reserved for us small-time VIPs. Presently everybody else dispersed to other otaqs and I only had to put up with Wali’s endless machine gun burping. Arrangements were finalised for setting off ‘before sunrise’ and talk trailed off as one by one we slid into sleep. At some point in the night I was roused by Wali’s gunfire with each round of ‘Drrrrk’ followed by a satisfied sigh. I lay in the dark listening to him and hoping each burst to be the last. But he carried on and on until I told him to shut up.

He knew that if I got wind of it, I would have pre-empted the killing of a rooster, therefore Wali had secretly demanded a chicken curry breakfast, preceded of course by his obligatory bowl of bhung. And Hasil never the one to refuse a guest, acceded. With extreme satisfaction Wali pointed out the man squatting outside the otaq just as he ran the knife across the rooster’s neck. I raved, and with undisguised pleasure Wali said it was too late. He had stolen this round. That set the pace: the bhung, the endless nauseating belching and a meal that took an eternity in arriving. And since Hasil’s household was caught unawares, the meat came leathery for being cooked hurriedly. Regardless, Wali chomped on it happily. More belching followed, and so we did not set out until after nine.

But there is something to be said about hospitality. Some half-wit 19th century European travelling through the land of the Pukhtuns was impressed by their generosity as hosts and wrote about it praising it to the skies. Thereafter such praise for Pukhtun hospitality became standard fare for every travel writer worth his or her name, until it even became standard fare for tourism brochures. Every pea-brained idiot harped on and on about how the Pukhtuns laid such great store upon treating guests with kindness and generosity. It was as if no other people in this great and wonderful land of the subcontinent of India were hospitable. There can be nothing more foolish. But we are not a nation of travellers and believe only what the white sahibs tell us, and they said nothing about hospitality in any other part of the country. Consequently we only recognise Pukhtun hospitality. The truth is that hospitality comes naturally to the people of the subcontinent, whether they live in remote northern Chitral or Turbat, Shimshal or Sanghar, Mardan or Yazman. I can say this with authority for I have been favoured with great kindness in all these parts.

The path lay in the broad bed of the Khenji between drab green Tamarisk trees. Wali and Israr rode the camels, Hasil and I walked in front and once again talk began with the lack of education, health and infrastructure that should have been the first priority of any civil government. It eventually turned to the army’s anti-dacoit operations in the early 1980s. I felt the chill that Hasil would have felt on that long ago winter day as he said his afternoon prayers in his poor mosque and heard someone ask his wife about him. He heard, too, the woman say he was in the mosque. And he also heard the loud hail that demanded to know what he was doing in there.

‘For God’s sake, this is the house of the Lord, and I am at my prayers!’ he called back.

My spine felt the icy tingle that Hasil would have felt as he heard the ugly, metallic clack of a dozen bolts ramming home into the breeches of automatic rifles as he was ordered out with his hands in the air. He was questioned regarding the whereabouts of some outlaws. He said he did not know and they threatened to dunk him in the Khenji until he remembered. He didn’t remember but they fortunately also did not give him the promised dunking. That reminded Wali that Hasil needed to know something: soon government census operatives would be visiting Rahu jo Aitho. They will be assisted by the army, but that should not be taken as a sign of another operation and nobody is to disappear out of fear. This time the army was coming without weapons and it was imperative that Hasil ensured that everybody remained in the village to be counted.

We climbed up the boulder strewn mound of Lalan ji Mari, a large ruined Bronze Age settlement, to a crowd of two or three hundred men of all ages come to witness a cock fight. Two hundred men jostled to shake our hands with an eagreness that said this was the single most important function of their lives. Israr, the son of the chief, knew his role well and made his way to the centre of the crowd where he sat regally cross legged on a blanket laid out specially for him. The champion roosters were forgotten as everybody older than fifteen went to pay their respect; all younger bodies, some six dozen in all, stood around and gawked at me. I lost my nerve and screamed at Wali and Hasil to get out of this madness. Wali protested about staying to watch at least one fight. I said stuff it and started to walk away. Reluctantly the others followed.

On the far side the trail descended again into the bed of the Khenji again. More tamarisk, and dwarf palm bordered the reed lined stream. The Khenji was not half as beautiful as the Sita river, I decided for myself. Quickly to prove me wrong the trail climbed up to the highest point of the Piluri Falls, a series of stepped shelves of rock that rise some ten metres and stretch right across the valley floor. Between every two steps were large emerald ponds with water from the one spilling over polished limestone into the other. Unlike the ponds of Sita, however, none was large enough for a luxurious swim. Another half hour and we were in the raised flat of Lakhay ja Kunda where mustard and wheat grew in neat squares and the call of doves oozed soothingly out of the kundi (that give the village its name) and peelu trees. One large, gnarled peelu tree was festooned with two swings – not of hemp or even plastic rope; but of quarter inch steel wire rope. If they looked forlorn without children, their desolation was only added to by the rigid starkness of the wire. A blindfolded camel worked a Persian wheel; somewhere a child cried and two men calling out hurried to invite us to tea.

But we declined and passed on to the settlement of Lohira. Tea was brought to us in the otaq and Hasil said our goal was yet thirty minutes away. On this last bit we were joined by a number of men from Lohira and soon, having climbed a low hill, we were standing high above the deep green waters at Tushangi. To the west the horizon was formed by the straight line of the main ridge of the Khirthar. The right end of this featureless parapet was dominated by the peak of Machhal 1508 metres above the sea. A discussion erupted between Hasil and Wali: the pronunciation was Joshangi, said Hasil. Rubbish, declared Wali. It was Treshangi, meaning ‘three branched’ corrupted to Tushangi.

From our vantage point twenty metres above the large pond we could see the Khenji making a Y, hence the name, said Wali. The subsidiary branch, just below us to the right of our hill, was dry. But the main stream reaching back into the dark forbidding crack that seemed to stretch to the very foot of the peak of Machhal itself, was a deep, deep shade of green. I cannot imagine that the in the course of eons, the river itself had gouged out this channel whose walls fell no less than two hundred metres to the water below, but believe it was formed by some prehistoric earthquake. Once the chasm was there, the waters that were to be given the name of Khenji made it their bed. There, unseen by us – unseen indeed by mortal man, the Khenji, not entirely fifty kilometres in length, is born inside the abyssal womb of primordial limestone fed by a myriad hidden springs.

This was what Lambrick had called the Grand Canyon of Sindh, ‘between vertical cliffs five hundred feet high.’ Briefly it was considered if we should walk to the very end of the great crack and try to peer into its dark innards. But that would have benighted us on the walk back to Lohira. Yet the story was attractive: that there in the farthest reach of the canyon a great cauldron (deg) was hanging by chains suspended to its highest point. There was something supernatural about this cauldron for it could only be seen if one were to somehow traverse the forbidding green waters of the canyon; but from the top it was invisible. Of course the canyon was peopled by all manner of horrible monsters – monsters yet unknown to mankind whose sole purpose in life was to preclude lowly man from ever beholding this magical cooking pot of the gods.

That the cauldron ever passed into common knowledge was because a holy man, by the strength of his extraordinary powers, had once journeyed into the dark, malevolent depths of the canyon, a feat beyond the province of ordinary mortals. The story was too attractive to be left living. And so it was decided that we should return. Only the next trip to the source of the Khenji will be made with an inflatable rubber dinghy so as to be able to paddle up to the very end of the dramatic gorge. One thing is clear, however: even after we have successfully demolished the cauldron of Khenji River, the story will yet live on for it is not restricted to this area alone but is a common and recurring theme in the lore of the mountains of Sindh and Balochistan.

Postscript I: We remained overnight in Lohira, and began the return journey early the next morning. In the wooded tract of Drighi that lies between Lohira and Lakhay ja Kunda we were joined by Ghulam Sarwar alias Teeru. He offered us hospitality but we declined because I wanted to utilise the cooler hours of the morning walking. He said he also had goat’s milk butter at home. This the grossly fat Wali Mohammed could simply not resist. Come what may, we were stopping at Lakhay ja Kunda to have tea and eat Teeru Chandio’s butter.

We sat by the Persian wheel, tea was prepared and Teeru talked of the army raid in 1983. Before the raid they received a message from their tribal chief in Larkana saying they were to hand over all outlaws and criminally inclined men in their village. Failing that, the army would come for them. But their remoteness gave them a sense of security, for they thought the absence of roads placed them beyond the pale of the army’s abilities. Not one man was turned in. Then one chilly morning in January, even before the women had lit the fires to start breakfast, they were roused by the brazen sound of a bullhorn: they were to hand over the outlaws for the entire valley was surrounded.

In utter disbelief the men came out of their houses and entirely to their surprise found the cordon of hills bristling with khaki clad men. The shooting started. When it died down ninety minutes later (six hours by another account) two army officers and three Chandios, including a woman, were dead. Anyone who could manage had already stolen away into the hills. The remainder, Teeru included, were captured and marched to waiting lorries to be transported to the notorious Sukker Jail.

Two years later, in 1985, a jailbreak freed Teeru and forty one other men. Since then Teeru, still a wanted man, has lived his life quietly in his native land under the shadow of the Khirthar tending his meagre fields and goat herds. I asked if he had ever kidnapped for ransom or erected a road-block with a view to looting. That he hadn’t, he said; his crime was killing two men in inter-tribal feuds. But no, God is his witness, he has never been a bandit. Yet long after the anti-dacoit operations have ended, long after many of the most fearsome outlaws have met their due end, Ghulam Sarwar alias Teeru Chandio is still a hunted man – not for crimes he committed, but for those that he didn’t.

Postscript II. I did return to Tushangi a year later; not with a rubber dinghy but a television camera crew. After the filming I walked along the top of the Tushangi gorge and discovered that not even a full five hundred metres from the point where we had discussed the name Tushangi, the water below petered out and disappeared on a great jumble of rocks. There was no enchanted cauldron to be seen, but the cleft continued on right up to the peak of Machhal.

Book is available at Sang e Meel (042-3722-0100), Lahore]

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 22 June 2016 at 17:02, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you Sir. You impart to the dusty villages and hamlets of Pakistan the romance of Scheherazade ! keep up the good work. God Bless.

At 23 June 2016 at 14:03, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Anonymous.


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

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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

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