Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The Russians and the Saint

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In the latter years of the 19th century, the British Indian government undertook to delineate the border between their Balochistan possessions and the countries of Afghanistan and Iran. This boundary commission was led by Henry McMahon and with him he had a full complement of ancillary staff like surveyors and draughtsmen etc. The angular lines of the western boundary of Pakistan’s Balochistan that abuts on its Iranian counterpart in the west and on Afghanistan to the north are a result of those four years of hard fieldwork.

One among McMahon’s staff was a surveyor by the name of G. P. Tate, my predecessor as a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Tate went on to write two books: Siestan that deals with the archaeology and history of the part of Balochistan that is shared by Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan and The Frontiers of Baluchistan (sic) that tells of his years of survey work in that harsh and barren land of sandstorms that blister the skin in summer and chill the bones in winter.

In Frontiers Tate has a story to tell of a green dragon that lived in the hills northwest of Dalbandin. The dragon had an insatiable appetite, so the story was told, and demanded a human for lunch every day. The poor folks of this faraway land tried every which way to rid themselves of this bane but failed. Despairing of deliverance, they one day resorted to a man of great piety and petitioned him to save them from the monster. A severe conflict followed and the man of god prevailed upon the dragon. And so the saint became Balanosh – the Eater (or Remover) of Demons.

Tate does not give any detail of the struggle between man and beast, but he likens this tradition to the English one of St George. As for me, the tale recurs a number of times around Pakistan, most famously in the uttermost western corner of remote Chapursan Valley in Gojal north of Hunza. While the Baloch version does not go on to recount any malevolence on the saint’s part, Baba Ghundi of Chapursan, having delivered the valley of the man-eating dragon, is said to have taken umbrage at a slight. In his wrath, he brought down a flood of mud and stones to destroy every house but one in the valley. The mess of glacial debris left over from a melting ice stream perhaps a millennium ago is said to be a reminder of the holy man’s flood. And yet a man possessed of such cussedness is considered holy!

Baba Ghundi has a delightfully picturesque shrine where the valley ends and a great web of glaciers begins. I saw it in the summer of 1990 and now having read of Pir Balanosh, I took it in my head to see where this man rests. And so they drove me north of Dalbandin on the unpaved road to Chagai whose name means Place of Wells (chah being a well). It is said that the ground of Chagai being hard and rocky, it is difficult to dig deep wells. Therefore they dug many shallow ones so that the meagre yield of each was offset by the plurality of wells. And hence the name.

A few miles short of Chagai we turned west and entered a desert strewn with dark lumps of rock and girt with similarly black crags. It was like being in a huge volcanic plain littered with the detritus of past eruptions. But the nearest volcano, and that also extinct, was some two hundred kilometres due west. Past a nondescript little village we sped, the trail climbing ever so imperceptibly until there spread before us a little green splash in the sombre brown hills. The followers of Balanosh credit their mentor with striking the ground with his staff and bringing forth a bubbling spring of clear, palatable water. And so the grasses that fatten the sheep of the tiny population around the shrine, the date and fig trees and tiny vegetable patches are all considered boons of the saint.

If Baba Ghundi was picturesque, Pir Balanosh was no less so. Hemmed in on all sides by utterly barren crags, it was a verdant little spot with the shrine sitting in the middle on a large patch of level ground. Outside the enclosed enceinte were a tall cairn and one circular enclosure that looked like a small-scale sheep pen, very much like the ones I have seen in the summer pastures of Shimshal and Hunza. Indeed, the main enclosure looked less a shrine, more like a cross between the sheep-pens in the summer pastures of the north and a small fortress – this latter because of the turrets interspersed along the walls. Inside the compound were the graves of Balanosh, his wife and some other relatives. And above this complex rise two dozen flagpoles flying pennants of blue, green, white and red.

Dragons evidently are old hat and there being more modern villains, the legend of Balanosh had been adjusted in step with modern history. It was no dragon but Sajadeen, the king and president of ‘Roosi’ infidels, who tormented the Muslims of this remote country. It was against this leader of the infidels that Balanosh fought. The phrase ‘Roosi sadr’ floored me and I asked to clarify if I had heard correctly. No doubt there, said the narrator of the legend who claimed to be a Balanosh descendent, it was Sajadeen the Russian infidel. Desperately I tried to fit this name upon the Russian or even the Afghan leader at the time of the invasion of 1979, but failed. The only name that Sajadeen sounded remotely like was Stalin, but it would be silly to imagine these people had ever heard of this Communist elder.

As all infidels are necessarily wicked, so this Sajadeen was an oppressor who, besides his other tyrannies, fancied virgins and would daily have a new one in his bed-chamber. Then a man called Mohammad having heard of Balanosh, then living in distant Makran, travelled thence to inform the holy man of the wickedness rampant in his far-off country. And so Balanosh arrived and with miraculous powers that paralysed his attackers, defeated Sajadeen the Russian and his vast host. That was, so the narrator claimed, about the year 900 of the Hijri calendar corresponding to 1494 of the Common Era.

To give the tale a semblance of authenticity, this date is recorded on a plaque by the grave. But the plate itself was installed on the last day of April 1958 by a khidmatgar (servant) named Barkat Ali Sanjrani and looks surprisingly new-fangled for its age. This then was history being manufactured exactly the same way as families in Pakistan invent their genealogies: simply by writing out what they want to believe about themselves. The claim always is that the information was copied from an original which was too old and tattered to be maintained.

Now the yarn begins to thicken with irreconcilable additions. Balanosh the Eater of Misfortune, whose real name was Nizamuddin Agha, was a grandson (daughter’s son) of Abdul Qadir Jilani. Now this celebrated Sufi saint died in 1166 at the age of about eighty-five. Even if one were to stretch longevity into absurdity, his grandson could not have lasted any longer than sometime in the first half of the 13th century. Yet here was grandson Nizamuddin not only alive but kicking the backside of an iniquitous infidel at the end of the 15th century. These were terribly long-lived folks. But then legend never lays much store by logic.

The tale is given a farther twist by the Chagai District Gazetteer of 1906. It reports that a family of Syeds were the first to take up domicile in the region of Chagai. They remained here peacefully for many years until a marauding band of Sanjrani Baloch uprooted them after considerable slaughter. As a result the Syeds were pushed into the country where the shrine is now situated. Strangely, the Gazetteer gives no date either for the arrival of the so-called Syeds or the Sanjranis.

But what takes the wind out of the sails of the yarn that the Syeds were the ‘earliest inhabitants of the district of whom there is any authentic record,’ is the fact that pre-Islamic Baloch ancestors were already living here. And those of you who believe the Baloch to be Arabs from Aleppo, need to hone up your critical thinking: the Baloch are clearly of ancient Iranian stock and are believed to have spread out from Mazandran on the southern shores of the Caspian Sea.

If you ask me, this is a cut and dried anthropological study of how legends are born. A hundred years ago Tate heard the tale of Balanosh destroying the dragon. At that time those who prayed at his shrine had evidently glossed over the Sanjrani ingress and resultant massacre of the Syeds and perhaps even of the man who with the passage of time became Balanosh. Then they had very likely never heard of Russia. Along came the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and with refugees pouring in from across the northern border Russia became the loathed villain. Over time, the legend began to change. The dragon died its natural death; in its death throes giving birth to Sajadeen the Roosi. The parent dragon took a human sacrifice daily; Sajadeen the ogre would only have virgins.

With the defeat of Roos by believing Muslims, Sajadeen met his discomfiture at the hands of Balanosh. What the legend-makers missed, perhaps not unwittingly, was the part played by USA without whose dollars and Stingers not even a glut of belief and piety could ever have defeated Roos.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 23 June 2016 at 09:17, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice one about the Baloch believing themselves to be from Aleppo, :) this is a wide spread belief because when working in Dera Murad Jamali, it was a common answer given by the Jamalis when asked about the origins of the Baloch. The ex PM Mir Zafrullah Khan aka Jabal fondly called himself a "Kurd". However as you have said the modern day Iranians , Kurds, and possibly Baloch may all be the descendants of what history knows as the Tocharian and later the Sacae.

At 23 June 2016 at 14:02, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Anonymous. Kurd, Persian and Baloch are kindred races. You are quite right about them carrying Tocharian blood.


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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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