Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Sri Mata Hinglaj

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The setting is idyllic. A narrow gorge with walls of contorted rock rising up to heights of several hundred feet. The streambed, all of fifty metres wide, with a trickle of water richly endowed with trees of all sorts where white-cheeked bulbuls sing with abandon. Overheard, the tawny eagle quarters the peaks on broad wings with splayed primaries and, if you are lucky, you may espy a wolf warily eyeing you from a thicket of reeds before melting away as if it was never there in the first place.

Here and there, the dun-coloured walls of the gorge have been eaten away by eons of flowing water to create dramatic overhangs. And occasionally the streambed, gouged out by the infrequent flash floods sweeping down it, forms a deep pond of liquid emerald. One of these overhangs is the shrine of Durga and right below it is the sacred pond. Considered unfathomable, it is the recipient of coconuts thrown in with full force by pilgrims. The quantum of bubbles that escape tells the thrower of impending happiness or misery: the greater the fizz, the happier the person. Fast bowlers, take note.

Hindu legend maintains that upon her death, the goddess Durga was rent asunder in many parts. The bits fell all over the earth, each sanctifying the spot where it came to rest. One of those spots was under the rock overhang in this dramatic side valley of the main Hingol River valley. The place became one of the most celebrated shrines in all India and though the annual pilgrimage takes place every year in the third week of January, stray pilgrims are met with any other time as well. While the Hindus burn their sacred lamps for Durga, Muslims perform obsequies after their own fashion for Bibi Nani who is believed to be buried here. It is not without interest that during the annual pilgrimage bus caravans from Karachi and other parts of Balochistan bear followers of both religions.

Now, Durga is fine. But who is Bibi Nani who, besides being buried here, also rests under a bridge at the south end of the Bolan Pass not very far from Sibi town? Five thousand years ago, the people of Mesopotamia worshipped Nania, goddess of love and war, who was also known as Ishtar. She was evidently a much-revered goddess whose divinity was jealously acknowledged even in southern Persia.

In 2280 BCE, Kudur-Nankhundi, the king of Elam (southwest Persia), attacked Erech in the kingdom of Ur (Mesopotamia) and among other booty made off with the idol of Nania. For sixteen hundred years the Mesopotamians smarted under the shame of this debacle. Then in 645 BCE, king Assurbanipal, taking advantage of the weakness of Elam, sacked Erech, retrieved the Nania idol and restored it to its rightful sanctum in the Land Between Two Rivers.

Now historical record shows that Nania’s land was Mesopotamia. But we have her being worshipped here in Balochistan as well. Archaeology shows us that Mesopotamia and the valley of the Sindhu River enjoyed regular and heavy human traffic both ways. There were traders, craftsmen, professionals, fakirs, what have you, who worshipped her and their other gods and travelled across the lands under their protection. As they came and went across this vast landmass, they sanctified suitable sites across the Balochistan-Iran seaboard to different gods. Hinglaj near the banks of the Hingol River was dedicated to Nania.

A few thousand years were to pass before the fair-skinned singers of Vedic hymns descended into the subcontinent. The cult of Nania may then have been moribund and the new-comers found the lovely, well-watered and sylvan valley good enough to worship their own deities. Durga was thus grafted over the dying memory of Nania. But as in the work of a poor plastic surgeon the graft did not make the scar tissue altogether disappear. As part of the collective human memory, Nania remained barely discernible under the Durga legend.

Two more millenniums went by and Islam became the prevalent religion in the region. But the crowded and lively pantheon of the subcontinent corrupted the purity of its strict monotheism. The newly-converted Muslims, unable to shun the graven images they had worshipped for thousands of years, turned to prostrate at the tombs of those at whose hands they had received conversion. They also incorporated early, sometimes pagan, worship sites into their ritual after duly giving them ‘Islamic’ names. Hinglaj was just one among dozens of such ancient sites.

To worship Durga was out of the question, however. Fortunately there was at hand the lingering memory of Nania wafting like a ghost on the fringes of consciousness. The Muslims converted her to become Bibi Nani — Respected Elderly Lady. Today, Hindus and Muslims alike attend the annual festival to petition, each according to their own sensibilities, Durga or Nani nee Nania for sons and wealth.

In the pre-dawn darkness of a cool January morning in 1986, I rode an army truck from Karachi to the Hingol River. The truck was loaded down with a concrete mixer and once off the RCD Highway short of Uthal we were on dirt trails. Because of our ungainly payload and fear of overturning, the journey was excruciatingly slow. We bumped and lurched along, first in darkness and then in the golden light of a winter morning, through a landscape of weirdly shaped hills and sand dunes. The journey lasted seventeen hours.

My most memorable image from that trip is of the several mud volcanoes we passed. Though the driver did not agree to stop to permit me to climb up and look into the maw, the image is yet etched into my mind. I had to wait sixteen years for the chance of climbing up the cone to watch the grey concoction bubble and explode upward in little shafts.

Then Sri Mata Hinglaj was rather unspoilt, the absence of roads making it nearly impossible to reach. Pilgrims during the annual festival travelled from Karachi in buses that took three days to complete the journey. Though I was on the heels of the festival, the place was still clean despite the splotches of blood at a place where the ritual slaughter of goats takes place.

Returning in 2002, my friend and I sped along the brand new Coastal Highway that connects Karachi with Gwadar. Compared to the seventeen hours in the army truck, it took us less than four hours in a car. Hinglaj was a bit disappointing. A black-top road now branches off from the main highway to lead right up to the shrine which now has a steel gateway as an entrance. Inside, there is an ugly shed and bathrooms for pilgrims and the shrine of Durga is now duly affixed with fancy bathroom tiles.

Even in 1986, I was disappointed to see the ugly masonry cubicle stuck under the overhang. The primal setting, I strongly felt, should have been left as it was. This time around it looked even more tacky with the bathroom tiles. The stench from the toilets and the heaps of discarded plastic and paper packing material did nothing to uplift. Between my two visits, much had been taken away from pristine Hinglaj.

We do not know if Nania was created in the Sindhu Valley and sprinkled across the two thousand five hundred-kilometre landmass separating the Sindhu from the Tigris-Euphrates system, or if it came the other way. But one thing we do know without a shadow of doubt: that Nania is the longest-surviving cult. It has weathered six thousand years with the same name. That is what we know from the records. Who knows if she had been around even earlier?


posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 20 October 2016 at 17:55, Blogger Unknown said...

this is common in all our hindu pilgrims, at 56 i have witnessed many such places converted into shrines cladded by bathroom tiles/ The pilgrims overflow the coffers and the poor priest families are without any aesthetics and ruins that primal set up which had their own divine vibrations

At 20 October 2016 at 17:56, Blogger Unknown said...

by the way detailed writing of your travelogues is interesting

At 22 October 2016 at 11:20, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Unknown, it is common across all subcontinental religions. Muslims do likewise to their monuments.


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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

Books at Sang-e-Meel

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