Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Mystery on an Ancient Highway

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‘Bamaar’s blow was so violent that it clean struck off Sultan Mohammed’s head, and sent it rolling down the hill,’ said the old man that my friend Abbas Ali had enlisted to show us the purported jailhouse and the palace on the crest of the low eminence of Bamurg Kandao just two kilometres due east of Parachinar town.

The jailhouse was no more than a natural cutting in the limestone hill and the palace was simply the foundation of three or four rooms whose antiquity I could not guess. Whoever had lived here in whichever period of time, enjoyed an indisputably magnificent view along the Zeeran stream, a tributary of the Kurram. Below us lay neatly parcelled squares of cultivation, across the river were the houses of Yusufkhel village and far away to the north the dark line of the Safed Koh range dissolved into storm clouds that sparkled with lightening every now and again. Parachinar was sprinkled in the middle ground to the west; a range of low hills blocked the view to the east. And to the south the Zeeran cut through more farmland.

They buried the Sultan where his head came to rest under the hill, said our guide. But neither the period of the Sultan nor of Bamaar, the wicked Hindu (what else!), is known. Finished with the story, he led us down the hill to the ruined shrine of the Sultan: a raised plinth strewn with dressed stones that were once part of the whole building, and a single arched doorway. The only telltale sign that the ruin was ancient was its level in relation to the ground. Repeated flooding in the Zeeran had raised the level in the lee of the hill, burying the doorway so that one had to stoop low to get through it.

The old man brought me a coin and a small terra-cotta figurine, both of which, he said, he had found in the vicinity. Broken off at the neck the figure measured forty-five millimetres with its peculiar elongated headdress. Its disproportionately large nose and beard reminded me of faces seen on Kushan coins of the 1st century CE, and the novice in me immediately assigned it that period. The coin that I was unable to read was later identified by an expert at Lahore Museum as a Ghaznavid issue of the 11th century.

In Lahore, Dr Saif ur Rahman Dar, the pre-eminent archaeologist, gave proper perspective to the ruin. The arch, he says, is the transitional form of arch from the Hindu Shahya to the Sultanate style of architecture that came into vogue in the latter 10th century CE. That was a time when the Muslims were yet unsure of the strength of such a true arch and reinforced it with a wooden beam. This timidity in arch construction extends into the 13th century that brings us from the time of Subuktigin through to the period of Sultan Shahab ud Din Mohammed, the Ghorid king who was killed in 1205 by the doughty Khokhar Rajputs of the Salt Range.

Could it then be this same Sultan Mohammed whose shrine nestles under the hill of Bamurg Kandao outside Parachinar? The Tabkat i Nasiri recounts how Taj ud Din Yalduz, the Turkish slave turned commander, upon hearing of the death of his king and mentor rode out to receive the bier. Yalduz was then the governor of Sankuran (identified with modern Shalozan some kilometres to the northwest of Parachinar) on the highroad to Ghazni and we know from history that he attended the funerary procession all the way to that place for burial.

Since the Sultan died during the hot weather, there is a small likelihood that he was buried here on the banks of the Zeeran stream as amanat for some time before eventually being escorted to Ghazni. Alternatively, it could be that the corpse, now beginning to rot, was eviscerated and the insides interred here. We know of a similar of Emperor Jehangir’s entrails being buried outside Gujrat town and being worshipped to this day as a saint that answers prayers. Then again, we also know that Shahab ud Din Ghori also has a ‘shrine’ at Dhamiak near Sohawa in Jhelum district. It is therefore more likely that the viscera were buried at Dhamiak and the corpse as amanat at this location.

The temporary burial as amanat appears plausible in the light of history. The Tabkat i Nasiri tells us that the Sultan’s nephews and a brother or two came out of Ghor at the head of an army for possession of the corpse. Yalduz had to fight and win a hard battle to retain it. In the course of this struggle and certainly because the corpse was now stinking to high heaven, it would have been buried here temporarily. Even after it was removed to Ghazni, the reverent Taj ud Din Yalduz commemorated the site with the shrine that still exists.

So far as I am concerned, neither the shrine of Sultan Mohammed nor the coin given me by our guide is a mystery. For we know both from the Rig Veda and from later history that the Kurram Valley was a much frequented route between Ghazni and the Punjab plains. Countless feet trod this dust over the centuries. All sorts of people, great and small, could have left their mark here. What is mysterious is the small figurine. Dr Dar says that it is unique for it has no parallel in the historic period. Nor is it modern. Which makes it prehistoric – but even there we see no correspondence. Besides the lack of a parallel, it is the strange elongated headdress, a feature not seen elsewhere, that denies it assignation to a specific period – or even an area.

The large nose and ears were made by pinching a very well levigated blob of clay, the eyes were a unique appliqué moulded into circles and pierced. The beard was scratched on by a fine instrument. But an even finer instrument, a needle, was used to make two perforations running from the front to the back just below the eyes. Through these holes, according to Dr Dar, ran a thin thread to suspend the figure either as an ornament or an amulet. The figure, however, lacks the beauty of an ornament, and to my mind it seems more an amulet or the representation of a god. Dr Dar also points out that in prehistory a thread so fine as to go through the holes could only have been produced with some difficulty. The figure was then fired well and applied a red slip.

Where did this figure come from, and what was its purpose? Did the fair-haired singers of the Vedic hymns bring it with them four thousand years ago? In those hymns they celebrate the ‘Kramu’ (Kurram) River and how it pays tribute to the mighty Sindhu. To know so much of its geography one of their groups surely had to come over the Peiwar Pass at the head of the Kurram Valley and journeyed down the length of the river to its junction with the Sindhu.

But for at least six millenniums before those fair-skinned nomads arrived, the people of the Sindhu Valley were living in great cities. They had perfected agriculture, domesticated cattle and the dog and were making fired pottery. Such civilised people could not have existed in isolation: they would have travelled for trade, pleasure and in search of knowledge. The mysterious figure could then have also originated in the great cities that follow the sinuous path of the Sindhu River.

The question that rankles is: why has no parallel ever been found? Is this the representation of an esoteric god known only to a chosen few and jealously guarded? Was it lost here by a priest who must have then had to face severe penalty? Or is it the guardian of the traveller and the trader – a minor god? Or even, perhaps, of the hunter? Was it placed here in a temple that has long since returned to the dust? But as the lower part is broken off and lost we do not know its real aspect, and it could just as well have been an insignificant toy.

I do not have the answers to these questions. But one day my queries will surely be answered by great minds.

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

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My Books

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

Books of Days