Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

To the Shrine of the Invisible Saint

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The hills – as gold-brown as sun-dried chaff, or dark grey like fire-scoured lead, rise sharply on either side of the narrow gorge. Rarely is their burnished starkness broken by vegetation; rarely, save during a downpour, does one see a trickle of water on these slopes. Desiccated, harsh and barren, the slopes run down to the pebbly bed of the Bolan River where the water flows in a narrow channel. Rarely does the entire riverbed know the feel of water sluicing over it – and that again only during a downpour.

Long, long before Alexander the Macedonian was born; long before the Aryan hordes swept into the plains of the Sindhu-Ganga river system to give rise to a new religion and a new culture; even before the great tragic hero Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk (lower Mesopotamia), disturbed by the demise of his dearest friend, undertook his epic quest for immortality; the Bolan Gorge had resounded to the tramp of marching feet, to the clink of armoury and the jangle of camels’ bells. For this was the highroad leading west from the plains of Sindh where one of the great civilisations of prehistory flourished. The discovery of the ruins at Mehrgarh near Sibi at the lower end of the Pass and the verification that this ancient city had flourished as far back as the eighth millennium BCE testifies that the Bolan route has certainly been used as long as that.

Through this extended passage of time, surely a great two-way exchange of ideas would have taken place between the Sindhu Valley and Mesopotamia. And it was this prodigious exchange; the exact details of which we may perhaps learn in due course, that occupied my mind as we drove out of Quetta early one morning on the way to the shrine of Pir Ghaib – the Invisible Saint. Once again, I had left home without reading up and so my mind was not encumbered by the theories and beliefs of those who had gone before me. I was open to every bit of information, to every stimulus, that would come my way.

Seventeen kilometres south of Mach a freshly painted roadside sign, saying Pir Ghaib was ten kilometres away, pointed us off the road to the right. The rough, stony trail crossed a dry watercourse and wound around small hillocks that had, even at eight in the morning, started to magnify the heat of the sun blazing out of a cloudless sky. In that great lunar jumble of barren, brown hills the sprawling green splash of the village of Khajuri appeared bizarre and alien. Suddenly there were channels running with clear water, blocks of ploughed land with young wheat, date trees with cooing doves, two neurotic dogs taking vociferous exception to our fleeting presence and a couple of waving children. And then as suddenly we were on the moon once again.

Khajuri and Mach mean the same: the former in Sindhi, Punjabi and Urdu signifies the connection with date (khajur). The latter is the name for the date palm in Balochi. I could not help but remark on the fact that separated by only a few kilometres; the two places had the same name in different languages.

The trail seemed to be headed straight for a large cleft within the rock wall that loomed in the distance. We took a curve and another blotch of green greeted us. The jeep climbed up the last bit to the solitary house with a sign outside proclaiming that it cost ten rupees to have one’s car minded. We called for the car-minder; and though we could hear people inside the house, no one answered. We decided it was free for we had arrived when the blistering heat had put an end to the tourist season. It was another thing, however, that the boy appeared to relieve us of the money only when, a couple of hours later, we were reversing to leave.

Below, at the bottom of the gorge, the trees grew thickly. A winding path led down to the clump of shisham and date palms narcissus-like encircling a beautiful emerald pond where the clear water rippled over limestone and in its shallow depth fish shimmered. Two twines of water, frayed by the wind, fell into this pond from a height of about twelve metres. Centuries of pouring water had enriched the rock with a thick coating of lichens in the most dazzling shades of green and brown. The latter signifying that the flow contained sulphur. If anything, the stark aridity of the surrounding hills accentuated the verdant beauty of the spot. In all my years of wandering about the country, I had never seen anything quite as remarkable as the pond at Pir Ghaib. It was something straight out of a film.

We climbed back up again and followed the water channel past the grave of the Invisible Saint to the spring. It was a round hole in the grey-white limestone rock wall some thirty centimetres across from which the water spouted abundantly. Though it was warm, it was without the stink of sulphur and pleasant on the palate. Back at the tomb, a family had arrived. Rahim, leading this group, said they were from neighbouring Khajuri and visited the saint’s tomb whenever they were faced with difficulties. This day, however, he had no supplication to make. He and his four children (the youngest about six) had walked these five kilometres in the blazing heat only to visit with the keeper of the shrine.

The shrine had ‘always been here,’ said Rahim. As far back as he could remember the little swings, too, hung on the tree shading the grave. The saint miraculously cured sick children placed in these swings, said the man. The shrine was unchanged since his father’s childhood. Therefore, said our man, it must be from the time of the ‘Gohars’ –Fire Worshippers. The man’s concept of time and space was fantastic: from his father’s youth just fifty years before, he had jumped straight across fifteen hundred intervening years and connected the shrine with the Zoroastrians. Though it was not said explicitly, the saint seemed to have been a Muslim who was tormented by the local population on account of his faith.

This saint, whose real name was not known, arrived in the area with his sister the venerable Bibi Nani who is buried under a bridge in the Bolan Pass. But the Gohars intent upon chasing them away came for them with soldiers. The story does not disclose where the Fire Worshippers came from, though. The sister and brother fled, but unable to shake off the soldiers, decided to split up at some point. The one going lower down the Bolan and the other coming this way. Their pursuers, however, did not relent and when the holy man saw no hope of escape, he simply disappeared into the rock wall. From that exact spot where the saint entered the rock, so the story goes, sprang a clear and copious spring that flows to this day. Rahim did not know how the sister died and came to be buried in the Pass not many miles away. He did say, however, that Pir Ghaib was also revered by local Hindus, a fact that was later validated by the Bolan Gazetteer of 1906. For them, says the Gazetteer, the saint is Mahadev which, incidentally, is another name for Shiva.

There are several shrines in Pakistan now revered by Muslims but that come from a distant pagan past when our ancestors yet worshipped more temporal gods and goddesses than saints who disappeared into rocks. We do not know how long this spring has poured forth its blessing of water, but if it ran in the remote past, surely trading caravans originating in cities of the Sindhu Valley would have detoured from the grim walls of the Bolan Gorge to propitiate whatever gods they attributed this blessing to. Here they would have sought the sanction of their gods to preserve them in the long and arduous journey to the marts of Mesopotamia. In about 1800 BCE came the singers of Vedic hymns and they would have assigned their own gods to the spring. In the first century CE, when this part of Balochistan came under the fire-worshipping Sassanians, the fount would yet again have gained a new and appropriate legend. Finally, at some unknown time, the story took its Islamic guise.

Though we may never know which gods the Sassanians or their predecessors worshipped at Pir Ghaib, there can be no doubt that these gods would all have had an ancient, timeless core with layers of change and accretion. As for Bibi Nani, her identity is no puzzle. She is simply Nana or Nania; the goddess revered in ancient Mesopotamia and Persia in the very remote past. It was in the year 2280 BCE that Kudur-Nankhundi, king of Elam (southwest Persia), sacked the city of Erech in the kingdom of Ur (Mesopotamia). Among other treasures, the victor carried away from Erech to his capital city of Susa, the highly revered idol of the goddess Nania. Such was the reverence for Nania among the people of Mesopotamia that for a no less than one thousand six hundred and thirty-five years successive Mesopotamian kings smarted under the humiliation of that defeat and theft of their idol.

It was only in the year 645 BCE that king Assurbanipal taking advantage of the weakness of the Elamite kingdom set out to right that ancient wrong. A bitter contest followed and after fourteen Elamite cities had been sacked, Susa fell to the Mesopotamians. The city was pillaged and trashed, but before that came to pass, the idol of Nania was preserved and restored to the temple of Erech. The cult of Nania, or Bibi Nani as we know her, is thus one of the oldest in the world: it has survived for over four thousand three hundred years. And so over the millenniums, caravans carrying trade and philosophy back and forth between Mesopotamia and the cities of the Sindhu Valley would have dispersed the name of this goddess across the countries.

When 19th century archaeologists translated the cuneiform inscriptions of Western Asia, we learnt the names of the western gods. At home in the valley of the Sindhu, however, translation of the ancient script has been a baffling impossibility. Despite the best efforts of the greatest minds in the field today, the script of Moen jo Daro remains tantalisingly unread. And so we do not know the names of the deities worshipped in the Sindhu Valley, or of the kings and queens who ruled over it or even of the poets and philosophers who would have compiled its religious and literary lore.

As likely as it is that the name Nania or Nana travelled from the west to the east, it could just as well have originated in the Sindhu Valley and dispersed across ancient Persia and Mesopotamia. Who knows how the goddess would have metamorphosed as she was escorted across the ancient civilised world by generation after generation of Sindhu Valley traders and philosophers? Who knows which of the many goddesses – big bosomed with heavy buttocks and fabulous headdresses, recovered from the ruins of Moen jo Daro, Harappa and Mehrgarh, was called Nania? It is a teasing, somewhat self-involved, thought, but it is certainly not devoid of logic for recent discoveries show without doubt the transfer of superior crafts and knowledge from the Sindhu Valley to Mesopotamia. It should be no surprise then if the most powerful goddess of ancient Sindh, Punjab and Balochistan also made her way westward to a new home of Mesopotamia.

Experts now believe that the Aryan speaking peoples after taking the Sindhu Valley adopted some of the gods already in vogue in this country. As Shiva was modelled on a Sindhu Valley god, surely the god of the bubbling spring too would have been suitably adapted to Vedic belief on the first leg of its long journey of metamorphosis and conversion. One among the adopted gods was the prototype for Shiva. Though we do not know what the people of Moen jo Daro called this god, the invaders faithfully followed his representation to model their own Shiva. Perhaps in that forgotten age, the spring of Pir Ghaib was sacred to that local god of the unknowable name. More than three millenniums later in an exact replay, the Muslims adopted Nania to become their Bibi Nani – the Venerated Lady.

Someday the script of the Sindhu Valley will cease to frustrate and vex; someday it will have been read as thoroughly as Egyptian and Western Asian scripts. Then perhaps we will learn that Nania did indeed travel west from the east. Then we shall also know the name of her brother, the god of bubbling springs and flowing water. Meanwhile, even as scholars ponder over ancient texts, Hindus and Muslims, each according to their own faith, can together seek the benediction of the Invisible Saint – as ancient as Nania but one whose name is yet unknowable.

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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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