Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Rock of all Ages

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The legend in Saddo Mazzo, Sindh that lives on through the ages is that of the sisters Saddo and Mazzo, princesses who ruled from a hilltop castle in the rugged and largely barren hills west of Johi (Dadu district). As their forces prepared to set out to attack a neighbouring settlement, the duo instructed the general to see that the flag was kept flying high for them to spot from their hilltop eyrie. This would tell them the proceedings were going in their favour.

The Dancing Girl of Saddo Mazzo

Any lowering of the standard would indicate the field had been lost. Then, in keeping with true Rajput tradition, the princesses were to fling themselves off the lofty ramparts to death on the rocks below. But as the distant fray unfolded, for one brief moment, the flag was lost from sight in the dust and commotion. For the princesses this was enough sign of defeat. Both Saddo and Mazzo leapt off the castle ramparts and died even as their victorious army turned homeward.

This legend keeps the area of Saddo Mazzo alive in local lore and the minds of those who graze their livestock among the tortuous bends of the Nali Stream as it meanders eastward down the great wall of the Kirthar Mountains. However, we were there not to lament the needless deaths of the princesses. We had other reasons. We know that the people of the Sindhu Valley routinely travelled back and forth between their homes and distant Mesopotamia by this very conduit through the rugged Kirthar Mountains. We were treading on that same ancient highroad to look for the art those far off ancestors had left behind.

My friend Zaman Narejo who had travelled there before was leading us to the little known petroglyphs of Saddo Mazzo. His batchmate Sara Rashid and his friend Mohsin Soomro completed our quartet. Somewhere we picked up a guide whose name I have forgetten and drove on through the river valley the same way as camel caravans had plodded 6,000 years before us. We passed rocks inscribed with esoteric English letters and numbers and, mostly, a downward pointing arrow, all in blue paint. Zaman said these were signs that these rocks would be blown up by some company exploring either for natural gas or oil.

The three of us were dumbstruck. Some of the marked rocks were adorned with ancient carvings!

Left to right: the guide, Mohsin Soomro, Zaman Narejo and Sara Rashid view the public canvas of Malango Jabal

But if Zaman was leading us, our intellectual but absent guide was my friend and anthropologist Zulfiqar Kalhora, the master on rock and funerary art in Sindh. Our first stop was at Saddo Mazzo where some carvings sit precariously on a rock-face marked to be blown up. Here, we found a humped bull with magnificent horns. In his paper Zulfiqar tells us that such a bull with ‘joined legs’ — that is depicting two legs instead of four — dates back to the Neolithic period. For laypersons that would be 6500-4500 BCE.

When Mohenjo-Daro was in its fullest glory, hunters and herders — perhaps with some connection with that great city perhaps not — were walking through these hills taking time off from their chores to create these works of art that would one day be our milestones to the past. Shortly after the end of the great Ice Age, this area would have known far greater precipitation: the Nali stream would have been a powerful torrent and the hills covered with lush green vegetation. In these forests the creators of the rock art fattened their herds and lived off the swamp deer and Sindh ibex whose images I have seen at another site in the Kirthar.

They drew the bull for they may have worshipped this animal and saw the act of rendering it in stone as a prayer to the gods to multiply their livestock. In the emphasis they gave to the genitalia of the animal, I see the epitome of this wish. Likewise, in my mind, the ibex and swamp deer were an entreaty to the god of the hunt to never let their pursuit be in vain.

Next to it was an inscription that I learned from Zulfi was in the Gupta Brahmi script speaking mainly of some gentleman called Gustati, the son of Parindapa. Zulfi’s paper on this particular rock art gallery tells me that both these names are still in use in Sindh, particularly in Tharparkar. The script was added sometime between 320-550 CE.

The decorated Sassanian horse

The most spectacular drawing on this rock is the horse with its flowing mane, lotus decoration on haunch and shoulder and the tiny bell around its neck. None of us could help but notice the superior art of the creation. Zulfi’s paper told us we could date it to the first century (280-380 CE) of Sassanian rule over Sindh. He says similar horses dated to the Sassanian period can also be seen in the reliefs of Persepolis and Naqsh-i-Rustam in Iran.

From the early Middle Ages, we again moved back through the millenniums with another humped bull of larger proportions and joined legs. Between its legs was a smaller bull. But what caught my attention were the horseback riders. There were two of them with what appeared to be a wolf-like predator observing, not pursuing them, from behind.

Bull within bull, stick figures, two horseback riders and wolf-like beast (right)

However, in the words of Zulfi, the masterpiece on this rock is the dancing girl clearly shown in motion “with left hand raised and the right placed on the waist.” The facial features of the girl are clearly depicted and one can also make out the cut of her smock and trousers. The dancing girl’s feet are missing as the rock was sheared off by an earthquake earlier in the current century. My friend Zulfi gives this carving no referential date, but he tells us that dance and music was very much a part of the socio-religious milieu of Sindh.

Our nameless guide moved us on to Bhooranjo-Daro — Mound of Bhooran where the stream is called Huranjo-Dhoro — Stream of the Hurs. I asked him if these were the same Hurs of Pir Pagaro, but he could not answer that with any certainty. The solitary lump of rock was noteworthy for the depiction of the stupa. The middle tier of its multi-tiered drum had an eye-catching curvilinear decoration.

Above the stupa, and a little to its right, is one of the finest bull depictions in this entire complex. The hump, the face and horns, indeed the entire proportions of the animal are perfect. Besides several geometric designs, large arrows and a couple of ibex, two cat-like animals romp on this rock.

The body of the animal trailing is speckled by pecking with a stone to depict a leopard that was plentiful in these hills until about a hundred years ago. The one just ahead of it being of the same proportion seems to also be a leopard, even without spots.

The split rock at Sarvan Dhoro with the lovely stylised stupa, left of the cleft

We drove on a bit and paused at Sarvan Dhoro where another rock split through the middle sits detached from the rest. It is liberally covered with geometric shapes, stupas, ibex, and a very fine bird’s head. On it can also be seen two angular figures that lunatics will tell you are aliens in spacesuits.

Barely a couple of hundred metres away was Malango Jabal with a large rock face. Zulfi had once told me, almost in jest, that this was a canvas for everyone to use through the millenniums — the large rock, about 40 metres wide by some eight metres high, is crowded with dozens of humped bulls, ibex, geometric shapes, humans, horses and an animal that appears to be a hyena.

Here one finds some bulls with joined legs and others showing all four. One of the latter with a fine pair of horns, healthy hump and genitalia clearly showing, surveys its domain high up on a detached knob of rock. This could only have been drawn by standing on a ladder of some sort.

Some artists had clearly been extremely busy in Saddo Mazzo. And this industry was spread over not a few years, but across several millenniums. The last of these artists are Mohammad Khan and Qabil on the rock at Sarvan Dhoro whose names one sees in Persian lettering next to a crude scratching of a modern rifle. The rest is simply pure and untainted history that will more elaborately unravel its secrets.

Zaman Narejo led this expedition in January 2016. That was when we learned that explorers of fossil fuel were preparing to blow some of the carved rocks out of existence. Eighteen months have gone by and I have no idea if the art survives. In another country, a site of such historical significance would have been a protected national monument. In Pakistan, it is just another one of those thousands of pieces of our history that are consigned to oblivion.

Also in Dawn

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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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