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Unique tales from Shandur Pass

Fateh Ul Mulk Ali Nasir

The Shandur Pass is the junction of the Khowar speaking world. On one side lies Chitral, the heartland of the Kho people and on the other Ghizer, the population of which is not ethnically Kho but started speaking Khowar due to the political and cultural influence of Chitral.

Today Khowar is the single largest language in Ghizer with only the Puniyal Tehsil being primarily Shina speaking. Due to the aforementioned political and cultural influence the Shandur route was well plied by travelers throughout the year.

From spring and summer, when it is a green wonderland of wildflowers, to autumn with its parched landscape and cold winds and even during the dead of winter, when it is a frozen waste indistinguishable from Antarctica. Thus even before the modern road and vehicular traffic existed there was constant passage, on foot and with laden pack animals. The Shandur is a vast plateau and in the empty silence things have been encountered which are macabre beyond description; the following are three tales, two from Chitrali folklore and one a more recent, and supposedly true, story from Ghizer.

The first story concerns Moghol Baz Khan, the mythical monster hunter of Chitrali legend. Moghol Baz was known for roaming across Chitral and confronting monsters and demons but this story takes place across the Shandur in Langar, the area just beyond the Shandur watershed where a stream descending from Kohkush Lake forms the headwaters of the Gilgit River. In the past it had vast forests of stunted willow and birch trees and small huts were present where travelers could take shelter from the elements.

As evening approached Moghol Baz stopped at one of these huts and settled in for the night. He sensed that there was something strange about the forest around him, almost as if it were alive and observing him. During the night he made a fire and stayed outside the hut. He had not entered the dwelling and wanted to observe it the next morning in daylight. Thus the night passed and when the sun was bright in the sky he went in and found that the hut was littered with human bones. That night he decided that he would not light a fire and wait inside in the dark hut to confront whatever was responsible for this evil. His eyes had adjusted to the darkness and as the midnight hour approached a strange being entered the hut. It was a creature made of wood and bark, in essence a living tree! The tree-being lashed forth one of its root like appendages to strangle Moghol Baz, but he dodged to a side and jumped upon the timber monstrosity and made short work of it with his battle axe. Then, with a fresh supply of firewood, Moghol Baz lit a fire and passed the night in its warmth.

Kohkush Lake–photo internet

The next folk hero, unlike the mythical Moghol Baz, was an actual historical figure who played a key role in the history of Chitral. Chirmaan Hakim of Reshun was a warrior, courtier and diplomat hailing from the Singhaye tribe. Chirmaan was an important figure after the appointment of Sardar Nizam-ul-Mulk as Governor of Yasin and later Mehtar, following the Katoor conquest of Ghizer.  Chirmaan would often cross the Shandur conveying messages between Chitral Town and Yasin, both on behalf the Mehtar and the British political officers. Just beyond the second, smaller lake on the Shandur Pass, where the descent to Langar begins, there is a large pasture where the people of Laspur  graze their yaks and sheep during the summer.

At this grazing ground are also present plenty of donkeys, who are left there by their owners to enjoy themselves and get fat on the fresh mountain grass before returning to their torturous lives of hard labor. During one of his Shandur crossings Chirmaan had put up a tent in that grazing ground and was staying the night. In the darkness he was awoken from his slumber by the sounds of animals calling out in distress while being attacked by a predator. He and his camp attendants did not go out of the tent that night but in the morning saw that half consumed sheep and donkey carcasses were lying strewn about the pasture. They thought it to be the work of a wolf, lynx or a striped hyena and decided to go to bed armed that night so if such an incident were to occur again they would be ready to dispatch the livestock thief! When the sounds of distressed animals once more broke out across the still alpine night Chirmaan ran out of his tent with his sword at the ready, it was a dark moonless night, but he could make out the outline of something standing upright, thinking it to be a bear Chirmaan brought it down with his sword but to his surprise when he attacked, the creature let out a braying sound like that of a donkey! When the dawn broke he was able to clearly observe the strange creature that had been mauling the livestock. It was an anthropomorphic donkey. Thus a new creature was added to the menagerie of Khowar mythical beasts, the Gordogh-Jhandaar, or donkey monster!

Laspur village

Shandur is a mystical place, In Khowar folklore the high mountains are home to fairies. These fairies can be both benign and evil. As Islam took hold these ancient mountain spirits were reclassified as belonging to the race of beings created from fire referred to in the Holy Quran as the Jinn. The world of the jinn and that of humans has a veil between them and it can very rarely be crossed. Usually it is the jinn that make themselves apparent in the human realm but in the following story the opposite happened.

This story was told to me by my dear uncle, Raja Jalal-ud-Din of Yasin. It is apparently a real incident and occurred sometime after the formation of Pakistan. A man from Ghizer was crossing the Shandur in autumn and just as he was descending to the Ghizer Valley it started to snow heavily. Knowing that getting caught up in a snowstorm can be lethal he decided to speed up his descent and was soon down to Langar and at an elevation where the snow was replaced by a steady cold rain. As he crossed Langar but before reaching the first settlement, Barsat, he saw a small hamlet on the opposite bank of the stream. As he was already soaked he decided to ford the shallow water and seek refuge in that village. Try as he might he could not recall a village being in that location, but he surmised that this was probably due to the fact that it was a temporary grazing community which was obscured from view by dense foliage during the summer months.

As he entered the village he saw plenty of people walking around, they were local people and were speaking in Khowar but oddly none of them seemed to hear or see him until a small child saw him and screamed. As the toddler collapsed his father picked him up and took him into his hut. The traveler followed them inside. Soon a religious leader of some sort came  and observed the child and said a few holy verses. The traveler was still invisible to them when the distraught father asked the preacher what had happened to his son, his reply shocked the traveler, “your son has been exposed to the shadow of a human!” Hearing this the traveler sped out in utter horror and after fording the stream he ran as fast as he could until he reached Barsat.

The Shandur and its surroundings are beautiful places, but behind this beauty lies a realm of myth, mystery and horror! In the Khowar tradition one must make offerings to the spirits when entering such places. This is supposed to protect one from the non-human entities who call the high and pristine places home. Now the Shandur is a major thoroughfare, with chai hotels and military checkposts lying adjacent to the famous polo ground, but just beyond this little settlement one can still sense the mystical atmosphere and if alone the hair on the nape of one’s neck can stand on end for no apparent reason. Perhaps the old beings have not been chased away by modernity after all!


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