March 11, 2018


The peak of Chehel Abdal | Photo by the writer
The peak of Chehel Abdal | Photo by the writer

Gods, they say, live on mountaintops. They have Olympus for Greek deities and Kailas for our very own subcontinental ones. But when you roam this great and wonderful land of the subcontinent (even if you have to rely on maps because a border keeps you out of places) you find all sorts of lesser gods shivering in the snowy cold of high mountains.

On Takht-i-Suleman (3,447 metres) and Preghal (3,515 metres) in South Waziristan, I have seen altars where ancient believers of the Earth Goddess (Dharti Ma) would have sacrificed their black goats. So too on Sikaram (4,761 metres) in Parachinar and Musa ka Musalla (4,055 metres) in Kaghan. All have duly been converted to Islam and given proper names. On the Takht, the seven-metre square altar is said to be the grave of Kais Rashid, the supposed original Muslim Pakhtun — whatever ‘original’ might be in this case. Preghal is where Hazrat Ismail allegedly prayed for his progeny to grow. Sikaram is the burial of a fictitious Karam and the Musalla is where Gujjars bring their livestock for salaam so that the animals may bear many more offspring.

The common strain running through all these hilltop shrines is that folks visit them to pray for male children. That was what we of the subcontinent had always asked Dharti Ma to bestow upon us. Surely, two millenniums ago, our ancestors would have undertaken these arduous treks up these hills to seek the favour of their goddess with wineskins and sacrificial lambs. And today they still do the same.

Legend has it that 40 brothers worshipped at the peak of Chehel Abdal near Chakwal. Now it is mostly a spot for picnickers

For nearly three decades I have known of the peak of Chehel Abdal and its shrine outside village Basharat in Chakwal district. I have known that folks go up there to pray for whatever their hearts desire. And they tell me these supplications come true too. They say those who have their wishes granted come back in joyous processions. I always asked if those who are rejected ever return to stone or curse the shrine. But since those who do not find favour never come back, seeking instead more considerate, heedful gods, it is believed that all petitions are granted. And that is how superstition grows.

In all these years I had never taken time out to hike up the hill. But when journalist and friend Nabeel Dhakku told me of his latest visit to Chehel Abdal, I knew I had to take a look for myself.

A 20-minute ride in the pick-up truck from Basharat village brought us to the end of the jeepable trail. The peak of Chehel Abdal was another few minutes by foot. On the top stood an electric pole without any cables. Instead, a frayed and discoloured green flag fluttered on top on a stick. Around it, on two sides, was a clump of stone hovels. The other two sides fell sharply away about 300 metres to patches of cultivation.

The construction was of dressed blocks of limestone, and while two of the larger edifices were raised without mortar, one had plastered blocks. We did not look inside the buildings, but I think they were a sort of hostel for worshippers. At the very apex was a walled-in altar that I took for the burial mound.

Reclining against the base of the steel pole was a shawl-draped man with his face to the west. Near him sat a young man whose scowl showed he was taking time off from some militant camp: he just had that look and on this sunless afternoon shielding himself from the wind with a thin shawl, he was clearly not a happy man. I went around for a gander at the other man’s face. His eyes were closed and his bearded face gave away 40-some years of life as he slowly worked the beads of a rosary.

What grabbed me was the gentleness of the visage. The cruel, ugly twist of the bearded face that we are so accustomed to seeing was taken over by something that only comes from genuine belief and worship, something that hypocrisy can never create. Withdrawing, I said to my friend we had just seen a true Sufi.

I asked the attendant about who was buried under the raised pedestal within the small walled compound. It wasn’t a burial, said the man. It was only a baithak — a place of worship or rest. In Sufi hagiography Abdal is one of the stages to the attainment of the ultimate of being a Wali, or trusted deputy of God. And the Persian word chehel signifies 40.

“These Abdals were brothers, all 40 of them. They spent a long time here in worship,” said the attendant without having been asked.

“Good heavens, 40 brothers! Did their parents have no other business to attend to?” I just could not resist this jibe.

The man smiled a small uncertain smile and said only God knows the answer to that. Other than the story of the 40 brothers having been on this peak for worship, nothing was known of them. But ever since their time, others have come here to get closer to God. The attendant said the man with the rosary and his young companion were from Lahore and the older one was doing a chilla — a 40-day worship. His needs were few, and his daily food was taken care of by visitors who came up for what can only be called a picnic.

It turned out that more picnickers than worshippers came up to Chehel Abdal. Every Thursday, from early morning, there is a regular bazaar of them here, offered the man. They come with goats and chickens to be slaughtered on the peak and cooked. On other days of the week, the festival picks up about mid-afternoon. We were early, he said.

Thanking the man, my friend and I started the descent back to our waiting pick-up. On the way up was a group of men with plastic bags stuffed full of fruit and vegetables. That was that day’s fare for the Sufi and his morose attendant.

The pedestal that marks the spot where the mythical 40 brothers sat in worship is certainly the pre-Islamic altar where sacrifices were offered to Dharti Ma. Where the current hovels stand there would have been similar ones to house believers of that ancient cult. When they collapsed the same blocks were reconstituted over and over into newer structures. Just as I had seen on Preghal in Waziristan, people cooked and feasted on their sacrifice here too.

The chilla and its outcome, whatever that may be, was one thing. For the rest, if one were to believe the attendant, the frequent picnics on this 1,000 metre-high peak were the main attraction.

The writer is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
He tweets @odysseuslahori

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 11th, 2018