Grasses, sere and brown in late September, sway and bend in the stiff cold breeze, their movement frenzied as if trying to escape the chill and only failing. The solitary green is a lone bush that looks like buckthorn but its leaves are all but gone and identification is impossible for a layman. Other than that, the wind-scoured whaleback peak, 2,710 metres above the sea, is strewn with nodules of limestone.
Stretching north-south, Khawaja Amran lies some 25 kilometres due south of Chaman town in Balochistan and has long been a site of pilgrimage. There, they say, a saint of old is buried who answers prayers of childless parents to bequeath upon them progeny to their heart’s desire. In Chaman, about two decades ago, I asked about the provenance of the saint, but the man who said he periodically went up the hill to offer gratitude, because his own children were the saint’s gift, had no idea.
The 1906 gazetteer of Quetta-Pishin preserves the story, however. Having died in 1873, the Tajik saint was more of an alarmist, prophesising unsettling doomsday scenarios: flames bursting out of the newly-constructed Khojak railway tunnel, the pistachio trees of Khojak Pass all being chopped down and Europeans taking over Chaman and other townships to raise their own buildings, possibly cantonments.
Khawaja Amran near Chaman promises fecundity to devotees like many other hilltop shrines through millennia
As always, the morbid prognostications were put into the saint’s mouth posthumously: work on the tunnel began in April 1888, 15 years after the supposed saint had died. However, what we are not told is what this man was doing on this bleak, wind-scoured and waterless peak and how he met his end here.
The gazetteer also records that the shrine and the two huts for pilgrims were built on the orders of local leaders. The shrine, by the gazetteer’s description ‘consists of an enclosure surrounded by a wall of loose stones and containing a grave covered over with stones, 18 yards long by 10 yards wide; the sepulchre is ornamented with several large poles to which are tied some pieces of cloth.’ The item that grabbed my attention was that ‘fecundity was [the saint’s] peculiar attribute.’
I have seen hilltop shrines from Musa ka Musalla (4,080 metres, Western Himalaya, Kaghan) to Sikaram (4,755 metres, Safed Koh, Parachinar), Preghal (3,515 metres, Suleman Range, South Waziristan) and Takht-i-Suleman (3,450 metres, Suleman Range, South Waziristan) and have found a common thread: worship at these shrines promises fertility in humans and their herds.
Indeed, on Musa ka Musalla in 1994, I ran into a pair of Gujjars leading a beautiful, well-fed buffalo up the steep slope. The animal was on its way to say salaam to the saint buried on the snow-draped peak. The men told me such obeisance kept animals productive both in milk and in young. On Preghal in 2003, a man with four little daughters had brought his family up for an overnight session of worship at the holy place (no saint was buried there, but the site was hallowed for Prophet Ishmael who was believed to have visited it). His heart’s desire was a son. Similar stories are told about Sikaram and Takht-i-Suleman.
Like the shrine of Chanan Pir in Cholistan Desert, all these too were thousands of years-old shrines where Dharti Ma, the primordial Earth Goddess was worshipped. Her primary attribute was bestowal of fertility just as she renewed herself every spring. By ancient law, her shrine was never to have a dome, but be open to the blue welkin above. There would once have been altars (as shown by the remains of the chilghoza pine-shaded one below the crest of Takht-i-Suleman), but when Dharti Ma was converted to Islam, she received other male names. Even though her worship continued as before, the faithful never raised cenotaphs to mark her sanctum. Instead, they created myths to explain the absence of the dome.
Several years ago I had been told the trek to the peak of Khawaja Amran was too long to make an in-and-out journey in a single day. One had to stay overnight on the peak. My friends organising the trip, being avid meat-eaters, had threatened to take two fat-tailed sheep for a carnivorous orgy on top, the mere thought of which made the vegetarian in me balk. But when my friend Aziz Jamali, the inveterate explorer of unfrequented Balochistan, said he knew how we could drive to the base of the hill for a short walk up, we resolved to travel together.
We left Quetta in pre-dawn darkness, drove through the Khojak Pass. In Chaman town, having picked up Mohammad Akram of the levies to be our guide, we drove south-west and then, as we approached it, swung around to the east of the Khawaja Amran massif. It was a good blacktop road all the way to the militia post by Lajwari Killi. Thence another few kilometres cross country. Aziz parked his jeep by a dry streambed. Nearby, under a wild pistachio tree sat a family of three next to a beat-up, old pick-up truck.
Stretching north-south, Khawaja Amran lies some 25 kilometres due south of Chaman town in Balochistan and has long been a site of pilgrimage. There, they say, a saint of old is buried who answers prayers of childless parents to bequeath upon them progeny to their heart’s desire.
The climb was up the dry, scrub-covered flanks of the hill. Aziz’s young pre-teen son Shahzain marched merrily along with the rest of us. It was only later as we relaxed on the peak that Aziz told me he was thalassemic. They boy certainly is made of admirable stuff: the climb took an hour and a half and for someone suffering from this blood disorder, it must have been hard going. But Shahzain bravely soldiered on. Only near the top did he begin to flag and had to be coaxed on by his father. But he made the top under his own steam.
The barely beaten path went up a rocky slope whose lower part had a few vestiges of green. As we went, the vegetation turned more and more brown. It was apparent that there had been no rain in the recent past for the furrows scratched across the contours by eons of water washing down them were utterly desiccated. The only tree I saw on the hike was a solitary pistachio bravely waving in the wind on the ridge extending southward from the crest.
The summit had two huts for pilgrims that stood at its southern extremity. Both were swept clean; one even had a synthetic fibre matting covering its dusty floor. But if the huts were well-kept, the western slope just below them was liberally strewn with discarded plastic bottles, cardboard packing and a huge mess of mutton bones all bleached by the harsh sun.
Other than us, there were no pilgrims on Khawaja Amran save a young twenty-ish bearded Pakhtun man who, as he hurried between the huts and the walled-in burial complex, said he had come from Quetta. The family we had passed waiting under the pistachio tree was his and he had come up to investigate if it would be worth their while to undertake the slog. I asked if he was going back to get them. “There’s nothing here for them to see,” he replied with unconcealed disgust. Most folks came up to offer prayers for children so I asked him if he had a similar desire. He laughed and said he wasn’t even married and he had come here with his brother’s family for a picnic. He had no idea who Khawaja Amran was. Done with his frenetic inspection, the man fled down the hill.
The name is interesting, however. According to the Bible, Amram (and not Amran or Imran) was the father of Moses and Aaron. Long years ago, when I first came to know of this hill and when I did not have reason to quarrel with the myth of a Jewish origin for the Pakhtuns, I thought this would be substantive proof of it. But men much better than me, who knew way more than I can ever imagine knowing, have given the lie to that assertion. What I found surprising was that, despite having lived a century and a half before our time, nothing was known of Khawaja Amran.
The stone-walled burial compound lies just north of the two pilgrims’ huts. Nothing has changed since the time the gazetteer writer wrote about it. The poles with their tattered flags were still there. But what the earlier writer had not commented upon was the bell tied to one of the poles — the essential fitting on subcontinental temples that goes back several millennia. I have seen such bells at other Dharti Ma shrines and even at ordinary temples that have at some time past been converted to Islam.
Northward there was another walled compound and a smaller grave. Next to this were foundations of rooms. At the highest point of the whaleback was the surveyor’s benchmark topped by a flagpole and tattered pennant.
On other Dharti Ma shrines (duly converted to Islam) where folks go to pray for sons, they haul black goats to be sacrificed. I can imagine the processions of thousands of years ago, when they also bore bulging wineskins and preparations of marijuana. Every spring, when the Mother Earth rejuvenated herself with new verdure, worshippers would have gone to her shrines on hilltops and by riversides to placate her with sacrifice, libation and song. This, the cult of Earth as the Mother, was as ancient as the first brick ever laid in the earliest cities of the Indus Valley.
It was ingrained upon our collective soul. We, who lived by the waters of the Maha Sapta Sindhu, were hardwired to never forsake her who gave us offspring, brought forth verdure to fatten our herds, gave fruit to the furrows of our plough and made our livestock plentiful. The Aryans who travelled with their felt tents came not to destroy our well-ordered cities but to hold them in awe. They even worshipped the same gods that we had worshipped for thousands of years. As they modelled Lord Shiva on a Mohenjo Daro deity, so too were they taken by the idea of the Earth Goddess who rejuvenated herself annually so that humans may benefit from her bounty.
When we converted, we nevertheless remained tied to the belief in the oldest deity we had known in this land. But we gave her new names. She became Chanan Pir in Cholistan, Musa on the Kaghan peak, the fictitious Pakhtun progenitor Qasi Abdur Rashid on Takht-i-Suleman and the prophet Ishmael on Preghal. The practice of propitiating Dharti Ma with sacrifice too continued as I had witnessed on Preghal in 2003. Only here, on Khawaja Amran, it was more a picnic; the supplication for children was merely a side attraction.
As we began the backward trek, my mind rang with words: ‘Dharti Ma is dead. Long live Dharti Ma!’
The writer is Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 6th, 2019