TRAVEL: PIR CHHATAL’S MYSTICAL FISH

18 Oct 2020

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The remote and idyllic spot in Balochistan named after a saint, complete with spring water and ‘magical’ mahashir fish
The remote and idyllic spot in Balochistan named after a saint, complete with spring water and ‘magical’ mahashir fish

The Moola River of Balochistan is the only one in the 400 kilometre-long Kirthar Mountains that cuts clear across the range from the west to the east. Rising in the Central Brahui hills just southeast of Kalat, it flows in a southerly direction, irrigating the wide valley known after it as Moola. Halfway down its course, the river swings north and widens until it shears the rocky Kirthar barrier to reach Gandava.

The point where it enters the lowlands is evocatively known as Naulung — Nine Fords. Interestingly, among the highland Baloch, it is also known as Punjmunh — Five Mouths. Both titles signify the width of the river as it debouches from the rocky confines of the hills. For several thousand years, this was the most convenient passage between the Indus Valley and the Kalat uplands, the only one that could take ox-drawn wheeled transport with ease.

In the year 325 BCE, having revamped the defences of the fort of Pattala (Hyderabad), Alexander retired 10,000 veterans and packed them back to Macedonia and Greece, under the ageing general Krateros. Already loaded with substantial treasures from their Indian campaign, and now further weighed down with generous gratuities, they happily marched along the eastern wall of the Kirthars and up through the Moola gorge en route to Persia.

Just five kilometres north of where the Europeans trekked into the Moola gorge, there was a right lovely little sylvan spot which they missed. It is not known how it was called in those long ago days. But in 1831, a very remarkable deserter of the British East India Company army passed this way in the reverse direction. Coming from Kalat, he was headed for Jhal Magsi, to meet with Nawab Ahmad Khan, chief of the Magsi tribe. James Lewis, travelling under the assumed name of Charles Masson and pretending to be an American, noticed something. “About a mile north of us was a conspicuous gumbaz, or domed building, the ziarat of Pir Chatta [sic], which is the usual halting-place for parties crossing the [mountains] between Kalat and Kachi [sic].”

Masson was in a hurry to reach Jhal Magsi and did not pause to explore the shrine or ask of its story. Nor did he check out the copious and clear spring of water bursting out of a rock outcrop to fill a circular pond. Back in 2003, on my first trip to this remote corner of Balochistan, I had found the pond teeming with mahashir fish, nearly 60 cm long. They were so tame, they came and milled around where I stood.

An idyllic small pond near Jhal Magsi teems with fish, preserved through fantastic folklore. But now it’s been discovered by tourists

The keeper of the shrine said they were habituated to humans because visitors fed them. He also said that, since the fish were the saint’s pets, no one ever ate them. He added that if caught, cooked and feasted upon, the fish emerged from the sphincter the next day, alive and flopping. On a recent visit, the keeper Mithal swore an angrez had eaten the fish and suffered that most embarrassing occurrence the morning after.

I asked him where the saint had come from and he raised a finger heavenward. “Only Allah knows!” All he could say was that Chhatal Shah Noorani was a granter of wishes. Hindus and Muslims alike came here and their hearts’ desires were fulfilled. The yarn hasn’t changed since 2003.

What has changed is the scenario. Back then, the place was deserted and blissfully peaceful. This time I found a bunch of fat, paunchy men splashing about in the shallow pool. Naturally, the fish had been terrified away. The men were requested to kindly leave the pool and, within minutes, several mahashir emerged from the narrow cleft of the spring. Most of them had, however, moved lower down the stream, where earlier I had seen only smaller fish.

The pristine pond at Chhatal Shah Noorani | Photos by the writer
The pristine pond at Chhatal Shah Noorani | Photos by the writer

On the earlier visit, I had pestered the elderly keeper, whose name I never asked, about wanting to take a couple of fish for dinner, because I did not believe in the story of them remaining alive in my stomach. After much teasing, the man at last said why would I want to do such an evil deed. Why, if I just looked at the fish, I would surely appreciate how beautiful they look as they cavort in the water. And sure enough, in the dappled light filtering out of the thick overhead trees, the fish glinted in so many different colours.

“If we did not have the story, there would be no fish. People would have eaten the last one of them,” said the man.

Then I realised some very sagacious person had invented the story, making this site the oldest conservation programme in what is now Pakistan. Talking to the men who had been splashing about in the pool, I saw they actually believed the story of the fish coming out alive from the body. I teased them about trying to see if it worked. They refused and said, if I had the courage, I should take one and face the consequence. This miracle was not the saint’s doing, said one of the men. It was the work of God. He did this favour for His chosen person.

I walked up the small knoll to the tomb of Chhatal Shah that Masson had found under a dome. But sometime between the army deserter’s time and ours, the dome had collapsed. In 2003, I had found an ugly, roofless wart of four walls girding the elaborately draped and turbaned grave. The walls, a modern construction, are crude in the extreme, and still there.

Mithal the keeper said he had never heard of a dome. It had always been like this since his grandfather’s time. I suggested the collapse could have been because of a now forgotten earthquake, perhaps the one of the mid-1860s, whose severity and the destruction caused by it were part of Gandava lore until some decades ago. For the sake of discussion, I even mentioned the one that laid Kalat and Quetta low on the last day of May 1935. But if the old building had been lost as recently as that, there would have been some vestige of debris. Mithal shrugged.

I ribbed Mithal about the fish legend, only to see if he too appreciated their beauty. At length, he said they were such a lovely sight in the water. He used the word ‘nazara’ [vision], adding how could anyone imagine eating them. “Visitors feed these beautiful creatures of God and if they are gone what will they feed?”

While nothing had changed in the 17 years between my earlier visit and this, I was disappointed to repeatedly hear the word ‘picnic spot’ with reference to Chhatal Shah. In these years, the place seems to have been discovered by the likes of those I had found in the pool. There are now steps leading down to the water and a tin shed and benches to complete the ‘picnic spot’. The natural outcome of such spots is trash.

In 2003, Chhatal Shah Noorani was pristine. Now all sorts of refuse tarnishes its beauty.

Every time I return to a spot after decades, I am only disappointed. I see historical sites vandalised, natural places corrupted with garbage, and mostly, I find ugly accretions of modern sheds to house ‘pilgrims’. I have never been failed in such disappointment. Sadly, the peaceful and unknown Chhatal Shah Noorani has been discovered, and gone the same way.

The writer is a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society

Published in Dawn, EOS, Octoberr 18th, 2020