MYTHOLOGIES OF PAKISTAN

Pakistani folklore (Urdu: پاکستانی لوک ورثہ) encompasses the mythology, poetry, songs, dances and puppetry from Pakistan’s various ethnic groups.

Monsters and Spirits of Khowar Folklore

Khowar folklore, though, is far older and can be traced back to ancient Iranic, proto-Vedic, indigenous and even Chinese sources. Tales of spooks and sprites abound, from the famous paris (fairies) who inhabit the high peaks, to the ghastly chattiboi who leads flash floods and avalanches with his horrible cries, to the dreaded chumur deki (iron-legged one) who roams about in snowy winter nights. These are just a handful of the spirits who are prominent in Khowar folklore. There are many others, both malevolent and auspicious. Reverence for the naanginifemale entities who protect the home and hearth, was almost a religious practice in the old days and a remnant of the ancient folk religion. Such stories can also be justified as part of the Islamic belief in the existence of the jinns and will probably survive in some form or the other but the tales of mythical beasts – monsters for want of a better term – is something that is almost lost.

The region forming modern Pakistan was home to the ancient Indus Valley Civilization and then, successively, recipient of ancient Vedic, Persian, Indo-Greek and Islamic cultures. The area has witnessed invasions and/or settlement by the Aryans, Persians, Greeks, Arabs, Turks, Afghans, Mongols and the British. Pakistani folklore contains elements of all of these cultures. The themes, characters, heroes and villains of regional folklore are often a reflection of local religious traditions, and folklore serves as both entertainment and a vehicle for transmission of moral and religious concepts and values. Some folklore performances are integral to religious rites and festivals.

Pari, deo, and jinn: A look at Pakistan’s Northern folklore

The story of Saif-ul-Malook that is famous for you comes from the Prince Saif. He was the son of a king. He had a dream where he saw this place, a lake, and a pari, whose name was Badi-ud-Jamal. Before our time, before humans found this valley, this was the place of many jinn and pari. When Saif woke up, he told his father his dream. The king said, “You will find the pari, but it will be a difficult journey.” The prince left his house and was wandering for a year, but could not find any hint of the pari.  After a year, with Allah’s will, he found an elder wali (wise man) in Yusr. The elder told him of a mountain called Malka Parbat (the highest peak in the Kaghan Valley). No one has managed to summit this mountain, because jinns and paris have their stronghold there. They drop things on climbers and kill them. Helicopters and planes cannot fly over the mountain. When the prince got his information from the elder, two jinn came and transported the prince to a spot on a smaller mountain (in the Kaghan Valley) where a masjid now sits. Between the smaller mountain and Malka Parbat runs a stream, where the water’s path was different from what it is now. There was nothing between the mountains, just the lake here. 

The northern areas of Chitral and Khowar. These parts are surprisingly rich in folkloric creatures and their tales. Due to them being near the Silk Route both the Persians and later on the Chinese influenced the culture of the people. Hindu travelers introduced some concepts of Hinduism and British colonizers introduced a new way of thinking. Although these areas are found in a Muslim majority region, Chitral and Khowar had a Muslim majority for only the past 200 years. Due to a large number of folktales, many Muslim scholars at the time of British colonization proposed that Hazrat Suleiman A.S (King Solomon) sent or imprisoned the more wild and unruly djinn in these parts.

Dragons

Chitral has quite a lot to say about dragons. The dragons found here are somewhat special. They appear to be an amalgamation of both Eastern and Western ones. They share their appearance with that of the Chinese dragons but they are said to be malevolent, a trait more commonly associated with the Western version of the dragons. Some noteworthy Chitrali dragons include:

  • The Azhdaar are the more dominant type of dragons here. They are described as large serpentine beings with the wings of a raptor the mouth of a fish, and the golden mane akin to that of a lion. The Azhdaar could inhale fire and could easily swallow a man if they wanted to. Many warriors and tribesmen speak of their encounter with them. There isn’t much we know about them apart from them hoarding treasure and ferociously guarding it. Old warriors often regale people as to how to slay the Azhdaar. You need to hold your blade above your head, the tip with one hand and the hilt with the other. When the beast dives in to eat you head-first, your sword would pierce the soft insides of its mouth, killing it. The word Azhdaar share some similarities with the Urdu word for python Azgar (ازگر) and the Persian word for dragon Azdaha (اژدها). Further south Azhdaar is also used by the Pashtun to refer to the rock python.
  • The Nihang is somewhat of an aquatic dragon, said to live in lakes and other bodies of water. Nihang seems to be derived from the Persian word for crocodiles, Nahang. Their appearance is quite similar to that of the aforementioned Azhdaar, albeit more scaly and fish-like. Unlike the Azhdaar which were at times considered to be a symbol of novelty and power, the Nihang was always portrayed as a malevolent being. It loved terrorizing humans. A tale goes that a powerful Nihang used to live in one of Chitral’s largest and most beautiful lakes. It demanded human sacrifice as tribute. Tired of its frequent and untimely antics an ancient warrior slew it with a double-blind sword. Other creatures of fame in Chitrali Mythology are the lake-dwelling dragons, known as Nihang, the name being derived from the Persian word nahang for crocodiles but classically used for various sea creatures. Perhaps a better term for these creatures would be winged serpents, also found in many parts of mainland Pakistan. These gigantic scaly creatures were known for their golden manes, and one of them inhabited a lake in Chitral where it terrorized the local populace, but its reign of terror ended when one day an ancient warrior stood up against it using a double-hilted sword. Other creatures of fame in Chitrali Mythology are the lake-dwelling dragons, known as Nihang, the name being derived from the Persian word nahang for crocodiles but classically used for various sea creatures. Perhaps a better term for these creatures would be winged serpents, also found in many parts of mainland Pakistan. These gigantic scaly creatures were known for their golden manes, and one of them inhabited a lake in Chitral where it terrorized the local populace, but its reign of terror ended when one day an ancient warrior stood up against it using a double-hilted sword.

Giants

Chitral has an uncanny obsession with giants. Out of the huge number of such enormous bipedal monsters four are known as The Principal Giants. These are beings of phenomenal power and might, that appear as antagonizing individuals. Many agree that they are individuals but some claim that they are more of a race. The four of them are:

  • The Deo can simply be described as a fire giant mashed with a Will-o’-the-wisp. It prefers caves and dark forests. The Deo is the only Principal Giant that helps humans here and there, often appearing near villages. It is portrayed as a being with a mischievous personality and a habit of spooking humans. It does this by turning into a glowing orb of fire, akin to a Will-o’-the-wisp. With the help of this trick, it evades warriors and escapes human sight. Deo’s are demonic creatures and one of the four principal giants of Chitral which inhabit desolate regions such as caves and dwell in the extreme wilderness. Contrary to other giants of Chitrali mythology, the deo often makes appearances amongst humans with a peculiar ability to convert into glowing orbs of fire which can be often seen in the paths of travelers. They appear in front of travelers but do not allow for the travelers to approach them because they quickly vanish. Their appearance and actions both make them appear to be closely linked to the will-o’-the-wisps of European medieval folklore, but the shape-shifting property seems intrinsic to the western Himalayas.
  • The Nang is more of an aquatic Cyclops than a giant. Its name is a corruption of the above-mentioned Nahang as wellThe Nang lives in underwater habitats beneath lakes. It is referred to as a Cyclops due to the one large central eye on its forehead. It frequently hordes treasure and often terrorizes princes and princesses. The Nang is one of the few principal giants of Chitrali mythology who are known for their underwater habitat beneath lakes and their one central eye, giving them the appearance of a cyclops. Indeed, the name itself seems to be a corruption of the above-mentioned term ‘nihang‘ for sea creatures, and in a classic way of giant tales, the Nang owns a large quantity of underwater treasure and often terrorizes princes and princesses in its palace. The association of lakes, giants, and princes seems to be another intrinsic quality of the northern mountain ranges of Pakistan where just south of Chitral lies Lake Saif Ul Malook, named after the protagonist of a tale involving a giant and a prince.
  • The Barzangi is the most mysterious and malevolent of the group and it is equated to a demon. It arrives to feast on humans during periods of extreme rainfall and hailstorms. Its name seems to be derived from the Persian words Barez (high or distinctive) and Zangi (Dark). Hence, its name quite literally means Dark Giant. It lives in desolate and remote areas and is said to be quite light on its feet. So much so that it could devour a man with such ferocity that not even in a drop would fall to the ground before it moves in on its human prey. According to wise old warriors, the only way to slay the giant is by decapitation. This is quite unlikely as the Barzangi can regenerate its head seven times before dying in a hydra-like fashion.
Depiction of the Barmanu
  • The Barmanu is the Chitrali version of the yeti, bigfoot, and other such giants. It is the most popular of the group and is described as a large bipedal ape. It attacks livestock and attempts to abduct women at times. The Barmanu is depicted as wearing animal hide on its head and back. Its name is derived from the Sanskrit word Ban-manus (Man of the forest). While it is well-known there aren’t many tales that center around it. Some people claim to have seen it near Ghizer in Gilgit Baltistan. The demon giant Barzangi is a creature of phenomenal power; it was said to arrive with extreme rainfall and hailstorms. The etymology of its name is difficult to decipher, however, it probably stems from the Persian words ‘barez‘, meaning ‘high’ or ‘distinctive’, and ‘zangi‘, meaning ‘dark’, translating to ‘Dark Giant’. It inhabits caves and desolate areas and feasts on other living creatures; it is said to devour a man with such ferocity that not even a drop would fall to the ground before it moves in on its human prey. There are tales of local folk heroes fighting the Barzangi which provide only one absolute way of defeating the giant: decapitation. However, the Barzangi in a very hydra-like manner retains the ability to regenerate its head seven times. The Barmanu is the most famous giant in Chitral. It is the indigenous version of the Himalayan yeti.

Beasts, Demons, and Birds

Apart from dragons and giants, Chitral is home to a wide range of other creatures. From guardian spirits to menacing hounds, this place has got everything. Some peculiar and notorious creatures will be discussed here:

Halmasti

Halmasti is a demonic hound that occupies a position of sheer notoriety in Chitrali mythology and is associated with the heavens, as evident by its name, halmasti meaning ‘thunder’. It resembles a large wolf in appearance and has a coat of dark red fur with long appendages and a large muzzle, and it mostly appears in places where either a child is born or a corpse is washed before burial. Neither place should be abandoned for seven days and nights; rounds of recitation of the Quran were conducted around corpses and lullabies were sung to newborns. People were more cautious around newborns since the Halmasti could physically harm them and that is why babies were not abandoned for a moment, but if an extreme need arose, a weapon of iron would be placed under the newborn’s pillow for protection.

  • The Halmasti is a wolf-like creature that is as large as a horse. It has a coat of dark red fur coupled with long appendages and a large muzzle. Fires spew out of its mouth and seeing one is always considered to be a bad omen. According to many people who claim to have witnessed a Halmasti the creature is nocturnal and only appears on certain occasions. Such occasions may include the birth of a child or the washing of a corpse before the burial. The Halmasti while thought to be demonic is also synonymous with Heaven. Its name means thunder which supports its connection to Heaven. People would recite verses from the Holy Qur’an, to keep the beast at bay. People were also more cautious around newborns as they feared that the Halmasti could do them harm. This is why babies were not abandoned and if the situation becomes more extreme then an iron weapon would be placed under the baby’s pillow for protection. The Halmasti is also the embodiment of lightning strikes, appearing abruptly and then disappearing.
  • The Quqnoz is the Chitrali version of the Phoenix and the Persian Quqnos. The Quqnoz is a large bird with more than 300 pores in its beak. It can live up to 500 years and when nearing death it ascends a pile of wood, singing a song that ignites the wood. It then burns itself to ashes. During the first rain of spring, the first droplet lays forth a new egg from the ashes of the previous one. The aforementioned Quqnos is quite similar, the major difference being that it has only 100 pores in its beak and lives slightly longer. According to myth, the entirety of Chitral’s music originates from the Quqnoz.
  • The Nangini is a female entity that acts as a household spirit. It protects homes and brings in good fortune. The Nangini also acts as a shepherd of some sort. Hunters before hunting their prey would request the Nangini (Mothers) to be kind enough to lend a cattle from amongst her here for the hunt. This tradition is still carried out today. If a person does not request the Nangini for her favor then the fairy may become mad and in a fit of fury might bring despair and may kill the foolish hunter. Just in the name of retribution. Like all fairies, sprites, and pixies (which are called Peris in Chitral) the Nangini lives on Terich Mir (Tirch Mir) the highest mountain of the Hindu Kush within a golden palace ruled by their king.
  • The Chumur Deki is a horse with legs made up of iron. In short, it is an iron-legged steed. The Chumur Deki is extremely fast and the only way to identify one is through the sound of its iron hooves colliding with the ground. Like the Halmasti it too is considered 5o be a bad omen, bringing despair with it wherever it goes. The people of Chitral always dreaded meeting one along the road and thus took many precautions. Some of which included reading Holy Scriptures. Another mythological creature of Chitrali mythology is a horse with iron legs, which is only identified with the noise of its iron hooves colliding with the ground and is an omen of bad luck, bringing despair to those who see him. The creature seems to be an indigenous product of the ancient Chitrali lifestyle where the caravans and those who took part in transregional trade with Central Asia dreaded a meeting with this demonic creature. It could also very well be the product of the superstitions held by the traders or possibly the fate that befell some of them during such trips.
  • The Khapisi is a demon, resembling a night hag of sorts. It also shares similarities with the Mare/s of European folklore and the Pashtun Khapasa. The Khapisi sits on the chest of a sleeping person, causing nightmares and sleep paralysis. It also inhibits the victim’s ability to breathe and move. It cannot speak and comprehend things and is dead and dumb. In contrast, the Khapasa only lacks fingers.
  • The Feru-Tis is a special pixie that inhabits hearths or Diraang as they are called in the Khowar language. The name Feru-Tis is an amalgamation of the word Feru (ash) and tis the sound produced by the crackling embers of wood. It is mostly harmless but occasionally causes mischief. This may include stealing pieces of food or misplacing objects of importance. It also brings forth good luck. The Feru-Tis prefers hearths of a central position. The Feru-tis is a special type of a fairy, rather a pixie, which inhabits the hearths in Chitrali households. Hearths go by the name of diraang in the Chitrali language (Khowar) and are a site of utmost importance in Chitrali culture due to the climate of the Hindu Kush mountains, and the hearth’s relation to the fairy itself is explained in the fairy’s name since the word ‘feru‘ translates to ‘ash’ and ‘tis‘ is the mere sound produced by crackling embers of wood. The Feru-tis is a harmless fairy that does not indulge in many activities but is credited to be mischievous at times and often steals the small belongings of the family members. 
  • The Jashtan are pixies known for their autumn festival. When people are out doing agricultural work, the Jashtan occupy their house and take care of it. To honor them a festival called Jashtan Dekeik (Assembly of the Jashtans) is held in autumn. During it every part of the house, every nook and cranny is cleaned thoroughly with a thorny stick. After this, the people would announce to the Jashtans that they should move south where the weather is warmer. To help them on their journey people leave baked goods on roadsides and would then watch them at night when the light being emitted from their torches all move in a straight line and then disappear.

Banshee of Shoghort

The banshee also makes an appearance in Chitrali folklore, albeit as a singular entity deep in a valley called Shoghort inside of an old fort. It has been noted in literature spanning more than a century that the fort is inhabited by a banshee whose wails can only be heard before the death of a king. Certain writers have also identified it to be the above-mentioned fairy princess born to a Chitrali ruler 400 years ago, who does this to show her sympathy to her father’s kingdom.

Pakistan Foklore

  • Dastaangoi: A collective, contemporary exploration of Pakistani history and culture.
  • Karachi Beach Stories: A radio project that looks at oral histories and experimental sound to explore the complexities of Karachi’s coastline.
  • The Hidden Djinn: Rabia Chaudry explores the fascinating history, context and world of the djinn in her podcast series.
  • The Karachiwalla: Journalist Farooq Soomro writes about places, people, architecture and stories from Karachi.
  • Sindhi Sangat: A collection of stories from Sindh available in English.
  • Sindhi Adabi Board: A large archive of folk stories available in Sindhi collected by the late Sindhi Scholar, N.A. Baloch.

SINDHI FOLKLORE

Folk stories from Sindh have been passed down for thousands of years, with some of the most famous ones being of the Seven Queens. These stories were shared orally for centuries and spread across the areas of Sindh, Balochistan, Punjab, and Rajasthan. Some of the queens (Moomal, Marvi, Leela, Noori, and Sorath) are included under this section of Sindhi folklore, while Sasui and Sohni are under the category of Balochi and Punjabi folklore, respectively. The provincial boundaries have shifted over centuries, and stories belong to many different areas. Sufi saint and poet Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai collected many oral stories in the 17th century and compiled them in his Shah Jo Risalo. Read more about how these stories are shared through music at Bhittai’s shrine in Bhit Shah.

STORIES FROM KARACHI

Compared to the centuries-long legacies of the stories of the Seven Queens, most stories from Karachi only go back a couple of centuries. Karachi grew from a small fishing village of the Kolachi tribe in the 18th century to a city of 14 million people today. The story of Mai Kolachi is one of the most popular origin story for the city, but other figures such as Moriro and Mokhi have left their mark in Karachi as well.

BALOCHI FOLKLORE

PUNJABI FOLKLORE

FOLKLORE FROM THE NORTH

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