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Chapter 24

Departure from Sistan--Dadi--Not one's idea of a pasture--The
Kuh-i-Kwajah--Its altitude--The "City of roars of
laughter"--Interesting ascent to the summit--A water
reservoir--Family graves--Dead-houses--A grave with thirty-eight
compartments--The Gandun Piran Ziarat--Scrolls and
inscriptions--Priest's house--Modern graves--Skulls and their
characteristics--A smaller Ziarat--The Kuk fort--A bird's-eye
view of Kala-i-Kakaha city--Strange legends about the city--Why
Kala-i-Kakaha is famous.

Owing to the tender care of Major and Mrs. Benn I was, at the beginning of 1902, in a fair condition of strength to undertake the journey of 600 miles on camels across Northern Beluchistan to Quetta. With the help of Major Benn I made up a fresh caravan entirely of running camels, and expected therefore to be able to travel very fast. The camels selected were excellent, and the two Beluch drivers who came with me most faithful, considerate and excellent servants. Sadek also accompanied me.

Everything was made ready to start by January 2nd, but some hitch or other occurred daily, and it was not till January 10th that I was able to take my departure--sorry indeed to say good-bye to my new good friends, Major and Mrs. Benn, to whose charmingly thoughtful care I altogether owed it that I was now able to proceed in good health.

The hour of our departure was fixed for 5 o'clock a.m., but my three cats, suspecting that we were going to move from our comfortable quarters, disappeared during the night, and some hours were wasted by Sadek and all the servants of the Consulate in trying to find them again. I was determined not to start without them. Sadek was furious, the camel men impatient, the guard of Lancers sent by the Consul to accompany me for some distance had been ready on their horses for a long time, and everybody at hand was calling out "Puss, puss, puss!" in the most endearing tones of voice, and searching every possible nook.

After four hours of expressive language in Persian, Hindustani, Beluchi and English, at nine o'clock the cats were eventually discovered. One had hidden under a huge pile of wood, all of which we had to remove to get him out; the second had found a most comfortable sanctum in Mrs. Benn's room, and the third, having ascertained that his companions had been discovered, walked out unconcerned and entered the travelling box of his own accord.

I was sorry to leave Sistan too, with its ancient ruins, its peculiar inhabitants, a mixture of all kinds, its quaint city, so strikingly picturesque especially at sunset, when, owing to the moisture in the air, beautiful warm colours appeared in the sky, and the thousands of camels, and sheep, moving like so many phantoms in clouds of dust, returned to their homes. The sad dingling of their bells sounded musical enough in the distance, and one saw horsemen dashing full gallop towards the city before the gates were closed, every man carrying a gun. Far to the west in the background stood the Kuh-i-Kwajah mountain, so famous in the history of Sistan. All this after the dreary, long Salt Desert journey had seemed heavenly to me, and I was more than sorry to leave the place.

Had I been a Russian instead of an Englishman I would not have continued my journey on the morning of my departure, for on coming out of the Consulate gate the first thing I saw was a dead body being washed and prepared for interment by relatives in the dead-house adjoining the Consulate wall. The Russians believe the sight of a dead body an ill-omen at the beginning of a journey.

Gul Khan, the Consul's assistant, accompanied me as far as the Kuh-i-Kwajah mountain, to inspect which I had to make a detour.

We passed south of Sher-i-Nasrya, and, after wading through numberless water channels and skirting large pools of water, crossed a tiny anonymous village of six domed huts, and then came to a very large one rejoicing in the name of Dadi. My fast camels carrying loads had gone ahead, and we, who had started later on horses, caught them up some sixteen miles onward, where there was a third little village, the inhabitants of which were wild-looking and unkempt. The women and children stampeded at our approach. The houses were flat-topped and were no taller than seven feet, except the house of the head village man which was two-storeyed and had a domed roof.

When the Hamun Halmund extended as far south as Kandak the Kuh-i-Kwajah mountain was an island, but now the whole country around it is dry except some small swamps and pools, on the edges of which thousands of sheep could be seen grazing. It took a very powerful sight indeed to see what the animals were grazing on. One's idea of a pasture--we always picture a pasture for sheep as green--was certainly not fulfilled, and after a minute inspection one saw the poor brutes feeding on tiny stumps of dried grass, yellowish in colour and hardly distinguishable from the sand on which it grew in clusters not more than half an inch high.

Where the Hamun had been its bed was now of a whitish colour from salt deposits.

The Kuh-i-Kwajah (mountain), occasionally also called Kuh-i-Rustam, rising as it does directly from the flat, is most attractive and interesting, more particularly because of its elongated shape and its flat top, which gives it quite a unique appearance. Seen from the east, it stretches for about three miles and a half or even four at its base, is 900 feet high, and about three miles on top of the plateau. The summit, even when the beholder is only half a mile away from it, appears like a flat straight line against the sky-line, a great boulder that stands up higher on the south-west being the only interruption to this uniformity. The black rocky sides of the mountain are very precipitous--in fact, almost perpendicular at the upper portion, but the lower part has accumulations of clay, mud and sand extending in a gentle slope. In fact, roughly speaking, the silhouette of the mountain has the appearance of the section of an inverted soup-plate.

Major Sykes, in the Royal Geographical Society's Journal, describes this mountain as resembling in shape "an apple," but surely if there ever was anything in the world that had no resemblance whatever to "an apple" it was this mountain. It would be curious to know what Major Sykes calls "an apple."

The diagram here appended of the outline of the mountain, and indeed the photograph given by Major Sykes in the Royal Geographical Society's Journal, February, 1902, page 143, will, I think, be sufficient to convince the least observant on this point. Major Sykes is also no less than 500 feet out in his estimate of the height of the hill. The summit is 900 feet above the plain--not 400 feet as stated by him.

The altitude at the base is 2,050 feet, and at the summit 2,950 feet. As we rounded the mountain to the southward to find a place at which we could climb to the top, we saw a very ancient fort perched on the summit of the mountain commanding the ruins of Kala-i-Kakaha, or the "city of roars of laughter,"--a quaint and picturesque city built on the steep slope of the south escarpment of the mountain.

by A. Henry Savage Landor.]

In the centre of this city was a large and high quadrangular wall like a citadel, and it had houses all round it, as can be seen by the bird's-eye view photograph I took of it from the fort above, a view from which high point of vantage will be described at the end of this chapter.

We went along the outer wall of the city on a level with the plain at the hill's base, but we abandoned it as this wall went up the mountain side to the north. Some high columns could be seen, which appeared to have formed part of a high tower. The sides of the hill on which the city was built were very precipitous, but a steep tortuous track existed, leading to the city on the east side, the two gates of the city being situated--one north-east, the other north-west--in the rear of the city, and, as it were, facing the mountain side behind. On the south-west side high accumulations of sand formed an extensive tongue projecting very far out into the plain.

The rocky upper portion of the Kuh-i-Kwajah mountain was black towards the east, but getting yellowish in the southern part, where there were high sand accumulations up to about three-quarters of the height of the mountain, with deep channels cut into them by water.

We came to a narrow gorge which divides the mountain in two, and by which along a very stony path between high vertical rocks the summit of the table mountain could be reached. We left our horses in charge of a lancer and Mahommed Azin, the head village man of Deh-i-Husena--a man who said he was a descendant of the Kayani family, and who professed to know everything about everything,--Gul Khan and I gradually climbed to the higher part of the mountain. I say "gradually" because there was a great deal to interest and puzzle one on the way up.

This path to the summit had been formerly strongly fortified. Shortly after entering the gorge, where we had dismounted, was a strange wall cut in the hard, flint-like rock by a very sharp, pointed instrument. One could still distinctly see the narrow grooves made by it. Then there were curious heads of the same rock with side hollows that looked as if caused by the constant friction or some horizontal wooden or stone implement. I was much puzzled by these and could not come to a definite conclusion of what could have been their use. Even our guide's universal knowledge ran short; he offered no explanation beyond telling me that they had been made by man, which I had long before discovered for myself.

A small reservoir for rain-water was found near this spot, and nearly at the top of the hillock a ditch had been excavated near the easiest point of access, and another ditch could be seen all round. The low land round the mountain has most certainly been inundated at various epochs, forming a shallow, temporary swamp, but not a permanent lake as has been asserted by some, and from what one saw one was tempted to believe that the plain around Kuh-i-Kwajah must have been dryer in the days of its glory than it has been in this century.

On reaching the summit we found ourselves on an undulating plateau covered with graves, but these graves, unlike all others which I had seen in Persia, had not only the characteristic points of the Zaidan ones in which the body was encased in the tomb above the level of the ground, but were in compartments and contained whole families. The first grave we examined was made of huge boulders and was six yards long, four yards wide and had four sections, each occupied by a skeleton and covered over with flat slabs of stone. Each compartment was about 1½ feet high, 2½ feet broad, and 6 feet long. Near this family grave was a quarry of good stone from which stones for grinding wheat, hand-mortars, &c., had been cut. At the foot was a reservoir for rain-water.

One was rather surprised on reaching the summit of Kuh-i-Kwajah to find it so undulating, for on approaching the mountain from the plain one was specially impressed by its straight upper outlines against the sky. The summit is actually concave, like a basin, with numerous hillocks all round, and one portion, judging by sediments left, would appear to have contained a lake. In the centre of the plateau are two extensive artificial camps dug into the earth and rock, and having stone sides. On a hillock to the west of one of these ponds stands a tomb with no less than ten graves side by side.

From this point eastwards, however, is the most interesting portion of this curious plateau. Numerous groups of graves are to be seen at every few yards, and two dead-houses, one with a large dome partly collapsed on the north side, the other still in the most perfect state of preservation. The photograph facing page 240 gives a good idea of them. The larger and more important dead-house had a central hall 4½ yards square, and each side of the square had an outer wing, each with one door and one window above it. Each wing projected three yards from the central hall. To the east in the central hall there was a very greasy stone, that looked as if some oily substance had been deposited on it, possibly something used in preparing the dead. Next to it was a vessel for water.

Outside, all round the walls of this dead-house, and radiating in all directions, were graves, all above ground and as close together as was possible to construct them, while on the hillocks to the south of the dead-houses were hundreds of compartments for the dead, some in perfect condition, others fallen through; some showing evident signs of having been broken through by sacrilegious hands--very likely in search of treasure.

On the top of a hillock higher than the others was a tomb of thirty-eight sections, all occupied. A lot of large stones were heaped on the top of this important spot, and surmounting all and planted firmly in them was a slender upright stone pillar 6½ feet high. It had no inscription upon it nor any sign of any kind, and had been roughly chipped off into an elongated shape. Near this grave, which was the most extensive of its kind that I had observed on the plateau, was a very peculiar ruined house with four rooms, each four yards square, and each room with two doors, and all the rooms communicating. It was badly damaged. Its shape was most unusual.

We then proceeded to the Ziarat, a pilgrimage place famous all over Persia and south-western Afghanistan. I was fortunate enough to take a good photograph of its exterior (see opposite), which will represent its appearance to the reader better than a description. A high rectangular building plastered all over with mud, a front arch or alcove giving access to a small door, and two domed low stone buildings, one on either side, and another ruined building with a wall around it behind the Ziarat. A few yards to the left of the entrance as one looked at it was a coarse upright stone pillar.

The inside of the Ziarat was more interesting than the outside. It was a very large whitewashed single room, with high vaulted ceiling, and in the centre rose from the floor to a height of three feet a gigantic tomb, six yards in length, with a gabled top. It measured one yard and a half across at the head, and one yard at its foot, and had two stone pillars some five feet high standing one at each extremity. To these two end pillars was tied a rope, from which hung numberless rags, strips of cloth and hair. Behind the head of the tomb along the wall stretched a platform four and a half feet wide, on which rested two brass candlesticks of primitive shape, a much-used kalyan, and a great number of rags of all sizes, ages, and degrees of dirt.

The scrolls and inscriptions on the wall were very quaint, primitive representations of animals in couples, male and female, being the most indulged in by the pilgrims. Goats and dogs seemed favourite subjects for portrayal.

A lock of human hair and another of goat's hair hung on the wall to the right of the entrance, and on two sticks laid across, another mass of rags, white, blue, yellow and red. Hundreds more were strewn upon the ground, and the cross bars of the four windows of the Ziarat were also choke-full of these cloth offerings. Among other curious things noticeable on the altar platform were a number of stones scooped into water-vessels.

This Ziarat goes by the name of Gandun Piran, and is said to be some centuries old. In the spring equinox pilgrimages are made to this Ziarat from the neighbouring city and villages, when offerings of wheat are contributed that the donor may be at peace with the gods and expect plentiful crops. These pilgrimages take very much the form of our "day's outing on a Bank Holiday," and sports of various kinds are indulged in by the horsemen. It is the custom of devout people when visiting these Ziarats to place a stone on the tomb, a white one, if obtainable, and we shall find this curious custom extending all over Beluchistan and, I believe, into a great portion of Afghanistan.

Directly in front of the Ziarat was the priests' house, with massive, broad stone walls and nine rooms. The ceilings, fallen through in most rooms, were not semi-spherical as usual but semi-cylindrical, as could still be seen very plainly in the better-preserved one of the central room. This house had a separate building behind for stables and an outer oven for baking bread. The dwelling was secluded by a wall.

The top of Kuh-i-Kwajah is even now a favourite spot for people to be laid to their eternal rest, and near this Ziarat were to be found a great many graves which were quite modern. These modern tombs, more elaborate than the old ones, rose to about five feet above the ground, had a mud and stone perforated balustrade above them all round, and three steps by which the upper part could be reached. They seldom, however, had more than three bodies in each tomb.

We found on the ground a very curious large hollowed stone like a big mortar, which seemed very ancient. Then further were more old graves in rows of five, six, eight, and more. When one peeped into the broken ones, the temptation to take home some of the bleached skulls to add to the collection of one's national museum, and to let scientists speculate on their exact age, was great. But I have a horror of desecrating graves. I took one out--a most beautifully preserved specimen--meaning to overcome my scruples, but after going some distance with it wrapped up in my handkerchief I was seized with remorse, and I had to go and lay it back again in the same spot where it had for centuries lain undisturbed.

I examined several skulls that were in good condition, and the following were their principal characteristics. They possessed abnormally broad cheek-bones, and the forehead was very slanting backwards and was extremely narrow across the temples and broad at its highest portion. The back portion of the skull, in which the animal qualities of the brain are said by phrenologists to reside, was also abnormally developed, when compared to European skulls. The top section (above an imaginary plane intersecting it horizontally above the ear) was well formed, except that in the back part there was a strange deep depression on the right side of the skull, and an abnormal development on the left side. This peculiarity was common to a great many skulls, and was their most marked characteristic. Evidently the brains of the people who owned them must have constantly been working on a particular line which caused this development more than that of other portions of the skull.

The upper jaw was rather contracted and mean as compared to the remaining characteristics of the skull, slanting very far forwards where it ended into quite a small curve in which the front teeth were set. The teeth themselves were extremely powerful and healthy. The bumps behind the ear channels were well marked.

The whole skull, however, as seen from above, was more fully developed on its right side than on the left; also the same abnormal development on the right side could be noticed under the skull at the sides, where it joins the spinal column. In a general way these skulls reminded one of the formation of the skulls of the present Beluch.

Another smaller Ziarat partly ruined was to be found south of the one we had inspected, the tomb itself being of less gigantic proportions, and now almost entirely buried in sand. The two end pillars, however, remained standing upright, the northern one being, nevertheless, broken in half. The door of this Ziarat was to the south of the building, and had a window above it. The walls had a stone foundation, some 2 feet high, above which the remainder of the wall was entirely of mud, with a perforated window to the west. The tomb itself was 8 feet long by 4 feet wide. A small square receptacle was cut in the northern wall.

We had now come to the Kuk fort above the city of Kala-i-Kakaha on the south of the mountain. With the exception of a large round tower, 40 feet in diameter at the base, there remained very little to be seen of this strong-hold. Sections of other minor towers and a wall existed, but all was a confused mass of debris, sand and mud.

From this point a splendid view was obtained of the city of Kala-i-Kakaha just below, of which a photograph from this bird's eye aspect will be found facing p. 246 of this volume. There was an extensive courtyard in the centre enclosed by a high wall, and having a tower in the centre of each of the two sides of the quadrangle. A belt of buildings was enclosed between this high wall and a second wall, which had two towers, one at each angle looking north towards the cliff of the mountain from which we observed. Outside this wall two rows of what, from our high point of vantage, appeared to be graves could be seen, while to the east were other buildings and cliff dwellings extending almost to the bottom of the hill, where a tower marked the limit of the city.

From this point a tortuous track could be seen along the gorge winding its way to the city gate, the only opening in the high third wall, most irregularly built along the precipice of the ravine. At the foot of the mountain this wall turned a sharp corner, and describing roughly a semicircle protected the city also to the west.

At the most north-westerly point there seemed to be the principal gate of the city, with a massive high tower and with a road encased between two high walls leading to it. The semicircle formed by the mountain behind, which was of a most precipitous nature, was enclosed at its mouth by a fourth outer wall, with an inner ditch, making the fortress of Kala-i-Kakaha practically impregnable.

The legend about Kala-i-Kakaha city furnished me by the Sar-tip, through Gul Khan, was very interesting.

In ancient days there was in that city a deep well, the abode of certain godly virgins, to whom people went from far and near for blessings. Visitors used to stand listening near the well, and if their prayers were accepted the virgins laughed heartily, whereby the city gained the name of Kaka-ha (roar of laughter). Silence on the part of the sanctimonious maidens was a sign that the prayers were not granted.

The Sistan historical authorities seem to think this origin of the name plausible. There were, however, other amusing, if less reliable legends, such as the one our friend Mahommed Azin gave me, which is too quaint to be omitted.

"In the time of Alexander the Great," he told us, "Aristotles the famous had produced an animal which he had placed in a fort" (which fort Mahommed Azin seemed rather vague about). "Whoever gazed upon the animal was seized with such convulsions of laughter that he could not stop until he died.

"When Alexander was 'in the West' (i.e. maghreb zemin)" continued Mahommed Azin, "he had seen this wonderful 'animal of laughter' produced by Aristotles, and some seventy or eighty thousand soldiers had actually died of laughter which they could not repress on seeing it. Plato only, who was a wise man, devised a ruse to overcome the terrible effects of looking at the animal. He brought with him a looking-glass which he placed in front of the brute, and, sure enough, the demon, which had caused the hilarious death of many others, in its turn was seized by hysterical laughing at itself, and of course could not stop and died too."

Mahommed Azin was somewhat uncertain whether the animal itself had resided in the fortress of the Kuh-i-Kwajah mountain, or whether the owner of the animal had visited the place, or whether the place had been named merely in honour of the legend of the "animal of laughter." All I can say is that when Mahommed, with a grave face, had finished his inimitable story, Gul Khan and I were also seized with such uncontrollable fits of hilarity that, notwithstanding our mournful surroundings of graves and dead-houses, we, too, very nearly went to swell the number of victims of Mahommed Azin's "animal of laughter," although without the pleasure of having made its personal acquaintance.

Mahommed Azin positively finished us up when he gravely added that it was most dangerous to recount the legend he had told us for he had known people die of laughter by merely listening to it. There was some truth in that. We nearly did, not only at the story but at the story-teller himself!

Kala-i-Kakaha is a famous spot in Persian history, for it is said that the great Persian hero Rustam's first exploit was to capture this city and slay its king Kuk, after whom the fort standing above Kakaha is named. In more modern days Kakaha, which, from ancient times, had been a place of shelter for retreating princes hard driven by the enemy, has become noteworthy for its seven years' resistance to the attacks of Nadir's troops, when the Kayani King Malik-Fath, having abandoned his capital, Kala-i-Fath had taken refuge in the impregnable city of Kala-i-Kakaha.