Chitral is a land of mystery and fables. Our remote and inaccessible location and small population may have something to do with this. The fact that Chitral only became a Muslim-majority region fairly recently in its history may also have contributed to the survival of our folklore. In the past two decades or so, the introduction of multimedia and better accessibility has led to a decline in the telling of our ancient tales, thus I find it pertinent to record some of the more interesting creatures that haunted the psyche of our forefathers – before they are also lost to the modern world.
Much of the macabre side of Khowar folklore is in the realm of ghosts and spirits. The long and cold winter nights with their absolute silence lead the mind to stray towards visions of such apparitions. During the days of British India, when Chitral was first exposed to the outside world, Indo-Islamic scholars came up with a theory that Chitral, also known as Kashkar, was where Hazrat Sulaiman (the Prophet Solomon in the West) imprisoned some of the more devious of the Jinns.
Old warriors would tell tales of how you could counter being inhaled by a dragon by holding your sword above your head with the tip of the blade in one hand and the hilt in the other and thus tear the dragon’s fish-like mouth
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 naangini, female 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.
Stories of dragons, azhdaar, were very common in Chitrali folklore. The dragon could be both a sign of strength and nobility as well as a dangerous creature to be feared. The Khowar description of an azhdaar is something in between the Iranic and Chinese depiction of dragons. The Chitrali version was a large, winged serpent with a golden mane like that of a lion. They could both inhale a man and breathe fire. Old warriors would tell tales of how you could counter being inhaled by a dragon by holding your sword above your head with the tip of the blade in one hand and the hilt in the other and thus tear the dragon’s fish-like mouth. Dragons would also often be associated with treasure. As late as the 1980s, people would talk of a dragon who guarded a treasure trove in one of the side valleys just south of Chitral Town.
The Chitrali dragon with its Iranic and Chinese elements is a legend with its origins in tales spread along the Silk Road, which connected the Iranic and Sinitic worlds. In the current era, the azhdaar is a creature mostly unknown to those below the age of forty but further South the name is also used in Pashto for the rock python. Indeed this together with its Hindustani version ajdar may be the ultimate origin of the Persian dragon but the Chinese elements are harder to explain in a zoological context. My personal view is that the legend in Chitral comes from the Northeast and thus the Chinese version was introduced earlier.
Another very curious creature of Khowar mythology is the Halmasti. The exact description of a Halmasti is not agreed upon and it is unclear if it is supposed to be an organic monster or a spirit of some sort. It is usually described as a wolf the size of a horse which carries a flame in its mouth. Encountering one is supposed to be an ill omen. This is one beast whose legend actually grew more popular as modernization reached the valley. As more roads were constructed into the remote side valleys, increasing numbers of jeep drivers would claim to see it running alongside the road during late-night drives, often before experiencing harrowing accidents. In Khowar the word “halmasti” can also be used for destructive lightning strikes – and so perhaps it is the embodiment of sudden chaos emanating out of nowhere. It is only very recently that this creature has become unpopular but older drivers still fear it on long summer night drives.
One cannot write about strange beasts of Khowar folklore without mentioning our most famous cryptid, the barmanu. The barmanu is our local version of the pan-Himalayan yeti. Like the yeti it is described as a large bipedal ape. The name itself comes from the Sanskrit “ban-manus”, meaning “man of the forest”. Surprisingly the barmanu, although perhaps the most well known of these supposed inhabitants of our mountain fastness, is actually a rare character in Chitrali folk tales. Everyone has heard of this beast, but few seem to remember a story about it or having heard of a sighting. I personally believe that this legend is not native to Chitral and is based on the folklore of the surrounding regions, but that does not mean that it is altogether irrelevant to this article. Khowar is also the largest language in the Ghizer District of Gilgit-Baltistan. Ghizer abounds with tales of the barmanu and its depredations upon livestock and attempts to abduct women. Interestingly many sightings were reported up until the 1970s and I have talked to an eyewitness who claims to have seen one. His description is that of a classic yeti but with the added feature that it was wearing an animal hide on its head and back. This creature has been the subject of many scientific studies to ascertain its actual identity but the general conclusion is that most sightings are misidentified bears walking upright as they sometimes do. The animal hide, though, negates the barmanu being a bear and is not consistent with yeti sightings further along the Himalayan rim. Perhaps the yetis of the Hindukush and Hindu-Raj are just more civilized than their Eastern cousins!
The world of Khowar folk legends is a fascinating one. I barely touched upon the various malevolent, benevolent and mischevious spirits that are its most popular aspects, but as I mentioned tales of the jishtaan and pheru-tis are still known in Chitral. The more easily disproven mega-beasts have died out, thus it is only fitting that they must be remembered before these aspects of our culture are permanently lost to the mists of time.