Chitral is a land where history lives on. People talk of calamities and misfortune from centuries ago as if it were a great personal loss. This is also why it is one of the few places left where the old tales are still told.
At the end of March 2020, things were dreary. I had been in Chitral since the middle of the month before the nationwide lockdown measures were instituted due to the current pandemic. Given Chitral’s remote and isolated situation with limited healthcare facilities, the District Administration, rightly so, decided that anyone entering the valley would have to undergo enforced quarantine for two weeks. Every hostel, school, college and hotel, including the higher end establishments mostly owned by my family, were taken over as quarantine facilities. The people and political leadership became agitated when despite a semi-curfew being in place a famous cricketer was allowed to hold a rally while distributing relief items where hundreds of people came into close contact during the distribution stage. This was all before a single positive case of COVID-19 was diagnosed in Chitral.
Things were bleak indeed and after a few weeks of relative warmth and the beginning of spring in the early part of March the clouds gathered and it started to rain again. On a cold, rainy afternoon Rustam Laal (a Khowar title of nobility) came to see me with a freshly baked loaf of pushur-tikki (meat pie). Rustam is a colourful fellow, a politician, socialite and a wonderful story teller. He started off by saying that the End of Days was near and now that everyone had the Eye of the Dajjal (smart phones) in their pocket the real Dajjal was about to appear. To this another of my merry men Jalal replied saying that if the Dajjal were to come to Chitral then Rustam Laal would be his guide! After an ensuing round of laughter I asked Rustam about his views on the pandemic and he replied that in his childhood the elderly would tell tales of the Lot Chrek, or great disease (the 1918-19 Influenza pandemic) and how so many people died that in some villages there weren’t enough survivors left to bury the dead.
As twilight approached, the rain became heavier and the temperature dropped. I asked Rustam to tell us some tales of Moghol Baz Khan, the famous monster hunting hero of Khowar folklore.
One hot day in July, Moghol Baz rode up to a solitary house somewhere near Booni in Upper Chitral. He tied up his horse beneath a large walnut tree and as he had been riding all night and through the morning, he decided to take a nap in the shade. When he woke up, he called to one of the village children to summon an adult. A distraught and emaciated man then came to see him. Upon hearing that the visitor was the famous Moghol Baz Khan, he collapsed at his feet and begged him to deliver them from a great evil. Moghol Baz asked what was troubling him and he recounted a gruesome tale.
For the past year a demonic being resembling a rotten corpse, taller than the tallest chinar trees, had been frequenting the village. This monster would prey upon the innocent far and wide, sucking the life force from them and every full moon the beast would come to the village and force the man and his brother to dispose of the dried up cadavers which he had accumulated over the month. If they did not comply, they too would face the same fate.
That night was the night of the full moon so the monstrosity would be appearing soon after the sun went down. Moghol Baz lived for such adventures and told the man to take him where the creature would show up and assured him he would rid them of this abomination. He hid in the bushes and waited for the moon to rise. Sure enough: when the lunar light was at its brightest the beast appeared. Upon seeing it the two brothers started trembling with fear as the beast piled up a pyramid of bodies, the poor hapless souls whom he had consumed over the month. He then called to each of them telling one brother to take the bodies to one gol (stream/side valley) and the other to another adjacent gol. It was at that point that Moghol Baz jumped out of the bushes and confronted the beast. His sword flashed in the bright moonlight and the glare was such that the beast was blinded. He then jumped upon the hideous demon and hacked it to bits. The brothers, finally delivered from that great evil happily took Moghol Baz back to the village and had a feast in his honour.
There are many stories connected with Moghol Baz but the following one is unique as it is more of an analysis of the human psyche than a story of good versus evil.
One cold snowy winter’s night, Moghol Baz was riding in the Kuh Valley, just North of Chitral Town. As the snow was falling steadily and heavily visibility was limited but he saw a light in the distance. Upon arriving closer he saw that a torch of pinewood was lit in the middle of a graveyard. He dismounted and went into the cemetery to see what was happening. The sight that awaited him shocked him. In a disturbed grave, a woman was sitting upon the abdomen of a freshly buried corpse and was cutting away at its chest to remove the heart. He shouted out to the woman to cease the evil act and she did so. When he confronted her and asked her why she was taking part in such an abomination, she answered that a sorcerer had told her bring her a fresh heart in order that he may perform a ritual. When Moghol Baz angrily exclaimed that what she was doing was the worst of all evils, she said that she had no choice. She was an orphan with no family or property and her husband was planning on taking another wife, so she was left with no choice but to turn to sorcery to keep him from divorcing her and marrying another woman and leaving her destitute.
The story ends there but, later, one day while Moghol Baz was attending the Durbar of the Mehtar and the ruler asked him the following question, “In all of your adventures, when have you felt the most fear?”, his reply was: “In that cold, snowy graveyard when the woman told me why she had committed such a gruesome act, I saw how the human condition and helplessness in the face of societal adversity can turn human beings into ghouls. That was the one time I felt true fear.”
By then the rain was pouring down furiously and as the Maghrib Azaan was being called I got up to go inside to my living quarters and Rustam and Jalal left for their homes.
The uncertain and disturbing situation the world is in today is far scarier than monster tales of old. Our current day Moghol Baz’s are the doctors, scientists and other essential workers battling this pandemic. Lets hope that they too can defeat the Corona Demon soon with the flashing sword of science!
The author is the ceremonial Mehtar of Chitral and can be contacted on Twitter: @FatehMulk