George Scott Robertson.

The Káfirs of the Hindu-Kush; online

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experience taught me to be less fastidious about my

On the road w^e had passed a curious memorial gate-
way with fantastic wooden images on the top, at the
mouth of the Kamu Valley, and farther on had been
kindly received by people of the riverside village of
Mergrom — a kind of Kafir city of refuge.


The narrative continued — Kamdesh — Shrines to Gish and M(ini — LVm Malik's
hospitality — Inqnisitiveness of the lower classes — Tlie headmen — Utah
the priest — Chandlu Astan — Their suspicion of me — Subsequent friend-
liness — Their proposals — Volunteers for visit to India — Shermalik —
Eeturu to Chitnil — Raiding band of M;idugal Kafirs — Bahdur, their chief
— Utziin again — Adopt Shermalik as my " son " — The ceremony — A
quarrel — Start for India — Sayed Shah.

Kamdesh is the chief village and the tribal head-
quarters of the Kam Kafirs. It is high up on a great
spur, which runs down in an undulating manner from
the Anikon ridge four miles to the south of the village,
and is bounded on one side by the Nichingul stream,
and on the other by another huge spur on which the
hamlets of Bindram and Jinjdm are built. Between
the two is a torrent which turns the village water-mills.
Kamdesh is from 6000 to 7000 feet in altitude, accord-
ing as it is measured from the lowest houses or from
those at the top. Including its fields, it covers a large
extent of ground. It is divided into three main portions,
the upper, the lower, and the east, of which the upper
is as large as the other two parts put together. The
whole village is built on sloping ground, which is at
places extremely steep, except a portion of the upper
division, which is constructed along a moderately level
ridge. The only other really level spots are the con-
tiguous house-roofs. Kamdesh is about 2000 feet above

the right bank of the 15ashgul river, down to which

■9 n



there is a very steep road. It numbers about 600
houses, which are suificieut for the iuliabitnuts. There

are no defences or fortifications of any kind, with the
exception of a picturesque tower, which stands close

kAmDESH 21

to the highest houses in the village. It is dithcult to
get a good view of Kamdesh, or Kdmbrom, as the Kafirs
prefer to call it, until the long steep path from the
river-bank has been traversed, and the village is nearly
approached. Then the view is highly impressive. The
houses are well built, and most of them are two or
three storeys in height ; while the shrines, memorial
gateways, and the effigies at the end of notched poles,
dotted all about, greatly add to the interest of the
scene. A nearer approach does not destroy an illusion,
for Kamdesh is remarkably clean for a Kdfir village,
and is especially free from that smoke grime which
gives such a mean and squalid appearance to so many
Kafir domiciles. The wood-work of the open, veran-
dah-like top storey of most of the houses is generally
carefully carved ; while the famous shrines of the two
gods, Gish and Moni, which stand in an open space
near the east division of the village, are not only elabo-
rately carved, but the former is otherwise curiously
ornamented, as will be described subsequently.

A few of the tribal elders came to meet me, but there
was no pressing curiosity on my account until after I
had accepted the hospitality of Dun Malik and adjourned
to his house. There my host provided me with a swept
room, which opened on to an open verandah. The
furniture of the apartment consisted of the common
Eastern bed, a square framework, laced together in this
instance with leather thongs, and one or two ordinary
K;ifir stools. The verandah room in front was crowded
with the women, youths, and children of the family
and of the adjacent houses, for Dan Malik's abode was
in a kind of irregular street, with habitations on both


sides and in front. This grouping of the houses was,
no doubt, accidental, as it was the only instance of the
kind I noticed in Kafiristan. After Diln Malik had
retired to some other house for the night, the curiosity
of the wild-looking figures in the verandah became in-
convenient, when, for quietness and rest, I retired into
my room and closed the stout wooden door. Recent
comers, hearing of the strange individual there was on
show, became outraged at the thought that others could
boast of having seen what they "were not permitted to
view, and they would bang open my door to thrust in
torches at arm's length, and stare with all the intentness
of their keen, strange faces. At first I submitted with
as good a grace as possible, but at last, getting really
annoyed, I drove away my tormentors, and finding a bolt
in the door, secured it properly. It turned out that
these troublesome visitors were only people of the lowest
rank — slaves and such persons — who were delighted at
an opportunity to show off before a stranger, and whom
no one ever imagined it necessary to protect me against.
All women in Kafiristan rank more or less with the
same class.

My stay in Kamdesh lasted three whole days, and
until the morning of the 29th October. During those
three days I left no stone unturned to conciliate the
people, especially the headmen. The former were easily
pleased, and came to see me in large numbers ; but of
the headmen, only a few put in an appearance, while
two of them, Utah, the priest of the Kam, and another
man, of hardly less importance, named Chandlu xlstan,
viewed me at first with grave suspicion. Utah luckily
had a little son, of whom he was inordinately fond.

mysteriously into my room, closed and locked the door,
and discussed high politics, suggesting, amongst other


things, that I should bring them many rifles, and they
would then open a road for me to Pesliawar through
Dir and Swat. They w^ere evidently disappointed at
my reply, that I was a man of peace, and had only
come amongst them purely and solely from the love of
travelling, and to study a people that no one of my
fellow-countrymen knew anything about.

My offer to take two young men of good family back
with me to India was at first openly scouted and derided.
It was then taken up enthusiastically. Several suitable
youths volunteered to go with me. They were accepted,
were carried off proudly by admiring friends and relations
to prepare for the journey, and then were seen no more.
At length, two young men agreed faithfully to go with
me ; one of them belonged to a powerful family or clan,
wdiile the other was a man of low rank in life, named
Shermalik, who was palmed off on me by the priest and
Dan Malik as a relation of both. As a matter of fact,
this man, Shermalik, was the only Kafir who eventually
accompanied me to India at this time, for at the last
moment the courage of the other failed him, and he
never put in an appearance after I started on my return
journey from Kamdesh. It was afterwards related to
me that the reason the low-born man was permitted
to 2*0 with me to India was because it was considered


that if he were killed or enslaved in that distant country,
it would not be a matter of much consequence to the

The march back to the Chitral frontier was char-
acterised by troubles similar to, or even worse, than
those we had before experienced, and also by a some-
what unpleasant episode which occurred just short of


To face page 29.


the Chitral border, where we fell in witli a travelling
band of Kafirs of the MddiiLral or Miiman tribe, under
a famous chief, known by the name of Bahdur. F>ah-
dur had been somewhat truculent in his behaviour the
same morning near Gourdesh, where I occupied a small
Init, and he had refused to leave the room in which I
was putting on my clothes until he was practically
ejected by me. Tie had then gone away sulkily.
While almost alone in the pine forest leading up to
the Parpit Pass, several of Bahdur's men caught me
up, and scowling at my Pathan servant, moved along-
side of us for a few yards, when one of them suddenly
strung his double curved bow, and fiercely and threa-
teningly shouted, " Banat gats," that is, "Give me a
present." ]My Pathan, a ])lucky boy, unarmed as he
was, jumped at the Kafir, but I managed to get in
front of him again, and ])retended not to understand
the nature of the demand, and to treat tlie whole
matter as a joke ; so, laughing loudly, I caught the
Kafir by his right wrist, and putting my weight on
the pull, sent him fiying off the narrow path and a
few yards down the hillside. lie and the others
stared at my laughing but rather rough procedure in
solemn surprise, while we hurried on, and' presently
caught up Bahdur himself, from whom I demanded
food. This he gave me, and then remarked on the
terrible things he would have done if we had not eaten
together. He then began to boast of the number of
people he had killed. The Pathan quietly but insult-
ingly remarked that he supposed the slain were mostly
women and children! The fat was nearly in the fire
again, but I angrily upbraided my servant, and got rid


of the troublesome Kjifirs as soon as possible by getting
them to go on ahead. Eahdur, some eighteen months
afterwards, gave me much trouble in his own village,
where he was on the point of making me a prisoner.
He was a terrible homicide, almost rivalling the famous
Torag Merak in that respect, but both these men belied
their character in their looks. In repose, both had sad
faces, a world of sorrow in their eyes, and the identical
look which is observable in a certain Chitrali magnate
who has killed many people. He has a sad, even gentle
face, and is precisely the man a poor wretch would
seek mercy from, and is the very last man who would
grant it.

At Utziin we caught up the Kafir Shermalik, who, as
related, had promised, with another, to go to India with
me. I was now confronted with a serious difficulty.
Finding himself deserted by his companion, Shermalik,
my prize, the chief result of my journey, burst into tears
and declared that nothing on earth would induce him
to go one step farther. I reasoned with him for hours,
painting glowing pictures of the delights of India, and
even bribed the people about to add their assurances to
mine. For a long time all was of no avail. Finally,
however, he cheered up a bit, and said he would accom-
pany me provided I agreed to adopt him as my son on
the spot. There was nothing for it but to agree, and so
the ceremony, as practised in the Bashgul Valley, was
there and then enacted. A goat was procured, quickly
killed, and its kidneys were removed. These were
cooked at a fire and cut into morsels by an officiating
Kafir, who then placed Shermalik and me side by side,
and alternately fed us both with the fragments on the


point of a knife. At short intervals we had to turn
our heads to one another and go through the motion
of kissing with our lips a foot or so apart. But the
surprise was in reserve. ^Ly coat and shirt were opened
and some butter was placed on my left breast, to which
Shermalik applied his lips with the greatest energy and
earnestness. I jumped as if shot, but the thing was
over. As the objects of my first visit were now fairly
well accomplished, I started for India to equip myself
for a prolonged stay in Kd-firistan.

It was at Utziin that a rather curious episode occurred.
It was in connection with my first efforts to persuade
Shermalik to remain with me. We were all seated
round a fire discussing the whole question. A white-
haired Kafir, who had joined me on my return journey
at Kamu, was seated four or five men from me, and
with the garrulity of age was arguing, advising, and
settling matters generally. In a pause, when struggling
to make myself understood in the Chitrali language, of
which I had the merest smattering, the old man began
afresh. Another man, seated by my side, picked up a
small piece of stick and threw it gently at the Kamu
man to attract his attention, and said the equivalent of
" Just you shut up, and let us hear what the Frank
has to say." In an instant the old man was on his
feet, flourishing his axe, while the man alongside of
me whipped round his sword-belt and flashed out his
weapon. I could not understand what had happened to
cause all this commotion. By the time the whole matter
had been explained to me the men were furiously ap-
proaching one another. Such a tremendous quarrel for
so slight a cause in some way appealed to my risible


faculties, and instead of being able to intervene, I simply
exhausted myself with laughter. The men at once
stopped, looked at me in a most sheepish manner, and
there was an end of the affair.

At Gilgit, on our way to India, we met a missionary
agent, a converted Muhammadan, whom the Church mis-
sionaries at Peshawar had most kindly placed at my dis-
posal. SayedShah was the name of this "native Christian."
He had visited Kafiristdn on more than one occasion, and
was fairly well acquainted with the Bashgul Valley dia-
lect. I engaged him to take care of my Kafir " son," and
to return with me the following year as an interpreter.
He was a genial, kindly man, and a pleasant companion.
Unhappily, he was somewhat timid in disposition and
lacking in firmness of character. In the end he proved
a bad bargain, but at first he was useful to me in many


The narrative continued — Arrival in India — Visit to England — Projiaratiou
for second visit to Kafiristan — Return to India — Completing my efjuip-
ment in Srinagar — Miiin Gul — His plan to exploit me — Final subjection —
Engaged as my servant — Leave Srinagar for Gilgit — My Balti coolies—
Their faithfulness and devotion — Catastrophe at Bunji — Gilgit — Start
for Chitral.

We reached India without incident. Having settled
several business matters with the Foreign Office at Cal-
cutta, and having made proper arrangements for Sher-
malik to stay in India for the cold weather, and to be taken
to Kashmir as soon as the sun began to get uncomfortably
hot, I took short leave to England. The Kafir refused
to accompany me, alleging the great distance as his excuse.
Pie never ceased to regret this decision afterwards, and
explained that he had been by turns persuaded, and
frightened, and bribed to refuse by the people employed
by me to look after him, who feared to lose their occupa-
tion if he accompanied me to England.

On the voyage home and out I had the good fortune
to travel with my friend Captain Parfitt, of the P. and O.
Company's service, who most kindly gave me much valu-
able advice, and many useful hints about observation-
taking. This gentleman is not only possessed of liigh
scientific attainments, but has a peculiar gift of lucid
explanation, while liis patience is as inexhaustible as liis
kindness. In London, I availed myself of the generous
help that the Eoyal Geographical Society ])laces at the


disposal of all would-be travellers and explorers. Un-
fortunately I made the common mistake of attempting
too much in the short time at my disposal. It did not
then seem impossible for me to attack, with fair hopes
of success, various sciences of which I was practically
in complete ignorance. Able and experienced instructors
put the subjects they taught in so clear and so pleasant
a light that everything seemed easy and simple. But
when, after the lapse of a few months, the time came
for me to apply all this varied information, I quickly dis-
covered that a short scamper into the fair fields of science,
no matter how easy and pleasant the journey may seem,
and no matter how^ vivid all impressions may appear at
the time, leaves on the mind little more than vague and
confused pictures of a vast and beautiful country.

Having provided myself with toys, photographic appa-
ratus, compressed medicines, and miniature surgical in-
struments, together wdth various small articles with which
to please and amuse the Kafirs, I returned to India in
May to complete my equipment at Srinagar. After re-
ceiving the scientific instruments and books which were
provided for me by the Government of India, there was
nothing more to do except to choose followers and ser-
vants who w^ere willing to accompany me on my journey
to Kafiristan.

My choice was limited. Volunteers at first were nume-
rous, but no sooner had the nature of the difficulties to
be encountered been honestly explained to them, than
their enthusiasm rapidly cooled down and they cried olf.
Finally, I was compelled to content myself with Sayed
Shah, already referred to, and the young Pathan who had
been with me before, who, though young, plucky, and hard-



working, was unluckily of a morose and quarrelsome dis-
position. During the winter this man had been learning
simple cookery and other useful arts. He was most
intelligent, and but for his infirmities of temper would


have been an invaluable servant. Of course, my K;ifir
" son " Shermalik, who was awaiting me at Srinagar, in
the charge of Sayed Shah, also accompanied me. Ho
had already acquired in India an ungrammatical, but very
useful, knowledge of Hindustani. At the urgent request


of the other three, but with some reluctance on my part,
a powerful, hard-working Kashmiri, named Rusah'i, was
also engaged. lie had a shifty, ill-looking face, with
a fawning or bullying manner, according to circum-
stances. He was, however, undoubtedly intelligent, and
quick at learning all menial duties, and there was no one
else to be had. In the end, this meek-looking man nearly
succeeded in wrecking my plans altogether, and it was
only his want of pluck which prevented him from turning
my journey into a complete fiasco.

On my arrival in Srinagar, I found, to my extreme
annoyance, that Shermalik, the Kafir, had been followed
to India by a Kunar Valley Muhammadan, named Mian
Gul. This individual I had met in Kafiristan. He was
connected by marriage or by ties of friendship with many
of the chief men of Kamdesh. He had two homes, one
at Mirkani, at the mouth of the Ashrath Valley, the other
in the " Gabar " village of Arnu or Arandii. He had tra-
velled down to India by the direct road from Chitral to
Peshawar, through Dir and Swat, a road he knew well,
for his occupation was that of a petty trader. He was in
the habit of carrying news about the Kafirs to the Pesha-
war Church missionaries, and with the money he received
in return he bought small articles in the Peshawar bazaar
to trade with in Kafiristan. His sole object in following
the Kafir to India was the performance of a well-laid plan
to " exploit " me. In anticipation of my arrival, he took
Shermalik to various shops in the Srinagar bazaar, where
they together selected a large number of swords, shields,
and guns, and all manner of expensive articles of clothing,
which they intended me to buy, and in the supposed im-
probable event of my refusing to comply with their wishes,


Mian Gul hoped to succeed in persuading the Kafir to
leave me secretly, and go back with him by the Dir-Swdt
road to his own country. He promised the man large
but impossible rewards if he would agree to do as he
wished. Shermalik, however, partly from loyaltv to me,
and partly from a shrewd suspicion that Mian Gul could
never redeem his splendid promises, declined to listen to
his treacherous companion, when, hearing my refusal to
entertain their wild suggestions for a single instant, the
time came for him to make his decision one way or the
other. Nevertheless, he was thoroughly demoralised, and
in a fury of disappointment when he found his dreams of
wealth could not be gratified. If I had bought even half
of the property these two men had selected, it would have
ruined me, while my baggage train would have extended
to an impossible length.

My difficulty was greater than it may appear. Sher-
malik could be quickly reduced to tears and subjection,
and then as quickly restored again to smiles and tem-
porary happiness by small gifts and personal kindnesses ;
but Midn Gul was a man of diflferent fibre — he knew his
power. It was quite jDossible for him to get back to
Kafiristan a full month before us. Once there, he could
easily create so strong a prejudice against me that it
might be impossible for me to return to Kamdesh at all.
It was necessary to be most cautious in my dealings with
him. As a preliminary, we had a private interview to-
gether, in the course of which he became thoroughly
frightened and cowed. He was then paid in a lordly
way his own estimate of his travelling expenses, receiv-
ing at the same time an extremely liberal allowance for
his daily requirements. Finally, as if no unpleasantness


had occiiiTed, he avus engaged as my servant at a definite
montlily wage, and started off at once to Peshawar' to
buy kerosene oil, and convey it if possible to Chitral,
where, in any case, he was to await my arrival.

I had decided not to ask Government for a guard or an
escort of any kind. My reasons were, that a considerable
number of armed men could alone be of real use to me in
time of danger, while such a number could neither be fed
nor supplied with transport. A small guard, on the other
hand, would be worse than useless ; for not only would
it be unable to withstand any serious attack, but there
would always be the fear that the men might begin
quarrelling with the Kafirs, and in that way start a dis-
turbance, the result of which might be very serious.

With the four followers already mentioned, I left
Srinagar for Gilgit on July 29th. On the road we picked
up five Balti coolies, who agreed to remain with me for a
year to carry loads and make themselves generally useful.
The remembrance of the faithfulness and simple devotion
of these five men always excites within me a warm feeling
of admiration. No threats nor promises could ever induce
them to swerve in their loyalty for an instant. They
were childlike in their simplicity, and childlike also in
their complete trust in me. For several weeks in Kafiri-
stan they were my sole companions. During that
period these five men carried my loads, cooked my food,
did all my work, and made friends wherever they went,
while one of them actually qualified as an interpreter. I
have had as good servants in India as any man could
desire, but never any so good as these poor Baltis.

On August I /th we reached Gilgit. Two days before
a terrible misfortune befell me at Bunji. In crossing the



Indus, one of my boats, containing seventeen .\stori
coolies, was swamped and sunk. All on board were

drowned, with the exception of the boatmen, who man-
aged to escape with great difficulty, and reach the l)ank.


Most of the articles so carefully selected in England
were lost beyond recovery ; a great part of my photo-
graphic apparatus, all my toys and books, my diaries
and journals for three years, besides a large quantity of
small valuables. All my money went down also. I had
to borrow money from the Kashmir Major in charge of
the ferry and Bunji fort to enable me to get on to Gilgit.
Not the least of my misfortunes was the fact that, with
the exception of a light pair of lawn-tennis shoes, which
I was wearing at the time, every pair of boots I possessed
was lost in the river. Shermalik lost some of his treasures
also. They were, of course, ultimately replaced by me, but,
at the moment, he was so excited and in such despair at
the extent of his misfortunes, that he declared he would
throw himself into the river and be drowned also.

At Gilgit, Mr. Manners Smith was officiating for Colonel
Durand as British Agent. He did everything in his power

Online LibraryGeorge Scott RobertsonThe Káfirs of the Hindu-Kush; → online text (page 3 of 38)