House of the spirits

Published: February 19, 2012
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Armed only with a few old photographs and vague directions, Danial Shah sets off in search of the Cave City of Balochistan. PHOTO : DANIAL SHAH

Armed only with a few old photographs and vague directions, Danial Shah sets off in search of the Cave City of Balochistan. PHOTO : DANIAL SHAH

Armed only with a few old photographs and vague directions, Danial Shah sets off in search of the Cave City of Balochistan. PHOTO : DANIAL SHAH
Armed only with a few old photographs and vague directions, Danial Shah sets off in search of the Cave City of Balochistan. PHOTO : DANIAL SHAH
Armed only with a few old photographs and vague directions, Danial Shah sets off in search of the Cave City of Balochistan. PHOTO : DANIAL SHAH
Armed only with a few old photographs and vague directions, Danial Shah sets off in search of the Cave City of Balochistan. PHOTO : DANIAL SHAH
Armed only with a few old photographs and vague directions, Danial Shah sets off in search of the Cave City of Balochistan. PHOTO : DANIAL SHAH
Armed only with a few old photographs and vague directions, Danial Shah sets off in search of the Cave City of Balochistan. PHOTO : DANIAL SHAH
Armed only with a few old photographs and vague directions, Danial Shah sets off in search of the Cave City of Balochistan. PHOTO : DANIAL SHAH
Armed only with a few old photographs and vague directions, Danial Shah sets off in search of the Cave City of Balochistan. PHOTO : DANIAL SHAH
Armed only with a few old photographs and vague directions, Danial Shah sets off in search of the Cave City of Balochistan. PHOTO : DANIAL SHAH

About all I knew when I set out to visit the Cave City was that there is a place in Balochistan with cave houses — a mountain, isolated from civilisation, with lots and lots of caves. Returning by road from Quetta to Karachi, I was struck with the realisation that the Cave City was likely to be somewhere along the route my companion and I were taking. Despite the fact that I had no concrete information about the site, the curiosity of exploring the caves got the better of me. I called my father who had spent more than a decade in Balochistan for infrastructure work. He gave us rough directions, telling us that it was located close to the city of Bela and was called Gondrani. Armed with only that tidbit of information — and a few snapshots from a travelogue Salman Rashid had written on the Cave City years back — we set off.

Our plan, when we left Khuzdar, was to stop over at the Cave City — if, indeed, we found it — and take photos.

We travelled on the RCD Highway and, with the judicious use of Google maps, were able to pick our way to Bela. But since there were no road directions to Gondrani, we stopped locals and quizzed them about the way to the “puraney ghaar” (old caves). At first we got only blank looks or incomprehensible directions. Then we found Asif, a middle-aged man who told us that he was a police inspector. Not only did he claim to know the place, he also offered to take us there. With Asif as our guide, we drove north, then turned west and started following a narrow but carpeted road. After many miles, the road turned into a dirt road and finally, there was no road at all. We hit a riverbank and after a distance of almost three miles, Asif made us park the vehicle. I poked my head out the window, straining to see in the direction Asif was pointing. A distant mountain with black holes was my first sight of the Cave City of Balochistan.

It was a 10-minute walk to the caves — an arduous one, at that, over a dry riverbed strewn with rocks. But my curiosity was growing as were the black holes which had seemed tiny from a distance.

The place was pretty much deserted and, in the absence of locals, Asif was our only source of information. His version of the history of this place was fanciful, to say the least. According to him, these mountains used to be the home of demons and evil spirits who would satiate their appetite with the flesh of the locals of Gondrani. That is until Mai Gondrani, a holy lady, sacrificed her life to kill these demons and save the rest from their scourge. Now she rests in her shrine in the nearby village in Sher-e-Roghan. We listened, intrigued and mystified. This version of the story gave rise to more questions than answers: Who would have really lived here? Why did they leave? Would it before or after the Indus civilisation?

As we approached the mountains, more caves came into sight. With scenes from Hollywood movies about lost treasures flashing in my mind, I scrambled to explore every single cave. Only I wasn’t in search of the Ark of the Covenant or Montezuma’s gold. Here, the treasure was simply having discovered such a unique place in Pakistan. Inside the caves I saw that a typical ‘cave house’ had one veranda and two separate rooms. I even saw what I gathered was a kitchen of sorts, having separate compartments for storage. Another seemed like a living room or a bedroom. In the aforementioned article, Salman Rashid says that the Cave City would have been a class conscious society and I could easily figure that out, seeing the contrast between the ill-constructed houses and the well-formed ones.

Unlike cave cities elsewhere — Kandovan in Iran and Cappadocia in Turkey come to mind — the Cave City of Balochistan is uninhabited, though the caves do provide a home for bats. These caves are the worse for erosion and, as far as I could see, no effort has been made to preserve them. Barely accessible, since there is no path that leads to them, they are also difficult to explore higher than the two lowest levels for those without any climbing expertise. Had this site been anywhere else in the world, it would have been preserved as a world heritage site, but sadly it is crumbling in neglect here.

Our little expedition ended with a stopover in Hub for tea and then we headed to Karachi, leaving behind a silent city, a mysterious mountain.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, February 19th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (8)

  • Adil Mulki
    Feb 20, 2012 - 10:11AM

    Very nice pictures. Thanks for bringing this up. You beat me to it : ) … it was on my “menu” for the next quarter…
    By the way, the cool caves are ideal locations to find snakes : ) they often turn up to feast on the bats and their young.

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  • Feb 20, 2012 - 9:57PM

    @Adil Mulki : lol. you could have come up with more details :) you still can…
    and snakes sound crazy. Thank God i didn’t encounter one..

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  • Homa
    Feb 25, 2012 - 2:41PM

    @ danial and adil:
    Very cool. Did you see any cave paintings? Will u show me around when i visit pk?

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  • Feb 26, 2012 - 1:00PM

    @Homa: There were no cave paintings. The place lacks any infra structure

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  • Feb 27, 2012 - 1:40AM

    @Homa
    @ Danial Shah
    There are no rock paintings and petroglyphs at this particular site, however, there are lots of them in the Khirthar range towards the East (the geographic border of Sindh and Baluchistan).
    Unfortunately, most of these paintings and etchings are eroding and they have hardly been documented. There are only a handful of scholars who were crazy enough to afford a scholarly glance at the subject. I am unaware of any book on the subject (for the Khirthar range), although, I understand that Mr. Badar Abro was doing some research / field work on the subject.
    As for rock art around Gondrani caves, I did come across a picture of an etching / petroglyph of a human palm with some symbols, some of which could be Greek. The picture, I was told, pertained to another site in Lasbela District (same as Gondrani). It was said to be left behind by soldeirs of Alexander’s Armymen!
    WORD OF CAUTION: I could not verify the picture and its related story by any secondary source. I consulted quite a number of people who frequently visit the area or who have served in various capacities, but none could confirm its existence. Unfortunately, the army officer whose memoirs included the picture and the story, is no longer alive.

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  • Ameera
    Mar 3, 2012 - 11:55PM

    Aoa Danial Shah (author)….very well written piece masha’Allah….really enjoyed reading it and look forward to seeing more of your work published on Tribune Express’ Blog as i really enjoy reading travelogues , specially with such mysterious tales embedded in them (i am refering to the myth of Mai Godrani that you have included) …i especially liked how u described the caves and wish i could actually visit this place…and the pictures are amazingg :)

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  • Tayyaba Rahman
    Mar 18, 2012 - 11:46AM

    Wow.. It totally engrossed me, in fact I was imagining myself roving in this cave city of Baluchistan “Gondrani” while reading the article. Very well presented, thumbs up!

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  • Shakeeb
    Mar 28, 2012 - 12:06AM

    Is it really safe to go there if you have foreigners with you?

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