Being in Bela is
Bela is an ancient town in a historic tract surrounded by hills above the
Arabian Sea. I had read
that once Alexander the Great was there; Young Muslim Generals Muhammad
Bin Qasim and Muhammad Bin Haroon were there; and lately British
bureaucrat Sir Robert Sandeman was there.
Heritage exploration -- to be distinguished from, say, seeing the sights
-- is generally not a particularly satisfying activity. Ideas and those
who hatch them tend not to leave behind things large or attractive enough
to ogle. So you may go to a place of great historic value but find nothing
worth the visit. Bela town is a case in point. Usually, you are left, if
you are lucky, with a plaque or just an intrinsic though. So I expected,
more or less, nothing in Bela.
What I got is signs in lieu of plaques, hot wind, remnants of crumbling
columns, and a long view of the undergrowth of thorny bushes, some
wildflowers, functional Persian wells and rocky hilltops covered with
Camel and sheep droppings. It was all prosaic and quiet and yet real
enough to propel me into another fit of wonder: I was driving on the tract
where Alexander and Muhammad Bin Qasim had treaded.
Inhabited since centuries Bela is a wonder in many ways. The town is
situated in a significant plan called Lasbela in Balochistan with own
distinct history. The tract derives its name from the words Las which mean
a plain – surrounded by hill ranges, the greater part of the area is a
flat plain, and Bela is the main town at the apex of the plan over 100
kilometres from Karachi. From the early period of history till the rise of
the Jamoot tribe in the middle of the eighteenth century, only a few facts
are known and recorded about the history of Lasbela.
Time seemed to me to be a greater mystery in Bela. The whole town had the
air of being in a time-warp, lost and with its fibres still connected to
some bygone era. Bela has been identified with the ancient place Armabel -
the place that was visited by Alexander. Mohammad Bin Haroon, one of the
Generals of Mohammad Bin Qasim lies buried here. The last resting place of
Robert Sandeman, the first British Chief Commissioner of Balochistan is
also here. Around Bela in the Kud river area, there are numerous sites and
caves of prehistoric period. There are boulder
hills in the
neighbourhood, which are the remains of ancient settlements. The caves
hewed out of solid conglomerate rock situated some 20 kilometres to the
north of Bela town are other marvel worth visiting. The Jamia Masjid in
Bela is an exemplary accomplishment of Islamic architecture.
On his way back from South Asia Alexander passed through Lasbela,
according to Thomas Holdich’s account, “After Alexander’s death, one of
his generals, Seleukas Nickator, became ruler of central and western Asia.
For many centuries after this, nothing can be traced about the history of
Lasbela. In early seventh century the ruler of Armabel (present Bela) was
a Buddhist Somani. Chach usurped the throne of the dynasty of Sindh and
marched to Bela in 636 AD. Chach was cordially received at Bela and was
impressed with the loyalty of the people of Bela.”
The area also lay on the route followed by the young Muslim General
Muhammad-Bin-Qasim in 712 AD. On his way to Sindh, Mohammad-Bin-Qasim
marched through Bela accompanied by his General Muhammad Bin Haroon. The
power of the Arabs lasted towards the end of the tenth century.
Afterwards, the area appears to have come under the influence of the
Sumras, who asserted their independence when the power of the Abbaside
caliphs declined. The Sumras gained a position of supremacy in the middle
of the eleventh century. The Sammas under Jam Umar eventually overthrew
them in 1333. The Sammas reigned till 1523 when they were defeated and
their power was completely broken by Shah Hussain Argon. The succeeding
period is again obscure. The chiefs of the Gujar, Ranjha, Gunga and Burfat
tribes, who are still found in Bela, are said to have exercised a
semi-independent power previous to the rise of the Jamoot tribe. When the
British advancement extended beyond Sindh; Jam Mir Khan-II was exercising
powerful political control over the affairs of these areas. In agreement
with the British, the family ruled until Pakistan came into existence.
Geographically, the district can be divided into the alluvial plain
surrounding Bela extending southwards up-to the bay of Sonmiani and the
hilly regions situated east and west of this plain. The plain itself
consists of alluvium deposits of rivers. At the edge of the plain, around
the margins of the adjoining hilly regions and near the coast, lie raised
sea-beaches, some 15 to 25 metres above sea level. The east of the
alluvial plain exhibits the greatest variety of rocks forming the hill
ranges, which are separated by valleys. The hilly region is situated on
the west of the alluvial plain and extends along the Makran coast.
“Lasi” is a geographical term, which is applies to all the tribes other
than Baloch and Brahvi, Med, Khoja and Hindus who are settled in Lasbela.
The principal Lasi tribes are only five in number: Jamoot, Ranjha, Sheikh,
Angaria and Burraf. These are called the Panjraj or the five tribal
confederacies. Under each Raj are a large number of heterogeneous groups.
The few Afghans are mostly nomads, except the Buzdars, who are flock
owners and wander about. Minor tribes include the Gunjas, Sinars, Sangurs,
Burfats, Chhuttas and Khojas. A good number of Hindus are also residing in
Uthal, Bela and Hub. In many places that I had been, I heard the Lasis
speaking a new dialect.
Land offers exciting landscape. The great spans of waste arid lands with a
fierce but hospitable tribal people, makes the place very thrilling for
cautiously curious going to this region. The dull brown of the fields is
relieved by desolate shrubs - the woody, thorny under-shrubs are usually
not above a foot in height and have a few leaves with stiff and prickly
branches - hamlets and Persian wells.
Not only the good
earth of Lasbela, but some of the people also leave an unforgettable
impression. There was my host Muqeem Kumbhar, landlord and agriculturist
by profession and local historian in leisure time. He is well aware of the
rapid change Lasbela is undergoing and feels powerless to do anything
about it. He liked the idea of recording oral histories to document the
folkways of the old Lasbela before they are totally wiped out by erosion
of another kind. For me, he arranged an evening with nomad family having
large herd of camels where we were served with Kurut – curry made by dried
meat and dried milk. It tasted wonderful. As a sweet dish, there was honey
on the food mat, wild honey straight from the wilderness. I must have
looked more than usually astonished since Kumbhar kindly explained that
there are wild bees in droves and pesticides or some other problem must
have driven them here from neighbouring areas. The honey had a faint tang
of wild berries, a beautiful, lingering taste. After the dinner we sat
under the star studded sky to chat with the elders of the family. They had
seen and knew so much and were more interesting than history books.
Obviously, life of the nomads is incredibly difficult even in modern times
despite having transistors radios, tape recorders and florescent lights.
The evening reminded me of a similar experience I had outside Saudi town
Ar’Ar during gulf war. Only there we sat on costly carpets and under
shining generator lights.
Adjacent to Karachi and having reservoirs of metal ores, Lasbela is
developing rapidly. The area has potential for agricultural, fisheries and
industrial development. By developing the industrial state of Hub, the
people of Hub have become well-off, while many people of Bela still live
without basic facilities. The private sector has shown much interest in
developing various kinds of industries in this area due to incentives.
Still, the rural and far flung areas remain deprived of electricity, water
supply and gas. Drinking water is a major problem for the rural
population. The supply of water in far flung areas is not adequate.
A trip to this region is very revealing and wonderful for those who know
the art to be happy when they have an enriching experience. After three
days in the area, I turned back for a last look. There was nobody there,
nothing but the shrubs and the warm wind. The shrubs swinging with the