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Being in Bela is Wonderful
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 wind!

 

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