The goddess of Taliban country

KARACHI, Pakistan — The road into Baluchistan is dual carriage, the topography is flat. There are fronds in the sand, an occasional crooked tree and the intimation of the sea. Narrow scratched paths lead inland and close to the horizon, we can make out clusters of structures — mud rooms, thatched tents — and the local population: tanned fishermen and women and children.

Not more than two hours into the journey, we turn left at a solitary petrol pump attached to a roadside restaurant. After announcing ourselves at a checkpoint — hum Hingol ja rahay hain — we cruise down the Makran Coastal Highway.

I am riding shotgun in a Jeep with a mangy, taciturn, chain-smoking adventurer. He offers me a dry omelet-and-hunter-beef sandwich. I take a bite. It is difficult to swallow but I don’t protest. Who knows when sustenance will be offered next?

We have entered the badlands of Pakistan, the purported seat of the resurgent Taliban. Somewhere across the expanse lurks Mullah Omar, the murderous, indefatigable, one-eyed leader of the shura. Although there is strength in numbers — we are traveling in a caravan of 11 vehicles comprising the Off Roaders Club – we are only armed with poles, pegs, hammers and other camping equipment. I’m no outdoorsman, no adventurer. I wonder what the hell I am doing in Baluchistan.

Another hour or two on the road, we turn again, presumably north, into Hingol National Park. Before suggesting that I ride with somebody else — we have to pick up a local guide from a teahouse — my reluctant host mentions in passing that the park receives funding from the World Bank. I don’t understand why at first — the place seems godforsaken — but a kilometer in, it becomes plain: spectacularly bare, veiny, windswept mountains rise in the distance. In the shadow of a crag, we happen upon a pelican languidly flapping in a pool of azure water. It is a sudden, ethereal sight. Then somebody points out an alligator basking upstream.

Hingol National Park is a vast nature reserve, two and a half times the size of Luxembourg (about 600,000 hectares or 2,400 square miles). The terrain is populated by jirds and lizards, caracals and urials, by badgers, porcupines, foxes, jackals, wolves, boars and hyenas. According to a no-nonsense, middle-aged lady, a veteran of the motley, ballsy Off Roaders, an almost mythical snow leopard also haunts these parts. And there are many fancifully named birds: kestrel, shrike, stone curlew, brown rock pipit, redheaded merlin, Houbara bustard, Bonnelli’s eagle, Eurasian griffon vulture, Laggar falcon, Lichtenstein’s sandgrouse, Hume’s chat, hoopoe.

There is, however, no sign of Taliban anywhere. But there are suggestions of other violence: The twisted remains of a concrete bridge, like an arm ripped from the socket, span a wide, empty riverbed. The guide, a wiry, weathered character, an employee of the Bridge and Works Department, informs me that the torrent in the rainy season is vehement. The area is mostly uninhabitable. The trees, I notice, are all bowed. The signs, however, remain strangely erect. One heralds ibex territory. Another announces “Nani Mandir.” I repeat the phrase in my head. It sounds vaguely ominous.

The southern swath of Baluchistan is anything but godforsaken. It is, I learn, hallowed land: When Kali, the Dark Mother of the Hindu religion, the Goddess of Death, shattered millennia ago, her torso landed in the mountains.

Baluchistan, then, is not simply hallowed; it is one of the holiest tracts in Hindu mythology. Several years ago, L.K. Adavni, then-leader of the Hindu fundamentalist party in India, was stirred when he visited Nani Mandir. (On his return, he was temporarily dismissed from the party because of “pro-Pakistan” statements he made to the press.) Asphalt roads were paved in anticipation of his advent.

The approach to the temple is unremarkable: An iron gate opens into a narrow esplanade nestled in a valley, presumably a riverbed in the rainy season. Simple single-story cement rooms stand on either side. A makeshift cupboard-sized shrine houses a statuette of Kali, arms perpendicularly extended, tongue rolled out like Gene Simmons. Burnt incense sticks are pitched in the surrounding earth and empty coconut husks litter the periphery. In April, thousands of Hindu pilgrims, both local and from across the border, make the journey on foot. They shave their hair and shed their clothes. We follow in their tracks, passing mossy pools littered with Frooto boxes and floating locks. There is graffiti in Sanskrit on the boulders, and a pair of vertiginous eyes.

Unlike the temples in and around Karachi — Sri Swami Narayan on Bandar Road, Ratneshwar Mahadev in Clifton — Nani Mandir is not grand; there are no spires, arches, no detailed stonework. The structure seems to have been carved into rock. The surrounding whitewashed walls are recent, an afterthought, like the billboard outside featuring the busts of prominent members of the community. Steps lead up to a two-tiered tiled clearing girded in saffron flags where Kali presides. You have to see it to believe it. Who would have thought that a Hindu goddess reigns in Taliban country?

Under her throne, there is an opening, a portal into the unknown: A miniature wooden door opens into a tunnel that can only be entered on all fours. It is dark inside, very dark, stygian; it is meant to represent Kali’s womb. I decide to crawl inside. About halfway through the horseshoe-shaped passage, I am compelled to reach for my lighter. It is tough going. It would be tougher later in the year. The weather turns hot in April, and the rite is probably performed at night. Sweaty hoards must jostle to enter. When you emerge, you thank God. Smoking a cigarette afterwards, I figure that’s the point.

The next morning we set out for another holy Hindu site: Chandar Gup, one of the famed mud volcanoes of Baluchistan. On the way, however, we detour for a dip in the Arabian Sea. Kund Malir, a pristine beach on the Makran coast, is like heaven on earth. It is set against a cliff. The sand is powdery, the water lucid. On the horizon, fishermen troll the waters in launches. The Off Roaders dive in. The guide saunters seaside. A burqa-clad lady is unable to resist. Shedding her garb, she wades into the water, shalwar rolled up to her fair knees. God, she figures, won’t mind.

The caravan skids across sand dunes and sandy expanses, leaving billowing plumes of dust in its wake. There is nothing on the horizon in any direction for hours. Then a solitary mountain materializes. It becomes larger and larger as we drive closer and closer. There are two routes up. You can scale the winding eastern side, the way the pilgrims do, or scale the steep northern face. For some reason that remains inscrutable to me, I decide on the latter. It’s an arduous climb, punctuated by smoke breaks. The gradient is almost 45 degrees. The height is 100 meters (or 300 feet). About halfway up, I consider climbing down.

When I reach the top, the vista is epic. There is a breeze and the sun is large and red and setting. But the vista is not as remarkable as the mouth of the volcano. Amid cracked slabs of gray mud, a pool of putty wells and bubbles. I pitch a stone. It is swallowed soundlessly. Pilgrims pitch offerings of coconut. It is said that the volcano empties into the sea. This is myth.

The taciturn adventurer will tell you that the surrounding area rests on three tectonic plates, a unique confluence: the Eurasian, Subcontinental and Arabian. Mysterious subterranean pressures inform Chandar Gup. It is a beautiful, bizarre natural oddity, worthy of worship, worthy of awe.

On the way back, I mull the rocks, the sand, the sea, the mud volcano, the goddess of Taliban country. On the way back, I become a believer.