Sau-Malik of Gilgit and Chitral and the Mongol War

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Sau-Malik of Gilgit and Chitral and the Mongol War

More often than not hidden in the annals of history are instances of smaller nations and kingdoms putting up resistance against vast invading armies. This quality is intrinsic to the sons of the Indus basin who’ve long fought against stronger foes, be it of Porus’ battle against Alexander some odd 2300 years ago in the Punjab or the relatively younger show of valor of Sindh’s Hoshu Sheedi against the British in the mid 19th century. One such instance of a local ruler of a small principality taking on a much larger entity comes from the folklore of western Himalayas when the Raja Sau Malik; the sovereign of much of what is now Northern Pakistan, valiantly fought and defeated the Mongol hordes of a king titled Taj Mughal near the Darkot Pass, and thus established his name in the folklore of the Dardic and non Dardic nations alike for centuries to come.

Sau Malik of yore

Seldom has there existed a king in the mountain country of the western Himalayas who’s been remembered and revered as much as Sau Malik. According to multiple historians, The king of the mountain legends is said to have belonged to the Trakhan Dynasty who unabatedly ruled Gilgit for more than 6 centuries directly whilst holding relations with the rulers of the surrounding regions indirectly. His ingraining as a just and brave king of the north in the folklore ranging all from Chitral till Skardu proves that it would not be a rude assumption to claim that the extent of Sau Malik’s influence stretched all from Northern Chitral, through Yasin and Gilgit and then towards the Balti heartland in Skardu. Thus making him the sovereign of interestingly, almost all of what is now Northern Pakistan.

 The rule of the forgone king is calculated to have been a whopping 70 years from 1275 to 1345 by A.H. Dani and by others such as Hashmat Ullah it was 1335 – 1390, though evidently, he was bound to exist in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. The Trakhans are a dynasty who, though debated to be of Turkic origin, used to claim their descent from Azur Jamshed. Azur being a mystical Persian prince who fled his homeland during the Islamic invasion of Persia and arrived in the high mountains of the Karakoram. He is credited to have started the Trakhan Dynasty after marrying the daughter of the Buddhist king of Gilgit Sri Badat, this would in turn put Sau Malik under the banner of a Kayani prince, but the very existence of Azur Jamshed is shrouded in myths.

However, one very common mistake made by academics and historians alike is to mistake Sau Malik of Gilgit with the Sau Malik of Torkhow in northern Chitral, popularly remembered as Sumalek, who himself is attributed to have defeated the Tatar Turk hordes. The 2 kings who not only shared their names but also status of rulers who defeated large foreign armies, differed from one another on the account that they were born some 300 years apart. The latter succeeding the former. A.H. Dani mentioned an ancestor of Sau Malik of Gilgit, referring to him as Sau Malik I and the latter as Sau Malik II. Perhaps this Sau Malik I is the Sumalek of Torhow, though Dani placed him 3 centuries earlier than the traditionally accepted era of Sumalek. Though there is very little to refute Sau Malik of Gilgit belonging to the Trakhan dynasty, Sumalek of Chitral was most probably an ethnic Khow (Chitrali). His kingdom is also noted to have stretched as far as parts of Badakshan in the north, Bashgal valley in Nuristan in the west, to beyond Hunza in the east and Bandipur in Kashmir in the south. That being said, the seat of his empire as well as the nucleus of his heroics are centered in the sister valleys of Torkhow and Mulkhow which are the original homeland of the Khow people. Very little is factually known of him and that is why the accounts are divergent for him too with some placing him in the 12th century and others in the 7th  and some in the 11th, some regarding him as an ethnic Khow, others as a Trakhan Turk  and some to have been a mere chieftain (Aqsaqal- Correctly Asaqal) belonging to Charkh in modern day Uzbekistan.

Mugal_Minar_Gilgit–photo by the author

Before we start the journey to know just how Sau Malik managed to defeat the mongols, one must realize that much of what that comes to us about this legendary king, as with other northern kings, is purely through oral traditions. A measure of the very divergence of these oral accounts from each other can be made from the fact that there exist many names of the king including Sau Malik, Tsu Malek and Sau-malek etc. Centuries of intermingling of multiple accounts has made it difficult to differentiate myth from fact. Over the years, many historians have tried to trace his lineage, the extent of his kingdom and how long his rule lasted. We shall be examining all of these and filling in where they didn’t, however, the story should be seen more along the lines of folklore than precisely recorded history.

Raja Torra’s Ascent

The event that forever put the ruler in the hearts of the mountain men was set in motion much before his arrival to the Throne. The era of Raja Torra Khan, Sau Malik’s father, experienced the most tumultuous of happenings that the kingdom of Gilgit had ever witnessed. Torra Khan’s ascent to the throne was scarred with chaos and treachery when his Dareli stepmother, in her lust for power, poisoned her husband the King Tartora Khan and occupied the throne in 1237 C.E. in the wishes of having her son extend the dynasty further. Though for the meanwhile, she sat on the throne herself believing that the rightful heir Torra Khan had been killed by one of her henchmen and that she had nothing to worry about. Torra Khan nevertheless, was far from his grave, and in a long hidden exile.  5 complete years passed with the deceased King’s widow managing his kingdom, when an event took place mirroring that of the glorious return of Zeus in Greek mythology. Much like Zeus’s return to avenge the ills of his father Kronos, Torra Khan returned to avenge the ills of his stepmother and to reclaim his birthright. A bloody war of succession was fought and the kingdom was set into the state of civil war. From this fratricidal feud emerged victorious the sword of Torra Khan who recaptured his father’s throne and did away from his cunning stepmother. In the course of these events the Dareli queen’s son, named Shah Rais, helplessly fled westwards towards Badakshan and there was given birth the dispute which would come to end years later at the hands of Sau Malik in Darkot.

Torra Khan and the First Mongol War

Torra Khan had jolly relations with the rulers of Badakshan through his maternal lineage. Unfortunately, it was here that incidentally just as Gilgit, there was a shift the rulers. The ruling entity thought to be Tatar Turks, were soon replaced by a vicious group of invaders who’s indomitable tide had swept over much of Asia; The Mongols. It is now that out comes to light the antagonist of the folk tale, a king remembered for the sweep of his sword and sway of his armies, a King remembered by the name of Taj Moghul. The extent of Taj Moghul’s empire was noted to be a vast expanse spreading towards Herat in the south west and much of Turkestan in the north. The empire was oddly close to in size of the empire of Chaghatai, one of the 4 sons of the Mongol king Chingez Khan. From this it can be deduced that the name Taj Moghul was but a mere title, which in its original form would have been Tajdar – i – Moghul, that is, The King Of The Mongols.

Taj Moghul was keen on Shah Rais, most probably out of his own wishes to create further relations in the western Himalayan states. He not only extended sanctuary to Shah Rais but also his daughter’s hand; going one step ahead to establish matrimonial alliance. Shah Rais was allowed to stay with Taj Moghul for quite a number of years. The exiled prince put to use his own skills of deceit, much visibly inherited from his mother, to convince Taj Mughal to attack the Kingdom of his half brother. He at last succeeded in this task. Here the folktales speak of a peculiar happening. Taj Moghul invaded the kingdom of Torra Khan to assert dominance and ‘spread Ismailism’. The tales speak of him to be the first to introduce Ismailism in the Karakoram but according to historians such as Ahmed Hassan Dani and Shah Ra’is Khan, the Mongols at that point were primarily Buddhists. This is further confirmed by the 3 minarets erected by the invader at Henzel, Thol and Jutial who from their ruins can be seen to have been Buddhist stupas. Either way, the war was a devastating blow to the Trakhans who failed to repulse the enemy’s march and not only had to adhere to the faith and beliefs of the invader but also cede some of their westernmost held areas which now form Chitral. Shah Rais was put in charge of these newly acquired areas and thus given birth was the Rais dynasty of Chitral who ruled till the 17th century till their disposition by the Katur Dynasty. Despite that, from other accounts it is still clear that it certainly took Shah Rais some time to subjugate both the Kalashan Kings of the south and the Sumaleki Khow princes of the north, the latter who were still in alliance with the Trakhans and thus a part of their Kingdom.

Sau Malik and the Second Mongol War

Years after the fog of war had left and normalcy had returned to some extent, Raja Torra Khan made the daring attempt of reverting to his original faith. This severely antagonized Taj Moghul, who once again prepared for another invasion of the Trakhan principality with the sole intention of embarrassing the Raja and punishing him for making the move without the permission of his overlord. The king was much wiser now as to how to repulse the Mongols on the account of his last meeting with them. Rather than backing down to appease his overlord, the rulers of Gilgit started preparing to clash with the Mongols. Fortifications were made, levies raised, men were armed and tactics were adopted. As much as Raja Torra wanted it to be his sword that ran through the Mongol lines, destiny had other plans. Just before the invasion, Raja Torra Khan’s departure from the mortal world took place at the age of 56. The people of the Trakhan Kingdom were prepared to face the Mongols, all that was needed was a King to lead them and thus Raja Torra’s eldest son ascended to the throne at the age of just 24. Sau Malik had almost no time to impart in any festivities for messages were received from Yasin of the march of the Mongols getting closer. At once Sau Malik deployed his troops from the Fort of Golapur in Gilgit towards Yasin. His orders were to march as fast as they could so as to not allow for the Mongols to penetrate into a position in Yasin that might precipitate risk for the defense of Gilgit. The forward march of both armies resulted in them meeting each other near the borderlands of Yasin where both sides camped on opposite sides of a river. Sau Malik using his craftsmanship developed a tactic. He asked for the Mongols to delay the battle until the next day but also invited them to choose their strongest warrior and have him show the native army what might the Mongols held. The Mongols readily accepted and had the strongest man in their ranks pick up a calf from their side and throw it with such force that it landed in Sau Malik’s camp. Sau Malik was not only a cunning stateman and military strategist but according to the folklores he held immense power in his arms, his reply was a mix of all 3 qualities. Sau Malik’s reaction to the Mongol show of power was of him grabbing the most colossal log in his camp, lifting it with his bare hands and throwing it with force enough to make it land right in the center of the Mongol camp. This evidently scared the Mongols who could not believe how a mere human could possess such powers. Sau Malik’s plan worked, since his show of power was enough to make the Mongols decide to retreat and return at another time. This was Sau Malik’s cue, and he made full use of it.

The Battle Near Darkot

The fighting that took place between the Mongols and the Trakhanid army lasted for a hefty 8 days according to A.H. Dani. However, judging from the landscape of Northern Pakistan as well as the capabilities of the Trakhans, it was highly improbable that it was a battle itself that lasted 8 days. On the contrary, the nature of the Mongolo – Trakhanid confrontation was of the Trakhans trying to impart severe losses on the Mongols who were trying to flee the foreign land. All accounts speak of the only direct confrontation between the two parties to have taken place in the vicinity of the Darkot pass, but the folk tales remain silent as to just how the Trakhans managed to expel the Mongols in Darkot. Nevertheless, those accustomed with the history of Northern Pakistan are accustomed to how the Darkot pass and its vicinty has always been a graveyard of invaders. All due to a specific tactic that I refer to as the ‘Darband Stratagem’.

The word Darband comes from Persian and means ‘Closed Door’ or ‘Blocked Route’. It is the name of a narrow defile located in the Yarkhun valley of Chitral, in the vicinity of Darkot pass. The Darband stratagem is the epitome of ancient forms of mountain warfare of the people of Gilgit and Chitral. Our understanding of it comes from the year 1868, when an astonishingly identical war was fought between the Chitralis and the Badakshis at the same area due to similar reasons, where it was last employed. This product of Chitrali ingenuity was a version of the shock and awe military strategy. It consisted of luring in the enemy into a severely steep gorge of Darband bordered on both sides with astoundingly high ridges and a very narrow defile. The base of the defile itself was set with a hidden net made of rope, shrouded under a thick layer of a creeper plant. The passage would also be riddle with multiple sharp wooden stakes, but the core of the strategy was in the boulders. The Chitralis would pull massive boulders up the defile and stick them there using multiple substances. Once the plan would set in motion, the cavalry of the invaders would trip in the net, destabilizing the ranks of the foreign army as well as lessening their chances of fleeing. Their infantries would be occupied with removing the stakes, further slowing their march. In this state of the enemy’s confusion, the chitralis would rain colossal boulders like thunderbolts, creating panic and decimating entire marches of invaders. Whatsoever would survive this, would then be put to match the spears and the swords of the Chitrali warriors. Such was the Darband stratagem; swift, concise, Panic-instilling and efficient.

But it must be highlighted that Darband lies much west to the Darkot pass and could’ve only been the site of the Mongol – Trakhanid battle had the mongols fled through the Thui pass. Thus it was more probable that Sau Malik used a similar strategy near Darkot to decimate the fleeing Mongols whereas the Darband Strategam was restricted to the use of Chitralis. Sau Malik must’ve employed a similar strategy to heavily damage the fleeing Mongol army in a narrow defile south of the Darkot pass and then confronted them directly near the widening gorges up north. He must’ve tore apart the Mongol lines near Darkot, at the very fringe of his kingdom, since his army did not march any further in their chase. Sau Malik’s valor was legendary and so was his strategy similar which became intrinsic to Yasin and Gilgit for centuries to come. As we witnessed Gauhar Aman, the King of Yasin and Gilgit, decimate an army of 1200 dogra soldiers using a defile and boulders in Bhup Singh Pari, in 1852.

Sojourn in Badakshan

The events that followed are a source of contention amongst historians. Hashmatullah and Ghulam Muhammad were of the opinion that in the midst of battle, Sau Malik intruded to deep into enemy lines and was struck down and imprisoned. He was taken to Badakshan without the captives knowing of his identity. Whereas A.H. Dani and Shah Ra’is Khan were of the opinion that this took place centuries prior of the war between Sau Malik I (Sumalek) and the Tatars, and that it was his son who was imprisoned. We shall be briefly following the former account.

According to this account, Sau Malik was taken to Badakshan and made to work as a chef in the ruler’s palace. He used to collect wood for the kitchen. Years passed and getting tired of such a life Sau Malik once again put his craftsmanship to work. One day he started weeping and did not speak to any inquirer passing by. The word of the crying man spread to the palace and the King called for Sau Malik to be brought to the court. Sau Malik informed him that he saw the decaying bones of Tullufer; one of the fastest horses in existence. The King intrigued by his knowledge of Horses, put him in charge of the stables with the sole aim of breeding him a Tullufer horse. Sau Malik accepted and immediately bred him one as well as started taking care of it. A few years passed and the horse was now young and ready. Sau Malik used to circle 100 miles in 4 hours with it according to Ghulam Muhammad. He asked for the King to arrange a large banquet to call all of his neighbors. The day came about and all of the dignitaries were hurdled in the Royal Gardens and just as the Mir approached the horse, Sau Malik at once jumped on the horse and in his loud voice proclaimed to the gathering that it was him who had defeated the Mongols and had been imprisoned and that he was returning to his country. Anyone who can dare catch him should try his best. With this he departed from the Gardens of the Palace in Badakshan and in a frenzied chase where he was being followed by 4 horsemen, he successfully managed to return to Gilgit and resume his duty as the sovereign of the Western Himalayas.

Sau Malik’s rule came to an end in 1345 after 70 years of peace and tranquility. He must have been around 94 years old at the time of his vanishing from the annals of history. His valor against the mongols formed one of the many instances that the people of Gilgit and Chitral resisted invasions. The last of these invasions took place in 1868, when the last central Asian army to ever march into South Asia was decimated by the Chitralis at the site of Darband and thus the series of Invasions through the Northern passes of the subcontinent came to an end.

It is clear to deduce that the history of Sau Malik is one difficult to chart out properly, mostly owing to the intermingling of the oral accounts over a span of some 8 centuries. However, no matter how complex it is to discern myth from fact, it is a concrete truth that their existed a number of men such as that of Sau Malik of Gilgit and Sumalek of Chitral, who deemed resistance as duty and defiance as destiny and marched on to defeat some of the most formidable conquerors of human history.

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