The aim of this magazine is to connect the communities of Hindu Kush, Himalaya, Karakorum and Pamir by providing them a common accessible platform for production and dissemination of knowledge.
Yacholo/Phuthh: A spirit of plenitude and power
Mythical creatures in Gilgit-Baltistan mythology
Yacholo/Phuthh: A spirit of plenitude and power
By: Aziz Ali Dad
One of the traits sui genres of the creatures of the mythology of Gilgit-Baltistan is their ability to appear and disappear in humans and humanly affairs. It is mostly in their invisible form; they affect humans through acting as deux ex machina for good or bad. Being a part of the broader mythical cosmology, they have specific function within strict hierarchy of beings in which humans are situated between the pure good spirits above them and evil spirits trapped in the human world and hierarchical levels below humans. The closer the beings to the supreme deity of Makhakar Aaji (Makhakar Mother), the more ethereal they become. However, there are creature who can exhibit traits of both good and bad in their being. One of such being who is simultaneously boon and bane is called Yacholo/Yancth, Lach Lung and Phuthh by Shina, Balti and Burushaski speakers Gilgit-Baltistan respectively. In Sina and Balti languages we find female names as Yachayni in Shina and Lach Lunga in Balti. In Burushaski Bilas is included as suffix to Phuthh, and thus form the hyphenated word Phuthh-Bilas, but this is not exactly equavilant of Yachayni and Lach Lunga because the exact meaning of Bilas is witch. Thus, it is conflation of two difference types of creatures of the mythology in Burushaski language.
Yacholo/Phuthh seems to incorporate some of the physiognomic features of humans and human anatomy but in distorted form. That is why his or her description sometimes creates a comfortable perception at time and instill fear at others. Essentially Yacholo/Phuthh appears as a benevolent being with tendency to become sulky and ferocious at a small mistake and apathetic attitude towards. It is in this sulky mood Yacholo/Phuthh does harm to human beings. It is because of the boon that stems from the presence of Yacholo/Phuthh in a household or a valley, he is worshipped as the spirit of opulence and plentitude. However, the female of Yacholo is the deity called Yachayni. None of the stories paint him in favourable colours. The famous stories of cannibal Yachayni in Kargah Shoti in Gilgit is the archetypal representation of this female diety.
Local cultural practices bear testimony to Yacholo/Phuthh being a god of abundance. For instance, before tilling the field for the first time in spring season, people used to place butter and bread (Shayi Phiyaal/Burum Hanik – literally means white gift) at the edge of field with special prayers for abundance in yield of crop. It is said that in the case of failure to appease Yacholo/Phuthh, the crop will be destroyed by gusty winds, flood, untimely snowing, and rain unleashed by him. Similarly, until relatively recently, old people used to put butter at a wooden totem situated in the corner cattle shed with prayers for more meat, milk, wool, and fat on the body of animals and swelling of numbers of animal in the shed.
One of the cultural rituals in the areas of Ghizer, Gilgit and Hunza is to sprinkle flour on the beams of indigenous house and keep a portion of meal on the rafter or beam. This is done with prayers for lasting of flour for the whole year to feed the family. While shifting to winter or summer hall in the house, people used to fill central hall with sweet scent by burning juniper leaves as incense. It is done to make the space clean of any pollution and livable for the unseen beings like Yacholo/Phuthh because they cannot inhabit a space that smells of humans. Only after welcoming him into the central living space called Shino Got/Messaski Ha, the family members initiate household chores by lighting fire in the fireplace and hearth situated in the centre of house. Till early 1980s, it was normal practice among households in Gilgit-Baltistan to fetch fire from the neighboring houses. All of these is due to the benediction of Yacholo/Phuthh. Because of its centrality in the economic life, architecture, and cosmology, it was strictly forbidden to extinguish the fire with water. Such an act basically causes destitution in the house. Also, it is still considered blasphemous to jump over the fireplace. Traditionally, a house that bellows smoke most of the time deemed to be rich as continuous fire means continue supply and cooking of food.
The accounts of Yacholo/Phuthh paint him as a hairy creature which has bigger body than humans and with big muscles. That is why at times he is attributed to be the spirit who bestows superhuman physical power to humans. If someone accomplishes superhuman feats like lifting heavy rocks, carrying yak on shoulders, breading large boulder in single hit, capturing ibex alive and killing snow leopard with hands, he is considered the one who has blessing of the god of power – Yacholo/Phuthh. The grand water channel Gangupi in Skardu that supplies water to Kharpocho Fort on the mountain is build with mega boulders. It was built 600 years ago when no heavy machinery was available. Its construction is attributed to mythical beings called Lach Lung in Balti language. This is Balti equivalent of Yacholo/Phuthh. Similarly, there is story about presence to myriad fruit trees in thousands in the personal garden of Pir Syed Karam Ali Shah. Local folktales state that there was a Yacholo/Phuthh who was made decile by the eminent pir in the Pir family. He was asked to provide fruits of all kinds. So Yacholo/Phuthh went all over the Wakhan, Badakhshan, Kashgar and other neighboring regions and brought thousands of trees in one night and planted at the same time. His Muslim name is Mriza Kachat. He is said to be under the custody of Pirs for centuries. Mirza Kachat is summoned for support when something is beyond human capacity.
Yacholo/Phuthh is a hairy creature, but his hair is not deemed as a dirty part of the body. In fact, they are considered as a key to wealth. Whoever posses a bundle of Yacholo/Phuthh’s hair he or she becomes rich. There is a story in this village in Hunza, wherein there used to live a rich person. Oral accounts about the reason for his richness is attributed to his encounter with a Yacholo/Phuthh at midnight when he was coming home through a narrow alley in a drunken state. In his drunkenness, he pushed a hairy thing, which was Yacholo/Phuthh. This infuriated Yacholo/Phuthh and he hit him back. Since the person was also physically strong and intoxicated, so he also fought back well in the state of unconsciousness. After listening to the noises, the folks in the hamlet came with twig torches and found the person unconscious. When the person came to his senses in the morning, he stated that he had encounter with a strange creature. Name of the person was Ghuchairo. In the story he went to the site of the fight and found a bunch of hair brushed against the stone wall. He understood that it was Yacholo/Phuthh. So, he happily took the hair with him and kept them for lifetime with him. It is said that Ghuchairo was not only the richest person in the village, but also the strongest because the spirit of Yacholo/Phuthh who not only bestowed wealth upon him but also endowed him with superhuman strength because he was impressed by his courage.
The creature of Yacholo/Phuthh is said to live in huge boulders. That is why in the culture of Gilgit-Baltistan, it was considered sacred. Breaking boulders brings bad omen because it destroys the home of Yacholo/Phuthh. There is hardly a village in Hunza, Nagar, Ghizer and Gilgit where hugeness is not attributed to these mythical creatures. There are folktales that describe the household and abode of Yacholo/Phuthh. There was this person called Pasheeto. Once he was travelling from far flung place to his village, but he got late as evening was approaching. It was snowing heavily. To save himself from freezing, he decided to take refuge in the cavity of a boulder. Upon entering the cavity, Pasheeto felt that he has entered into a warm cave. So, he moved deeper into the boulder and ultimately appeared in a big hall with light. There he saw more than two dozen of Yacholo/Phuthh having their dinner. They had family structure like humans with grandfather, grandmother, daughter, son, wife and husband They were drinking wine and eating a hairy hotchpotch (mul) which detested him to the core. Pasheeto observed that despite his presence in the middle of hall, he was not visible to anyone. Though he waved his hands, but no one noticed it. At one time he sneezed mildly that got slight attention of some, but they ignored it as they were too engrossed in eating and drinking spree. It appears that the same formula where Yacholo/Phuthh remains invisible to human in human domain, the inverse is the case with humans for human becomes invisible in the kingdom of Yacholo/Phuthh. Since Pasheeto was cold and starving, he forced himself to eat the hairy hotchpotch. The mythical creatures there were guzzling wine in large quantities in cups which were of the size of a pitcher. The human stole a jug of wine and started drinking. After getting intoxicated, he sleept into a warm blanket apparently made of bear wool. He fell asleep immediately. Next morning, he was awakened by a noise in the house. Pasheeto saw that the head of house was bit worried and asking someone to fetch a shaman, who lived in the next boulder, because he was fallen ill and acting strangely and speaking in unfathomable words. The shaman came and started to diagnose (nichaar) the cause. Since the hairy hotchpotch sat heavy on the stomach of Pasheeto, he farted all night in his blanket with the result of foul smell in the hall. The shaman stated that he smelled human in the house. It was the evil shadow of human upon the Yachayni (female of Yacholo) that has affected her soul. He asked for wood and wool, and prepares a human figurine out of those items. Afterwards he initiated the process of removing the human evil from the body of female. After applying the magic formula called Durgani addressing Pasheeto, he pronounced, “O smelly human, reveal yourself or come out of the body of this lady or end up harming yourself. You cannot escape my incantation.” Pasheeto preferred to remain silent. Upon no response, the shaman twisted the left ear of that human figurine slightly. Pasheeto felt pain in his left earlobe. Thereafter, he landed a mild punch on the nose of the doll. Pasheeto felt the pain and his nose started bleeding. The shaman could hear the moans of Pasheeto. Then, he told Pasheeto that they were not allowed to kill humans in the house because it would blight the house with the presence of evil spirit of human in it forever. But they could torture him forever.
It is said that the spirit of person who is killed by evil spirit or Yacholo/Phuthh cannot find redemption or way to Paristan (fairyland). He or she remains perpetually in the kingdom of vile and polluted spirits that crawl the earth. Upon no response, the shaman took a fire twig and brought it close to the dolls. The body of Pasheeto started to burn and he shouted in pain. They heard his voice. The shaman asked him to leave the house before all the parts of his body were burnt. The man ran out of the boulder house and appeared in the open.
There are local anecdotes that Pasheeto was a very shrewd person. He was impressed by the magic spells (Durgani) of shaman. Because he knew the boulder where the shaman lived, he stealthily visited his house and stole the magical formulas and incantations. Therefore, he acquired the knowledge of magic and became a fame Durgani in the valley.
Mythical tales in Gilgit-Baltistan tell stories about influence of Yacholo/Phuthh on the humans. One of the common leitmotifs in all the narratives is that Yacholos/Phuthhs are not happy with their coarse, ugly and menacing looks of their females. The female Yachayni is said to be a very violent and brutal creature with menacing looks. Because of this, Yacholos/Phuthhs are famous for being uxorious. To stratify their aesthetic needs, Yacholos/Phuthhs have tendency to fall in love with women of human beings. There are stories about abduction of women by Yacholo/Phuthh. In some parts of Gilgit, Hunza, Nagar and Ghizer, people still strictly observe the practice of keeping the would-be-bride in home for a month before marriage. In this period of confinement, she is not allowed to venture out into open especially during nighttime and to do work of any sort. Every time she must be accompanied by a bevy of bridesmaids. This practice is prevalent today because of the fear that a lover, Yacholo/Phuthh, of the girl may abduct the would-be bride. Yacholos/Phuthhs are known to keep the grudge for lifetime and never rest till they harm their opponent. They do not spare the one who takes away the piece of their heart and coolness of their eyes – his beloved woman. Like Yacholo, its female counter part Yachayni also falls in love with women. But she is more dangerous in love than in indifference as she cannot brook any act of liking or loving of a woman by the man she loves. She exacts a revenge by killing him ruthlessly. She only fears Yacholo. Hence, the overall representation of Yachayni in oral literature and mythology is that of an evil and harmful creature. That is why we do not find any reference in story where a human male falls in love with Yachayni. However, there are subtle indication of human female’s unconsciousness fascination with the muscular body and strength. This subliminal wish does not manifest in public as in public language but appears in dreams and fantasies. When it is said that a woman is under the spell of Yacholo/Phuthh, it basically points to the immense predilection of the woman to this superhuman creature. This unconscious fascination and love of woman slips into public through metaphors and language employed to describe women in the society of Gilgit-Baltistan. In Burushaski there is a famous idiom that describes the nature of women as “Phuttar garus guss (The woman is a creature who acquiesced to the temptation of Phuthh. What it betokens is that when it comes to love, woman does not care about the looks. Also, it shows that that in the cultural ethos of Gilgit-Baltistan woman is deemed braver and more adventurous than the timid male.
Yacholos/Phuthhs also have psychological impacts on human. He/she is in possession of an element that causes irritation and disorder in psychology. It is under the influence of Yacholo/Phuthh that humans especially children become irritated. At times human and children become frenzied by acting abnormally, behaving rudely, destroying things and shouting. This is a sign of influence of evil spirit of Yacholo/Phuthh on the person. That is why it is still common among people to say “Thae-ey chomar Yanch acheetuna (Shina)”, “Butulo phuthh gebiya (Brushaskhi). It translates as “has the Yantch/Phuthh got under your skin” which means has this creature has permeated into your soul? At times Yantch/Phuthh seems like a god of anger. When a person loses his temper, he invites the demons of Yantch/Phuthh. Hence, it is a common practice to call any person in wrath and foul mood as Yancth walaygun and Phuthh dichaei in Shina and Burushaski languages respecyively. If we look at the construction, it does not signify that something happens without awareness of the person, rather it is the person who is inviting the god’s wrath. Literal meaning of these phrases is: he has brought Yancth/Phuthh (god of wrath) on his mind.
This phrase is used when a person starts acting inhumanely, abnormally or becomes incensed with anger. In other words, the person acting so is not in the possession of himself, rather his or her body has been taken over by a spirit. Hence, the madness. A gluttonous person is called Yacholos/Phuthhs. There are special magical techniques used by humans to get rid of the evil influence of Yacholos/Phuthhs. It is the inverse magic of what they practice on humans. There are stories, where a woman starts to speak abnormal language and does strange body shaking. It happens when Yacholo/Phuthh comes close to her body. It is said that he enjoys the smell of the body of woman. Like magic of Yacholo/Phuthh, the magic is also employed by humans to ward off evil spirits from human habitation, soul and body. There is a certain procedure to trace the evil influence of such entities. Normally, people put a jug on the head of the person suffering from physical illness and pour boiling lid into the cold water in the jug. In very short time, the lid freezes. If it is a distorted shape, the Yacholo/Phuthh is considered as the cause and starts the process of exorcism. The process is akin to the one Yacholo/Phuthh Shaman does on humans by making a figurine of Yacholo/Phuthh.
It is not that the name of Yacholo/Phuthh is evoked on special occasions. It is the creature that lives in everyday life practices and is even embedded in social structure of Gilgit-Baltistan. These can be explained by two examples. One from practices related to baby care after birth and another of the the tribal system. In the culture of Gilgit-Baltistan, when a baby is born s/he is always attended by an elderly person to protect him/her from abduction by Yacholo/Phuthh. The child is not left alone until s/he is weaned off. As mentioned already that Yacholos/Phuthhs detest their own looks, so they get infatuated by the beauty of human babies That is why they steal human babies. There are rampant stories in the valleys of Gilgit-Baltistan that narrate the stealing of beautiful babies by this creature Yacholo/Phuthh. There is this story stated by a mother. She narrates, “I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy with golden hair, fair skin and eyes like ibex. He had more characteristics of fairies than humans. So, I thought he was given to me by fairies. Once, I was taking care of household chores with him tied in the traditional baby’s rocking cot. While working I felt thirsty and went outside to fetch water from nearby water well. I came back after few minutes, and I found the cot opened with no trace of my baby who was hardly two months year old. There was another baby crawling near the fireplace. The new baby had bodily deformation and looks were menacing. There I realized that my baby was stolen by a Yantch and he put his own one here. It gave me great pains as I was lax in my role as a mother and guardian. However, my motherhood feelings are intrinsic. So, I nurtured the Yacholo as my child. Now he is a human with palpable streaks of Yacholo. That is why even now, the people in the valley call him Yancth Haritham.”
The social role of Yacholo/Phuthh or Phuthh can be gauged from the fact that families and tribes derived their names from this mythical creature. For instance, there is this certain family of a particular tribe in Hunza Shinaki area. Once their ancestral father went to the court of the King of Hunza. He was a tall and burly guy with big muscles and scary looks. While approaching Baltit Fort of Hunza, he had to traverse narrow alleys of Baltit village. He stood tall and different from the rest of delegations. So, it was natural to notice his palpable difference between people. Whoever saw him uttered in astonishment, “khin to futan baey naa (he looks like a Phuthh). Same phrase was used by the participants present in the court of King of Hunza. Thereupon, king asked him “what do you say Phuthhto about the people who deem you so.” Thereafter, the name Phuthho was applied to the family members belonging to the man declared Phutto. This family belongs to the tribe in Hunza who were considered as the warrior class. In the division of labour in Hunza state, their tribe was responsible for spearheading the war and marauding mission in the neighboring states and polities in High Asia.
So, my dear audiences, may our guardian deity (Raachi) increase your numbers hundred-fold! I end this story here and thank you for the food and wine that you served while I was narrating the story. In the next episode we will come up with a story of another mythical creature to understand the mythical worldview of our forefathers.
About another mythical creature, Jardhang’aaylo, written by Aziz Ali Dad can be read here