Shahabad’s Samud Shah

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Godfrey Thomas Vigne (1801-63) was a British barrister who played first class cricket 11 times between 1819 and 1845. The first Englishman who has visited Kabul, Vigne had a long visit of Kashmir in 1835 at the peak of Sikh exploitation. During his visit he met a fallen noble in south Kashmir’s Shahabad belt, Samad Shah. We are reproducing the crux of their interaction that was excerpted from his book Travels in Kashmir, Ladak, Iskardo, the countries adjoining the mountain-course of the Indus, and the Himalaya, north of the Panjab that was published in 1842 in two volumes.

Samad Shah

Samad Shah

Shahbad was originally the residence of the most powerful of Akbar’s Maleks, whose authority extended over the whole of the surrounding country. The family, in common with the old Rajahs of Kishtwar and Jammu, claimed a decedent from Nurshivan of Persia. Assuredly I cannot forget the sayings and doings of Samud Shah…

In figure, he was short, well made, but nearly as broad as he was long, in consequence of his being very fat. His features were large, aquiline, regular, and very handsome; his complexion fair, his eyes dark hazel; and his countenance altogether, which was ornamented with a white beard, for he had numbered, I believe, more than sixty winters, might have been pronounced noble, has there not been a something about it that was irresistibly comical. He would have made an admirable Fallstaff, whom he would, no doubt have resembled in many other particulars, excepting in the use of wine, which, as a Musalman, he was off course forbidden. He was present with Jubar Khan in the action by the result of which the Pathans lost Kashmir, and it was there, I believe, that he was astonished by a shot that knocked his turban off his head; and afterwards, when the discomforted Pathans commenced plundering the tents of their own General, he admitted his having joined in the attack, and made off with some transferring of booty to Shahabad, where he remained quietly until he was plundered in return.

Afterwards he joined the fortunes of Khoja Mohamed Shah Sahib, one of the principal Musalmans in Kashmir, from whom all European travelers had received many kind attentions. The Shah Sahib, being a descendant of the famous Saint of Bokhara, was not without respect even from the Sikhs themselves; and Samud Shah and many other retainers looked up to him in the light of a master and adviser.

Samud Shah was sent to attend upon me by the Shah Sahib, from the first day of my coming to Kashmir;  partly from interested motives, as a quid-pro-quo was expected; partly from respect to the name of an Englishman, and partly, no doubt, in the capacity of a spy. If not otherwise engaged, he was usually in attendance upon me, and I soon found that there was no getting-on without him. His anecdotes, recollections and local information, contributed to render him an invaluable companion in his own country; and he in return was too happy to accompany an English traveler, because, for the time being, he was defended from the insolent bullying of the Sikhs.

He was usually mounted upon a long-backed, long-manned, and long-tailed white Yabu, or Yarkundi, galloway, that safely carried this ponderous burden up and down numerous places where I would sometimes dismount and trust only to my own feet. He always had with him a little tea and sugar and a small metal tea pot in a leather bag, which was fastened to his saddle; and in the middle of the day I usually stopped to give it some employment. A few sticks were collected by a servant in attendance, and a little goat’s milk was procured from the neighbouring cottage; and by these means a most refreshing cup of tea was soon prepared, the milk being boiled together with it. A man must travel in the East to enjoy the reviving effects of tea.

One day, when I was eating bread and grapes which had been sent to me, Samud Shah said that there was a Persian proverb in praise of such food:

Khodawundi-ke-hust, az khordan i dur,

Agar khorde; bukhorde nun angur!

(God, who is, is far from eating; But if he did eat, he would eat bread and grapes.)

The origin of this might be traced to a high source. Dr Falconer, superintendent of the Company’s garden at Saharanpur, whose society enjoyed for a time, both in Kashmir and Little Tibet, had given Samud Shah some sulphate of copper, to be used in the cure of bad eyes. This he carried with him, and administered under the name of Safyd Kafur (literally white camphor), which bore a resemblance to the English name.

Shypan Masjiod

Shypan Masjiod

With a countenance that, with all its comicality, would have been considered remarkably sensible, and a hearty manliness of demeanour that would cause one to suppose him free from the superstitious ideas of his countrymen, I have been often astonished at the firmness with which he believed in the whole host of preternatural that haunt the mountain-forests of his native land.

The Jins (geni) are of both sexes and all religions: they are very mischievous, and in the exercise of evil would seem to be almost omnipotent and omnipresent.

The Deyu are cannibal giants; and the Ifrites (elves) who were in attendance once upon Solomon, seem to have been of this nature. The Yech is nearly the Satyr of heathen mythology.

The Dyut is the inhabitant of houses; and to him are attributed all noises, losses, and domestic troubles. They are propitiated with food once a year; and would appear to resemble the brownie of the Scottish Highlands.

The Bram-bram-chuk is said to be seen in wet and marshy places, at night. From its description, as a rapidly moving light, it may be pronounced to be a will-o’-the-wisp; but if an account of its personal appearance be insisted upon, and the informant finds it necessary to say that he had seen its shape, it was described as an animal covered with hair, with eyes on the top of its head, and a “bisear bud shukl” (very ugly look) altogether. Its size is said to be about that of a badger; and I am inclined to think that it is the animal known as the grave-digger in India.

I laughed at old Samud Shah about them, and he became so annoyed as to dare me to sleep out at night in particular parts of the plain, for fear of the Bram-bram-chuk.

The Whop, he said, resembled a cat or dog, and resided in old buildings.

The Mushran appears in the shape of a dirty-looking and very old man, who seizes a person with a parental hug, and produces thenceforth a wasting and dangerous decline.

The Ghor, or Yech, is a feeder upon dead bodies.

The Degins are the females of the Degus. It is said that they often seek husbands amongst mortals, but that their attachment is productive of fatal consequences, as its object dies in the course of two or three months.

The Dyn, who is the witch of Europe, will sometimes carry her malignant disposition so far as to eat a man’s heart out.

The Rantus is the Aal of Afghanistan, perhaps the same as the Tral, or fairy, of Scandinavia, and the Goul of the Persian and Turkish tales. Her feet are reversed, and her eyes placed perpendicularly and parallel to the nose.

The Rih is a nondescript female, said to be very handsome; but will entice a man into a snare for the purpose of eating him.

The Peri is a being beautiful enough to compensate for all these horrors. Their bodies are made up of the four elements; but fire is the predominant ingredient without consuming the rest. It is said that they:

“When they please,

Can either sex assume, or both; so soft

And uncompounded is their essence pure;

Not tied or manacled with joint or limb,

Nor founded on the brittle strength of bones,

Like cumbrous flesh; but, in what shape they choose,

Dilated or condensed, bright or obscure,

Can execute their every purpose,

And works of love or enmity fulfill.”

But their amours with a mortal are followed by death from fire. The attachment of the females is as fatal as that of the other sex; but they are said to play all kinds of pranks. Their ladies, like Titania, will occasionally become fond of “a lovely boy stolen from an Indian king.”

And the young Kashmirian girls modestly accuse the fairies of both sexes of stealing the Surmu (antimony) from their eyelids whilst they sleep; the one from love, and the other from jealousy of their beauty.

The old building of Kutlina, on the green slope that overhangs the city lake, is considered as one of their principal quarters, and is also on that account denominated the Peri Mahal, or the palace of the fairies.

There is another kind of hobgoblin (whose name has been accidentally erased from my note-book) to whose agency all the unaccountable noises and hootings in old buildings are ascribed.

But of all these, the Gins (geni) are the most universally feared, and Samud Shah assured me that there were many places where a man could not venture after nightfall, for fear of them. There is an old Musjid standing alone on a desolate spot, between Shupeyon and Safur Nagur, near, I think, the village of Arihel, where the gins, as he affirmed, were as thick as sheep in a fold. He once, when travelling, repaired thither for the purpose of saying his prayers; he heard his own name pronounced, and a gin suddenly appeared in the shape of a jackal, and nearly knocked him down by running against him. He was terribly frightened, and having made his escape, narrated his tale to the first peasant he met, who expressed his astonishment at his having ventured into a place which everyone knew to be so dangerous.

But Samud Shah’s credulity did not rest with the pranks of this species of the preternatural. When crossing the passes from Shahbad to the Pergunah of Bureng, we arrived at a lonely spot in the jungle, where he nearly cured me of an illness by what he told me,

“In hoc loco vim mulieri ab urso allatam fuisse: seipsum

illam vidisse, et rem ordine ex ilia saepius audivisse,

mihi graviter confirmavit.”

One day, when I was giving away some medicine, Samud Shah, who was standing by, and looking the very picture of health, asked me to give him a little calomel. It was in vain that I told him he did not require it; he was determined to have some, and would take no denial, so I gave him a little on the point of a pen knife, put it into a raisin, which he swallowed, and I thought no more of it. The next year, directly I saw him for the first time, he astonished me not a little by accosting me in a fit of most uproarious mirth, and thanking me for having been the means of his becoming a father. I inquired his reasons, and he reminded me that I had last year given him a little white medicine on the point of a knife.

He had been long childless, but shortly before that time had married a young wife, and he said that the medicine had had a most extraordinary effect upon him, and swore, by my head, his own eyes, and the beard of the Shah Sahib, his master, that the fact was as he represented it, and true beyond the possibility of a doubt. He added, that the wonderful results of what I had given him had been the conversation of everyone in the country, and that the Governor of Kashmir had sent an account of it to the Maharajah Runjit Singh, who had been, of course, highly amused with the story.

Afterwards, just before I was turning my steps homeward, he brought his little son, Rahim Shah, to pay his respects to me, and upon being asked by his father what he had to say for himself (for he had just began to talk), he lisped out a word or two, which his father said was the lesson that his mother had taught him, “He had been created from the dust of the earth, by the command of Providence, and the power of the Sahib’s medicine!”

The height of Shahbad by thermometer is about 5600 feet. The temperature, at half-past seven in the morning, on the 26th of July, 1835, was 73″ Fahr.

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