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Sayyid Shah Wali - Missionary and Miracle-worker: Notes on the Hagiography and Cult of a

Muslim Saint in Nager and Hunza (Northern Pakistan)

Author(s): Jürgen Wasim Frembgen
Source: Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, Vol. 155, No. 1 (2005), pp. 69-
Published by: Harrassowitz Verlag
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Sayyid Shah Wali - Missionary and Miracle-worker
Notes on the Hagiography and Cult of a Muslim Saint
in Nager and Hunza (Northern Pakistan)

By Jürgen Wasim Frembgen, Munich

Introduction: The Context of Islamization

The Islamization of the mountain peoples living in the Eastern Hindukush,

Karakoram, and Western Himalaya seems to have taken place gradually,
introducing different sects.1 After a first "pulse" of propagation of Sunni
Islam, apparently as late as the 16th century, the Ismailiyya was brought in
from Badakhshan (by the end of the 18th c.). Missionaries spreading the
Twelver-Shi'a faith (Ithnã cAsharī Shi'ism) reached the Karakoram from
Kashmir via Baltistan from about the 16th century, but this by no means im-
plies that most of the population already converted at that time. Later Sunni
Islam made its inroads from the South. A more thorough conversion to this
orthodox creed apparently started during the course of the 18th century and
continued progressively through the 19th century. In Indus Kohistan, for
instance, Islamization is connected with different Pakhtun "saints" and
missionaries who came from Swat, Buner, and nearby regions to preach the
new faith.2 Thus, the regional tradition of Islam in the high mountain areas
of Northern Pakistan consists of several streams and waves with differences
in religious faith and practice.
In the central area of Gilgit and in the nearby Hunza-valley, people pre-
serve the memory of a number of holy men who are thought to have been
missionaries of Islam during the first half of the 16th century.3 Thus, Sayyid
Sultan Wali is buried in Amphari and the better known Sayyid Sultan Alif
Shah in Danyor (both villages are situated in the vicinity of Gilgit). In Gilgit
proper, there are the tombs of a few minor saints, namely of Sayyid Safdar
Shah, Sayyid Akbar Shah, and Sayyid Shah Afzal. The most famous bozorg

1 Jettmar 1989, pp. 62-64; Dani 1989a, pp. 166-167, 170, 176, 195, 216-217; Caco-
pardo/Cacopardo 2001, pp. 33-34, 38, 54.
2 Frembgen 1999, pp. 83-84.
3 Dani 1989b, pp. 151, 153.

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70 Jürgen Wasim Frembgen

(saint) of the former kingdom of Hunza is Baba Ghundi, whose shrine is

situated in the remote North-Western Chupursan-valley.4 He is vener-
ated by the majority of the Hunzukuts (Burusho and Shin) as well as by
the Wakhi population of the upper Hunza-valley, who are all adherents of
the Ismailiyya. Other locally important saints are Shah Sultan Talib, who
is buried in the Wakhi-village of Husaini, and Shah-i Shams resp. Shams
ud-Din Tabrizi (Shimshal). In central and lower Hunza many people also
venerate Sayyid Shah Wali, the most prominent saint of Nager, a former
centralized state opposite Hunza, whose inhabitants are strict followers of
the Twelver-Shi a. His shrine in the Nager-village of Ghulmeth, at the foot
of the majestic Rakaposhi peak, is the largest site of devotion and pilgrimage
in the main Hunza-valley. Generally speaking, the veneration of saints in
the Karakoram tends to reflect the more sober religious "climate" of Cen-
tral Asia than the emotional and ecstatic Islamic mysticism displayed at the
countless shrines in South Asia.
According to oral tradition, Shah Wali is supposed to have been a descend-
ant of Jafar as-Sadiq, the sixth Imam of the Twelver-Shi a. A written pedigree,
kept by the guardians of his shrine in Ghulmeth, gives 18 generations be-
tween the saint and his alleged forefather Imam Mohammad Taqi; thus, the
saint's full name is officially given as Sayyid Shah Waliullah Taqvi Mahbub
Ilahi.5 Being identified as a Sayyid, Shah Wali is embued with the charisma
of the Prophet Muhammad. The claim to belong to the religious elite and to
be of Arab origin is a common hagiographical motif, for instance also found
among Muslim saints in the Deccan.6 Local North Pakistani hagiography
portrays Shah Wali as a preacher and missionary (dãci), who held particular
magical powers. It is not known if he belonged to any dervish brotherhood
such as the Iranian Ni'matullahiyya, Dahabi, or Khaksar. The people of
Nager and Hunza deny that he performed any ecstatic Sufi practices or that
he entered ascetic retreats. Generally they consider him as a powerful saint
who embodies piety and adherence to the orthodox Islam of the Imami Shi'a
sect, but not as a Sufi saint. He actually might have been a Sufi, because of
his honorific name consisting of the titles Shah - "king" - and wali- "friend
of God" (lit. "protector", "benefactor"). Walî generally bears connotations
of close friendship, servanthood, and authority. Nor can it be ruled out that
the name/title of the missionary has a connection to the invocation yã cAli
wall ("Oh saint Ali!") or to the formula cAli wali Allah ("Ali, the friend of

4 For the Muslim saints of Hunza cf. Müller- Stellrecht 1979, pp. 236-242.
5 The shajara nasab (genealogy), which I could photograph, was compiled in 1958 by
Darbesh Mohammad from Ghulmeth and gives an alleged pedigree starting with Adam.
6 Green 2003, pp. 501-502.

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Sayyid Shah Wali - Missionary and Miracle-worker 71

God") which is added to the Shi a call to prayer. Furthermore, the descend-
ants of his servant are called Darbeshkuts ("dervishes") in Nager - but no
information on a Sufi affiliation has been handed down to us.
Documents written in Persian as well as oral sources report that Shah
Wali reached Nager in the early 18th century at a time when part of the popu-
lation had already been (superficially) converted to Islam. It is said that he
came to Ghulmeth in the year 1140 Hijri (= 1727 ce)7 when Tham Rahim
Shah ruled Nager (about 1720-1762). The earlier Islamization is attributed
to Sayyid Shah Buria who is said to have reached Nager in the time of Rahim
Shah's father Tham Kamal Khan (about 1120 Hijri = 1708 ce). The saint
originally belonged to Iran and came via Kashmir and Baltistan. According
to local oral and written sources, he was accompanied by the forefathers of
the Kashmiriting, a kinship group whose members are often religious schol-
ars and functionaries. The names of these companions of Shah Buria are
Abul Hasan Isfahani (who is mentioned in a written order by Tham Kamal
Khan), Aqhon Nuro, and Shah Mohammad with his sons Taimur, Shah, and
Abul Hasan (who all remained in Uyum Nager). Nuro's son Saqi is said to
have later preached Islam in the village of Sumaiyar.
In popular local perception, the historical traditions dealing with Shah
Buria and Shah Wali are sometimes blended with the well-known legend
about a group of six Muslim saints coming from Baltistan via Shigar and
spreading the message of Islam in Nager (allegedly staying seven days
there) and surrounding regions. According to A. H. Dani, Mir Shams ud-
Din Iraqi sent these six missionaries sometime in the first half of the 16th
century.8 The composition of this group may vary: In addition to Shah
Buria and Shah Wali, informants mention Sayyid Sultan Alif Shah, Sayyid
Sultan Wali, Sayyid Shah Sultan Talib, and Saghe Ali. Also Sayyid Dado,
whose small shrine is situated in the Nager-village of Pheker, Sayyid Safdar
Shah, and Saghe Ali's brother Ashur Ali are associated with them. Shah
Buria and Saghe Ali eventually proceeded further to Chitral.
Within the traditions memorized about Shah Buria, it is reported that
the ruler Tham Kamal Khan (whose mother is said to have been an already
converted princess from Baltistan) and his Wazir Uchano Tuchano as well as
"many Nagerkuts" embraced Islam and that the first small mosque (Kamāl
masjid) was built in the fortified main village of Uyum Nager. Of course,
the construction of this first mosque does not imply that Nager was fully
converted. It is rather unlikely that more mosques (masjid) and places of
assembly ( imāmbārha , mãtam-sarã ) existed in Nager at the time of Shah

7 Dani 1989a, p. 200; Dani 1989b, p. 155.

8 Dani 1989b, p. 151.

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72 Jürgen Wasim Frembgen

Wali. Informants are unanimous that also in the course of the 18th century
prayers were still performed on flat stones or on a lawn. Apparently, Shah
Wali was only staying for a relatively short while in Nager (the statements of
informants vary between a couple of months and a few years), before he died
there in the village of Thol, a period too short to supervise the construction
of religious buildings at a time when the pagan religion of the Burusho and
Shina-speaking Dards was still very much alive.
In the present paper, I would like to focus on the hagiography and cult of
Shah Wali in both Nager and Hunza. Special emphasis will be laid on the
oral tradition of the saint's legendary life and wanderings. It is an ideologi-
cally used tradition which is contested by the former arch-enemies of Nager
and Hunza and appropriated by interest groups within Nager. The saint's
miracle-working and the controversy over his dead body throw a particular
light on the hardships of rural life in the high-mountain areas of Northern
Pakistan. The second part of the article deals with the spatial realization of
the saint's legends and contains a documentation of Shah Wali's shrines and
holy places, including notes on the role of the Darbeshkuts, who are their
hereditary guardians. The article will be rounded off by a discussion of the
local devotional practices.


The Life and Wanderings of Shah Wali (Nager version)

The following version of Shah Wali's migration to Nager and his sojourns
in various villages is based primarily on the narratives of some very knowl-
edgeable persons from the Darbeshkuts, namely Mozahir Husain, Ghulam
Nabi, and Zawar Abdur Rahim. Their ancestor Mohammad Ali was a com-
panion and servant of the saint. Additional information on Shah Wali's life-
history was collected particularly in the villages of Hopar, Uyum Nager,
Ghulmeth, and Thol.
It is said that the holy man grew up in a Sayyid-family in Khorasan. He
had two brothers, the elder one was Sultan Alif Shah (buried in Danyor)
and the younger one Safdar Shah (buried in Gilgit-Amphari). When their
mother died, their father remarried and the stepmother started to mistreat
the children. According to hagiographical tradition, the three boys could
fly - a motif which is characteristic for the local Burusho belief in diwaãkos ,
i.e. men with superhuman qualities or demon-like supernatural beings. In
order to nullify the boys' saintly ability to fly, the evil stepmother mixed

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Sayyid Shah Wali - Missionary and Miracle- worker 73

hen's eggs into their food. As a result, the brothers decided to leave their
home and set out on their journey to the East.
In Ghazni or Kabul (informants are divided on that point), the young
Mohammad Ali joined them as a servant ( khadīm ). The latter's father had
a dream one day before the arrival of the saints, that he should send one of
his three sons (Mohammad Ali, Mohammad Shah, Abdullah) with them. By
casting lots, it was decided that Mohammad Ali should be their attendant.
When the holy men, who had anticipated the encounter, arrived, they ac-
cepted the young man and changed his original name Zewardi to the Shi'a
name Mohammad Ali.
From Kabul the small group moved to Badakhshan and proceeded fur-
ther to Wakhan and into the land of the Kirghiz nomads. On their way,
other male devotees joined the saints and became their servants. In the au-
tobiography of Mir Mohammad Nazim Khan it is mentioned that Shah
Wali came in fact on a pilgrimage from Badakhshan to visit the tomb of
Baba Ghundi near Ishkuk in the valley of Chupursan.9 Qudrat Ullah Beg
adds in his Tārīkh-i cahd-i catîq-i riyâsat-i Hunza ("History of the old way
of rule in the dominion of Hunza") that Shah Wali found the saint's grave
open and therein the corpse of a newborn child. It held a yambú (silver bar)
in his hand and the saint took it into his safe-keeping. He then filled up the
grave.10 Eventually, the group reached the Guhjal-area of the upper Hunza-
valley. There are different views in Nager about the continuation of the
journey: Some are of the opinion that the group went to the Shimshal valley
and from there to Hispar, a remote village belonging to Nager. After cross-
ing a glacier, they came down from Hispar to Uyum Nager. Others narrate
that Shah Wali and his companions first moved to the Ultar mountain range
where they crossed the Ultar glacier. Then they stayed some time in Central
Hunza, where the brothers separated: Sultan Alif Shah and Safdar Shah
went down to Gilgit, whereas Shah Wali went together with Mohammad
Ali and some other khadīms to Uyum Nager. It should be added that the
relationship between the three saints is obviously not necessarily authentic
and more likely constructed, thereby emphasizing a common identity.
At this point we will not pursue the legend as far as the saint's life in
Hunza is concerned, but instead focus on the saint's wanderings in Nager.
Shah Wali is said to have travelled from Hispar via Basho and Biraldo first
to the pasture land of Huro. There were goats and sheep and also some fields
belonging to the Goshotkuts-clan of Hopar. A man named Huko took care

9 Nazim Khan, p. 138.

1U Qudrat Ullah Beg 1973, p. 126; cl. Muller- Stellrecht 1979, p. 238.

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74 Jürgen Wasim Frembgen

of the saint and his companion and led them to Ghamu -das (also called Bon-
chi), a barren area close to the village of Hopar. Legend has it that in those
days all was topsy-turvy in Hopar: water flooded part of the oasis, landslides
came down, animals grazed in the fields, and the wheat grain was black be-
cause of the mathél disease; there was generally no law and order and all was
harãm (in the sense of "bad" and "forbidden" according to Islam). Basically
the people just had beans (bukâk) to eat and, as a result were constantly fart-
ing and therefore smelled bad. Shah Wali therefore refused to stay in Hopar
any longer; he blew on the corn to stop the disease and then proceeded down
to Uyum Nager-Tokurkhay. My informant Ghulam Mohammad from
Hopar- Goshoshal told me that his forefather Sukuno (in another version a
man from the Goshotkuts named Mamue Puno) hastened to prepare some
bread made of buckwheat. He then followed the holy man to Tokurkhay and
offered the bread to the saint, who was resting seated on a lawn. As a reward,
Shah Wali gave him his wooden stick. - Analysing this part of the legend,
which is well-known in the whole of Nager, we see that oral tradition here
justifies a hierarchical relationship between the powerful "capital" of Uyum
Nager and the "backward" people of Hopar. Nevertheless, the villagers of
Hopar "retaliated" with their episode of the miraculous stick.
Hagiographical oral tradition records that the saint spend about 2-3 days
in Uyum Nager praying in Manal-guts-das, Tokurkhay, and Melukushal.
In order to strengthen the Shi'a faith, he left two khadīms in that village,
who became the ancestors of the Ayubokuts-lineage. Likewise two other
khadīms settled in the next village of Sumaiyar to preach Islam. This is con-
tradicted by the view that he was only accompanied by his faithful servant
Mohammad Ali. After Shah Wali miraculously saved his companion and
himself from rockfall on the steep slope between present-day Shahyar and
Hakuchar (villages which did not exist in those days) he reached Pheker
where the people were just celebrating the sowing festival of Thamo Bo,
mixing barley and gold and dancing enthusiastically. He reprimanded them
and taught them how to say the kalima (the Muslim formula of creed) and
perform the prayers. Before leaving, he blew on the grain to ensure the fertil-
ity of the crops. According to another tradition recorded in the neighbour-
ing village of Dadimal, Shah Wali cursed the "unbelievers" (kãfir) of Pheker
after they had invited him to join their dance. Thereupon many Phekerkuts
died and the village was partly destroyed by a landslide. Walking further
down through Dadimal, the saint reached Pisan where he stayed in a house
inside the old fortified village. The tradition goes that he loved to pray at an
elevated place above the village (behind the present-day imãmbãrha) where
he asked the people to bury him after death. Then he came to Ghulmeth

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Sayyid Shah Wali - Missionary and Miracle- worker 75

where the crops were only growing quite low at that time. Through the
blessings of Shah Wali, they attained their proper height and the people
became prosperous. Finally, he reached the village of Thol, where he set-
tled down. It remains a matter of speculation whether the saint chose this
place because of its still existing pre-Islamic religious structure, a Buddhist
stupa,11 in order to curb local "paganism".12 The Nagerkuts deny that and
point out the tradition that Shah Wali had spent a few months in each village
of Nager when he finally fell ill in Thol.
In the religious memory of the Nagerkuts, there were at that time only
seven houses in the old khan (fortified village) of Thol, all inhabited by the
Shin-clan of the Manisheré. Shah Wali used to live in a small house and was
taken care of by one of the Manisheré-families. He remained unmarried. It
is said, that he did not speak or understand the Burushaski or Shina lan-
guages and therefore could only communicate with a few people in Persian.
The fact that he spoke Persian must be seen in Nager within the context of
a process through which farsi became the court language.13 Persian became
the medium of the elite used in administration, diplomacy, and trade. In ad-
dition, it represents the expression of Shi'a religious-cultural heritage.
Shah Wali impressed the local people through his piety and proceeded
to action by performing miracles. In Thol he used to receive the people: he
prayed for them, wrote amulets, and cured them by reciting verses from
the Qur'an and blowing his barkãt (the local pronouncation of the Arabic
baraka) - "power" - on them. While visiting a village, he used to preach
Islam (i dacwa , lit. "invitation") and to admonish the Nagerkuts to observe
the religious rules and obligations, particularly to say the daily prayers
in the prescribed way. If the people did not follow him, he became angry.
Sometimes he would even curse them, causing trouble and bad luck. This
is another characteristic trait of many saints that they were held in awe and
feared by the people. Thus, people say that Shah Wali eventually placed a
curse on the family which was supposed to take care of him in Thol, because
the Manisheré did not serve him well. He proclaimed that the family would
never have any offspring and this, it is said, became true.

11 Even in the 1920s, the stupa was still an impressive monument, as can be gauged
from photographs (Stein 1907, no. 4 opp. p. 20; Visser/Visser-Hooft 1935, p. 134). The
monument was locally known as moghule chéti and villagers thought that it was used as a
watchtower for hunting.
12 The famous Sufi and founder of the Naqshbandiyya, Baha ud-Din Naqshband, for
example, was buried at a Buddhist centre of pilgrimage called Qasr-i Hindawi - "Hindu
Palace" (cf. Ahmad 1999, p. 126).
10 Frembgen 1986, pp. 574-580.

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76 Jürgen Wasim Frembgen

My informants from the Darbeshkuts preserve an idealized image of the

appearance of the saint (most probably inspired by popular devotional prints
showing Iranian saints), describing him as a slim, bearded man of average
build, wearing a black turban, and a long green or black overcoat ('aba'). He
used to wear the green 'aba3 for prayer and the black one during religious
rituals such as the nikah- ceremony at a marriage and at a funeral (kafan-
dafan , where the fātiha , the first sūra of the Qur'an, is spoken). He is said to
have been very polite, serious, and having good table manners. The tradition
goes, that he usually participated in the joyful seasonal festivals celebrated
in the village (thereby finding a modus vivendi with the still partly "pagan"
Nagerkuts), but when people drank wine and indulged in obscene talk, his
face became hard as stone and he turned away.

The Life and Wanderings of Shah Wali (Hunza version)

According to numerous informants from Hunza, the saints Shah-i Shams

(Shimshal) and/or Shah Sultan Talib (Husaini) did not allow the newly ar-
rived Shah Wali to proceed through their territories further down the main
Hunza-valley. Therefore, the holy man and his entourage (some informants
mentioned a group of twelve dervishes to D.L.R. Lorimer)14 were appar-
ently miraculously transported across the Ultar mountain range and came
straight through the narrow gorge, reaching Baltit, the capital of the Hunza-
state. The short text about the "Story of Saiyid Shah Wali", collected by
Lorimer in 1923/1924, begins as follows:
"They say that in early times a man called Saiyid Shah had come with his wife
out of the Ulter Ber in Hunza. The people were amazed saying: 'Wherever this
man has come from, and however he has come, there was no road (for him)
anywhere.' " (Lorimer 1935, p. 293)

It is narrated that the saint first appeared at the Ultar glacier called bóyo
sabãran in the high pasture-land of Ultar. Lorimer's informants added that
"... from the Bóyo Shabáran the ice broke away under his horse's hoofs, and that
the blast of wind from the falling ice struck a man who was ploughing in Ultar
and carried him away across the valley." (in Müller- Stellrecht 1979, p. 248)

Then Shah Wali proceeded to Baltit. At that time Tham Silum Khan II was
the ruler of Hunza. The king gave his permission to the saint to settle down
in Shiqaqiants close to the hamlet of Burongoshal.15

14 In Müller- Stellrecht 1979, p. 248.

15 Qudrat Ullah Beg 1973, p. 124.

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Sayyid Shah Wali - Missionary and Miracle-worker 77

Shah Wali started to preach Islam and helped the people in many ways.
He also worked miracles, so the Hunzukuts held him in great respect. But,
it is told, the Tham soon gave a glad eye to the saints attractive, young wife.
Once, the Hunza ruler threatened Shah Wali and magically produced a heavy
downfall over Shiqaqiants, but the holy man protected himself by simply
drawing a circle around him - a well-known apotropaic gesture. Other in-
formants are of the opinion that the queen insisted on Shah Wali's departure
from Hunza, because she became jealous of the saint's wife. Nevertheless,
the relationship between Tham Silum Khan and Shah Wali, as reflected in
local narrative history, is also a striking example of the age-old conflict over
popularity and authority between ruler and saint, the "sultan of the world"
and the "sultan of the heart".16 Eventually, when Shah Wali learned that the
Tham wanted to murder him,17 he left Hunza and crossed the river to Nager.
My informant Taighun Shah adds that the Nagerkuts welcomed the Shi a
missionary and offered him food and shelter. In return, he prayed for the
fertility of their fields and for their wellbeing. Many Hunzukuts, who had
pleaded with him to stay on, regretted that he had left and continued to
visit him in Nager to pay their respects and to offer him clothing. The saint
prayed on their behalf to ensure that there would be always plenty of sheep
wool in Hunza and thus it came true. Lorimer's text gives another detail
about the inhabitants of Shiqaqiants:
"They say he gave the people there some of his hair, saying: ťBury this there'.
And he had said to them: 'When there have come to be seven Saiyid's graves in
this place Hunza will become very prosperous/ "(Lorimer 1935, pp. 293, 295).

Some people in Hunza preserve a particular tradition about Shah Wali's

young wife, whose existence is vehemently denied by the Nagerkuts. It is
said that she worried about her future in case her much older husband died.
But he reassured her that he had already made provision for that. When the
saint died, in the same moment his wife was miraculously transformed into
a pigeon. The bird flew from Thol across the river to the Hunza-village of
Maiyun where it sat on a tree, at the same place where later a shrine for Shah
Wali was built. After some time, the pigeon flew up the main Hunza-valley
and disappeared in the Ultar gorge, from where the saint had originally
come. The inhabitants of Maiyun presumed the existence of a treasure at
the place where the bird had stopped. In fact, a man started to dig and found
gold and other valuables, but, when he returned home, he became sick and
died. Nobody has ever dared to look there for treasure again. The latter

16 Frembgen 2000, p. 63.

17 Qudrat Ullah Beg 1973, p. 127.

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78 Jürgen Wasim Frembgen

theme is well-known from many hagiographies in which sacrilegious deeds

are severely punished by the respective saint.

Miracles and Deeds

Among the Burusho, miracles are called since Islamization by the standard
Arabic term karãmãt . The miracle stories told about Shah Wali are deeply
embedded in a magical milieu: A particular important one, widely known
in both Nager and Hunza, is either located at the glacier between Hispar
and Uyum Nager or at the Ultar glacier. It is said that the saint and his com-
panions were wandering on the glacier when Mohammad Ali suddenly fell
into a crevasse. The other khadīms cried out for fear, but the saint calmed
them and simply wrote a turnar (amulet), threw it into the same crevasse and
proceeded on his journey. Two days later, the group reached the end of the
glacier and met Mohammad Ali, who had been miraculously saved. He told
them that he had wandered under the glacier as if promenading on a lawn,
with an illuminated path in front of him, guided by the light which radiated
from Shah Wali 's stick. In another version, it was the turnar which showed
him his way under the glacier.
Some informants narrate that when the saint reached the Nager-village of
Hopar, he was confronted with a famous hitan (shaman) who challenged his
authority and claimed to be more powerful than the Muslim holy man. Thus
they entered into a competition: First Shah Wali had to demonstrate his
power. He raised his stick and the shaman stretched his arm into the air. But
as soon as the saint had struck the ground with his stick, the bitân became
paralysed and could no longer move his arm. Only when the latter accepted
Shah Wali's superiority and pleaded for help did the saint pray to God and
finally obtain divine permission to enable the shaman to lower his arm again.
The magician then embraced Islam. Mozahir Husain added that everywhere
in Nager bitãn , pašuú (seer), and jadūgar (practicioners of magic) came to
see Shah Wali and challenged his powers. But in his presence, they became
weak and unable to perform any miracles themselves.
In Manal-guts-das (a hamlet situated on the outskirts of Uyum Nager), in
those days a dangerous place with landslides and hardly any water to irrigate
the land, Shah Wali prayed and water started miraculously to flow under the
earth and to surface at a place where it could be easily distributed by building
canals. One of the Manalokuts living there embraced Islam and was called Ghu-
lam Ali (he later migrated to Pisan where he married a woman from the Shin).
The piety of the saint, who was constantly on the lookout for a suitable
place to say his prayers, where water for ritual cleansing and a flat prayer

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Sayyid Shah Wali - Missionary and Miracle- worker 79

stone (nimàaz-bat)n would be at hand, has especially shaped people's im-

agination of the topography of Upper Nager. The rise of several springs
(bul), such as the Baaskir-Z?^/ in Hispar, the Huro -bul between Hispar and
Uyum Nager, and the Tokurkhay-ZW are all attributed to him. In a miracu-
lous gesture known from many saints in the Muslim world, Shah Wali used
to strike his stick on a rock and fresh water poured out. Here the notion of
flowing water has different implications: In hagiography it symbolizes Shah
Wali's purgative path and his ritual purity, but for the local peasants it repre-
sents a source for fresh drinking water and for water to irrigate their fields.
Shah Wali's most famous miracle is connected with the Melukushal-¿^/ in
Uyum Nager. The villagers of Melukushal say that in those days the saint ar-
rived shortly before the maghrib-przyer. As there was no water for his ritual
ablutions, they hastened to fetch it from the Nager-river with the help of
a calabash (hósar). But when they returned, the saint had already struck his
stick on a huge rock from where a spring had emerged and was busy doing
his wudu (ritual ablution). Otherwise he would have missed the maghrib
prayer. Then Shah Wali realized that there was no suitable flat nimàaz-bat
available like in Tokurkhay and Hispar. As soon as he expressed his wish
to God, the stone (in most versions the one from Tokurkhay) miraculously
moved through the air and landed in Melukushal. Much later, in the time
of Mir Sikandar Khan (1904-1940), a beautiful flat prayer-stone was found
in Chinishi, a pasture land near Payalokushal, high above the other villages
and hamlets of Uyum Nager. As the area around the holy place in Meluku-
shal was dirty because of cow dung, it was decided to exchange the stones.
Under the supervision of Wazir Khudaman, labourers carried the original
nimdaz-bat of Shah Wali to Chinishi, which is close to the high mountain
areas considered pure and sacred according to the local beliefs. But twice
both stones flew back to their original places. Thus, Shah Wali's stone is now
again in its right place in Melukushal.
On his way down from Uyum Nager to Thol, the saint is said to have
miraculously saved his group:
"The stone-shoot between Shayar and Hakucher was raining down stones, and
on Saiyid Shah's coming level with it, it sent down stones. A big boulder de-
scended from above. Saiyid Shah, saying a prayer, spat upwards and made the
stone, which had come rolling down, halt on the face of the slope. The boul-
der stopped by Saiyid Shah's prayer is there on the slope to the present day."
(Lorimer 1935, p. 295)

18 Cf. Cacopardo/Cacopardo 2001, p. 143 (on flat stones used for prayer).

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80 Jürgen Wasim Frembgen

In Nager the people say that the saint took a handful of pepples, blew on
them, and threw them in the direction of the rolling rock, which stopped at
once. This story of the miraculous saving of travellers at the steep slope near
Shahyar is, by the way, also attributed to a golden-haired fairy named zighat
apO9 After creating another spring near Bulokot, which is part of Dadimal
situated between the villages of Pheker and Miachar, some informants claim
that Shah Wali performed another miracle in the village of Pisan where he
allegedly pressed a stone in his fist until milk poured out. In Thol it is said
that, in the middle of the winter season, he ordered one of his dervishes to
shake a peach tree and the villagers could enjoy the fruit. This miracle motif
was probably taken over from outside and adapted from dervish stories or
folk tales. For example, a story is told in Anatolia about the famous saint
Haci Bekta§ Veli (13th c.) who miraculously made an apple tree blossom and
bear fruit in the middle of the winter.20
My friend and colleague Ejazullah Beg from Hunza told me the following
story of a karāmāt which Shah Wali is supposed to have performed when he
resided in Thol: Wandering around Nomai, a big village in the lower Hunza-
valley already belonging to Gilgit, the saint met a man from the Hunza-
village of Hindi (nowadays called Nasirabad), who beseeched him for help
because in those days people suffered severely from the shortage of water
for irrigation. The man asked for an amulet which could solve his problems.
Shah Wali eventually gave him a leather bag (méesh) with the instructions
not to open the bag before he reached the place in Hindi where the spring
would arise. On the way back, the man stayed overnight in his sister's home
in Guachi. He ordered his sister to keep the bag in a safe place and not to
open it under any circumstances, because it contained something very pre-
cious. However, when her brother was out, the woman could not control
her curiosity and untied the bag. At that moment, a light grey ptarmigan
(bulā) shot out of the bag like a rocket across the river and hit straight on a
rockface, from where a spring gushed out. To this day, this bulã-bul causes
many dangerous landslides for travellers on the Karakoram Highway near
Jutial. Deeply distressed, the man looked into the bag and saw that only one
feather was left. After his return to Hindi, he opened the bag and the wind
carried the bird's feather towards the mountainside where it created a small
spring, the Phulghu -bul. Its water was mixed with blood and even today it is
not potable. Thus, the moral narrative says it happened, because the people
did not respect the saint's authority and failed to follow his instructions.

19 Frembgen 1988, pp. 41-42.

20 Kriss/Kriss-Heinrich 1960, p. 298.

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Sayyid Shah Wali - Missionary and Miracle-worker 81

In Hunza, the Aqhonkuts are related through family memory to Shah

Wali. Mumtaz Muluk (Aliabad) told me that his family had preserved the
following episode from the saint's life: Before settling in Shiqaqiants, Shah
Wali stayed for some time with their forefather Mamad (from the Achancho-
Barataling lineage) in Baltit-Shanokushal. The people were surprised that
Shah Wali preferred to live with such a poor family who had no offspring.
Mamad s wife offered him milk, but he did not drink, and only put the lit-
tle finger of his right hand into the milk. Through this blessing, the family
never lacked for milk. When Mamad returned from the mountains where he
had worked as a shepherd, the saint ordered him to return again to look for
a glittering precious stone. However, he could not find it and only brought
back a flint. Following Shah Wali's instructions, he placed the flint under
the grain box (čhdģur). From that day on, the family always had enough
bread to eat. Because they were already old and still childless, Mamad asked
the saint for an amulet. Shah Wali wrote a tumàr and advised Mamad to
wear it permanently on his body. Soon Mamad 's wife became pregnant and
from then on, the family always had enough offspring. This stereotypical
motif of the old Zakariya (Zacharias) and his barren wife, who nonetheless
had a son named Yahya, is most probably borrowed from the Quran (j sūra
19/1-16). Later a relative of Mamad was able to steal the amulet and bring it
to his home in Aliabad, where he attached it to a beam. Eventually, the house
broke down because the saint's order had been violated.
Shah Wali's main miracle in Hunza again focuses on the fertility of the soil
and points to one of his particular benign attributes. It is reported by Qudrat
Ullah Beg as well as by Lorimer. The latter reports the story as follows:
"Saiyid Shah possessed supernatural powers, they say. One day he said to the
people: ťO men of Hunza, the water of Baltit is scanty; a Deu is drinking up
all the water. I shall get the Deu out for you, and do you slay him/ At that time
the people were afraid, so Saiyid Shah shot (at the Deu) with a gun; whereupon a
considerable spring of water gushed out. Saiyid Shah said to them: 'If you had
slain the Deu much (more) water would have come out. I shot him just now in
one tooth. The spring will remain to you for ever.' The spring is there now. We
call it the Pfuru.è Bul (the 'Reed Spring')." (Lorimer 1935, p. 293)

In Qudrat Ullah Beg's version, on the other hand, it is said that Shah
Wali did not fire a second time because he was afraid that the demon would
come out and harm the people.21 Therefore the Hunzukuts should be content
with the water available. Lorimer remarked in his notes: "Up to the present
day there is water from the spring for a big field. At the place he fired from

21 Qudrat Ullah Beg 1973, p. 127; Müller- Stellrecht 1979, p. 249.

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82 Jürgen Wasim Frembgen

they have made a small shelter for herdsmen" (in Müller- Stellrecht 1979,
p. 249). My informant Nasimullah Beg (Baltit) added a further detail, men-
tioning the saint's prophecy that more water would gush out if one would fire
at a second tooth. This apparently proved right, when in 1996 a contractor
blew up the rock above the Hyderabad-/?^ and plenty of water came out.

The Death of the Saint

The following account was given to me by Ghulam Nabi (Darbeshkuts)

from Ghulmeth: On the day Shah Wali felt that he was going to die, he or-
dered his servant Mohammad Ali to get a white shroud (kafan) for the burial
and to look for it either at the royal court in Uyum Nager or in Baltit, the
capital of Hunza. Although it was already afternoon, the khadīm should be
back by sunset in any case. Thus, Mohammad Ali started his long journey
from Thol to Uyum Nager. As the king was not in the palace, the queen
received him and explained that, in fact, a kafan would be ready, but she
didn't know if it had been borrowed from somewhere and it probably had
been paid for yet either. She would leave it to the servant's discretion to take
it or not, but probably it would be better to look for one in Hunza where
there were usually plenty of woollen kafans due to the flourishing trade
with Eastern Turkestan. As a result, Mohammad Ali went to the ruler of
Hunza and got the shroud there. Miraculously he returned to Thol in time.
In Lorimer's short Hunza-text it is noted in that respect: "Saiyid Shah was
a holy man of God, and they say he had kept the sun from setting. On their
bringing him the shroud Saiyid Shah Wali died" (Lorimer 1935, p. 295). In
Lorimer's notes we find a more detailed, yet differing narrative provided by
informants from Hunza:

"... he sent a man to Hunza and another to Nager for a shroud. A fine clean
shroud arrived first from Hunza while he was still alive. When later a thin
worn-out, rained-on shroud arrived from Nager, Saiyid Shah Wali made a
double blessing for Hunza, cancelling the original curse he had put on it. Ap-
proving the Hunza shroud, he gave orders, saying: Tut this shroud on me/ and
then died." (in Müller- Stellrecht 1979, p. 249)

Another version, apparently recorded from Nager, also shows a lukewarm

response to the saint's cause in the capital of the Nager-state, but is concili-
atory in the end:
"It is related that when the great saint ... was on his deathbed, he despatched a
disciple to the then Mir of Nagar, asking for a shroud. The Mir agreed to give
him one and went inside, keeping the messenger waiting. Time passed; the
messenger had been exhorted to return by sunset when the saint expected to

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Sayyid Shah Wali - Missionary and Miracle-worker 83

breathe his last. In despair, he left, and approached the Mir of Hunza at Baltit,
who promptly provided a shroud with which the messenger galloped back.
Meanwhile the Mir of Nagar emerged, with a shroud all ready, only to be told
that the messenger had already left. He blamed himself bitterly for his dilatory
behaviour; and, by way of making amends, despatched at once meat, vegeta-
bles, poultry and fruit for a sumptuous funeral feast. The provisions arrived
just at the moment when the shroud came from Baltit; the saint was still alive.
He blessed the Mirs and the people of both states, saying that Hunza should
never lack fine raiment and that Nagar should never lack food." (Rushbrook
Williams 1964, p. 234)

A slightly different version, recorded by John Staley in the Nager-village

of Minapin, mentions the apologetic offering of grain and fruit on the part of
the ruler of Nager.22 Here the saint utters the following prophecy (reflecting
widely-held popular stereotypes):
"... because the Mir of Hunza had acted so promptly and had sent a shroud, the
people of Hunza were to be hardworking and were to have good cloth; whereas
the people of Nagar were to be slow and idle, but nonetheless were to have
abundant grain and fruit." (Staley 1982, p. 122)

In this respect legends reflect above all aetiological aspects. Shedding light on
the continual conflict and rivalry between Nager and Hunza, the following
Hunza-version is more focused on delimitation and is clearly ethnocentric.
It is said that Shah Wali requested both the people of Nager and of Hunza to
prepare a bier (tabut) for him. The Hunzukuts, diligent and obedient to the
holy man's order, were the first to get the bier ready. Therefore Shah Wali
prayed that their kingdom would always prosper and never be conquered.
However, while addressing the negligent Nagerkuts, he prophesied that if
their state declined, it would never be possible to reconquer it. Qudrat
Ullah Beg, on the other hand, even more expressively takes the stance of
Hunza when he writes that the saint wished to be buried in Shiqaqiants and
therefore only requested the Hunzukuts to bring a shroud.23
As far as his tomb is concerned, the inhabitants of Thol argue that the
saint had specified that he wished to be buried in the middle of a large boul-
der in Thol.24 The villagers asked him how they could actually manage that
with their poor equipment consisting of a few axes and ibex-horns. Shah
Wali just replied that they should recite the basmala- formula (invocation

22 Staley 1982, p. 122.

23 Qudrat Ullah Beg 1973, p. 127.
** 1 his represents, of course, a completely un-Islamic mode of burial. It refers more to
the local folk-religious idea that certain superhuman beings, such as deu or phut (demons),
inhabit boulders and rocks.

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84 Jürgen Wasim Frembgen

of God) three times and then wait. They did so after his death and the rock
miraculously split open or, according to another version, burst into many
pieces. Shah Wali was eventually not buried in Thol, but in Ghulmeth, where
subsequently, because of the saint's presence, much more water was flowing
from the Ghulmeth-/?^25 Villagers from Thol claim that in lieu of the dead
body, a huge rock flew from Ghulmeth to the place in their village where
eventually an astáan (holy place) was built. In later times, some women from
Thol and Gushpur-women (i.e. women belonging to the royal family) from
the neighbouring village of Nilt, in fact, saw on Thursdays light emanating
from the rock and moving around. Subsequently, a number of Tholkuts (lit.
"people from Thol") had a dream in which the saint appeared to them and
told that he was staying inside the boulder.
The oral traditions dealing with Shah Wali's death show various "us" vs.
"them" - layers and clearly reflect a powergame over the holy man's barkãt-
filled body between the villages of Thol, Ghulmeth, and Pisan. Eventually,
the numerically more powerful people of Ghulmeth got hold of his mortal
remains and buried him in their village, as mentioned above.26 Such a theft
or abduction of a saints body represents a well-known topic in Muslim
hagiography.27 Repeatedly, the Nagerkuts referred to the weakness of Thol,
where there were allegedly only seven houses at that time. A stronger chal-
lenge was the claim made by the inhabitants of the old neighbouring village
of Pisan. It is said that Shah Wali had promised Tranpha Ghazi (Hashimé)28
from Pisan that he would be buried slightly above that village, because in those
days there were so many ill people who hoped to be cured in the saints pres-
ence. The villagers of Ghulmeth, on the other hand, claimed the holy mans
body in the hope of an effective cure against the wheat-disease ( mathél ).
Returning to the hagiographical legend, the narrative continues, men-
tioning that when the news about Shah Wali's death in Thol spread, Tranpha
Ghazi arrived with his men (mention is made of Ghulam Ali and Mir Ali)
from Pisan. According to the saint's earlier instructions, his body should be
taken first to the house of a man in Thol whose name was Mahmud. There
it should be ritually washed, but the soil beneath under no circumstances

25 Cf. Qudrat Ullah Beg 1973, p. 127.

26 Lorimer 1935, p. 295; cf. Skyhawk 1999, p. 192. - A similar competition of people
from different villages over the body of a Muslim saint can be found in the oral traditions
of Biyori, a village in the area of the Palula in Southern Chitral (Cacopardo/Cacopardo
2001, p. 114).
27 For example Dermenghem 1954, p. 17; Müller- Stellrecht 1979, p. 238, note 501
(Baba Ghundi).
28 In Pisan this Tranpha (i.e. an official with authority over a village) is locally only
known by the name of Hashim.

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Sayyid Shah Wali - Missionary and Miracle-worker 85

thrown away. When Shah Wali's body was now washed, a woman from the
Manisheré poured the running off water in an adjacent cowshed. As a re-
sult of this sacrilegious act, disregarding the holy man's wish, the family of
Mahmud and the other Manisheré had no more offspring. An old woman,
originally belonging to the Nagé-lineage, observed in the cowshed that an
intense glowing light was emanating from the ground. She took a little bit
from the moist soil and put it in the corner of her house. From then on, her
family was prosperous.
After the ritual washing, the Pisankuts laid the saint's body on a tabüt
and started to carry it to their village.29 On the way, the Ghulmethkuts
treated them to a good meal and offered them wine.30 Furthermore, the men
of Pisan who were already inebriated were bribed with wheat and their chief,
Tranpha Ghazi, even with gold to leave Shah Wali's body in Ghulmeth. The
latter's inhabitants quickly buried the saint to create a fait accompli. While
walking back to Pisan, Tranpha Ghazi and his small group suddenly heard
in Ya'-parrPl Shah Wali's voice exclaiming "you have bartered me for gold,
here is more of it" and a big gold-nugget fell on the saddle right in front of
the village-headman. In other versions of the moral tale the voice said: "Do
you like me or do you prefer gold?" or "If you want gold, look in your bag!"
and at that moment all the gold turned into charcoal (hanjtl). Now Ghazi
and his companions realized the sacrilege they had committed. They re-
turned to Ghulmeth, but the people there had already expected them and
emplaced their guns (tumák). In the ensuing encounter a number of people
were injured, but, finally, the Pisankuts had to retreat empty-handed to their
village. - On the one hand, it is narrated that until the middle of the 1990s,
Tranpha Ghazi 's family did not increase and therefore visited Shah Wali's
shrine in Ghulmeth every year on a Thursday to plead for forgiveness and
to sacrifice a bull. Only a few years ago, their plea was heard and Ghazi's
family once again has two households. On the other hand, villagers in Pisan
point out that the families of Tranpha Ghazi and his companions Ghulam
Ali and Mir Ali all died out with the exception of one girl who later married
into another family. This motif of a sole survivor is well-known from vari-
ous myths and legends in the Karakoram.

29 The following abbreviated Hunza-version leaves out the role of the Pisankuts and is
therefore not verified by the people of Nager. According to Lorimer's informant "... the
people of Ghulmit learned what had happened and came to carry off Saiyid Shah's body
from the people of Toi. And they did carry it off, for the people of Ghulmit were many and
the people of Toi were few. Overpowering and beating the people of Toi they carried off the
body to Ghulmit, where they buried it and made a tomb" (Lorimer 1935, pp. 295, 297).
30 Cf. Staley 1982, p. 123.
A very steep and dangerous sliding area near the village or Yal.

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86 Jürgen Wasim Frembgen

Concerning the blessings of the shrine for the people of Ghulmeth,

Lorimer writes in his notes recorded in Hunza:

"Since it (the shrine) has been there, wheat and barley have ripened there; other-
wise, the glacier water came out late in Ghulmet and only millet were cultivated.
It was an unhealthy place; many imbeciles and goitrous persons were born there.
Sickness also has now disappeared." (in Müller- Stellrecht 1979, p. 249)32

In Lorimer's hagiographical text the following is added with respect to the


"To the Hunza people too, it is said, they did not surrender the body, (though)
some years after Saiyid Shah had died, the people of Hunza had come up in
armed force against Ghulmit." (Lorimer 1935, p. 297)

This is in line with Qudrat Ullah Beg's and Lorimer's notion that the
saint originally wished to be buried in Shiqaqiants. Shah Wali is thought to
have said:

"Let my shrine be here, and if there are the shrines of seven saiyid with me here,
there will be no scarcity of water in Hunza any longer." (Müller- Stellrecht
1979, p. 249)

The Cult: Holy Places and the Practice of Veneration

The Main Shrine in Ghulmeth

Shah Wali's shrine in Ghulmeth is the focal point of spiritual authority in

Nager wielding especially magical powers. It is officially called Dargāh-e
sharīf Hazrat Sayyid Shāh Wali , but in the vernacular it is only known as
the astdan (holy place) of Shah Wali. It is situated in the middle of a court-
yard in the village of Ghulmeth, just on the left side of the old imāmbārha
(renovated in 1986). In front of these religious buildings is a huge, magnifi-
cent plane-tree (chendr) with extremely long branches said to have stretched
once to the ancient gate ( khane hingbaltarč) of the nearby fortified village.
The plane is generally venerated by Shi'as because of its hand-shaped leaves
symbolizing the holy family and also evoking the image of hands raised for
prayer. Close to the chendr- tree are the former "place of assembly" f bidak ),
where horses were also fastened, and a small mosque in the background.
According to W. M. Conway, who visited Ghulmeth in 1892, Shah Wali 's
shrine was apparently a simple wooden construction and allegedly bare

32 Staley 1982, p. 123.

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Sayyid Shah Wali - Missionary and Miracle- worker 87

with no tomb in it (?).33 One objection to the latter "observation" is that it

seems to be based on a very superficial impression; furthermore, elevations
of tombs in Nager and surrounding regions are generally very slight and not
cenotaph-like. Some time after Conway, in 1933, also R.C.F. Schömberg
saw the shrine, but unfortunately refrained from any closer description.34
The structure was described to me as a cubic block made of stone with
wooden beams in the local half timbered style, with a few small windows in
the upper part. In the 1960s, Mir Shaukat Ali Khan, the ruler of the Nager,
ordered that a wall be built around the shrine area. Finally, in 1977/1978, the
villagers themselves dismantled the old building and replaced it by an octa-
gonal solid structure with a cupola, a door, and three arched windows. The
project was executed by the local craftsman Mistri Ali Haidar (Madikuts).
This mausoleum (now containing a cenotaph), made of stone and wooden
beams, had plastered walls and was still of a modest size more like the cham-
ber of a tomb. A lintel dated 1295 Hijri (= 1878 ce) was most probably taken
from the earlier shrine and reused in the new building.35 In 1986, the villag-
ers again decided to renovate and embellish the astãan : Instead of having
plastered walls, the mausoleum was now built with grey stone bricks; the
door, the green windows, and the white plastered dome essentially remained
as before. The decoration of the narrow interior consists of a floral ornament
painted by the craftsman Ramazan, two framed genealogies, and two older
poster-prints depicting Imam Husain's horse. The whole site has been rear-
ranged so that the small mausoleum now has a quadrangular walled enclo-
sure made of the same brickwork thereby creating a sort of inner courtyard.
The front of the enclosure shows a symmetrical structure with a main door
in the center, flanked on each side by a window. Both corners are marked
by a round, tower-like minaret with two arched openings in its upper part.
It seems that this new architectural design was influenced by popular devo-
tional paintings (poster-prints) and by embroideries showing the facades of
famous religious monuments of the Twelver Shi'as in Iran and Iraq. In ad-
dition to this enclosure, the outer courtyard is fenced off by a wall and by a
huge portal for entrance, both made of stone brickwork.
As the shrine of Shah Wali is the most important one in Nager, people
from Chaprot and Bar as well as from the remote Hispar come to Ghulmeth
to pay their respects to the saint and to seek his blessings in all aspects of
life. Usually they utter the formula: yd Shāh Walīy yã faryãd dokóyal. The
pilgrims used to stay overnight in small mehmān-khānās (guesthouses)

33 Conway 1894, p. 223.

34 Schömberg 1935, pp. 101-102.
35 Dani 1989b, p. 155.

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88 Jürgen Wasim Frembgen

if they had no relatives in the village. On Thursdays and Fridays whole

families, particularly women with children, visit the astãan. Until the 1960s
Hunzukuts (particularly women) also frequently came to pray and to sub-
mit their wishes and vows. Nowadays, drivers (from Nager as well as from
Hunza) stop at the Karakoram Highway, utter a short invocation to Shah
Wali to ensure a safe journey, and deposit some money (often 5 rupee notes)
into a donation box.

The Nagerkuts seek Shah Wali's intercession for a number of reasons, but
particularly to ensure fertility. Being a powerful auxiliary saint and media-
tor to God, many women visit the astãan to pray for the birth of a son. An
exemplary case was reported by Ghulam Nabi: In 1971 one of his female
relatives, who lived in Sumaiyar, was still childless and at a loss, because
neither the use of amulets nor the consultation of medical practitioners
proved successful. She then decided to stay for five days with Ghulam
Nabi 's family in Ghulmeth in order to submit her supplication every day to
Shah Wali. Ghulam Nabi had to return to Karachi for work, but when he
finally returned to Nager after five years to settle permanently in Ghulmeth,
he learned that his relative had given birth to five children (three boys and
two daughters). Ghulam Nabi added that the woman complained about her
physical weakness, because every year she had to bear a child. Therefore she
requested the saint to prevent her from becoming pregnant and Shah Wali
eventually granted her wish. In this short narrative the obvious use of the
five as an auspicious number in any Shi'a context already reveals a legendary
trait. Another tale from Ghulmeth also underlines the important quest for
male offspring: About 20 years ago, Raja Nizam ud-Din (Moghlotkuts), who
lives close to the shrine, saw in a dream a nurãni bozorg (a saint with radiat-
ing light) praying in the courtyard of the astãan . Most probably it was Shah
Wali himself. The holy man addressed the Raja and said: "Tell your neigh-
bour Tranpha Mast Ali he should just pray and donate a phiróoza-buróndo
(finger-ring with a turquoise) to the shrine." A few days before, the Raja had
jokingly promised the Tranpha that he would help him to get a son. He in-
formed his neighbour about the dream and left it to his discretion to believe
or not to believe the divine message. Mast Ali followed the bozorg's orders
and after two months a son was born to him (today he has even four sons).
Shah Wali is said to help in many different ways: In case of a land dis-
pute, both opponents went to the astãan and swore on the Qur'an that they
had uttered the truth. Salt was sprinkled on the pages which both men had
to lick up. Usually the one who was wrong was expected to be struck by
misfortune or even die within a couple of days. This sort of oath-taking at
shrines used to be very common in both Nager and Hunza. Today jobless

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Sayyid Shah Wali - Missionary and Miracle-worker 89

men pray to the saint to find a suitable position. Furthermore, the holy man
had the divine powers to cure diseases. People in Ghulmeth say that once
a mother prayed at the astãan for the cure of her sick daughter, who had a
stiff arm. In a flash, her ring was removed from her finger and set itself on
the tomb. Her daughter could soon move her arm again. Another story told
about Zawar Rajab from Ghulmeth (who originally belonged to Dadimal)
highlights the saint's quality as a protector: In the 1960s, Rajab had a dream
in which he met a nurãni bozorg with his khadīm (apparently Shah Wali
with Mohammad Ali, as my informant concluded), who were on their way
to the Rakaposhi glacier. He asked them in the customary way where they
were going and what they intended to do. They replied: "We are ascending,
because there will be a great misfortune, and we are going to avert it." The
next day a big avalanche occurred, but miraculously no one died, and only
trees and fields were devastated.
In order to remind Shah Wali of a wish and to emphasize its binding effect,
devotees fix calams (standard consisting of a small stick with a piece of cloth
attached) or padlocks on the doorhandles of the shrine (formerly a chain). A
wish is usually combined with a vow. Thus pilgrims whose wishes have been
granted (which is expressed in Burushaski as murãd puró maními or hajãt
qabül maními ), offer wheat-flour, clarified butter ( maltãsh/ghl % and nowa-
days often money. These donations are taken by the guardians of the astãan .
Depending on the character of the wish, some believers also vow to slaughter
a goat or sheep and to prepare special bread with butter (pushóoro , also pro-
nounced zspirishoro) to be distributed among the poor.36 Cases are known of
an offering being rejected by the saint. Not surprisingly, such stories are told
particularly about devotees from Hunza (for example when ghī was miracu-
lously separated in lumps and scattered around). Other pious people vow to
circumambulate the astãan three times within the enclosure on a Thursday
evening while praying the fãtiha and a duã (personal petitive prayer).37

36 A particular expression for such an offering is qhudéi. In connection with Shah Wa-
ll's shrine it is said that once in the early 1940s, a big sheep was missing, which belonged to
Raja Muzafar ud-Din Shah (Moghlotkuts), the Jagirdar of Ghulmeth. The servants looked
for it and found it sleeping in the saint's courtyard, remarkably with its head turned to-
wards the qibla (i.e. towards Mecca). This was considered very auspicious because, fol-
lowing the model of Abraham's sacrifice, every animal in Islam is slaughtered with its
head turned in the direction of Mecca. The Raja ordered to sacrifice the sheep as qhudéi
and to distribute the meat to all the villagers. On the next day the message arrived that
Muzafar ud-Din Shah was appointed as "Raja" (here in the sense of governor) of Chilas.
37 It must be emphasized that no religious festivities or celebrations are held on behalf
of Shah Wali, such as commemorating his death, etc. The devotion displayed here defi-
nitely lacks the fervent character such as is found for instance in Punjab and other parts of

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90 Jürgen Wasim Frembgen

A way to obtain Shah Wali's blessings is to touch the piqmdr stone lying
in the main courtyard close to the entrance.38 Thi spiqmdr shows the saint's
footprint and was found many years ago lying in the das (desert-like land)
between the Ghulmeth-^/?^« and the small adjacent village of Masot. When,
in 1994, the respective plot was divided among the sons of the owner, the
stone was eventually brought to the astáan . The pilgrims also drink the
rainwater which collects in the deepening of Shah Wali's footprint. The
water, which is "loaded" with his barkãt , is taken with a spoon. On special
request, the mujãwer (guardian) on duty distributes sacred earth from the
tomb, particularly to pregnant women and sick children. He may also pre-
pare amulets. In the evenings, a man from the Darbeshkuts (the hereditary
guardians of the shrine) blows into a yakhorn to announce the lighting of
the oil lamps, whose residues are taken as substances containg barkãt by
devotees. Later the mujãwer on duty closes the doors of the shrine. It is told
that sometimes in the morning the doors are wide open, which confirms
Shah Wali's presence.

The Role of the Darbeshkuts

The twelve families of the Darbeshkuts, settled nowadays in Ghulmeth as

well as another family living in adjacent Masot, are all descendants of Shah
Wali's servant Mohammad Ali Qadimi.39 It is said that the village consisted
of only 30 houses at that time about eight generations before. Zawar Abdur
Rahim remarked that the Darbeshkuts had prospered since then, because
they did not desert their saint (otherwise Shah Wali had threatened them
with extinction). Like the local Ulama, they were also exempted from pay-
ing taxes during the rule of the royal dynasty of Nager.

South Asia. This may also be due to the renewed Shia faith and the preachings of the local
Ulama (religious scholars).
38 hpiqmàr is usually considered to be a sacred stone or rock showing the imprints of
the feet or hands of a saint; frequently people see light emanating from them (cf. Müller-
Stellrecht 1979, pp. 243-244). In some cases, for instance in the Nager-village of
Askurdas, a mosque is built over a piqmár. The prayer-stone from Chinishi near Uyum
Nager, already mentioned above in the context of Shah Wali's miracle to create a spring for
his ablutions, is also considered as a piqmâr where people go to pray for the birth of a son.
Occasionally people visit such a holy place, distribute lumps of butter (puskóoro) among
children and pray for the betterment of weather. This indigenous custom, which is known
as piqmàre pushóoro, is still observed in Chinishi.
39 To to my knowledge, there are no Darbeshkuts living in other villages oí Nager;
only in the time of Mir Sikandar Khan (1905-1940) a certain Darbesh Chiltani migrated
from Ghulmeth to the remote village of Bar and died there without leaving any offspring.

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Sayyid Shah Wali - Missionary and Miracle- worker 91

The Darbeshkuts preserve a particular memory about their forefather

Mohammad Ali. They narrate that the latter was treated by the Nager people
only as a mean servant after the saint's death. Being utterly disappointed, he
left and went to the village of Taus in Yasin. While sleeping under a tree, he
had a dream in which the saint admonished him: "Why did you leave me?"
And Mohammad Ali complained: "The Nagerkuts are not treating me well
and they did not give me a wife." Shah Wali reassured him in saying: "Don't
worry, go to the next house and there you will get what you want! Then re-
turn to Nager and the people will treat you respectfully! " Close to the house
he met a mother with her daughter. Mohammad Ali married the young
woman and also received a letter of recommendation to be handed over to
the Nager people, which the saint had miraculously deposited there. In the
khadīm s absence (for about a week), the inhabitants of Ghulmeth had been
unable to open the doors of the shrine. Despite all efforts, the doors remained
firmly locked. On Mohammad Ali's return to Ghulmeth, he blew into his
yakhorn before entering the village, and the doors of the astãan opened by
themselves. The villagers were very impressed by this miracle. The story re-
flects the well-known motif that people who are at the bottom of the society
and do not have power are eventually validated. Mohammad Ali Qadimi
was later buried in the cemetery close to the saint's tomb.40 His descendants
intermarried with indigenous women from Ghulmeth, they were "put into
chains" (šdngališing egíni ), as one of my informants vividly stated. Since then,
they perform their service of guarding and maintaining the shrine, blowing
three times into their horn, burning oil lamps, etc. This is organized in a sys-
tem of turns called astdane gait , whereby one khadīm (also called mujãwer
or darbésh) at a time works at the shrine and another one at the donation
box placed at the Karakoram Highway. The system is organized flexibly: a
khadīm whose family owns more land will only work for one or two months,
whereas a khadīm belonging to a poor family will earn his living by work-
ing longer (three to four months). Until the rule of Mir Shaukat Ali Khan
(1940-1972), a smaller group of Darbeshkuts regularly toured the villages of
Nager and Hunza once a year after the harvest to collect nazrāna (offerings).
Some poor dervishes also came individually at certain times. They carried
wooden begging bowls (kishtī) and blew into their yakhorns when they ar-
rived at a village. In return for wheat flour, wood, dried apricots, and apricot
oil (used for burning lamps at the shrine)41, they would hand out amulets,
cure through blowing, and distribute ash and sacred earth from Shah Wali's

40 This cemetery was levelled in 1977/1978.

41 There were no fixed contributions by the villagers.

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92 Jürgen Wasim Frembgen

tomb. Similarly, in Hunza, a mujãwer of Baba Ghundi would go from village

to village to collect offerings (until the 1960s).

Other Shrines and Holy Places in Nager

The following chapter deals with the wider "sacred geography" of Nager as
far as it is related to Shah Wali, whereby emphasis will be given to magical
items and commemorative structures.
Shah Wali's wooden stick ( iphágu )> which the saint had presented to the
ancestor of the Mamukuts (lineage of the Goshotkuts) in Hopar, became
a particular object of devotion. It is said that when Mamue Puno touched
the iphágu, it immediately turned into a gun (tumák). No one was able to
shoot with that gun and everyone who kept it at his house went mad. Only
for a single family of the Goshotkuts did the "stick-gun" become an object
containing barkát . Today it belongs to a man named Asmano.
In order to obtain the barkat of the saint's miraculously transformed
stick, women and men stroke the barrel of the gun three times with their
hands beginning at the upper part and then down to the muzzle, thereby
uttering a duã. Each year the women in Asmano's family make a new gun-
case (yuúlgiš) out of cloth, which receives the sacred object's barkat. The
previous one is cut into small pieces which serve as amulets. It is said that
the iphdgu ("stick-gun") helps in all areas of life. Eventually it was also suc-
cessfully used in peacemaking. Allegedly, during the famous Hunza-Nager
campaign of December 1891 it was carried down to Nilt. At the moment
it arrived, the battle ended. More recently, in 1988 during the Sunni-Shi'a
encounters in the vicinity of Gilgit, the situation became critical and dan-
gerous for the Shi 'as and people from Chalt requested the Goshotkuts from
Hopar to bring Shah Wali's iphágu . First they went down to Ghulmeth
where they circumambulated (tawãf) the saint's shrine three times. Then
they proceeded further down the valley; when they finally reached the vil-
lage of Danyor, the battle had just finished.
In addition to such objectified sacred power, there is the well-known idea
in popular Sufism that a place where a saint once stayed for some time (gen-
erally known as maqãm) is thought to be impregnated by his superhuman
power. Thus, for example, Bonchi as well as Sinekar (near Huro) are places
where Shah Wali is said to have rested before going to Hopar. At both places
the people occasionally eat some of the green leaves of a variety of artemisia
called món . It is a grey- coloured, fragrant plant whose branches are used
as firewood. People say that only the món growing in those places has the
medical properties to cure the worm disease. They add that one must pull

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Sayyid Shah Wali - Missionary and Miracle-worker 93

down the leaves starting from the top (the same gesture as with stroking
Shah Wali's "stick-gun"); only then the patient will emit the worms. But,
parallel to the related physical movements of the body, an inversed striping
of the leaves from down to top would make the man vomit.
In Uyum Nager-Melukushal, where Shah Wali performed his most fa-
mous miracle, there is an astãan commemorating the place of his prayer.
The small sanctuary, officially named Sayyid Shāh Wall qadam gāĶ is built
around the saint's prayer-stone on which nobody is allowed to step. Within
the enclosure there is a place for prayer (for men only), flags (calam) con-
nected with personal wishes, oil lamps, and a box for donations. The local
mujãwer is paid from the little money deposited in the box. Many people re-
port that they see lights at the astãan in the month of Ramazan. Similar to the
devotion displayed at the main shrine in Ghulmeth, the pious come to pray
in cases of illness and to seek the saint's help in bestowing children. Thus,
for example, the wife of Raja Mohammad Ali Khan (father of Mir Shaukat
Khan, the last ruler of Nager) had several miscarriages and often came to the
astãan for duā and to make a vow. Then, after some time, Mir Shaukat Ali
Khan, was born. Once, it is said, a man died beside Shah Wali's prayer stone.
He had entered the shrine in an impure state without performing the ablu-
tions prescibed after sexual intercourse. After that, the villagers put a second
slab of stone on top of the original prayer-stone. Moreover, horses which are
sick and cannot pass urine are led five times around the shrine.42
The Melukushal-^«/ or tok-bul , which is thought to have been created by
the saint and is therefore also called Sayyid Shah -bul, is situated only a few
steps away from the astãan up on the mountain slope. Immediately below
there is an hammām (bath), where also clothes can be washed, as well as the
Melukushal -masjid. It is said that if someone pushed a stick into the spring,
it would vanish in the water and the person would be thrown back by a mi-
raculous power. Furthermore, an amazing feature of the spring is that its
water level remains the same in summer and winter; in addition, in winter
the water is rather warm. The bul has long been used for magically changing
the weather by producing or stopping rain: If there is a draught or if there is
too much rain, the villagers of Uyum Nager pray for the fulfilment of their
wish and bring qhamãli and burúm hãnik (bread, butter, fruit), which are
distributed among the poor. According to the rules of purity and pollution,
a woman during menstruation is not allowed to drink from the pure water,
otherwise she will become sick. The spring as well as the astãan are visited
predominantly by the inhabitants of Nager's "capital village" Uyum Nager,
but sometimes people from other villages also come to these holy places.
42 Frembgen 1984, p. 224.

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Close to the ancient village of Bulokot, there is a shrine known as Shãh

Walte émise astãan. The local people believe that the small tomb inside be-
longs to a young Sayyid who is supposed to be the grandson of Sayyid Shah
Wali. The nearby spring called Bulokot -chashmã is also related to the saint
in the sense that the holy man wanted to purify himself and say his prayers
after leaving the village of Pheker where the kāfirs had invited him to join
in their dance. Thus, Shah Wali is said to have struck the huge rockface with
his stick whereupon a spring emerged. Another version links the chashmã to
a miracle performed by a certain Sayyid Mahmad Shah.
In Pisan, a local tradition says that Ghulam Ali (Manalokuts), who had
been converted earlier by the saint, received the holy man's turban (Bur.
bdsha , Sh. bashóo) and his bracelet (júmus) as a gift and buried them as rel-
ics. A few years ago, a later descendant from Ghulam Ali's wife built a small
astãan (square building with a pointed roof) over these relics.
The inhabitants of the small settlement of Yal (between Pisan and Ghul-
meth) also venerate a turban of Shah Wali, which is thought to be deposited
inside a huge boulder. According to Mohammad Shafi (Konjokuts; Yal),
who in 1995 renovated the former old wooden astãan built on top of the
rock, the tradition goes that the saint himself placed his turban inside the
stone which had miraculously opened and closed itself later - another exam-
ple for stones as seats of numinous powers. Shaft's forefather Bagertham, on
whose land the blessed turban was kept, subsequently became prosperous
and had many sons. Zawar Abdur Rahim from Ghulmeth told me another
version: Bagertham is said to have been a carpenter ( tarkhãn ), who was or-
dered by the saint's khadīm Mohammad Ali to build a wooden structure
(panjí, sandüq) to be placed on Shah Wali's tomb for protection and as an
ornament. The tarkhãn preferred not to disturb the saint by working inside
the shrine and, instead, constructed the panjí in the courtyard. The next
morning, the cenotaph-top had itself moved into the shrine and sat on the
grave. As a reward for his service, the carpenter received the saint's turban
from Mohammad Ali and placed it on top of the huge rock in Yal. Later it
was magically transferred inside the stone. From then on, Yal escaped the
terrible landslides which had continuously plagued the village before.
Discussing Shah Wali's death in Thol and his subsequent burial in Ghul-
meth, I mentioned that the Tholkuts believe the saint to be present within a
large boulder situated at the border of their village. The underlying mystical
concept is that a saint after his death in this life continues to live in a space
between the material and the spiritual world, which is called barzãkh in Sufi
terminology. According to this idea of absence-presence, he is thought to be
travelling around at times and at others, he lives in his cenotaph or in a rock

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Sayyid Shah Wali - Missionary and Miracle-worker 95

like in Thol. In any case the villagers built a small wooden astãan on the flat
boulder. During the battle of Nilt in December 1891 when Nager was finally
subjugated by the invading British forces, this shrine was reportedly strongly
fortified and defended by the local warriors.43 During construction of the
Karakoram Highway in 1966, a Punjabi engineer called Shahji was camping
near the village. He saw a light moving around at the rock and realized the
presence of a holy man. Together with the people of Thol he renovated the
shrine. It is now a small round structure with a blue cupola. Inside the build-
ing, some popular Shi'a poster prints are fixed on the wall. A mujãwer be-
longing to the Dóoré (Shin-kinship group) is responsible for the holy place.
Not far away from the rock shrine, at the site of the former, now deserted
khan , the residence of the saint called Sayyid Shah Wali -ha (Bur.) or -got
(Sh.) is still preserved. It is a small, cubic-shaped, single-room house with a
box-like construction on the roof sheltering the hole in the roof which lights
the interior. The empty room is decorated only with some devotional paint-
ings and oil lamps in the southwestern corner directed to Mecca. Shah Wali's
residence is thought to be impregnated with his barkãt. The local people say
that once in later times the roof of the house had to be repaired, when sud-
denly a tool slipped away from the hands of the craftsman working there and
fell on the floor. Miraculously the tool flew up and returned to the carpenter.
An old woman, whom I met at the house, remembered the story of her father-
in-law who once passed the khan at night. He saw several jinn (ghosts) and
became terribly frightened. But when he looked to Shah Wali's house, the
saint just came out, climbed on the roof, and sat down there. At once, the
man's fear vanished and he returned home without seeing any mor z jinn.

Shrines and Holy Places in Hunza

Shiqaqiants, the place where Shah Wali stayed for some time according to
the Hunza-tradition, is now called Astana and forms part of the village of
Burongoshal. As the place name indicates, there is a small astãan thought
to contain some of the saint s relics. Qudrat Ullah Beg reports that the
people of Hunza managed to bring some hair, a piece of the shroud as well as
a little bit āh-e ghusl (water from the ritual washing of the saint's corpse) and
kept it in the shrine.44 The Hunzukuts come for pilgrimage, pray for the ful-
filment of their wishes, and make vows. Every evening oil lamps are lighted at
the astãan . Next to it is a rock where Shah Wali is said to have performed his

43 Knight 1893, pp. 414, 423-424.

44 Qudrat Ullah Beg 1973, p. 127; Müller- Stellrecht 1979, p. 248.

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prayers. In later times different people saw the saint praying at that place in
their dreams. Today it is marked by a partly painted enclosure. Beside there
is the Astana-p¿án, a reservoir which gets its water from the Phurue-¿W, the
spring created by the holy man. Its water is said to be especially pure.
Until a few years ago, the spear or lance (naiza) of Shah Wali was kept in
the oldest mosque of the fortified village (Gul -khan) of Aliabad.45 Qudrat
Ullah Beg calls it the Shah Mardan mosque, while other people in Aliabad
call it the Aqhon Fazil -masjid. The historical building was unfortunately
dismantled in the 1990s. In Lorimer's text it is mentioned that a man by
the name of Choro Nur Shah stole the spear from Shah Wali's tomb in
Ghulmeth and brought it to Hunza.46 In minor legal cases the saint's spear
was used for oath-taking. The suspect thereby had to grasp the naiza with
his right hand or with both hands (in more serious cases oaths were taken
on the Qur'an). Incidentally, spears or lances are characteristic attributes of
wandering dervishes particularly in the lands of Eastern Islam.47
Further down the valley, there are two more shrines on the Hunza side
(Lower Hunza), dedicated to Sayyid Shah Wali. Both astaan date from a com-
paratively later period and are situated roughly opposite the main shrine of
Ghulmeth. Both were constructed after the villagers obtained some sacred
earth and dust from the actual tomb and emptied the bag filled with it at a
suitable place near their villages. It is specified in Lorimer's notes that this
sacred earth was allegedly earth "... on which water had fallen when they
washed the body of Saiyid Shah Wali" (in Müller- Stellrecht 1979, p. 250).
I was told that the older astaan in Maiyun had been consecrated in the time
of Tham Shah Ghazanfar (d. 1863). The villagers carried the sacred earth to
a grove at the beginning of the Maiyun -nullah and put it near a fig tree. Then
they protected it by means of a stone enclosure (with a wooden door). Every
year, after the first ploughing of their fields around the middle of February,
the Maiyunkuts celebrate an astáane qhudéi , i.e. a festival day at the shrine
commemorating the saint to which each family contributes and brings some
meat of huyes (goats and sheep), burúm hánik , and sherbat (fruit drink). First
the people eat at the astãan , then they pray th efātiha and invoke the saint.

45 According to Qudrat Ullah Beg, it could also have been the saint's walking stick
(1973, p. 128). Other informants in Hunza disagree with the association of that relic (naiza
or stick) to Shah Wali and claim that it originally belonged to Sayyid Shah Talib from
Husaini in Guhjal.
46 Lorimer 1935, p. 297.
47 My informant Taighun Shah from Aliabad added that in Eastern Turkestan a camel
usually used to be killed with such a naiza in a ritually prescribed way whereby the camel
had to kneel down before it was stabbed three times in the heart.

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Sayyid Shah Wali - Missionary and Miracle-worker 97

The shrine near Khanabad-Aliabad, a small village settled by Burusho

who migrated from Aliabad (Central Hunza), was apparently constructed
in the first half of the 20th century, either in the reign of Mir Mohammad
Nazim Khan (1892-1928) or of Mir Ghazan Khan II. (1938-1945).48 It is
situated within an old cemetery above the village and consists of a stone
enclosure, similar to the astàan in Maiyun. The wooden door faces the main
shrine of Shah Wali in Ghulmeth and a carved wooden window is inserted
into the right wall on the western side. The wall at the back has a small niche
facing the entrance door which is used for burning oil lamps. In one corner
a few calams have been fixed. When the old road was first used by jeeps in
the 1950s, the mountain slope near Khanabad-Aliabad was extremely dan-
gerous and landslides destroyed parts of the village. Eventually, the people
brought an calam from Shah Wali's shrine in Ghulmeth and placed it at their
own astàan. After that the situation improved. Travellers on the Hunza side
usually performed astàane salām , i.e. standing at the Khanabad -astàan they
faced the main shrine situated opposite in Ghulmeth and offered prayers.


Sayyid Shah Wali is the local patron-saint of Nager, a historical and partly
legendary figure connected with the Islamization of the North-West Kara-
koram. He arrived at a time when indigenous pre-Islamic religious practices
were still observed under nominal allegiance to Shi'a Islam. Shah Wali is
portrayed as a saint of the common people. His dealings with the royal
courts of Nager and Hunza were either cursory or even overshadowed by
tensions.49 The saint, whose spiritual dominion ( wilãyat ) extends from the
remote village of Hispar (Nager) down to the large settlement of Nomal
(belonging to the Gilgit-District), occupies an important place in the col-
lective memory of the mountain people living there. As Nager and Hunza
are primarily oral cultures, social and religious memory articulates itself in
oral narrative history. Particularly in Nager, orality has generated a sub-
stantial narrative about Shah Wali, whereby his holy places also serve as
mnemonic cues for recalling the past. It consists mainly of hagiographical

48 Lorimer noted: "They have made an enclosure at Khanabad which is nowadays

called the Khanabad Salaming Place. The shrine of Saiyid Shah Wali is in Ghulmet. Level
with it, on this side of the river, in Hunza, they have made an enclosure for salaaming to
it. They dismount and invoke blessings" (in: Müller- Stellrecht 1979, p. 250).
49 See also Green 2004 on the topic of encounters between Muslim saints and Muslim

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98 Jürgen Wasim Frembgen

tales and notes, sometimes with an anecdotal character, but usually reflect-
ing geographical precision and realistic details. First, they deal with the life
and wanderings of the saint, whereby probably a part of this oral source
material could be considered quasi-historical. But it has to be emphasized
that not only the claim of his Sayyid-origin, but also his association to the
Shia heartland of Iran and his journey from Khorasan farther to the east is
perhaps an imagined one contributing to the saint's charisma.50 Secondly,
the narratives concerning his miracles and deeds as well as the events sur-
rounding his death are basically legendary.
As far as Shah Wali's hagiography is concerned, there is no "official" ver-
sion, but, instead, there are different versions and variants describing the
holy man's life. The respective social groups in Nager and Hunza have dif-
ferent memories passed on from one generation to the next (as a rule trans-
ferred from the elder members to the younger). Depending on who is telling
a story, the narrator will link it to his own family, kinship group, village or
larger community (i.e. to the Twelver Shi'as of Nager or to the predomi-
nantly Ismaili population of Hunza) and shape it accordingly. Thus, the
hagiographical tradition serves particular purposes and is appropriated and
transformed by different groups and thereby also contested, which sheds
light on their respective motives and interests corresponding to the principle
of "us" vs. "them". Clear differences are, for instance, revealed in the Nager
and Hunza versions: the Nagerkuts claim the saint solely for themselves,
whereas the Hunzukuts stand firm on their share of the tradition and claim
a higher morality. The quest for barkãt- containing relics reveals inner strife
and competition between the Nager-villages of Pisan, Ghulmeth, and Thol.
Finally, narratives told by the Darbeshkuts reflect difficulties of acceptance
in Nager. As descendants of an itinerant dervish who immigrated from out-
side, a low-status role has been ascribed to them which they try to overcome
through their representation in narrative history.
Shah Wali's hagiography contains on the one hand a number of motifs well-
known from other Muslim saints: Thus, the competition with the shaman
from Hopar has its equivalent in the contests among Muslim saints and be-
tween them and local magicians (for example of Hindu faith). A well-known
topic of Muslim hagiography is the story of Moses (Musa) who had to face
seventy magical experts from Egypt. Similarly to this case of "competitive
spirituality", the miraculous creation of springs by striking a rock with the
saint's walking stick is known throughout the Muslim world. One particular
miracle-story dealing with a spring and a ptarmigan focuses on moral truth.

50 Cf. Green 2003, pp. 501-503.

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Sayyid Shah Wali - Missionary and Miracle-worker 99

The elaborate narratives about Shah Walis death and burial eventually refer
to the motif of the translatio, which is found in many religions: A dead saint
is transported to another place in order to establish a shrine. Like in Nager,
it can be combined with the theft or abduction of the dead body. The light,
which people see at night at shrines and holy places, indicates the mysticism
of the light as it is particularly expressed in Iranian Sufi thinking, but it is
also widespread on the level of folk religion, for instance, in the Punjab and
in Afghanistan. In Sufi treatises and in legends known across the Muslim
world, the divine light is said to have been radiantly shining forth from the
forehead of the Prophet Muhammad.51 The famous "verse of the light" in the
Qur'an (24/35) is seen by some mystics as a reference to this nur Muhammad
("light of Muhammad"). The divine light of heaven, the nūr ilāhī , is also con-
nected with the saints whose souls are thought to consist of drops of light.52
The saints turban, which is venerated in a small shrine in the village of Yal,
is generally a sign of spiritual perfection and succession. Finally, the motif of
the desire for the beautiful wife of a sage (as reflected in the attitude of the
king of Hunza towards Shah Wali s wife), is known from South Asia.
On the other hand, in the main body of legends about Shah Wali, a
number of traits are characteristic of the local culture of the Burusho and
Shina-speaking Dards: In the peculiar miracle-stories with their exalted
atmosphere and their strong magical elements, the numinous is often expe-
rienced in stones, mostly huge rocks, which fly around and open and close
themselves. They are related to ancient local beliefs and practices connected
with piqmãr stones. A similarly strong relationship between saints and
stones, reflecting an overlying and intermixing of Islam with pre-existing
traditions, can be found in the Maghrib.53 Furthermore, certain non-Islamic
superhuman beings, like phut, are still thought to inhabit boulders. The
transformation of the saints wife into a pigeon as well as the story of the
rocket-like ptarmigan, causing the eruption of a spring, can be considered
as specific local forms of miracle-working.
Moreover, we might ask what dimensions are reflected in the present
hagiography: Within the pragmatic folk religion of Nager and Hunza, Shah
Wali emerges as a powerful auxiliary saint who helps in various realms. In
the domain of nature he protects man from landslides, rockfall, and ava-
lanches as well as from the dangers of falling into the crevasses of a glacier.
He is concerned with the requirements of agriculture, creating springs and
thereby ensuring the fertility of the soil; water for irrigation is a pressing

51 Schimmel 1981, pp. 108-123; Knappert 1985, p. 16.

52 Knappert 1985, p. 24.
53 Dermenghem 1954, pp. 141-142.

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100 Jürgen Wasim Frembgen

problem of existence, water and life are therefore intricately linked. In addi-
tion, he is concerned with eradicating the wheat disease and bestowing grain
and milk. In human life the saint acts as an intercessor who ensures the birth
of children (preferably sons) and cures diseases. Although granting basically
help of any kind, Shah Wali is predominantly a bestower of fertility. As so
often in the case of Muslim saints, his power is experienced as ambivalent:
As long as his devotees are obedient and venerate him in the proper way, the
holy man is benevolent and rewarding, but fear and punishment are certain
for those who do not follow his commands.

If we examine the concept of sainthood revealed in the present narra-

tives, we see that the features of piety and prayer are by no means in the
background. On the contrary, they are quite important. Shah Wali appears
as a preacher and missionary who taught the basic tenets of Shi a Islam,
while at times displaying the gift of prophecy. He lived a simple, honest life
in chastity (according to the Nager-tradition), thereby emphasizing more
frugal aspects otherwise typical for early Islam. Even if we do not know for
sure whether he was a scholar, theologian or yet a mystic, in his sobriety and
austerity he represents a pious asceticism which is close to normative Islam.
This "officiai" image of Shah Wali, which is particularly emphasized by the
local Ulama, is countered by dominant miraculous aspects found in the
hagiography and cult. In fact, we have no data at all about the actual success
of his missionary achievements, but in the minds of the people he left a last-
ing impact as a holy man, especially as a miracle-worker and healer. As far as
the nature of his barkàt is concerned, it has both the power to strike as well
as to do good. In the process of an indigenisation of Islam in Nager, the saint
has become part of a deeply magical world, which gives him a particular
miraculous charisma. It seems that in Nager and Hunza, as well as in other
regions of the Muslim world where the new faith was spread by missionaries,
it was the magical aspect of Islam which first took root.


Ethnographic data on the veneration of saints in Nager (including Shah

Wali) were already collected during annual fieldtrips since 1981. In addi-
tion, in September 1995, November 1997, August 2000, and October 2002
I conducted fieldwork in the Nager-villages of Hopar, Uyum Nager, Dadi-
mal, Pisan, Ghulmeth, and Thol as well as in Central and Lower Hunza
especially focusing on the hagiography and cult of Sayyid Shah Wali. Here
I would like to acknowledge the help and support of my friends Raja Nairn

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Sayyid Shah Wali - Missionary and Miracle-worker 101

ud-Din (Gilgit and Ghulmeth) and his brothers Raja Nizam ud-Din, Raja
Hisam ud-Din, and Raja Muin ud-Din (all from Ghulmeth) as well as Eja-
zullah Beg (Curator of the Baltit-Fort Museum/Hunza). I also want to
express my sincere thanks to a number of learned people from Nager and
Hunza for sharing their knowledge about Shah Wali with me: besides the al-
ready mentioned Mozahir Husain, Ghulam Nabi, and Zawar Abdur Rahim
(all from Ghulmeth), I would like to name the late Raja Karim Khan (Gilgit
and Thol), the late Shaikh Ahmad Faizi (Askurdas), Ghulam Mohammad
(Hopar-Goshoshal), Taighun Shah (Aliabad), and Hayat Khan (Maiyun).


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Sayyid Shah Wali - Missionary and Miracle-worker 1 03

Fig. 1: The main shrine in Ghulmeth after renovation (Sept. 1995/J. W. Frembgen)

Fig. 2: Shah Wali 's shrine in the village of Thol (Nov. 1997/J. W. Frembgen)

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104 Jürgen Wasim Frembgen

Fig. 3: Shah Wali's single-room house in Thol (Nov. 1997/J. W. Frembgen)

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