TKT Article (From Chitral

‘Bigfoot’ legend of Chitral

Sketch of the ‘Bigfoot’ based on Lal Khan shepherd’s description

The origin of the Kalash people or ‘Wearers of Black’ of Chitral is shrouded in mystery. Their tribe has existed for thousands of years and survived in one of the remotest areas in the Hindu Kush range of the Himalayas in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. They follow a pagan religion, speak an ancient language and possess a culture that is one of its kind. They are also ranked amongst some of the world’s most endangered indigenous groups.

Maureen Lines, an Englishwoman and now a Pakistani national has spent nearly thirty years living amongst these fascinating people, learning their language and adopting their ways. As a social worker and author of three books on the Kalash she is a leading authority on their culture. On a late Sunday afternoon while sipping tea with her at her residence in Peshawar I broached the subject of folklore and superstition amongst the Kalash and she narrated a curious legend about Barmanu or the ‘Bigfoot’ of the mountains often sighted in that region.

It was fascinating to learn about the existence of a local legend which seemed strikingly similar to the stories of the supposed “Yeti” or Bigfoot of Tibet one hears about so often. Moreover, the story of Barmanu is also related to the legend of Beauty and the Beast. According to the Kalash, Barmanu loves beautiful women! She believes many other groups or societies have this myth. Although the story is widespread in the Northern Areas of Pakistan, it is particularly centred around the Shishi Kuh region in the Kalash Valleys, she points out.

The legend goes that high in the mountains of Kalash area there lives a wild creature that is half-man and half-ape. The Kalash shepherds and their Nuristani neighbours refer to this being as Barmanu in their local dialect. This term is likely derived from the term Ban-Manus in Sanskrit, meaning ‘Man of the Forest’. There have been occasional sightings of the mysterious beast and many including Maureen Lines claim to have heard its cry. (This fact was confirmed to me separately by her longtime Chitrali driver Sherafzal, who had also heard it.)

“It was no ordinary cry. It was extremely loud”, Maureen says. She recalls the day she was taking a walk with her driver and a local friend when she heard it. “It came from across the river it seemed and it was like a woman’s scream but it was definitely animal-like, like somebody was in great agony”, according to her. It lasted for a few seconds and the sound echoed and reverberated in the valleys for a while. It was close to nightfall and her companions became very frightened and they hastily moved out of the area. Having lived in the Kalash Valley for nearly three decades Maureen reckons there is no known animal, to her knowledge at least, that could make a sound like that. “The hyenas, jackals, mountain lions, even the elusive snow leopard of Kalash region all have distinctive calls. This was beastly & clearly different. And I still shudder every time I think about the experience”, Maureen confesses.

Experiences like the one mentioned above sometimes go beyond the realm of plain legends and folklore and it is often difficult to find a rational explanation. What follows is even more bizarre. In 1987, a researcher of Spanish origin by the name of Jordi Magraner arrived in the Kalash valleys in search of the Barmanu. After his initial interviews with locals based upon a 19 months study he became convinced of the presence of a ‘wild hairy man’ and the Spaniard spent the next fifteen years in passionate pursuit to actually find one. Shockingly, in the summer of 2002 he was found dead with a slit throat; murdered in his own home in the peaceful Kalash Valley. A police investigation lasting two years remained inconclusive as they could neither unearth any clear motive for the murder nor apprehend any accused.

Jordi Magraner was an enigma himself. It is said he was originally from Spain but possessed a French nationality. He was a researcher of international standing and had spent many years of his life studying language origin and the European and Central Asian Neanderthals (Pre-Historic Man). He had a special interest in cryptozoology, an obscure form of science dealing with subjects such as unknown creatures, Lochness monsters and ‘Bigfoot’ legends. It also deals with search for known species believed to be extinct. Despite rigorous attempts by cryptozoologists to strive for legitimacy through scientific research their critics often brand them as ‘pseudoscientists’.

During the period 1988-1990, Jordi Magraner conducted a study on scientific lines with his colleagues Yannik and Erik L’Homme on behalf of Association Trogloydes, France. During 19 months of exploration in District Chitral he gathered 27 eyewitness accounts of different encounters with the ‘Unknown Hominid of North Pakistan’. He published a paper in the mid-90s which describes the findings of his 1988-1990 study in Pakistan. He records, “We have 27 stories in our possession…In all, 29 people have witnessed 31 contacts with wild hairy men”.

The anatomic description of the Barmanu given by him is quite vivid: “Systematically, the oral statements stress the human appearance, permanent bipedalism and abundant pilosity (hair) on the body except on the face and knees, presence of hands and feet. Lastly, the witnesses speak about a very unpleasantly strong body odour like that of carrion. The head is voluminous, elongated and hunched into the shoulders, with prominent cheekbones, the face is hairless, the nape is vigorous. The nose is turned up, nostrils are broad…the eyes are very wide set, the mouth without lips is broad…The witnesses indicate the lack of forehead and large but human teeth (no large canine teeth like fangs). The chin is not evident.”

He describes the cry of the ‘Bigfoot’, which the expedition had also heard, as follows: “The voice is strong; the expression contains some cries and guttural sounds without identifiable articulate speech…oral statements indicate the existence of a well-developed throat, an important space above the jaw…. Cries have been heard twice in 1988, in the mountain forest of Chitral. The first time at six or seven hundred metres, the second time at two hundred metres. These sounds were uttered at nightfall. They were very powerful and echoed through the mountains like plaintive human calls. The voices were rather guttural and high-pitched; their tone called to mind a teen-ager or a woman. The emissions of sound lasted, less than one minute. We had no time to record these cries.

No animal in Chitral is able to produce such sounds. Even the jackal living in this country cannot produce such a powerful whine, and this is important. Moreover jackals howl during long periods, sometimes all night long. The whines also call to mind the moan of certain marine birds such as Laridae (gulls) or Procellaridae (Shearwaters), but no such birds live in the Kashgarian Mountains, even during migration periods. Gulls and Shearwaters keep away from forestland. The next day, shepherds who had heard the cries, maintained it was a ‘Forest Man’ (a Wild Man). (Oral Statements Concerning Living Unknown Hominids: Analysis, Criticism, And Implications For Language Origins.)

A recent trip to the Kalash Valley gave me an opportunity to meet with different folks who confirmed all the stories about the legend. The Kalash tribe particularly believed in the existence of Barmanu. Such a wide held notion, as corroborated by Jordi Magraner’s research cannot be easily brushed aside as mere hoax, folklore, or misidentification of other species. Although one might notice that mental dysfunctions like schizophrenia and hallucinogenic substance abuse appear to be equally common here, yet how does one account for the experiences narrated by outside visitors as well. I was unable to find any explanation.

I visited the house where Jordi Magraner was found murdered in the Bumboret Valley of Kalash and met with those who had personally known him. There are conflicting accounts of the circumstances and the real reason behind his murder. A twelve-year-old boy was reportedly killed simultaneously at his home and his Afghan guide, a prime suspect was missing. One can only make a guess as to the actual motive. Rumour has it that he had formed an intelligence nexus with the slain Mujahideen leader Ahmad Shah Masood during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. During the war he would often cross over to the Panjshir Valley lying on the other side of the Hindu Kush. Therefore, one version lays the blame of his murder squarely on Taliban, post-9/11. Some believe he was a ‘foreign secret agent’ and a few weeks before his death he had been asked by the government to leave. Another spoke of his irate temper and his frequent quarrelling with his domestic servants who were mostly Afghans. Yet another view gives a completely different angle. Given that he was single and was often seen in the company of young good-looking boys at his home, the local Muslims and Kalasha alike viewed the “illicit” relationship with suspicion and it is possible they found this behaviour in conflict with their own moral and social norms.

Be that as it may, the murder did not receive mainstream media publicity at the time. Apart from a few odd reports appearing in the inside pages of national dailies the affair soon quieted down. I was told Magraner was given a traditional Kalash funeral that lasted three days and his body was interred in a Kalash burial ground in village Krakaal. I sought help in locating his grave from Subhan, a friendly young man who incidentally is the first MBA student from the region. He accompanied me to the cemetery and we found his burial place by the riverside. The grave is located near the base of a giant juniper tree. It is completely flat and enclosed by a rectangular wooden enclosure.

Yet another twist to the mystery was added later, according to Subhan, when within a week of his burial, a foreigner, who introduced himself as a ‘personal friend’ arrived in the valley from overseas. He had his body exhumed, and photographed the remains at length, before vanishing without a trace. A few months later his family members also paid a visit to the grave.

On the last leg of my trip, I paused briefly before the gravesite and paid my final respects to an extraordinary man who had pursued a hill-legend for fifteen years with such serious passion. Now who will carry on Jordi Magrener’s labour after his gruesome murder? That remains to be seen. Although the researcher is no longer in our midst, the fascinating legend of the ‘Bigfoot’ of Northern Pakistan lives on. (Statesman)

Dr. Ali Jan


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