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In the cosmology of the archaic belief systems of Chitral and Nuristan there exists the concept of a World Axis: a temple which acted as a portal through the 3 worlds of the archaic beliefs of the region.

A lost temple guarded by a dragon where the 3 worlds converged somewhere near the modern borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Of the World Axis of northern Pakistan.

Before the arrival of Islam, northern Pakistan and Afghanistan, specifically the areas of Chitral and Nuristan had a inter connected belief system; a form of animism infused with folk traditions and various other influences from different sources. This specific belief system was found only in the sister regions of Chitral and Nuristan and practiced amongst its inhabitants alongside Buddhism which also existed in Chitral and might’ve at some point taken over as the dominant religion of Chitral. The exact origins and specifications of this older religion are unknown, however we know of certain elements of it through the still surviving Kalasha belief system and the vague connections that exist between it and the cultural beliefs and traditions of the Muslim Chitralis.

Through the study of the cosmology of the belief systems of the Siyah Posh and Surkh Posh people of the older region of Kafiristan (Nuristan and Kalasha valleys of Chitral) we know that a stratification of worlds into multiple levels existed. The main stratification divided the world into 3 portions:

Urdesh or The Upper-World of Heaven which was the abode of the deities and the divine.
Michdesh or The Middle-World of Humans, Monsters, Fairies, and other creatures.
Yurdesh or The Underworld of the dead souls.

The Kalashas now employ the words Di, Chomtara Dunya, and Pariloi to refer to the 3 worlds respectively.

The Kalasha and the Kafiristan pantheon comprised of a number of deities. Of these some were like Dezalik who gave birth to all, Balumain who was the patron deity of Kalash, Mahandeo who was revered and loved by all, and Imra who was one of the creators. The reverence and respect of each deity varied with village to village and area to area and this was manifested in the word axis temple. The temple was dedicated to Imra by the Surkhposh tribes of Nuristan however due to more popularity of Mahandeo in Kalash valleys, the temple was known as the Temple of Mahandeo to the Siyahposh people.

The Temple of Mahandeo was one of the earliest and greatest temples of the archaic religions of the Hindu Kush and was perceived by all tribes to have been the Axis Mundi – The World Axis; An area where the convergence of the 3 worlds took place. The temple itself was in the valley of Bashgal in Nuristan upon what is now the Pak Afghan border. It held prime importance amongst the tribes of the Hindu Kush as a place which was built by the deities themselves and used for transport between worlds.

Though due to lack of studies we don’t have a detailed description of the temple, there is a consensus amongst historians that a very similar temple proximate to it can also be used for help in describing it. The following details are derived from both temples. The temple itself was known to be gigantic and had 7 different doors with a huge verandah in front of the main entry where animals would be sacrificed before entering. Entry was only possible after stepping over the body of the sacrificed animal. Though that wasn’t the only part of the temple which consumed animals, nearby on the pastures around the temple existed the rule of a ferocious dragon guardian. All Kalasha pilgrims who visited the area used to bring with themselves horse or cattle, for near the temple was a hole in which lived the gigantic dragon. If the dragon was not fed and its hunger not finished, it would come into extreme anger and smoke would start to rise from the hole. This very hole was believed to be connected directly to the underworld itself.

After crossing every hurdle and satisfying every formality, here the pilgrims finally met with the famed portal of worlds: The Iron Pillar.

This pillar of iron was believed to be located at the exact center of the world, upon the Axis Mundi, and believed to have extended down into the underworld and above into the heavens. It was covered in sacred designs and was the primary object from which all Kalasha symbolism is derived. It contained symbols of the famed temple carvings including the Kalasha interlaced knots, entangled horns and shields and weapons. What’s most interesting is that it contained further symbols which aren’t found anywhere in Kalash valleys, because it was decorated by intertwining snakes, scorpions and other hidden sacred creatures of the Underworld.

More interestingly, The Iron Pillar was believed to be located on the navel of the giant deity ‘Munjem Malik’ who was the Lord of the 2 worlds. Munjem was a giant deity who spent most of his time sleeping beneath the earth and whilst sleeping his body extended through the entire length of Nuristan. He acted as ruler of the Underworld for the Kalashas and that of the Middle world for the Nuristanis. Either way, his duty was to guard the entries of the Underworld and the Middle world and bar people from one world to enter another. It was for this reason that most people would steer clear both of the pillar and of the dragon hole for it meant eternal damnation for them.

The famed temple was a highly sacred pilgrimage point both for the Siyahposh and Surkhposh people till the 1890s when the Durand Line Agreement between British India and Afghanistan took place. Due to the agreement Kafirisran (Now Nuristan) which was under the suzerainty of Chitral was handed over the Amir of Afghanistan without consent of either the Nuristani tribes or the Chitrali Mehtar. Although initially Bashgal valley where the temple was located was supposed to be retained by Chitral, it also ended up going into the hands of the Amir. The later campaign which he led in order to subdue the Nuristani tribes in his quest for central power resulted in the destruction of the temple and the famed iron pillar was probably looted or burnt. Either way, both the temple and myths of the portal were lost.

Many tribes of Nuristan migrated to Chitral upon these events and settled in the Kalasha valleys with their cousins, these excellent archers and warriors ended up accepting Islam in the 1930s through their own free will and adopted the surname Sheikhs. Their village of Sheikhandeh is located right on the border of Chitral and Nuristan, and when the winds from the Bashgal valley blow, it brings with it the scent of the place where there once stood the Iron Pillar; the meeting point of worlds.


Temple of Imra in Kalasha Cosmology – P. Parkes

Foreign impacts on the Religion of the Kalasha – Zaheer ud Din.

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