Pakistani Myths

Snow Leopards, Mountain Spirts

and Sacred Space in Northern Pakistan

By Dr. John Mock 2004

Pari are female supernatural denizens of the high mountains. People in Pakistan, Afghanistan, north India and throughout Central Asia are familiar with pari. The Wakhi ethnic population in northern Pakistan, China, Tajikistan and Afghanistan have their own word for pari: mergichan. The mergichan inhabit the mergich realm, which is the realm of the mountains and high pastures. It is a pure, even sacred realm, where the supernatural mountain spirits tend their wild flocks of blue sheep and ibex. Humans only enter the mergich realm during summer, and only after ceremonially announcing to the mergichan that the people will displace them for the summer and asking them for a favorable influence on the livestock and dairy production.

High pasture in the Pamir mountains.

Unnamed peak rising above the Shimshal Pamir.

The mergichan are not malevolent beings, but their displeasure can be provoked. They are angered by “impure” actions that pollute the mergich realm. As powerful beings, they need be propitiated to ensure the success of summer herding and dairy production by the community as a whole, and for success at hunting by individual men. The mergichan can assume the guise of a mergich animal, and in that form they can both harm and help men. Hunters cultivate a positive relationship with the mergichan and the mergich realm in order that the mergichan should reveal the location of the wild game to them through signs or through a dream. The knowledge of how to gain the favor of the mergichan includes knowledge of the habits of the wild game, the landscape within which they dwell, the vegetation they prefer for food, and a general respect and reverence for all that is mergich. From a western perspective, this seems very much like an environmental ethic.

The Wakhi word for snow leopard is pes. A pes is a mergich animal found only in mergich areas. It rarely interacts with people, is hard to see, powerful, beautiful, and potentially dangerous. As such, it exemplifies many of the qualities of the mergichan, and so is an appropriate animal shape for them to assume. Currently, in the Wakhi community of Shimshal, villagers are engaged in a process of integrating their concept of mergich with a modern conservation ethic through the Shimshal Nature Trust. The younger generation sees this as a way to make the old concepts again relevant. A similar process is underway in the Avgarch community in its efforts to manage the buffer zone area of the Khunjerab National Park. SLC has established partnerships with both communities, whose actions are important examples of cooperative efforts to integrate old and new knowledge into a framework that can be shared between people inside and outside the Wakhi community to develop a new significance for the mountain landscape. Here is a Wakhi story from Shimshal of how mergichan assumed the guise of a pes and became the protective spirit partner of a Wakhi man.

Above Shimshal Village.

Above Shimshal Village. This story was recorded by Dr. John Mock as part of his research activities in northern Pakistan.

It is like a miracle. Someone sees something and then it vanishes. My own father, a miracle happened to him. What sort of miracle? My father went with the people to Lemarz Keshk. You’ve seen it, no? The trees below Furzin? In the evening my father went to the spring for water. When he went for water, he saw a woman with a white scarf, a pitek. He lay down into a low area so he was hidden. He stayed there a long time, looking.

“What sort of thing was this?” he thought. People never came there, so a woman would never go there either. Then his uncle came and he said to him, “O Uncle, a woman came here, a woman with a white scarf stood here, and now she has vanished down here.” He said, “Ya Maula, what can it be?”

Well, it became dark. Night fell, and they ate dinner and slept. They had nothing but an old blanket. They both covered themselves with that, and slept. In the night, my father dreamt that two horses came with two riders. He dreamt one horse came and passed over him, and one came and sunk its teeth into his leg. He awoke suddenly and something heavy was on his body. He tried to sit up, but he couldn’t. It was very heavy. He was still sort of asleep, and he moved a little, then shook his blanket and saw a snow leopard, with eyes like that. And it sat on top of him. Like this, on top of him it sat. And it moved off of him and slowly went outside. It went out, and he felt a lot of pain. He said, “O Uncle, wake up! My leg hurts, something came on top of me. Go out and shine a light.”

Shimshal villager

Shimshal villagers are engaged in a process of integrating their concept of mergich with a modern conservation ethic.

He got up and they made a fire, and saw a lot of blood. Blood, he was bleeding. And then he was very scared. He said, “What thing was this, what happened?” They sat a while, but it didn’t come. Then they closed the door with a stone and slept. While they slept, it grabbed the door and tossed the stone aside. It came and yanked their blanket and took it. They were uncovered. It took that down to the trees. Then they got up and made a fire.

“O God, what is this thing?” they said. They saw it seemed like a snow leopard. It came towards the door of the hut and his uncle was going to shoot at it when he fainted. He went unconscious and the snow leopard became a horse and went away. They sat and sat and it grew light.

Their companions were at the settled area down river, where they cultivated barley. People were there for harvesting. My father came there, and said, “Someone come with us, and give us a dog, too, we were so frightened.” They refused to come. He took a dog and tied it at the door that night. He tied it by the door and at night it came again and it grabbed that dog and tossed it far away. Again it came. It came again and it wouldn’t let them sleep all night long till dawn. It took the shape of a snow leopard. It put itself into a snow leopard skin.

They returned to Shimshal. There, the khalifa (spiritual leader) said that it was a pari. The pari itself took on the guise of a snow leopard. It took on the skin of a snow leopard and then attacked them like that.

photo capture of a wild snow leopardThen what happened to my father? Then it happened like this, that this pari was with him continuously, with my father. It came itself as a snow leopard. I myself and my brother Shifa, we both saw it. Our father was with us, at Arbab Purien. We were there together when it came. It came and I saw it first. I said, “Ya Ali, what thing has come? A snow leopard.” It came and stood on the far side. It stood there and didn’t come near us. It turned and left. My father was there, too. And until his dying day, that never was a danger to anyone, but to his dying day that pari was with him. A pari in the shape of a snow leopard. It would assume the shape of a snow leopard and come. That pari was ready to make friends with him. Whenever he was preparing to hunt somewhere, that pari said to him at night in a dream and told him, “In such and such place go and hunt. To such and such place don’t go and hunt, no game is there.” Whether ibex, or whether small game, he would go and it would be there. Such miraculous things happened with him. You can ask other Shimshalis if such things were or not. They will tell you. Up until his death, this was with him.

Then it ended when he went from this world. Now it is no longer like this with us. Pari are not close to us. We live more at ease. My father was different. A snow leopard came to him. This event occurred.”

The Otter and the Snow Leopard

pallas cat

Painting by David Miller.

People in the Baltistan region of Northern Pakistan, and “next door” in Ladakh, Northern India, consider the snow leopard to be a part-land, part-water animal. They believe that there is only a female snow leopard. The female comes into heat on a full moon night, goes to the edge of a water body, a lake or a river, and calls to the male otter. The otter comes out of the water and mates with the female snow leopard. After copulation, the female returns to the mountains and the otter goes back into the water. At the time of birth the pregnant snow leopard comes again to the edge of the water and gives birth. A newborn male cub goes in the water and becomes an otter while the female cub goes in the mountain with the mother.

Shafqat Hussain, director of Project Snow Leopard, elaborates in his paper, “Nature and Human Nature: Conservation, Values and Snow leopard,”

In this story the snow leopard becomes a mythological character, symbolizing the mystical, almost magical character of nature. The story demonstrates that Baltis do not necessarily seek rational explanations of nature; in their world-view it is believed, and accepted, that nature is full of mysterious and unexplained things. In keeping with their wider world-view, the view of the snow leopard provides the Baltis with the opportunity to express their biophilia* tendencies in the form of engaging in a mental creative activity that revolves around an imaginative secret life of the snow leopard.

Thanks to Shafqat Hussain, Rinchen Wangchuk, John Mock, and Matthieu Paley for reporting this myth.

*Put forward by Edward Wilson (1993), the biophilia hypothesis states that humans have an innate tendency to associate with life-like processes found in the natural world, and that this tendency serves our vital biological needs. Kellert (1993) builds on Wilson’s theory and states that biophilia is biologically based, thus it is part of our evolutionary heritage and is associated with genetic fitness. He argues that biophilia exists because it gives humans an advantage in the evolutionary struggle to thrive as a species; this advantage derives from the fact that biophilia increases the possibility of humans finding meaning and personal fulfillment in their lives with their interaction with nature. The nourishment of these broader human needs contributes towards achieving the most fundamental goal of human species – its survival. Thus a disconnection with the natural world mainly through degradation of species does irreversible damage to the well being of humans, particularly in cognitive and evaluative respects, and ultimately limits the capacity of the human species to survive in the long term.