‘But there was not one Pashtun brave who would take up the dare of going into the forest at night to drive a stake into the ground as proof of his having been there and returned.’
Most people in Pakistan have heard of the juniper forests of Ziarat in Balochistan. And for all of them the forest comprises only of trees that grow within Ziarat town. What they don’t know is that the best parts of this, the finest juniper growth in the entire country, spread upon thousands of hectares outside Ziarat. Since few know of this fact, fewer still have seen this enchanting forest.
And in those remote regions, they tell the tale of Sher Bano, a Pashtun woman.
Lore has it that Sher Bano Zungle (Jungle) was so dense a forest of juniper that sunlight scarcely reached its floor. It was roamed by wild and dangerous animals and no man dared to venture into its dark inner reaches. Not even in full daylight; less so in the dark of night for then the forest was believed to be thronged by evil spirits. As men sat around their fires at night in the security of their homes, they dared each other to this test of courage. But there was not one Pashtun brave who would take up the dare of going into the forest at night to drive a stake into the ground as proof of his having been there and returned.
‘Many of these trees, perhaps over four thousand years old, have girths at man’s height of no less than seven or eight metres. Such of these trees rise nearly seventy metres tall. These are nature’s heroes.’
One day, Sher Bano, a young woman, statuesque and beautiful, having wearied of this challenge being bandied back and forth over endless cups of whatever they drank in those days, announced she was ready to take it because no man would. And so one dark night, when the pale sliver of the new moon had set and the glens and limestone peaks were lit ghostly silver by the glow of the twinkling stars above, she was bidden Godspeed and stoutness of the heart by the women and men of her village. Wooden stake and hammer in hand Sher Bano disappeared into the gloom where the junipers reared up eerily dark.
But she never returned. Emboldened by the light of the following day a posse went into the forest to search for her. There, in the depth of what they say was the densest of their juniper groves, they found Sher Bano dead by the stake she had driven into the ground. Only then they saw that she had unwittingly put the picket through the hem of her dress. They realised that as this gutsy woman, having done her due, had started to rise she was held back by her caught dress. Consumed by the terror that she was being restrained by those unknown demons, she gave up her ghost. But she had done what no hero among her clan dared attempt.
To commemorate the courage of this plucky Pashtun woman, they named the forest after her. And to this day, the forest that lies in the heart of the Neshpa valley outside Ziarat is called Sher Bano Zungle.
North east of Ziarat, through the forested slopes of Sor Khezi (Red Spring) where picturesque timber and juniper bark huts lend a postcard beauty to the landscape there actually flows a clear spring. True to its name, it does indeed burst forth from a red sandstone bed by the side of the trail. Lovely stands of juniper dominate the slopes on either side of the valley. About eight kilometres west of Sor Khezi, one reaches Sher Bano’s forest.
Lore may have created a forest where the sun’s rays never reached the floor. But in truth, juniper trees grow well apart one from the other. Nonetheless, as one stands in a typical clearing, the view all around is indeed blocked by the trees. Many of these trees, perhaps over four thousand years old, have girths at man’s height of no less than seven or eight metres. Such of these trees rise nearly seventy metres tall. These are nature’s heroes.
Amid this lovely wilderness of ancient forest and bird song, there sits a tumulus of earth and juniper branches by the side of the road, shaded by immense juniper trees. This, they say, is the last resting place of the doughty but hapless Sher Bano.