Lake Saif-ul-Malook, situated at a height 10,600 ft at the northern tip of the Kaghan Valley in Pakistan’s Himalayas, is one of the most beautiful places on earth. I have been there twice, the first time as a 12-year old and then in 2009, when I determined to capture some of its magic on camera and on paper, in the words of two local storytellers who relate the legend of the Lake to visitors.
It is the story of a prince and a fairy, Saif-ul-Malook and Badr-ul-Jamal, a story of love, adventure, faith, magic, suffering and betrayal – a story of the multitude of human passions.
Many different versions exist, but below is a reproduction of what the storytellers told us, with some writer’s liberties. I hope you enjoy it!
Suddenly, Prince Saif noticed that the fairies had begun to emerge from the water, and were one by one donning their wings. They were getting ready to leave!
Panicking, he summoned the jinn of the Suleimani cap. “Friend, what shall I do?” he beseeched the jinn. “If I confront Badr Jamal now, she and her cohorts will be sure to take off in fright, ruining my chances forever. How do I stop her from leaving?”
The jinn nodded his head sympathetically, and said in reassuring tones, “Worry not, master. Leave it to me.”
With that, he vanished into the air whence he had come. Unseen to Prince Saif and the Fairies, the jinn stealthily crept up to the shore of the Lake where the Fairies had placed their folded wings and whisked away the largest, most iridescent pair of them all – Badr Jamal’s.
Soon, Badr Jamal arose from the depths, the last of the group, to prepare herself for the return journey. “Has anyone seen my wings?” she asked after a few moments, looking around anxiously.
“You put them right here, next to mine,” said one of her friends, pointing to a large rock by the shore.
Badr Jamal was in utter distress. “They’re gone! My wings are gone!” She dashed about like a frightened animal. “Oh, what will I do? How will I fly back to Koh Kaaf? What will he say?”
Her friends were dressed and ready to leave. What would he say indeed! It was past midnight, and they were already late. He would be in a foul mood, heavily pacing the corridors of the castle, a scowl on his gigantic face, thundering like a black cloud – their master Deo Safed, the White Ogre. They had to go back, now.
Glancing at each other nervously, the Fairies whispered. “There’s some mischief afoot here, surely. Some magic, some trap. We best be on our way, lest we are all ensnared.” And while Badr was still frantically searching for her wings, her back towards them, the Fairies abruptly took flight, and in one unanimous flutter, they were gone.
“My friends, don’t leave me here alone!” Badr Jamal cried, her hands imploring the sky. But there was nothing there. All was silent, except for the gentle lapping of the water against the shore. She was alone.
The Fairy Queen sunk down to the ground, face buried in her hands. How cold she felt, suddenly! How enormous the sky seemed, and her favorite lake so menacing, so suspicious.
All at once, she heard a sound – a shuffling of feet. She looked up, alert.
It was Prince Saif. Standing right before her.
“You…” she said slowly, staring at him with her wide golden eyes. “You…”
“Please, don’t be afraid,” he spoke hurriedly, gently advancing towards her. “I’m not going to hurt you. It was I who stole your wings, but please, let me explain…”
And the whole story came tumbling out – the dream, the old buzurg, his father the King, the Suleimani topi, the six year-long quest that brought him from Egypt to the Himalayas… he didn’t dare look at Badr Jamal in the face, for he was weak from his penance, the chilla, and would not be able to stand the splendor of her beauty.
She was still staring at him, a look of disbelief on her lovely face. Finally, she spoke: “Prince Saif, you were not the only one who dreamt a dream.”
Saif glanced up in astonishment, and their eyes met for the first time. Badr Jamal smiled. “I never thought I’d see you. I didn’t think you were real…”
He couldn’t believe his ears!
A moment Badr was in his arms, and words cannot describe the joy and the peace that flooded over them as they embraced each other. “My sweet love, after all these years…” Saif whispered as he stroked Badr Jamal’s hair, holding her tightly. “We can finally be together!”
Badr Jamal suddenly drew back, as if she had just remembered something. “What’s the matter, my love?” Saif asked with concern.
She looked at him with a certain decisiveness, a certain resignation. “No. I can’t stay here. I must go. I love you, Prince Saif, but I must go. Please return me my wings. I will try to come back. But right now, I must return to Koh Kaaf.”
“Let you go?” Prince Saif repeated, his voice hollow. He grabbed her wrist. “You think I would do that? After begging, searching, praying, struggling for so many years? That I would give you up?” With a strange, violent laugh, he shouted to the sky, “Never!”
“But you don’t understand!” Badr Jamal fell to her knees, distraught. “He’ll kill us, he’ll kill us both! My master, Deo Safed. When my friends return and he finds me missing, he will come looking for me. He’s very powerful! And when he sees us together, he will kill us both. Instantly.” She looked up at him imploringly, her eyes brimming with tears. “So you see, you have to let me go.”
Prince Saif took Badr by the shoulders. “Let him come,” he said passionately. “I am not afraid of him. Let him do what he dare. I am never parting with you.” He held her close, his face resolute, his heart beating with terror at what was to follow.
Covering Badr Jamal in his cloak, Prince Saif fled with her down to the Valley. There, in a graveyard at the edge of the town of Naran, among shadows and secrets and silent tombstones, the couple hid for the night.
Meanwhile, 1, 600 miles away, in his castle in the Caucasus Mountains of present-day Turkey, Deo Safed was in a rage.
“Where is Badr Jamal?” he bellowed. “Where is she?” The walls shook, the glass windows rattled, and the six fairies huddled together in fear.
“We don’t know, master,” one of them ventured, her voice trembling. “When we came out of the water from our bath, she wasn’t there.”
“Perhaps she drowned…” another suggested tremulously. They could not tell him they had left her there, unprotected, vulnerable. He would kill them for it. He was a frightful creature, Deo Safed, tall as a mountain, white all over like snow, and the earth shuddered when he walked.
“Well, we’ll soon find out!” He stormed out of the palace, club in hand, heading east to the Himalayas.
Deo Safed adored Badr Jamal. He didn’t care about the others, the sniveling lot of them – she was special. He couldn’t forget, how he’d fallen madly in love with her ten years ago, when she was just a child, playing happily in the woods of Paristan, the Land of the Fairies; how he had kidnapped her and brought her to his lair, this vast stone fortress in Koh Kaaf, which was protected by such powerful magic, such fearsome beasts, that even her father, the King of Paristan, had been unable to penetrate it.
He would never have let her out of his sight if he had had his way; but how could he refuse her the simple pleasure of bathing with her friends at her favorite lake twice a month? How could he deny her this one, sweet request? Oh Badr, my moon, my joy, how could you abandon me so? How could you? How dare you…he gnashed his teeth, seething with anger, and with enormous bounding steps hurtled over the mountains towards Kaghan Valley.