Lake Saif-ul-Malook, situated at a height 10, 600 feet 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 ample writer’s liberties. I hope you enjoy it!
It was the Lake – emerald-green, calm as a mirror, ringed by rugged snow-capped peaks – the very one from his dream.
Saif’s joy was uncontrollable. “I shall find her, I shall find her here!” he cried, jumping up and down like a child. “My suffering is finally over!”
In his excitement, he forgot about how he had been transported to the Lake in the first place – courtesy the jinn of Solomon’s cap, who was at this moment standing behind him in human form.
The jinn cleared his throat. “Ahem, Prince Saif…there is one thing.” Saif turned around with a start. “What…?” he said slowly, peering at the jinn.
“You will not be able to see the Fairy Queen Badr Jamal. She is, like us, naari, borne of fire, hence invisible to the human eye in her true form.”
“So, what must I do to see her?” Saif asked impatiently.
“You may pray,” the jinn replied. “Pray for forty consecutive days – the chilla – without food, drink or sleep, without moving from the circle wherein you sit. Then, and only then, will you be able to see the Fairy Badr Jamal.”
With these somber words, the jinn vanished.
It sounded impossible. Only saints and prophets like Jesus and Moses, and later on Baba Farid Ganj Shakkar and Hafiz of Shiraz, had been known to perform a chilla to completion – others either died or lost their senses in the attempt.
But Saif was not about to be thwarted from his objective so close to the end. “I’ve looked for her for six years, wandering the streets of Egypt with nothing but a kashkol, a begging bowl. Surely I can endure another forty days?”
So, drawing a circle of pebbles on the southern shore of the Lake, he seated himself inside, closed his eyes, and began to pray. He prayed, and prayed, and prayed, and as the suns went down and the moons came up, Saif grew a little weaker, his face thinner, his pain stronger, his yearning deeper. He lost count of the days, and awaited each night with the hope – “Perhaps I will see her tonight?”
But Badr Jamal did not appear.
One night, as the sun cast its dying amber rays on the Himalayan slopes, and twilight crept into the sky with the daub of a divine paintbrush, Prince Saif sat in his circle wondering if he would live to see another day. Physically exhausted, his body was about to give up the struggle, but his mind had never felt sharper, calmer.
It was also a chowdveen ki raat – the 14th of the lunar month, or night of a full moon – and the sight of that perfect silver orb, glowing in the star-studded indigo sky, enveloping the Lake, the mountains and himself in its ethereal light, filled Prince Saif’s heart with peace. “If I were to die here tonight, if my soul were to leave my body tonight, I would be happy man.”
Suddenly, a sound reached his ears – like the fluttering of a great flock of birds, far away at first, then closer – intermingled with a delicate tinkling, like the chime of a thousand tiny bells. Saif looked up; a great white cloud was moving from the west towards the Lake.
“Perhaps it’s the Angels of Death, come to take me home!”, Saif thought.
But they were not Angels, because Prince Saif-ul-Malook was not destined to die that night. That chowdveen ki raat, Saif became one of the handful of human beings to ever complete a chilla, and one of the rarer still to set eyes on the mythical Fairies of Koh Kaaf, the Caucasus Mountains, that magical land that lay at the border of Asia and the savage West. The Fairies flew to the Lake every full moon to bathe, and their Queen was Badr-ul-Jamal.
The white cloud slowly descended at the shore of the Lake, and seven forms emerged – seven beatific creatures, fair-limbed, dark-haired, golden-eyed, with large gossamer wings on their backs that glittered in the moonlight.
Saif was dumbstruck. An invisible force propelled him to his feet and he ran behind some large boulders, from where he could see without being seen. His mouth agape with wonder, he watched as the seven Fairies laughingly doffed their wings, folded them neatly on ground, and dived into the deep, shimmering waters of the Lake.
And then he saw her – Badr Jamal. She was the last to enter the Lake, effortlessly gliding through the water with her long black hair spread out behind her, her face radiant as the full moon, eyes twinkling like a child’s. She was the most beautiful creature he had ever set eyes on.
Prince Saif felt like he would faint from rapture. The object of his quest, of six years and forty days of tortuous struggle, was right there in plain sight; a living, breathing, palpable creature!
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, as faithful to their words and mood as possible, with some writer’s liberties. I hope you enjoy it!
“Now listen to me,” he said, and he began.
“I have not seen the Fairy, but I have seen the glory of God.
Every month, on the chowdveen, the 14th night of the lunar month, the Lake is like a mirror – cradling the mountains, the sky, the innumerable twinkling stars, the glowing orb of the moon – so still, so clear, you can scarcely tell between reality and reflection. It is a sight to behold.
Many a night I have also seen lights, floating lights, a thousand floating lights, here on the slope where we sit, and watched them disappear under the rocks.
I have not seen the Fairy Badr-ul-Jamal, but I have witnessed the glory of God.”
Once upon a time, there lived in Egypt a prince called Saif-ul-Malook. They say that Saif was the handsomest man to walk the earth since Joseph himself – tall and lean, with skin the color of gleaming copper, a clear, noble brow, deep-set dark eyes and black hair that fell in waves to his shoulders. He was brave, a skilled hunter, rider and swordsman, true to his Arabic name – “Sword of the Kings”. Born to riches, Prince Saif had never wanted for anything in his life; there was not a stone, river, man or woman in the kingdom that he could not claim.
Until one night, he had a dream.
A dream that changed the course of his life, and robbed him of his peace of mind forever.
He dreamt of a lake, a lake he had never seen before, surrounded by mountains that seemed to touch the sky and water that shimmered emerald-green in the moonlight. In the lake seven fairies were bathing – ethereal creatures, slim as gazelles, with creamy skins, wide, golden eyes, and hair like rippling ebony – but the seventh among them eclipsed them all in beauty. Her face was as radiant as the full moon, badr, but it was when she laughed, skipping on the water without a care in the world – it was when she laughed that Saif was seized by a joy and a sadness so intense, so inexpressible, that he awoke from his sleep with tears in his eyes. Badr-ul-Jamal…he had never seen anything more beautiful.
The next morning, Saif was visibly troubled.
“Why so crestfallen, son?” asked the king, his father, at breakfast.
“Father,” the young man confided. “I think I am in love.”
The king was overjoyed. “What happy news, son! This calls for a wedding! Who is the favored princess?”
“No princess, father,” Saif replied grimly; then, with a sudden burst of elation: “She is a Queen…A Queen among fairies!”
The king’s face furrowed into a frown as he considered his son’s words. “Saif, you do realize what you are saying? A fairy! She is a bird, a creature cast of fire, naari. So how can a human being, an earthbound mortal like you, ever hope to possess her?” He shook his head vehemently. “It is impossible. Abandon the idea at once. It will bring you nothing but misery,” he foresaw.
But it was no use. It was too late for discussion, for persuasion and advice. Saif’s heart was already on fire. He begged his father’s permission to set out and look for that magical lake where the fairies bathed, in the hopes of finding their Queen. With a heavy heart, the king consented, blessed him on his quest, and watched his only son ride away into the desert.
For six long years Prince Saif searched, roaming every corner of Egypt, from Alexandria to Sinai. Begging on the streets, his hair in his eyes, his shoes in tatters, consumed by love, people no longer recognized him.”There he goes, the madman!” they cried. “There goes the madman, the majnun, who looks for a lake the color of emeralds and mountains of pure white! Who ever heard of such a place?” And they laughed and pushed him out of town.
One day, as he wandered about the outskirts of Cairo, Saif saw a holy man, a buzurg, sitting under the shade of a lone olive tree. “Perhaps this holy man can help me,” Saif thought. As he approached him, the old man looked up expectantly.
“Ah, there you are,” the old man said, a smile playing on his lips. “I’ve been waiting for you, Prince Saif.”
Prince! No one had addressed him thus in years. But before Saif had the chance to express his surprise or explain his predicament, the buzurg dug a hand into the bountiful folds of his cloak and produced an old, battered round sheepskin cap, frayed and thinned with what seemed like centuries of use. Placing it in Saif’s hands, the holy man said, looking at him with keen eyes, “You have been through a lot, my son. But the important thing is that you don’t give up – nothing valuable is won without a struggle.”
Saif toyed with the cap in his hands. “Thank you,” he said hesitatingly. “But what am I supposed to do with this?”
The old man chuckled. “Why, what do you think? Put it on!”
Puzzled, Prince Saif gingerly placed the old cap on his head.
What happened next cannot be described, only experienced by the wearer of a Suleimani topi, Solomon’s fabled magic cap, which has the power to transport its wearer to any place he or she desires in a matter of seconds. There was a gust of wind, and Saif felt the earth give away under his feet. Suddenly, he was shooting through the sky in a fantastic whirlwind of faces, places, colors and memories; a deafening rumble filled his ears; and then, just as suddenly, his feet were firmly planted again on the earth. When he opened his eyes, this is what he saw.