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.
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!