King in the North

on the folk memory that surrounds Sau Malik, who defended today’s northern Pakistan from a Mongol

King in the North
More often than not, hidden in the annals of history are instances of smaller nations and kingdoms putting up resistance against vast invading armies. This quality is also found amongst the children of the Indus basin who have long fought against stronger foes, be it of Porus’ battle against Alexander some 2,300-odd years ago in the Punjab or the relatively more recent show of valour by Sindh’s Hoshu Sheedi against the British colonialists in the mid-19th century.

One instance of a local ruler of a small principality taking on a much larger entity comes from the folklore of the western Himalayas when the Raja Sau Malik; the sovereign of much of what is now Northern Pakistan, valiantly fought and defeated the Mongol hordes of a king titled Taj Mughal, near the Darkot Pass, and thus established his name in the folklore of the Dardic and non-Dardic peoples alike for centuries to come. 

Sau Malik Of Yore

Seldom has there existed a king in the mountain country of the western Himalayas who has been remembered and revered as much as Sau Malik. According to multiple historians, he belonged to the Trakhan Dynasty who unabatedly ruled Gilgit for more than 6 centuries directly whilst building relations with the rulers of the surrounding regions indirectly. His depiction as a just and brave king of the north in the folklore ranging from Chitral till Skardu proves that it would not be excessive to claim that the extent of Sau Malik’s influence stretched all from Northern Chitral, through Yasin and Gilgit and then towards the Balti heartland in Skardu. This makes him the sovereign of, interestingly, almost all of what is now Northern Pakistan.

'Mughlai Minar' erected by Taj Mughal, 13th century Gilgit

The rule of the king is calculated to have been a whopping 70 years from 1275 to 1345 AD by A.H. Dani and by others such as Hashmat Ullah it was from 1335 – 1390 AD. We can safely say that we are dealing with the late 13th and early 14th centuries. The Trakhans are a dynasty who, though cited as being of Turkic origin, used to claim their descent from Azur Jamshed. Azur was a mythical Persian prince who fled his homeland during the Islamic invasion of Persia and arrived in the high mountains of the Karakoram. He is credited to have started the Trakhan Dynasty after marrying the daughter of the Buddhist king of Gilgit, Sri Badat. This would in turn put Sau Malik under the banner of a Kayani prince, but the very existence of Azur Jamshed is shrouded in myths.

However, one very common mistake made by academics and historians alike is to mistake Sau Malik of Gilgit with the Sau Malik of Torkhow in northern Chitral, popularly remembered as Sumalek, who himself is attributed to have defeated the Tartar and Turkic hordes. The two kings who not only shared their names but also status of rulers who defeated large foreign armies, differed from one another on the account that they were born some 300 years apart. The latter succeeding the former. A.H. Dani debated that Sau Malik of Torkhow (Sumalek) was the ancestor of Sau Malik of Gilgit, referring to the former as Sau Malik I and the latter as Sau Malik II, though placing him 3 centuries earlier than the traditionally accepted era of Sumalek. Though there is very little evidence to refute Sau Malik of Gilgit belonging to the Trakhan dynasty, Sumalek of Chitral was most probably an ethnic Khow (Chitrali). His kingdom is also noted to have stretched as far as parts of Badakshan in the north, Bashgal valley in Nuristan in the west, to beyond Hunza in the east and Bandipur in Kashmir in the south. That being said, the seat of his empire as well as the nucleus of his heroics are centered in the sister valleys of Torkhow and Mulkhow which are the original homeland of the Khow people. Very little is factually known of him and that is why the accounts are divergent for him, too, with some placing him in the 12th century, others in the 7th  and some in the 11th. Some see him as an ethnic Khow, others as a Trakhan Turk and some to have been belonging to Charkh in modern day Uzbekistan.
The Trakhans are a dynasty who, though cited as being of Turkic origin, used to claim their descent from Azur Jamshed – a mythical Persian prince who fled his homeland during the Islamic invasion of Persia

Before we start the journey to know just how Sau Malik managed to defeat the Mongols, one must realize that much of what that comes to us about this legendary king, as with other northern kings, is purely through oral traditions. A measure of the very divergence of these oral accounts from each other can be made from the fact that there exist many names of the king including Sau Malik, Tsu Malek and Sau-malek etc. Centuries of intermingling of multiple accounts has made it difficult to differentiate myth from fact. Over the years, many historians have tried to trace his lineage, the extent of his kingdom and how long his rule lasted. We shall be examining all of these and filling in gaps. However, the story should be seen more along the lines of folklore than precisely recorded history.

 Raja Torra’s Ascent

The event that forever put the ruler in the hearts of the mountain men was set in motion much before his arrival to the Throne. The era of Raja Torra Khan, Sau Malik’s father, experienced the most tumultuous of happenings that the kingdom of Gilgit had ever witnessed. Torra Khan’s ascent to the throne was scarred with chaos and treachery when his Dareli stepmother, in her lust for power, poisoned her husband the King Tartora Khan and occupied the throne in 1237 C.E. in the wishes of having her son extend the dynasty further. For the time, she sat on the throne herself, believing that the rightful heir Torra Khan had been killed by one of her henchmen and that she had nothing to worry about. Torra Khan, nevertheless, was far from his grave, and instead in exile. Five complete years passed with the deceased King’s widow managing his kingdom, when an event took place mirroring that of the glorious return of Zeus in Greek mythology. Much like Zeus’s return to avenge the ills of his father Kronos, Torra Khan returned to avenge the ills of his stepmother and to reclaim his birthright. A bloody war of succession was fought and the kingdom was set into the state of civil war. From this fratricidal feud emerged victorious Torra Khan, who recaptured his father’s throne and did away with his cunning stepmother. In the course of these events the Dareli queen’s son, named Shah Rais, helplessly fled westwards towards Badakshan and there arose the dispute which would come to end years later at the hands of Sau Malik in Darkot.

Depiction of Mongol warriors in battle

Torra Khan And The First Mongol War

Torra Khan had good relations with the rulers of Badakshan through his maternal lineage. Unfortunately, just like Gilgit, there was a shift in the rulers. The ruling entity, thought to be Tatar Turks, were soon replaced by a fierce group of invaders whose indomitable tide had swept over much of Asia: the Mongols. And here Taj Mughal enters the story.

The extent of Taj Mughal’s empire was noted to be a vast expanse spreading towards Herat in the south west and much of Turkestan in the north. The empire was close to in size of the empire of Chagatai, one of the 4 sons of the great Mongol ruler Chinggis Khan. It can be deduced that the name Taj Mughal was but a mere title, which in its original form would have been Tajdar–i–Mughal, that is, the King Of the Mongols.

Taj Mughal was keen on backing the fugitive Shah Rais, most probably out of his own wish to create further relations with the western Himalayan states. He not only extended sanctuary to Shah Rais but also his daughter’s hand; going one step ahead to establish a matrimonial alliance. Shah Rais was allowed to stay with Taj Mughal for quite a number of years. The exiled prince put to use his own skills of deceit to convince Taj Mughal to attack the Kingdom of his half brother. He at last succeeded in this task.

Traditional weaponry from Chitral

Here the folktales speak of a peculiar happening. Taj Mughal invaded the kingdom of Torra Khan to assert dominance and “spread Ismailism.” The tales speak of him to be the first to introduce Ismaili Islam in the Karakoram but according to historians such as Ahmed Hassan Dani and Shah Ra’is Khan, the Mongols at that point were primarily Buddhists. This is further confirmed by the three minarets erected by the invader at Henzel, Thol and Jutial – which, from their ruins can be seen to have been Buddhist stupas.

Either way, the war was a devastating blow to the Trakhans who failed to repulse the enemy’s march and not only had to adhere to the faith and beliefs of the invader but also cede some of their westernmost areas which today form Chitral. Shah Rais was put in charge of these newly acquired areas and thus arose the Rais dynasty of Chitral, who ruled till the 17th century till their disposition by the Katur Dynasty. Despite that, from other accounts it is still clear that it certainly took Shah Rais some time to subjugate both the Kalashan Kings of the south and the Sumaleki Khow princes of the north – the latter of whom were still in alliance with the Trakhans and thus a part of their Kingdom.


(to be continued)