I have since childhood, been interested in accounts regarding inexplicable phenomenon, because curiosity about anything that defies logic is an intrinsic part of human psyche. Many of these events such as ‘raining frogs’ and ‘balls of lightning’ lost their mystical aura over time, on account of giant leaps made by science and expanded knowledge that explained how and why things happened. These explanations however barely scratch the surface of myths and legends that baffle the human mind.

Take for example the story narrated to me during a trekking expedition from Chitral to Mastuj during the mid-nineteen seventies. Chitralis are wonderful people and great story tellers. Our local guide was a man, who appeared ageless. He had twinkling blue eyes and a rudimentary goatee like growth that had never been touched by a razor. As we rested at a spot beyond Garam Chasma (Hot Springs), the wind suddenly picked up with a howling sound. I saw good old ‘Gulla’ suddenly stiffen as if in fear and asked him what was wrong. He moved closer to our group as if for comfort and told us a tale that was chilling and ominous from his point of view.

The howling sound, said Gul, was normally a prelude to the arrival of evil spirits, who assumed the shape of a rotating column of wind that sucked up everything in its path leaving a trail of death and destruction in its wake. This reminded me of our old cook, who warned us that a whirling ‘tower-like’ gust of air was to be avoided because it contained ‘djinns’, who picked up children and carried them away. We now know these ‘whirling towers of air’ as dust devils and Gul’s ‘devastating column of wind’ as the local version of a tornado.

The contractor, who maintained our summer abode in the hills was a man past middle age. He was lean and sinewy as all mountain bred men are apt to be. His only weakness was the tendency to talk when given the slightest of encouragement to do so and his favourite tale was the miraculous escape from a demon serpent three score feet long, in the forest near his native Kuldanna. He claimed to have been stalked by what appeared to be a huge snake, because the approach of the reptile was heralded by the bending of tall grass and shrubs. Much later, when I had taken up a career, I asked some locals around Murree, if they had encountered such a creature. Many out of the lot said that they had. Further questioning revealed that only a handful of them claimed to have seen the beast, but could not describe it except the fact that it was a huge serpent. The other lot of so called eye witnesses had simply attributed the commotion in the forest undergrowth to the unseen terror. The first thought that came to me was that it was a python that had caused such panic, but then I was told that pythons are not to be found in cold mountainous regions. To a mind trained in logic, the ‘demon snake’ could be any wild animal or a group of creatures foraging in the shrubbery.

Another story that continues to be told in rural Punjab is one about stumbling upon two snakes engaged in combat. According to this tale, great riches and power would come if one was to approach the creatures and cover them with his headgear. I daresay that this act would require great ambition combined with nerves of steel and the necessity of going around wearing a cap at all times.

Nonetheless, these stories add colour to an otherwise dull evening such as this, but wait – what is this rustling sound coming from the pine forest on our left and why is the grass bending as if something very large and serpentine is slithering menacingly towards us.