Coordinates: 33°46’6″N 73°7’17″E
(The mouth of the cave where Bari Imam spent 12 years in meditation)
"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream, Discover." - Mark Twain
I tried to search for whatever information that could be available on the ‘Loh-e-Dandi’ site in the Margalla mountains off Islamabad but was flabbergasted to learn that except for but a few pictures; the Internet is silent on the subject and thus I am provoked to write this piece and once again indulge in the process of creating / writing history for my ardent readers and educating the masses on the subject and doing a service to the inhabitants of the planet. (Cheap publicity).
Discovering the world seems a thousand times more interesting for me than the United Nations and their ambitious plans to improve the fate of the planet. And thus I set out on long arduous journeys since I was seven years of age and have not stopped yet. One thing is for sure though; if I stop travelling and writing, I would cease to exist and I would not want to take away that pleasure of being myself from you. Laughter!
As for writing, I still don’t know how or why I write; my articles are not born in my mind, they gestate in my heart and are capricious creatures with their own lives, always ready to subvert me.
The first time I went to Loh-i-Dandi was in 1984 when I had come from Karachi to Islamabad all by myself on a journey of truth and discovery. I was 20 years of age and had recently returned from Saudi Arabia after performing Hajj with my parents in 1982 at the ripe age of 17.8 years.
After cleansing myself through religious ablution, I was now treading the path of Sufism, a rather arduous path which would become my way of life in the years to come. I will write about ‘The path’ aka the Siraat-e-Mustaqeem in some other article later in life. Let’s enjoy this one at the moment.
(A panoramic view from the top of Loh-i-Dandi site in the Margalla Hills)
My first trip to Loh-i-Dandi initially had nothing to do with Sufism since I visited the place late in the night along with a few crazy friends in order to hunt wild boars. Islooites will agree that there used to be a lot of boars in the neighborhood of Nurpur Shahan in the mid eighties; the village where the famous saint Shah Abdul Latif Kazmi (commonly known as Bari Imam) lived.
I tried to shoot the wild boar in the pitch darkness of the night under flood lights but my gun backfired which almost got me killed. Had it not been for the sharp shooter who was a local friend; I would not have been around to write this article, today. One thing for sure, after this failed wild hunting trip; I pretty much realized that I was not cut out to mess around with wild boars at least. I could thus never become a hunter except for the few partridges and other birds that I would shoot later in life. Bird watching I still continue, though.
Instead, I visited the site under discussion and was overwhelmed and got engulfed in the mystic serenity of the place and ended up doing a ‘Chilah’ (Holy recitation of some specific verses of the Quran) between 12:00 to 4:30 a.m. in the morning in the same cave where ‘Bari Sarkar’ prayed (almost 400 years ago), meditated and lived for some good 12 years in a row. And thus my enlightened journey ensued on the path of Sufism.
Actually, it so happened that I met one interestingly strange man from Haripur, Hazara who was living at the top of the mountain and taking care of the place. His name was Manzoor Hussain Shah and he had come here from his native place to serve humanity. He was the custodian of the ‘Langar-Khana’ (the free eatery) located at the top of the mountain and would see to the affairs of the upkeep of the place.
After making friends with this interesting gentleman, I was slightly inspired by his devotion to the cause and the place since he had apparently not married and had decided to leave all things behind and become a ‘Mujavir’ here and had spent 19 precious years of his life to serve this place. It was him who inspired me to spend more time here and visit the cave and do what I later did.
A little introduction:
Bari Imam (1617–1705), whose real name was Shah Abdul Latif Kazmi, was born in 1026 Hijra (1617 AD) in Jhelum. His father, Syed Mehmood Shah, shifted his family from Jhelum District to Baghan village, presently called Aabpara. At that time, it was a barren land. Soon after the arrival of Bari Imam’s family, his father started farming and also kept some animals. Shah Latif helped his father in grazing the animals, but left his father at 12 and came to Nurpur Shahan .
Nurpur Shahan, the village was initially called Chorpur Shahan since it was infested by thieves, robbers and people of dubious character in those days. Bari Imam while spreading the message of peace converted them to Islam and convinced them to become law abiding citizens.
(A frontal view of the Mazar of Bari Imam: http://www.aulia-e-pakistan.com/xData/18-AbdulLatifBariImam/01.jpg)
Coordinates: 33°44’42″N 73°6’41″E
From Nurpur Shahan, Bari Imam went to Ghaur Ghashti (now known as Attock) where he stayed for two years for learning fiqh, hadith, logic, mathematics, medicine and other disciplines, because at that time Ghaur Ghashti was a great seat of learning. 
Attainment of Spiritual Knowledge:
To get spiritual knowledge and satiate his love for Islam, Bari Imam visited many places, including Kashmir, Badakhshan, Bukhara, Mashhad, Baghdad and Damascus. He not only received spiritual knowledge in these places but also held discussions with scholars belonging to different schools of thought on various subjects. Later, he went to Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj. 
Bari Imam received spiritual knowledge from Hayat-al-Mir (Zinda Pir). His Pir (Sufi Mentor) gave him the title of Bari Imam (The leader of the earth), which proves his link to the Syed family i.e. the Prophet’s lineage. Bari Imam converted thousands of Hindus into Muslims through the teachings of Islam at Nurpur Shahan. It is stated that once Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir himself came there to pay respects to Bari Imam. 
Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, who was devoted to spreading his empire, originally built the silver-mirrored shrine of Hazrat Bari Imam [RA]. It has been renovated since and is now maintained by the government of Pakistan. Inside the mausoleum, where the great saint rests, only men are permitted, a steady stream of worshippers enter and exit, most bending to kiss and strew rose petals on the green cloth covering the grave of Hazrat Bari Sarkar [RA]. 
The shrine is a tourist spot in the tour guide’s list. Every year as the Urs (Birth celebration) of the saint, who spread Islam in this part of the world, gains momentum; devotees in their thousands set out for the Margalla foothills and gather at Nurpur Shahan to pay their respect. Although many swarm the shrine all year round, only last year the number exceeded a head count of 1.2 million people. 
(The Mausoleum of the favorite saint of Islamabad, Bari Sarkar: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bariimam.jpg)
Nighttime is the best time to visit the shrine, as the atmosphere is hyped by glittering lights, sounds of qawalis (Poetical recitation) and dhammals (Ecstatic Dance) of malangs. There was a time when the event attracted a number of dancing girls from Lahore. Although dancing is no more allowed, the women still come to pay their respect. 
Reciting verses from the Quran, women view the grave through a glass window, which many touch and kiss while praying for the blessings of Almighty Allah. The faithful read from one of the hundreds of the copies of the Quran, the moment when one leaves after recitation. Some simply sit in silence as mark of respect for the great saint, taking a moment to say a final prayer and to collect the inspiration and strength to make the journey back home. 
Back to the main story yet again! It so happened that a friend called up on 21st April 2010 while @ work and amongst other things he asked as to when was the last time I had been to Loh-e-Dandi on which I responded that some 26 years ago when the place was but a jungle and we almost walked for 4 hours and climbed the mountain after paying our homage at the shrine and a sumptuous langar (Free food) from the Mazar.
He informed me that the place has changed since then and I must revisit the place (being the mountain goat that I am) since the Capital Development Authority (CDA) has beautified the place and has put in steps which go all the way up the mountain to the abode of the fairies and the jinns.
And the idea clicked suddenly since the government had just announced that Saturday would be a closed holiday and this was the ideal time to go visit this place before the advent of summer. Although I had decided to take my entire gang (read family here) to the expedition but initially, in my mind I was a little perplexed since Ayesha (my daughter) who is 4.5 now may not be able to take the beating of this long and tough climb.
(The only direction to the Loh-i-Dandi site before you drive up the mountain & reach the car park)
Much to my surprise Ayesha was the one who enjoyed the most although your bhabi (My wife) almost threw a tantrum on the way back. Actually it was not her fault. At her old age women do get cranky. Laughter! She will kill me when she gets to read this J
After parking the car at a purpose-built car park some 3 odd kilometers to the North-West of the Mazar, it took us about 5 hours in the walk (up & down) with about half hour of stay in between which included the Langar (Free lunch) at the peak of the mountain. Who says there is no such thing as a free lunch!
Although the destination looked pretty near but due to the steep climb, it did test our nerves of steel and since we had started late i.e. around 11:00 a.m. or so the heat started to build up and we would stop after every half hour to catch a breath.
(The Shaikh Clan taking the first break)
In about two hours or slightly more, we reached the site where there is a legend about the wing of a fairy and two snakes. The story goes like this. Once Bari Imam (who was actually a shepherd) was grazing his buffaloes in this valley apparently a fairy came rushing down the creek after which there was a jinni that followed her. As the legend goes, this jinni wanted to marry the fairy and she was simply not interested. Sounds pretty logical, huh.
While they were running (shouldn’t they be flying?) some dirty water was splashed on the clothes of the Bari Imam and he asked them to refrain from such activity since his clothes were getting dirty but they did not listen and continued their frolic and thus out of frustration and anger; Bari Imam recited something on the fairy and the jinn and the fairy became a rock in one of the hills and the jinn became another stone in a rock where he was standing on the top of the mountain.
Whether you believe this story or not, it is none of my business but the two rocks are very much there and they do look like as if the first rock is a close semblance of a fairy’s wing and the other long rock protruding from a hillock looks like the leg of this giant jinni.
(The famous rock with inscriptions in stone about the fairy’s wing and two snakes)
After having a short pause here, we continued to walk while the sun became more and more scorching but we had to do it in this weather since summer was approaching fast and we would have to wait till September to do this and waiting I don’t like in life.
We continued our walk towards our final destination with slow and steady paces while I was the water carrier and had to watch as to no one was getting exhausted. I had to crack jokes and keep them busy since I was the tour guide and they were all at my mercy.
(At a rock formation next to the rock of the fairy & the two snakes)
We continued for another twenty minutes or so and stopped for a water break where we had ‘Shahtoot’ a local jungle fruit which is a source of water. After chilling out for five more minutes here, we continued the uphill journey.
(Another water break with a small cave in the backdrop)
We could now see the destination clearly from here and when asked we came to learn that it was the last leg of about 45 or so minutes from here. It seemed so close yet so far away since it was almost after 1:00 p.m. and the ball of fire called sun was hardly showing any mercy on us. Actually, I was being punished for brining my family here but with the resilience that runs in our travel happy family, we were adamant that there was no way that we will not conquer this mountain.
(A view of the Langar Khana and the final destination from below)
We reached the Langar Khana around 1:30 p.m. and saw a small mausoleum there. I was a little pained to learn that the gentleman I met some 26 years ago i.e. Syed Munawar Hussain Shah had died the same year when I met him and is buried there. His grave has been converted into a mausoleum due to this 19 year service to this cause.
(The sign board reads in Urdu: The Jinni stone, Bari Imam. Men are not supposed to stand here)
I paid my homage to the small shrine of Shah Sahib a devout man and met another gentleman who was from Abbottabad. His name is Fazal baba and he has also left his home to serve here just like Shah Sahib did some 24 years ago.
Another legend of the Jinni’s leg is that there is a small stream on top of the mountain and a few droplets run through the supposed leg. Men are forbidden to drink from this water and those ladies who pray at the Bari Imam’s mausoleum in Noorpur Shahan should walk up here and if they drink from this water they could become pregnant. Now this one is hard to digest even for a Sufi like me. Laughter.
(This is the famous Jinni’s leg from below)
We stayed with Baba Fazal for some time who told us stories about the place and guided my wife and children about the legend of Bari Imam and the significance of the wing of the fairy, the leg of the jinn, the ‘Mach’ (Fire that has been burning since Bari Imam’s life) and the cave in which he meditated for twelve long years.
(The Shaikh family @ the Langar Khana)
Later we had free lunch at the ‘Langar Khana’ which comprised of Rice with beans and a deep boiled Qahwa (a spoiled version of Green tea). I am used to such stuff since I have been to most of the Mazars (mausoleum) b/w Karachi to Saidu Sharif in Swat but my wife was indeed making faces initially.
While my family was feasting on the free bounties, I stole the moment and sneaked for a while towards the main destination i.e. the sacred cave which was at a much higher altitude and is the culmination of the journey. It is a slightly tougher climb and is not recommended for the elderly and young children since the rocks are steep, sharp and slippery at times while the fall could be quite fatal from this height.
(At the mouth of the cave, after being inside; reincarnated)
I ended up visiting the cave and went inside to satiate my thirst of visiting it again after 26 odd years. The rock formation has changed. There is light inside the cave now but a very tiny path at the mouth of the cave almost stops you from entering. I wonder as to how could a man have stayed here for 12 years and meditated. It is not advisable for the weak hearted to enter the cave since one can only enter by folding one’s body and the pitch darkness initially hits you in the face. Indeed, you have to have a Sufi inclination to understand the dynamics of treading this path.
After spending some 10 minutes inside the cave, I retreated to join my family. Of course my older son Adil was a little upset with me since I did not take him along but I promised him that once he turns 12 then we would redo this all over again minus his younger siblings and their Mom.
(Taking a break on the way back)
We finally called it a day and it took us another two hours to tread the path of the Bari Sarkar, the fairies and the jinnis alike to reach our car, exhausted but with a new sense of accomplishment. It felt as if we were snapping out of a trance. We indeed saw the valley rising. We were all there to see the bounties of God and we would continue to be thankful to the Creator. Adios!
(The two ladies returning after conquering Loh-i-Dandi)
Shaikh Muhammed Ali
‘The Wandering Dervish’
Note: This article first appeared on the Internet in May 2010.