It is said that Mughal Emperor Jalaluddin Mohammad Akbar asked Tansen, his court singer and one of his "nine jewels," if he was the most melodious person on earth.
Tansen responded that his mentor Swami Haridas was one.
Akbar expressed his desire to have Swami Haridas in his court but Haridas was fond of seclusion and didn’t prefer being in royal courts.
The emperor was left with no other option but to visit Haridas’ monastery himself.
Akbar waited for days but Haridas would not sing. As Tansen had said, Haridas sang only when it pleased him.
At last, Tansen thought of doing something about it – he started singing and deliberately hit a wrong note in between.
Haridas would not remain silent anymore. To correct Tansen, he started to sing. And everyone, including Akbar, was in an awe of his mesmerising voice.
“Tansen! You were right, Swami Haridas is the most melodious singer in this world,” Akbar admitted.
To which Tansen responded, “Your majesty, it’s because Swami sings when he wants. I, on the other hand, am bound to sing on your order.”
Sitting in the vast plains of Deosai on a bright, sunny day, amongst wild flowers of vivid colours, it feels as if Swami Haridas is singing somewhere nearby. It is a windy day and a constant rustling sound can be heard as the wind caresses Sheosar Lake’s water and the flowers.
Adding to these sounds are the whistles of marmots. These sounds of nature in the Deosai Meadow produce beautiful music.
I close my eyes and feel the wind on my face; I meditate to the rustling sound, the stillness of the lake, and the whistling of the marmot.
In the evening, I think to myself that I should retreat to Skardu – a place where even death is beautiful.
As I leave behind the blue plains of Deosai, I pass through Kala Pani first, then Barra Pani.
While I am still trying to concentrate on nature’s music, the sounds of horns interrupt every now and then.
The last rays of sun surrounded by clouds have bathed everything in a golden colour. And people are returning home after a hard day’s work.
I see an old man walking with a lantern in his hand through the fields.
In Satpara village, I can smell the fragrance of junipers.
In the distance, the Satpara Lake resembles a dark blue dot. I ask my driver to stop the jeep there.
Have you ever seen the sunset in the mountains? It’s the sight of a lifetime.
I keep concentrating on the natural sound of the chimes across the valley.
Following the sounds of music
There are many narratives about the origins of music. Some say that when Brahma saw that man was sad despite the beauty of nature, it saddened him as well. So his wife, Saraswati, granted melodies to people.
Songs of David are another embodiment of god’s appreciation for melodies. Whether the songs are in god’s praise, or god himself creates music through waterfalls, cattle bells, flowing waters, rustling flowers, and winds, these melodies are powerful enough to instantly mesmerise the listener.
It is late by the time I reach Skardu. I lie down in bed and fall asleep instantly.
The next morning, I pick up my luggage and leave for Gulmit village, located in Gojal, the northernmost part of Pakistan, from where I have to go to the Khunjerab Pass.
After a nine-hour-long journey as I enter Gulmit, the last rays of the sun are shining on the Passu Cones, bathing them in a copperish colour.
I place my luggage at the Gulmit Tourist Inn, cross Karakoram Highway, and find a calm place next to the Hunza River.
Sitting there, I keep contemplating about the river’s flowing water, the birds chirping as they return to their nests, and the constant humming of the wind.
Darkness and an eerie silence engulf everything as the sun goes down.
All of a sudden, I hear the chimes of rabab’s strings.
I follow the sounds through an alley next to the Gulmit Tourist Inn, and then all the way to the Gulmit Polo Ground. Unable to find the source, I return to my room.
The next morning, I return to the Polo Ground, but this time, it is bustling with people and school children playing in the field.
I ask the locals about rabab, and a man points me to a building nearby. They tell me it is a music school being run in collaboration with USAID. I was surprised.
Deedar Ali, who is leading this project, greets me outside the school. A jolly young man, Ali gives an introduction to the project and then leads me inside the building.
The building, constructed in a fashion similar to traditional Pamiri-style houses, is the temporary campus of this one-of-a-kind music school.
Inside, there are young men and women practicing on the rabab, sitar, flute, and other traditional musical instruments.
Danger of fading
Ali tells me that along with the Wakhi language and culture, their music also faces the threat of extinction.
There is only one man in entire Gojal who is an expert in playing an instrument called Ghazxek.
“We launched this project to preserve our local music, and named it Bulbulik, which in Wakhi translates to song of the nightingale,” he explained.
I am astonished at their enthusiasm, love for their culture, and attempts to keep it alive in any way possible.
“USAID has provided us funding for just one year, which ends in March," Ali tells me. "We are in need of more than that for this project to fully deliver results. If any person, organisation or institution supports us, it will be a huge favour for this region."
To Ali, listening to music expands the horizons of his thinking. It holds the master key to the creativity of the world.
I left the building along with the young Gojali musicians and go to the fields next to the school.
With traditional songs playing, melodious voices singing, and the Passu Cones in the background – Wakhi music has left me in awe.
Another day’s sun is setting in Gulmit. As I wave goodbye to the Bulbulik Music School, I walk to the Hunza River, listening to the sound of the sitar in the distance.
The future of these youngsters is uncertain. The government is not interested and USAID funding will only last for the next six months.
What will happen afterwards?
I don’t know and I would rather not think about it.
The scenes and sounds of Bulbulik replay in my mind as the sun sets behind the mountains, the Hunza River flows with force, and the curtain of night falls amidst the sound of the sitar.
Translated by Bilal Karim Mughal from the original in Urdu. All photos and videos are by the author.
This article first appeared on Dawn.