Updated: Dec 29, 2022
The tree of life legend that many nations, religions and cultures share. We set off exploring Pakistan's mythological connections to neighbouring Central Asia.
Per legend, life is represented by a tree connecting the three spiritual planes. The roots are underground, where the demons are. A large dragon is believed to have wrapped itself around the tree's roots. The trunk is on earth where humans are, and the canopy reaches the sky, where good spiritual beings are, often represented by birds.
The dragon is a chimaera-type creature. Its snake body symbolised the terrestrial/water/underground world; its head & feet were of a predator – the average/land world, and its wings, the top, heavenly world. Supposedly this allowed it to act as a mediator between all three worlds.
The Kazakh cryptid is said to live in Lake Kokkol in Zhambyl. The Azdaha is 45 to 50 feet long, with a 6 feet long and 3 feet wide head. It has a long neck and one hump and is said to have a trumpeting call.
The water in the lake occasionally swells or ripples for no apparent reason, and the locals rush to collect the water in the creature’s wake because it contains healing properties.
Healing water would have sounded very good to us. Well, if only the serpent wasn’t wrapped around the tree of life, trying to eat the eggs from the bird spirit. Thus there are legends of hero after hero descending to slay it.
A Kyrgyz poem: The Epic of Manas is about the hero Manas (well, of course, it is?). Manas, the founder of Kyrgyzstan, lives on as a statue slaying an Azdaha in Bishkek. The epic of Manas comprises 500,000 lines. It would approximately be twenty times the length of the Odyssey and Iliad combined to give you an idea of what that means.
Manas fought many Azdahas, from random battles against evil, to castle guards for evil characters. What’s interesting is that several of them had multiple heads. Speaking of heads, they can number up to anywhere between sixty and one hundred on each Azdaha!
The epic is known as ماناس داستانی in Kazakh The mausoleum of Manas still stands tall, and delegates often visit to pay their respects. UNESCO recognised both the epic and his statue in Bishkek.
The legend found its way into Russian, Uzbek and Azerbaijani folklore.
Although the epic is believed to date back to the 18th century, most events coincide with happenings of the 9th century, on Kazakh interactions with the Chinese and the Turkic communities.
An artist has done a remarkable job at animating the whole story!
Next stop: Turkmenistan
Oghuz Khagan, a legend of the Turkic people. When he was still a young boy, his land was terrorized by a dragon named Kiyant.
As Oghuz Khagan came of age he set a trap for Kiyant by hanging a deer in a dead tree. He then killed the dragon with a spear and cut off its head.
He is also the ancestor of the Turks in Turkish and Altai mythology. Besides being the protagonist of the Oguz Kagan Epic and is identified with the prophet Zulkarneyn and Mete Han, the ruler of the Asian Hun State, in the epic.
About the Kiyant, there is a debate about whether it is a rhino or a serpent (Azdaha) for although legends often describe it as a dragon or a serpent, Kıyankandan means rhinoceros in Old Turkish.
Finally, let's move on to Pakistan, once home to nine dragon lakes, only one of which is said to remain.
Given Pakistan’s proximity to Central Asia, China, Iran and India, there is quite a diverse mix of dragon beliefs.
We have certain Naga beliefs, which resemble dragons East/Northeast, and the Chitrali Azdhaar, which is more Persian in nature.
The Azdhaar are large, winged serpents with golden manes like lions, who protect treasures and devour warriors. But the warrior could counter the Azhdaar by holding his sword above his head with the tip of the blade in one hand and the hilt in the other to tear its fish-like mouth.
Speaking of Naga beliefs, a member mythical semi-divine being, half-human and half cobra, is strong, handsome & can assume either wholly human or wholly serpentine form.
Traditionally, Nagas are potentially dangerous but often beneficial to humans. Its roots are in Buddhist, Hindu and Jain mythology. However, in Pakistan, although dragons may resemble the Naga in appearance, Persian influence has won (again) in dictating dragon attributes.
Did you know that in 330BCE, Alexander the Great is said to have mentioned a story from ancient Pakistan describing a huge dragon?
He said that the creature hissed, lived in a cave, breathed fire, & was worshipped and feared by locals.
There is also a tale of a nine-headed Azdaha and an Afghan saint from Ziarat, but let us save that for another day, shall we?
For now, we shall sign off with a little bit of curiosity.
There is a lake in Pakistan shaped like a flying dragon.
It is the Gomal Zam, in Waziristan.
Is it a coincidence, or is there a legend missed out on?
This blog has been written by Komal Salman.