Makran Coastal Highway: The Untold Mystery of the Sphinx

Makran Coastal Highway (N10), the 653 km paved road offers the most dramatically diverse landscapes. Passing through vast stretches of deserts, greeting dust cyclones in the distance, the highway silks away casually around golden beaches overlooking the deep blue waters of the Arabian Sea. Home to the picturesque sunrises on the horizon and sunsets that bask everything in gold; it is a haven for migratory birds of Siberia. Flying with pelicans and racing with dolphins, in a fleeting moment the landscape changes once again. Climbing up, slowly distancing from the shore, the highway enters into the territory of Hingol National Park. Eccentric mountains guide the route as the ‘Princess of Hope’ bears witness to the Hindu pilgrims who travel miles to the Shrine of “Hinglaj Mata”, which is guarded by ibexes and crocodiles in its mountain seat on the banks of the Hingol River. Wandering further through the mysterious hills, trying to endorse the possibility of possessing South Asia’s largest and highest active mud volcano, the road encounters camels and the distinctive Makranis of African descent. Linking Karachi to Gwadar – passing through the towns of Ormara and Pasni – the Makran Coastal Highway provokes the mind to delve deeper and search for the hidden secrets that the mountains echo, the winds whisper and the sands so gracefully obscure.


Hingol National Park, located 150 miles away from Karachi, is home to the stunning marvel carved by nature itself; the recently discovered ‘Sphinx of Balochistan’ (that surprisingly missed Angelina Jolie’s eye when she named the “Princess of Hope” on her visit in 2002). The Sphinx has stood there beside the Princess perhaps guarding some unknown treasure, unnoticed and unexplored for centuries. It was first in 2004 that the public learnt about its existence. Praising the artistic work of wind and rain that designed this baffling monument, people disregard the statue as nothing more than an astonishing natural formation. But is that really so? 
The Balochistan Sphinx, not nearly as famous as the Great Sphinx of Giza, rests about 250 km from Karachi and probably has an ancient story to tell. Researcher Bibhu Dev Misra from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kharagpur and the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Calcutta believes the Balochistan Sphinx is a huge architectural complex created by an advanced ancient civilization and in many ways resembles the Egyptian Sphinx. Among the Egyptians, sphinxes were placed at the entrance of temples to guard their mysteries. If the Balochistan Sphinx is man-made perhaps it was erected to guard an unknown ancient temple on the Makran coastline. But the question is, what is the sister of the Egyptian Sphinx doing so far away from home? After all, what possible connection could Makran have with Africa anyway? 

Is the Balochistan Sphinx an Egyptian cousin? 
Credit: Bibhu Dev Misra

The answer lies in the ethnicity of Makran’s inhabitants who are believed to be descendants of enslaved East Africans. In 712 AD Muhammad bin Qasim led his army to the subcontinent. After completing the conquest of Makran, the army conquered the historic city of Debal. And that is how the Siddis1  arrived in the region; believed to have been soldiers in Muhammad bin Qasim's Arab army. They had joined Arab armies when the Arabs first conquered parts of Africa. Their population in the region greatly increased when, in the 16th century, Portuguese traders began bringing in slaves from Africa to be sold to rich Muslims and Hindus of India. So Makranis do have roots in Africa and as we know the Great Sphinx of Giza as an emblem of Egypt, it is but natural that we associate the mythical creature having the body of a lion and the head of a human with the Egyptian pyramids. But is the sphinx really just an Egyptian legend or are there any other ties to the illustrious fabled creature? Is it found anywhere other than Egypt as well?

Yes, a composite mythological being is present in many traditions, art and mythology. In European decorative art, the sphinx enjoyed a major revival during the Renaissance. Later, the sphinx image was exported to many other cultures, sometimes interpreted differently due to the evolution of the concept in relation to other cultural traditions. Its presence is indicated in Burma, Thailand, Sri Lanka and South India under different names such as Manussiha, Purusha Mruga, Nora Nair, Norasingh and Thep Norasingh etc. Indian reference to a Sphinx also comes from Tamil epics and is carved on Tamil temple walls. In fact, there are temple lamps used in traditional shrines with images of the sphinx, indicating the key role it played in local mythology. Not only that but guess which holy walls have the sphinx blessed with its existence? The world’s smallest country and seat of the catholic church, the Vatican City houses many images and sculptures of the sphinx; some concealed in paintings and some boldly flanking gateways.

 Sphinx all around the world.

What if we interpret the story of the Balochistan Sphinx from another angle? For our next theory, let’s hypothesise that its ties are with religion instead of ethnicity. The existence of sphinx is evident in both Hinduism and Buddhism. In India the composite being with a lion body and a human head is part of the living tradition. Hence, the presence of the sphinx not too far from Hinglaj Mata (Nani Mandir) surely is curious, which brings us back to Bibhu Dev Misra’s findings: “In close proximity to the Balochistan Sphinx is another important structure. From a distance, it looks like a Hindu Temple (like those of South India), with a Mandapa (entrance hall) and a Vimana (temple spire). The top part of the Vimana appears to be missing. The Sphinx is reclining in front of the temple, acting as protector of the sacred site.” Moreover, Buddhism in Pakistan took root some 2,300 years ago under the Mauryan King Ashoka and has left many significant archaeological traces. Buddhism was practiced by the majority population of Sindh up to the Umayyad conquest (712 AD). Chinese Buddhist traveller Hiuen Tsang reported many Buddhist temples in the coastal regions of Makran. The remains of Buddhist cave city called Godrani Caves can still be seen, so the Balochistan Sphinx could very well be a Buddhist structure. 
In addition to our first two theories – Egyptian sister and religious ties – our third theory demands that we go deeper in history. Dating further back, we know that the Indus Valley Civilization extended along the Makran coast. Sutkagan Dor is the westernmost known archaeological site of the Indus Valley Civilization. Another similar site, Sokhta Koh (burnt hill) is located about 15 miles north of Pasni. It was first surveyed by American archaeologist George F. Dales in 1960, while exploring estuaries along the Makran coast. Their position along a coastline (that was possibly much farther inland) goes well with evidence of overseas commerce in Harappan times. Based on pottery styles, it is estimated that the settlement belongs to the Mature Harappan (Integration) Era (2600-1900 BC), thereby hinting that the sphinx temple complex could have been built thousands of years ago during the Indus Civilization to guard a sacred site. 

Moving on to the highway’s last destination, let’s unearth any clues Gwadar has to offer on the Sphinx’s account. The Port of Gwadar came into Omani possession in 1784 when its ruler, Nasir Khan of Kalat, conferred the area on Sultan bin Ahmad. An unsuccessful pretender to the throne of Oman at the time, Sultan bin Ahmad began using Gwadar as a base for raids on the opposite Arabian coast. After obtaining supreme power in his homeland in 1792, he completed the annexation of Gwadar to Oman. Which brings us to another prospect, the Sheedis mentioned earlier in this article may very well have descended from female slaves brought in as concubines in the early 19th century, when slave trade flourished under Omani Sultans. Omani Gwadar finally came to an end in 1958 when Sultan Said bin Taimur sold the territory to Pakistan for three million U.S. dollars. But the Sphinx seemingly looks older than 19th century and we have already considered other likelihoods apart from African relationship. But could religion or Indus Valley Civilization be the answer or is there a puzzle piece missing?
I can almost see the Sphinx smiling down at me as I present my last plausible theory. And for that we have to scroll through the pages of history. Let’s revisit the majestic past of the Achaemenian Empire centred on Persia and comprising the Near East from the Aegean Sea (Mediterranean Sea) to the Indus River. Maka was an important early eastern satrapy2  of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid Empire. The Babylonians had made voyages using Maka to communicate with India. Herodotus on several occasions mentions the contributions of "Mykians" who inhabited the eastern portion of the Achaemenid Empire. They are mentioned as "the men from Maka" in Daiva inscriptions (one of the most important of all Achaemenid inscriptions). The Mykians are thought to be responsible for inventions such as underground drainage galleries that bring water from an aquifer on the piedmont to gardens or palm groves on the plains. These inventions proved to be important reasons behind the success of the empire. I’m sure that means constructing a Sphinx would not have been too much trouble for these ingenious people. Could these Mykians be the natives of Makran? After all the similarity of the name Maka to the modern name Makran surely is curious. 
After Cyrus' death, Darius I of Persia succeeded his throne and, according to Greek historian Herodotus, wanted to know more about Asia. And so he led a campaign of conquest towards South Asia, conquering Sindh in 519 BC and constituting it as his 20th satrapy. But why am I telling you that? What does Darius I have to do with the Sphinx? 

Achaemenid Empire 
Credit: Encyclopaedia Britannica

Well my dear readers, Darius I had the “winged sphinx” on his palace at the empire’s capital at Susa (modern day Iran). Interesting, isn’t it?  The palaces of the Achaemenid kings were often decorated with representations of long lines of soldiers dressed for a festive occasion or mythological creatures like sphinxes and winged lions. Darius’s rule ended with Greek invasion in the region. 

Winged lion with a ram's head and a griffin's hind legs, enameled tile frieze from the palace of Darius I at Susa, c. 510 BCE; in the Louvre, Paris. 
Credit: Britannica Encyclopaedia

 Alexander’s route through Asia

Bear with me while I interest you in a little more history. And so, Alexander the Great, greatly influenced by Cyrus the Great, led his army through the north western part of India. For seventy-five years after Alexander's death, Greek immigrants poured into the East and at least 250 new Hellenistic (Greek) colonies were set up. For centuries the ancient ethnic group living high in the remote mountains of Pakistan's Hindu Kush; the light-skinned, pagan people of Kalash have claimed to be long-lost descendants of Alexander the Great's armies, which invaded the region in fourth century BCE. Lahore Museum holds another proof for us; that for 500 years after Alexander, all coins had Greek markings. The ruins that Italian archaeologists have unearthed in modern-day Barikot, in Pakistan’s Swat valley, once belonged to Bazira, the city conquered by Alexander the Great. The monument built to commemorate the loss of Alexander’s favourite horse Bucephalus in District Jhelum also speaks of Alexander’s staunch footprints in the region. 
After the fall of Achaemenid Empire, Alexander the Great also crossed Maka in his conquest. Several scholars have argued that the Persian satrapy Maka is identical to Gedrosia which was occupied in the Bronze Age by people who settled in oases in the region, known in Greek as Ichthyophagoi or 'Fish eaters'. Makran, the ancient Gedrosia of the Persian and Macedonian empires has been strategically significant in the history of Iran and India. The area which is named Gedrosia, in books about Alexander the Great and his successors, runs from Indus River to the southern edge of the Strait of Hormuz. Which means that Gedrosia is the Hellenized (Greek) name of the part of coastal Balochistan that roughly corresponds to today's Makran. So it is possible that the native name of Gedrosia might have been Gwadar.
Now coming to the final missing puzzle piece; after the collapse of Alexander's empire the area was ruled by Seleucus Nicator, one of Alexander's generals who founded the Seleucid dynasty in Iran (refer to Figure 1). Alexander’s successors continued his policy by inviting Greek colonists to settle in their realms and continue to spread Hellenism3 wherever they went. In 303 BCE, Seleucus led an army to the Indus, where he encountered Chandragupta. Chandragupta and Seleucus finally concluded an alliance when Seleucus gave him his daughter in marriage and ceded the territories of Arachosia (modern Kandahar), Herat, Kabul and Makran. He in turn received 500 war elephants from Chandragupta. 

Figure 1: Hellenstic World. 

Credit: Britannica Encyclopaedia

And this could be our very last clue. Seleucus I, a Greek conqueror who once ruled over the region of Makran, gave Chandragupta his daughter; the Greek princess of hope to attain an agreement. The dynastic marriage between Indians and Greeks was a remarkable feat in this campaign. 
Speaking of Greeks, there is a creature very famous in ancient Greek religion and mythology; the Sphinx. The word sphinx comes from the Greek (Σφίγξ), from the verb σφίγγω (sphíngō), meaning to squeeze, to tighten up. In Greek mythology, a sphinx is represented as a monster with a head of a woman, the body of a lioness and sometimes the wings of an eagle. Isn’t it likely that the Greek princess in her aim of spreading Greek culture, as those gone before her, ordered the construction of the Sphinx? Perhaps in order to guard some hidden treasure or as a symbol of ferocious strength. Also possible is that the Balochistan Sphinx was erected to perform a deed similar to the Great Sphinx of Giza, built to guard the tomb of the Greek princess which perished to the winds and sands of time. 

Standing amidst mountains the shape of castles and amphitheatres, overlooking peculiar hilly structures mimicking the “Lost city of Atlantis”; what is our Balochistan Sphinx hiding? A man-made wonder lost to the pages of history or an architectural feat of wind and time? Whether the sphinx is Greek or Egyptian, a religious icon or a relic of the Indus Valley or perhaps a key to a history unknown to mankind, only further research can ascertain.

1. The Siddi also known as Sidi, Siddhi, Sheedi or Habshi, is an ethnic group inhabiting India and Pakistan. One theory is that the word derives from sahibi, an Arabic term of respect in North Africa, similar to the word sahib in modern India and Pakistan.
2. In the Persian Empire, the system of provincial governments was ruled by satraps (governors of provinces of ancient Median and Achaemenid Empires) each of whom answered to the emperor.
3. Hellenization is a term coined by the German historian Johann Gustav Droysen to denote the spread of Greek language, culture, and population into the former Persian Empire after Alexander's conquest.

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