Sher Ali Khan and the Churail of the Frontier
In Victor Bayley’s Adventure through Khyber there is a chapter called Power of Darkness. There is a scene where Sher Ali Khan one of the Pashtun tribal leaders is sitting with Victor Bayley, the two are alone inside Bayley’s tent. Bayley confesses to Ali Khan his sense of something dark and sinister out there in the mountains, especially at night and Ali Khan tells Bayley about his personal run in with a Churail. I have posted the story verbatim below.
“Tell me Malik Sahib,” said Victor Bayley to Sher Ali Khan.
“I have often heard them. Once I saw them, and I was very ill for a long time afterwards. I will tell you the story, Sahib, because you are not foolish but a wise man who has read many books. You have doubtless heard of a Churail?”
I nodded. A Churail is the wraith of a woman who has died in childbirth. She is condemned to wander the earth and, fantastically enough, her feet are turned back instead of forwards. She tempts a human being to follow her, and she entices him to a graveyard, where demons seize him and devour him. The unfortunate being is then lost both body and soul.
“I was returning late one evening to Jamrud, where I was spending some days on business. You know the place on the road well, Sahib, just below Shahgai Fort, where the road begins to descend steeply towards the mouth of the Pass. The sun had set, but there was still a little daylight.”
I could easily picture the scene. The last glow of sunset would be directly in front of him as he strode along the short straight stretch of the road before it started to zig-zag down. Behind him darkness would be visibly spreading from the east, and before long the last glimmer of the short twilight would be gone.
“I was a little anxious at being out so late, for Jamrud was still some three or four miles away, and I hurried along. I was greatly surprised to see a woman on the road in front of me, for you will of course understand, Sahib, no woman should be out alone at that time; so I called to her to follow behind me, and I would see her safely to Jamrud, if she lived there. She did not answer or give any sign, and in some annoyance I called out again. Once again she did not answer me, and I increased my pace so as to catch her up. She was heavily veiled, as was right and proper, and she was moving easily and swiftly along the road. Then, Sahib, my blood froze, for I heard an unusual sort of ‘Clop, clop’ from her feet, and I saw clearly in the fading twilight that her feet were turned the wrong way. It was a Churail! I tried to run away, but something prevented me. Then she turned and slowly raised her veil. Sahib, my hair bristles even now as I tell you of the terrible look she gave me. I cried aloud in my despair, but she laughed a little, such a horrible laugh, and said, ‘You cannot lose me so easily. Follow.’ She turned and continued to walk ‘Clop, clop,’ and I followed with feet like lead unable to tear myself away.”
The old man paused. I waited in silence and presently he continued:
“You remember where there is a rough path, which is a short cut straight down the hill, avoiding all the twists and turns of the road made by Mackeson Sahib?”
“I made up my mind that at this place I would make a desperate effort to escape the power of the Churail. So we went along the road, and now and again the Churail would turn and give me a terrible look and then laugh. When we reached the pathway, I gathered all my strength and, with a frantic effort, leapt over the wall and ran down the path. It was nearly dark by now, and I do not know how I escaped dashing myself to pieces. Many times I fell and, by the time I reached the bottom, I was bruised and bleeding. I still grasped my rifle, and with a sigh of relief I saw the road in front of me, where the path rejoined it. I must have run for a mile or more down the hill-side. I scrambled over the wall on to the road and—there was the Churail waiting for me. She drew her veil aside and fixed me with her glare and said, ’You cannot lose me so easily. Follow.’ Sahib, I cannot tell you of my terror. I could do nothing but follow, and so we travelled along the deserted road. I knew that just before reaching Jamrud there was a large graveyard on a mound, and it was there that she was leading me. In my despair I took my rifle and fired straight at her at only ten paces distance. She turned again and repeated,’ You cannot lose me so easily. Follow,’ and she laughed louder this time. I gave myself up for lost, and presently there in front of us was the mound with the graveyard standing up against the last glow in the west. I could see the demons on the top of the mound waiting for us. They were clearly outlined, Sahib, against the sky, as tall as three men. I saw them clearly, and so did the Churail, for she gave a long, low call and the demons started to move towards us.
“In my agony. I shrieked the name of the One and cried the names of my friends in Jamrud to save me. To my joy I was answered by human voices, and I remember no more. They were anxious about me being late and had come along the road to meet me, when they heard me shrieking their names, and they found me lying senseless in the road. I lay unconscious for a week, and for a long time I was ill from shock and the fright.”
We sat silent in the comfortable warm firelight for some time.
“So you see, Sahib, it is not good to be out at night in the Khyber. I am not the only one who has seen the demons. We hear them, too, at night. There are very few wild animals here, and their cries ar well known to every one. There are other strange sounds.
“There are great black things which run fast, making a thud-thud with their feet, and breathe with a hoarse panting sound.”
[As narrated by Victor Bayley in his book Permanent Way Through Khyber.]