By: Brian Spooner
Baluchistan has received relatively little attention from geographers. Apart from the initial descriptions provided by scholars like Vredenberg for the Gazetteers, and by Harrison for the Admiralty Handbook (Persia), Snead worked along the Makrān coast in 1959-60, and Vita-Finzi worked in western Makrān in the mid-1970s—both geomorphologists—and Scholz, a cultural geographer, conducted short studies from Quetta. The standard work on the geography of Afghanistan (Humlum) devotes a few pages to the Baluch areas in the southwest of the country. The following description is based mainly on the Gazetteers and the author’s field notes.
Throughout most of Baluchistan the topography is extremely broken and mountainous, varying in altitude from 1,500-2,000 m (the steppe on the edge of the Iranian plateau, at the base of mountains) to over 3,500 m in the north and northeast and to sea level on the coastal plain. In the part that is now southwestern Afghanistan, and here and there in the 500 km-wide zone between the Afghan border with Pakistan and the coast, the land opens out into vast expanses of featureless semidesert and desert. Temperatures are continental in the highlands with bitterly cold winters and extreme diurnal and seasonal ranges; the lowlands and coastal areas are subtropical. Extremes of summer heat (with high humidity during the monsoon) occur at low altitudes away from the coast in the Kacchi-Sibi plain and the larger Makrān valleys. High winds are also regularly recorded, related to the well known bād-e sad o bīst rūz phenomenon in Sīstān.
Rainfall varies mainly according to altitude. Though rare in summer on the Iranian plateau, it may come at any season, but may fail altogether for several years in succession, especially at the lower altitudes. The highlands and high mountains in the east and northeast receive up to 400 mm, even more in places on the eastern escarpment. Most of the rest sees an average of 100 mm or less—though averages are misleading because of wide annual fluctuations. Rain falls mostly in winter (as snow at high altitudes). The monsoon brings summer humidity and occasionally significant rain to the coast and lowlands. For example, in 1964 it rained heavily every day for two weeks in August over a large area of Makrān (see below, on baš). Sometimes such weather edges up the escarpments and marginally affects the Iranian plateau. Summer rain can be torrential and in the mountains flash floods may cause sensational damage. Heavy rain turns the coastal plain into a morass of clayey mud, impassible for human, animal, or motorized traffic until it dries out, possibly as much as a week. In the southern mountains some rivers flow continuously for stretches; elsewhere occasional pools often last till the next flood. In the Nahang and Sarbāz rivers some of the deeper pools contain crocodiles. (Game generally has become scarce except for ibex in the higher mountains, and the ubiquitous partridge and smaller game birds, such as chikara, sisi, pigeon, and some sandgrouse and quail. Wild sheep, deer, black bear, wild pig, wolf, jackal, hyena, fox, and porcupine also occur.) Here and there pools provide a trickle of water to irrigate a nomad’s garden plot. Water is nowhere abundant or (with few exceptions) perennial, but in the mountains soil is the limiting factor for agriculture. On the coastal plain on the other hand, the soil is often good but there is no water except from rain or runoff, and the ports have no reliable water supply.
The history of settlement in Baluchistan is reflected in its toponymy. Place names fall into three categories: Names that are of Baluchi origin, or have been Baluchized, are used for most minor natural features: rivers, streams, rocks, mountains; old settlements and major natural features tend to have pre-Baluch names; and new settlements, dating from the middle of the last century in Iran, and the middle of this century in Pakistan generally have Persian or Urdu names. Urban settlement in Baluchistan today is all the result of Persian and Pakistani administrative and (more recently) development activity. The Baluch have never developed an urban way of life, and though many now live in towns, the towns are essentially non-Baluch (Iranian or Pakistani) in character. Most of the major Baluch agricultural settlements, however, have developed on the sites of pre-Baluch towns, known from the time of premedieval prosperity, that was based on investment in agriculture, as well as trade. Since the medieval period, both before and since the Baluch became dominant, up to the beginning of modern development, agricultural settlement has been dependent on the protection of rulers who lived in forts. A few traders clustered around the forts. But the cultural center of gravity of Baluch life was among the nomads who controlled the vast areas between the settlements.
Within the geographical and cultural diversity of Baluchistan a number of districts have emerged historically, each with its own distinctive geographical features. Starting from the Iranian plateau in the north, the following are the significant natural and cultural divisions of Baluchistan (the modern administrative divisions are almost identical): the Sarḥadd, the Māškīd (Maškēl) depression, the Māškīd drainage are of Sarāvān-Panjgur, the northeast highlands of Quetta, Pishin, Zhob, Loralai, and Sibi, the Mari-Bugti hills, the eastern highlands of Sarawan-Jahlawan, the Jāz Mūrīān depression, Makrān, the Kacchi-Sibi lowlands, and the coastal plain including Las Bela and Daštīārī.
“Sarḥadd” appears to have come into use in the medieval period for the southern “borderlands” of Sīstān. It is a high plateau, averaging 1,500-2,000 m in altitude and dominated by the two volcano massifs, Kūh-e Taftān (4,042 m) and Kūh-e Bazmān (3,489 m). Although it is now thought of as coterminous with the šahrestān of Zāhedān, its historical boundaries were not strictly defined and usage of the term varied according to fluctuation in the relative strength of local rulers: It was sometimes considered to extend into the northeastern part of the Jāz Mūrīān depression and into the Māškīd drainage of Sarāvān, and westward through southern Nēmrōz and Helmand provinces and Chagai and even into Kharan. It is characterized by cold winters and moderate summers, with precipitation concentrated in the winters, as snow on the higher ground. There are large areas of sand on either side of the border with Afghanistan. Apart from the general steppe vegetation, there are relict stands of wild almond and pistachio on the plains, especially between Ḵāš (also Ḵᵛāš, Bal. Vāšt) and Gošt (Gwašt), and juniper in the mountains. The area is characterized by isolated hills and depressions that function as internal drainage basins. The larger depressions, hāmūn, are generally saline; the smaller ones, navār, in some cases contain sweet water. Traces of old bands (q.v.) are evident on the plain southwest of Taftān and elsewhere. The only significant agricultural settlement of any antiquity is Ḵāš, which lies to the south of Taftān. A few old villages nestle at the foot of the mountain, mainly on the eastern side. The most notable are Lādīz and Sangān. Ḵāš depends upon irrigation from qanāts, which though probably ancient were redeveloped by entrepreneurs from Yazd under Reżā Shah. There are also a few qanāts across the border in Chagai.
Since the medieval period the Sarḥadd has been divided among a number of tribes. The most important are the Esmāʿīlzay (renamed Šahbaḵš under Reżā Shah), Mīr-Balūčzay, Rīgī, Yār-Moḥammadzay (renamed Šāhnavāzī under Reżā Shah), Gamšādzay, Nārūʾī, and Gūrgēč. Across the modern borders in Afghanistan and Pakistan the major tribes are Sanjarānī, Jamāl-al-Dīnī, Bādīnī, Moḥammad-Ḥasanī, and the Brahui-speaking Mengal. Some ten thousand out of the estimated ninety thousand Baluch in Afghanistan, especially the Nārūʾī, Rīgī, Sanjarānī, and Gūrgēč tribes, are closely related to the groups across the border in Iran and Pakistan. Most Afghan Baluch are presently refugees in the neighboring part of Pakistan.
The hāmūn of the Māškīd river lies on the southwestern side of a large depression of some 15,000 square miles that, although geographically an extension of the Sarḥadd, has generally been controlled separately from a fort on its northeastern side, known as Kharan. In the British period Kharan was a separate principality under Kalat. Earlier it had been dependent on Qandahār. It is mostly desert and includes a large area of sand dunes on the southern side. It is bounded on the north by the range of Raʾskoh which divides it from Chagai, and on the south by the Siahan range which separates it from Panjgur and Makrān. There is a large area of thick tamarisk forest downstream from the seat of the principality (Kharan-Kalat) on a river that was once dammed and supports annual cultivation. On the western side of the Māškīd hāmūn there is a large area of rather poor quality date palms which have been important in the ecology of some of the Sarḥadd tribes to the west in Iran. A number of massive stone dams, now known in the archeological literature as gabar-bands, appear to have supported terraced fields in the hills bordering the main depression (Stein, pp. 7, 15-34, 145-47; Raikes, 1965). This type of engineering continues to be practiced on a small scale throughout Baluchistan (and in other parts of Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan; see below and ābyārī). It was probably more important in earlier periods.
The ruling tribe in Kharan are the Nowšērvānī, who claim Persian origin. Other important tribes are the Raḵšānī, Moḥammad-Ḥasanī, and the Brahui-speaking Sāsolī and Samalārī.
South of Kūh-e Taftān the plateau drops away to below 1,000 m along the course of the Māškīd river and its tributaries, forming the districts of Sarāvān and Panjgur, before it turns back north into Kharan. Presently the river carries water only after rain. The ecology is transitional with elements from both the temperate plateau and the subtropical south. Where the main tributaries join, the river flows through a deeply eroded gravel plain and peneplain, completely barren except for clumps of pīš (Nanorrhops ritchiana) in the occasional wadis. Kūh-e Berg, a narrow 2,500 m ridge which runs 150 km northwest to southeast, divides Sarāvān from the Jāz Mūrīān depression. Magas (renamed Zābolī under Reżā Shah) at over 1,200 m below the southern end of Kūh-e Berg grows the best quality dates on the Iranian side of the border. East of it two long parallel valleys contain the old agricultural settlements of Paskūh, Sūrān and Sīb in the first, and Gošt, Šastūn (the modern town of Sarāvān), and Dezak (renamed Dāvarpanāh under Reżā Shah) in the second. Other old settlements lie farther downstream and in the mountains on either side: Kallagān, Esfandak, Kūhak, Nāhūk, Jālq, Kant, Hīdūč, Āšār, Afšān, Ērafšān. Bampošt, which is one of the major areas of mountain nomadism and āp-band (āb-band; see below) farming, lies to the south of the Māškīd. Both districts depend upon qanāts and settled populations have probably predominated over nomads throughout the historical period. A large proportion of the cultivators of Sarāvān and Sīb-Sūrān are Dehwār. Other tribes include the Bārakzay, most recently the dominant group, their predecessors in power the Bozorgzāda (of whom one branch, the Mīr-Morādzay, held the forts in Sīb, Sūrān, Paskūh, Kant, Gašt, Hūšak; while another branch, Neʿmat-Allāhī, controlled Jālq and Dezak), Nowšērvānī (in Nāhūk, Kūhak, Esfandak), Ṣāḥebzāda (who are sayyeds), Malekzāda, Lorī, Nātūzay, Sepāhī (who formed the militia of the Bozorgzāda), Arbāb (who are smallholders), Balōč tribes known as Sīāhbor, Čākarbor, ʿAbdolzay, Čārīzay, Dorrazay (in Bampošt and Hīdūč), Kord (in Magas); the Balōč in Salāhkoh and the neighboring mountains are Āskānī, Porkī, Sēpādak; the šahrī in Ērafšān are Raʾīs and Watkār.
In Panjgur, which in many ways is a mirror image of Sarāvān across the border in Pakistan, settlement is more restricted. The Raḵšān has a course of over 150 miles but from Nāg at the northeastern end of the valley down to the confluence with the Māškīd close to the Iranian border (although there are large areas of flood farming) it supports irrigation (either directly or by qanāt) only around Panjgur itself. Remains of a dam dating from the pre-Balōč period were still visible a hundred years ago at a place called Bonestān below Panjgur. Sarāvān has been most closely associated with the Sarḥadd and Bampūr. Panjgur has generally been most closely associated with Kech and therefore considered part of Makrān, but the influence of Makrān has always been disputed by Kharan, which has managed to remain dominant in the border area in Esfandak and Kūhak.
The districts of Zhob, Loralai, Pishin, Quetta in the northeast are based on river valleys that drain out of the mountains around Quetta, which include two peaks over 3,400 m. Until two hundred years ago they had been more closely related to Qandahār than Kalat, and they became part of Baluchistan as a result of the political relationship between Kalat and Qandahār, a situation that was later reinforced by British border interests. Except for Loralai these districts were never settled by Balōč and their population remains mainly Pashtun, unassimilated to Baluch identity. Although they enjoy relatively high rainfall they remained mainly pastoral until the recent commercial development of fruit growing. Important areas of forest survive in the mountains, especially juniper (Juniperus excelsus) between 2,000-3,000 m and wild olive (Olea cuspidata). Major earthquakes were recorded in 1888, 1892, 1900, 1902 (Gazetteer V, pp. 30-31), and again the 1936. The major Pashtun tribes are the Kākaṛ, Tarīn, Panī, Acakzay. The Baluch tribes in Loralai are the Buzdār, Lēgarī and Ḡōṛčānī. In Quetta-Pishin there are only few Baluch pastoralists, mostly Rind (Gazetteer V, p. 77). There are now migrants from many Baluch tribes in the vicinity of Quetta.
South of Quetta a tongue of highland and mountain extends almost to the coast, dividing the lower Indus valley from Makrān. The main rivers are the Hingol, Porali, Baddo, and Hab. This was the medieval Tūrān, and as Sarawan and Jahlawan it has provided the center stage of Baluch history. Sarawan is literally the “above-land” and Jahlawan is the “(be)low-land” (Jahlawan becomes Jhalawan in Pakistani Urdu nomenclature), but the terms derive not from the topography but from the two divisions of the largely Brahui-speaking confederation living there. Kalat is the seat of Sarawan and Khuzdar of Jahlawan. Nal and Wad are other important tribal centers. The 1936 earthquake destroyed the Aḥmadzay fort (Mīrī) in Kalat as well as the city of Quetta (Baluch, 1975, p. 121). Although these districts have slightly higher rainfall than most of Baluchistan south and west of Quetta, they were mainly pastoral and nomadic until the recent extension into them of the national power grid, which encouraged investment in wells and pumps and settled agriculture and led to neglect of the traditional qanāt and band technology (see below). Pastoral transhumance to the lowlands of Kacchi on the west, which was the basis of the political preeminence of the area, remains important. The major tribes are the Raʾīsānī, Šahvānī, Bangalzay, Lēhrī, Langaw, Rostamzay, Mengal, Bīzenjō, Kambarānī (Qambarānī), Mīrwarī, Gorgnārī, Ničatī, Sāsolī, Ḵedrānī, Zārakzay, and the Zēhrī (of which only the last is Baluchi-speaking).
East of Sarawan and Jahlawan the terrain drops almost to sea level within some 20 km. This is the piedmont plain of Kacchi (the northern part of it belongs to the district of Sibi that extends up the valleys into the high mountains east of Quetta). Kacchi is about 2,000 km2, sloping from an elevation of about 150 m at Sibi in the north to 50 m at Jacobabad in the south. Since the introduction of a canal from the Indus in the 1930s the southern part has become the most productive agricultural part of Baluchistan. The majority of the year-round population are Jats. Cultivation in Kacchi depends on harnessing the floods that arrive in July and August from the monsoon on the hills—there is less than 100 mm of rain on the plain. The main rivers are the Bolan and the Nari. Seasonal river discharge onto the agricultural land of Sibi, Kacchi, Las Bela, Bāhū, and Bampūr was traditionally managed in the same way (though on a smaller scale than) the discharge of the Helmand into the delta lands of Sīstān. (The annual rebuilding of the barrages in Sīstān is described in Tate, 1909, pp. 224-226.) It was the most important event of the year, using all available labor. Crops include sorghum, pulses, and sesame. There is a nāʾeb for each village, appointed by the khan. The Jats construct huge embankments across the dry riverbeds to catch and divert the torrential floods. As the fields are flooded, they break one dam and let the water rush down to the next. The Nari has more than fifteen such dams. Most of them require repair or reconstruction during winter, for which the labor is provided by the nomads. Nomads also provide the labor for harvesting. The traditional organization has been modified recently by administrative changes (N. Swidler, p. 102). The major tribes are the Rind, Magasī, Dumbkī, Omrānī, Bulēdī, Ḵōsa, Jātōī, Kēbārī, Mugārī, Dīnārī, Čālgrī, Marī, and Būgṭī.
South of Loralai an isolated area of hill country extends southward to the banks of the Indus, bounded on the east by the southern end of the Sulaiman range. These are the Mari-Bugti hills, called after the tribes that have controlled them with a considerable degree of autonomy into the modern period. They consist chiefly of narrow parallel ridges of closely packed hills, which form the gradual descent from the Sulaiman plateau into the plains, intersected by numerous ravines and generally barren and inhospitable. But here and there are good patches of grazing, and a few valleys which have been brought under cultivation. The Marī are the largest Baluch tribe and were estimated at 60,000 (Pehrson, p. 2). They are Baluchi-speaking and identify strongly as Baluch, claiming to be descended from a branch of the Rind tribe. But they speak a distinct dialect of Baluchi, and have always jealously guarded their autonomy from the larger Baluch polity, especially as represented by Kalat. In their political organization they display features that are reminiscent of their Pashtun neighbors, such as tribal councils.
To the northwest the historical boundary between Baluchistan and Kermān is a vague no-man’s land in the Jāz Mūrīān depression. The Jāz Mūrīān is a large hāmūn, about 300 km long and 70,000 km2 in area, into which the Bampūr river drains from the east and the Halīlrūd from the west. A low range separates it from Narmāšīr and the Dašt-e Lūt to the north. A large area of dunes impedes communication on the southeast side, and there is a thickly wooded area, mainly tamarisk, along the banks of the Bampūr river below Bampūr. Most of the rest, except for a varying amount of shallow water in the center, is flat desert, with high summer temperatures, but an open gateway to Kermān in the winter. There is a score of rich agricultural villages around Īrānšahr (previously Fahraj, Baluchi Pahra) and Bampūr (of which the largest is Aptar) depending partly on qanāts and partly on a dam above Bampūr, which is the site of the largest fort in western Baluchistan. The agricultural population is mainly low-status tribesmen and gōlāms. 100 km west of Bampūr, on the northeast edge of the central depression, is the center of the Bāmerī tribe, who breed the best fast riding camels. They engage in a small amount of cultivation based on shallow wells from which they raise the water by means of long counterbalanced poles (Arabic šādūf).
South of the Jāz Mūrīān and Sarāvān the Makrān mountains extend in a 150-220 km wide zone from Bašākerd in the west to Mashkai in Jahlawan in the east. There is a number of parallel east-west ranges and valleys that resemble steps from the Iranian plateau down to the coast. They are rugged and difficult to traverse, though the peaks rarely exceed 2,000 m. The most important rivers are the Jāgīn, Gabrīg, Sadēč, Rāpč, Sarbāz, Kech, and its tributary Nahang. The western rivers cut through the mountains in deep gorges, of which Sarbāz is the most spectacular. In the east the major river is the Kech, which runs 150 km due west between two ranges before joining the Nahang and turning south through a gap to the sea. Rainfall is scanty and irregular, and summer temperatures are high, but the monsoon brings humidity and occasional rain that reduces the temperature and resuscitates the vegetation. The Makrān mountains are the home of Balōč nomadic pastoralists. Natural vegetation is sparse, and they divide their time between their animals (mainly goats) and their āp-band. Where valleys open out and contain soil but no water, a band is built round a terrace of good alluvial soil to catch occasional rain, or water channeled from the river after flood. The few permanent settlements are riverine and small. Most are situated in the sweep of a bend or where a river issues onto desert plains. The main centers are Bent, Fannūj, Geh (renamed Nīkšahr under Reżā Shah), Qaṣr-e Qand, Bog, Rāsk, Čāmp, and Lāšār, Espaka, Mand, and Tump. There are over 50 villages on either side of a long gorge in the Sarbāz river, and an almost continuous string of oases lining the banks of the Kech river with fields and date plantations irrigated from both kārīz and cuts (Bal. kawr-jō; kawr is Baluchi for “river”) taking off from large pools in the river bed. Tump and Mand enjoy similar conditions. Kolwa is an 80-mile natural continuation of the Kech valley to the east separated by an almost imperceptible watershed. It contains by far the greatest dry crop area of the Makrān. The Dasht valley carries the united Kech-Nahang through the coastal range to the sea, irrigating important agricultural land on either side. The Buleda valley north of Turbat has some agriculture, as do some spring-irrigated areas in the Zamuran hills north of the Nahang river. Otherwise, apart from Parom and Balgattar which are saline flats, Makrān supports only pastoralism. The crops in the mountains are rice and dates, though a wide range of fruits and vegetables are grown in small quantities, and mangoes deserve special mention. Dates are par excellence the crop of the Makrān; 109 cultivated (nasabī) varieties are listed in the Makrān Gazetteer, apart from wild (kurōč) varieties. Pīš is the most typical of all Makrān plants. It grows on rocky ground up to 1,000 m, and provides a famine food, as well as fiber. The main tribes of the Makrān mountains are the Gīčkī, Bulēdī, Hōt, Bīzenjō, Nowšērvānī, Mīrwārī, Rind, Raʾīs, Lāndī, Kattawār, Kēnagīzay, Mullāzay, Šīrānī, Mubārakī, Lāšārī, Āhurānī, Jaḍgāl, Sardārzay. The Šīrānī hold Geh, Fannūj, and Bent; the Mubārakī, who are a branch of the Šīrānī, hold Čāmp and Lāšār. The Bulēdī held forts in Rāsk, Qaṣr-e Qand, Bog, and Hīt and their warrior zāt was the Bar. Katrī and Bāpārī are non-Baluch merchants. The cultivators in Makrān are mostly landless.
The coastal plain varies in width from almost zero to as much as 100 km in Daštīārī and more in Las Bela. It contains no reliable supplies of fresh water, but supports considerable forest and woodland of Prosopis, Zyziphus, and Acacia spp. The coastline is deeply indented with bays, which provide good anchorages for Čāhbahār (formerly Tīs, a little to the north of it) and Gwadar, among other ports. In the west the plain is mostly low and swampy or sandy, but farther east there are hills near the coast and headlands. Bare sandstone has weathered into fantastic shapes. At their seaward base some of them have deteriorated into badlands and are difficult to traverse. The main rivers, which only flow after heavy rain, pass between the sandstone massifs, providing the only passages inland. A line of mud volcanoes extends along the coast, of which the largest, Napag (10 miles north of Ras Tank/Raʾs Tang), has a cone built up to 50 m by constant eruptions of greenish mud (Persia, p. 141). There are extensive mangrove swamps intersected by creeks in the Gwatar bay and the rivers to the west. The rivers contain quicksands. The soil in Daštīārī and Bela, like Kacchi and some parts of Makrān such as Parom and along the Dasht river, has unusual moisture-retaining capability. After one good rain it will hold water long enough to obtain a crop of sorghum. Daštīārī relied on the Kājūkawr and Bāhū on the Mazankawr (the continuation of the Sarbāz river) for irrigation. But about a hundred years ago both of these rivers cut back so that except in exceptional floods the water was out of reach of the agricultural land. In both Daštīārī and Las Bela dams were built seasonally from earth and trees, as in Kacchi. Small fishing communities of Mēd live here and there on the beach. Scattered along the plain are mobile villages and camps of Balōč who are mainly pastoral, but practice a little cultivation after rain. All these populations have traditionally depended on rain and rain-filled ponds as the only source of water.