Translated by Salman Latif from PakVoices Pasni website, originally written in Urdu
Photos: Shehzad Ahmad
The coastal Makran belt in Balochistan is immensely significant not just from a strategic viewpoint but also because of its unique geographic features. Makran coast is called the Gateway to Asia and is rich with abundant deposits of natural resources.
Some of the most important geographic features of the area include Miani Hor, Khaleej Ganj as well as the Astola Island.
Astola Island is a strip of land 2 kilometers long and 2.3 kilometers wide. It has a hilly terrain, rising steeply from its coast to a mountainous height of 246 feet at its highest point. The island is 39 kilometers from Pasni city and is considered the largest island in Pakistan.
Locally, Astola island is also called ‘Jazira Haft Talar’ or the Island of Seven Hills. The island is considered to have an ancient history with possible mentions found in Greek historian Herodotus’ works. In his history of the region, Herodotus mentions 4 islands of which 3 have apparently been lost to the sea and Astola alone still stands.
Probably the name ‘Nousala’ used in Greek history refers to today’s Astola. Greeks believed that Aphrodite, the Greek goddess, lived on this island and whenever a ship passed by, she would turn the people on it into fishes and leave them in the sea.
According to another legend from history, when Alexandar’s Macedonian army reached Makran, the head of his navy visited Astola and decreed that the island was a treasure-trove of precious stones and minerals. This led to a large number of prospectors from Egypt and Greek coming to test their fortunes on the island, only to turn back disappointed.
The island may have no precious stones in reality but geologists today affirm that the seabed near the coastal areas of Balochistan has vast deposits of oil and gas which extend from Makran coast all the way to the Persian Gulf. These deposits are one of the major reasons of volcanic eruptions in the sea and the consequent formations of islands.
The life story of Astola may be somewhat different, though. Some experts claim that the island was once a part of the mainland but after a tumultuous earthquate, it was ripped asunder and drifted off into the sea. Some cite the ‘Zarreen’ mountain near Pasni as the exact place where Astola broke off.
The name of the island in Hindu tradition is ‘Stadeep’ and Hindus believe that the temple of Mahakali is located at this island. According to the Hindu belief, Mahakali traveled from this island all the way to Hanglaj every day to take a bath. It is worth-noting here that in the Hingol region of Hanglaj, a Hindu temple popularly called ‘Nani Peer’ is situated. This is the area where Hingol river also flows. Every year, thousands of Hindu pilgrims come to visit the temple which, Hindus believe, belong to the Nani Peer who was a very pious and virtuous woman.
As one hits the coast of the Astola island, the shrine of Hazrat Khizar looms into view. Many locals believe that he protects the fishermen during storms. This may be related to the fact that given Astola’s size, it is a safe harbor for fishermen if a sudden storm rises up in the Baloch Sea.
Astola Island is also considered a home for water birds. It is also home to other marine life such as green and hawkbill turtle species. The turtles lay their eggs on the coast of the island.
Biologists say that the coral reefs around Astola island are extensive, which may explain the island’s attraction for the marine life. In winters, birds migrating from Siberia station here as well.
Some fishermen make overnight stops at the island during fishing trips. Sometimes, they may also indulge in fishing near the island. This has been found to harm the local marine life such as green turtles and needs to be actively discouraged.
Astola is also a popular tourist spot with tourists and researchers frequenting it throughout the year. Government needs to put some effort into promoting tourism on this scenic spot and making the trip to the island more conducive so that more people could come to see it. At the same time, any developments done for the sake of tourism must not interfere with the ecology and beauty of the island.