Sec. v] FROM MOJI TO THE KHOTAN OASIS 119
the route, irrespective of any stages observed by the ordinary traveller. But in the absence of direct evidence all this must remain mere conjecture.
A long march on the loth of October brought me from Pialma to the confines of the great oasis of Khotan. Up to Ak-Langar, the regular stage some sixteen miles from Pialma, the route lies over an absolutely barren plain, first of hard loess then of gravel. From Ak-Langar onwards, where water is obtained only from a very deep well, the route passes for a distance of some ten miles through a belt of drifting dunes. Forming regular semi-lunes of the usual shape and direction, these dunes rise to quite respectable heights, up to twenty feet and more, and extend far away to the south of the route. In the midst of this belt of drift-. sand, a southern inlet as it were of the great sand ocean, the traveller reaches a remarkable shrine known as the Mazar of Kum-rabeit-Pâdshâhim, ' My Lord of the Sands Station'. Several wooden houses and sheds serve as shelter for thousands of pigeons, which give to the shrine its popular name of Kaptar-Mazdr, ` the Pigeons' Sanctuary '. The fluttering hosts, which are perfectly tame, are maintained by the offerings of travellers and the proceeds of pious endowments consisting of ` Waqf ' lands in the Khotan oasis 10.
According to the legend, as told to me by the son of one of the seven ` Shaikhs ' who have hereditary charge of the shrine, the sacred pigeons are the offspring of a pair which miraculously appeared from the heart of Imam Shakir Padshah when this champion of Islam met death here in battle with the infidels, i. e. the Buddhists of Khotan. Many thousands had fallen on both sides, and it was impossible to separate the bodies of the ` Shahi:ds' who had died for the Faith from those of the ` Kafirs'. Then at the prayer of one of the surviving Musalmans the bodies of those who had found martyrdom were by a miracle collected on one side, and two doves came forth to mark the remains of the fallen leader. One settled on his head, the other at his feet. From gratitude, all travellers who pass by this road offer food to the holy birds, either bringing corn for the purpose or else buying it from the store of the shrine, as I myself did in compliance with the pious custom. I was assured that birds of prey. never succeed in killing a pigeon, but die in the attempt. The legend was repeated to me in the same form by Alimad Shah, one of the old Shaikhs whom I subsequently met near Zawa, and is said to be recorded in a Tadhkirah or legendary, of which, however, I could not obtain a copy.
The absolute desolation of the surroundings made the pretty spectacle of the fluttering swarms doubly impressive ; and face to face with the time-honoured practice to which they owe their maintenance, I could not fail to be reminded of what Hsüan-tsang tells us of a local cult curiously similar on the road leading to Khotan from the west. Some 15o or i 6o li before reaching the capital, ` in the midst of the straight road across a great sandy desert,' the pilgrim describes ` a succession of small hills ' which were supposed to have been formed by the burrowings
of rats 11.
Of these rats popular legend related that they were ` as big as hedgehogs, their hair of a gold and silver colour', and that they were seen following a rat chief who daily emerged from his hole. In old days a general of the Hiung-nu, who had come to ravage the border
11 See Mémoires, ii. p. 232 sqq. ; Si yu-kz, transi. Beal, ii. pp. 315 sq. Julien's translation does not indicate that in Hsüan-tsang's time the miraculous rats were still believed to be visible, but merely records their presence in the past. For a translation of the passage as reproduced in the Pien i tien, see Rémusat, Ville de Kholan, pp. 47 sqq.