Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The wounded poet

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It was the summer either of 1998 or the year after and I was in Alai Valley hoping to trek up the valley into Chor and then over a high pass to Kaghan. Just three days before me, the valley had been swept by a storm that had caused much damage to the forest and the villages.

As my guide and I were slogging up the low Ajri Kandao (Pass) that connects Alai and Chor, we came upon a solitary man sitting under a pine tree whittling away on a piece of wood. He had an unkempt beard; a tousle of dark hair spilling from under the rim of his Chitrali cap, his grey kameez was unbuttoned to show a lean chest. My guide Taj Mohammad hailed him; the man looked up abstractedly, shook our hands and returned to his work. He said he was preparing a needle to apply antimony to his eyes.

Other than that, he refused to speak with us. As we walked away, Taj said this was the poet Wazir Mohammad who went by the nom de plume of Zakhmi — Wounded. He had, so said Taj, two cupboards full of books in his home in the village of Rashung and was always found reading or writing. Over the pass on the other side we paused for tea at the solitary inn. The innkeeper was the chatty kind and we lingered until lunch. That was when Wazir Mohammad Zakhmi overtook us.
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Goddess of fertility

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The countless versions of the image of the Mother Goddess, the goddess of fertility, come down to us from no fewer than 10,000 years ago. That was when the first cities of the valley of the Sindhu River began to take shape. The most ancient of those peeking down at us from that far off time being Mehrgarh, at the foot of the Bolan Pass, in Balochistan. That was 6,000 years before the Egyptians built their pyramids, over which the world went crazy in the 19th century.

The goddess wears fancy, sometimes even bizarre, head-dresses, but it is her extra wide hips and an equally large bust — the primary emblem of feminity and therefore of fertility — that are noteworthy. This distorted, even grotesque, imagery symbolises the goddess’ fecundity.
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Deosai National Park

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By the banks of the Bien

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Years ago, when he was still alive, my uncle Dr Habib ur Rahman once told me that he and his cousins used to cycle out from Uggi (our ancestral village in Jalandhar) to the Bien, a small stream. It was only a few kilometres away and they would spend their summer days swimming in its pellucid waters and picnicking on its sandy banks.


On my last visit to Uggi, I asked Bakhshish Singh to take us to the river. Now Bakhshish, in his early thirties, tall and very good-looking is a mona Sikh, while his father, the venerable Saudagar Singh, large-boned and bewhiskered, keeps the tradition of the great Guru Nanak alive. Back in March 2008, my first ever visit across the border, I was introduced to Bakhshish by the good Gurmeet Singh who looks after the Desh Bhagat Hall in Jalandhar (of this at another time). Bakhshish took me home to show me the village of my ancestors. It turned out that this family and I, they Kamboh and I Arain by caste, were kinsfolk from a distant past.
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Marot Fort

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Marot Fort lies between Fort Abbas and Yazman on the fringes of the Cholistan Desert. Back in 1985 when I visited it I was told of a shrine with the supposed footprint of some early Islamic personage. Having seen one footprint too many and knowing for sure that this was a hangover from our Buddhist-Jain-Hindu past, I cannot get myself to believe in them. Nonetheless, I did check out the rather misshapen mark on white marble that could possibly have been a yeti instead of a human footprint.

Two years ago, I was in Marot again. The shrine was there but the footprint was gone, reportedly having been removed by a Pukhtun captain of the Pakistan Army. The captain, it was said, did not approve of the idolatry and had the object removed and presumably destroyed. Good for this man and we could do with a few more of his ilk to bulldoze all these Zinda, Ghaib and Nine-Yards-Tall saints.

To begin with, the 1904 Gazetteer of Bahawalpur State mentions a mosque in Marot, not a shrine of the footprint. That is, this Islamic footprint was invented some time after the publication of that document. It is Dr Saifur Rahman Dar, the pre-eminent archaeologist, who lifts the veil off the shady tale of the mosque-shrine. In a paper published in the Journal of Central Asia (Vol IV, No 2), he presents a reading of a tablet with a Persian inscription that was preserved in the Bahawalpur Museum when he was in charge there.
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When the meek inherit the earth

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In Swat there is no dissent on one thing: the good governance provided by the wali of Swat. This is one thing the oldest resident of the district will vouch for from memory of the time under the benevolent dictator, and this is also what any youngster will tell you from the stories gleaned from elders.

The wali was as a father to the district, they say. He provided education to all regardless of gender and established two thousand schools in the district. He gave justice without bias and he gave it swiftly. In his age, the civil servant was just that: a servant of the citizen.

Misdemeanour on the part of an employee of the State of Swat could be reported and action brought down speedily against the miscreant. In his time, no one could so much as cut a twig, leave alone poach a whole tree. Best of all, there was peace and rule of law in the country under the wali’s rule.
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Back from the brink

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There is something about Mian Said Ali that makes you like him. It is the gentleness in his ready smile, the humility of his demeanour and the matter-of-fact way he talks of his predicament that makes you warm up to him. There is also something that tells you that Said Ali can weather any storm without giving up. A native of village Janu on the highroad from Khwazakhela (Swat) to Bisham and only a few kilometres outside the former, he suffered like so many others through the years of militant savagery. Yet he kept his smile.

Said Ali and his two brothers own 17 kanals (two and a bit acres) of agricultural land. Living together as a joint family, the brothers worked their holding together. Because it was spread over undulating ground, the land was terraced and unequally divided between fields for seasonal crops and orchards.
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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand


Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days