Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Bolan: where the Brahuis hold sway

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Mach (the name means Date Palm in Balochi), sits 980 metres above the sea amid barren hills that glint the colour of burnished gold in the sun. Twenty-six kilometres away to the northwest, Kolpur lies at 1790 metres above the sea. While the former is known to be among the hottest places in Pakistan during the summer, the latter gets a goodly fall of snow most winters. Between the two, the tortuous windings of the Bolan Pass follow a stream through a landscape whose timeless desolation is scarcely offset by the modern lorries, cars and trains that speed along its contours.
 
 
The river carrying its burden in subterranean channels and dry for the most part, every now and again releases the water in the form of springs. Where that happens, villages sprout up and verdure makes for a pleasant counterpoise to the starkness of the rocky gorge. But in the distant past, greater precipitation meant a greener Bolan and a perennial river. And so, six thousand years ago, when the cities of the Indus Valley engaged in a brisk trade with Mesopotamia, the Bolan Gorge formed the northern branch of the great three-pronged east-west highway.
 
In the middle years of the 6th century BCE, Cyrus the Great of the Achaemenian dynasty of Persia began to expand his kingdom. He may well have sent some of his legions down this way to stake his claim over the fertile plains of Sindh. For two hundred years his descendents kept their hold over this land until Alexander the Macedonian put an end to the dynasty in 330 BCE.


In the 2nd century BCE, the Scythians, fair-skinned horse riders, forced out from their Central Asiatic steppes by prolonged drought and the pressure of an even stronger tribe, descended into the subcontinent. Vast in numbers, they did not come en masse by one route, but in several groups by various passes into what is now Pakistan. One of the three roads they used was that of the Bolan Pass. The group that came this way settled across much of lower Sindh. Because of the large population of these tribes, Greek geographers came to know Sindh as Indo-Scythia – India of the Scythians.

While the Khyber was the main artery leading to the northern subcontinent, the Bolan Pass was the preferred route to the south. Consequently, it saw fewer incursions by the Turks and the Mongols headed in the direction of the riches of Lahore, Delhi and Multan. In the 18th century, Nadir Shah Durrani set his avaricious eyes on the wealth of Shikarpur and Rohri and the Bolan rang annually to the clamour of his Turkish, Persian and Pathan soldiery.

With the taking of Sindh in 1843, the pass fell into uncertain British hands. Uncertain they were because the doughty Marri tribesmen time and again descended from the fastness of their bleak mountains to the northeast to harry and plunder passing Europeans. But Afghanistan was the prize that Britain sought and even as her generals parried the Marri attacks, into the Afghan folly they exerted men and material to no eventual avail. Now, as the Dragoons, Fusiliers, Hussars and Highlanders wended their way up, the Bolan Pass resounded to the wail of bagpipes.

Within a century of the passage of the first British military contingent, the ancient passageway of the Bolan had trains chugging along its winding conduit. Except for the improved road, little has changed in the past century and a half. Despite all its modern trappings, however, the pass holds its ancient magic where one can still hear the jangle of bells that marked the passage of camel caravans. But now these are no trading caravans headed for distant marts. Now only Brahui nomads travelling between the plains of Sibi and the cooler uplands of Quetta and Kalat walk the dry, stony gorge.


How to get there: From Quetta, the top of the Bolan Pass at Kolpur is less than an hour by car. From there the road winds down to Mach 26 km or about forty minutes away. Though geographically the pass extends all the way to Dhadar, 55 km farther to the south, the landscape is unexciting as compared to what one passes through en route to Mach from Quetta. Owing to the uncertain situation in 2010, it is advisable to seek advice from the District Coordination Officer (DCO). A levies or FC guard may be necessary.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 8:00 AM,

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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