Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The Salt Range and the Potohar Plateau

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Book is available at Sang e Meel (042-3722-0100), Lahore

Enclosed, after their emergence [from the mountains], between Indus and Jhelum as between a pair of arms, lies the curious block of country known as the Potwar (sic) plateau; rimmed to the east and south by the relatively puny, though impressive escarpments of the geologically complex Salt Range...’ Ian Stephens in Pakistan.

General view of Soon Valley

Rising abruptly from the Punjabi plains west of the River Jhelum and ending equally precipitously on the Sindhu, one hundred and eighty kilometres in the west, the Salt Range is a mass of sheer escarpments, jagged peaks, rolling hills and desolate ravines gouged out by rivers that have long since ceased to flow but in the more intense deluges. Nestling between these hills, are wide valleys irrigated by spring fed streams, as fertile today as they were a thousand years ago. All of them but the comparatively flatter and more intensely farmed tracts glow a deep, dull red colour. This is the signature of sub soil salt that lies deep underground in vein after substantial vein and gives it name to these low hills.

Approaching from the east or the south, the precipitous escarpments wreathed in purple mist, seem completely impassable. But that is nature’s deception. Roads lead up into the range - roads that faithfully follow the alignment of pony tracks and footpaths that may well have been in use ever since man first colonised this part of the planet Earth. The northern periphery of the Salt Range forms a rough plateau cut across by several streams, that runs into the Himalayan foothills north of Islamabad. In the west the mighty Sindh forms the sudden end of the range.

From 250 metres above the sea around the eastern and southern fringes of the range, the contours climb to a height of some 700 metres to the first of the valleys. The keekar (Acacia arabica) of the lowlands gives way to phulahi (Acacia modesta) and, in the higher reaches, to kao or wild olive (Olea ferruginea). On the stony slopes grow ber (Ziziphus jujuba), sanatha, a kind of myrtle (Dodonea burmaniana) with its leaves of vibrant green, and bhekar (Adhatoda vasica) with its offensive smelling white flowers that are virtually mobbed by honey bees in April. The ubiquitous shisham (Sisoo dalbergia) is frequently met with, while even this area has not escaped the recent invasion by the eucalyptus of Australia.

Until a few years ago, the main water supply came from the few spring fed streams that bisect the valleys or the occasional well. But away from these streams rain water was collected in large stone lined tanks that slaked the thirst of man and beast alike. With an ever increasing network of piped water over the last decade and a half, most tanks have disappeared. The few that that remain are still shaded by the wide spreading banyan (Ficus indica) tree.

Bordering the valleys are higher, jagged peaks. Sakesar in the west rises to a majestic 1522 metres as if to accentuate the sudden ending of the range. In the heartland, Krangal and Chehel Abdal both rise to just above 1000 metres, and the eastern extremity is marked by the purple loom of Tilla Jogian. Detached from the main range, though very much a part of it, Tilla, rising suddenly above the surrounding country, appears deceptively higher than its actual elevation of 1050 metres. Both on this hill and Sakesar grow, among others, some chir (Pinus longifolia).

The valley of Jhangar with its dense cover of sanatha and kao stretches from the village of Ara in the eastern extremity to Choa Saidan Shah which itself is known for the fertile fruit orchards of the narrow Gandhala valley that nestles between sheer rocky crags. To the west is wide open Kahun with its bitter lake of Kallar Kahar and shisham and poplar lined wheat fields. Perhaps it was the fecundity of this soil that prompted its inhabitants to call it Dhun Kahun - Bountiful Kahun. To the south, sandwiched by yet more stark limestone ridges, lies the picturesque Soon Valley. Two major lakes, the Khabekki and the Uchhali, and numerous smaller tarns lend it a picture postcard beauty. Watered here by a clear mountain rill and there by the camel driven Persian wheel (increasingly being replaced by diesel pumps), the farmlands of Soon yield two crops annually. These and the substantial farming of off season vegetables bring prosperity to the Soon Valley.

Rising in the Himalayan foothills, just below Murree, is the perennial Soan River, the Soanos of Strabo - the major stream of the region. Winding its way across the Potohar, it skirts the cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad receiving their effluent by the Lai. Vibrant and living until this point, it flows on, a dead, foul smelling gutter, to its junction with the Sindhu over one hundred and sixty kilometres in the southwest. But while the Soan has been killed, the beautiful unspoiled Haro still flows past historic Hasan Abdal, mirroring the sun in its emerald waves as it winds across the dry, broken Kherimar (Sandal Destroyer) hills of Attock district to pay tribute to the Sindhu River. Not very far away, the hoary walls of Taxila are washed by the Tamra Nala that classical Greek writers noticed as the Tiberoboam, Tiberiopotamus or Tibernabon.

A mountain stream in Soon Valley

In the west, beyond the Margalla (Cut Throat) Pass, so named for the brigands that once lurked in it to dispatch and plunder unwary travellers, in the district of Attock rise the Kala Chitta (Black and White) Hills dwarfing the lesser, but even more evocatively named Kherimar Hills. Due north lies the Chach Plain that saw the passage of innumerable caravans in the course of the long and colourful unfolding of history. Having crossed the Sindhu at the ferry of Hund, it was through Chach that traders and soldiers, plunderers and pilgrims made their way to Taxila and the cities beyond.

Geologically speaking, the Salt Range, a part of the Indian tectonic plate that separated from the Australian plate some 250 million years ago, is one of the most interesting areas in Pakistan. Here can be seen rocks that were formed about 800 million years ago as well as those that are very recent, and in the rolling hills around Choa Saidan Shah one can turn up the oldest (from 570 to 500 million years old) body fossils ever found anywhere. One aspect of interest in the Salt Range rocks is the remarkably geological break occurring from 500 million to about 280 million years ago, signifying the time that this area was pushed out of the ancient ocean. Shortly after the latter date, this area was inundated by the sea yet again. And so during the entire Mesozoic Era the Salt Range remained under brine until its final re-emergence some 55 million years ago when the ramming of the Indian plate into the Asiatic mainland crumpled up the hills and caused the Tethys Sea to drain away to the southwest. Because the Salt Range spent the age of the dinosaurs under water, no land based dinosaur fossils will ever be found here.

After the draining away of the Tethys Sea, we find the first land vertebrates. The 1994 finds from Bun Amir Khatoon of large and small land mammals date to some 18 million years ago when the climate of this area was wet and humid, quite like that of Bangladesh today. The mountains of the Salt Range were yet in the process of formation and the area was a large, shallow basin with a number of rivers pouring in from the north. Since none of the Bun Amir Khatoon fossils has been found complete but as individual bones, one geologist postulates that the animals very likely did not live in this area, but their carcasses were washed down by the rivers. Dumped in the mud of the shallow lake, they were left to nature to be turned into stone. Notable among these fossils are the remains of elephant, rhinoceros, giraffe, deer, sheep, cow, rodents, wolves, leopards, tortoises, gavials and fish of several kinds.

Between five and two million years ago, intense tectonic pressure raised the hills that still exist today. Attracted by the fertility of this wet and humid sub-montane area a wide variety of animals made it their home, as the fossil record shows. This record also shows us that long after many species had been wiped out of Europe and Arabia, they were still to be found in the Salt Range and the Potohar region. Here early man would have vied with the wolf and the leopard for deer and wild sheep.

Anthropological studies in this region are unfortunately hardly noteworthy. The earliest proto-human fossils turned up by the scant anthropological work in this region are those of Sivapithecus from some 12 million years ago. The find of Gigantopithecus remains from the Potohar teases to this day. The size of an adult gorilla, the 10 million year old Gigantopithecus was much larger than its contemporary proto-humans, and it teases for it lurks mysteriously in the shadows of physical anthropology: disconnected from its brothers and running into a dead end. The find of a 2.2 million year stone axe from Rewat (on the Grand Trunk Road near Rawalpindi) made headlines several years ago for pre-dating similar discoveries from Africa. In this sporadic record also feature the more well known Soan River finds of pebble tools that are culturally linked with Central Asian finds.

Village Chitta on the banks of Uchhali Lake

There is no doubt that the record of human occupation of this region stretches from the present far into the misty past – to an age whose only record is stone tools and fossilised remains. This record shall remain abstruse and mysterious until comprehensive research gets underway. Or until the day when a fossil turns up by the same chance as those of the 18 million year old mammals were discovered in 1994.

Note: Excerpt  from The Salt Range and the Potohar Plateau

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 08:41,


At 9 August 2013 at 16:12, Blogger Unknown said...

After the intervention of social media, now a days more peoples are visiting soon sakesar valley. I think along with landscape and archaeology, this area has good potential for tracking and hiking. There are beautiful small hills as compared to northern area that can be tracked in one or 2 days. An other aspect of soon valley is that yet it is quite peaceful and current wave of terrorism has not yet affected this mystic land. GOD save all our country. Salman sb as this valley was called kohe Jodh in the past , do u know the reasons for this old name? Thanks

At 10 August 2013 at 15:37, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

I do not now remember correctly, but it was either in the Tabakat e Nasiri or the Tarikh e Jahan Kusha that Koh e Jud was used for the Salt Range. Wherever it was, the author did not assign a reason for the name. To connect it with the Koh e Jud or Judi of the Koran will be a mistake.
Otherwise your observation on the trekking potential is very true. In w3inter we should do something together.

At 11 August 2013 at 09:04, Blogger Unknown said...

Western part of salt range is missed to be mentioned. There is Namal Lake created by namal dam which is also attracts migratory birds during summer season. Imran Khan's Namal College is also on the west bank of namal lake. Kalabagh is also spectacular area of salt range.

Mehr Khan Awan

At 18 September 2013 at 00:26, Blogger Unknown said...

Akrand Janjua fort at Khutakka/Ahmadabad missed to be mentioned. Its very historic place and ruins are still there showing the importance of this place.

At 18 September 2013 at 00:27, Blogger Unknown said...

Akrand Janjua fort at Khutakka/Ahmadabad missed to be mentioned. Its very historic place and ruins are still there showing the importance of this place.

At 16 November 2013 at 10:48, Blogger Unknown said...

Have you visited the " Tulaja " ruins near Narrwari Bagh on Khushab ~ Naushera Road. Is there any historical record of these ruins. The place is worth visiting. It is out of the way due to that reason it is amazingly preserved. Please illustrate this place in your words so that the remaining ruins may preserved for the future generation.

At 16 November 2013 at 11:20, Blogger Unknown said...

Want to know about " TULAJA " ruins on Khushab ~ Naushera Road, near Narr Wari Bagh.

At 16 November 2013 at 11:42, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

I have never been to Tulaja. Want to g. Perhaps in March.

At 24 January 2014 at 23:27, Anonymous Salima Yakoob said...

The book does justice to the topic. Years ago I recommended it to @jimalkhalili on Nandana and Beruni.

At 8 February 2014 at 13:53, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Salima Yakoob, you are very kind. Thank you very much.

At 8 September 2014 at 17:05, Blogger Jawad Iqbal Jawad said...

Dear Salman Sahib! The area of Gojarkhan and Sohawa that is considered the heart of Pothohar and Pothohari culture is totally missed here. This area is not only important culturally, but historically also. This is the center of Pothohari language as well

At 11 September 2014 at 15:15, Blogger Rehan Afzal said...

Well Jawad the Book is about the Salt Range and the Potohar Plateau and not the other way round I guess

At 12 September 2014 at 21:25, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Jawad, this book is an attempt to recount the major historical events that unfolded in your part of the world. The only monument missed was Sar Jalal near Dhamiak. This was subsequently covered in Jhelum: City of the Vitasta.
And thank you for the clarification, Rehan.

At 16 September 2014 at 16:37, Blogger Lahoremassagist said...

Wonderful read sir. Deep history.

At 16 December 2014 at 12:20, Blogger Faisal said...

Nice article about the land of my people.The references to ancient history are enchanting.

At 5 May 2015 at 11:44, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

Great historical read giving details of Potohar reagon

At 14 March 2016 at 23:26, Blogger Unknown said...

Babar in his Tuzuk-e-Babri mentioned about salt range and also why it is known as Kohe Judh. The reason for name is the Jodh tribe closely related to Janjuas and their common ancestor link is with Raja Mal Rathore Janjua of Malot.

At 5 April 2016 at 09:20, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

What a silly statement,Anonymous. Do you have any source for this misinformation? if it is seena gazette, I can tell you a few stories about this gazette.

At 11 February 2018 at 18:38, Anonymous Anonymous said...

this anonymous who commented above at april 4, 2016 at 4:47PM is true son of bitch... he even don't now his own name and his fathers name... stupid basta*rd.

At 11 February 2018 at 20:14, Blogger Salman Rashid said...

The abusive comment referred to by Anonymous above has been removed.

At 17 May 2018 at 00:10, Blogger Parijat said...

Salmanji, agar salt range kahe to kya woh Khewara salt.Ra ki aap baat kar rahe ho?

At 17 May 2018 at 09:22, Blogger Salman Rashid said...

Parijat, the Khewra salt mines are a part of the Salt Range which is an entire hill system.

At 3 May 2019 at 15:00, Blogger Mohammed Rafiq Sethi said...

Although I have not communicated to you as often as I should, I am a true admirer of your work. Being a Pakistani, and having lived in the US most of my life, I often refer to your works for a variety of topic. Thanks for all you have done for Pakistan and Pakistanis in shedding a bright light on our county.

At 5 May 2019 at 09:44, Blogger Salman Rashid said...

Sethi sahib, I am very glad to know that my work is of help you you. Thank you very much,


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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