Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Babusar: Passage of the Pious

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In the last years of the 2nd century BCE, Maues the Scythian king led his tribe from Central Asia down the Hunza valley and into the Indus Gorge near Chilas. There he pitched his army against the forces of Gopadasa, the local king. The Scythians prevailed and a faint carving on a rock by the bank of the Indus outside Chilas town pictorially records that far away event: Scythian soldiers leading a corpulent Gopadasa in chains to Maues sitting in a chair.

Historians would argue over the route taken by the Scythians from their Central Asian homeland to Chilas. Of the two possible routes, the one across the Mintaka Pass takes precedence for selection because of the absence of the difficulty of glacier crossing and ample pasturage all along. And so, having bested the king of Chilas, Maues marched on to make his home in Taxila.

If the route of the Scythians’ march to Chilas is moot, there is no doubt regarding their onward advance into Punjab. South of Chilas, there rises a high, rocky wall cut across by a number of lower saddles. None of these is more suitable for large caravans and mounted armies as the 4140 metre-high Babusar Pass. So it was that the Scythians poured over the lip of the Babusar saddle and down into the verdant Kaghan Valley on their way to rule Taxila and the rest of the land that today makes up Pakistan.

While Maues left a clear record of his exploits in Chilas and also later in Punjab, helping us conclude that he did indeed travel over the Babusar, there were others before and after him who were somewhat more subdued in their expression. Theirs were no boasts of military prowess. Theirs were only quiet expressions of piety.

After Buddhism reached Central Asia and China, its religious books were translated into the local languages. Over time, teachers of religion came to recognise that the translations were faulty and sought the real word of Buddha from the subcontinent where the religion had originated. From as early as the 3rd century BCE, a trickle of pilgrims from the north came down to the great Buddhist centres of Swat and Taxila searching for the original texts of their religion.

As they paused in the riverside inns of Chilas, then a devout Buddhist centre, they left a record of their pilgrimage. Apparently paid for to be rendered by professional artists, there are innumerable petroglyphs of Buddha, Bodhisatava (future Buddha), stupas, pilgrims and votaries. Surely some of these pictures in stone represent true likenesses of the pilgrims who paid for them to be executed. In any event, they tell us of the coming and going of the pious that began over two thousand years ago.

This traffic died out after the beginning of the 11th century CE when the great centres of Buddhist learning were laid low by Turkish inroads. As the route north to Hunza and over the Mintaka Pass to Kashgar in Central Asia was never a trade conduit, the Babusar passed into oblivion with the drying up of the pilgrim traffic. For close to a thousand years, there were only occasional local travellers crossing it this way or that. In the second half of the 19th century came the adventurers of the Raj on hunting trips to once again open up and popularise the Babusar route.

How to get there: Islamabad is connected (through Abbottabad and Mansehra) with Naran sitting at the south end of the Babusar Pass. The blacktop road now reaches as far as Jalkhad on the way to Babusar and there is every promise of it making it to Babusar and over by the end of the year 2011. For the time being, a four wheel drive which can be hired in Naran is necessary to explore the pass. The drive from Naran to the top of the pass takes 4 hours while two more hours of a somewhat bumpier ride can deliver one in Chilas on the far side. Babusar is famous for frequent and sudden squalls of freezing rain and sleet. Inclement weather gear is a must for the outing.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:30,


At 3 May 2013 at 12:42, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where was the original homeland of the Scythians and what forced them to leave their ancestral lands?

At 3 May 2013 at 13:03, Blogger Jalal Hameed said...

Has the road been built as the info above is updated till 2011?

At 4 May 2013 at 12:25, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

There were two divisions of Scythian tribes: the Asiatic and the European Scythians. The former lived around the Black Sea and areas north of it. The latter, our ancestors, had their home in what are now the several stan countries of Central Asia and also Chinese Turkestan.
From very ancient times, periodic droughts in Central Asia were the cause of these mass migrations. According to the late and much respected historian William Tarn, these droughts occurred at regular six hundred-year periods.
There were also pressures of growing populations and tribal wars for grazing lands that forced these migrations during wetter periods when both human and livestock thrived.

At 4 May 2013 at 12:26, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

The road is slowly being built after the great setback of the 2005 earthquake. I have not been back in this area for three years now and have no idea how far it has progressed.

At 5 May 2013 at 12:09, Anonymous Ramla said...

Wild landscapes on four feet. Great place.

At 5 May 2013 at 12:30, Anonymous Aghader Ami said...

Going the extra mile always discover such treasures. This beautiful image sits on my computer as a wall paper :-)

At 6 May 2013 at 10:08, Anonymous Mark Quiazon said...

I was in awe just reading this. I can imagine how one feels walking along this path of unbelievable landscape.

At 6 May 2013 at 16:09, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Aghader, You gratify me no end! Thank you very much.

Mark, And this is just the beginning. Walk, walk, walk and you find companions from ages past by your side. You can hear their songs and become one with them in these unforgettable landscapes.


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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

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