Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

History’s Highway

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At the end of his Indian Campaigns, while resting his troops at Patala (Hyderabad) in the autumn of the year 325 BCE, Alexander of Macedonia trifurcated his army. One section under his own command was to march south to where Karachi now stands and then up north to Lasbela, thence westward to Turbat, south to Gwadar and eventually via Kerman to Babylonia.


The other two parts were to rendezvous with the young conqueror in Babylonia by two different routes. One under the command of the general Nearchus was to sail down the great Sindhu River to the Indian Ocean and coast westward. The third division under the aging Krateros was to take the heavy transport and ten thousand retired veterans back to Babylonia by the Helmand Valley in modern Afghanistan and Hamadan in Iran.

Now, since the first millennium BCE the town of Bhambore (Debal of Arab historians), whose ruins lie just an hour east of central Karachi, was a busy maritime port that did brisk business with inland kingdoms. Consequently, there were a number of routes radiating northward from this coastal town. One of these connected Bhambore with the Helmand Valley of southern Afghanistan by way of Thano Bula Khan, Jhangara on Manchhar Lake, Kalat and Nushki.

Those who know the topography of this part of the country understand that there stretch the towering bastions of the Khirthar Range between Sindh and Balochistan from Thano Bula Khan to Kalat. This arid and craggy barrier runs into the Central Brahui Mountains near Kalat. In its three hundred kilometre-length this great wall of limestone is penetrated by a number of passes: narrow, precipitous and rugged, most of them completely desiccated that permit the passage only of well-provisioned caravans.

But there is one dramatic and very picturesque natural breach in the otherwise seemingly impenetrable barrier of the Khirthar Mountains. This is the horseshoe-shaped Moola Gorge connecting Kalat on the Balochistan highlands with Gandava facing the Sindhi plains south of the Bolan Pass. Through this gorge flows the perennial Moola River. Rising in the juniper-draped southern fringe of the Harboi Hills south of Kalat, the Moola follows a south-easterly direction for close on eighty kilometres.

Upon receiving the tribute of two smaller streams from the south between the villages of Narh and Raika, the Moola abruptly swings to the northeast. This line it pursues for the next eighty kilometres. At a spot called Nau Lung – Nine Fords – it breaks free from the confines of the Khirthar Mountains within sight of the ancient town of Gandava and lavishly spreads out across five kilometres to water its farmlands.

Early British explorers and map-makers knew this route as the Bhambore-Kandahar Highway. Two thousand years before them, Greek geographers called it the Barbarikan-Arachosia route. Even at that ancient time its topography and physical conditions were well-known because more than three hundred years before Krateros led his veterans through the Moola Gorge, it was one of the main conduits between the Achaemenian kingdom of Persia and its eastern satrapies of Balochistan and Sindh.

Having seen some of the trans-Khirthar passes, I imagined the Moola Pass to be a similarly desiccated, precipitous and inhospitable conduit. But the urge to travel the road trodden by millions before me through the long and creative passage of time had remained persistent and strong and when my friends Munir Ahmed Musani and Saifullah Zehri, both native Moola Brahuis, offered to take me walkabout, I found no reason to demur despite the end of the cold weather.

We met at Khuzdar and by the time the old pick-up truck was organised it was already six in the afternoon. In mid-March this was too late to begin a journey if one wanted to see the terrain one was travelling through. Nevertheless we set out north on the old RCD Highway (N-25) and turned off to the east at Baghbana. The Moola route actually begins several kilometres north in the vicinity of the town of Anjira and we were taking the short-cut in view of the lateness of the hour. The unpaved trail streaked straight through wide open country dotted with clumps of grass while the distant hills were thinly covered with juniper. The open landscape was devoid of any signs of human habitation.

An hour off the main highway we entered the rugged hills of Shumblukh. The chiaroscuro of dusk transformed the sombre grey contours into ogres here, stegosaurs there and yet again into grotesque animals unknown to humankind; far away in the bowl below the last of the Shumblukh ridges, the houses of Pashtakhan, our destination for the night, were visible. The jeep trail we negotiated was built five or six years previously before which time there was only a rough camel track. As we negotiated the bends, the driver switched on the headlamps and announced they were faulty. Needlessly, as it turned out, for presently the lights went off. With one hand on the wheel, the man fidgeted with the wires under the steering column as we jolted along the rocky road and around the treacherous curves.

Pashtakhan was made shortly before eight in the evening. My friend Munir’s uncle was putting us up and a prior notice had been sent to him to please prepare simple vegetarian fare. But no self-respecting Baloch will put up with such nonsense when faced with guests. The roast lamb therefore did not arrive until some time after midnight and our group was still awake and winding down at 1.30 in the morning. When I said I would bathe in the river before dawn, I was warned about being careful because ‘village folks are up very early’ and getting caught with my knickers down wouldn’t be nice. But in the gloaming at 5.30, nary a soul was astir in the village. So much for early rising villagers!

Nineteenth century survey maps list Pashtakhan as ‘Camp’ – a tradition still followed by the Atlas of Pakistan. This harks back to the year 1839 when a force under General Willshire, having stormed Kalat, marched back to Sindh via the Moola Gorge and camped here overnight. As for the name, we know nothing of it except that its pronunciation seems to have altered somewhat in the last one hundred and eighty years: in December 1831 we have Charles Masson, the astonishingly erudite deserter of the East India Company’s army, making his way from Kalat to Jhal Magsi referring to this village as Peshtar Khan. Another document from that same time refers to it as Paesht Khana. But neither writer makes any comment on its origin, nor too could Munir’s uncle tell us anything.

My quizzing however resulted in a priceless gift of three terra-cotta pieces: a crucible measuring seven centimetres across, a crude figure of the Mother Goddess six and a half centimetres high and a humped bull broken in the middle that, when complete would have been about seven centimetres. Dr Saifur Rahman Dar, the pre-eminent archaeologist of Pakistan says the crucible though fashioned as an ancient piece is questionable: had it been used, there would have been a coating of the metal smelted in it. He dates the goddess to about 4000 BCE and the bull to a slightly later date. According to my host, all three pieces had been found in or around Pashtakhan.

Pashtakhan sits in a wide triangular valley where the Moola River is met by another large stream draining the eastern flanks of the Harboi Hills in the north. With plenty of water the village is therefore surrounded by large tracts of cultivation. Sesame, peanuts, cucumbers, tomatoes, lemons, figs and dates besides the usual wheat are grown.

Because of the long night, I was certain half the day would be wasted at Pashtakhan. But we got away in good time. Just outside the village, cultivation gave way to a pebbly flood plain with the stream now braided across it in several channels and then in a single wide torrent. All around, the hills loomed through a milky blue mist. In Saur we paused at the roofless hulk of the baithak of Pir Luttu which seemed to be a fairly recent date. Shaded by date palms, it overlooked a narrow, elongated swath of ripening wheat. The two men who came out to greet my companions could offer no word on the saint who once graced this part of the valley with his presence save that he eventually moved on to some unspecified place. Neither were any miracles assigned to him, but his memory was still cherished.

By mid-morning we were at the village of Jakhar Kund, a two-house hamlet nestling below a rocky knoll and overlooking wheat fields along the river. Munir had here acquired a tiny 2.5 cm-long finely worked gold piece that could have been part of either a necklace or earring. We climbed up the rocky knoll to check out the foundations of ruined houses: large blocks of neatly set dressed limestone uncovered by the coarse hand of the robber. The hill extended in a gentle arc to the north and east and Munir said that all of it was covered with similar ruins.

The Archaeology Department had never visited Jakhar Kund, but Ismail, a local man, was overly busy vandalising this and several other ancient archaeological sites throughout Moola. Whatever he found was flogged away to unscrupulous contacts in Karachi and, as reported, Ismail maintained a somewhat obscene income and a continued interest in the destruction of Moola heritage. Even if these pieces continue to be maintained by rich collectors around the world, being out of their context, they will not be able to tell an archaeologist anything about the unfolding of human history in Moola Gorge.

Mid-afternoon found us at Pir Lakha whose claim to fame is a 16th century ruin attributed to Mir Masum Shah, the governor of Bhukkur (the island fortress between Sukkur and Rohri) under Akbar the Great. The story they tell is that the governor and a friend were en route between Sindh and Kandahar when the friend passed away and the grieving Masum Shah ordered this baked brick and mud plaster mausoleum. There is no inscription to ascribe the ruinous building to Masum Shah, but since he was a native of Kandahar and because Moola was the shortest route between Upper Sindh and the Helmand Valley, the journey is right plausible.

There was however once an inscription on a slab affixed inside the burial chamber. It has since been vandalised by the Station Manager of Radio Pakistan, Khuzdar and now adorns his home. Both Saifullah and Munir, having seen the tablet so many times before it was removed, knew the couplet by heart and recited it for me: Time has fled from your hands / Rise; the caravan has already departed. Much is lost in this layman’s translation because those who know the language tell me that the original Persian enshrines much beauty and wisdom.

An hour from Pir Lakha we halted at Patham at a place they called Shaheedan na Qabar – Martyrs’ Graveyard. There were no graves but ruined walls constructed of huge blocks of dressed stone that seemed to enclose a couple of acres between two low hills. On the top of the hill to the south as well as at its base there were remains of several rooms. To my untrained eye this appeared to be some sort of a check post – perhaps a station to levy taxes on passing caravans.

Amid the jumble of debris we found a flat stone shaped quite like a quern but with the hollow running complete through it. Such stones formed the base and top in the jamb of a gateway with a circular wooden beam resting in the cavities. Upon this beam swung the heavy timber door – an arrangement that I have seen repeated in several forts across the Sindhu Valley. From the amount of wear in the cavity it was evident that the door swung in it for decade after decade, if not for centuries.

So far we had kept along the beaten trail and yet found repeated evidence of prehistoric human settlements. My friends Munir and Saifullah who have roamed far across the valley claim to know of dozens of mounds strewn with dressed stone and terra-cotta pieces. Yet even as rapacious treasure hunters continue to ravage the ancient human record of Moola, never once has an archaeologist visited.

An hour before sunset we fetched up in Kharzan, the chief town of Moola tehsil that is essentially several groups of mud-plastered houses in a linear straggle some five kilometres long. The valley is here about half as wide with the river keeping below the western hills. Large tracts of cultivation separate the hamlets which, in the absence of electric pylons or other crude elements of modern life, are a photographer’s dream come true. Because of its balmy climate, Kharzan farmers celebrate their village for being the first to supply vegetables to the Quetta market. Here for the first time we saw guava and mango trees, the latter already in blossom.

My friends had asked, once again, for a dinner of roast lamb. Thoughtfully they had also asked for a vegetarian meal for me and so we ended up eating separately. Once again their meal was not over until an hour before midnight and when they rejoined me, they reeked of meat. The late dinner would have been all right were we staying at Kharzan, but our overnight stop was the rest house in the hills of Keel, an hour away.

Committed to promoting Moola as a tourist destination, both Munir and Saifullah had fought a long battle to get the rest house sanctioned by the district government at Khuzdar. But when time came for it to be built, a corrupt contractor with brothers as senior bureaucrats skimmed off the funds giving them a building that is already falling to pieces and in need of another hefty transfusion of funds to be put in order – this barely within a year of its completion.

There were four very basic rooms with attached toilets. The toilets had no running water and the one behind my room was stuffed full of furniture removed from the two rooms whose flimsy doors had already given way. With brothers in high positions, one of them in the secretariat at Quetta, the contractor had got clean away with this blatant robbery. Saifullah and Munir had clearly put the episode of the corrupt contractor behind them and now spoke of their renewed effort to get the rest house in useable condition to attract visitors. The website maintained by Saifullah had attracted a group of young men who, even as we worked our way through Moola, was motoring up from Karachi to spend four days in the valley.

We passed the village of Paniwand, the first habitation with a name that sounded Sindhi. My friends insisted it meant ‘Water Spreads Out’ because of the wide expanse of the Moola River, but Sindhi friends later told me that wand had no such meaning in their language. A short distance thereafter we paused to examine the ‘road’ my friends had mentioned earlier. Exactly six feet (1.82 metres) wide and paved with rough flagstones, the walkway is bordered by uprights and when it runs up a slope it does so in steps. In the course of widening the jeep road, large sections of this ancient walkway have been bulldozed and lost forever. Fortunately much still remains for the archaeologist and the historian to study. This, I believe, was no ordinary road because no caravans with their dozens of camels, horses and laden carts could have used it: this was the road for ceremonial processions.

This part of Balochistan as well as most of Sindh and NWFP fell to Cyrus, the great Achaemenian emperor, who ruled in the middle years of the 6th century BCE. A tradition preserved in the annals of Alexander of Macedon has the Persian ruler retreating from Sindh by way of Makran and losing all his army to the harsh terrain. Though this particular tradition is not very reliable, there is a likelihood that the great conqueror who may be the Koranic Zulquarnain – The Two-Horned because he wore a horned helmet – travelled across his eastern satrapies. If he did, he would have passed through the Moola Gorge by the road specially laid out for him.

We passed on into the precincts of the village of Koonvan which my friends erroneously believed to be the Sindhi word for well. This was because, so they said, the village was situated in a deep cup surrounded by crags all around. But in Sindhi, as in Punjabi, a well is khu, so once again they were wrong about the name. Here we waited for the jeep sent out by the good Amir Magsi to take me to Jhal Magsi and other adventures.

Save the driving rain that struck in our hearts the fear of a flooded river, the journey onward was uneventful. At Nau Lung the river, now rapidly swelling, was indeed spread out wide in several channels – the traditional Nine Fords.


Having seen the full length of the Moola Gorge, I now knew this indeed was the way history marched back and forth between Sindh and the Balochistan highlands. This was the one pass in the Khirthar Mountains that could take wheeled vehicles and large caravans of heavily-laden pack animals. This was the pass that would have been used as early as the fifth millennium BCE when brisk trade and exchange first flourished between the Sindhu Valley and Mesopotamia. This would have been the preferred route across the Khirthar crags because of its abundance of water and provisions.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,

7 Comments:

At May 6, 2013 at 12:15 PM, Blogger Sajini Chandrasekera said...

Every step of the journey beautifully explained and reading this have made Pakistan more close in heart

 
At May 6, 2013 at 3:56 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

All I can say, Sajini, is, 'Welcome to Pakistan!'

 
At May 6, 2013 at 4:53 PM, Anonymous M Behzad Jhatial said...

a complete n composed account of history.... worth reading...

 
At October 6, 2016 at 2:51 PM, Blogger Ravi said...

Does "Moola" has any meaning in local language or Farsi or urdu ?? i believe the word sounds more like sanskrit for me.

 
At October 7, 2016 at 3:02 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Ravi, I did ask, but Moola seems to have no meaning in Brahui, the language of this area. Brahui, incidentally, is closely related to some ancient Dravidian tongue. That is what linguists tell us.

 
At October 9, 2016 at 4:55 AM, Blogger Ravi said...

Moola means corner in my local language. infact, we have a temple in which Lord Shiva called as moolastaneswara(Moola-sta-neswara).

 
At October 11, 2016 at 10:23 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

And which language would that be, Ravi?

 

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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

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Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

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