Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Chinar City

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I arrived late in Parachinar. About twenty years too late. It was once among the most picturesque towns in Pakistan, and certainly the most charming little place in Pukhtunkhwa. But now it is almost as ugly as any old city. But it did match the mental picture I had of a town surrounded by vast numbers of Oriental Plane (chinar) trees. While the streets of the old town afford no room for trees, the broad avenues of the newer part laid out by the British after annexation in the last years of the 19th century, are all shaded by what I love to believe is the subcontinental cousin of the Canadian maple.

Though its height of about 1700 metres above the sea makes Parachinar a delightful summer retreat, the thing of beauty here once was the exquisite woodwork of its buildings. Here were two or three-storeyed houses with timber and wrought iron balconies screened by wooden latticework so that no outsider may lay eyes upon the women of the household. Here were store fronts protected not by the roll-up, roll-down ugly steel shutters that we now know, but by broad wooden slats, intricately carved on the outside that went one above the other into slots to close the arched doorway. The doorways, made of seasoned timber, were wooden pillars of Mughal design rising up to multi-cusped arches whose spandrels were adorned with the rosette, a common enough feature of vernacular architectural embellishment.

In the mid-1970s came the inflow of petro-dollars from the Gulf and things started to change as people with money and no understanding of architectural beauty carried out crude renovations. Catastrophe, however, struck in February 1980 when fire broke out in a store in Punjabi Bazaar, the busiest commercial centre of Parachinar. No one knows what exactly happened. Some believe it was an electrical malfunction; others are of the view that it was a minor explosion in an Afghan refugee’s establishment. Once the fire began, it was fed by the very woodwork that was the aspect of beauty in Parachinar.

Everyone remembers how the fire raged uncontrolled for almost twelve hours in a town that did not possess any fire-fighting facility. Though owners tried to remove what they could, the conflagration when it finally burnt itself out had destroyed goods and property worth millions of rupees. There was, fortunately, no loss of life, but the blaze had completely destroyed more than half of the once picturesque bazaar. When reconstruction began it only threw up ugly concrete blockhouses with flimsy steel windows and, where the owner could afford, bathroom tile façades. Gone were the wrought iron balconies and lattice blinds, gone the Mughal arches and pillars rendered in timber, gone, too, were the intricately carved doorways.

In Parachinar I was introduced to Abbas Ali Turi: in his early thirties, middle height, slim, long-haired and bearded with a tranquil air about him and a degree in graphic design from Lahore's National College of Arts. An artist from the very depth of his soul, caught in provincial Parachinar with no market for his skills, he was teaching in the local government school. A gentle restlessness and the dreamy, far-away look in his eyes gave away that he was not altogether at peace with his world. But family obligations put him where he was while he yearned to be in Islamabad or Lahore where he could work the craft that nature had bestowed upon him and that he had trained four years to hone. To keep his sanity he painted in a small Spartan studio on the top floor of his father’s restaurant in Punjabi Bazaar.

Parachinar, as I was to know it in the next five days, was the one that Abbas introduced me to. The Parachinar of his childhood was a walled city with four gates. The two, Man Singh and Ather Singh gates were named after prosperous local merchants, while Shingak and Thal gates were named respectively after the towns in whose direction they faced. Abbas remembers the eventual pulling down of the gates in the early 1970s when the town started to expand and spill outside the walls. The great event about that time was the arrival of the first television set in town and how it mystified the people: a radio that showed pictures was beyond the imagination of many. Soon afterwards, some restaurateurs acquired television sets and put them in separate rooms to charge half a rupee for a customer to come in and watch the tripe. Naturally a cup of tea enhanced the indulgence of the novelty and the first ones to install TV sets did pretty good business.

The great fire of 1980 in Punjabi Bazaar is still fresh in his memory. With it hordes of people from adjoining villages had descended on Parachinar to take advantage of the chaos. They came not to help put out the fire and offer assistance, Abbas explained, but to take advantage of the victims’ plight and plunder what they could lay their hands on. When it was over, Punjabi Bazaar was rebuilt, but the neighbouring Khwar Bazaar suffered from a conflagration two years later. ‘We don’t know if it was set alight on purpose or otherwise,’ says Abbas sarcastically. He points out that the two bazaars lying at right angles to each other have interesting names. Punjabi Bazaar, so called because before independence nearly all of its traders were Punjabi Hindus and Sikhs, was the more prosperous of the two. Consequently the other one was called Khwar (Wretched) Bazaar in comparison. Its other name, he says, was Kurmi after the Kurram River that waters the valley of Parachinar.

Though most of the Punjabi traders had left Parachinar long before Abbas was born, the name stuck fast to the bazaar. He knew, however, of one family and he took me to see young Charan Singh who runs a grocery store. Blue-eyed and fair-skinned, Charan who spoke Urdu with a heavy Pukhtu accent, could have easily passed for a Pukhtun. Beardless and turbanless, he was uncertain of the family’s religious persuasion. Somewhat hesitantly he said that he was a Sikh because his family visited the shrine at Hasan Abdal. But then, he admitted, the family also visited Hindu shrines. He spoke no Punjabi. Neither could anyone else in his family, he said. Parachinar was the only home he knew and Pukhtu the only language he could comfortably speak. From all outward appearances, and so far as he was concerned, he was as good a Pukhtun as the next man.

It was a full sixty-eight years before independence, in 1879, that the masterful artifice known as the Treaty of Gandamak (after a village near Jalalabad in Afghanistan) took the Kurram Valley from the Amir of Afghanistan and made it part of British India. Two years later, the Miranzai Valley that provides access from Kohat to Thal and thence to Parachinar was taken over. In 1892, the British army under General Frederick Roberts moved in to occupy the valley of the Kurram.

That was a time when the turbulent and warlike Shia Turis, believed not to be true Pukhtuns but of Turkish extraction, had long been at loggerheads with their neighbours, the Sunni Bangash. Though the struggle between the Turis and the Bangash appears to have been for possession of the best agricultural land, the fact that the former were staunch Shias to a man, and the latter Sunnis, gave their conflict a sectarian complexion. Local lore asserts that the Turis wearying of the endless strife invited the British to take Kurram Valley under their control. This is confirmed in Olaf Caroe’s book The Pathans with the hint that the Turis quite blackmailed the British: ‘Finally the Turis’ own plea that the only alternative to [British] occupation was their submission to Afghan rule led to the setting up of a loose form of administration...’ And so, in 1895 Kurram became an agency directly under British control, to become one of only two tribal agencies with a land settlement and revenue system. The other being a part of Waziristan.

But that is recent history. Four thousand years before that, the Kurram Valley was known to the blue-eyed, fair-haired singers of Vedic hymns. In verse whose magnificence has never even been remotely matched by any other poetry contrived by man, they worshipped the great Sindhu River as a benevolent giver of life and prosperity. They celebrated too the lesser rivers that paid tribute to the mighty Sindhu. Among these, one was the Kramu. To know this river enough to be able to honour it, they would have journeyed through its valley as far as its junction with the Sindhu. The valley of the Kurram was therefore a travel route even in that remote age. In the 10th century CE, it formed the ‘Lower’ route between Lahore and Ghazni by way of Bannu, Kalabagh, and the Salt Range, while the ‘Upper’ was through the Khyber Pass. Henry Raverty, the erudite translator of the epic Tabkat i Nasiri, tells us that in the time of Subuktigin of Ghazni (late 10th century) the Kurram Valley, then pronounced Karma, was yet under the sway of the Rajput kings of Lahore. Barring the reference in the Rig Veda, it is the Tabkat i Nasiri that first mentions this place in history. But that was a time when the town of Parachinar did not exist.

The major centre in the area has been variously named in the histories as Sankuran or Shanuzan. This, according to Raverty, is the modern village of Shalozan some kilometres to the west of Parachinar on the highroad to Afghanistan via Peiwar Kotal (Pass). Set smack upon the banks of the wide, pebbly Kurram River, it is a delightfully embowered spot where myriad flowers bloom along irrigation ditches and birds sing in vast mulberry trees. It was here during the Second Afghan War that General Frederick Roberts had tarried long enough to build a house for himself and lay out a garden that is to this day known as Roberts’ Garden.

Roberts, however, wasn’t the first one to be attracted to this sylvan spot. In the late 12th century Taj ud Din Yalduz, the Turkish slave turned general, governed Sankuran on behalf of his king and mentor Muiz ud Din (a.k.a. Shahab ud Din Mohammed) Ghori. History relates that the Ghorid king having been murdered in his sleep by the doughty Khokhars (or was it the Gakkhars?) of the Salt Range was being carried home to be buried in Afghanistan. When his bier reached the vicinity of the capital of Yalduz, the man rode out many kilometres to escort it into Sankuran en route to Ghazni where it was eventually buried. Subsequently we hear from Taimur the Lame of his passage through this valley.

History amply demonstrates that the Kurram Valley formed an important route, but it does not name a town called Parachinar (the first r being a hard, palatal pronunciation) in it. My friend Abbas Ali and others assured me that this is a modern name that became popular after the setting up of the Agency. The Para Chamkani Pukhtuns living in the nearby mountains habitually held their jirgas under one of the most magnificent chinar trees here. And so it came to be Para Chinar – Plane Tree of the Para Chamkanis. It is certainly not a far-fetched story, and to substantiate it, they have an age-darkened stump of a plane tree to show right outside the offices of the Kurram Militia. Since the tree had historical value for giving the town its name, its stump was preserved after it died of natural causes.

However, before it came to be called after the Para Chamkanis, Parachinar was Tootkai – Mulberry Orchard, a name that is still popular with the older residents of town. Once again history provides support to this title for we learn that the Kurram Valley produced a respectable amount of reasonably fine silk until the beginning of the 19th century. By the time the British annexed Tootkai and gave vogue to the new place name, this trade had all but died away. Today the Government of Pakistan has a sericulture department struggling to bring back the silk-producing glory of Parachinar. But as most government endeavours go, this one, too, has nothing to show for itself, except a green signboard with white lettering announcing its presence.

From the 10th century CE, we returned to present times: Abbas complained of the pollution. In the 1970s, Parachinar had just two busses that had to be hand-cranked to get them going, and there were a few decrepit lorries. Now mini buses and cars vie for space with humans. The air was cleaner then, the summers were much cooler and people had no notion of electric fans in the home. Parachinar received its share of winter snow regularly in those days. And the scenery was different for the dark mass of mountain looming to the north and west, has for centuries been called either Spinghar by the Pukhtuns or Safed Koh by Persian speakers. It is a misnomer now, but once the mountain did indeed remain a glistening white the year round.

‘The last two winters brought no snow to Safed Koh and now we jokingly call it Siyah Koh – the Black Mountain,’ said Abbas. Not long ago this mountain was covered with fine stands of juniper and pine, but now it is largely denuded which may have played a part in reducing winter snow. Abbas said Parachinar used to be a busy mart for timber coming out of Afghanistan – a business that has been dead for about twenty-five years now. I suspected that all of it may not have come out of Afghanistan, that some or even most of it could have been stolen from the slopes of Safed Koh.

My friend Sarwat Ali in Lahore who knew Parachinar from about the mid-1960s had instructed me to be sure to visit the Shia Jamat Khana. This, he had said, was a priceless building with excellent woodwork. He was talking of a memory more than thirty years old. Sadly, it was no longer as he remembered it. The ‘renovation’ had been done so long ago that Abbas did not remember anything but the dreadful building of marble mosaic floors and pillars that now stands in place of the beautiful original.

The Jamat Khana was the Shia headquarters in the sectarian riots of 1996. The nearby Sunni mosque with its single minaret was the counterpart. I had taken the gaping holes in its tall minaret as the beginnings of new windows. No, said Abbas, these are reminders of some of the rockets that had found their mark in that war. Closer inspection revealed that the minaret was completely pocked. But we could not go into the Sunni mosque because the militiamen at the entrance were paranoid about my camera and so we walked about outside examining the damage.

‘We had grown up together, Shias and Sunnis, as friends, playmates, business associates,’ said Abbas. ‘Then suddenly one day we were enemies. It was like open war.’ Of course there were examples where neighbours assured each other that they were above the madness and standing by their word did indeed remain aloof. But when a people are misguided in the name of religion, these little exponents of sanity go unnoticed. They went unheeded even in Parachinar. Sanity did not return until many good lives had been wasted. Even then it was, and still is, a somewhat uneasy peace.

One thing that I found rather strange in Parachinar was the total absence of a social event that could be termed typical of the place. The one small garden adjoining the Political Agent’s residence was deserted most of the time and the teahouses were largely peopled by older men. Young men (no question of women!) seemed to have no more to do than to walk hand in hand in the bazaars or meet in the homes to chat over tea. Parachinar must certainly be the only town of this size not even to have a cinema house.

Before they had television, Parachinar had a daily event and so Abbas took me to Radio Bagh. Now almost completely built up with only a central open lot the size of half a football field, it once was a garden complete with trees and shrubbery. Here, men congregated daily after the evening prayer. The municipality brought out a transistor radio and broadcast news and songs for the benefit of a pretty sizeable congregation of all and sundry. Then, long after the broadcast was over, men would lounge around in groups and chat. But then along came television. From a couple of sets in the beginning it spread like a disease shutting people away in their homes and in the few restaurants that charged fifty paisas for one to sit and watch. Radio Bagh became redundant. In a society that lays no premium on open spaces, it did not take long thereafter for it to be turned into a housing colony.

In his studio Abbas had a painting of a tree-lined avenue with sunshine cascading out of one side. It was not out of his imagination. It was the road that leads north past the army and militia officers’ messes. We saved it for our last evening together. It was just the way he had painted it. Only the magic was added to by the fluty whistles of golden orioles streaking about like darts of gold and black in the canopy above. In the burnished late afternoon light we paused to photograph ourselves. ‘For remembrance,’ Abbas said. Conversation turned to why Parachinar that could have been a successful summer resort was not known even within the province, let alone the rest of the country. The guilty, it was said, were the provincial and federal and provincial tourism development corporations. That is perhaps the reason that the town does not have single hotel.

Surely one day they will wake up to Parachinar. Developers will come teeming in. The great building rush will demolish whatever little of the town’s old architecture remains to replace it with tawdry hotels and inns. Noisy, mindless tourists will arrive to pollute and corrupt. Her residents will make money and Parachinar will forever change. Then it will be just any other place in a long roster of ugly resort towns. That is the price of opening up to tourism.


posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 24 May 2013 at 12:13, Blogger Lahoremassagist said...

Given what is happening there, no tourist will dare to go to Parachinar.

At 24 May 2013 at 12:44, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Sad. It's such a beautiful city with such wonderful, kind and hospitable people. If our so-called establishment had ever played it right, Parachinar would have been a revenue earner.

At 25 May 2013 at 11:10, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Parachinar or Lahore, old things, traditions and culture is fading away. No one cares. No one.

At 26 May 2013 at 09:58, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Anonymous, this is the valley of the blind. Here the one who sees will soon wish to put his own eyes out. So, take heed.

At 15 April 2015 at 01:44, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am also From Parachinar.Such a beautiful place in My words i say that Parachinar is Heavn.I Miss my home town very much.I like Parachinar so much

At 29 February 2016 at 14:45, Anonymous Anonymous said...

is ghori buried in afghanistan or in pakistan punjab.

At 29 February 2016 at 18:25, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Anonymous, please read this:
And this:

At 1 March 2016 at 12:25, Anonymous Anonymous said...

thank you sir

At 1 March 2016 at 12:43, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I looked up both the links. There are a whole lot of "tales" concerning Ghori's death and burial. This has cleared it up. It makes sense that the body minus the Intestines (!!) was buried in Ghazni. I understand people have to step on Prithviraj cHohan's grave to enter Ghori's tomb.
I really enjoy your humour and sense of satire...Many thanks.

At 2 August 2016 at 23:28, Blogger Unknown said...



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