Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Shandur: where Kelly and his Punjabis fought nature

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Most people know Shandur Pass on the highroad between Gilgit and Chitral only for its annual July polo festival. The reader of history is, however, also aware of this being a lonely byway for travellers of a long-gone era on their way between Central Asia and Punjab through Swat.
No archaeological record of travellers has so far been discovered on the Shandur itself, but absence of such record does not necessarily record absence of human activity. Lying almost at the foot of a frequently used pass between Central Asia and Chitral, Shandur was the easiest and shortest connection with Swat and eventually the Peshawar valley. In the thousand years between the advent of the Common Era and the beginning of the Turkish incursions that brought an end to Buddhism in our part of the world, a trickle of Chinese Buddhist pilgrims passed regularly down this way.

Sitting at a height of 3800 metres above the sea, the Shandur Pass is rather unlike a mountain pass: it is more a wide grassland hemmed in by higher mountains. Since the start of modern adventure tourism, it has been a busy staging point for travellers either zooming between Gilgit and Chitral by jeep or trekkers taking the slow way. Tourists come this way attracted by the scenic beauty of Shandur and its large and tranquil blue lake. Few are mindful of its moment in the historical sun.

At the height of the Great Game, in January 1895, Chitral witnessed a series of bizarre events that brought the name of Shandur into the newspapers of distant Britain. On the fourth day of the new year, Nizam ul Mulk, the Mehtar (ruler), was shot and killed by his brother Ameer who then declared himself the new ruler. Surgeon-Major George Robertson, the senior most British officer then in Chitral quickly appointed himself agent of the Raj in order to protect British interests.

Paranoid as he evidently was, Robertson first hailed the new chief. But three days later, suspecting a secret Russian hand in the affair, forced Ameer from office and replaced him by a nine year-old brother Shuja ul Mulk. History shows that while the Russians had no design on Chitral, the Pathans certainly did.

As Robertson played dice in Chitral, word arrived that a large Pathan army was advancing on the valley with a contender for the throne, yet another one from among the several sons of a past Mehtar. Not many days later, Robertson and his small military contingent were besieged in Chitral fort.

There now began a scramble to relieve the garrison of Chitral. Even as a Peshawar-based general led his troops through Dir and up the snow-bound Lowari Pass, a certain Colonel James Kelly, all of sixty years old and on the verge of retirement, set out of Gilgit with some six hundred Sikh and Kashmiri soldiers to lift the Siege of Chitral. There was, besides, a pair of man-hauled twenty-pounder field guns.

The first week of April was no time to cross the deeply snow-bound Shandur. The arctic wind cut the men’s faces until they bled, many suffered frostbite and snow blindness from the intense glare of sunlight on the pristine snow. Yet the aged colonel doggedly led his Punjabi and Kashmiri men on as they dragged their artillery pieces behind them.

Two weeks after first hitting the Shandur snow drifts, Kelly’s force had marched a hundred and fifty kilometres as it approached the bridge of the Chitral River within view of the besieged fort. If the march across Shandur was truly heroic and if Kelly and his men were raring for a grand fight under the fort’s walls, Providence now denied the colonel his final snatch at glory: during the night the Pathans and their Chitrali confederates, having heard of the impending arrival of the relieving forced, had quietly drifted away. Thus ended the march billed as ‘one of the most remarkable in history.’

Few visitors are drawn here by those distant historical events. Today the lure is the rugged and dramatic beauty of Shandur Pass.

How to get there: Daily flights connect Chitral with Islamabad and Peshawar. From there it is about 6 hours by jeep to Shandur. Arrangements can be made with the Chitral Scouts headquartered in Chitral town for permission to stay in the officers’ mess. Alternately a tent will be necessary. However, leaving Chitral early, one can enjoy Shandur and return to Mastuj (2 hours) where hotel accommodation is available. Journeyers can also carry on to Gilgit 8 hours away by Jeep.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 9 May 2013 at 12:10, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How is the road between Shandur and Gilgit now. Any idea?

At 9 May 2013 at 12:46, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

the road from Gilgit to Gupis is metalled. I travelled this distance in 2010. Also from Chitral to Mastuj is blacktop. This is hearsay since I have not been there for years. On Shandur it is unpaved.

At 9 May 2013 at 14:01, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

Another place that may be called 'a little paradise on earth.' Given my priorities in real life and dal roti ke massael, I may not have the hope to go there but I love reading about the new and beautiful places. Love the image.

At 11 November 2015 at 15:50, Anonymous mehr said...

Pristine beauty.....


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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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