Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Date City

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Abu Ishaq Al Istakhari was a native of a town the Greek called Persepolis in southwest Iran that had, over time, come to be known as Istakhar. He was a great traveller who journeyed across the Muslim empire from the shores of the Atlantic to India during the 10th century and wrote a brilliant geography titled Kitabul Akalim or the Book of Climates. Together with Ibn Haukal, who crossed paths and exchanged notes with him in Sindh, he accounts for those few medieval geographers, Arab and Persian, who actually travelled through the lands whose geography they wrote. The rest were simply copyists or transcribers.

Among other things Istakhari tells us that Makran was a vast but desert country whose largest city was Kanazbun. Over time alteration of diacritical marks or misreading rendered the name into various forms like Kirbun, Kirbuz, Firabuz and Kinarbur. But we now know that all these names were referring to the town way out in the backwaters of Balochistan that we today call Punjgur. Whatever name they called it; all the writers were in agreement that this was no little hick town in the desert. They all wrote of it as being a large, rich and rather cultured city.

A hundred and fifty years after Istakhari, Al Idrisi, a Moroccan geographer, wrote his own history. Although he travelled extensively through Europe, he had not been in our part of the world his information was garnered from various sources which he duly acknowledges. Al Idrisi tells us that the natives of Kanazbun were rich traders and ‘men of their word, enemies of fraud …. generous and hospitable’ – a fair portrayal of Baloch traits that mostly holds good to this day.

Much before these geographers, we hear of Kinarbur in the Chachnama. Written by an unknown Arab shortly after the Arab conquest of Sindh, the book was translated into Persian in the early 13th century and titled Fatah Nama Sindh, that is, Book of the Conquest of Sindh. Translated later into Sindhi as the Chachnama, it tells us of the brilliant usurper king Chach of Sindh travelling across the land to establish his authority over its farthest reaches. This was in the middle years of 7th century when Arabia was in great foment.

Having travelled through Armabel (Lasbela) and across the Central Makran Range, Chach took control of the ancient fortress of Kinarbur. It was in poor shape and the king ordered its reconstruction and strengthening of the town’s citadel. Those who have read their history and ancient geography believe that the crumbling mud-brick walls of the fortress in the Khudabadan suburb of Punjgur are the very ones that were rebuilt on the orders of Chach.

The king proceeded westward in order to mark the boundary of his kingdom with that of the Persian province of Kerman along a river. This was none other than the Nihing stream which even today forms the border between Pakistan and Iran for a hundred and twenty kilometres. As an aside I would here like to mention that Chach delineated the border by planting date trees along the river bank. And that puts to rest the absurd theory so often propounded by half-baked historians that the date palm was brought to the subcontinent by the Arabs.

Punjgur has an interesting name. For one, we do not know what it was anciently called. But certainly it would have been a name not very far off the modern one. Because of his inability to pronounce the p and the g sounds, the Arab writer of the original Chachnama turned the name into Kanazbur which was then followed by all other writers. Tracing it back from the Arabic pronunciation, I am tempted to suggest Gunjpur – in Persian, City of Treasures – as the original name. Over the centuries, tumbling from so many different tongues, the name eventually turned around to become Punjgur. And such eversion is a common enough phenomenon.

It is interesting that in Persian (from which Balochi derives) the compound Punjgur would mean Five Tombs. And so, local historians have invented five tombs supposedly of very early Arab converts to Islam who somehow converged on this oasis to die. From the name one would imagine there would be a group of five graves all together. But all the five are sprinkled variously around town. Not far south of Punjgur airport there is the lovely little oasis of Ziarat Pir Omar Jan with its tinkling rill, emerald ponds, date palms and an unpretentious cubicle of a tomb. Pir Omar Jan is supposed to be one of the five Islamic heroes; the other four remain mysteriously unnamed.

In the year 2000, while in Punjgur, I was told by a friend that Pir Omar Jan had acquired his name only a few years earlier: until then this tomb too was as nameless as the other five heroes. It is only incidental that the ancient name now means Five Tombs. But in order to ‘legitimise’ the title the good folks of Punjgur invented the five saints.

Punjgur has nonetheless been a busy mart for a very long time. The histories of Alexander record a terrible period of hunger and thirst on his westward march through the Makran wilderness. Eventually an area was reached where ‘provisions were more or less plentiful’. This we now know was Turbat. From here, so it is recorded, Alexander sent scouts to the ‘inland districts’ asking the natives to turn over as much grain, dates and sheep as they could for the army to purchase. The yield was plentiful and for the first time since setting out of Patala (Hyderabad) Alexander was able to satisfactorily provision his army and the fleet.

The ‘inland districts’ that Alexander’s histories mention can only be Punjgur. Sitting on a plateau 1500 metres above the sea, and watered by the Rakhshan River that once carried a much larger flow, Punjgur is a large splash of verdure in an otherwise arid landscape. Here are orchards of dates of a dozen different types and two kinds of grapes. The grapes are sweet, and the dates succulent and flavoursome beyond words. But in the absence of paved roads, the produce never leaves the valley and we who don’t know any better believe that that our best grapes come from Chaman which does not have greenery enough to produce a single match box.

In the Middle Ages the people of Punjgur were rich traders, so Al Idrisi tells us. This was no new money for the people of this town had been traders for a very long time. Punjgur lies on the northern axis of the east-west route connecting the Sindhu Valley with Persia and Mesopotamia. For more than six thousand years caravans journeying between the Sindhu and the Tigris passed through the oasis of Punjgur. The town gleaned its wealth off transit trade and its own rich agriculture. It was a wealthy city, a City of Treasures.

One day when archaeologists turn their attention to the area around Punjgur town, we will learn the secrets it yet holds to its chest. Then we might discover that it was indeed known as Gunjpur.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 27 June 2013 at 10:48, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How to reach Punjgur?

At 27 June 2013 at 14:10, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Ah, Punjgur. What a place! You can reach it by Kalat, Ben Chah, Sorab, Besima and Nag along the Rakhshan River.

At 27 June 2013 at 20:47, Anonymous Saima Ashraf said...

One of the most romantic points in history is the waters of Makran. Makran is the real Bab ul Islam Salman though Sindh, Karachi was titled as the Door of Islam but the fact is that Mulims entered this region through Makran in the very beginning.

At 27 June 2013 at 20:53, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

I never heard of the city or the route to it. How is the city presently. It doesn't figure out much anywhere.

At 28 June 2013 at 13:19, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Nayyar, I last visited Punjgur in August 1999 or 2000. Do not exactly recall the year. It must still be as beautiful as ever. You should sample the grapes (3 types) and dates (over 12 types). They are simply out of this world! And the weather, in August, was so lovely sleeping outside, I did not need a fan and would use a thick sheet during the night. It was bracingly cool.

At 28 June 2013 at 13:20, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Right, Saima. But where have you been? Missed you over the past few days.

At 28 June 2013 at 14:35, Anonymous Saima Ashraf said...

I was right here Salman. Just tired of your long journey....lolz. So was at rest. But I miss you on my blogs always.

At 28 June 2013 at 14:53, Anonymous Saima Ashraf said...

Yes I was away and on a nap:)
I also miss you on my blog:(

At 29 July 2013 at 11:28, Anonymous Javed Sarwar said...

If anyone wants to know more about Panjgur and its people, places, pictures.... Please follow the link (click my signature), a Facebook Page of Panjgur city. You will be able to knew each and everything about Panjgur.

At 29 July 2013 at 19:02, OpenID Azamt said...

The history is very true, there are 2 types of grapes but according to a research of Balochi Department [University of Balochistan] Makran and Particularly Panjgure is the second largest date production city after Basrah and Bagdad. There are more than hundred verities of dates. I am from Panjgure too.
Moreover, Historian missed one another assumption of the name Panjgure, as” Panchkore” “panch” means five in Balochi and “kore” means river. If you check the demography and location of the city by Google earth, it shows you five “kore” rivers, the city is surrounded. No doubt, it’s a very beautiful place.

At 7 August 2013 at 14:13, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Azamt, Thank you. Punjgur is such a lovely, lovely oasis that I would prefer it any time over Quetta and Ziarat. The climate is simply unbelievable. I was there for five days in August and sleeping outside, I needed a coverlet. I wish I could come back again.

At 7 August 2013 at 18:16, Anonymous Javed Sarwar said...

@Salman Rashid here is a beautiful diary of CAPTAIN P.J MAITLAND about Panjgur, This diary was written in 1881,named "Journey-From-Jackobabad-to-Panjgur" must read it.


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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

Books at Sang-e-Meel

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