Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The red hills of Kalabagh

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Kalabagh, in the far western corner of Punjab treading on the toes of the Northwest Frontier Province [Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa], is surely the most picturesque town in the province. As one approaches from the east, one is struck by the singular beauty of the stacked houses that rise up from the blue waters of the Indus in an irregular pyramid. Whitewashed or dun they vaunt bright blue or green doors and shutters that stand stark against the red salt hills surrounding the town. It is just the kind of place that you would want to stop and explore.


To the north rise the grim red-brown crags of the Bhangi Khel hills through which the mighty Indus, confined until this point in its narrow, rocky channel, breaks out into the plains of Punjab. Long before the several dams and barrages were built to contain the river it braided itself across a wide, sandy flood plain that attained a width of no less than twenty kilometres immediately below Kalabagh. From the beginning of history, therefore, Kalabagh sitting just above the widening was the ford on the Indus in this district. It was here that the highroad from the Salt Range crossed over into the Bhangi Khel hills on its way to Bannu and Kandahar. It was here that trading caravans from Kandahar and Kabul in the west and Multan, Rajasthan and Shikarpur in the east and the south would have tarried before the onward journey through rugged mountains or waterless deserts. Or there was the less savoury choice of sailing down the Indus by flat-bottomed cargo boat. Unsavoury for the journey to Rohri in Sindh could take as much as twenty days in summer and twice as long in winter when the river dwindled. And of course there was the return journey that took double the time.

Nevertheless commercial entrepot it was and the traders and craftsmen that made up the majority of its population were the natural trappings of such a mercantile centre. And so in a class-conscious society that looked down upon its craftsmen it came to be said of the Baghochis (natives of Kalabagh), ‘Kalabagh dey Baghochi; aday nai, aday mochi’ (The Baghochis of Kalabagh are either barbers or cobblers, that is, menials). In the early years of the 20th century came the railways and not long afterwards a vast system of roads and bridges and soon Kalabagh was reduced from caravan trading post to a backwater. According to the Mianwali District Gazetteer of 1915 the population of Kalabagh had already dwindled merely two years after the narrow gauge railway had connected it to Bannu in the west and Mari Indus to the east. Kalabagh today is but a vestige of the past. Picturesque it still is however and there is an aura of mystery about it as well.

‘There are alleyways so narrow that they are pitch dark even during the day,’ Ziaullah, my host said. He lives in an impressive brick house at the end of a street that climbs sharply up the steep hillside. We had come through a newish, almost tacky, bazaar and reasonably wide streets and I thought the dark streets were an exaggeration.

So off we went through the bazaar, turned left from the old Vegetable Market into Wan Loharan or ‘Nullah of the Blacksmiths’. The street which the blacksmiths’ forges face is the dry bed of a stream that turns into a river with the lightest of drizzles in the hills behind it, hence Nullah. The fronts of the buildings had a dark and sooty appearance and the sound of hammers clashing with red hot metal was jarring. Men, young and old and even young enough not to be wielding the hammer and tongs but to be in school, were busily going through a timeless routine. Vast quantities of tawas were being turned out. One man fashioned ear-shaped handles for some large vessel, another made a pick-axe.

Past the bazaar we turned right into an alley leading into what they said was the old part of town, and as we went it got progressively narrower. On either side were open doors with stairways leading up to sunny rooftops where women went about their early morning chores. Other than this we saw little. At one point stout tree trunks, weathered by age, framed the alleyway. Taj, one of Zia’s friends who had taken to see I was properly entertained, said this was one of the gates that closed every evening to protect Kalabagh from marauders coming down the surrounding hills. An animated discussion began among my three guides about the exact number of gates, but there was no consensus and it seemed the number was anywhere between seven to eleven.

Though businesses have all moved out to the new market we had passed earlier, there was still the occasional dimly lit and dismal looking store in these back streets. I paused to ask one store keeper how business was doing.

‘You can hardly call it business now,’ he said ruefully. ‘It’s only for the convenience of the neighbours that I keep my store here.’ From his sorry looking stock of wares I could tell he was not just being modest. And perhaps it was as much the neighbourliness as the lack of resources to move out to the tacky new bazaar and enlarge his business that kept him where he was.

Beyond the gate the street was built over and we were in a darkness punctuated by the yellow glow of occasional light bulbs. The street was so narrow one could not walk arms akimbo and Zia said that in this quarter tuberculosis was quite common until twenty years ago. I could imagine that was from the smoke of the wood fires in the surrounding houses. We frequently passed small niches with tinsel and oil lamps: shrines of some sort. Long before electricity came to Kalabagh rich Hindu traders who inhabited this part of town burnt lamps in these niches to lighten up the dark streets as a public service. When they left after Partition, the practice continued and with the passage of time these niches came to be regarded as the resting places or tombs of saints by superstitious Muslims. Today these inanimate ‘saints’ have long been established in their roles as minor gods and passers-by stop to pray and make offerings of money or eatables. In the semi-literate and quasi-Islamic society of Kalabagh belief in djinns is pervasive, said Zia. It was from the malevolence of the djinns that these saints supposedly preserved the believer. Surely these shrines collected a goodly sum at the end of the day, but I did not ask where the collection ended up.

Then it was as if we had descended into some ancient catacombs – we were in the womb of Kalabagh. Above, unseen by us, rose the stacked houses of the oldest part of town and in the closed street our voices resounded hollowly as we picked our way through the pitch dark by the light of cigarette lighters. We emerged into glaring sunshine again and once again scenes from the distant past sprang at us: a man doubled under the weight of a large sack struggled out of a slanting shaft of light in which smoke swirled in blue eddies. Several carried wicker baskets neatly stacked with hand fans and chungairs made of palm fronds. This, it turned, out was the major industry of Kalabagh. Somewhere in the folds of the streets a man cried his wares, a dog barked, and three young boys ran past chasing a goat. Women in colourful shuttle-cock burqas gave way and as we stood talking at a street corner another came out of an open doorway to ask if I was from the municipality inspecting the damage done by eroding salt.

Just outside the old part of town are jagged white and red crags of salt sticking out of the clayey earth. Being of a very inferior quality, it has never been mined but it is eroding from seepage of rain water. The result is that the last decade or so has seen the ground subsiding under several houses in this area. Consequently this part of town is slowly being abandoned for when a house collapses it is not rebuilt – the owners simply move out to the newer part of Kalabagh.

All along my olfactory nerves had been assailed by the vilest of smells and as we emerged from the claustrophobic alleys Zia asked if Kalabagh would ever figure on the tourist map of Pakistan. It has everything that would make it a tourist attraction but only after a massive facelift. The oodles of rotting garbage piled at every street corner, the open drains that empty into the Indus and the unplanned installation of electric poles are an eyesore, to say the least. But for the moment the priorities of thinking men like Zia and his colleagues lie elsewhere; the improvement of tourism will come by and by.

But what would tourists do in the evenings. Well, said Zia, they could go to the tea shops to drink their ‘half cups.’ I had never heard the term before and could not pass it by. After dinner that evening we strolled to the tea shop, quite like going out to the pub in an English village. There the man actually served us half full cups of steaming tea. Because clients spent hours in these places gossiping over cups of tea it was necessary that there should be half measures as well so as over prolonged sittings the intake was kept as low as possible. Kalabagh, then, is the only place in Pakistan, so far as I know, where they serve tea in half measures and charge half price as well.

Alternatively the tourist could play snooker. The halls are unpretentious and save the brightly lit interiors there is little to give them away. Unfortunately, there is not a soul in town with the faintest clue about the principals of billiards or snooker – or the inclination to learn them. Consequently in the crowded halls young men took turns bashing the balls around the table, and the harder the better. It amazed me no end that not once did I see the cloth being torn by the ravaging stick. The easiest shots were missed and if a ball ever got potted it was not by design, purely by accident. The natural course of evolution of pool in Kalabagh will very likely be that in the not very distant future it will take the shape of miniature football or hockey: men will climb onto the table and whack the balls about either with something much stouter than the puny cue stick or booted feet, or both.

Part of the itinerary planned by my hosts was a boat ride up the Indus to the ruined fort of Dhunkot. I had envisioned a sailboat; but long live inexpensive Japanese technology! Our boat came equipped with a Honda generator, only the generator had been removed and the tiny engine coupled to a screw at the end of a long pipe. This our captain raised or lowered by a length of nylon rope and it gave the boat a speed of about a couple of knots.

We set out about mid-morning and after put-putting on for about an hour ran into a gray bank of mist rising from the river. The temperature dropped suddenly and just when I thought we were all going to freeze, Taj suggested we go ashore and build a fire. The tall dry grass blazed quickly and when our joints were mobile again we resumed the voyage. Another hour and our captain ran his boat into a sandy beach on the right bank. Taj led us up a wide path cut in the side of the hill. As we went higher, there were ample signs of the industry of a not very long ago time: in the hillside immediately above the walkway were the marks of the implements used to carve it out.

On the summit the only signs of human interference were some scattered graves, four semi-circular towers and a low wall across a shallow seasonal waterway. This last was to dam the run off from the surrounding slopes to be used in the absence of any other source of water. I estimated the dam to be about a hundred and fifty years old while the turrets seemed to have been built or renovated less than a hundred years ago. Clearly some past overlord had selected Dhunkot to serve as a sanctuary in the event of his domain being threatened. On this sheer hill he could retire with his retinue and his treasures until danger subsided. And here few enemies would have pursued him for the straight sided hill would be unassailable when it was defended from the summit.

But at Kalabagh I had been told another story. Mohammed Hussain, the teller, is the Estate Manager for the Nawabs of Kalabagh and a man of very dubious scholarship. At least three generations before him had also served the Nawabs as courtiers and in the course of this long and ‘meritorious’ service of the family had cultivated a mannerism expected of such retainers. He was more faithful than the king and it was not difficult to see how obsequious and pleasing he would be in the presence of his master. Part of his duties, it seemed, was to be the family’s historiographer and since an Arab ancestry is a favourite fable among the Muslims of the subcontinent, he had laboured hard and well to invent heroes with Arabic names from whom the family of the Nawab of Kalabagh could claim descent.

One such fictitious ancestor, I was told, had gone to live in the fort of Rohtas in the 11th century which at that time was also known by the present name. The poor man was ignorant of the fact that it was only in the middle of the 16th century that Sher Shah Suri had built and named the fort of Rohtas after a place of the same name in Bengal. Another equally preposterous story concerned an ancestor named Talha who was the eponymous founder of Talagang in Chakwal district. Here was a man inventing ancestors not out of thin air but out of alliteration.

In the same vein he told me that after coming to this country with Mahmud Ghaznavi (another favourite fiction) the Nawab’s ancestors had first taken up residence at Dhunkot and the ruins were all from that time. I did not ask him how he thought they sustained themselves on that barren, stony and completely inhospitable hill, especially if there were wives and children to be looked after. This hill, he said, the family had named Deenkot (Fort of Faith), a name that was corrupted to Dhunkot (with a palatal Dh) over the centuries. Surely it is difficult to explain the corruption from deen, an Arabic word, to dhun, especially when Islam had been more or less established since the 11th century and when, according to Hussain’s treatise, the fort had been in almost continuous use until just over a century ago.

Whatever else, it can certainly be said that Hussain has an unbridled imagination – if only it had been coupled with an analytical mind and a reasonable amount of reading. It is surprising that the man has published all this rubbish in local newspapers without incurring the wrath of the Nawab who is educated and urbane. But then perhaps this is what the family wishes to believe about itself and this is what Mohammed Hussain is paid to conjure up. The unfortunate aspect is that, having been published, these fables have become gospel truth for a public that has never read anything more meaningful.


Times are changing for Kalabagh. The mercantile centre is no more; Indus shipping is dead – a victim of the many barrages on this great waterway. Even the narrow gauge train that ran through from Mari Indus to Bannu stopped in 1989 and the Keers who panned the Indus for gold are gone, for panning is no more feasible. The half tea cup remains; but for how long, even Zia and his friends do not know. And if there is reason to return to Kalabagh other than its picture postcard beauty, it is surely to see snooker being played with hockey sticks and studded boots.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,

4 Comments:

At August 8, 2013 at 12:09 AM, Blogger Adnan Alam Awan said...

Kala Bagh fault is also an interesting geological feature in this area , starting from west of Sakesar peak in the plains and runs north/west beyond Kala Bagh. This fault has shifted salt range more than 70 km to north/east in geologial times .This whole process can be very clearly traced on google earth.

 
At August 8, 2013 at 7:42 PM, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

Seeing the title, I thought it is about Kala Bagh Dam. But this is much more interesting than that 'non issue.'

 
At August 8, 2013 at 7:50 PM, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

Or is Kala Bag Dam still an issue?

 
At August 9, 2013 at 3:09 PM, Anonymous Kausar Bilal said...

What an interesting and spelendid place is Kala Bagh! Regretting to miss an opportunity to visit it a couple of decades ago. ;(
As always a great post, motivates to visit the place in the current scenario.

 

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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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