Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The Garden of Indra

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From the distance they appear as two stubs of masonry on a ridge that is gashed open by a wide crack. Beyond the crack the Salt Range makes a spectacular dip and melts into the plains of the Punjab. This is the Nandna Pass. Two millenniums before the modern web of roads was laid out in this area, a major road passed through here. Having crossed the Jhelum river somewhere between the modern villages of Rasul and Jalalpur, it went through the spring fed fertile tract of land where the village of Baghanwala sprawls today and climbed up into the Salt Range via the Nandna Pass. Winding past Ara it skirted Chakwal (which of course did not exist then) and headed due north for Taxila. Simultaneously, another branch followed a westerly alignment to the Sindhu river near Kalabagh on its way to the cities beyond the Suleman Mountains. There were yet other branches that crossed that river at no less than three points between Kalabagh and modern Attock. 

Here, by the side of this busy highway, guarding its entrance into the strategic pass, would have stood from times immemorial, a fortress. And when in the 9th century AD, the Kashmirian kings began the construction of their chain of temples in the Salt Range, this location would have been a foregone choice, for the Vishnudharmottara, an ancient religious book, recommends just such a site and the installation of consecrated images in forts situated on hilltops. In less than three centuries, the temple and fortress complex of Nandna was to become a great seat of learning, a veritable university, for it was here that Abu Rehan Al Beruni tarried in his quest for knowledge of the Sanskrit language and the arts and sciences of India.
This was the ‘Royal Road’ of which we first learn from Megasthenes, who attended the court of the great Mauryan king, Chandragupta. It was but shortly after the departure of Alexander that his eastern empire fell to pieces. The Greek and Macedonian satraps were either killed or deposed by native rulers and the subcontinent became, once again, a collection of independent principalities. Seleucus Nikator, a general in Alexander’s army who had succeeded to the throne of Syria after the latter’s death, took it upon himself to emulate his illustrious predecessor by attempting to re-unite the Eastern Empire. Having subdued Bactria and Ariane (Herat), he marched into Punjab only to find it not a collection of warring states as in Alexander’s time, but a feudatory to the kingdom of Magadha under the able Chandragupta Maurya.

The two opponents do not appear to have fought a war, but friendship was negotiated. The Indian king bestowed five hundred war elephants to the Greek, who in return gave the Indian either his sister or daughter in marriage and also ceded Ariane to him. To reinforce this friendship and to attend to Greek interests in India, Megasthenes arrived as the Seleucid ambassador to the court of Patliputra around the year 300 BC. Among his wide ranging commentary on things Indian, he records the existence of a ‘Royal Road’ from Patliputra to the Sindhu and beyond. Inns and rest stations were placed at regular intervals on the tree shaded road and distances and turnings were marked by stone pillars at every ‘ten stadia’ - a stretch that precisely equals a Punjabi kos. Such constructions apparently were as common a feature on arterial highways in those days as milestones are today, for we hear of ‘stone towers’ marking important junctions on the Silk Road in Central Asia. The function of the pillars was not only to mark distances but also to distinguish otherwise important points on the road. As Sher Shah Suri followed the idea of the two thousand year old Royal Highway to model his Grand Trunk Road, so too did the later Mughals in registering distances on their highways with kos minars.

Megasthenes clearly gives out the alignment of Chandragupta’s Royal Road from Pataliputra to the Sutlej River by naming the towns that it passed. How the highway worked its way from the Sutlej to the Sindhu, we are not told. But there is sufficient historical evidence to deduce that in the Sindh Sagar Doab (the belt between the Jhelum and the Sindhu rivers), the favoured route was through the Salt Range and not along the modern alignment of the Grand Trunk Road. The popularity of the latter alignment harks back to British times. That this road was already increasingly being used even in the early 16th century, is evident from the memoirs of the Mughal king Babur. Of the route he took to Lahore on his fourth expedition in November 1523, he wrote that after the passage of the Sindhu he followed ‘the sub-montane road through the Kakar (Gakkhar) country’.

In 1542, Sher Shah Suri inflicted the second and decisive defeat on Humayun, that turned the Mughal king fugitive. Forsaken by all, even by his own brothers, the hapless man flew ahead of the pursuing Pathan. In this moment of adversity and humiliation, the only people to stand by the itinerant king were the Gakkhars of the Potohar Plateau who had sworn allegiance to his father Babur. Sallying out of their Potohar stronghold of Pharwala, they took control of the Salt Range, and harried the Pathans attempting a passage. It was certainly the blockading of the road through the hills and the aggressive raiding by the Gakkhars that effectively ended Sher Shah’s great highway at Rohtas.

This was a reenactment of the year 1203, when the Ghorid king Muiz ud Din (a.k.a. Shahab ud Din Mohammed), whose rule extended from Ghazni to Delhi, was rumoured to have been killed in a battle with the Mongols on the wind scoured grasslands of far away Central Asia. The Khokhars of the Salt Range who were but nominal feudatories of the Ghorids, upon hearing of his death, took it into their heads to assert their independence. Closing the Lahore-Ghazni route that passed through their domain, they set about looting the country as far away as Multan and Lahore. An embassy was dispatched by Qutb ud Din Aibak, the Turkish slave turned commander of Ghorid forces in Delhi, to convince the Khokhars that the Sultan was indeed alive. But the message was openly flouted by the independent minded hill tribe who had smarted long enough under the Ghorid yoke.

Consequently, in 1205, Muiz ud Din marched down from the Afghan highlands and upon reaching Peshawar heard that the Khokhars had concentrated their forces ‘between the Jilam (sic) and the Sudarah (Chenab)’. The battle that was fought near Gujrat raged from dawn until the afternoon, and just when the Ghorids were all but overcome, reinforcements arrived under Qutb ud Din Aibak. The Khokhars were routed after a great slaughter; many were taken captive to be sold into slavery and the route through the Salt Range was forced open. It was, however, in consequence of this victory that Muiz ud Din was to lose his life. Shortly afterwards, on his way back to the Afghan highlands, as he slept in the royal tent on the bank of the Sindhu, a handful of Khokhar warriors stole into the camp in a surprise night raid. In a brief skirmish they dispatched the royal attendants and within minutes the Sultan, mortally stabbed, lay in a pool of blood.

Sher Shah Suri, however, encumbered by the more pressing matter of consolidating his power, was incapable of forcing the Salt Range route. He took the easier alternative of establishing facilities on the ancient road that has since been called ‘Jarnaili Sarak’ (The General’s Highway). And so with the establishment of facilities on this alternate route, the old road through the hills lost its importance. Contradictory to popular belief, however, Sher Shah’s highway extended only as far as the fort of Rohtas. Beyond lay the Gakkhars who steadfastly opposed the Pathans and any attempts by them to extend their influence.

Alexander the Great, having settled the affairs of Taxila, followed the old road to the Jhelum river for his battle with Porus. And so did Mahmud, the raider king of Ghazni, many centuries later. While the Macedonian’s passage through the Nandna Pass was unimpeded, that of Mahmud was checked by a fortress at the very mouth of the Pass. The historian Mohammed Qasim Ferishta writes that Mahmud brought his army against Nindoona (sic) in the year 404 AH (1013 AD), when it was in the possession of Jaipal the Second, the Raja of Lahore. Seeing that he would not be able to oppose the Ghaznavid king, Jaipal left Nandna in the charge of a governor and fled to Kashmir. The fort was invested, and ‘by mining and other modes of attack’, Mahmud succeeded in forcing the garrison to capitulate. The defenders were granted their lives, but the conqueror removed everything of value from within. Then, appointing a new (presumably a Muslim) governor, he moved on toward Kashmir.

The Tarikh e Yamini of Al Utbi gives the Hindu governor’s name as Niddar Bhim - Bhim the Dauntless. It is told that he blocked the pass with a number of elephants and entrenched himself behind stone defenses. For the Central Asiatic mountaineers in the Ghaznavid army, the Salt Range hills were child’s play: ‘... they penetrated the pass like gimlets into wood, ascending the hills like mountain goats, and descending them like torrents of water.’

Having worked its way beyond the pass to the flat open area that surrounds the modern village of Baghanwala at the foot of the Nandna hill, part of the invading army set up camp and rested for the battle ahead. At the same time, the remainder of the Ghaznavids maintained the siege, cutting off food and water to Nandna in order to starve the garrison out to battle. For several days minor skirmishes were fought as the defenders stole out of their stronghold in a bid to dislodge the besiegers. At last, reinforcements arrived and the beleaguered army emerged from the fortress of Nandna with Niddar Bhim himself leading the assault. A great battle was fought on the exact spot where the houses and fields of Baghanwala today stand. Many a good man gave up his life on both sides; and though the defenders were not wanting in courage, the day was carried by the Muslims who were rewarded, according to Ferishta, with ‘rich spoils’ that were removed to the impoverished Ghaznavid capital.

Al Utbi writes that an inscribed tablet was found in the temple declaring that it had been consecrated fifty thousand years ago. Sultan Mahmud was ‘surprised at the ignorance of these people, because those who believe in the true faith represent that only seven thousand years have elapsed since the creation of the world, and the signs of resurrection are even now approaching.’

Apparently Nandna was spared destruction for it was here just four years later that Abu Rehan Al Beruni worked the greatest wonder of his age: the calculation of the circumference of the globe. In an earlier campaign against the Muslim kingdom of Khwarazm in the north, Mahmud had his covetous eyes fixed not only on the considerable booty that came his way. From the vibrant and teeming colleges of Khwarazm he also hoped to capture men of learning and wisdom in order to bring a semblance of intellectual richness to his court. Among other literati, Al Beruni, too, was brought against his will to adorn the palace of Ghazni. It is evident that his time in Ghazni brought him no joy, for Al Beruni’s writing refers to the king simply as ‘Amir Mahmud’; never by the title of Yamin ud Daula (‘Right Hand’ or ‘Power of the State’), or even Sultan. The unhappy years in Ghazni ended eventually when, after repeated attempts, he was at last granted permission to travel to the subcontinent in his quest for knowledge. And so it came to pass that in the year 1017, Al Beruni, having journeyed through the Salt Range, sojourned at Nandna.

For several years he had been aware that in order to make an accurate measurement of the Earth’s circumference, the correct calculations with the help of an astrolabe could best be made from a mountain adjacent either to the sea or a level stretch of land. In his Qanun al Masudi Al Beruni writes: ‘When I happened to be living in the fort of Nandna in the land of India, and I found a high mountain standing to its West, and also saw a plain to its South, it occurred to my mind that I should examine this method [of the astrolabe] there.’

The remarkable stroke of genius was not that Al Beruni had judged the roundness of the Earth - that was a known fact. Under the caliph Mamun ur Rashid, the circumference had already been worked out and Al Beruni, acquainted with Greek works in translation, knew of similar exercises performed by the Greeks over a thousand years earlier. The accomplishment lies in Al Beruni’s accuracy which is just seventy nine and a half miles less than the actual measurement that we know today.

It seems that from this time onward the fortress of Nandna remained in the hands of the Muslims, for when it next comes into notice two hundred years later, it is under the control of a Muslim governor. Following the humiliating defeat on the Sindhu, Sultan Jalal ud Din Khwarazm sent a general (whose name history does not disclose) to Nandna where, having displaced the governor Qamar ud Din Kirmani, he took over the fortress. Shortly afterwards Chengez Khan, rankled by the steadily growing strength of the Khwarazmians, dispatched a force under his general Turtai Khan with orders for the total annihilation of Jalal ud Din and his army. Once again the narrow gorge of Nandna resounded to the clash of armies. The Muslims were routed and Nandna fell into Mongol hands. But this possession was short lived. Where the Muslim army had failed, harsh climate succeeded. Within weeks the heat of the Punjabi summer had defeated the Mongols and forced them to flee to the comfort of the Hindu Kush Mountains near Kabul.

Fourteen years after this event, in 1235, the turbulent Rajputs of the Salt Range took control of Nandna and challenged the authority of Sultan Shams ud Din Iyultimish (anglicised form: Altmush) of Delhi. An expedition was mounted against this fort, but the Sultan took ill and died before he could bring the Rajputs to terms. Nandna continued to thrive, at least until 1581 when in the spring of that year, Akbar the third Mughal king visited ‘the town of Nandana (sic) for the purpose of hunting.’ The village of Baghanwala is a reminder of that time for the Akbar Nama records that, impressed by the goodness of soil and water, the king ordered the laying out of a garden. Subsequently Nandna faded from the glare of history. Only the name persisted as that of a district where Emperor Jehangir too would hunt deer - a district that stretched between the modern towns of Pind Dadan Khan and Jhelum. This name remained in common usage as late as the advent of British rule in Punjab. Then, sometime towards the end of the 19th century, the district came to be known by the name of Pind Dadan Khan and the celebrated fort and temple complex of Nandna were committed to oblivion.

The path from Ara Rest House to Nandna heads due south. Past a small rounded knoll the ruins can be seen on a hill about a kilometre away as the crow flies. At this point, if one were to descend into the dry, thickly overgrown stream and follow it or keep it close to one’s right, one cannot miss the ruins of the ancient bridge that is a reminder of the times when this stream ran for a greater part of the year. More than that, it asserts the fact that this road has seen greater traffic in bygone days, for it was here, that the road coming from the north crossed over and went south to Nandna and beyond. Nearby, choked with wild growth, are the remains of a small building that was very likely the bridge superintendent’s office.

Until the early 1980s when the web of black top roads was laid out in the area, this road was the connection between Baghanwala at the foot of the Nandna hill and Ara. But now, only the occasional cameleer or shepherd uses it. Yet, as one walks down the gorge today, it does not take a romantic’s imagination to hear the tramping of countless feet, the clink of armoury and the battle cries of successive armies as they marched down this way through the long and creative unfolding of time.

All but concealed by a very thick growth of bhekar (Adhatoda vasica), the ruins of ancient Nandna are strewn all over the hillside: great heaps of dressed stones here, part of a wall or the remains of a room there and an ample scattering of pottery shards all around. On the crest, only two walls of the temple of Nandna remain intact. Here Vishnu was once worshipped. Today rock pigeons roost in its crannies. Following the style of the Martand temple, the elevation of the building is replicated on the outside walls showing that the entrance vault, when it stood intact, had a trefoiled arch and that the spire rose high above. A ruined staircase leads up to a first floor that disappeared long ago and would have carried on to the second and perhaps a third storey. Judging from the state of the ruins, this was one of the earliest, if not the first, of the Salt Range temples to be built by the kings of Kashmir.

Between AD 528, when Mehr Gul the Hun was defeated near Multan by a confederacy of Rajput princes, and the beginning of the 11th century, were almost five hundred years of relative peace with no incursions from the northwest. Freed from this worry, the kingdom of Kashmir expanded. Subsequent to the annexation of this area to Kashmir by King Lalitaditya Muktapida (reigned AD 724-760) of the Karkota dynasty, he or one of his unnamed successors would have built this temple and named it after the mythical garden of the god Indra to commemorate the event on the ‘shores of the eastern ocean’. On an expedition far from his native Kashmir, Lalitaditya one day had a craving for the out of season kapittha (probably cherry) fruit. Rajatarangini, the chronicle of Kashmirian kings, written by Pundit Kalhana relates:

Then while those [in attendance] upon him stood blind with perplexity, a person of divine appearance brought up the Kapittha fruits. 
Directed by a sign of the king’s brows, the door keeper stepped forward and receiving the offering in the presence [of the king], asked that person whose [servant] he was. 
He replied to him: ‘The great Indra has today sent me, the keeper of the Nandna garden, after giving the Kapittha fruits, which the king likes. I am to deliver in private a message of the great Indra.’Hearing this, the door keeper removed everybody from the audience hall.

To the west of the ruined temple is a mosque of debatable antiquity which has recently been renovated. To the south, the hill falls away vertically to the farms of Baghanwala and to the east, on the very edge of the hill, stand the last remaining parts of the bastion. The portion with a doorway opens onto a circular battlement that commands the view to the north. From here, through the centuries, watchmen would have sent up the alarm as invaders poured down the green slopes of the last ridges of the Salt Range.

On the other hill, across the cut of the Nandna Pass, two massive circular towers can be seen under the bhekar bushes. Above them, on the crest, the wind rustles the grass over a number of Muslim graves: grim reminders of the many struggles that took place in the few short years of the early part of the 13th century AD. To the south, beyond the silver ribbon of the Jhelum, the Punjabi plains spread as far as the eye can see. Long years ago when human activity had not yet fouled up the atmosphere, the curvature of the earth could be clearly perceived on the distant horizon. It was just this spectacle that would have prompted Abu Rehan Al Beruni to try out his experiments with the astrolabe. But today the landscape dissolves into a murky gray mist just beyond the Jhelum River; and Nandna is all but forgotten.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 4 November 2013 at 12:49, Anonymous Ramla said...

Now I believe when you say 'I am 2300 years old!' is true. You know so much. Toggling between past and present and presenting it as you do. Keep up. I am listening what you say very keenly.

At 4 November 2013 at 13:12, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

:) Thank you, Ramla. I am very glad to have you as a listener.

At 5 November 2013 at 19:47, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

Great research and even greater read sir.

At 6 November 2013 at 09:30, Anonymous Archad Awan said...

Great work once again about my place. I can relate to some of it but honestly most is new. Thanks.

At 15 November 2015 at 22:49, OpenID tobateksingh said...

Incredibly rich. Thank you so much Salman Sahib. You've inspired me to introduce this region in an organised way to my students.

At 16 November 2015 at 10:19, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Tob Tek Singh, I am immensely pleased to have shown you a way. Sadly, after 35 years of writing, I cannot show even one person in Pakistan who wants to do the same as you.


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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

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Riders on the Wind

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