Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Gakkhar to the fore!

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General Ashfaq Kayani is a Potohar Gakkhar. And he seems to have applied himself to liquidating the terrorists holed out in those lovely wild olive, oak and pine-draped valleys of Waziristan. If the reputation of the Gakkhars is anything to go by, General Kayani will have his way; he will succeed. But who are these Gakkhars and why do they call themselves Kayanis?

History has very little to tell us about them, consequently their own pseudo-historians have invented a fanciful fiction about their past. It is said that Kai Gohar (a name that would have been common enough in ancient Persia), one of the kings of the Kayanian dynasty, is their eponymous progenitor. That his descendents called themselves after him and over the centuries the name was corrupted to Gakkhar. This is pure and simple bilge because by no mechanics of usage would Kai Gohar ever turn into Gakkhar.

Then, and this is even more interesting, though there is a line of Kayanian princes in the Heroic Age of Persia whose names are preserved, there is no Kai Gohar among them. Descending from a warrior chieftain called Minucheher (after whom Minnoo Bhandara is named) of the Elburz Mountains north of Teheran, the first king of this line was Kai Kobad. There followed Kai Kaus, Kai Khusru, Lahrasp and Gushtasp. This last king was succeeded by his grandson Ardeshir Derazdast (of the long arms). This name has been latinised as Artaxerxes Longimanus.

In his Shahnama (Book of Kings), the great and inimitable Firdausi explains Ardeshir’s surname. The king had a vast army of informers spread across his realm to ensure that even the most trivial event should be reported to him as speedily as possibly. Hence Derazdast or long-armed. The Kayanian dynasty which would have started about the middle of the 8th century BCE, ended with Ardeshir of the Long Arms. This made way for Hakhamansh, known to the Greeks as Achaemenes, who started the Achaemenian line in about 650 BCE. This, in turn, was ended by Alexander’s routing of Darius three hundred years later.

So there was no Kai Gohar among the Kayanian kings who could have started a line called the Gakkhars. Yet the Gakkhars surname themselves Kayani. Indeed, to this day there live Kayanis in Persian Balochistan and Siestan. I am certain they do not claim ancestry from the never-existent Kai Gohar. So even though this king never actually existed he had to be invented by the Potohar Gakkhars merely in order to explain, even if vainly, their own clan name. That having been said, I must hasten to add that I do not quarrel with our own Kayanis’ claim of being from a Kayani line – or even from Iran. I only contest the explanation of Gakkhar from Kai Gohar. To discover the origin of Gakkhar, it will take a mind like Khaled Ahmad’s.

If anything, the history of the Kayanis in Pakistan is confounded by veils of myth and legend. Their own pseudo-history recounts how Kai Gohar conquered Badakhshan and Tibet from where his descendents made Kashmir their home. They were eventually driven out by a rebellion and fled to Afghanistan. Thence they re-entered the subcontinent in the train of the Turkish brigand Mahmud of Ghazni. With his permission, so the legend goes, they settled in the country between the Sindhu and Jhelum rivers.

The Gakkhars claim that they had converted to Islam in the 8th century when they ruled over Kashmir. But real history gives the lie to this one because we have no record of a Muslim dynasty ruling over the mountain country in that period of time. This bit of pseudo-history gets another jolt from the 17th century Tarikh e Ferishta. It records how the Gakkhars, evidently already well-established in the Potohar region, threw in their lot with Raja Anandpal of Lahore to resist the Turkish raider.

Fierce and utterly fearless warriors, they are said to have raised a host thirty thousand strong to thwart the Turks. The figure is obviously a fiction, but Qasim Ferishta waxes eloquent on the valour and tactics of the Gakkhars. In the thick of battle, he recounts, the ‘infidel Gakkhars’, with bare heads and feet (they wore no armour!), bristling with their massive broadswords, longbows and maces, tore through the Muslim infantry and broke right into the heart of their cavalry.

There these doughty warriors set upon man and mount alike cutting down ‘three or four thousand’ of the Turks – and we do not know how much of the infantry they had already destroyed. So great was the slaughter and so distressed was Mahmud by the vigour of the Gakkhar infantry that fearing total annihilation of his cavalry, he ordered withdrawal. The Gakkhars had carried the field. But then fate intervened: a flaming naphtha arrow set Anandpal’s howdah alight. The elephant panicked and trampled its own army to set up the rout. All the Gakkhars’ courage and skill in battle came to a sudden nought, but for no fault of their own.

We again hear of these doughty warriors from Babur. At Kallar Kahar in March 1519 where he had laid low the Janjua Rajputs, he was petitioned to go against the Gakkhars of Pharwala. His first attack against the walls of this fort near Islamabad was roundly beaten back. The commander was Hathi Gakkhar, so called because of his towering height and immense physical strength. Babur nicely glosses over the defeat but admits that reinforcements under another general had to be called in. And Pharwala was eventually taken.

Yet again, it was Sher Shah Suri who was to suffer their resolute persistence. Because the Pharwala Gakkhars under Sarang Khan had sworn allegiance to Babur, they remained steadfastly loyal to the fugitive Humayun even though he was hiding away in distant Persia. They resisted the Suri king tooth and nail and in the ensuing long years of strife, Sarang Khan and sixteen of his sons lost their lives in battle. Yet they did not succumb and were at hand to welcome the milksop Humayun on his return to India. To this day, Sarang Khan’s descendents (who call themselves Sarangal Gakkhars) live around Islamabad and Pharwala.

Being from Jhelum, General Kayani will be, I believe, a Bogial Gakkhar. But he comes from the same line of warriors that had routed the Turks on the battlefield of the Chachh plain in Attock. There is a natural fighter in this man and should he set his mind upon routing the terrorists of Waziristan, he will prevail.

This piece appeared in the Daily Times in 2008 when General Kayani was elevated to the command of the army. For years inspired by the historical steadfast loyalty to Babur and heroism of Sultan Sarang Khan, the Gakkhar chief of Pharwala near Rawalpindi, I was mistaken that Kayani, also a Gakkhar, would have inherited some courage and character from his distant kinsman of the 16th century. I was sadly mistaken. Kayani shamelessly failed the army and the nation. However, for this article I earned the scorn of those who favour the destruction of Pakistan at the hands of the terrorists. It is reproduced here on the request of an anonymous reader of this blog.

Odysseus Lahori one year ago: Prisoner on a Bus: Travels through Pakistan

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 08:58,


At 19 January 2014 at 18:55, Blogger Memoona Saqlain Rizvi said...

Dear Sir, How many forts did Ghakars built n r there any remains left in potohar plateau?

At 12 December 2014 at 09:10, Anonymous Anonymous said...
Agar iran me kayhan koi jaga nahe he to e kayhan Akhbar kaun is name se mashahoor hay

At 20 April 2018 at 07:46, Blogger Sabine Kayani said...

A very uninformed and corrupted analysis of Gakhar history. You don't even know that Kayani was from Gujar Khan and not Jhelum. As for the history. The account of the infidels was about the "Khokhars " not the "Gakhars " who are two entirely different clans and who were often confused during Fatishtehs time. If you take up the job of writing about the history of a clan then at the very least do your research. Incredibly disappointing and biased piece, tainted and oozing with disdain and hatred.

At 20 April 2018 at 12:13, Blogger Salman Rashid said...

Although I do not rate Farishta as a reliable historian, but have to say that in is original Persian the name of the clan is ککر which should be read as Gakkhar. It is notکوکر which would be Khokhar. That having been said, i now share your hatred for this miserable sample among Gakkhars. Ashfaq Pervez is a grasping poltroon who harmed this country only marginally less than Zia and Musharaf. My admiration for Gakkhars rests upon the character of Sarang Khan.


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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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