Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

A Chinaman in the Salt Range

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The year was 630 AD, and China was ruled by T’ai Tsung, ‘the most powerful figure of the brilliant T’ang dynasty’, when a twenty six year old Buddhist monk left the city of Chang-an on a religious journey that was to last sixteen years. This journey was to take our pilgrim to nearly all the sites in the Indian subcontinent connected with the great Buddha. The fruit of this protracted labour was unprecedented reverence upon his return to China and to be acclaimed as one of the greatest Masters of Buddhism of all times.

Hiuen Tsiang, however, was no ordinary monk. Even before the pilgrimage he was an acknowledged Master, versed in the tenets of Buddhism for whom religious books, imperfectly translated from the Sanskrit into Chinese, were a source of everlasting yearning for the gospel of Buddha. Far from his home, beyond the death dealing deserts of Turkestan and across the Snowy Mountains, lay the land of his dreams: India - the birth place of the great Buddha. There, Hiuen Tsiang knew, were those great centres of learning that hummed day and night with the true word. In cloisters in that distant land, he knew, lay the original works of Buddhism. And there, too, were Masters who would have the answers to questions that had remained unanswered most of Hiuen Tsiang’s life as a monk.

One day, ‘without any thought for personal safety’, Hiuen Tsiang looked back on the walls of Chang-an for the last time in sixteen years. When he returned, his hair was flecked with gray and the tribulations of those long years of an itinerant way of life were etched in his buttery Chinese face. But now he was the venerated pilgrim of the many sites sacred to Buddhism and had in his possession some eight hundred volumes together with relics and statues of Buddha painstakingly collected from the universities and monasteries he had visited on his Indian pilgrimage. Although he had been preceded by Fa Hian, whose journey to India and back lasted from AD 399 to 413 and Sung Yun who travelled between AD 518 and 522, it was only Hiuen Tsiang who was to leave the most detailed account of his travels. His immortal Si-yu-ki or Records of the Western World tells of his epic journey across the heart of Asia and into India.

Having come over the ‘Snowy Mountains’ and through Bolor and Swat, Hiuen Tsiang crossed the River Sindhu at ‘U-to-kia-han-cha’ (Udakhanda, the modern Hund). The river flowing strong and fast teemed with ‘poisonous Nagas and hurtful beasts’, it is related; and anyone attempting a crossing bearing valuable goods and relics of Buddha was normally overcome by the waves. Indeed, it was here on the return journey that the pilgrim came face to face with just such a peril. The boat laden with the precious cargo was violently tossed about by the current and Hiuen Tsiang lost fifty manuscripts of Sutras and some flower seeds that he had hoped to plant in his native land to bring him the fragrance of Buddha’s country. Himself astride an elephant, he managed to save his life. On the way in, however, the passage was uneventful.

Through a wide flood plain, loamy and wind swept, where an abundance of food crops grew between lines of majestic shisham trees that served as wind breaks, the pilgrim went, not failing to notice the great fertility of the land . Passing not far from the modern town of Hazro, he would have seen a number of settlements, some with their own stupa and monastery - perhaps already ruined and abandoned. Some of these he would have favoured with an overnight stay; at others he might have stopped for a meal or refreshments. At length his entourage reached outside the walls of Taxila.

The power of Kapisa (Kabul) over the city had waned; Lalitaditya Muktapida, the great Kashmirian conqueror who was to annex Taxila, was still to be born, but the town, nonetheless, was already a nominal tributary of the Kingdom of Kashmir. As in Swat, here too were many ruined stupas and deserted monasteries, a result of the savage persecution of Buddhism that commenced with the first incursion of the White Huns almost two centuries earlier. But it was only under the barbarous Mehr Gul, just over a hundred years before Hiuen Tsiang, that the abuse reached its utmost extreme, when innumerable Buddhist holy sites were razed and the populace either killed or chased away. Consequently Buddhism faded away, and when the savage Huns were removed in AD 528, Hinduism made a resurgence.

While at Taxila, Hiuen Tsiang visited the ‘tank of the Naga-raja I-lo-po-to-lo’ (Elapatra), that lay some 70 li (20 km) to the northwest - a bearing and distance that leads exactly to Hasan Abdal. Ancient legend related, so the pilgrim writes, that Elapatra, a Buddhist king of old, was transformed by the gods into a hideous serpent for misconduct when he damaged a cardamom tree. On repenting, his form, so fearsome, that while his tail rested in his palace at Taxila his body stretched clear across the country until his terrifying seven hooded head reached Varanasi, was reverted and the tank became sacred to him where people came to pray for rain or fine weather. This unspoiled tank, covered with colourful lotus flowers, one hundred paces in circuit, was none other than the spring and water tank that Sikhs revere today in Hasan Abdal as Punja Sahib - the Shrine of the Palm Print.

Legend has it that when the great saint Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh religion, arrived here, there lived up on the hill an ascetic called Baba Wali Kandhari. Tired and thirsty, the Guru sought to slake his thirst, but the only source of water, on the hilltop, was guarded by the Muslim ascetic. To him Guru Nanak sent his disciple with a request for water, but the saint refused to oblige a heathen fakir. Twice did the disciple go up on the bidding of his master and twice was he refused by Wali Kandhari. Wearying of this coming and going, Guru Nanak struck a nearby rock causing a clear and copious spring to gush forth; at the same time drying up the one that Wali Kandhari was so jealously guarding. This so offended the saint on the hilltop that he cast a small pebble at the Guru. Miraculously this stone grew in size as it rolled down the hill until it was one huge boulder. Equally miraculously, Guru Nanak held out his hand, and without allowing his hand to touch the boulder, stopped it in its path of destruction. His final miracle was to leave an impression of his hand on the rock. To this day, according to Sikh lore, the rock with the hand print lies adjacent to the gushing spring.

Could such an occurrence take place, it would have been in the period of the great Guru’s wanderings in the latter years of the 15th or the beginning of the 16th century. But there is no mention of this miracle either in the writings of Babur, the founder of the Mughal empire, who was a contemporary of Guru Nanak; or in those of his great grandson, Jehangir - both observant, inquisitive men and writers of diaries. On his approach to Hasan Abdal, en route from Lahore to Kabul in April 1607, the second year of his reign, Jehangir was so delighted by ‘this enchanting place’, that he sojourned here three days. The Tuzk e Jehangiri describes how he whiled away those balmy days not yet unbearably hot, partaking of wine with his close associates and netting fish to put pearls in their mouths before setting them loose again. This place, he tells us, was ‘one kos to the east’ of Hasan Abdal and the spot that was to be chosen for a garden less than forty years later by his son Shah Jehan.

Moving on to the town proper the king records that the ‘celebrated place at that station is a spring which flows from the foot of a little hill, exceedingly clear, sweet, and nice’. As in Hiuen Tsiang’s time, the pond appears to have still occupied a sizable area, for Jehangir’s chronicle relates that Khwaja Shams ud Din Khwafi, one of Akbar’s trusted deputies, having enlarged and brick-lined the pond, had a platform built in the middle. Jehangir was however a trifle disappointed when his inquiries ‘from the story-tellers and from the inhabitants’ regarding the eponymous Hasan the Saint only turned up blanks.

Three years later William Finch, the peripatetic merchant from England, noticed the town of ‘Hassanabdall’. He thought it a pleasant place with its small river and many tanks of water ‘so cleare that you can see a penny in the bottome’. The tanks teemed with fish that had gold rings in their noses which, Finch wrote, had been affixed by the Emperor Akbar - an apparent mistake for Jehangir. It is curious that both these writers should have failed to notice the miracle of the two saints barely a hundred years after it was supposedly wrought . If anything, it is even more curious, that an early 19th century English civil servant heard the story of the stone mason and the hermit. The Rawalpindi District Gazetteer of 1893 records the findings of Delmerick:
The story told by many, even devout Sikhs being among the number, is that one Kamma, a Muhammadan mason, cut the mark upon the stone for his own amusement, and that on one occasion during the reign of Ranjit Singh, when a raid was made upon the village of Hasan Abdal by a body of Sikhs, all fled except one Naju, a fakir, who, in order to save himself, boldly declared that he was one of Baba Nanak’s fakirs. Asked how he came to know of Baba Nanak, he invented the fable of the saint’s miracle and appealed in proof to the hand print on the stone. The Sikhs believed him, and set up the stone. Many highly respectable residents of the town admit that before Ranjit Singh’s time there was no shrine or place of Hindu worship at Hasan Abdal.
As for the saint after whom the town is named, we hear from Mir Masum (died 1634), an able historian and the governor of Bhakkar (Sindh), that among the saints buried in Kandhar, the name of Baba Hasan Abdal is noteworthy. He goes on to tell us that having returned from a pilgrimage of the holy cities of Arabia, Hasan Abdal was visited by Shah Rukh Mirza (son of Taimur the Lame), and that he subsequently joined the train of the victorious Mirza to India. We are not told how long Hasan Abdal remained in the subcontinent, but that he thereafter spent ‘some years’ in Kandhar where he died and was buried. This death took place before 1447, the year of death of Shah Rukh Mirza, for we know from history that the Mirza attended the saint’s funeral rites. Guru Nanak, on the other hand, was born in 1469.

The Indian expedition of Shah Rukh Mirza took place in 1417. The fact that Hasan Abdal gave his name to the little village outside which he worshipped his Lord and did penance on a high, wind swept hill indicates that he did spend some considerable time in this part of the country. However, he was unable to impress the populace with his religious merit for he was completely forgotten within the space of two hundred years, and none of Jehangir’s inquiries concerning him met with answers. This also indicates that neither Jehangir nor any of his courtiers were acquainted with Mir Masum’s celebrated Tarikh e Masumi (written AD 1600).

Followers of the Muslim saint believe that one day he simply disappeared from the hill. Since he did not die, but retreated from the sight of lesser mortals and till now lives on unseen by the rest of mankind, he is therefore ‘Zinda Pir’ - the Living Saint. Long after Jehangir had turned up blanks on the man called Hasan Abdal who gave his name to the village, when it came time to invent the legend of the Hindu and Muslim saints, Hasan Abdal was only remembered vaguely as Wali Kandhari (The Deputy [of God] from Kandhar). The fact that Hasan Abdal and Guru Nanak did not share the same time in history did not matter to the inventor of the story of their little tiff over drinking water. As for the disappearing act of some supposed holy man, it is common knowledge that leopards prowled the Margalla Hills as recently as fifty years ago (they are still sometimes sighted further to the north). It is not difficult, therefore, to imagine that a poor hermit (certainly not Hasan Abdal a.k.a. Wali Kandhari) living his isolated life on the hill, may simply have provided sustenance to a hungry cat - albeit unwillingly and not in the same spirit of sacrifice as the great Buddha. Thereafter it was the natural accretion of the passage of time that lumped the two stories together to form the current myth.
To revert to the story of Hiuen Tsiang: one day he set out from Taxila to visit the ‘Kingdom of Singhapura’, with its capital of the same name , believed to have been founded by the Buddhist king Asoka around the middle of the 3rd century BC. Travelling some ‘700 li’ (185 kilometres) in a south easterly direction, he reached the capital of Singhapura. Situated in the midst of craggy mountains, this naturally well defended place was four kilometres in circuit, and had no king of its own but was a dependency of the kingdom of Kashmir. Its warlike people, we are told, valued ‘highly the quality of courage’, but were also ‘much given to deceit’.

It was only natural that Hiuen Tsiang should have visited Buddhist sites around Singhapura, and so he tells us of a stupa built by Asoka lying ‘not far to the south’ of the city. Sadly, the stupa was in a ruined state while its accompanying sangharama (monastery) was deserted and without priests. He also mentions another Asokan stupa about two hundred feet in height and lying some dozen kilometres (‘40 or 50 li’) to the southeast. In the vicinity of the latter, the Records state, were ten tanks of clear water ‘secretly connected together’ and filled with ‘dragons and fishes’. Hiuen Tsiang writes that the water was sometimes noisy and tumultuous, implying that these were not stagnant ponds but a flowing stream. ‘Lotus flowers of the four colours’ covered the surface of the water and all around were fruit trees of ‘a hundred kind’. In a rare flush of poetic eloquence the pilgrim writes, ‘The trees are reflected deep down in the water, and altogether it is a lovely spot for wandering forth’.
Although Singhapura has never yet been definitely identified, theories about its location abound. Alexander Cunningham who carried out an archeological survey in this area in the 1860s, had no doubt about Ketas being the site of ancient Singhapura. Aurel Stein (1930) would place it in the nearby village of Dulmial, while V. de St Martin (c 1855) believed that Sanghoi (20 km Southwest of Jhelum) was Singhapura. If one were to go by Hiuen Tsiang’s description of a city surrounded by crags and precipices, the list of probable sites would be limited to a location within the Salt Range. On the other hand, though Sanghoi would be the nearest to the pilgrim’s estimation of distance and direction from Taxila, it lies in the plains well beyond the mountains.

Ketas, revered as a holy site from times immemorial, shows no remains of a large city. But just over a kilometre to the north lies the village of Dulmial and its pottery strewn mound. Dr Saifur Rahman Dar of the Lahore Museum, agrees with Stein in the hypothesis that this village is the site of Singhapura, for the antiquity of the mound is established by finds of coins dating from the Indo-Greeks onward.

Now, both Dulmial and Ketas lie some 120 km due south of Taxila, while Hiuen Tsiang writes of a journey of over one hundred and eighty kilometres in a southeasterly direction. There are several instances where Hiuen Tsiang’s direction and distance between identifiable sites are fouled. In this case, since he returned to Taxila after the visit, he appears to have mixed up the outward and return distances and arrived at an average. Moreover, we know that on the return journey to China, the crossing of the Sindhu proved a near disaster when the boat overturned and some of the pilgrim’s books and other items were lost. Perhaps among those claimed by the river were his journals - or at least the one that detailed the journey to Singhapura and back. In that case, it is very likely that Hiuen Tsiang re-wrote this part of his travels at a later date, when memory was not so fresh and discrepancies naturally crept in.

Dulmial, therefore, answers best to the Chinese pilgrim’s description of the capital city of the Salt Range. According to Hiuen Tsiang, ‘not far to the south’ of Singhapura lay Asoka’s ruined stupa. This can be none other than the one whose plinth is all but smothered by the buildings of Ketas and which lies barely a kilometre south of Dulmial. There is, moreover, the pilgrim’s description of tree shaded ‘ponds’.

Just thirteen kilometres, (corresponding exactly to 50 li of Hiuen Tsiang’s description) to the southeast of Dulmial village, a couple of kilometres outside Choa Saidan Shah, lie the lovely orchards of Gandhala valley. Enclosed on two sides by steep ridges covered thickly with greenery, the valley floor is literally choked with fruit and other trees. Surrounded by this veritable forest rises a high mound overgrown with brushwood and grass. The only clue that it is man-made is the blue sign posted by the Department of Archeology to declare the site protected. Scattered on and near this little hillock are several pieces of dressed limestone. Bordered by rank vegetation and tall leafy trees a limpid steam flows at its foot still swarming with fish. Even a cursory examination of the mound shows it to be the base of a large stupa. An early British archeologist was told this was the site of Murti (‘figurine’ in Punjabi). Surely the name comes from the many statues that were at one time strewn about the ruined building and were removed to be stored in Lahore Museum.

This then is the site whose natural beauty had so impressed the Chinese pilgrim and moved him to write a poetic description over thirteen centuries ago. It had nonetheless also brought him its share of grief, for even at that time the sangharama next to this stupa was devoid of a Buddhist priest; and had been so for a ‘long time’. Worse, the sacred site had been taken over by white-clad and sky-clad or naked ‘heretics’ - the Svetambra and Digambra sects of Jainism. The pilgrim’s consternation is not difficult to judge: ‘The persons who frequent it subject themselves to austerities; day and night they use constant diligence without relaxation. The laws of their founder are mostly filched from the principles of the books of Buddha.’ The distress was further compounded by the fact that Fa Hian had found Buddhism flourishing just two hundred years earlier. Even Sung Yun who noted the destruction wrought by the Huns had little to say of the decline of his religion, and now wherever the Master went, he found Buddhism in a state of decay.

Even in Hiuen Tsiang’s time, the site was still bustling with religious industry, albeit now under the Jains. With the waning of Buddhism, Hinduism went on the ascendant and sometime in the following centuries, the stupa built by the great Asoka in the 3rd century BC was abandoned. Then nature took over. The dust of ages settled thick over it; the grasses and brushwood grew wild; the stupa and its monastery remained forgotten until perdition was total. Even the memory of this hallowed site faded. Finally the archeologists came along to plant the blue sign to inform wayfarers of the antiquity of the site.

But while the tree shaded stupa was forgotten and left to the vagaries of nature, the one that lay ‘not far to the south’ of the capital of Singhapura continued to be revered. Here too Buddhism was supplanted first by Jainism until the site came to be revered by worshippers of Shiva. With the passage of years Vedic buildings grew around it (see following story). The cut stone facing of the stupa was cannibalised to beautify other buildings, its friezes depicting the life of Buddha were either destroyed or carted off to private temples. Slowly the stupa crumbled into the dust until only the plinth remained. Over the centuries, while this was happening, a kilometre across the low hills to the north, the great city of Singhapura whose skyline was surely visible from the monastery, was also dying a slow death until it too was lost from the collective memory of the people. Dulmial was to come many centuries later.

For seekers of Singhapura, more than two millenniums after it was built, the only indicators of its location are the ruins of the stupas built by Asoka in the 3rd century BC and visited nine hundred years later by the Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsiang. The one in the midst of the ruins of Ketas and the other smothered by the fruit trees of Gandhala - two lonely signposts from the distant past pointing to the forgotten city of Singhapura.

Done with his excursion to Singhapura, before setting out for Kashmir, the pilgrim returned to Taxila for here were other sites sacred to the memory of Buddha, that yet remained unvisited. Two hundred li (about 60 km) southeast of Taxila, wrote the pilgrim, was the stupa of the body offering. If anything, it was rare for such exact measurement and bearing to come from Hiuen Tsiang, for it leads directly to the stupa of Manikyala that lies just off the Grand Trunk Road, 5 km southeast of the village of Rawat.

The pilgrim relates that it was here that the great Buddha, overcome with compassion for a tiger dying from starvation, pierced his body to feed the poor animal with his own blood. The tiger revived, but in consequence of this letting of pious blood, the pilgrim informs us, the earth and the plants in the surrounding area were tinged red . General Court, a European officer in the service of Ranjit Singh, opened the monument and found an inscription inside showing that it was built during the reign of Kanishka, the Saka king who ruled over India in the 2nd century AD. Several years later another archeologist, Cunningham, discovered extensive signs of destruction by fire in the surrounding area. Being unable to fix a date of this fiery end, he concluded that the ruination was due ‘rather to Brahmanical malignity than to Muhammadan intolerance’.

But there is every likelihood that even before a revival of Hinduism took place, the ancient stupa of Manikyala and its attendant monastery were sent up in flames by the savage White Huns, who overran this part of the subcontinent around the middle of the 5th century AD. This destruction was a source of unending grief for the devoutly pious Hiuen Tsiang who had left the comfort of his home in distant Chang-an, braved the dangers of the Takla Makan Desert and the snow covered Hindu Kush, in his quest for the holy books of Buddhism.

Excerpted from 'The Salt Range and the Potohar Plateau' - this book (and my other books) available at at Sang e Meel (042-3722-0100), Lahore

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 16 June 2014 at 04:52, Anonymous Amardeep Singh said...

Fascinating indeed.

At 16 June 2014 at 08:47, Blogger Humaira said...

very informative and well described travelogue.

At 16 June 2014 at 09:44, Anonymous muhammad athar said...

A development of different dynasties are amply covered in article. Sir it is a really great work for the students of history.

At 16 June 2014 at 14:44, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, good people!

At 23 June 2014 at 04:45, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love it when you write about the potohar plateau. I'm lahori but for some reason am extremely interested in that area, from it's cultural legacy like Taxilla to it's warrior clans like gakhars and janjua. Thanks for this amazing article

At 23 June 2014 at 08:43, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Like you, I too am a Lahori. My fascination with the Salt Range goes back to 1967 when I first drove through the area with my father. Have been a regular visitor since the mid-1970s.

At 1 March 2016 at 14:57, Blogger Sunita Dwivedi said...

how can we have your books in India? sunita dwivedi

At 1 March 2016 at 20:22, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Sunita, you can unfortunately not have my book in India by any regular channel. But if you email me and send me your address, I can arrange for one to be sent over and couriered to you from inside India. My contact details are on the "About" page of this blog.

At 2 March 2016 at 02:10, Blogger Sunita Dwivedi said...

Dear Salman, like you I am also a travel writer. My subject Buddha on the Silk Road. In this context I have been travelling to Pakistan.[ although with great difficulty obtaining a visa] will meet you next time I am there by the wish of the Great Allah. Would like to have all your books- especially concerning Xuanzang in the Salt Range and others about Peshawar and Khyber.
I am truly impressed by your writings. As a reader I thank you.
sunita dwivedi

address: 158-A Jorbagh/ New Delhi PIN- 110003

phone +91- 9811100329


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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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