Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Abbottabad: beauty and buried bounty

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I noticed young Asad Tanoli when he posted an image of his native Sherwan on social media. It was a right picturesque little alpine village and not the image I retained from 1972. Lying about 30 kilometres west of Abbottabad, it was then a hamlet of stone and timber houses with a sprinkling of some mud-plastered ones.

On the phone, Asad spoke of dozens of kots around his village and the remains of a house built by old James Abbott. Now in the vernacular, a kot is a fortress and I had visions of them dotting every hilltop. As for Abbott’s old home, I conjured up an image of something with a touch of the eerie much like the old Murree Brewery ruins near Ghora Gali or Reginald Dyer’s ruined house in faraway Rabat in Balochistan.

So there I was with Asad in Haripur to drive up along what he said was once called Shahrae (Highway) Tanoli and now Chhapar Road that goes through Sherwan on to Mansehra. A wise choice it turned out to be, for we drove along a picturesque hillside with the blue-green waters of Tarbela Lake to our left. Along the shore were neatly parcelled blocks of harvested fields where cattle grazed and the whole scene looked quite a John Constable painting. Sadly, the sun was totally wrong for photography.

As we paused to admire the scene with the sun glinting off the lake to almost blind us, Asad sounded the ominous warning: Pohar, the village where he wanted to show me the shrine of Suba Khan was dangerous. It was a country of lawless, depredatory men. And with that menace ringing in my ears, we fetched up at the Pohar police post behind which the shrine lay. We asked directions and were soon making our way through undergrowth where we should not have been without machetes.

Where Abdullah Shah Ghazi supposedly prayed Where Abdullah Shah Ghazi supposedly prayed
By Asad’s reckoning, Suba Khan was a mid-18th century governor of the Saddozais. But as we drew up to the all but vegetation-covered monument I called out loud that it was not built later than the early 16th century. A low crenulated wall completely overgrown with wild vegetation enclosed an area of somewhat over one thousand square metres. On the east side was a gateway and of the four corner turrets of the wall only the one on the northeast remained.

The most interesting bit was the use of the gateway as a dovecote with its five dozen oblong holes that ran the way through the thickness of the structure. This was once obviously a busy nesting site for most holes contained dry twigs and other material but seemed to have fallen out of use. The one remaining corner turret was similarly pocked.

Within the walled area were the remains of a much later building: all of a corner with the spandrel of an arch. It had bits of lime plaster and simple floral frescoes that could be dated to the 18th century. So this was the burial of Suba Khan, the subedar (governor) also known as Zabardast Khan. The man was left here by the advancing Saddozais under Ahmed Shah in order to guard against Sikh attacks. The poor maker of this silly yarn did not know that in the early 18th century, the Sikhs did not range in this area.

The gateway of the 16th century walled garden with the dovecote. The only remaining corner turret can be seen on the left
But this was no graveyard. This compound was a walled garden built very likely in the earlier half of the 16th century. Overlooking the Siran River, it was a place of pleasure and solitude for some bon vivant of old. The thick undergrowth and my fear of snakes kept me from checking out the place for foundations dating to the same time as the crenulated wall and gateway. More than 200 years later, when the garden was probably forgotten and neglected and the pigeons once so lovingly cared for having flown away, some freebooter came along to be buried here.

Going by the inferior construction of his shrine, this man was of little consequence. Whereas the early edifice lasted through nearly five centuries, the later building collapsed within a couple of centuries. Asad made him out as someone renowned for something or the other. However, later I found no substantial reference to anyone of this name in the couple of histories I consulted.

As we pottered about the ruin, a young man whose countenance screamed to tell the world that he was a soldier came around to quiz us. The man thought we were either ‘enemy agents’ or treasure hunters and angrily told us that the treasures of the shrine had been stolen by ‘outsiders’ like us. Since this was Tanawal, the land of the Tanolis, the man was also of the same tribe as my host. For him to lay off, Asad had to run through a directory of his relatives to prove his credentials.

This was the first tale of treasure. And this was just the beginning.

We drove on to make Sherwan before sunset. I came in for a deluge of treasure tales. The kots were all thought to be choc-a-bloc with treasure as indeed were all the graves. Every rock was placed above a concealed fortune and every field ploughed above wealth greater than that of Cyrus. Asad’s brother Saad was obsessed with graves. He talked only and only of them – only graves and nothing more. For him every grave was the receptacle of secret treasure.

Siran River, a few kilometres before falling into Tarbela Lake. This view is from Chhapar Road to Sherwan
Saad related how he and his chums had once spent days digging up one of the nearby kots. I asked what they did with the wealth they came upon. He said they hadn’t found any. But there being so many kots to hand, he was willing to try his luck again.

The lure of treasure was a universal affliction in Sherwan. I was introduced to a man who had spent a lifetime digging up the country until the tension of every failed initiative gave him debilitating diabetes that left him unable to walk except with difficulty. He complained of the ‘Indians’ who dug up a grave in one of the several cemeteries and decamped with untold treasure in the dark of night. He was just warming up to tell me about the djinns and fairies that kept guard over the riches when I bolted.

As we walked away, I suggested to young Asad that instead of turning up the land, these people ought to purchase prize bonds and dream every month of winning a prize. That’s much less work than the outside chance of striking bullion.

In local lore, James Abbott, after whom Abbottabad is named, was a shady, on-the-run fraudster. Abbott arrived in the guise of a religious teacher in Tandhara, a nearby village. For a full 40 days, he masqueraded as the prayer leader in connivance with the keeper of the local mosque until his cover was somehow blown. The man absconded in good time before the impending lynching and made it to Sherwan. Here he tried to build a home for himself on a little hill outside the village. But the upright people of Sherwan would have none of that and they ran him out. Left with no other option, the evil man went away to establish Abbottabad.

The story was so stupid and senseless that I could only laugh and compare these people with the Baloch. Nearly 200 years after John Jacob did good for their land, those upright and honourable men still remember him as a saint. If that says something for Jacob, it speaks even more for the Baloch who will never forget a favour – and that is what we call honour. Here we have transformed a top rate army officer-turned-administrator into a dubious fraudster.

Tandhara, where Abbott led the congregation, is the ancestral village of a man called Captain Mohammad Safdar, currently First Son-in-Law. Word has it though he now claims to be a Tanoli; his family in reality is of the Dom or musician clan. If the good people of Sherwan were Lahoris, they would have joked that the captain had hardly reached above his station in marriage: from Dom to lohar (blacksmith) is scarcely a move up.

Sherwan village. The red-roofed building is the girls’ college
Abbot Hill 1 and 2 were twin disappointments. There were no signs of the purported Abbott house or any construction from the mid-19th century. There were however remnants of one of the celebrated kots. Running around one of the sides was a wall of coursed rubble masonry. Earlier we had climbed another hill to inspect the kot Asad’s brother had dug up for the elusive treasure. The masonry in both was definitely older than a thousand years and I would want to believe that these little fortifications were built when the Huns under Mehr Gul overran the country in the early years of the 6th century of the Common Era. Though, as history shows, these paltry defences would not have done much against the Hunnic Juggernaut.

Asad wanted to show me all two dozen or so of the kots sprinkled around Sherwan. He seemed to believe I could divine hidden treasure. But I was a total disappointment: I told him two kots were one more than I cared to see and that none of them could possibly hold any fortune. Thereafter I had to pre-empt a spree of graveyards and old graves. Gosh, the obsession with burial sites was macabre.

But we climbed another hill to visit the bethak of Abdullah Shah Ghazi. It must have been a long sabbatical from protecting Karachi from cyclones that enabled the man to get to Sherwan. Other than the two glorious rag-festooned wild olive trees and an oblong pedestal inside a walled enclosure, there was nothing remarkable about the place.

Asad did not know that the man buried in Karachi was most likely Abdullah bin Nabhan. As leader of one of the several failed sorties against Sindh, he died in the fight with Raja Dahir’s army and therefore could not have embarked on this protracted gallivant.

I have long maintained that Sindhis have crafted the most evocative legends followed by the Baloch and Pakhtuns. Punjabis come last but the Hindko speakers of Tanawal are surely the pits. Their legends are uninspiring, to put it mildly. Even to think now of the fables I heard on this outing exasperates me.

I had embarked on this journey with great dreams of finding undiscovered Buddhist remains and medieval fortresses. But that was not to be. The good thing to come out of it was that young Asad Tanoli who unquestioningly believed all the tales he heard began to look upon them critically. In three days, this was a remarkable shift. Any longer and he will be a voracious reader.

I think I’ll go back at least one more time.

Odysseus Lahori one year ago: Deosai Romance


posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 25 November 2014 at 09:15, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very strange. Each time I go to Tanawal, specially Sherwan side, there's a new history. Sometime, Tanolis are Turkis and sometimes Janjua Rajputs, and then they have become neo-Pakhtoons. Two years ago, there was a small stone platforme at this site of foto, it was a way side masjid, now somehow 'bethak' of Abdullah Ghazi. After all whats going on please? I think some sort of suspicious activity.

At 26 November 2014 at 10:22, Blogger Nayab Ahmad said...

Baradar Salman Rashid, salam alekumm. Its a pleasure to read your above articel about Sherwan area, my family Mailks also belong to this area originally. Its a nostalgia for me. I would also add plz some more informtion

* 'Tarekh Hazara' book of Dr Pani (1969) tell us Khan Zabradast Tanoli, nick name Suba Khan, he died in 1797. Durani Afghans, Ameer Tamur Shah (king of Afghanistan) made him caretaker of Tanawal region at time of his visit year 1775 or 1776.

** Itis indeed irony of fate, once same Tanoli people of Sherwan and upper area Tanawal were fully loyal to Major Abbot and Birtish rule. English writer Charle Allens, says about this, that Nuvab Khan Shingri, Suba Khan Tanoli family and Jahandad Khan Amb and Madad Khan Phulra and all their tribes peoples, were ''most loyal and true of Hazara natives'' . But now, as wind is blowing in 'Islamic' direction, in modren Pakistan, so they have all become good Pakistanis and say curses on Abbot saheb etc. But one thing I know, peoples who forget theyr history are also forgotten.

*** Capt retd Safdar, so in law Nawaz Shareef, is surely a Dom caste all know, sometimes before was Awan and now Tanoli. He has no approved new scheme to make millions via new Hazara highway by pass that will go through Tanawal and up to Shinkari and will ruin all Hazara remaining wildlife and forests.

God help us.
Nayyab Ahmad Khan

At 26 November 2014 at 19:23, Anonymous Sadaf Khan said...

It's a very good article, I also saw it on 'Dawn' on Sunday. Many of these articles of yours, sir, are valuable for correcting and highlighting many historical lapses and fallacies and its a good thing you have also written about this side (Abbottabad and Hazara region). Many 'tall tales' have proliferated here, as people are ignorant or dont have exposure to proper sources, they mostly read fake books written by local people who are not scholars or academics, but just some tribal people seeking to promote themselves and their families, tribes, by writing all sorts of nonsense. This is a problem we encounter often, and when I did my thesis work from Quaid e Azam University on some local history of Mansehra, it was almost impossible to separate fact from fiction. People are also very touchy about these things. And as one commentator rightly says, above, there is really some sort of race to claim or show non Hindu /foreign origins. Almost all indigenous tribes of this region--Gakkhars, Awans, Tanolis, Dhonds (who call themselves 'Abbasis' now!) , Karlals, Gujjars, Pirachas, Khokhars, Malyars, and such etc--are today Arabs, Pathans or Turks. Even some tribes that are settlers from other areas, such as Swatis (old aboriginal inhabitants of Swat valley pushed out by Yusufzais) and Bamba Rajputs of Kashmir (who now have also transformed into Arabs!) , have weird claims to make. As for those who are actually from Pashtun/Pathan or Arab or Turkish origins, they are totally vain and arrogant, lost in the past pages. I wonder when as a nation we will rise above these 'biradaris' and unite as Pakistanis?

At 26 November 2014 at 20:12, Anonymous Anonymous said...

was this article published in dawn?

At 1 December 2014 at 09:38, Anonymous Iftikhar H Malik said...

Dear Salman Ji, very good article indeed, giving historical and local information along with a humorous touch!

At 2 December 2014 at 01:32, Anonymous Adil Zafar Tanoli said...

It's an intresting item. Combines some light hearted jokes and some earnest questions-- we need to properly check and research history of our native area, Tanawal, both Upper and Lower, on a scholarly basis. It's very good that you have highlighted these matters. Thanks.

At 2 December 2014 at 06:58, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Sadaf, you are spot on about the obsession with Arab origins. It only shows our own inferiority complex as a people. As Nayab Ahmad points out, those who were faithful to the Raj have now invented stories to show their "heroism". Sadly, we rely on stories instead of history.

At 2 December 2014 at 07:00, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Dear Iftikhar, Many thanks for the appreciation. You might be surprised to hear that some Nadeem chap called me in a state of agitation and threatened to take me to court for "humiliating the Tanolis" I look forward to receiving his legal notice.

At 2 December 2014 at 18:59, Anonymous Iftikhar H Malik said...

Ha! Thats a really bad sport dear Salman Ji. Possibly some person with no sense of humour. I think you rightly aver some people above have raised some good points. In Pakistan, there is too much 'fiction' mixed up with history. People live in false dreams, and cant accept had facts. I wish you well and all success. Regards, Ifti

At 4 December 2014 at 10:05, Anonymous Faisal Zaman Khan said...

Truly shameful reading, makes me embarassed about my fellow Tanolis. The information about some 'Shah rah i Tanoliyan/Tanoli' is also totally fake. That road didnt even exist prior to British times. It was always called 'Chapar Road'. My elders--father, grandfather, great grandfather, all called it Chapar Road simply; and as far as I know there is no book or other genuine historical document or source that calls it by this new-coined term. Seems that some of your hosts had really wild imaginations.

At 9 September 2015 at 11:38, Anonymous Ehsan Salam said...

Very fascinating, and yet sadly, true. It might be of some interest to you, in the regard of 'treasure hunting' , to know what new lows are being now achieved by greedy people in Hazara. Ple do see this thanks


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