Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Living through another age of partition

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On a cold and foggy morning in January 2010, my friend Talwinder Singh, the short story writer from Amritsar, drove me to Buttar Khurd, a short way off the Grand Trunk Road en route to Jalandhar. We had come to see old Charan Singh.

Even before he entered the courtyard where we sat, we could hear the tap-tap-tap of his cane in the paved alley outside. Small of stature and a little hunched over by age, the man had large milky eyes that had not seen the light of day for 20 years. He himself was, so he said, 83 that year.

As a 20-year-old constable in the district administration, he was assigned as guard to a Sikh revenue officer in Kasur. When the line was drawn with Kasur falling to Pakistan and mayhem began, Charan and his officer crossed the BRB canal and made for the new India. On the crossing, they saw the brown waters clogged with bloated bodies, the Hindu and Sikh men, women and children who had only a few days earlier lived peaceably with the Muslim neighbours.
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Abort!

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Abort! Sometime in the latter years of the 18th century the Old or East Muztagh Pass became difficult, ‘because of an excess of snow and ice’ – or so it was believed – and fell out of use. There seems to have been an almost desperate need to maintain the direct connection with Turkistan because when Raja Ahmed Shah ascended to the throne of Skardu in the year 1800, he forthwith ordered reconnaissance for an alternate route.

Heading out for the West Muztagh Pass. Hasan Jan (second right) carries the mountaineering gear in his backpack in the vain hope of taking us across the Great Asiatic Watershed

Armed with nothing more than a keen sense of topography and perhaps hand-drawn sketch maps, the work of hunters and shepherds who frequented the mountains, teams of explorers set out to find another route across the Great Asiatic Divide. Today there is no historical evidence of the existence of Balti maps, nor does folklore refer to them, but it is not hard to imagine that before setting out the explorers consulted with those who had gone before. The lay of the mountains would have been explained in great detail, the flow of the rivers for the particular season, camp sites with good fuel and water and those, like Shingchakpi, to be avoided and where game to sustain the survey team was to be found were all enumerated together with travel time from Askole.
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Temple under threat

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The tower stands isolated and lonely just 10 kilometres east of the city of Rahimyar Khan. Once this was in the middle of a sandy wilderness which has since greened into new farmland. Locals have forever called it Pattan Minara — tower on the ford — and believe it was a lighthouse to guide rivercraft approaching a now lost city.

Indeed, situated on the abandoned bed of a long-lost river, it does seem to be just that. But anyone versed in the tradition of Hindu temple architecture in Punjab and Kashmir would know that the building is a temple dating back to the 11th century CE.

On its three facades, this mysterious building has decorations similar to those found in the Hindu Shahya temples of Punjab’s Salt Range. Here too the elevation of the temple is represented on the three facades and the omega-shaped device representing the Buddhist cella is repeated together with lovely floral motifs. The entire ornamentation is created by the use of cut bricks.
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To the Lighthouse

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The setting of the lighthouse was crafted to tickle the imagination of any pre-teen boy who read Jules Verne’s The Lighthouse at the End of the World: right at the edge of a barren, rocky dot of an island that was incessantly washed by the surf of the south Atlantic and scoured by arctic winds coming over the seas. Here the three keepers were kept company by sea birds and a few assorted wild creatures. Other than that, no man walked this island.

When I read the book half a century ago, the island rode my mind. Etched forever, it became just the place I wanted to be where I could climb the spiral stairway to the top of the lighthouse and look out upon a turbulent sea stretching all the way to the vast Antarctic ice sheets that were, in my imagination, visible in the distance.
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'Meri Niaz'

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I met Niaz sahib for the first time in the summer of 1989. I had recently moved back to Lahore from Karachi and was invited to some sort of a function at the showroom-cum-office of Sang e Meel Publications in Lower Mall. The image is very clear despite the intervening years: Niaz sahib wore a pair of light brown pants and a quietly checkered bush shirt.

He was a good listener, always very attentive. He never interrupted the other and when he spoke, it was always quietly. But he frequently broke into a rather boyish grin during his exchanges with his guests. Over the years, I knew that no one had ever heard his voice raised.

Among all the other guests, many of whom were known to him for years, most of whom had been published by him and were keen to have his attention, Niaz sahib found time to engage me in short snatches of conversation. He asked me how long I had been writing and what I intended to do in the future. At one point he said I should come back to see him the following day.
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Arab conquest of Sindh

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The common misconception is that, because he attacked Debal (Bhambore) on the seaboard, Mohammad bin Qasim (MbQ) came by sea leading an armada. This fallacy came up again when my friend Husain Qazi returned recently from a road trip in Makran. Among his collection of images is one of a sign declaring a cluster of graves “Tombs of the soldiers of Mohammad bin Qasim … ”.


This sign sits near village Aghor in the lower reach of the Hingol River, about 10 kilometres (km) upstream of the river’s mouth. The ruinous tombs are crafted with slabs of worked sandstone in the same style as the Chaukundi tombs of Sindh — tombs that can also be found at several sites in adjacent parts of Balochistan.
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Symbol of Hope

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After I shared my 'story of tragedy and forgiveness,' Mr Gandhi invited me to plant a tree which would stand as a tangible symbol of hope and commitment towards reconciliation between India and Pakistan and the world at large.
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Reflections on ‘Making Democracy Real’ at Panchgani

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Shabnam and I were sorry to leave a day earlier than the conference finished, but work in Pakistan called. We travelled back to Amritsar where we remained for two days. But there was simply no time to go to Jalandhar and Ludhiana to see all our friends. It would have been more travelling and less spending time with people who have given us a great deal of love and affection.


Speaking for myself, I came away with a singular notion from Panchgani: the sane minority, and make no mistake, sanity is in minority, is linked together in a very strong, unshakeable bond. Right now, it might seem that we are not in a position to bring about any significant change in the way the world is run or making democracy real. But the four days at Panchgani tell me that there is just that little chance that this effort will eventually work out after all.
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The lurking Chinese!

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The day dawned miserable and grey – the daily pattern thus far – as we prepared to leave Ghwang Lungma. A thin but steady drizzle set up when we entered the moraine and struck out northeast across the broken glacier. For forty-five rather difficult minutes I skidded and tumbled on the scree-covered ice marvelling how the others kept their footing. Crossing the glacier diagonally, we would have remained on it for a length of only about three kilometres, yet it took us about two hours to attain the left bank of the Panmah. Thence the going was easy along the moraine.

Shingchakpi camp ground whose name signifies a total absence of fuel wood. It has a number of bitter streams flowing down from the south across the sand pan which is always damp and would make one lousy camping place. Henry Haversham Godwin-Austen camped here in August 1861 and was surprised by four Balti travellers returning home from Yarkand

Three hours out of camp we were in the sandy pan of Shingchakpi Braungsa jammed between a dark crag to the south and the jumbled up moraine of the Chiring Glacier to the north. Braungsa (with a nasal ng) is camp ground in Balti while shing is timber. The name signifies a camp ground to which, should you plan to spend a night there, you take your own supply of firewood. At 4100 metres above the sea, this camp ground is no higher than, say, the Deosai Plateau south of Skardu where abundantly growing Salix bushes provide fuel. But true to its name, Shingchakpi only had some wild flowers and grasses.
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Ravi: From River to Sewer

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There are folks in the walled city of Lahore who remember the time when most of the rahu they purchased in the nearby fish market came from the Ravi. They remember, too, the refreshing swim one could take in the brown waters of the river always associated with their city. And they remember the annual ‘paar vala mela’ — the carnival on the far bank, held at Shahdara. Just for the fun of it, Lahoris would ride boats across rather than take the tonga over the bridge.

Around the early 1970s, the fish began to dwindle. Then the dip in the river was no longer what it used to be: every time they indulged themselves, folks experienced skin rashes, even eczema. By the early 1980s, the carnival failed to attract Lahori visitors. The river had effectively turned into a sewer. Several channels — some natural, others created by the municipality — were dumping thousands of cusecs of untreated effluent, domestic and industrial, into a once pristine, living river.
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Deosai: Land of the Giant

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Maheen Pracha 

“Deosai has… a wildness to it,” a friend mused as we sat at the darkening edge of Lake Sheosar and contemplated supper and the great themes of existence—as one is wont to do at higher altitudes. Just after tea, two of our camp had announced their intention to skirt the lake’s perimeter. An hour later, we could see small figures in the distance having got about halfway but manfully trudging onward. Nowhere does proportion take on a more Wonderland-esque feel than here.


Deosai’s seeming ability to bend light, shadow, and distance gives one the sense of being entirely removed from the grubbier trappings of human civilisation and, in turn, an inimitable romance that has fed and fattened mythology and folklore since Herodotus. Deosai: Land of the Giant is Salman Rashid’s attempt to situate Baltistan’s highest plateau within the historical imagination. Importantly, it is not just a travelogue, but also an effort to communicate the fragility of Deosai’s ecosystem. His long-time friend, the photographer Nadeem Khawar, spent several months capturing the turn of the season, the area’s wildlife, its waterscapes, the local gujjars’ seasonal traverse with their cattle, and the hamlets that punctuate the lower outskirts of the plateau.
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Kusak of the Janjuas

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Perched like an eagle’s eyrie high on an up-thrust of rock, the fort of Kusak existed early in the 16th century when Babur first passed through the Salt Range on his way to Bhera. Paucity of local records muffles the soft unfurling of history and we do not know what transpired in this remote hill fortress. Here the Janjuas of the eastern part might have repaired in anticipation of Babur’s attack, but from the latter’s chronicle we do know that he bypassed it.


Though Akbar and Jehangir both repaired to nearby valleys to hunt deer, we find no mention of their visits to Kusak. They may not have considered Kusak significant enough to merit a visit. In 1809, however, the Sikhs overran the Salt Range and the Janjuas fought a hard fight against the followers of Guru Nanak. The Sikhs triumphed and the fortress of Kusak fell into their hands. After the advent of the Raj, the fortress passed back to its original owners, the Janjuas of Wutli that lies a few kilometres northeast of Choa Saidan Shah from which place it can be accessed.
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‘Spring of the Raining Eyes’

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Shortly before entering the town of Choa Saidan Shah, the highroad to Kallar Kahar passes by a clump of old buildings overlooking an emerald pool. Those nearer the road all have fresh coats of wash, while the tall building on the far side of the pool seems untouched for years. This is Ketas Raj, revered by Hindus, sacred to Shiva the Destroyer, and once the centre of a grand annual yatra for devotees from all corners of the subcontinent.


Legend has it that when Sati died, her husband, Lord Shiva, was inconsolable. His tears flowed so that they virtually ‘rained from his eyes’, and from these tears two pools were formed. The one Pushkara near Ajmer in Rajastan and the other Ketaksha in the Salt Range - both greatly revered by followers of Shiva. And because the tears had rained from his eyes, hence Ketaksha or ‘Raining Eyes’. Through the usage of centuries, the word was abbreviated to Ketas as we know it today.
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Over the Edge

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Past the straggle of houses, the path was shaded by willows and poplars and I paused to look over the walled-in garden where I had spent a night back in July 1990. Nothing had changed in sixteen years. Then we were on the wide shelf spilling down from the bottom of the wall of granite on our left and disappearing into the gorge of the Braldu River on our right: we were stepping over the edge of the world. Across the Braldu, on its south bank, the village of Teste was visible together with neighbouring Korphe.

The right bank of the Panmah, along which we marched, was as series of scallop-shaped river terraces with gaps between. This entailed climbing to the top of one, traversing it and then descending again to the valley floor only to be confronted by the next. This terrace is called Biyarok Shi or Chough Dead

Korphe is now well-known for the school built by an American mountaineer. Having failed on K-2 in the summer of 1993, the man was stumbling back to Askole when he failed to cross the river where he should have. Instead of making Askole he thus found himself dehydrated and dog-tired in Korphe. Nursed back to good form by the headman Haji Ali and his family, the American one day asked to see the local school. He found a bunch of children squatting in the open; the patch of ground immediately in front of each child serving as the copy book on which they did their sums and alphabets with styli of little pieces of wood. And so the American built the school, so said Salman, the porter who had fallen in with me as we left Askole.
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Memory, Justice, Healing

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On 10 August 1947 my uncle Dr Habib ur Rahman left his parents’ home in Jalandhar to rejoin work after a few days’ break. Having graduated the year before from King Edward Medical College, Lahore, he was then an intern with Irwin Hospital, Delhi.

Memory, Justice, Healing Evening at Making Democracy Real 2014 with Rajmohan Gandhi, Archana Rao and Rahul Bose

A week earlier, he had received a letter from his youngest sister Tahira. Having completed her higher secondary school exams, she was visiting with her older sister Zubaida whose husband was then a surveyor with the Survey of India and posted at Solan midway between Kalka and Simla. Tahira had written that Solan was rife with communal tension and that she wanted to be with the parents in Jalandhar. She asked her brother if he could come for her to take her home.
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What takes me to India?

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On the morning of 9 January Shabnam and I cross the border to catch a flight from Amritsar to Pune. At Pune, we’ll be met by someone to drive us about three hours (91 km) to a conference centre at the hill station of Panchgani. As in July when I was invited by those wonderful people Professor Rajmohan Gandhi and his wife Usha to Switzerland, this conference, like the earlier one too resonates with the theme of man’s injustice to man in the name of religion, caste and colour.

I had not anticipated being a speaker at the conference, but some days ago I was told that I’ll be in a panel titled ‘Memory, Justice, Healing’. I will be speaking on my experience of March 2008 when I went home to Jalandhar for the first time in my life. There I met Mahindra Pratap Sehgal whose father was among the rioters that had killed my father’s immediate family – twelve persons in all. Incidentally, the Sehgal family was neighbours.
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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.
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To World’s End

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On the ninth day of August 2006, the three of us met in Islamabad. Nasser leading the team, Naeem Awan, the man I had once taken for Japanese, was the doctor of the expedition and I, pretending to be the writer had upon us ‘the exploring spirit’. A century and a quarter before us the explorer Francis Younghusband wrote these words and ended up going mystic – although, it must be conceded, he did accomplish a few good things before descending into the search for the higher meaning of life and assorted silliness. We hoped to do somewhat better. At fifty-four years of age this was perhaps my last chance for such a caper. Nasser, some six years behind me, still had more seasons to look forward to while Naeem was in full form at thirty-two.

Downtown Skardu. Barely thirty years ago this spot, lying about a kilometre east of the 1947 memorial, was about the end of  town. Seen from the air, Skardu town of today sprawls in a hugely haphazard line between the Sindhu River flowing to its north and the mountains to the south

Our expedition was being handled by Blue Sky Treks and Tours run by Ghulam Mohammed (GM). A native of Khaplu, the man, in his late thirties, had started out as a porter when still in his teens. He had worked hard, walked more times to Concordia at the foot of K-2 than he cared to remember and a few times up and down the Biafo, knew virtually every rock in the eskers and moraines of the Baltoro and also some on the Biafo Glacier and was much smarter than he appeared at first sight. He spoke with a nasal twang – but Balti being a highly resonant language, most other Baltis did too – and went about his business of tour operator with what I perceived as feigned gravity.
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This Very Eden

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In 1826, Charles Masson, a renegade from the army of the East India Company posing as an American, went walkabout across what is now Pakistan. In the vicinity of Chichawatni town, he came upon the village of Haripa [sic] amid a thick jungle. Hard by the village was a series of low mounds crowned by derelict buildings and the remains of a brick castle. Going by Masson’s description, most of the ruins dated to Mughal times or slightly earlier. According to lore, this was an important city, extending some 20 kilometres as far as Chichawatni, destroyed by Providence to punish its evil king.


By the time general-turned-archaeologist Alexander Cunningham came surveying historical sites in 1864, Harappa was extensively pillaged for bricks by locals as well as railway contractors. Disappointed by the absence of Buddhist remains, Cunningham nevertheless published a report featuring the ancient pottery, stone tools as well as a seal showing a feeding bovine topped by a hieroglyphic script never seen before. Neither he nor any of his colleagues could make anything of the seal or its script.
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Top Posts 2013

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Where is National Pride?

Foreign Invaders

Partition Story

Living With ALam Bothers

Once Upon a Line

Deosai: Land of the Giant

Between the Tow Burrs on the Map

Eric Shipton

Discovering Sir Vidya Naipaul

Lahore, not Paris

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Discoveries of Empire - Book of Days 2014

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In July 1798, the minarets and domes of Cairo emerged shimmering in the heat before the eyes of Napoleon’s troops as they marched south along the Nile River. Some ways away, amid the rock-strewn desert, stood the pyramids. The West was already acquainted with these strange ghosts of the desert that were ancient even when Herodotus wrote his nine-volume Histories in the middle of the 5th century BCE. But little was known about them beyond the fact that they were royal burial sites.

Now, for the first time, these peculiar apparitions became the subject of scientific inquiry, thanks to the 175 ‘learned civilians’ that were part of Napoleon’s train. They came with scientific equipment and a veritable library containing every book, ancient and contemporary, then available in France on the Nile valley.

Just 30 years earlier, German mathematician and cartographer Karsten Niebuhr had already given the West its first relatively well-informed description of the Nile civilization in his book Arabian Journey. Napoleon wished to cap that knowledge.
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My Books

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

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days