Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Historic roadways

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We all believe that the Grand Trunk Road was built by Sher Shah Suri. It seems that before this Pukhtun ruler came along, there were no travellers living in this great and wonderful land of the subcontinent. Right from school we are told how he, having built it, planted trees along the road, equipped it with kos minars — the equivalent of our milestones, post-houses, wells and sarais.

One thing has been drilled into our heads more than any other: Sher Shah's expertise at building and his predilection for the baoli — well with steps leading down to the level of the water. It has now come to such a pass that the minute Pakistanis see a stepped well in, say, Greenland or at the South Pole, they mechanically attribute it to Sher Shah.

Eighteen hundred years before Sher Shah, in the year 300 BCE, Megasthenes came to the court of the Mauryan king Chandragupta as an ambassador from Seleucus Nikator, the king of Syria. For about fifteen years, this man lived in Patliputra (Patna) and travelled extensively about the country. Thank heavens for the Greeks' penchant for writing, upon his return home he wrote the Indika which survives to our time in fragments. Reading it one can only wonder what a delightful compendium of things Indian it must have been in its original complete form.
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The Little Long tailed Marmot

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The little long tailed Marmot sited on barrow at Deosai National Park enjoying the spring!

Related: Deosai Truths - Book Review by F. S. Aijazuddin, Deosai - Book Review by S A J Shirazi, BBC Radio special talk on Deosai: Land of the Giant (Audio)

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Lunch from Spin Boldak

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The handsome Colonel Saifullah Khattak, commanding the militia that oversees the border at Chaman, is an old friend. (We served the same Air Defense regiment, though he joined many years after I had left the service.) I should have asked him what Boldak meant, but it slipped my mind. Now, spin is white in Pushto. So what is a white Boldak? As a native Pushto speaker, Saif should have been able to answer the question.

The border gate at Chaman
On the loose again after several weeks of work that wearies but keeps the bread buttered, I had ridden the foot plate from Quetta to Chaman. In railway parlance that means I rode in the engine. This was my second trip to Chaman, the first being in 1993, and both times I was fortunate to be permitted into the locomotive and as we trundled across the Balochistan landscape, the sights seemed to have changed little in the past eighteen years.
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Last resting place Robert Sandeman

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Shabnam and I going around Robert Sandeman's tomb in town Bela [1987]

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The Monastery of Guru Goraknath

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Known as Tilla Jogian or simply Tilla, the hill, isolated from the rest of the Salt Range, rises sheer out of the broken, gullied land 25 kilometres southwest of the city of Jhelum. To one and all it is known as Tilla Jogian - The Hill of the Jogis after the ancient jogi monastery whose ruins mark the crest of the 1000 metre high peak. Known as Kunphutta, for their tradition of piercing their ears to adorn them with wooden rings, these jogis, once numerous all over the subcontinent, are the followers of Guru Goraknath.


According to Alexander Cunningham, the hill was anciently dedicated to the sun god Balnath, and after him, known as Tilla Balnath. Later it came to be known after Goraknath, which, Cunningham believed, was a transmutation of Shiva. This latter name, according to him, is very recent. Following him, Ibbetson, Maclagan and Rose, compilers of the Glossary of Tribes, Castes and Clans wrote that Goraknath lived in the 15th century.
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Pari Nagar

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In 1984, I saw the ruins of Pari Nagar for the first time ever. And what a haunting, mystifying and awesome place it was. Smothered by thickly growing mesquite in the low ground, by the sand dune on which, the Virawah Rangers mess (Tharparker) sat. Here was an area of perhaps, two or three square kilometres choked with ruins constructed either from kiln-fired bricks or neatly dressed gray limestone.


There were stone foundations of houses some clearly palatial, others humbler; several ruined temples; arched doorways and, the most intriguing of all, a rectangular stone platform with a free-standing arch. The remains of the lintels and pillars, only a few then in place, the rest in the dust, were all richly carved with motifs that we still see in the Chaukandi-style tombs of Sindh and Balochistan.
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Interpreting Alexander

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I have recently finished Alexander the Great: a life in legend by Richard Stoneman. Published in 2008, this is the more scholarly and substantive version of a book of the same name by Stoneman several years ago. Until this reading, I could only poke fun at the way the Muslims of the subcontinent have posthumously converted Alexander to Islam. But now I know otherwise.

In 2001, making my PTV documentary “Sindhia mein Sikander”, I and the rest of the crew were in Taxila, where an elderly local ‘historian’ came around to check us out. Satisfied with our credentials, he lauded us. To me, he very solicitously said that Allah was sure to be pleased with my endeavour to glorify Islam and grant me a place in heaven. Taken aback, I said this was a purely secular documentary with no religious colour. “Sikander-e-Azam was one of the great heroes of Islamic history”, said the so-called historian. “By making a documentary on his life and achievements, you glorify Islam.”
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The real Sharda

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The tourism department of Azad Kashmir bills it ‘the great university of Sharda’. Their brochures and several other write-ups on the internet attribute this report to Abu Rehan Al Beruni, the 11th century scholar.


Now Al Beruni visited Kashmir circa 1020 and when he was in Srinagar, he wrote, ‘In Inner Kashmir, about two or three days’ journey from the capital in the direction of the mountains of Bolor, there is a wooden idol called Sarada, which is much revered and frequented by pilgrims.’
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History’s forgotten Page

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It was the middle of the 5th century CE. And it was a time of despair for the lands now called Afghanistan, Pukhtunkhwa and Punjab. The bleak, windswept steppes of Central Asia, fertile only with destructive storms of savages, had unleashed yet another howling monster: the White Huns. From the same stock that had set Attila on Europe only decades before, these savages under a man called Tor Aman (Toramana of English texts) had destroyed all that was sacred in the land of the Pukhtuns. With smouldering ruins of once great cities and rotting carcasses of man and beast littering their wake, these barbarians were poised to cross the Sindhu.

Cross this great river they did. Taxila and her monasteries were sacked, the populace was put to the sword, only the lucky ones escaped with their lives to hide away in unknown mountain fastnesses and God’s earth trembled as the Huns moved on deeper into the Land of Five Rivers. By around 510 CE Tor Aman was dead, only to be replaced by his even more barbarous son Mehr Gul (Mihiragula). Soon it was that the Huns’ reputation preceded them. Kings and chieftains deluded that surrender to the Huns would spare their lives laid down their arms without a struggle and were ruthlessly put to death. Their armies and subjects were either drowned in the rivers or distributed amongst the savage soldiery. None were spared. Armies that chose to resist, simply folded against the superior mobility and tactics of the Huns.
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Shiva weeps no more

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The pond at Ketas Raj (Chakwal) is sacred to Lord Shiva for it is believed that it was formed by his tears when he wept for his dead wife. This makes Ketas one of the holiest shrines in Hinduism. In 1985, I wrote that even though there were water works daily, drawing a few thousand gallons from the pond to supply nearby villages, the water never receded. Shiva, I concluded, was still weeping for his wife and his tears continuously replenishing the pond. About the middle of the last decade, the Musharraf government okayed the building of five (or four?) cement factories within a radius of a few kilometres of Ketas. Someone as corrupt as the government was hired to prepare an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). The modus operandi of this fraudster is to prostrate himself at the feet of the factory owner and pray for the demi-god to say what he wants written in the EIA. And so the document gets written: a piece of utter deception meant only to fatten some government file.


The writer of the EIA is corrupt all right, but he is not stupid. Nor indeed are the owners of the cement factories. All of them knew that cement being a water intensive industry, the factories would suck up the water from not just the soil but from all nearby water bodies. That is exactly what has happened.
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Travels Through Kashmir

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Mirpur Britain 

There is Great Britain and then there is Mirpur Britain where you can, especially in winters, meet young folks who speak with all sorts of British accents from the deep south to Yorkshire and even up into Scotland. Everyone you meet in this Kashmiri town has close relatives in Britain. And the young college boys I met were all a-raring to head off to ‘Eng laand’ with the accent heavy on the second syllable.

Mirpur houses built with British money. Most houses are either empty or occupied by relatives of those who toil at menial jobs in Britain
Tradition has it that from sometime late in the 19th century, men from Mirpur joined the Royal Indian Navy and merchant marine in large numbers. These were days of coal-fired steam boats and the men were mostly stokers manning the grimy innards with the blazing furnaces and the huge pounding engines. Even when diesel and furnace oil burning ships became usual, the men of Mirpur continued to work in the engine rooms. It is said that they had a knack for working around large machinery.
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Inventing history

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We Pakistanis love history. We love it because we invent it; it is our creation. And in the process we utterly disregard the real thing. Our process of inventing history is ingeniously; fantastically creative and I feel that if our creators of history would spend even one-tenth the time on reading they would be better off at least in terms of knowledge.

But who on earth wants to read when, among a multitude of ignoramuses, your story-making, taken for real history, earns you respect and awe? So, you just sit there vacantly staring out of the window and come up with preposterous visions of what might have been. Having been around the country, I have heard tales and tales of which I have a few favourites.

The most recent, gleaned in Ormara on the seaboard, is also the most preposterous simply because naval officers are passing it off as gospel. Since everyone has heard Alexander of Macedonia passed through Makran (and no one has read any history), they have forced that poor man to posthumously march along the beach. Ormara naturally fell on his route.
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My Association with TNS

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My editor tells me it is twenty years since The News on Sunday began publication. I missed out the first couple of years because it was in early 1993 when Beena Sarwar one day called me to write for her at TNS. Until then I was writing for another paper which had not paid me for several months (it still owes me Rs 40,000) and I was barely eking out a living with my work for IUCN and WWF.

What TNS offered me was unbelievable: besides a reasonable honorarium for my piece and photography, my travel expenses were to be paid in full! Now, that was something only NGO journals did. No other paper had ever made such an offer. I jumped at it.
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The House that Jahandad Built

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Even from a distance one is impressed by the grandeur of the chunky building with one tower rising above what seems to be a vaulted car porch. To match, it has a picturesque setting: smack on the shores of the blue-green Khanpur Lake in the midst of lush rolling hills not far from the village of Khanpur on the highroad from Taxila to Haripur.


Sultan Jahandad Khan Gakkhar, who receives honourable mention in the Gazetteer of Hazara district and who was part of the Muslim contingent at the famous Simla Conference, built this haveli back in 1875. Then there was no lake; only the winding Haro river, copper-red during the rains, azure otherwise, would have complemented the scene. The lake came about thirty years ago when the river was dammed to store the water supply for Rawalpindi and Islamabad. If anything, it added to the picture postcard quality of the house.
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Rebuilding lives

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In February 2006, freewheeling around Sanghar district in Sindh I ended up in the village of Ranahu. Now Sanghar is nearly equally divided between barrage-irrigated farmland and sand desert. What makes the desert remarkable in this region is the texture of sand. While southward in, say, Mithi or Umarkot districts (of the erstwhile vast Tharparker district), the sand is dark gray and hard packed, it is light in colour and texture. Here the sand dunes are rippled.


Because of the pale colour of the sand, this part of the Thar Desert is called Achhro (White) Thar. The flowering trees were here too mobbed by purple sunbirds and babblers whistled from the thorny thickets, but I did not see any peacocks that usually run across your path in Tharparker to the south.
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Compass Converse

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Alexander’s historian Arrian tells us the Macedonian conqueror crossed the river Hydraotes, also known as Iravati or Ravi, on his way east when he received word of the Cathaei bracing for war in the town of Sangala. The town was believed to be heavily fortified and its men excellent soldiers. The formidable Cathaei, Alexander was told, had earlier defied both Raja Paurava and Abisares, king of Kashmir. To leave them to their devices in his rear was akin to inviting mischief. So he decided to move against the martial tribe, today identified with the Kathia Rajputs.


A three day-march brought him from the Ravi to Sangala. Here he found the fighters securely in position on a hill of varying steepness fronting their town. All around, the Cathaei had built a defensive barrier by putting carts front-to-back in three tiers. The only gap left relatively insecure was the natural barrier formed by a shallow lake. In the space between the inner line of carts and the defensive wall of bricks around the hill, the defenders waited in leaguer.
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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