Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Island of the Sun

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If it hadn't been for Nearchus, Alexander's general and admiral of the fleet that set sail from Patala (Hyderabad) for the delta of the Euphrates River, we would never have known about Astola Island. At least not that it was sacred to the sun and, according to the people of Makran, enchanted as well. That was back in the autumn of the year 325 BC.


Nearchus tells us of his arrival in Kalama and a rousing welcome by the natives. Kalama, by the way, is modern Kalamat on the Balochistan seaboard with its bay of crystal waters which makes it an undiscovered scuba divers' paradise. The natives also reported an island called Karbine. Later, having sailed on, Nearchus heard of the same island but referred to by another name. Now it was Nosala. He was also told that the island was dedicated to the sun god and being enchanted, no one could land on it.
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Baloch way of life

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As Baloch herdsmen lead their sheep and goats across the wild and desolate gorges in search of forage forever scarce, they sing the vars (ballads) of their heroes. One that resounds across the Suleman crags is the story of Kaura Khan of the tribe Qaisrani. Not only is it sung in verse, it is narrated in prose as well — all of its several versions that vary but slightly.


Kaura Khan, so the story goes, was the brave Baloch of great physical strength and towering stature who inherited this land from a line of illustrious forefathers. Misfortune brought upon his soaring spirit the overlordship of the Sikhs and the British in turn. But he resisted them, each in their own time, with all his might. But where the Sikhs failed the British forced their writ.
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Verdant Makran?

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About fifteen or more years ago there appeared in a prestigious Pakistani news magazine the interview of an Italian woman pretending to be an archaeologist. Her theory was that Makran was a very fertile land of rich crops, fertile valleys and forest-covered hills. Then came that scourge of god Mahmud, the raider king of Ghazni, to destroy the ingenious underground irrigation system called karez. The subterranean rivulets ceased to flow, the farmland and orchards died out, the forests shrivelled away and Makran turned into the desert that we today know it to be.


For those who have not travelled through Makran, it is a harsh land of eroded hills here; stark rocky walls; stretches of sand dunes that are sometimes so finely shaped like the crescent as though by the hand of the master sculptor; glittering white salt pans that stretch as far as the eye can see and flat plains strewn with rocks. The few rivers that run here weave a thin ribbon of green through this vast landscape. And that is how Makran has been for the past several millenniums, no matter what some self-styled Italian archaeologist might have to tell us. And of that we have sufficient historical proof.
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Ghost Town!

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Wind soughing through mesquite bushes. Somewhere an unseen door creaking and rattling in the breeze. The crunch of our two pairs of feet on the gravel path. Otherwise all is silent amid the unpeopled buildings. The quiet is broken only when a pick-up truck loaded with people goes breezing along the unpaved road that passes through the rows of derelict structures.


As we had driven in the open gateway, Kashif and I had half expected to be challenged by a watchman. But none came. Not even from the walled-in lodging just inside of the gateway that showed some signs of habitation. Kashif had his driver carry on right across the built-up area and turn left towards the river. There, a hundred metres short of the bank, by a couple of dilapidated rooms, we found a motorised cabin slung over steel wire ropes with two pairs of eight-wheeled trolleys. The ropes, going over a two-legged pylon, were stretched clear across the river to a similar arrangement on the far bank.
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Soon Valley

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We who hate shade trees

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Pakistanis hate shade. And by extension they hate shade trees. The sight of a banyan or shisham or mulberry sickens them and their first instinct is to chop it down, destroy it. They will happily do it even when they do not stand to gain anything and doubly happily if there are only a few paltry rupees in it. In my fifty odd years have seen countless trees fall victim to unthinking greed, so-called development and just plain foolishness. Sadly all these trees were indigenous species planted by the farsighted and prudent white man when he ruled over us.


These indigenous trees grew wide crowns that provided much needed shade against our burning summer heat that lasts no less than seven months a year. In their stead, we imported that accursed water-guzzling eucalyptus from Australia to sully our land, a tree that is good neither for shade nor for birds to nest in. Look into the millions of eucalyptus around you and you’ll have to do a good deal of looking to spot a bird’s nest in this damned tree. The rare nest that you do spot will be that of a crow’s.
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Capital of the Salt Range

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Even though the only monument of Chakwal is the century old Brandreth Gate, the town can rightly be assigned the status of ‘capital’ of the Salt Range. Now neglected and falling into decay, this gateway was built in 1892 to commemorate the services of a British civil servant.


Whatever local ‘historians’ may claim, no historical work mentions Chakwal even in recent history before the settlement of the 1850s. The name, however, appears to mean ‘Of the Chaks.’
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General or a saint

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Khwas Khan, son of a handmaiden and a soldier of some rank, rose to eminence in the court of Sher Shah Suri, the ablest Pathan ever to rule anywhere in India. A man as proficient on the battlefield as he was in peacetime administration, Khwas Khan was highly trusted by the king. And so when it came time to build Sher Shah's grandest monument in Punjab, the fort of Rohtas near Jhelum, Khwas Khan was given the responsibility of the first administrator to oversee construction work. After completion, he governed over the Rohtas garrison as long as Sher Shah lived.

As one enters from the Khwas Khani gateway in the north, there is, just inside the massive timbers of the gate on the right side, a small enclosure. The legend on the wall of the tiny sarcophagus in the enclosed space says 'Hazrat Sakhi Khwas Khan Shah'. An utterly imbecile and vague legend current in the village of Rohtas has it that this generous (sakhi) Syed died in a battle between the Muslims and the Sikhs.
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Trees that look at God all day

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In 1914, Alfred Joyce Kilmer wrote a poem titled Trees: I think that I shall never see/ A poem lovely as a tree. A tree whose hungry mouth is prest/ Against the earth’s sweet-flowing breast; A tree that looks at God all day,/ And lifts her leafy arms to pray; A tree that may in summer wear/ A nest of robins in her hair; Upon whose bosom snow has lain;/ Who intimately lives with rain. Poems are made by fools like me,/ But only God can make a tree.

But we in Pakistan think that is hogwash. The Express Tribune issue of May 9 carried a news item about the cutting down of seven trees in Jinnah SupermarketIslamabad. It detailed that the builder of a new plaza did not agree with the ugly view (as reported) that these 40-year-old trees presented to the plaza. I ask you! We are told that the Capital Development Authority only acted after the trees were destroyed to suspend the official concerned and impose a fine of Rs 50,000 per tree.
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Well in the Margalla

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Out on a walk in the Margalla Hills outside Islamabad, my friend Shahid Nadeem discovered a well. It being a baoli or a well with steps leading down to the water, the story he heard was that it was built by Sher Shah Suri. Every stepped well that we Pakistanis see whether at home or, say, on the moon, we attribute to Sher Shah Suri. As if until this able Pukhtun administrator came along to rule India in the 16th century, we had not known the intricate science of digging wells. In so doing we don’t mind the fact that, as in this case, the Suri king might not have ever been where the well exists. But that is a minor punctilio.

This one, I was told, was located a nice hill walk from where you parked the car and was worth seeing. And so it was that we reached the grotto outside village Shah Allah Ditta a few kilometres from Golra. The grotto with its spreading banyan and mango trees, clear bubbling spring and the several caves in the conglomerate cliff would have been a favourite place for hermits for heaven knows how many centuries. Surely they would have resorted here long before Lord Buddha preached the Word. Then the grotto would have been way out in the wilderness where panthers and wolves roamed and in that loneliness human passions would easily have been laid low. That was what the hermit and the dervish sought.
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The Castle of Raja Ambarikha

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To the people of Amb, the hill to the north rising above the straggle of their houses is known as Mehal - The Palace. It is a distinction that comes from the distant, misty past when it was indeed a palace, no less than a thousand years ago. Even today there are extensive signs of ruined habitation in the flat area around the temples. Around the periphery of the hill are parts of the fortification wall and rectangular turrets constructed from large dressed blocks of limestone. One of these, at the northern edge of the built up area, is still called Rani wala Mehal - the Palace of the Queen.

Driving up the winding blacktop road from Quaidabad (Khushab district) to the village of Amb, one sees the spire of the temple rising thick and angular on the rising ground beyond the village. Close to, it sits imposingly on a plinth accessible by a flight of steps. At a height of almost eighteen metres through three storeys, the temple of Amb is the loftiest of all Hindu Shahya edifices in the Salt Range. It is imposing, too, because of the bulky pillars fronting it and giving it a clear Greco-Roman appearance. Made of the same pale gray limestone, the pillars appear to be part of the original building plan. Closer inspection, however, reveals the jagged remnants of a vaulted foyer that once afforded entry to the main chamber.
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The mysterious tombs

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Way out in the boondocks of Balochistan, smack on the edge where Pakistan falls into the land of Iran, where the outline on the map makes a huge M, there is, in this farthermost reach of Kharan district, a sub-division called Mashkel. In this flat, tree-less wasteland of sand and gravel there are few hamlets — and these are spread wide apart. But here in this wilderness, not far from the tiny settlement of Qila Ladgasht, there is group of remarkable buildings.

When I first saw them back in 1987, there were eight of them — if memory serves. But the district gazetteer of Kharan (1906) says there were nine. The last time around (November 1996) I saw only seven, the eighth being entirely ruinous. Constructed of poorly fired bricks, they are square in plan with domed roofs. There is one whose dome has either collapsed or was never built; all of them are two-storeyed. The ground floor contains four brick-sealed vaults running the length of building, while the first floor is a single vaulted chamber.
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The idol of Gorecha

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The village of Gori (the r is palatal and the name of the village has nothing to do with fairness of skin) lies to the north of the road that connects Islamkot in the southern Thar Desert with Nagarparkar. With its huts of conical wattle roofs, thorn hedges and the few neem and kundi trees, Gori is no different from any other Thari village; but for the chunky grey Jain temple that stands just east of the clump of houses.

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Unimpressive from the distance, Gori Temple is a piece of art at close quarters. The sikhara — the spire that typifies Jain and Hindu temples — is missing and has always been in living memory. But if you climb the roof, you can see that it was neatly sheared off as if by a knife. That ‘knife’ was the great earthquake of 1898 which also did a good deal of additional damage to other villages.
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Bomb Detectors

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This piece appears in the July 2014 issue of Herald

When the army had just cleared Swat after my naraaz (upset) brethren, sinfully referred to as terrorists, had successfully converted it, once again, to Islam, I had occasion to visit the valley. Actually, I visited repeatedly over 2009-10. I proudly proclaim I was my brethren’s bomb supplier secretly helping them regain Swat since it had reverted to heathenism.

Having assembled my arsenal in the basement of my home, I followed the instructions of my handlers and very carefully packed the bombs in a lead box. Coated on the outside by colourful fibre with the logo ‘American Tourister’, this was the kind of box that could go through x-ray scanners without showing what was inside. It was also supposed to fool all other bomb detection device.
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If Lahore runs dry

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About four weeks ago, Express carried on its business page an excellent piece on the looming water shortage Lahore faces. But like the proverbial ostrich, we carry on with our collective heads deep in the sand happily oblivious to the problem.

I go cycling very early in the morning and I see servants washing, yes, washing the roads in front of their masters’ bungalows in Model Town. I also see cars being washed under full pressure of the garden hose on the ramp outside these homes. On a few occasions, I have asked the men why they could not use the bucket because the wastage would eventually lead to a water famine in the city.
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When art cost two annas a day

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Raja Afrasiab, the Sarangal Gakkhar, lives in a lovely old haveli of the classical design in village Hur Do Chir. I had imagined this meant there were two neighbouring villages where chir trees grew, but I was wrong: there wasn’t a pine tree in sight and there was only one village of this name. Nor too did Afrasiab know the origin of the name. He told us, however, that the village was formerly called Soga Dutt, apparently after an early local influential man.

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We had left the Mandra-Chakwal road at village Sahang and motored through undulating country to fetch up in the village and had found Afrasiab waiting. He told us his family had not one, but two havelis to show. The first one, itself rather austere, had a hugely beautiful carved door. Here were flowers so extravagant that they could only have emerged from an artist’s mind intertwined with vines of equally exaggerated style and beauty. Here were sets of pilasters growing out of pots that, according to Kamil Khan Mumtaz, the noted architectural historian, symbolised the treasure of Laxmi.
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The Saint who lives

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Past Dera Ghazi Khan Cement Factory, we turned westward into the hills and drove the eight kilometres of dusty trail to a sprawling assemblage of clapboard eating and trinket-selling stalls. The shrine of Zinda Pir, the Living Saint, lay a short walk away. We were late. On the way we had passed dozens of tractors going the other way hauling trailers loaded with colourfully dressed people returning from the closing rites of the annual festival of the purported saint.

We took the short walk from the shanty bazaar. The shrine was scarcely impressive: an ill-looking cubicle with a large brass bell hanging on the door jamb. The devotees, mainly women, clanged the bell as one would upon entering a Hindu temple and went in. Inside, since the man had not died only disappeared from the sight of mortals, was a pile of copies of the Koran instead of the usual grave. Outside, by the entrance, was the tree with assorted rags and tiny cloth pouches filled with the first shaving of newborn babies. A child begotten as a result of supplication at this shrine, it was said, had to return here to be shaved and the hair left as an offering. What with most Baloch men having beards and sometimes even long hair, I couldn’t help thinking that this shrine may well have been started by some long-forgotten out-of-work barber whose descendents now must be right thankful to him.
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Derawar Fort

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My friend and guru, the peerless Obaidullah Baig, many years ago told me of having heard that when Alexander was in the vicinity of Larkana, he had a treasure sent away to be secreted in a desert fort. It had been said that the treasure was placed in the charge of Alexander's general Nearchus who was told to travel seven days in a north-easterly direction until he reached this fort in the desert. There, said my guru, Nearchus deposited the treasure in an underground vault. There, he also said, it rests to this day for it has not been discovered.

Baig sahib pointed out that the travel time and direction pointed to just one place: Derawar Fort in Cholistan. He also said that his narrator thought Nearchus had mentioned this episode in his book which he had tried to get his hands on and failed. I lent him my copy and when it came back I knew it had been read for there were pencil marks throughout the book. But my guru had failed to find any mention of the treasure.
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Taxila Cross

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In Lahore Cathedral, there hangs on the wall, at the upper end of the nave in the recess to the right, a small cross in a glass frame. The inscription below records that it was found in 1935 and donated to the church by Mrs Cuthbert King (Mr King then being the Deputy Commissioner at Rawalpindi). Nothing surprising about a cross in a church, except that this particular relic goes by the name of the Taxila Cross. Because it was found just outside the fortification wall of Sirkap (one of the ruined cities of Taxila), it is taken by believers as a sign of the arrival of Christianity in our part of the world at the time that Sirkap lived.


This cross would never have come to be celebrated if a manuscript titled The Acts of Saint Thomas (an apostle of Jesus) had not been discovered in distant Syria back in 1822. This document narrates how the apostle arrived by sea in the capital city of King Gondophares in order to impress the pagan king with the gospel. But instead of lending an ear, the king lent the apostle some money and told him to build a royal palace for him. Now, St Thomas, being a man of god, squandered the money in alms. When the king inquired about progress, the apostle said that his alms giving had built a royal residence for the king in heaven.
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Mountain of No Return

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‘Never has a solo trekker returned alive from Makra!’ Mohammed Arshad, who was pretending to be my guide, said ominously as we walked out from that rag-tag group of cheap eating places at Paya. We had taken a jeep out of Shogran (Kaghan Valley) for the fifty-minute ride out past Sari to Paya and all along young Arshad had been telling me how the fog rolls in to obscure everything. That is when people get lost on Makra, he said. And die, he added grimly.


The memory of the group of students from Pakistan Forest Institute, Peshawar who went up Makra in June 2004 and got lost on the way back was fresh in his mind. Indeed, in the mind of everyone else we met at Paya. Two of them never made it back and their bodies were discovered after several days of frantic searching. Both had expired from exposure. Listening to the story of their escapade, it was clear that none in that ill-starred group was a hill walker (though there was a Chitrali among them) and none understood mountain topography. Wet behind the ears, they had blundered some way up the mountain and, on the descent, lost their way in the fog.
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Riches beyond Measure

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As Alexander approached the vicinity of present-day Sukkur, he was much impressed by the fertility of the land. This was “the richest [country] in India”, his historian Arrian tells us. Fearing for the safety of his life and kingdom, King Musicanus made an overture for peace, resultantly retaining the throne with Alexander entering the city as guest rather than victor. The conqueror, Arrian asserts, was all admiration for the country and capital city and ordered for its citadel to be strengthened so that a Greek garrison could be left behind to keep watch on neighbouring tribes.


Another Greek historian would have us believe that the land was so rich and fertile and its produce so healthful and abundant that people ordinarily lived to ages well beyond 100 years. Though such longevity is doubtful, the fertility of the land is believable: we know from British travellers of the early 19th century that during summer floods, the Indus in this vicinity spread from its bed over 30 kilometres between Sukkur and Rohri all the way up to Shikarpur and Larkana.
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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