30 September 2014
Sometime last year Nadeem emailed from England a photograph. He wanted to know what it was. I wrote back to tell him this was on the banks of the Sindhu River in the fair city of Rohri a group of graves known as Sut Bhen – Seven Sisters. Nadeem wrote back to say he had to see this group of remarkable graves for himself. I also told him that of all the cities in Pakistan, it is Rohri and Rohri alone that still preserved its medieval air.
Two years earlier we had travelled together in Afghanistan and fetched up in Herat. Both having read Robert Byron’s beautiful, beautiful 1920s travel book The Road to Oxiana, our minds were flooded with images of that city. We were not disappointed and we absolutely agreed with Byron when he said Herat was the only city in Asia without an inferiority complex. If I am not wrong, while walking the wide avenues of that magical city or exploring the crumbling hulk of the old fort or the grand mosque so lovingly being restored, I had said to Nadeem that we in the Land of the Sindhu River too had a city to match Herat. It was Rohri. And if Herat is the city to die for, Rohri is even more so.Read more »
28 September 2014
I gave up train travel in the year 2008. That was when Pakistan Railway was at its worst. Before that, trains were my favoured mode of transport. Then between December and March I was obligated to do two train journeys: the one from Jacobabad to Lahore and the other from Rohri to Karachi. On both occasions the trains were late by two hours. And now I was once again forced to travel from Lahore to Nawabshah. Forced because PIA has closed down the Lahore-Nawabshah-Hyderabad sector.
I arrived on the platform twenty minutes before departure (which is 5:00 PM) only to find my fears were true: there was no train ready to depart. Now, Karachi Express, the train I was taking, originates in Lahore and should have been at the platform at least half an hour prior. I sat down in the shade and soon had the company of two railwaymen in mufti. From their talk I gauged they were either Traffic Inspectors or Ticket Examiners.Read more »
25 September 2014
Dharti Mata to suit Muslim sensibilities, my favourite is Channan Pir in Bahawalpur. But of that, another time. Even in the Mehsud heartland of South Waziristan, the cult lives on.
They call the peak Pir Ghar — the Saint’s Mountain — sometimes also pronounced Preghal for the shrine on its 3,515 metre-high, pine-clad peak is said to have been visited by the blessed Prophet Ismail. Since the prophet’s own birth was miraculous, his parents being of very advanced age when he was conceived, the peak is visited by couples seeking children.
I climbed the hill in June 2003, in the company of a two dozen-strong group of playful Mehsud youngsters armed to the teeth with weapons of all kinds. Led by the bearded and quiet Zahir Shah, none of them spoke anything but the local dialect of Pushto. They sang, whistled tunefully and joked, urging me on as we trekked up. Having flagged, at one point I was trailing behind my guides when I heard someone call out in Urdu.Read more »
The fish of Pir Chattal
24 September 2014
The Mula Pass has long been used as a quicker connection between the Sindhu valley and the Kalat upland. It was through here that Alexander's general Krateros led his ten thousand-strong contingent of retired veterans back through Persia to Macedonia. That much is recorded in history. But for years before and after, it was a conduit for trade and travel for untold numbers who like most of us passed through this world into oblivion never leaving a trace of their epic journeys.
The legend according to Wali Mohammad was that the fish were sacred to Pir Chattal and thus under his protection. Anyone eating them suffered a painful and embarrassing punishment on the day after as the fish emerged squirming out of the eater's sphincter. Who Pir Chattal was is not told and there are no further legends concerning him. But one thing is certain, this saint whoever he or she was, has been around for a good bit of time.Read more »
Naked philosophers of Taxila
22 September 2014
Alexander certainly had heard of them even before he was anywhere near Taxila, and as he came down Ambela Pass he would have already been thinking of meeting with them. With the athletic competitions over, having seen how Taxila worked and all else that could catch his interest and with his control over the city firmly established through his own governor, Alexander now had had little else to occupy his time. And so he resolved to meet the naked philosophers (gymnosophists in Greek) of Taxila.
To these philosophers he sent Onesicritos, the sailor from the island of Cos, so that he may learn of the philosophy of the Punjabi sages. It was a scorching hot midmorning in early May as Onesicritos and his entourage of guards and interpreters made their way out of Taxila city, past the university (where the museum now stands) and across the azure, winding line of the Tamrah rivulet. Where wheat fields gave way to meadow and forest, where the pipal and the banyan grew tall and thick, these savants lived subsisting on the produce of the forest and drinking only water.Read more »
Early explorations in the Karakoram-Himalayan
18 September 2014
This article was published in The News on Sunday in January 2006 was written as if by a reporter in the year 1906. The reporter’s beat was exploration work being done by Europeans, mainly the British, in India and Chinese Turkestan. It notes the major expeditions in the works for the year 1906 with some reference to recently finished work.
So far as archaeological exploration in Central Asia is concerned, 1906 promises to be remarkable year. This year promises wonderful discoveries and quantum additions to our knowledge on the history of this area as two of great names of Central Asiatic exploration head out into the region once again.
We have Sven Hedin, the Swedish explorer, already famous for his epoch-making work in trans-Himalayan regions. He is the man we have to thank for, among several others, the discovery of the source of the mighty Brahamaputra River. Unable to reach Lhasa in two earlier attempts, he prepares to try yet again to enter the Forbidden City in 1906. His earlier attempts were thwarted by Tibetan xenophobia and suspicion of everyone who is either not Tibetan or Buddhist.Read more »
Ali Mardan Khan
17 September 2014
Hard by the railway workshops in Mughalpura Lahore, there sits a domed building. Kanhaya Lal, writing in the late 19th century, termed it the highest building in the city this side of the Badshahi Mosque. This is the tomb of Ali Mardan Khan, purportedly the great builder of Shalimar Gardens and a great canal-digger to boot.
Today, Ali Mardan’s tomb, like any other burial is a shrine where people come to pray for sons and wealth and where their prayers are answered too. The watchman posted by the Department of Archaeology quietly collects — and pockets — the donations of simpletons who believe in demigods. But Ali Mardan was neither. He was not an architect or an engineer; neither was he a man of lofty, unimpeachable character. He was a fraudster in the finest tradition of many a modern mandarin.Read more »
Myth of the Silk Road
13 September 2014
Silk Road Part 1) I received an email with two other mails attached. The attachments, one from a woman, the other from a man, were venomous and full of hatred for me. Until this email, I did not know of the existence of these two individuals and am at a loss to fathom the cause of their spite. The great poet Urfi, as quoted by a friend, said not to be concerned with the doings of detractors, for the barking of dogs diminishes not the earnings of the beggar.
That being settled, it has to be said that the point of the piece in question was lost on these persons. The point I was making was that no silk ever came from China to India by the road through Hunza and Gilgit. The fact is that when the Karakoram Highway was first opened in the early 1980s, it was not, I repeat, NOT billed as the Silk Road. The ‘Silk Road’ Hotel in Guilmit (pluse a co8ple more elsewhere along the road) came later as well as the bus service of the same name that does not cross the border into China.Read more »
12 September 2014
Until the Karakoram Highway — connecting Abbottabad with Kashgar via Gilgit and Hunza — came near completion in the mid-1980s, no one knew that the Silk Road ran through Pakistan. With the great highroad ready and with lorries plying its nearly seven hundred kilometre-length, suddenly someone upped and told us that this was the fabled Silk Road. And we, the Great Unwashed of this land, gobbled it up hook, line and stinker (pun intended).
We, or our bureaucracy, have spent sixty-four very diligent years creating a huge body of lies, lies and lies that now passes for history. (No wonder with such industry occupying us, nothing else of any consequence ever got done in this sorry land.) The Karakoram Highway being known as the Silk Road is another one of those many nuggets of official mendacity.Read more »
10 September 2014
This piece appears in the September 2014 issue of Herald
Two of them carry the thhapa, that short club that women used to beat the dirt out of their laundry. But that was before they invented washing machines. And since with this invention the thhapa became redundant, it was put to other use by ne’er to well loafers: they took to flogging balls with it. Cricket was invented and life was never the same again.Read more »
Deosai: land of the Giant
09 September 2014
More images in Deosai: Land of the Giant - available at at Sang e Meel (042-3722-0100), Lahore
Odysseus Lahori one year ago: Seat of the Gods
Into the heart of the Suleman Mountains
08 September 2014
Sea Monsters and the Sun God is available at at Sang e Meel (042-3722-0100), Lahore
Raheal Siddiqui visited with tales from the Suleman Mountains. There were stories of men with superhuman strength, school masters possessed of exemplary sense of duty and honour – the kind that would have done Jinnah proud, and men who said what they had to say in poetry that evoked the philosophy of Iqbal. Most of all it was the name that intrigued me. Raheal pronounced it ‘Chhitterwatta’ and I assumed it had to do something with slippers and rocks – chhitter being the Seraiki and Punjabi word for slippers and watta being rock or stone.
Now Raheal is a rare breed of civil servant, a man of the old school. He reads (something that so few of us do anymore) and takes genuine interest in his work as an officer of the District Management Group. Within only a few weeks as Political Agent Dera Ghazi Khan, he had already travelled to some of the remotest posts in his jurisdiction and earned the distinction of being the first PA there since the last white officer had packed his bags in 1947. And he had gleaned yarns that he spun in Lahore with such enthusiasm that he left no likelihood of my turning down his invitation to visit. In any case, this was Baloch country, and having travelled very little here, I was not foregoing my chance to do so.Read more »
05 September 2014
One of the most fantastic railway journeys in Pakistan once used to be north from Sibi, through the Nari River gorge, over the cool heights of Harnai, Nakus and Shareg to the wild west town of Khost. The Nari Gorge is the country of the proud Marri and Bugti peoples of Balochistan. Somewhere near Harnai, the line enters Pashtun lands all the way to Quetta.
And Khost! Oh, what another world it still belongs to. My last outing there was in February 2011, and nothing seemed to have changed since my first visit in 1986. Except, the train no longer ran. Early in 2007, some misguided Baloch had blown up three bridges in the Nari Gorge putting an end to the train service up to Khost. This was mischievous because who, but the Baloch themselves, would have gained from bringing tourists to visit this, the greatest railway engineering feat in Pakistan.Read more »
04 September 2014
Then, word came from across the seas of this wonderful young woman winning that coveted award. An award from the government, it was suddenly decided, was very much in order. So lacking of finesse was the haste in announcing the local award that it was obvious the babus were goaded out of their sleep only because of the Oscar.
Imagine what would have happened if Obaid-Chinoy had not won the Oscar. Since we do not wish to acknowledge the darkness of our souls, she would have been hounded to the far side of hell for revealing our evil. Her documentary about victims of acid attacks would have been a ‘nefarious act to defame the country’. We kid ourselves, because the country is already infamous for the various forms of evil we practice.Read more »
How a saint is born
03 September 2014
Wahndo in Gujranwala district is famous only for lawlessness. But there is, near this town, the small village of Kotli Maqbara with an imposing domed Mughal structure in the fields outside the habitation. The ground floor is plain while the basement has three graves. Its minarets recall those of Chauburji in Lahore and, therefore, give us a date of construction.
In November 1991, when I was working on my book on Gujranwala, I thought I had discovered a monument that had escaped the official eye. But my mentor Dr Saifur Rahman Dar told me that this building was mid-17th century and housed the mortal remains of Divan Abdul Nabi Khan, the governor of Wazirabad, successively under Shah Jehan and Aurangzeb.Read more »
Monastery of the Fount
01 September 2014
The decades between 1840 and 1870 were frenetically busy for archaeologists across the Indian subcontinent. The Yusufzai plain, spreading between Peshawar in the west, the barrier of Malakand Pass in the north and Indus River in the east, had shortly before been discovered to be the epicentre of what became known as Gandhara art. Inevitably, archaeologists were drawn to this fertile area where virtually every hill abounded with ancient ruins.
North of Mardan town, on the highroad to the Malakand Pass, east of the tiny village of Takht Bahi rose an isolated hill with a crest peppered with stonework peeking out of accumulated earth washed down from the surrounding slopes and overgrown vegetation. The first archaeologists, engaged in only a cursory examination, concluded that this was a site of an ancient Buddhist monastery. The little that the team saw was misunderstood. The circular bases of the domes above the shrines were taken to be pedestals of stupas and other buildings construed to have served as grain silos. But no mistake was made about the quadrangular stupa court with its surrounding arrangement of chapels.Read more »