Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The wounded poet

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It was the summer either of 1998 or the year after and I was in Alai Valley hoping to trek up the valley into Chor and then over a high pass to Kaghan. Just three days before me, the valley had been swept by a storm that had caused much damage to the forest and the villages.

As my guide and I were slogging up the low Ajri Kandao (Pass) that connects Alai and Chor, we came upon a solitary man sitting under a pine tree whittling away on a piece of wood. He had an unkempt beard; a tousle of dark hair spilling from under the rim of his Chitrali cap, his grey kameez was unbuttoned to show a lean chest. My guide Taj Mohammad hailed him; the man looked up abstractedly, shook our hands and returned to his work. He said he was preparing a needle to apply antimony to his eyes.

Other than that, he refused to speak with us. As we walked away, Taj said this was the poet Wazir Mohammad who went by the nom de plume of Zakhmi — Wounded. He had, so said Taj, two cupboards full of books in his home in the village of Rashung and was always found reading or writing. Over the pass on the other side we paused for tea at the solitary inn. The innkeeper was the chatty kind and we lingered until lunch. That was when Wazir Mohammad Zakhmi overtook us.
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Where Mehr Gul was routed

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As the luggar falcon flies, Kehror Pucca lies 35 km northeast of Bahawalpur. Once famous for its courtesans, the town is now not celebrated even for its fine block-print textiles. Ask the average townsperson and you will be told that Kehror is just another one of those many Punjabi villages with nothing to show for itself. But then we do not know our own history — especially when it goes back to the time we were still Hindus.

The second half of the 5th century saw the great incursion into the subcontinent by unwashed savages from Central Asia. Unremittingly ruthless, these fair-skinned, fair-haired men were led by their chief Tor Aman. To writers in India they were known as Huna or Turushka; we know them as the White Huns or Ephthalites. Crossing the Oxus River into Afghanistan the Huns devastated the land, their wake littered with virtually thousands of rotting human cadavers. It was rare for the Huns to pass through a habitation and leave any living soul.
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Deosai Colors

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Excerpt from Land of the GiantDeosai National Park, Review Deosai Romance

Book is available at Sang e Meel (042-3722-0100), Lahore

Odysseus Lahori one year ago: Cheers!

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Channan Pir

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The festival of Channan Pir lasts a full six weeks through February to mid-March. The shrine is set amid rolling sand dunes, a few kilometres from Yazman (in Bahawalpur district) and is visited, among others, by mothers whose sons were born, so it is believed, after praying here. Cattle owners bring their prize animals to do obeisance so that they may be fruitful and the herds grow. The devotees are spread across the religious spectrum: Muslims, Hindus, Christians.

Legend has it that a Muslim saint came to the court of Raja Sandhila, who ruled over this part of Cholistan at some indeterminate time in the past, and asked if there were any Muslims in the country. There were none, he was told. In which case, said this man of god, the king’s pregnant wife was to deliver a son who would be a Muslim and who would eventually convert the whole country to the true faith.
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Time for peace

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This is a very personal piece inspired by the letter of Khalid A from the United Kingdom ("War and peace", Daily Times, November 4). He writes of an Englishman riding a taxi in Dresden and commenting to the cabbie about his father being one of the bomber pilots who levelled that city during World War II. The cabbie tells his fare of the death of his mother during those raids.

It turns out that the night the German mother died, the father from England was on a sortie. The driver stops his taxi, gets out and says to his fare, 'Now we shake hands'. Khalid A aptly ends his letter, 'There is a time for war, but it must be followed by a time for peace.'

The year 1947 was a time for war. Folks who had lived amenably side by side for generations were riven apart and when the land went into labour to deliver a new country, two million people died. My grandparents, two aunts, great-grandfather, the family's servant with his wife and five children became part of this macabre statistic. The place it all happened was Railway Road, Jalandhar.
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Degh River

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Long before he became the emperor of India, Jehangir, Prince Salim for all and sundry and Sheikhu for his father Akbar, used to go hunting in forested country some miles west of Lahore. Later, after a pet deer died, he ordered the building of a memorial tower as well as a water tank and pavilion. He also had a fort built nearby and called it either Jehangirpura or Jehangirabad. Today we know it as Sheikhupura after the emperor’s childhood name.


Aside: both the emperor’s names, that is, Sheikhu and Salim are after the saint Sheikh Salim Chishti for whom Akbar had great regard.
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Containeristan

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This piece appears in the October 2014 issue of Herald

We Punjabis, trend-setters that we are, took the lead in changing the country’s name to Al-Bakistan when we began affixing car registration plates with this name in Arabic script. But one must give credit to the Sindhis, shrewd chaps, who took another step that began a trend leading to a whole new world and to a possible name change for the country.


It all started years ago when paranoia rode high in Karachi (when has it ever ridden low anywhere in Pakistan since its inception?) that a large number of shipping containers had to be moved to posh Clifton to block one track of the double road in front of a Zardar (Gold Owner) home. We were told the stacked containers were to keep at bay houri-seeking young suicide bombers in explosive-laden jalopies. The bound-for-paradise bombers could blow up all they wished, but all they would be able to do was make scrap of some rotting containers while the gold diggers in the mansion remained safe.
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Sialkot reinvented

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It was a glorious day of fleecy cumulus in blue skies where the sun would shine brightly only when permitted by the clouds and the temperature cool like it used to be in rainy Augusts of a long ago childhood. After many days of rain in Sialkot this was the first day to dawn clear and I was in town after a gap of eight years. But for the greater number of CNG pumps, the city seemed to have changed little.


As I wended my way through the city towards the cantonment en route to the Well of Puran Bhagat to the north, I reached what was once the hub of civil and military life in Sialkot. From previous visits I remembered Ghanta Ghar (Clock Tower) as something you barely noticed because of the lunatic bedlam all around. Here would be pushcarts, motor and animal drawn vehicles, bikes, encroachments with merchandise from shops spilling onto the pavements and even the streets. Here one could get frustratingly ensnarled in unmanaged traffic that crawled along on streets all but overtaken by all sorts of commerce.
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Tribe of the Cavaliers

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One of the tribes that Alexander encountered as he came in the vicinity of modern day Jalalabad (Afghanistan) was the Asspasioi variously rendered in classical history as Astacani and Aspagani. Shortly after this first encounter, we hear of Assacenus (a misspelling of Astacanus?), the king of the strong fort of Massaga who died during the siege of his castle.

Now, Massaga has thus far defied historians and archaeologists for they have been unable to show us any ruins that answer to this name. But since history places Massaga on Alexander's route between Bajaur and Swat, many experts would place this mysterious redoubt in the Katgala Pass. From the works of Alexander's historians as well as from other Greek writings on this area, it appears that the Asspasioi were fairly wide-spread and extended into Bajaur, Swat and Mardan also. Indeed, it seems that at the time of Alexander's invasion this was the most numerous and powerful tribe in the area.
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Adam Nayyar: a tribute

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I first knew Adam Nayyar back in 1985. I met him in Geoffrey Moorhouse's book To the Frontier and immediately took a great liking for him. He was, Moorhouse wrote, an anthropologist with a doctorate from Heidelberg with a tremendous sense of humour that immediately struck me as unmistakably Lahori. From that account Adam also came across as a mimic and a man of the greatest erudition.

In 1983, when Moorhouse was in Islamabad to write his book, Adam was working for Lok Virsa. Their meeting took off on a rather sour note with Adam roundly berating Moorhouse for being an 'unregenerate imperialist' come to Pakistan to 'wallow in nostalgia for the days of the Raj'. I thought that an exaggeration. Now, three decades later, when I know this good man well enough, I know that he would indeed have said that and more.
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Reluctant pride

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We know that the Sindhu River, which we popularly know by its Greek pronunciation of Indus, gave rise to a great civilisation that outshone the much later one of the Nile in Egypt. Here, over the past nine thousand or so years, in its wide valley that nestled in the west under the crags of the Suleman Hills and in the east merged into other valleys of now lost rivers, grew a number of glorious cities. The development of these cities, it was once believed, was influenced by the 'superior' culture of Mesopotamia — perhaps by an eastward immigration of population groups.

Moen jo Daro
When the brush and the scalpel were first put to the mound of Mehrgarh in the Bolan River gorge near Sibi (Balochistan) by a French team in 1976, there began to emerge a city whose origin was immediately datable to the year 6500 BC (now pushed back another thousand years). Moen jo Daro and Harappa (to name just two Indus Valley cities) had already been discovered and much was known of life in those far off days. But science is an eternal bubbling spring (unlike stagnating dogma) that constantly renews and refreshes itself. And so the uncovering of Mehrgarh upset a few beliefs. Among them, that the valley of the Sindhu was peopled by an eastward migration from West Asia.
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Mother Goddess

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In the year 416 BCE, a young man of Greek descent left his native Cnidus on the mainland of what is now Turkey to take up employment with the Achaemenian king, Artaxerxes (Ardeshir). Ctesias, as the young man was named, was from the family of Hippocrates, known to us as the Father of Medicine, and himself a trained medical practitioner. For the next few decades, he served the Persian King of Kings as an archiater.

Now Ctesias was evidently a rather inquisitive individual. He appears to have been acquainted with The Histories, the magnum opus of Herodotus, published about forty years earlier, and was a trifle miffed by its disregard of Indian history. Ctesias therefore took it upon himself to learn as much of India as was possible. But his duties looking after royal health perhaps did not give him time enough to go wandering off to the Land of the Sindhu River, so he did the next best thing: He quizzed every Indian visitor to the court about their country.
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Arab origins

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Every single Muslim in the subcontinent believes s/he is of Arab descent. If not direct Arab descent, then the illustrious ancestor had come from either Iran or Bukhara. Interestingly, the ancestor is always a great general or a saint. Never ever have we heard anyone boasting of an intellectual for a forebear. We hear of the progeny of savage robber kings, but there is no one who claims Abu Rehan Al-Beruni or Ibn Rushd as a distant sire.

Arab origin is the favourite fiction of all subcontinental Muslims. Most claim their ancestor arrived in Sindh with the army under Mohammad bin Qasim (MbQ). But, I have heard of lineages reaching back to Old Testament prophets as well. An elderly Janjua (Rajput), from the Salt Range told me of a forefather named Ar, a son of the Prophet Isaac. Ar, he said, was the ancestor of the races that spoke the Aryan tongue!
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Bounty of the Kushans

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Following Alexander Cunningham’s survey of 1848 and the resultant identification of a Buddhist site above the village of Jamal Garhi near Mardan, another military officer-turned-archaeologist came around in 1852 to make a cursory excavation. Though his work was inconclusive, he uncovered an array of damaged sculptures of very fine workmanship. Word was the site was periodically robbed of its reliquary, someone even removing 12 camel-loads of sculpture only a decade earlier.


The site was then mapped and most of the debris cleared to reveal a beautiful monastery constructed in large diaper masonry of stone quarried from the surrounding hills. The site, an elongated hill, offered sufficient space for the main stupa, a number of votive stupas and the various buildings of the monastery to be spread out instead of being packed close together as we see in Takht Bahi or most other Taxila monasteries.
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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