Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Greeks in Pukhtunkhwa

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Upon taking over as the Deputy Commissioner of Bannu in the Northwest Frontier Province [Khyber Pukhtunkhwa], my friend Jehanzeb Khan called me. Here was a city, perhaps the only one in the entire country, said he, whose old quarter was still circled by a wall punctuated with gates. These gates, I was told, were shut every day at sunset until the following morning – just as it would have happened in a past forgotten by most of us. It sounded like a town that had been left alone by the soul-destroying march of time and immediately a vision formed: thick, high town wall behind which rose tower houses of timber lattices and gloriously carved wooden balconies and doors, shuttered windows and rooftop parapets with lotus-shaped corner adornments. All closely packed together to look like the finest of all subcontinental walled cities.


Yet it took me two years to get to Bannu. The town wall is there all right. Some three metres high, it is constructed entirely of the brick that was introduced to us by civil engineers of the Raj and that we still assiduously employ. The gate posts, topped by domes and finials too are constructed of the of the same bricks. But neither the wall nor the gate-houses possess the hoariness that I was expecting. They are, wall and every single gate-house, disappointingly new. Indeed, behind the city wall the old part, that European travellers would have called the ‘native’ part of town, is set out in grids, a layout that we of the subcontinent had forgotten after the downfall of the great cities of Moen jo Daro and Harappa.
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The Battle of Jhal Magsi

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Jhal Magsi, the seat of the Baloch tribe of Magsi, lies northwest of Larkana in Gandava district of Balochistan. This quaint little town may not be famous for many things, but I remember a local bard who sang for me the ballad of the battle between the Magsi-Chandio confederacy on one side and the Rinds on the other. His rasping baritone and the lilt in his voice was goose bump-raising and I write his words in translation.

The Jamalis and Buledis, he sang, stole some properties of the Mugheris. Now having domicile in Magsi area the Mugheris were under the protection of Nawab Ahmed Khan, the Magsi chieftain. They petitioned the chief who immediately rode out at the head of a small army and came upon the Jamali lashkar at the town of Qabula. Ghulam Mohammed, the Jamali chief, made off with his life but the rest were cut down and the stolen properties restored to the rightful owners.
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Celestial Stone

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In August sparse grass provided a veneer of green to the rocky hillside. Otherwise it was barren with nary a tree for shade. But there was silence. Silence, overwhelming and complete that remained undisturbed by the distant sound of traffic. Such is the hill of – that lies outside the village of Bilot some forty kilometres north of Dera Ismail Khan on the highroad to Chashma. Barren and rocky, it would be an unremarkable place but for the group of seven extraordinarily ornate buildings, all Hindu temples, that crown its top.


Here is a flat-topped edifice whose tapering shikhara, or steeple, gave way long ago. It is likely that more than the malevolent hand of man, it was the passage to time that wrought its overthrow. A little way off behind it are two more on a high plinth. One has an angular shikhara whose unique feature are the gaping oblong windows. Barely ten metres across on the same plinth and directly facing this building is another. A couple of hundred metres to the north, across a stretch of ground thickly sprinkled with the detritus of houses whose foundations are all that remain and broken pottery, is a group of four buildings. These too sit atop a raised plinth.
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Abdul Karim

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It sounded a right peculiar name as it slipped off the tongue of a French mountaineer: Little Cream. The girl pronounced it ‘Cream’ and at first it seemed it was a segue from the tale of a past ascent to some food item. But soon it became clear that Little Cream was a Balti High Altitude Porter (HAP) of good standing.

The year was 1988 and the place in Gilgit was a hotel where tourists and mountaineers congregated at a communal table for meals. I had met the girl earlier at a store stocking mountaineering equipment and was invited to join her for dinner. I forget her name, but she had great things to say about this man, making this creamy little fellow seem almost a superman.
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Pukhtun Stonehenge

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Out there on the Salisbury plain in England, they have their stone circle they call Stonehenge. Now stones are stones, but henge is an obscure word. According to my Random House Dictionary it is a ‘circular area enclosed by a bank and ditch and often containing additional features included one or more circles of upright stone or wood pillars ….. used for ritual purposes or for marking astronomical events, as solstices and equinoxes.’


Salisbury in England, incidentally, is not the only place with a stone circle – it is the most spectacular and one that goes back some five thousand years in time. There are other sites on the British Isles and elsewhere in Europe and elsewhere in the world – though I am not certain about the Americas.
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The Road to Bari La

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The road to Bari La. The pass, the highest on the eastern flanks of Deosai, lies between the gray ridge and the snow covered peak. Over the pass, the road leads to Matiyal and on to Kargil on the Indian side. 

Image from Deosai: Land of the Giant 

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The Rani’s Baoli

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The edifice is unpretentious. But the quality of construction is superior. So fine, in fact, that the building could only have been built for nobility. Nadia, my hostess in Palandri (Kashmir), said it was called baoli – the traditional subcontinental well with steps descending to water level – and I imagined a structure like the Mughals were so fond of building.

School in progress in the Rani’s Baoli. The rani’s room is in the background with the utility rooms on right
As I was driven a few kilometres outside Palandri town, Nadia told me the building is believed to have been a watering place for the animals of passing caravans and nothing more. When we arrived, the fine architecture immediately told me that the structure was much more than what they believed it to be. Ell-shaped with the rooms fronting an open courtyard formed by a low wall on two sides, the building comprises six rooms of various sizes.
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Lahore and Dilly in a day

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It was late afternoon on a November day. The mellow sun sat on the western horizon just above the brown and grey tree-less hills when we fetched up outside Lahore. The place was deserted. The doors set in high mud walls were closed and padlocked, not a soul walked the narrow lanes. The squares of agricultural plots were desiccated with a thick layer of powdery dust upon which stood sere stalks of what would have been corn and what were once handsome, spreading mulberry trees were mere leaf-less skeletons. It was a ghost town we had entered.

Deserted home in Lahore
My friend Dawood Bareach decided we should drive on to Dilly. And so, five minutes later we turned off the highway and entered Dilly. Ten minutes between Lahore and Dilly and not even an international border to cross may sound a geographical anomaly. But in Loralai district of Balochistan this is reality. And its origin lies two centuries, perhaps farther, in the past.
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The Shaksgam Valley

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If there was ever a lonely place I had been to, it was the country on the south side of the Aghil Pass. The Shaksgam Valley here is as desolate as it can ever get. Our caravan is approaching the Kindik Tash camp ground.

Image from The Apricot Road to Yarkand 

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The highway and the well

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Twenty years ago I spent a couple of days with my army chum Ahmed Yar Bandial in his village which is, naturally, Bandial. It sits on the old highroad from Khushab to Mianwali. For good measure, it keeps company with village Hadali, famous for being the ancestral place of the great Khushwant Singh. Incidentally, upon his passing, our very own Fakir Syed Aijazuddin brought home the ashes of the great writer to inter them in one wall of the school where this future luminary first learned the secrets of the written word.

The well: Rising just above the mesquite trees in the back can be seen the domed pillars marking the head of the steps leading into the well

But all this was just to get the geography right.
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Where Gakkhars ruled

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It could have been a day warm and humid as it was in August 1553 when Kamran Mirza’s eyes last beheld the crenulated walls of Pharwala Fort starkly outlined against a blue Bhadon sky held up by billowing white cumulus. But it was crisply warm as we parked on flat ground above the Soan River running between us and the fort.

Hathi Gate
It had started out with Rehan Afzal and I talking about Pharwala. But then Pharanaz and her husband Naweed joined us too and we resolved to together visit it. Returning to the fort after eighteen years, I had forgotten that I had then entered by Hathi Gate by wading across the river, the same way as Babur had done back in the spring of 1519. There, behind the fortification Babur espied the steely gaze of Hathi Gakkhar, a man of gigantic stature and reportedly superhuman strength that likened him as to an elephant.
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Amaltas at its best

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Related: Salman Rashid’s archetypal Amaltas
[This image by Rahat Dar of The News]

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The Fragrance of Clove

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The swashbuckling Alexander Burnes, soldier, explorer and philandering spy for the British East India Company, sailed up the Indus from Thatta in 1836. In the vicinity of Dera Ismail Khan, he reported upon the adornment of local women. Among other items he noticed some of them wearing necklaces of cloves. Strangely, he did not make any further inquiries regarding this somewhat odd piece of bodily decoration.

The simplest of designs seen in a five-strand necklace. Every maker has her own notions of design of each strand which itself is a composite of two or three strands
At that time the clove necklace appears to have been a prized and everyday item of feminine adornment along the Indus from the vicinity of Rajanpur (south of Dera Ghazi Khan) all the way to Kalabagh and westward as far as Kohat and Bannu. In the course of time, Dera Ismail Khan may have lost this tradition, but it lives on from Rajanpur through Dera Ghazi Khan to the two cities of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. All along, the artisans of this peculiar craft are strictly women.
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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