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.

The Aryan nomads who poured into the subcontinent as the great cities were dying of old age did not know town planning. They arranged their tents haphazardly around the tent or waggon of their leader and when they began to settle in the subcontinent they followed the same pattern. Their cities were random growths radiating outward from the central hub. The order of the grid layout was lost until it had to be re-taught to us by the Greeks in the 3rd century BCE. This we soon forget again in order that the British might re-introduce this ‘innovation’ that our ancestors had known eight thousand and more years ago.

If the grid layout was disappointing, the houses of Bannu were more so. Lining the narrow, busy bazaars, they rose through two or three storeys of concrete plainness. Carved balconies, lattice windows, facades embellished with flowing curvilinear forms in stucco, and frescoes in cool interiors were singularly absent. There was only a newish austerity bordering on ugliness. The only embellishment was the bathroom tile exterior on a building or two. If architecture is an index of character, here was one of extreme dourness and poverty of the soul. Thinking we were not really in the right part of town, I annoyed my guide by repeatedly asking to be taken to the ‘old quarter.’ He repeatedly asserted that we were in the old city until eventually losing his cool and screaming at me.

At length, having walked every street in that part of town, I concluded that Bannu is a city absolutely, entirely devoid of any architectural pretensions whatsoever. It was as if as a community the people of Bannu were bereft of architectural aesthetics. For them houses were simply to be unattractive concrete blocks only to be lived in without bringing pleasure and joy to the spirit. Here functionability was not to be wedded to beauty as in, say, Shikarpur or Chiniot.

Of the ten gates that surround the old quarter, Lakki Gate is named after the town of Lakki Marwat in the southeast, while Preedy (pronounced Praiti) is named after some British civil servant. Qasaban Gate, they said, is so called after the butchers whose shops once lined the bazaar just inside. There is a Phoori Gate whose origin remains uncertain. The gates Sokarri, Miryan, Huwaid and Mundan are all named after villages in whose direction they face. The self-evident Railway Gate looks in the direction of the now defunct railway station. Standing outside the derelict building, its walls plastered with ugly graffiti and posters, I found myself wondering if a hundred years from now the Bannuchis (as they call themselves) will at all remember that time was when their city was connected to the main railway network by the Narrow Gauge line to Mari Indus one hundred and thirty kilometres away.

Taking up to nine hours for the journey, the service was far too slow to compete with road transport that took at most three hours. With little freight to haul, the line was a constant drain on railway resources and was closed in the early 1990s. The derelict station was now a dusty playground for local children. Sooner or later the building will be auctioned, torn down and replaced by an ugly, characterless concrete block. Then only the name of Railway Gate will remind Bannuchis that their city once had a railway connection.

Meanwhile, only two of the ten gates of Bannu that comprised of heavy planking reinforced with steel braces on the inside and steel plates outside, have all been burnt down. In the two that survive, the planking is heavily charred. Adjacent to each gate, inside the city wall, was a police post that too was given up to arson. It all happened late last year (1998) when a young boy, rejecting the gay overtures of a policeman, was shot dead in cold blood by the frustrated suitor. The town erupted in righteous indignation. A week later, when the gunfire and the flicker of arsonists’ fires died down, the gates and with them the police posts had all been burnt down and a few lives had been lost. So violent was the disorder that Bannu was placed under curfew – the first ever, they say, in its long history.

In its week-long disturbance the city had destroyed an integral part of its culture, its very zeitgeist: the gates that were closed daily to prevent passage after sunset. From the minute I set my eyes on the scorched or missing gates, one question rankled: why should anyone wish to destroy something like their city gates? In the four days I spent trying to discover old Bannu I found my answer. Nobody belonged to the city. Ask anyone and they will tell you they come from the mountains of Waziristan or from some village in the neighbourhood of town. No one, so it appears, is native to Bannu. And by that relationship, Bannu perhaps does not belong to anyone.

I became increasingly aware of this alienation between the city and her children when I asked why there were no beautiful old buildings. Always the answer was a dismissive reference to the juvenescence of Bannu. For most people it was a city established in the late 1840s after Lieutenant Herbert Edwardes (who gave his name to that 1st Class alma mater in Peshawar) first arrived as a revenue collector on behalf of the inept Daleep Singh, son of the great Maharaja Ranjit Singh. In pointing out that the part designated the ‘old city’ was still sometimes referred to as Edwardesabad, there was the oblique reference that earlier there was no city on the site, even less the name of Bannu. Similarly the sprawling mud fort of Daleepgarh, ordered by Edwardes and now held by the Pakistan army, too was said to have been built on virgin land. Indeed, both fort and city stand on flat ground, not on the eminences of earlier habitations.

Was it then really because Bannu did not exist until the middle of the 19th century that it has neither an architectural culture nor a population that calls it its own?

From classical writers we know of the great ‘Royal Road’ that existed as early as the 4th century BCE. Leaving its eastern terminus of Patliputra (Patna), winding across the great Gangetic plain one of its branches crossed the Sindhu at Kalabagh and followed the valley of the Kurram River in which Bannu is situated. Though the busier road bore north from the Salt Range to Taxila and crossed the Sindhu at Hund (Swabi district), a reasonable amount of traffic went along this southern route as well and it was only natural for a town and a staging post to arise. On pain of being screamed at again, I delivered this song and dance to my guide.

‘Voh yara ji!’ he said, ‘If that is what you want to see, you say so.’

He drove me out some ten kilometres southwest of town to the famous mounds of Akra outside the village of Bhurt. The main mound rises some thirty metres above the picturesque fertile plain portioned out in neat squares of cultivation with a meandering stream cutting through it. Together with its auxiliary mounds Akra sprawls over nearly thirty acres. Finds of coins ranging from 3rd century BCE Bactrian Greek issues through the Kushans and Ghaznavid kings down to those of Shams ud Din Iyultimish of Delhi represent the age of Akra. In 400 CE Faxian, a Buddhist monk from China, having come through the mountains crossed a country whose name he rendered Pona in Chinese phonetics. Linguists believe Pona signifies Bannu, a belief reinforced by the fact that Faxian tells us the country lay three days journey west of the ‘Sintu’ River.

We also know that in 645 CE on his return journey from India the ever so delightful Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang paused in a city whose name he rendered Falana from, it is believed, Varna or Varnu. This name we first hear of from Panini the great scholar who lived in Taxila in the 6th century BCE. In the two and a half centuries between Faxian and Xuanzang, Buddhism had suffered greatly. While the former had found three thousand priests engaged in the service of their lord, the latter could record only three hundred in Falana. Buddhist temples, Xuanzang observed, had been taken over by heretics and the religion was in decline as a result of the depredations of the savage Huns under Tor Aman and his son Mehr Gul just a hundred years earlier.

This densely populated and fertile country, our pilgrim tells us, was vassal to the kingdom of Kabul. The people, some of whom were Buddhists, were ‘rough and fierce [and] persevering in their habits, but their purposes are low.’ This last observations surely hints at the thieving propensities of the people, reference to which we find again in early British travellers. Xuanzang furthermore tells us that they ‘did not care about literature or the arts’ and their language was ‘somewhat like that of mid-India’ signifying that it was certainly not Pukhtu. In the 7th century CE Bannu must have formed the western limit of an older version of Seraiki that is still spoken as little as thirty kilometres to the eastward. The kingdom of Falana, we are told, was almost eleven hundred kilometres in circuit, most certainly an exaggeration. But the city itself, writes the pilgrim, was only ten kilometres around.

Having suffered the great setback of Hunnic raids, Varnu, as it might have been called when it flourished on the site of Akra, went into decline. The death blow came from the plundering raids of Mahmud Ghaznavi. Thereafter it took just another two hundred years for the city to be abandoned to the dust. The new city that grew up under the ancient name was a little way off on the banks of the Kurram River and from some early accounts appears to have been a collection of fortified houses – much like those seen even today in the tribal belt of the province.

That was what Babur would have conquered in 1505. This was long before he had looked upon himself as an empire builder and was merely a far-ranging freebooter. Having defeated the Khattak and Bangash tribes of Kohat, Hangu and Thal and raised piles of their severed heads, he set upon the ‘Kiwi’ Pukhtuns of Bannu. The slaughter was horrendous, and yet more skull pillars were erected until Shadi Khan, the Kiwi headman, came into Babur’s presence in the Pukhtun posture of submission: without his weapons and with a tuft of grass stuffed in his mouth to signify that he was but cattle for the victorious Mughal.

It was this same collection of forts that Edwardes levelled in 1848 and laid out the walled city of the ten gates that took his name. The Imperial Gazetteer of India records that it was after the establishment of Edwardesabad that trade and commerce that was headquartered in neighbouring Bazaar Ahmed Khan moved into the new town. Now but a nondescript village, an interesting light is cast on this business entrepot by two early 19th century maps. Thomson’s map of 1817 and Allen’s of 1842 do not register Bannu on the highroad from Punjab to Ghazni, rather Bazaar Ahmed Khan which was where all passing caravans would have broken journey. Not being the result of physical surveys, these maps included place names familiar to travellers from whom the cartographers gleaned their information. Bazaar Ahmed Khan the bustling commercial centre thus made its way to the maps while the khaki cluster of mud forts called Bannu that was bypassed by the caravans went unnoticed. In Bazaar Ahmed Khan lived the wealthy merchant class while neighbouring Bannu was the military headquarters that invaders would have aimed to neutralise before the richer prize could be theirs.

After British intervention, trade would understandably have shifted to the newly laid out town and since the volume of business is represented by the number of caravansaries a town can boast of, I was not disappointed. The bazaar inside Phoori Gate flaunted some half a dozen inns built in the traditional eastern style with high, arched gateways leading into large courtyards lined on two sides with small cubicles. The rooms were either single or double-storeyed, the latter having a woodwork balcony with rooms set behind a veranda.

The legend above the gateway of one of these revealed the ownership and the year of construction: Chaudhri Deep Chund Chawla, September 1891. Now every single one of the inns are carpenters’ workshops. With the development along the Grand Trunk Road, trade through Bannu was seriously effected until it died out after independence when the sizable Hindu population that controlled it left the city – the children of Mr Chawla surely among them. In the context of trade Bannu was relegated to the status of a backwater. So many years have passed since the inns have been redundant and put to other use that none but the older residents remember seeing them frequented by travellers. These disused caravansaries are, nonetheless, reminders of a time when trade and commerce did indeed pass through the city.

Jehanzeb Khan, my friend the DC, had said that the older people of Bannu sometimes called their city ‘Bannu Gul’ – the Rose. In 1826 Charles Masson, that enigmatic deserter of the East India Company army, also noticed the phrase ‘my own dear Bannu’ being frequently used. But that is passé, changed by the new materialistic sensibilities of the end of the millennium. Now there is only a detachment from the city. To me it appears to be a misreading of history that has impressed upon every mind the newness of Bannu: it has no hoary past to be proud of; it was only established a century and a half ago. This impression was not helped when in August 1947 Bannu was, according to a Revenue Department official, virtually emptied of its population.

This misconception also arises from our national lack of reading. Those few who do read, confine themselves entirely to the superficial district gazetteers. Consequently stories are invented. Not strange then that I was told that the Pukhtuns being invincible, Babur had never invaded Bannu. Even stranger – and something they could rightly be proud of, they did not know that while neighbouring districts were yielding to the army of that upstart Nadir Kuli of the Turkish tribe of Kirklu a.k.a. Nadir Shah and subsequently Ahmed Shah, it was only the Bannuchis who put up a most resolute resistance. Forgotten too were the depredations of the Sikhs under Ranjit Singh who, unable to annex Bannu, mounted periodic plundering raids that went under the euphemism of ‘tax collection.’

I was in Bannu at the wrong time of year for my friend Jehanzeb Khan had said the festivals of Eid were special occasions. Nowhere but in Bannu, it was said, could one see such exuberant revelry. Nevertheless, there was the festivity of Chowk Bazaar to be seen that takes place every evening round the year, but in the month of Moharram. In the tradition of Bannu this gala is the bridegroom’s wedding celebration. On the day of his wedding a man is required to bring to this bazaar as many friends and acquaintances (men only, of course) as he can boast of. Then, adorned with garlands, the men give themselves over to an orgy of confectionery eating that leaves them rather in a state of stupor.

True to their frontier tradition, the men wore their rose and marigold garlands across their chests like bandoleers: over one shoulder and under the other arm. Others wore them around their foreheads. They jostled, laughed and played the fool as the cardboard boxes of sweetmeats were passed around. Then the drum and pipe music struck up and each group led by its beaming groom surrounded by dancing, flower-bedecked friends went its merry way. As I watched, I suddenly recognised in this very innocent carnival the traces of an ancient Bacchanalian spree of garlands, dance and music. Only women were missing and the orgy of drinking was replaced with ordinary confectionery.

Here was a tradition whose earliest echoes lie buried under the layers of dust smothering ancient Akra of the Bactrian Greeks. At that time wine would have flowed as freely as the little cardboard boxes of gulab jamun and burfi. Perhaps bhung would have been used at another time, but then Islamic sensibilities required the banishment of intoxicants. No one could tell me how ancient the nightly festival of Chowk Bazaar was, but they all said it had always been a part of the city’s culture. And here was a facet that the Bannuchis were clearly very proud of. Unknown to them, this was their one living connection with a past otherwise forgotten, and I found it very odd that early British writers should have missed commenting on such a lively and unique festival.

The disappointment of the beginning was finally redeemed. Bannu did indeed have a connection with hoary history. Only her children had forgotten the past and lost their sense of belonging. Perhaps time will change that once again.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 29 September 2016 at 10:46, Blogger DIT said...

Wow. Words of gold Sire... Where else would we find them. Thank you so very much.
Hazaaroen saal Nargis apni baynoori pay roti hai
Barrdi mushkil say hota hai chaman mei'n deedawar paida

At 29 September 2016 at 15:53, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

You are very kind, DIT. I am very pleased to know you enjoyed this piece.


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

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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

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