Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

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.

Sources other than my dictionary also confirm that stone circles were indeed used for some arcane ritual as well as to mark the rising and setting of celestial bodies on particular days. The rising or setting of a specific star on a given between two upright stones marked a special time of year: either it was when night and day were of equal length or when the sun was at its most vertical in midsummer and was beginning its journey to its lowest point in midwinter.

For primitive people living in northern latitudes the length of the day and summer sunshine were of particular importance. At the sun’s annual high point it was time to start laying in provisions for the long cold and dark ahead. The stone circle was their calendar that warned them that they had reached the twenty-first day of June and that three months’ (to autumnal equinox) was all they had to gather food for themselves and their cattle to last through the winter.

In Pakistan too we have stone circles. The one outside the village of Bawata in Balochistan lies by the road from Fort Munro to Loralai. The stones used are plates of shale and limestone that stick out of the ground to a height of no more than half a metre. At some point in time, finding it handy, someone tried to convert this circle into a mosque by creating a sort of mehrab facing west. The Bawata stone circle also has a menhir and people use this site as a shrine of sorts.

The other stone circle that I have seen lies just outside the village of Asota on the Mardan-Swabi highroad. Here the uprights are hefty stelae, as in proper stone circles; some reaching up to a height of about two metres. Others are shorter and there are a few that seem to have been broken off. Part of the circle, to the east, is missing. The Asota stone circle is about twelve to fifteen metres across and that would make it about the same size as the one outside Bawata.

The one time I was at Bawata and twice in Asota, it was the wrong time of year: it was neither midsummer nor winter, nor too either of the equinoxes. And so I could not watch at sundown nor keep the vigil until dawn to be able to check if our stone circles also mark astronomical events. But when one day someone does, they will discover that both these ancient sites served the same purpose as their counterparts in Europe.

Now, we know that Stonehenge was laid out some five thousand years ago. But since our circle in Asota has never been scientifically investigated (so far as I know), I cannot say when this would have been built. However, there is evidence that ancient Pukhtun ancestors were busy in this region a very long time ago. The nearby village of Adina is now well-known for the discovery in the mid 1990s of early Aryan graves. On a low hill outside the village, there are graves containing, besides the bones or ash urns, other relics as well. These relics have been dated between the 14th and 12th century BCE.

This was a time when the Aryans had been in the subcontinent for nearly five hundred years. I suspect that the people who buried their dead with gold and copper ornaments and pottery on the Adina hill were the very ones responsible for erecting the stones of Asota. If my surmise is true the stone circle should be three thousand five hundred years old.

Meanwhile, local people have invented a tale to explain the upright stone pillars: a wedding procession passing by a forest that once grew here was set upon by a bunch of thieves. Having done in the revelling men, the robbers turned their attention to the women who, fearing the worst, prayed to be turned into stone. And so before the evil-doers could lay so much as a finger upon them, the women were petrified. If this were an English-speaking country we could have said that was how the term ‘petrified with fear’ originated.

Moreover, the merry precession seemed not to be going anywhere. If it had, the stones would have been in a file not in a circle. Keeping in view that we have been stuck at the famous crossroads that every usurper evoked over the past six decades, our habit of going around in circles seems to go back a long time in the past! Thus the wedding procession went round and round before being petrified with fear.

But legends by their very nature are generally illogical. One day when some serious-minded people equipped with necessary knowledge turn their attention to the Asota stone circle, they will discover tales that will make sense. And then we might know of a connection between these silent stones and the tombs on the Adina hill.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 23 September 2016 at 10:25, Blogger Idrees Lone said...

These sites must be declared national heritage sites, if they haven't already been.

At 24 September 2016 at 07:44, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Lone sahib, this is Pakistan. Who gives a damn here. here it's only line your pocket heavily with stolen geld and let the country go to hell.


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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