Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The White Desert

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I first went wandering about Thar Desert back in 1980. I had seen bits of the Thal Desert in Punjab some years before that and both deserts disappointed me. There were no real wind-sculpted sand dunes like I had seen in pictures of the Sahara, Gobi or Takla Makan deserts. As time went by, I got to know Thar much better. This included what was in those days called the Tharparkar district in the south and Khairpur in the north of Sindh. The one blank on my map was the desert part of Sanghar district. This tantalised because someone told me that the eastern-most part of the district that trod on the Indian border had a ‘different kind’ of desert.


About that same time (1980) I read a rather drab little report in Dawn about the desert lakes of Sanghar and made a mental note that this was something to see, a lazim. But years went by, twenty-four years in fact, before I actually got to see one of those fabled lakes. It was in the summer of 2004 and working on an assignment for a Hyderabad-based NGO, I was being driven into the desert when I asked about the lakes.
‘What lake?’ my friend asked with a lop-sided smile. ‘How can there be lakes in the desert?’
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Stitching the Crack

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Seh ghwari?’ says the man sitting at the mouth of the tunnel: ‘What are you looking for?’

‘I am looking for the old railway,’ I reply in broken Pashto as I huff up the hill. The man does not smile, and he is not even trying to be funny when he asks if I don’t think I am a trifle late to be looking for the railway – the last train on this line had run exactly fifty-one years and eight months earlier. I smile and pass on and he tells my friend following behind that I must be mad. Three hundred metres away lies the yawning maw of the Chappar Rift that has brought me on this journey; a journey that I had dreamt of for the last seven years.


When, around the early years of the 19th century, the Raj became paranoid with the fear of a Russian invasion of India there was, among other things, a great flurry of railway building to reach Afghanistan and eventually Central Asia in order to pre-empt Russian influence in those countries. And as Russian railways inched across trans Caspian desert regions, subcontinental railways reached on the one side into the Khyber Pass and on the other across the treeless Kachhi desert on the border between Sindh and Balochistan on its way to Sibi at the foot of the Bolan Pass en route to Quetta. Simultaneously another line went north from Sibi to Harnai and Khost where it turned west to reach Quetta via Bostan. This was the Kandahar State Railway (KSR), for that is where it hoped to reach before skirting the mountainous regions of Afghanistan to Herat and head north for Merv in modern Turkmenistan.
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The K2 Man (And his Molluscs): The Extraordinary Life of Haversham Godwin-Austen

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Henry Haversham Godwin-Austen
If early Victorian map-makers and explorers in northern Indian and high Asia were mysterious, shadowy figures, Henry Haversham Godwin-Austen was rather unlike them. Not that his work was any less significant than that of, say, William Moorcroft or George Hayward (both died tragically in remote regions); indeed, the quality and quantum of Godwin-Austen’s work is phenomenal. But unlike others, Godwin-Austen was fortunate to brave all and come home to retirement — unfortunately not as glorious as one would wish for a man of his accomplishments.


This current biography, the first-ever of this great mountaineer explorer, by Catherine Moorehead, is a much belated but useful piece of work. It is useful because outside the circle of mountaineers and students of the history of exploration and mapping in the Himalaya-Karakoram-Hindu Kush region, Godwin-Austen is all but unknown. Now for the first time we know there is much more to this name than it being appended to the mountain K2.

Born in 1834, Godwin-Austen was commissioned from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst as a subaltern in 1851 before moving out to India. At Sandhurst, Godwin-Austen, the artist of remarkable exactitude, had come into notice and it took only six years of service — most of it in Burma — before the young man was seconded to the Kashmir Survey at Srinagar. There began a quarter century of the most meritorious service to unravelling the geography and topography of the greatest knot of mountains on Earth.
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Happy Birthday to Me

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This is what I wrote On My 2362nd Birthday!

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Open Letter to Two Important Persons

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Syed Abu Ahmad Akif
Federal Secretary
Ministry of Climate Change
Islamabad.

6 February 2017

Subject: The Looming Water Scarcity and our Choice of Thirsty Trees

Dear Akif,

Today’s (6 Feb) Dawn carries a report of a conference on the water scarcity that is now a certainty for Pakistan. It is one thing that we are completely mindless of the millions of gallons of clean water wasted every day in official and private bathrooms with leaky WCs. I see it all the time and I can point out at least a few dozen in the building you occupy in Islamabad.

Then there are those educated ignorant who daily have their driveways and cars washed with running garden hoses. Tell them about the upcoming water scarcity and hear, ‘Water is Allah’s gift, it can never run out.’

The government has no scheme to address this wastage. I assure you; simply holding seminars is not going to save our water.

To top it all, since 1960 when Ayub ordered ‘forestation’ in Pakistan we have made only incorrect choices so far as tree species are concerned. First we had eucalyptus, 6 sub-species of it imported from Australia, planted wholesale across Pakistan. In the 1990s Nuclear Institute for Agriculture and Biology (NIAB, Faisalabad) told us that each eucalyptus was a tube well drawing upward of 100 litres in every 24-hour cycle. We had millions upon millions of tube wells sucking away our precious water.

But no one was listening. Punjab had to thrice – yes THRICE – ban eucalyptus. Even today, thirteen years after the third banning, I see nurseries across this sorry province and the rest of this sorrier country with billions of eucalyptus saplings.

But soon an idiot called Mustafa Kamal (ex mayor Karachi) saw conocarpus in Dubai and imported it wholesale to blight this entire country with this ultra-thirsty bane. Imported from Central South America and Oceania, this tree is a very, very, very thirsty species. In Makran – a water scarce part – where it grows in the tens of thousands, this accursed tree is called Mustafa Kamal! Folks plant it because ‘it grows fast’. I have never figured out why we are in such a hurry to get to a green desert hell.

Incidentally, retired foresters who were at the forefront of the eucalyptus invasion back in the 1960s also said that tree grew fast. This is patent rubbish. Our collective inferiority complex forces us to choose imported trees.

Dubai has learned its lesson: they have eradicated the curse of the conocarpus. But they learned their lesson only when its roots burrowed into and damaged water mains and sewers. We, sadly, will not learn ours even then. Couple the tree’s thirst with the very high release of allergens. If paper mulberry (imported from China circa 1960s) was not enough to put sense into our puny heads, neither will conocarpus. God willing, we shall all die of asthma!

Last year, NHA removed thousands of eucalyptus; I was very happy and hoped the empty space will be taken up by indigenous species. Perish the thought, however. Hundreds of thousands of conocarpus have taken up that space! Not only that, those who cut the eucalyptus did not know that the stumps left behind coppice wildly. Like the Hydra, each stump erupts into a dozen new trees.

Now, we have millions of more eucalyptus along M-2 that will be sucking up hundreds of times more water from our dwindling aquifer. And in between these forests of eucalyptus are rows of conocarpus. I will needlessly reiterate: both trees draw heavily from the water table. They are in a great way guilty of depleting our sub-soil water.

My question is: why are we so stupid?

Will I be asking for too much if I request you and Shahid Tarar, under whose sway the Motorways fall, to order an immediate eradication of conocarpus and eucalyptus? The space must be given over to indigenous species. That way, you will also give respite to our birdlife which, with the wholesale destruction of habitat, has been pushed into small pockets.

There are other things we need to talk about. Mainly our infatuation with palm trees and dwarf species. I can only tell you that arresting climate change will forever remain elusive: all your initiatives are self-defeating if you at the same time blight this land with alien and thirsty species. To play a positive and telling part in arresting climate change, you need trees of large bio-mass. Trees like our pipal, banyan etc.

Yours sincerely,

PS: Email address given below is defunct. Current address: odysseuslahori@gmail.com

CC:
Shahid Ashraf Tarar
Chairman National Highways Authority

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کیا آپ نے کبھی دیوسائی کے بارے میں سنا ہے؟

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آپ پا کستان کے شمال میں واقع فلک بوس پہاڑی چوٹیوں کے بارے میں تو ضرور جانتے ہوں گے۔ کیا آپ نے کبھی دیوسائی کے بارے میں سنا ہے؟ یہ پاکستان کے شمالی علاقے سکردو کے قریب ایک بلند چوٹی پر واقع ایک مقام ہے۔ سفر نامے ویو سائی: ’لینڈ آف جائینمس‘ دیوسائی اور اس میں بسنے والے جائینس کے بارے میں ہے۔ یہ کون سی مخلوق ہے، اور دیوسائی کیسی جگہ ہے، اس بارے میں سنیے سفرنامے کے مصنف سلمان رشید سے بی بی سی اردو کی ماہ پارہ صفدر کی خصوصی گفتگو۔

Click here to listen on BBC

 

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Punjab­i resistance to the Mughal­s

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Aali of the tribe Ghanjera was a shepherd from village Vijhara under the southern shadow of the Sakesar peak in the Salt Range. One day, he came across a pair of horse dealers with a very spirited filly. Knowing a good horse when he saw it, Aali purchased the animal to feed and train and make it the best in the Lahnda — the country where the sun sets.

And so, within the year, fed on the choicest fodder, almonds and butter, the animal grew into a handsome mare fit for a king. Even more, the mare could out-pace the best horses in the area and soon its fame spread far. Buyers came to Aali’s door, but the man was not selling for the mare was as a part of his own body and soul.

Over time, word of this priceless animal reached the court at Delhi and the ear of Emperor Akbar the Great. A posse was sent out to procure the mare at whatever price the owner demanded. And if he was not willing to sell, it was to be taken away by force. And so it was. Aali refused to be parted from his beloved mare and the emperor’s men simply deprived him, a mere shepherd, of it.
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The pleasure house

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The baradari — literally, twelve-door building — stands on a raised brick plinth in the middle of a saline waste. Locals know it as Dera Chaubara. The subcontinent has a long tradition of such buildings that served as getaways where the rich whiled away the pleasant hours of day. They did not serve as residences, however.


The country where the baradari stands was once very picturesque with the Beas River flowing by through a thickly wooded tract near the present town of Chunian. That was when Raja Todar Mal built his pleasure house sometime in the early 17th century. A native of Lahore, the Raja’s family owned large properties around Chunian. It was this man’s admirable acumen as finance manager and administrator that won him place among the Nine Jewels of Akbar the Great.
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Ignorance is Bliss

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My recent question why we are so stupid has gone unanswered. But all indicators point to the fact that we are. We are nothing but stupid. And we are ignorant to boot. Friends in India, having read that blog, told me that they too had for a very long time been infatuated with the water-guzzling eucalyptus. But they learned the truth and now the pestilence of this Australian tree is being removed from Indian soil.

Conocarpus saplings on N-5 near Thatta in August 2012
We too should have learned that same lesson, especially after the 1990s findings of Nuclear Institute for Agriculture and Biology (NIAB, Faisalabad). For the first time we learned how every tree was like a tube well squandering away our subsoil water. We may not have been water-scarce in 1960 when idiot politicians ordered self-serving forest department officers to turn Pakistan green.
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Why are we so stupid?

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In a Special Report on horticulture in The News on Sunday a couple of years ago, the Head of the Botany Department of Punjab University said something very clever and apt. She said the national infatuation with imported species of flora was an indication of our deep seated inferiority complex that leads to a desire for all that is foreign.


Unsurprisingly, over the past four decades this good land has been blighted with all sorts of imported rubbish. From the eucalyptus invasion of the 1960s abetted by incompetent and corrupt officers of the forest departments to PIA cabin and flight crews who introduced araucaria in the 1980s, we have done everything wrong.
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The Fort of Rannikot

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Tanvir Ahmad Khan, with whom I share this page, emailed to say that at a dinner with the French ambassador and his wife, the subject of a fort called Rani Khet came up. The fort, it was reported, lay somewhere near Dadu. Other than that no one knew anything about it. The fort of Rannikot (pronounced Runny Coat and not, repeat not, Ranikot or Rani Khet) lies thirty-two kilometres southwest of Sann (the ancestral village of the venerated late G M Syed), eighty kilometres north of Hyderabad in the Lakhi hills of the great Khirthar Range. Between Sann and the fort there stretches a sandy desert that I have seen transformed into farmland over the past thirty years. In the late 1970s, there being no road, one had to either walk (as a friend and I did) or ride a jeep. Today a blacktop road connects Rannikot with the Indus Highway outside Sann.


The walls of the fort become visible from a distance of about four kilometres, snaking over the golden-brown ridges and the first views strike one as being starkly similar to the Great Wall of China. Entry into the fort, if one is on a jeep, is through the dry bed of the Ranni River (whence the name of the fort) or through Sann Gate if on foot. The gateway, on the right bank of the stream, is a classic example of defensive architecture with two staggered turrets that form a dogleg in order to break the gallop of an attacking horseman.
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Deosai: Land of the Giant

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DEOSAI: THE LAND OF THE GIANT by Salman Rashid, with photographs by Nadeem Khawar, (Sang-e-Meel Publications, Lahore, 2013), pp. 176. Price Rs 2,000

Related: Deosai Truths - Book Review by F. S. Aijazuddin,  Special talk on BBC Radio

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God on a mountain

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Nazir Sabir, Pakistan’s foremost mountaineer and the first Pakistani Everest summiteer, says as a young man he was driven by the desire to climb peaks to see what lay on the far side. Shahid Zaidi, first-class rock climber, mountaineer and unmatchable mountainscape photographer climbed for the joy of it, for the feeling of freedom on a rock face or atop a summit. Elsewhere, someone is believed to have said they climbed the mountain ‘because it was there’.


High, snow-draped peaks are the ultimate wilderness of the world. To enter their realm is to know the true anxiety-making adventure. On those pristine white slopes where the climber is alone against the elements, he is a hair’s breadth from life-threatening perils. There a false step that can send him plummeting thousands of metres is not the only danger; the piles of avalanche-ready snow and ice are an equal and endless dread. The unseen crevasse, deceitfully lying in wait under its thin cover is the killer; and the unpredictable and sudden wind, sleet and snow, a very real threat.
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نصیب اپنا اپنا

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رحمت خان بزدار سے میری ملاقات 2003 میں ہوئی۔ وہ ڈیرہ غازی خان میں کوہ سلیمان پر بیل پتھر کی چوٹی (اونچائی 2328 میٹر) کو جانے والے راستے پر ہمارے رہنما کے فرائض انجام دے رہا تھا۔
اگرچہ اسے پہلے ہی بتا دیا گیا تھا کہ ہم سبزی خور ہیں تاہم اس کے باوجود اس نے میرے اور میرے دوست راحیل کے لیے دنبے کی سجی تیار کر لی۔ جب راحیل نے ہمارے کھانے کے لیے اپنے تھیلے سے تازہ بھنڈی نکال کر اسے پکانے کو دی تو اس کی ناراضگی بجا تھی۔
پہاڑ کی چوٹی پر تاروں بھری شاندار رات بسر کرنے کے بعد جب ہم نیچے اس کے گاؤں گئے تو رحمت نے دسویں مرتبہ مجھے یہ کہہ کر قائل کرنے کی کوشش کی کہ خاطر مدارت کوئی بری چیز نہیں ہوتی۔ جواباً دسویں مرتبہ میں نے اسے کہا کہ سبزی خوروں کے لیے بھیڑ ذبح کرنا کوئی اچھا خیال نہیں ہے۔ اگر وہ اور اس کے لوگ اپنے مویشی اسی طرح ذبح کرتے رہے تو بہت جلد ان کے قبیلے (بز کا مطلب بکری ہے جبکہ دار مالک کو کہتے ہیں) کا نام بے معنی ہو کر رہ جائے گا۔
میں نے اسے کہا کہ عمدگی سے بنی سبزی یا دال سے بھی تواضع ہو سکتی ہے۔ مگر اس کا اصرار تھا کہ اس سے بلوچی میزبانی کا تصور پورا نہیں ہوتا۔ تب اس نے مجھے ایک داستان سنائی۔
کسی زمانے میں ایک رحم دل اور فیاض بلوچ ہوا کرتا تھا جس کے دروازے مہمانوں کے لیے ہر وقت کھلے رہتے تھے۔ اس کے دسترخوان پر بہت سے لوگ کھانا کھاتے تھے اور ایسا کبھی کبھار ہی ایسا ہوتا جب اسے اکیلے کھانا پڑا ہو۔ وہاں سے گزرنے والے مسافر بھی اس کے دسترخوان سے ماحضر تناول کیا کرتے تھے۔
مگر بلوچ کی بیوی اس جیسی نہیں تھی۔ وہ لڑاکا مزاج اور بخیل طبعیت کی مالک تھی۔ اسے اپنے باورچی خانے سے لوگوں کو کھانا کھلایا جانا بالکل پسند نہیں تھا اور وہ اس پر اکثر کڑھتی رہتی تھی۔
ایک دن وہ گھر کے دروازے پر کھڑی تھی جہاں اس نے دو افراد کو اپنی جانب آتے دیکھا۔ اس نے گھر کے اندر جا کر اپنے شوہر کو یہ اطلاع کچھ یوں دی جیسے کوئی مصیبت گھر پر نازل ہونے لگی ہو۔
اس شام جب اس کے شوہر نے تمام لوگوں کے لیے کھانا لانے کو کہا تو اس نے انکار کر دیا۔ وہ صرف ایک آدمی کا کھانا دستر خوان پر لائی اور کہنے لگی کہ یا تو وہ یہ کھانا خود کھا لے یا اپنے مہمانوں کو پیش کر دے۔ اگلی صبح اسے تین افراد گھر سے نکل کر بیابان کو جاتے دکھائی دیے۔ وہ چکرا گئی اور شوہر سے پوچھا کہ ایک شخص کے کھانے سے چار افراد کیونکر سیر ہو گئے؟
بلوچ نے بیوی کو جواب دیا کہ مہمان تین نہیں بلکہ ایک تھا۔ شام کے وقت مہمان کے ساتھ نظر آنے والا دوسرا شخص اس کا نصیب تھا کہ دنیا میں کوئی شخص اپنے نصیب کے بغیر نہیں آتا اور ہر ایک کا مقدر پہلے سے طے ہے۔ جب کوئی چلتا ہے تو اس کا نصیب بھی ساتھ چلتا ہے۔ انسان کا کھانا، پینا، کمانا، لٹانا، خوشی اور غم سمیت سب باتیں اس کے مقدر میں پہلے سے لکھ دی گئی ہوتی ہیں۔ کوئی شخص اپنے نصیب سے ذرا برابر زیادہ یا کم نہیں پاتا۔ اس دن مہمان نے اسی قدر کھایا جو اس کے نصیب میں لکھا تھا۔ اس دن اس کے لیے آدھا کھانا کم تھا۔
اس کی بیوی نے پوچھا کہ علی الصبح مہمان اور اس کے نصیب کے ساتھ باہر جانے والا تیسرا شخص کون تھا؟ بلوچ نے جواب دیا 'بھولی عورت! خدا کے کام بھی نرالے ہیں، ہمارے گھر میں ایک آفت آنے کو تھی۔ اسی دوران مہمان نے ہمارے ہاں کھانا کھایا، اگرچہ یہ میزبانی اعلیٰ درجے کی نہ تھی مگر اس سے خدا خوش ہو گیا اور مصیبت ٹل گئی۔ ہمارے گھر سے مہمان کے ہمراہ جانے والا تیسرا فرد دراصل وہی آفت تھی۔
رحمت خان کہنے لگا کہ ممکن ہے فیاض شخص اور اس کی کنجوس بیوی کی کہانی سچی نہ ہو مگر اسے یقین ہے کہ اس میں ایک نکتہ ضرور پایا جاتا ہے۔ اگر لوگ میزبانی نہ کرتے تو کوئی ایسے علاقوں میں کیونکر سفر کر پاتا جہاں کوئی سرائے بھی نہیں ملتی؟ مسافر کو خوش آمدید کہنے والوں کو بھی ویران راہوں پر ایسے ہی حالات کا سامنا ہوتا ہے اور انہیں بھی اسی طرح خوش آمدید کہا جاتا ہے۔
رحمت خان بزدار کا کہنا تھا کہ مسافروں کے لیے ذبح کی جانے والی بھیڑبکریاں گلے سے کم نہیں ہوتیں۔ اس کے گھر میں داخل ہونے سے پہلے ہی حسب توقع بھنے ہوئے گوشت کی مہک ہمارے نتھنوں سے ٹکرائی اور ہم اپنی بھنڈیوں اور پیٹھے سے محروم ہو گئے۔

In English

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Mystery on an Ancient Highway

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‘Bamaar’s blow was so violent that it clean struck off Sultan Mohammed’s head, and sent it rolling down the hill,’ said the old man that my friend Abbas Ali had enlisted to show us the purported jailhouse and the palace on the crest of the low eminence of Bamurg Kandao just two kilometres due east of Parachinar town.


The jailhouse was no more than a natural cutting in the limestone hill and the palace was simply the foundation of three or four rooms whose antiquity I could not guess. Whoever had lived here in whichever period of time, enjoyed an indisputably magnificent view along the Zeeran stream, a tributary of the Kurram. Below us lay neatly parcelled squares of cultivation, across the river were the houses of Yusufkhel village and far away to the north the dark line of the Safed Koh range dissolved into storm clouds that sparkled with lightening every now and again. Parachinar was sprinkled in the middle ground to the west; a range of low hills blocked the view to the east. And to the south the Zeeran cut through more farmland.
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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:30 AM, , links to this post

Retracing ancient heritage

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My young friend Ahmad Umair has some business along the Ravi south of Lahore where he frequently travels on roads that are not on the itinerary of most travellers. One day he mentioned a place called Sarai Mughal outside which he had seen a domed building.

A couple of years earlier, I had been to Sarai Chhimba, near Jambar about thirty kilometres southwest of Thokar Niaz Beg and just off N-5. Talking at that time to my guru, the preeminent archaeologist Dr Saifur Rahman Dar, I was reminded that there were once upon a time inns at convenient intervals along all major intercity roads. In those days of travel either on foot or by horse or even bullock cart, a convenient distance for a day’s journey was ten kos or between thirty to forty-five kilometres.
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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM, , links to this post

Marot Fort

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Marot Fort lies between Fort Abbas and Yazman on the fringes of the Cholistan Desert. Back in 1985 when I visited it I was told of a shrine with the supposed footprint of some early Islamic personage. Having seen one footprint too many and knowing for sure that this was a hangover from our Buddhist-Jain-Hindu past, I cannot get myself to believe in them. Nonetheless, I did check out the rather misshapen mark on white marble that could possibly have been a yeti instead of a human footprint.

Two years ago, I was in Marot again. The shrine was there but the footprint was gone, reportedly having been removed by a Pukhtun captain of the Pakistan Army. The captain, it was said, did not approve of the idolatry and had the object removed and presumably destroyed. Good for this man and we could do with a few more of his ilk to bulldoze all these Zinda, Ghaib and Nine-Yards-Tall saints.

To begin with, the 1904 Gazetteer of Bahawalpur State mentions a mosque in Marot, not a shrine of the footprint. That is, this Islamic footprint was invented some time after the publication of that document. It is Dr Saifur Rahman Dar, the pre-eminent archaeologist, who lifts the veil off the shady tale of the mosque-shrine. In a paper published in the Journal of Central Asia (Vol IV, No 2), he presents a reading of a tablet with a Persian inscription that was preserved in the Bahawalpur Museum when he was in charge there.
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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