Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Town with Seven Lives

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Having pushed his way up through Bajaur, Alexander turned downstream as he reached the Punjkora River. Where Punjkora meets the Swat River, he wheeled north to take the fortified town of Ora, which was reportedly getting reinforcements from neighbouring areas. January 326 BCE, would have made for a bleak setting of leafless trees, barren ground and grey skies in the Swat lowlands, rendered the gloomier in the face of imminent invasion.

History records that the siege of Ora “gave Alexander very little trouble”. In fact, he is said to have taken the town at first assault, winning, among other spoils, a number of elephants from its fort.

About 22 centuries later, in 1928, the remarkable Aurel Stein, Hungarian-British linguist, historian and archaeologist, came to Udegram hot on Alexander’s trail. Stein observed that the natives pronounced the name more like Uregram, the ‘r’ in the first syllable being palatal. The Greeks, who were aware that the suffix ‘gram’ meant village or town in Sanskrit, therefore assumed the name to be simply Ure. And despite the well-known Greek penchant for mispronouncing names of foreign places, they remained more or less faithful to the original, calling the town Ora.

Stein noted two groups of ancient ruins, one on level ground between the farms and the hills to the east of a clump of houses and the other on the crest of a sylvan hill above the plain. Half a century later, archaeologists put the spade and scalpel to these ruins to reveal a well-ordered city that lived, decayed and rejuvenated seven times in the 800 years between Alexander’s invasion and the 5th century CE.

The earliest level of occupation gave up a shard of pottery with Greek lettering datable to the 4th century BCE. With the passage of the Greeks after the death of Alexander, the town bears Mauryan influence and thereafter, numismatic evidence shows, begins the great parade of foreign influence. The Bactrian Greeks, who controlled Afghanistan and much of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab around the end of the 3rd century BCE, were successively followed by the Scythians, Parthians and Kushans. As Kushan power waned in the 4th century, Udegram became part of the Persian Sassanian Empire as evinced by the discovery of coins from the time of Hormuzd II, who reigned between 302 and 309 CE.

The following century saw the collapse of this part of ancient Udegram. And in the last quarter of the 5th century, the blood-thirsty White Huns poured in, their sole agenda being arson and murder. The Sassanian city that fell to the Huns is marked by the ruins in the flat area now known as Udegram bazaar. Here was an orderly and well laid out township with streets paved with flagstones and houses constructed of locally quarried, finely dressed stone. The town was divided into blocks, each with discrete zones for houses and commercial establishments. It was prosperous and thriving until Hunnic barbarity laid it low.

Chastened and fearful of future incursions, the Buddhist population moved to the safety of the hill immediately to the east of the ruined city. Here, some 600 metres above the ruins of old Udegram, they rebuilt a new town. Compact, well-planned and meticulously constructed of dressed schist plastered with clay, this was a town built to be populated and cherished over generations. The view from the windows of new Udegram was breathtaking. To the west ran a line of ridges, blue in the mist and once draped thickly with pine trees. In the north reared snow-covered peaks and just below the hill beyond the farmland of Udegram spread the wide, pebbled floodplain of the Swat River.

In the five centuries of peace that followed the passage of the Huns and the coming of the Turks, Udegram remained prosperous. During this period, the town was rebuilt again and again seven times as buildings decayed to give way to newer ones. But its strong fortification of broad walls and hefty semicircular bastions proved inadequate when the Turks arrived led by Mahmud of Ghazni.

Lore recalls Munja Devi, the daughter of Raja Gira after whom the hilltop castle is known today. Falling in love with the general leading the Turkish forces, she is said to have betrayed her father to deliver the castle into the enemy’s hands. But in truth the battle for the castle of Raja Gira was hard fought and many a Turk died below its ramparts before the gates were finally thrown open. The fortified town was apparently spared as the discovery of artefacts from its ruins tells us that Turkish settlers occupied it for some time.

Buddhism fell and Islam rose among the Pakhtuns of Swat. Nestling below the massive walls of Raja Gira’s castle is the roofless ruin of what may well have been the first mosque in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. An inscription in stone found in the mosque records it was built by Amir Anush Teghin, an obscure Turkish functionary, in the year 440 of the Hijri calendar (1048-49 CE). This was during the reign of Abdur Rashid, Mahmud’s son, pointing to a continuous occupation of the castle area for more than three decades.

As old Udegram was gradually abandoned, its residents favouring the hilltop for safety, the fortified city fell for another reason. Within decades of its construction, Anush Teghin’s mosque went silent. But this was no cataclysmic change for Islam was now well-established. Rather, it appears that the isolated town removed nearly 1000 metres from the main road passing through the valley finally slid into oblivion when the population abandoned it for logistic and commercial reasons late in the 11th century.

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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