Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society


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Abu Ishaq, that native of Persepolis as the Greeks knew it and Istakhr as it was later called, wrote his Kitabl al Akaleem in the middle of the 10th century after having travelled widely across the Muslim world. His travels brought him to Sindh as well and it naturally features in the book.

One of the cities he visited was Kandabil and Abu Ishaq Istakhri wrote: 'Kandabil is a great city. The palm tree does not grow there. It is in the desert and within the confines of [the province of] Budha. The cultivated fields are mostly irrigated. Vines grow there and cattle are pastured. The vicinity is fruitful.'

A hundred years before Istakhri, we have Ahmad al Bilazuri telling us that Kandabil sat atop a hill. Now mounds signify age because as habitation decays and crumbles new buildings rise on old ruins and over time a mound is created. And so, a town on a mound back in the year 850 would mean a town that was ancient even a thousand years ago.

We get some notion of the antiquity of this mysterious Kandabil from the Mujmal ut Twarikh, an 11th century translation of an ancient Indian work. It tells us that Kandabil was founded by Ardeshir Drazdast — the Artaxerxes Longimanus of Latin texts. Ardeshir of the Long Arms rose to the throne in 465 BCE; and so Kandabil is as old as that — if not older.

As for its location, we get a hint from the Chachnama. King Chach came up against this town not far from Siwistan (Sibi) where the inhabitants defied him by shutting themselves in their fort. Chach camped outside by a river that the book calls the Sini or Simni (an obvious copyists' mistake for Sibi) and shut off the town's water supply.

Kandabil capitulated and Chach extracted from its people a tribute of one hundred hill ponies and an annual tax of a hundred thousand dirhams (the writer being an Arab translates the currency). The first year's levy was taken there and then which shows us that the local government had plenty of cash to bandy around. And that takes us back to Istakhri who notes that Kandabil was a rich town.

Having read the various medieval writers and playing the geographer, it is not difficult for one to understand that this Kandabil lay somewhere in northern Sindh or the south-eastern corner of Balochistan abutting on Larkana district. According to the various medieval writers, this was the province of Budha, sometimes also referred to as Budhia. And there in the heart of this ancient province sits Gandava on its high mound on the west bank of the wide Badra River whose supply King Chach sealed off to force the townspeople to terms. Kandabil obviously was the Arabic rendition of Gandava.

But back in 2004 when I went there, I was told to seek a certain Syed who was supposed to know everything there was to know about Gandava. The man was there all right, but he said he knew as much about Gandava as the next man. And why should he, for he had no interest whatsoever in the town. He blabbered as if I were a Cloak and Dagger agent ready to apply third degree if he did not open up. He excused himself but not before he introduced me to his son who was instructed to show me around town. The tour took us past the unpretentious shrine of someone this young man believed was his ancestor. It was this Syed from Bokhara (where else!) who had brought water to Gandava which was then a waterless waste of a town. The women, my guide said, had to trek miles across the desert to get water for their daily needs. Grieving over the plight of these poor women, that non-existent ancestor miraculously procured water for the town in the shape of the Badra stream. The marvel so utterly charmed the heathen population of Gandava that en masse they converted to the one and only true faith.

To explain the water miracle he also told me that Gandava was then renamed Gunj Aaba — Abundance of Water. It is from this name, he explained, that the word Gandava springs. The man did not know that the works of medieval Arab writers clearly show that even in the 8th century, Gandava was known by this name and that was long before his Bokhara ancestor had made his entry.

I asked this young imbecile if he knew how old Gandava was and he said it was 'thousands of years old'. That was something I could not quarrel with and so I told him that even before the arrival of Islam, Gandava was a rich and flourishing emporium. I then asked if he understood that towns always grow on or very near perennial sources of water, the essence of life.

Of course, said the man, water was essential and it was his illustrious ancestor who made it available. Since the town according to him was thousands of years old and Islam only arrived here about thirteen hundred years ago, how did he explain the earlier years of prosperity without any water to nurture its population?

As if I had not grasped his earlier discourse, he reiterated that his ancestor, the supposed Syed from Bokhara, had arrived in Gandava 'thousands of years ago'. But, I observed, he also said the ancestor was a Muslim, so how could he have been here 'thousands of years' ago and converted the heathen population to a religion that was still waiting to make a coming?

That did not make any sense to my guide whose ancestor had supposedly blessed Gandava with its river. He jabbered on incoherently about his ancient pre-Islamic Muslim forebear and his miracle working. It was foolish to carry the debate on to the thousand years between Ardeshir, the purported founder of Gandava, and the advent of Islam. Reason not being the forte of the so-called Syeds of Gandava, I just moved on. That then is how folk history is compiled in our country. First of all, everything must spring from an Islamic source even if this connection cannot be logically justified. Secondly, all place names must necessarily be explained either by inventing heroes that never existed in history or by words like Gunj Aaba — Abundance of Water. It would be much easier if these poor ignorant writers of folk history would spend time with books.

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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