Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Tell them a story: Salman Rashid charts his journey with travel filmmaking

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By Shayan Naveed

Salman Rashid is a historian and the only Pakistani to have seen the North Face of K-2. He also has the unique privilege of calling himself the late VS Naipaul’s friend. Today, he sits adjacent to me in a cacophonic coffee shop in Lahore, sipping overpriced coffee. He strains his ear to make sense of what I ask him but gives up, shaking his head as we drag our chairs outside, away from the clutter.

“Restaurants here are set up in a way where you can’t even converse,” he says.

Our coffees start to look like muddied water.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 10:15, ,

Peshawar Copperware

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‘Only they who understand the intricacies of misgari will appreciate the hard work that goes into producing a copperware item and will be willing to pay its price commensurate with the work that went into its making.’ Khwaja Safar Ali says referring to a copper plate he has in his home.

Constructed from twenty different sheets of copper heated to glowing redness to be stitched together, weighing some ten kilograms and engraved and chased with intricate patterns, the plate took four months of painstaking work. But today the buyer who would be aware of the value of the work is hard to come by. And so Safar Ali has not been offered the asking price of Rs 200,000. He produced it knowing well enough that it may be months before he might find a buyer for it. This piece was a labour of love for Ali. It epitomises his pride in the craft kept by his family through several generations.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00, ,

So Long, Excalibur

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Legend has it that Alexander, having crossed the river, fought his epic battle against Raja Paurava and made peace with the Punjabi king, paused to inspect the state of his army’s weaponry. Finding most of it much the worse for wear and in urgent need of repair, he sought the nearest armourer. Such an establishment, he was informed, was at Wazirabad. Thence his quartermaster went and had the armament refurbished.

But that is only legend. When Alexander entered this part of the country there was no township worthy of notice on the site of modern Wazirabad. Also, we must remember that in his train Alexander had a full complement of armourers, as well as other artisans. However, what seems likely is that when Wazirabad was founded in the 1640s by Emperor Shah Jehan’s courtier, Wazir Khan, families of cutlers and armourers may have been established in the new township to cater to the requirements of the army in camp.

The armourers appear to have done well for just two centuries later, we hear of their great prowess. Greatly appreciative of a set of cuirasses received as a gift from King Louis Philippe of France, Maharaja Ranjit Singh ordered for the armour to be replicated for use by his own army. The craftsmen deemed up to the task worked in Wazirabad. The copies they produced were so perfect as to earn the most lavish admiration of the Maharaja.

Not long afterwards the Gazetteer of the Gujranwala District (1884) tells us travellers passing through Wazirabad were offered ‘many-bladed pocket knives bristling with hooks, screw-drivers, and other contrivances more calculated to display the ingenuity of the maker than to serve the convenience of the purchaser.’ This trade, it is recorded, had been established ‘for a long time’. Among the manufacture of Wazirabad the Gazetteer enumerates guns, pistols, swords, razors and spears.

The reputation of Wazirabad as a cutlery making centre has not dwindled with the passing of years. Today there are dozens of establishments where men in clothes stained by iron dust work the forge or pore over grinding wheels to sharpen and polish scissors and knives of varied descriptions. These small hovels, ill-lit and cluttered, produce low and medium quality wares for the local market. On the other end is a firm of New Stainless Industries. Behind its unpretentious exterior in Arif Shaheed Road, there is enough weaponry to start a small-scale mediaeval war.

Owned by a family of Chadda Rajputs, this house was established in the waning days of Sikh rule by a sire of the current crop of young managers. Family tradition relates that their business has always been arms and armament manufacture and it may well be that the cuirass so admired by the Maharaja may have been produced by their ancestors. What is certain is that they have been producing cutlery and arms for the local market for nearly two centuries.

After 1857 the family was engaged by the British Indian army to supply what is locally known as the suway wala chaku – a multi-purpose pocket knife. Being a part of the soldiers’ kit, it was required in large numbers and kept the establishment busy for almost a century. The Chadda forge also hand produced gun barrels in the period between the two World Wars. As well as that, the Sikh kirpan was a major production; this establishment also supplied bayonets to the British Indian army during World War II.

After Partition, the market shrank and for twenty years, the Chadda business floundered. Casting about the German market in the late 1960s, the family received a tentative order for a knife with a thirty centimetre (12”) blade and stag horn hilt. Replicating the piece was no problem, but stag horn being unavailable, camel bone was used instead. Such was the ingenuity of working the camel bone to imitate stag horn that the buyer approved of the sample and placed an order for the supply of three hundred pieces. The Chaddas’ New Stainless Industry has never looked back since.

Several generations of experience as sword and knife manufacturers now came into play. Using the German dagger as a model, a set of six knives was designed. While the chassis was the same as the original, there were minor artistic innovations and the Germans excitedly placed an enlarged order for the new models as well. This was the early 1970s and the company was then working with just twenty-five men, producing everything by hand.

By the mid-1970s, the Chaddas had come a long way from supplying the suway wala chaku to the British Indian Army. Their market had now expanded from Germany to USA and with it their workforce to two hundred. Yet the company found it difficult to meet the burgeoning demand. Seeing that their suppliers were keen workers, the German and American buyers purchased the requisite machinery and shipped it out to Wazirabad. This was no free gift, however: the buyers were to deduct ten percent from each invoice to pay for the machinery.

Today the company’s major buyers are in USA, Germany, Spain, Italy, France and Australia with USA leading the market. Their line comprises over six hundred different swords, daggers, hunting and pocket knives – of this number a little over one hundred are swords of various kinds.

Many of the swords and daggers are the staple for fantasy films coming out of Hollywood. Others are replicas of weapons used by famous historical personages. Today these are collectors’ items that adorn innumerable walls in Western homes. So far as knives and daggers go, there being fewer restrictions on the carrying of such weapons in Western countries, they have are essential for hunters and outdoorsmen.

Back in the 1880s, the Gazetteer had noted that while the forging skills of the cutlers of Wazirabad were exceptional, they were offset by the poor quality steel in use as well as the imperfect polish and finish. New Stainless Industry has come a long way for they now use the finest quality steel with modern finishing techniques. If anything can be indicative of quality, it is that rather than have the manufacturer’s logo, foreign buyers ask for their own brand names to be appliquéd upon the finished product.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 09:13, ,

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