Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Pinion Shah - Profile

Porters are the backbone of most climbing expeditions, trekking and adventurous exploration into the mountains all over the world. The agile, tireless, hardworking people, primarily from local communities, ferry massive loads of gear on their backs. Like the more familiar Sherpa people of the Himalaya, the Pakistani porters are respected among fraternity of mountain lovers as some of the best porters in the world. They are dedicated and know where the crevasses and icefalls are, how to acclimatize, how much food and fuel to haul up the hill, when to push on, when to rest. They are unsung heroes of high-altitude mountaineering. Without their labour, many a base camps would never have been established; many a summit would never have been conquered.

I had lived some of my life in the base camps of majestic mountains in Northern Pakistan; with mountaineers, explorers and adventurers from all over the world and porters from Pakistan. During my to-ing and fro-ing in mountain areas, I have befriended many local porters. Some are still on my contact list but I have had the fortune to know Pinion Shah, best in his trade a little better.

Pinion Shah is sturdy and knows the mountains inside out. His forefathers migrated to Baltistan over six hundred years ago. Originally Buddhist, they along with other Balti people converted to Islam during the Moghul period in the sixteenth century. While some of the Baltis adapted to a trading economy, many are still largely pastoralists.

I first met Pinion Shah during my assignment as a facilitator with multinational climbing expedition to Nanga Parbat from Rupal side in 1993. That is when our friendship started by chance. I was to accompany the expedition only up to forward base camp. The hike to base camp and extended stay there brought every kind of weather imaginable -- scorching sun, blinding sandstorms, white-out blizzards.

Although I was not one of the climbers, the weather in the base camp left me physically emaciated and emotionally wasted. With great good fortune, on the way back, I was invited by Pinion Shah to his village, situated at the edge of the Rupal Valley, to recuperate. There I was nursed back to health with a combination of goat's milk, apricots and warm hospitality. I and Pinion Shah have always been in contact ever since.

While in the village, my eyes opened to the realities of the Balti way of life. Life there is hard, graceful and independent. Living conditions are harsh and devoid of modern day civic amenities we in urban centres take for granted. The Baltis live in isolated, remote valleys subsisting on pastoral grazing and marginal crops of barley and wheat. The climate is severe due to the high altitude. Villagers rely on their ingenuity to bring glacier melt water to their fields and homes. Medical care is almost nonexistent. Broken bones and burns often go untreated, and diseases due to malnutrition are a common fact of village life. Chronic infections often lead to blindness and deafness. Infant mortality rate under age one caused primarily by diarrhea-induced dehydration is alarmingly high. In winter, villagers crawl into tiny basement dugouts and spend months huddled together, barely kept warm by smoky fires.

Despite this abject poverty, I saw that the Baltis not only accept their destiny, but embrace the hardship as well as the beauty of their lives, keeping their humanity undimmed and even enhancing it. Facing an existence of privation and adversity, Pinion Shah and his family generously took in me and cared for like their own.

The traditional Balti ways of life are no doubt is about to change. Centuries old self-sustainable methodologies are being lost in the pursuit of the cash that expedition and trekking jobs bring. The inflow of money, material goods, and growing numbers of foreign travellers are impacting the Balti culture. In return for sharing their spectacular mountain surroundings with outsiders and for providing the strong back on which many expeditions reached their goals and many westerners realized their adventures, these Balti people deserve a decent future in which they have a voice.

Pinion Shah had nine years of schooling. He is familiar with oral English and is qualified in mountain hygiene and sanitation, first aid, and crevasse rescue. Pinion Shah told, “I leave villages for months at a time to seek elusive jobs as porters. I remain busy for the trekking season and earn enough to sustain our family through winters.”

“Serious mountaineering starts in the forward base camps,” narrated Pinion Shah, “I have seen climbers going back from the base camps even without attempting and team leader failing to pursue them to go ahead.” Though the travel to Pakistan has declined, but adventure travel has boomed in last few years. This year is being celebrated as a Golden Jubilee of conquering K 2 by an Italian expedition. “I am expecting more business in the areas this year,” he wrote me.

Pinion Shah is aging now. He was known to carry maximum load when he was young literally moving the mountains of luggage and equipment on the most difficult hikes. As a person, Pinion Shah always inspires me. He remains proud, happy and ready to share despite all their hardships. There is no fast lane in his life. He has no worries, alienation or fears. He is very contended with life and what ever comes his way.

Joy of exploring Pakistan

One of the earlier recorded monument goers was Herodotus, the Greek historian who voyaged to Egypt 2400 years ago to stand in awe before the pyramids. One of the valid causes around the world these days is raising awareness about historic monuments and national sites in need of repair. Awareness can make the difference.

As a traveler, I have been all over the country paying tribute to Pakistan’s wealth of ancient sites. Starting from Karachi where 600 buildings have been listed by a heritage foundation to Multan, Gogera and Lahore with their own distinct architectural style to Peshawar where legendary character of Qissa Khwani bazaar is changing and its old landmarks like city walls are disappearing. I also touched Thatta, Ptttan Munara, Uch Sharif, Sialkot, Nandna (in Salt Range) and Mansehra in the way. In my pursuit, I have traced the routes followed by conqueror Alexander the great and Chinese traveler Hieun Tsiang in the part of the world we call home. I have seen many extraordinary sights feeling comfortable and at peace and completely in the grip of history as I stood before each of them.

Pakistan Federal Archeology Department identifies over 350 sites of irreplaceable and intrinsic value ranging from ruins in Mohenju Daro, Harappa and Texila to the tomb of the only Mughal Emperor (Jehangir) in Pakistan that has been rated third in the Subcontinent after Taj Mahal and Qutab Minar. The heritage sites in Pakistan are fast falling apart. Pilfering pollution, harsh climate, over development, lack of funds and expertise for maintenance, neglect and apathy of all concerned and law and order situation in the country all add up to crumbling monuments and disappointing travelers.

We are poised to lose forever countless bits and pieces of amazingly divers land’s history, it seems. One problem facing the heritage custodians and town planners in Pakistan is what to do with the splendid legacy of the past?

History and archeology make for good tourism that is largely a function of prosperity. The more money people have the more of it they will spend on travel and other intellectual pursuits. Today, worldwide tourism is an unprecedented 4.4 trillion dollar industry expected to be 10 trillions by 2010. Now once every beach, airport and other conventional tourist spots feel crowded like a cinema hall, people are constantly looking for quite unique and brand new destinations where they can see things and experience cultures that are not possible at home. Last year 90 million people came to Asia alone. But the irony is that outside world does not know about Pakistan or has a distorted image of it hence tourists cannot plan to visit. The tourism department foreign missions abroad, national airline. hotels and even the private sector and multinational giants of tourism could do a lot more than what they are doing to promote this industry. After all Pakistan has much more to offer than many other countries combined together.

This is the paradox and the joy of Pakistan a young national forged in the crucible of one of the world’s oldest civilizations. Some of the initial human history began here. The cultures are expressed in beautiful mosques, gardens tombs, forts, temples, monasteries, palaces, havelis, and other Islamic, pre Islamic, Hindu Sikh and British architectures. All these are the magnificent vistas of a land of mountains and plans, fields and orchards, farmland and sweeping river valleys. But all this has to be opened to the rest of the world.

No ordinary coldness of phrasing can express the surprise and delight with which one makes acquaintance with the heritage sites spread all over Pakistan.

Their perspective gives you a wonderful sense of being. That is what I do when I am tired of being tied with the desk.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Rediscovering a canal digger

Salman Rashid

That the writers of the Shah Jehan Nama were tactfully silent about how the emperor really felt concerning Ali Mardan is understandable. As court historians they could only record what the emperor wished

Outside the railway workshop of Mughalpura on the east side of Lahore, hard by the Grand Trunk Road, there sits a Mughal tomb. Once in the midst of orchards and, according to Kanhaya Lal, the 19th century historian of Lahore, the ‘highest mausoleum in Lahore’, it is now barely visible from anywhere. After British authorities laid out the workshop, the tomb fell in its precincts and is now accessible by a long tunnel.

One of the two sarcophagi in the subterranean chamber holds the remains of Ali Mardan Khan who has been deified by the cunning chowkidars of the Department of Archaeology: they collect the donations for permitting superstitious idiots to revere this man as a saint. Those with pretence of learning bill him as the builder of Shalimar Gardens and a great digger of canals. In reality, Ali Mardan was as fallible as fallible can be.

In the 1630s, this man was the governor of Kandahar on behalf of the Safvid king of Persia. Now, until 1607 Kandahar was a Mughal possession that had been wrested away by Shah Abbas the Safvid. When Shah Abbas died and was replaced on the throne by his grandson Shah Safi, Ali Mardan was the governor at Kandahar. Fearing the paranoid and murderous Shah Safi, Ali Mardan sent a secret message to the Mughal governor at Kabul that were the Persian king to attack Kandahar he would quickly hand over the city to the Mughals.

Not long afterwards Shah Safi did indeed march on Kandahar. Ali Mardan changed sides and Shah Jehan was more than pleased to regain Kandahar that his father had lost to the Safvids. The turncoat was invited to the court at Lahore where, according to the Shah Jehan Nama, he was favoured with the chance of ‘doing obeisance at the foot of the royal throne’. He was also awarded a right royal sum of three hundred thousand rupees as his claimed travel expenses for the journey.

The man wintered in Lahore where he evidently enjoyed the emperor’s ear and when summer approached requested a posting as governor of Kashmir because he ‘was habituated to the climate of Iran and could not endure the burning heat of Hindustan’. A year later he whinged about winter being too harsh in Kashmir. From then on it was summers in Kashmir and winters in Lahore — as governor at both places. No one had it better under Shah Jehan!

Meanwhile, it is very clear that the emperor was beholden no end to Ali Mardan for returning the province of Kandahar to the Mughal crown because gifts from the court flowed liberally. In 1639, two years after he had been enjoying Lahore and Kashmir as best as anyone could, Ali Mardan told the emperor that there was ‘an engineer in his service who possesses eminent skill in the art of constructing canals’. He suggested that a channel be dug from the Ravi where it breaks out of the mountains about a hundred and eighty kilometres away and brought to slake the parched country around Lahore city.

Shah Jehan liked the idea and immediately paid out the one hundred thousand rupees that Ali Mardan demanded as the cost of the project. Work began and what happened next smacks exactly of government outfits in modern Pakistan. In February 1641 with the canal yet unfinished Ali Mardan contrived a transfer to the governorship of Kabul. Shortly afterwards Shah Jehan inspected work on the canal and in anticipation of the water that promised to flow in it ordered the laying out of a garden that was to be one of his most enduring and beautiful gifts to Lahore — the Shalimar Gardens.

Work on the garden began on the twelfth day of June 1641 and this gem was completed in record time of sixteen months. Meanwhile, Ali Mardan’s servants, from time to time, came up with additional demands for funds that amounted in total to another one hundred thousand rupees ‘in order that the water might be made to flow with the required volume.’ But the canal completed ‘under the directions of Ali Mardan Khan’s servants’ stubbornly remained bone dry.

The emperor was miffed and Ali Mardan’s servants were booted out. The Shah Jehan Nama records that these so-called engineers had ‘through bad judgement’ wasted fifty thousand rupees. The chronicle goes on to say that ‘several learned specialists who possessed great engineering skill’ were recruited to design the canal all over again. An altogether new channel thirty-two kos (about 110 kilometres) long, was designed. It should be of great interest that only five kos (some eighteen kilometres) of the original excavation by Ali Mardan’s engineers could be utilised in this new design that eventually brought water to the garden.

Shortly after assigning new engineers to the failed project, Shah Jehan, acting as peculiarly as only kings can, honoured Ali Mardan Khan with the title of Amir ul Umra (Lord of Lords). A few years later, in 1649, the emperor conferred Kashmir as a fief upon this man. From this point on Ali Mardan remained, depending upon the season, either in Lahore or in Kashmir.

Though it does not say so in explicit terms, an objective reading of the Shah Jehan Nama shows that the emperor was somehow not quite sure of Ali Mardan’s faithfulness. His readiness to acquiesce to the various requests by the man was, in all probability, an attempt to keep a dubious ally in good humour. Surely Shah Jehan must have been apprehensive of a piqued Ali Mardan Khan changing sides as he had done in the past and delivering the coveted outlying province of Kabul, and with it Kandahar, into Safvid hands and was constrained to keep the man content.

That the writers of the Shah Jehan Nama were tactfully silent about how the emperor really felt concerning Ali Mardan is understandable. As court historians they could only record what the emperor wished. What is amazing is why later historians, particularly the British, unnecessarily made too much of the man. Long after his death some Raj historian turned rapacious, grabbing Ali Mardan Khan into Shah Jehan’s master architect. A detailed reading would have shown this historian that Ali Mardan was eating highland apricots in Kabul while his factotums aimlessly flogged the earth outside Lahore with their spades. The crown of apotheosis was placed upon his head by modern Pakistan. Those who come to beg him to intercede on their behalf will never believe they are bending their head to the tomb of a highly dubious character.

If the emperor had meant to keep him in good humour, he did it pretty well. Toward the end of his career Ali Mardan was collecting from the treasury a stipend of three million rupees per annum. In April 1657 when he died from dysentery on his way to Kashmir, his total assets were well over ten million rupees!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Pakpattan - the name is enough to start the travelers, cautiously curious and devoted faithful dreaming. Already the magic words like sultans and saints are stirring in the head. Let your gaze slip over the dhaki - original citadel of Pakpattan - and the town will suddenly appear. The antiquity is its own message: the town is heritage, and heritage permeates the town.

Enter the once walled inner-city through one of the existing gates and you will find yourself in archetypal form of an ancient town - crooked and narrow streets, dense housing, intricate woodwork on Jharokas, bay windows and doors. So many historic cities have developed losing much of their original character in the process during modern times, but Pakpattan has survived remarkably in tact. It is the entire urban fabric of the place that is historic. Though, the major portion of the fortification wall has disappeared. At places, the wall has even been utilized as a part of the residences. Four gates (Shahedi, Rehimun, Abu and Mori) have survived out of six but they are all crumbling. Now extensive suburbs stretch from the foot of the wall all around. Thin red bricks from centuries old wall are seen used in the new houses all over the town. The portion of the settlement that sits on the mound can be compared with walled part of Multan City.

The remains of peripheral wall with ancient mystique define the inner portion that is totally pedestrian, vehicular traffic and modern development contained out of the wall. Homes have also retained their essential trait despite renovations to make them comfortable for modern living or to create additional space for more families. You can see the mythical woodwork, murals as well as tiled facades and colorful patterns in old havelies.

General Alexander Cunningham has recognized Pakpattan, anciently known as Ajudhan, as a town that appears in the work of Hellenic historians and other classic writers under the names of Ohydrakae, Sydrakae, Sudraykae and or Hydaekae. Two strategic roads of the past - one from Dera Ghazi Khan and other from Dera Ismail Khan - used to meet here. Great conquerors like Mahmud Ghaznavi, Taimur and traveler like Ibn-e-Batuta crossed Sutlaj from Pakpattan that had been principal ferry on River Sutlaj for centuries.

Medieval history of the town started when Amir Subuktagin subdued Pakpattan in 980 (AD) followed by Ibrahim Ghaznavi in 1080. Even today, the thought that Taimur during his invasion in 1398 spared the lives of those who had not fled the place, out of respect for the shrine of saint Baba Farid, inspire reverence.

The soul of the city is famous saint Farid-ud-Din Masud Ganj Shakar commonly known as Baba Farid. The saint was born in a village Kothewal (near Multan) in 1173 in a family that had migrated from Afghanistan. Saint, scholar and poet, Baba Farid traveled to Khurasan, Kirman, Badakhshan, Baghdad, Mecca Muazzma, Madina Munawara, Kufa, Basra, Damascus, Nishapur, Bukhara, Dehli and Multan before he finally settled in Pakpattan. Here he spent his life in spreading the light of divine Islam. It was due to the religious services and personal example of the saint that Islam spread in this part of the Subcontinent and many people including Hindu Jogi Birnath along with his followers came into the folds of Islam. The saint died in 1265 and his shrine was constructed by Khwaja Nizam ud Din Auleya in 1267.

Splendors of the 'Farid Complex' fire the imagination. The shrine - simple and destitute of ornament - stands next to the bigger shrine of his grandson Ala ud Din Mouj Darya, which was built by Sultan Muhammad Tughlaq. The main chamber of the shrine of Baba Farid has two doors - one in the East is called Noori Darwaza and the other in South in famous Baheshti Darwaza. Besides the principal grave of the saint, there is another grave in the chamber where his son Badr ud Din Suleman is buried. The ample, pure and unadorned architecture is very inspiring. Urs of the saint is celebrated in the month of Muharram but large of devotes stream into the shrine everyday. You can also see Qawwal groups performing and malangs falling in state of trance mostly on Thursdays.

Both the principal shrines are in good condition but the adjoining ancient mosque has decayed. Auqaf is constructing a new mosque nearby as a part of Farid Complex. Besides the shrines of Baba Farid and Mouj Darya, there are over twenty shrines of saintly persons in the town. Most eminent out of these is the shrine of Baba Aziz Makki.

There is a whole different world outside the shrine parameters. Cubbyhole shops selling deathbed spreads, flowers, big bangles and sweets (for niaz) known as Makhane and eating joints are lined up in both the streets leading to the shrine. Business in the streets is thriving because devotees 'must' take something home from the shrine. Sleazy sounding and persistent beggars flock around devotees heading for the shrine. People are seen distributing free food: cooked food is available for sale in large quantity round the clock. A philanthropist from Karachi is running a separate Lunger Khana at his own expense since 1995. Bustling with activity, the place seems to have its own culture.

How the name Ajudhan was changed to Pakpattan? It is a fact that name Pakpattan (meaning pure ferry) distinguished due to the home and last resting-place of Baba Farid. According to a local lore, Mughal King Akbar on the eve of his visit to the shrine to pay homage to the saint declared Pakpattan as an official name of the town. The thought that so many people including Ibn-e-Batuta, Guru Nanik Dev Jee and Waris Shah had visited the shrine evokes awe and aura of eternity.

Wandering about in the older part of town near the relics of Kacha Burj - defensive tower that was erected by Haibat Khan during the rule of Sher Shah Suri, you can think about the strategic importance of this town in the bygone era. But, during Mughal time when danger from the North reduced, the town lost its defensive significance.

Pakpattan was first declared district headquarters in 1849 when British rule established in the Subcontinent. The headquarters were later moved to Gugera in 1852 and then to Sahiwal in 1856. British also instituted Pakpattan Municipal Committee in 1868. Kasur-Lodhran section of Railway line was laid in 1910 and Pakpattan became an important station on the Railway map because of railway divisional headquarters and loco sheds. Though this section of railway line was torn apart and sent to Mesopotamia during Second World War and the town could not prosper as an agricultural market in those days. On July 1, 1990, Pakpattan was again declared district headquarters. This became the only district of the country without any tehsil until Arifwala tehsil was included in the district in 1995. In order to preserve the bits and pieces of history lying under the layers of time, the experts could carry out a survey to record the places having essential significance. The living heritage should be declared as 'protected area' - the concept that presently is not there in Pakistan.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Travel Companion to the Northern Areas of Pakistan

Pakistan is a country with a beautiful and varied landscape and I am not being ethnocentric here. Tahir Jahangir proves that in his book titled "Travel Companion to the Northern Areas of Pakistan" and any body who goes up there can find this out for himself. The awe inspiring Northern Areas (as well as Chitral and Kashmir) offer every kind of heavenly beauty. Northern Pakistan is a land of contrasts, of surprises, a richly textured melting pot of diversity that leaves a vivid memory in the minds of every visitor, hiker or adventurer – only if the world knows it. The book tells the world what Northern Areas in Pakistan can offer.

Tahir Jahangir, an Economics graduate from University of Cambridge and a very successful industrialist of Pakistan is found of travelling and landscape photography. A book "Travel Companion to the Northern Areas of Pakistan" is his labour of love after countless 'to-ing and fro-ing to the Northern Areas – travellers' and explorers' paradise famous all over the world.

Northern Areas of Pakistan, spread over 72,496 square kilometres are fascinating. Amidst towering snow-clad peaks with heights varying from 1,000 meters to 8, 000 meters, the regions of Gilgit and Hunza, Nanga Parbat Treks, Swat and Kaghan Valleys recall Shangri-La. Tahir Jahangir also covers Mansehra Valley and Guallies, Neelam Valley, Parachinar and Chitral.

Nowhere in the world is such a great concentration of high mountains, peaks, glaciers, clean water lacks (full of trout and romantic legend attached to them) and passes except Pakistan. Of the 14 over 8,000 meters high peaks on our earth planet, four occupy an amphitheatre at the head of Baltoro glacier in the Karakorum Range: K-2 (world's second highest), Gasherbrum-I, Broad Peak and Gasherbrum-II. There is yet another, which is equally great, Nanga Parbat, located at the western most corner of the Himalayas. In addition to that, there are 68 peaks over 7,000 meters and hundreds others over 6,000 meters. The Northern Pakistan has some of the longest glaciers outside Polar region; Siachen, Hispar, Biafo, Baltoro (60 k kilometres) and Batura (64 k kilometres).

Where as the entire Northern Areas are magnificent but the Hunza valley is virtually the best -- rocky, desolate land transformed into an endless terraced garden and blooming gardens. Tahir Jahangir has been to most of these places and tells us through his words and explains them with the help of unique photographs and maps.

Let us pause for a second and visualise the scenario in the Northern Areas of Pakistan in the earlier centuries, when travellers, notably Fa Hian and Tsang Huang- both Chinese pilgrims, trotted along the "old silk route" crossing over the Hunza valley to enter into their destiny- the Gandhara regions, where it rained powder and rocks as they made their "pilgrimage" to these high places a "a great adventure". Tahir Jahangir's account recalls the past in the present context. He also adds cultural patterns of these regions, geography and other relevant information required by modern day travellers. That makes the book more than a mere travel guide book or just a travelogue.

Visitors find peace and solitude in this enchanting mountain kingdom. The valleys are a paradise for trekkers and mountain lovers. The treks in the glacial landscape of the upper valleys are a trekkers dream. A visit to this fairyland is a fantasy to be lived and relived as such places are rare and far between.