Thursday, September 30, 2010

At Khunjerab

Being at Khunjerab Pass is a unique experience for those who like the mountains and want to walk on them. On the way up on Kharakorum Highway (KKH), there are innumerable options right from simple sight seeing to hard adventure, or a mix of both. Khunjerab surpasses them all. It is one of the world's highest passes connecting two countries, and mountains on either side.

In summer, a stream of buses from down country, motorcycles and bickers (through China) reach Khunjerab. KKH has become one of the world famous routs for bikers and motorcyclists. At times the pass seems like a place where international cultural diffusion takes place. Travellers are seen clicking the shutters of their cameras standing around milestone situated at the pass for memory sack or exchanging addresses and promises to send the photographs to each other. From this place one is 400 kilometres away from Kashgar and 880 kilometres from Islamabad. Those who are not acclimatized, experience a degree of altitude sickness, headaches, and or drowsiness as well. And in winters, it is lonely out there.

Beyond Pirali, the place on KKH before the snows of Khunjerab make existence difficult, the first impression of Khunjerab Pass at 15072 feet above sea level is a long series of switchbacks around the pass. The immediate sight on home side alone is worth the trip to the pass. On either side, massive angular mountains crowd the horizon – silent guards of some highest peaks on planet -- celestial giants thrusting toward the heavens. Snow-capped pinnacles pierce through white misty clouds amidst kaleidoscopic purple dusks. The sharp jagged peaks of the Karakorums on ours side distinguish a region of former feudal princedoms, valley kingdoms and states some call Little Tibet. The region is home to more tall mountains than Nepal and Tibet combined together. This is "the Roof of the World," where four greatest mountain ranges in the world come together - the Himalaya, Pamirs, Karakorums and Hindu Kush. The landscape on the Chinese side is noticeably smoother. There are mountains -- the snow-clad rounded Pamirs to the east -- but the valley is more open. Yaks, sheep, camels, and people can be seen from the last point, and everything seems different even at a distance.

I have very romantic memories of sitting at lonely places (don’t call me loner), enjoying physical beauty and being taken by my own thoughts and perceptions of the places I happened to be at. One pleasure in travelling alone is that no one is around to remind about others waiting for you to start back! Alone at Khunjerab, climbing up a gorge, I was treated to the rare sight of Markhor sheep (well, I think I saw one). So artfully had nature blended them with the terrain that it becomes hard to tell where the rocks or Markhor stands? With the air thinning I continued climbing, hairpin after hairpin till I began to see the straight road that spans beyond Sost - Pakistan custom and immigration post. This is another matchless experience. Looking up to and walking on mountains, at Khunjerab one see them almost at eye level. I sat at the gorge for a while and saw so much unappreciated beauty.

Caravans as far back as the fourth century have been using this historic pass. Ivory, spices, silk and jade were hauled through Rocky River gorges and grassy valleys. This was where Marco Polo trekked through taking news of a legendary kingdom back to Europe. Along this giant oriental trading autobahn, intrepid explorers bartered goods, exchanged ideas and discovered technologies. A steady trickle of horseback commerce crossed the Khunjerab until the 1950s. Up above the road, remnants of old mule tracks from the old days are still evident, etched along mountainsides. After the completion of KKH, the Khunjerab Pass was opened to traffic and trade in 1982, and to tourists in 1986. Khunjerab in local language means valley of blood, a reference to local bandits who used to take advantage of the difficult terrain to plunder caravans in ancient days. Now it is safe and one can buy much sought after "Do Ghore ki Boski" at many places in the way.

Any travellers can have all this and more using a bus service or better still a four wheel driven topless jeep on KKH. Khunjerab is also a starting point for more adventurous who want to explore the catchments of Sukhtar Abad commonly known as the Blue Sheep Valley -- a little known habitat of Blue sheep, the Himalayan ibex and possibly snow leopards. Due to lack of tracks, Sukhtar Abad is not easily accessible. It can be approached from three different routes, Nazim Abad village through Dikarjerb crossing -- a high altitude pass, Hussain Abad village through Gourdour Pass; and from the Khunjerab River, when it is relatively dry in winters. Those who have visited the valley say it is very rewarding but takes some serious trekking to reach the valley.

The Khunjerab grasslands came under the control of rulers of Hunza in the late 18th century. They used to allocate grazing rights to villagers, and in turn used to receive from them a tax in the form of livestock and livestock products. Hunza rulers controlled hunting in the area as well as any trans-border trade with China. Their own livestock grazed in the Khunjerab pastures, tended by designated shepherds, who sent livestock and the products when ordered to Baltit Palace, Hunza. The situation changed when the princely states were merged into Pakistan in the early 70s. Area in Gilgit district, comprises of 2,269 square kilometres, either side of the KKH from Dih to Khunjerab Pass as Khunjerab National Park.

Khunjerab Pass has become increasingly accessible now. The construction of KKH and air service to Gilgit has resulted in an increase in the number of visitors, both foreign and domestic. With increase in access, the mountain pastures, valleys, and wildlife habitats, previously valued for centuries as grasslands and woodlands, have now become the objects of desire of a number of competing interests -- resort hotels, adventure tourism, big game hunting, mountaineering, and conservation organizations, to name a few. Each group is interested in maximizing its return from usage of the resources in the area. Khunjrab is losing its serenity in the process.

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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Bun-Kebab in Naples, Italy

We were recently walknig in the back alleys of Naples. The scene was very traditional Italian. In narrow pathways there were shops selling all kinds of merchandise from colorful pasta to miniature art, guitars to fountain pens and old books. There were children playing football in every open space. In all this traditional Itlaian set up I suddenly heard a Bollywood tune. As I looked up I saw this signboard which showed Aishwarya with a raised hand serving what we in Pakistan call a “Bun-Kebab” (or is it “Bund-Kabab”?).

Well, I was pleasantly surprised and then I hypnotically walked in this place where I found out that it was a Pakistani restaurant. The name is ‘Ali Baba 40′ - which sounds more like Ali Baba has just celebrated his 40th birthday instead of being accompanied by 40 thieves. Anyways I want to commend the ingenuity of the person who came up with the idea of removing the word ‘thieves’ from the proverbial alf-laila phrase to run his business. Atleast he didn’t re-write Arabian Nights by changing the phrase Ali Baba 40 thieves to Ali Baba 40 pappoo or Ali Baba 40 bachay or Ali Baba 40 samosay.

I think Aishwarya’s photo on the signboard is meant to represent Ali Baba’s domestic helper – who if I remember right was called Marjeena in Arabian Nights.

Ok. back to my anecdote. This restaurant had a wall mounted TV which was showing a Bollywood movie so that is where the music was coming from. We ordered couple of plates of ‘samosa-chutney’. See photo below.

It was a surreal experience to order food in Urdu, eat Samosas and watch Priyanka Chopra dancing on TV in the heart of traditional Italy. We were on our way shortly but this experience of eating samosas in Naples will remain with me for a long time. The photos of this post are the little souvenirs that I brought back with me.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Gawalmandi Food Street No More

Gowalmandi Food and Heritage Street has become an enriching experience in Lahore. It is a wonder what a few million rupees spent on the renovation of built heritage with balconies and angular projections lining the street some years ago have done to the ambience of the street. The initial hype is over but Lahorites still compare it with lanes in Rome, Paris and Athens.

Sizzling spicy foods on display in Gowalmandi reminds of what Vasco de Gama shouted after setting his foot on South Asian soils on the dawn of May 21, 1498, "For Christ and spices!" No data for consumption of spices in Gowalmandi Food Street are available but a proprietor of one of the biggest shops in the street told, "On the average I sell about 120 Kilograms mutton and over 40 kilograms of chicken every day. People prefer to eat mutton karahi and chicken barbecued. A milk shop proprietor said, "My daily milk consumption - in the form of chilled milk, yogurt, Kheer, khoya, lassi -- is over 2000 kilograms." (Consumption should be a little more now. This data is old.)

In the street, every body is lead by aroma of the food in front or on the fire. Variety of languages greets your ear. Unfazed by noisy crowd and the bustle, the waiters will get the orders and you will get the whole picture while sitting in an open street nicely lined with thin upright tiles, though sometime orders may change. I was served Makhan Mutton Karahi when I had ordered chicken leg piece -- an ultimate achievement in food in this part of the world. I did not mind this deal at all but the large family that had ordered the sumptuous dish had to wait longer and made lot of observations.

Over the years, the Food Street has become a major tourists' attraction in Lahore for locals as well as foreigners. One can always see them eating, roaming around or standing near a huge black vat, where Peshawri Chappal Kababs are made, and taking photographs. Davis, a 'Khalis Angreez' who was in Lahore in connection with book exibition and I met him in the Food Street asked lot many question and remarked, "In west there is hardly any place where one can see food being cooked. It is so mouth-watering just to watch". Sikhs from across the boarders are also seen wearing "what is it in the Food Street" look. Davis opined that Food Street (and Pakistan in general) is one of the most inexpensive places in the world as far as food is concerned.

On my last visit to the food street, I had enough on my own plate, literally, to deal with but I could not help noticing what was happening on an open-air dinning table being shared by another family -- mother, father and five children. Each one of the children had thought of something different to order but they ultimately settled for Tez Massala Mukkhan Mutton Karahi and Chicken Tikkas followed by chilled Kheer served in thoothees.

Once the ordered food was laid out, the disciplinarian mother served the helpings in plates of her children and husband, of course giving him the best and the biggest share (a good old-tradition withering rapidly). Mother told the children to start their supper with the name of Allah Almighty, the most merciful and the most beneficent. After counting the pieces in his plate, the younger boy instead of eating innocently remarked, "Mama! Just like home, you are giving me lesser even in the Food Street. She looked at her food-obsessed son sternly and spontaneously pointed out, "And just like home, you are looking what others have got instead of concentrating at what is in front of you even in the Food Street." The dialogue reminds me of my own mother. What has the place got to do with parenting? It remains the same. I keep thinking.

Gowalmandi Food Street is an experience packed with dining options. Who says that you have to wait for Bassant or Food Festival to go there? It has become a permanent cultural feature of Lahore, hard to ignore for any one. When did you visit the Street last.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

World Tourism Day

Defining the critical role of the tourism sector in protecting biodiversity and setting out clear recommendations on how to maximize this contribution is the aim of two new UNWTO reports. These recommendations come ahead of World Tourism Day 2010, (WTD), celebrated on 27 September under the theme ‘Tourism and Biodiversity’.

Tourism and Biodiversity: Achieving Goals towards Sustainability, underlines the relationship between sustainable tourism and biodiversity, and assesses how tourism can contribute to achieve the international targets for the protection of biodiversity, including the Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) 2010 and post-2010 biodiversity goals. The report also considers the implications for tourism of the recommendations from The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) study, part of the United Nation’s Green Economy Initiative.

The UNWTO report sets out ten recommendations for governments, international organizations, the tourism sector and NGOs on integrating biodiversity conservation in tourism development. Key among these are implementing best practices for avoiding and minimizing negative impacts of tourism on biodiversity; applying the CBD Guidelines on Biodiversity and Tourism Development and the findings of TEEB to the sustainable management and development of tourism; and promoting investment in ecological infrastructure.

The Practical Guide for the Development of Biodiversity-Based Tourism Products offers practical guidelines to local tour operators and product developers on how to develop sustainable biodiversity-based tourism products. Practical recommendations, including attending training programmes and monitoring the capacity of natural areas in order not to damage habitats and species, will help tourism stakeholders to not only position themselves competitively in international markets, but to also maximize tourism’s benefits for local communities, while maintaining local biodiversity.

The two reports will be presented in Guangzhou, China, host of World Tourism Day 2010, and set the scene for the High Level Dialogue on Tourism, Biodiversity and Sustainable Development which marks the World Tourism Day official celebrations.

In a special message on the occasion of World Tourism Day, UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, has commended the tourism community for its “growing recognition of the importance of conserving the diversity of life on Earth” and further highlights how the sector can contribute to protecting biodiversity through “integrating simple measures such as managing tour groups to minimize disturbance to wildlife or buying supplies only from sustainable sources”.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Alexander on Aornos

Salman Rashid

At Massaga, fighting with the Pukhtuns was a seven thousand-strong contingent of mercenaries from the east. So long as they were commanded by their general, Arrian records, these ‘Indians fought with great courage’

Burimar is a quiet and lovely little place of a few houses, mainly summer residences, small plots of tilled land where magpies squabble and argue, a tumbling brook and pine forest that rings with birdsong. It nestles just below the 2618-metre (8590 feet) peak of Una Sar. Una Sar, commonly famous as Pir Sar (after the slightly lower adjacent peak which has a supposed saint’s grave), sits in the crook formed on the west bank of the Sindhu River as it sweeps past Behsam to make a left (east) ward arc.

Now, the n in Una produces that sound which is known only in Sanskrit-based languages of the subcontinent: the sound that rolls the nasal n sound together with the palatal r. Sar, on the other hand, simply means peak. And so this was the Peak of Una. The Greeks, incapable of vocalising this sound, turned Una Sar into the Rock of Aornos.

In early April in the year 326 BCE, Burimar saw a minor battle between the Pukhtuns and the forces of Alexander the Macedonian. Having entered what is today called Pakistan by the Nawa Pass of Bajaur, and worked his way from victory after victory over the Pukhtuns he met on the way, he arrived in Swat. Meanwhile, many of the Pukhtuns who fought against him and made off with their lives, fled to Aornos. There on the lofty heights of this mountain whose circumference, as recorded by Alexander’s historian, was ‘about 25 miles’ and whose base was washed by the Sindhu River, the Pukhtuns took refuge.

While Alexander made a brief southward diversion to neutralise the town of Peucelaotis (Pushkalavati, Charsadda), the Pukhtuns holing up in the snows of Aornos had sent out an SOS and were awaiting reinforcements from Raja Abhisares of modern day Hazara and Kashmir. From Peucelaotis, Alexander hurried to Aornos to prevent this marrying up of the two forces, and even before Abhisares could get anywhere near, the foreigners were making their way up the forested slopes in a two-pronged attack. Ptolemy led one division and Alexander himself the other.

It is interesting here to learn that as the two generals debated the route up the mountain, some locals petitioned for an interview. History says that these traitorous people ‘put themselves’ in Alexander’s hands and offered to lead his army up the easiest way to a spot where they could assail the defenders with ease.

The Pukhtuns put up a spirited defence of their mountain redoubt: it took the Macedonians three days to make it to the top — and then not without many casualties. Had it not been for treachery, the count would have been far greater. At one point the situation became almost desperate as there was every danger of Ptolemy’s force being severely mauled: while Alexander was still struggling to gain higher ground, Ptolemy having reached a small plateau had barricaded his force behind a stockade. As he waited for Alexander’s units, Ptolemy came under a resolute assault that caused considerable damage to his defences.

Ptolemy held out and the two divisions reunited on the top of the mountain just as light was fading on the third day. Standing where the fields and few houses of Burimar now sit, Alexander had the Rock of Aornos behind him to the southwest; in front lay a saddle about a hundred metres lower and six to seven times as wide. Beyond this depression reared the peak today called Pir Sar. There the Pukhtuns waited in defence.

Even in the fading light, Alexander ordered a frontal attack which was duly beaten back. Over the night, seeing that the defended position was all but unassailable, Alexander devised a plan similar to one that had worked some years earlier in the siege of the Phoenician city of Tyre. He ordered every fighting man to cut one hundred trees each. With this Alexander began the construction of an extensive earthwork between his position and the defenders on Pir Sar. Watching from the safety of their breastworks, the defenders would surely have jeered the Macedonians at what they perceived a vain attempt. But four days of hard work and Alexander was able to order his catapults onto the bridge and within range of the defences of Pir Sar.

Seeing the mean-looking mangonels inching forward with each passing hour, the defenders lost hope. And even before Alexander could launch a full-fledged attack backed by siege engines, they laid down their arms and sued for peace upon terms. Their hope was to draw out the talks into the evening whereupon the two sides would naturally break for the night. Then, under cover of darkness, the Pukhtuns meant to slip away and disperse to their homes. Treachery once again was the undoing of the brave Pukhtuns and even before talks broke off for the night; their escape plan was revealed to Alexander.

Alexander, who we know as the Great, in person led seven hundred of his troops to surround Pir Sar. And here we can revert to the words of Arrian: ‘At a given signal they turned upon the retreating Indians and killed many of them as they tried to escape; others in sudden desperation flung themselves over the cliffs.’

As blots on his character go, this was a minor one. Only weeks earlier Alexander had taken the fortress of Massaga from the Aspasians (also referred to as Aspasioi). Now, Massaga lay between Bajaur and Swat. Though its site has not been definitively identified, historians believe it was situated in the Katgala Pass on Alexander’s route between the two places. (Smack in the pass, there is a hilltop ruined temple, circa 2nd century BCE, which could very likely be the site of Massaga).

Here at Massaga, fighting with the Pukhtuns was a seven thousand-strong contingent of mercenaries from the east. So long as they were commanded by their general, Arrian records, these ‘Indians fought with great courage’. But then the leader went down to a Macedonian missile and the fighters petitioned Alexander for truce.

Alexander was very pleased ‘to save the lives of such brave men’ and asked them to serve under his command. Accordingly, these men marched out of the fort of Massaga with their arms and encamped on a neighbouring hillock. But talking in the quiet of night these men saw the ignominy of teaming with an invader against their own brothers. And so, as the fighters on Aornos were to do later, those who surrendered at Massaga resolved to steal away during the hours of darkness. The plan was sneaked to Alexander. He stationed a large force around the mercenaries’ camp and led the subsequent slaughter.

P.S. The Aspasians or Aspasioi today call themselves by the ‘Islamic’ name of Yusufzai. In the early 1970s, I met an elderly Yusufzai gentleman in Topi village (now Swabi district) who still pronounced the name as his ancestors would have done in Alexander’s time. He said he was an Espzai. And therein lies another tale.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Khanewal Jn

Located near old Multan, Khanewal is comparatively a recently founded town. Its only claim to fame is that it is an important destination on the map of Pakistan Railways. Busy railway junction, railway workshop, pre stressed concrete sleeper factory and huge shunting yards have developed a sort of railway culture in this agricultural market town. National highway also passes the town but people mostly uses railways for travelling and transportation.

This area was a vast grazing land before the excavation of Lower Bari Doab Canal. As per the local lore, the grass from this land used to go as far as Burma during the Second World War.

Travelling from Lahore to Khanewal on the National Highways, one still finds the forestland on the west of the Highway and railway track that are laid side by side. Legend has it that that Dewan Sanwal Mall, the famous Sikh governor of Multan appointed Farid Khan as an administrator in order to collect the grazing tax from the livestock owners and he founded the town. The other story is that Daha tribe inhabited the area over 300 years ago. The hamlet was named “khan-e-wal” after Daha Khans. Canal colony was established here in1912. With rapid the growth in population, the modern town was planed and set up in 16 blocks. Khanewal was declared district headquarters on July 1, 1985.

Strategic forestland with wild bushy trees in the suburbs of the town is ideally suited for any industrial projects. Rail and road communication network main national arteries, web of “farm to market roads” and airport in Multan are close at hand. Kamran Khan, a progressive farmer says, “Food processing and packing plant should be installed in Khanewal. Its products may be exported to the Muslim world where presently the food trade is monopolised by countries like Australia, New Zealand or Holland”. Kamran has quite an interest in the international marketing. He surprised me by telling that melons with neatly trimmed stems sold in cardboard or wooden boxes can cost from 2500 to 10,000 Yen in Japan. “We have a lot of quality fruit in Pakistan that could be marketed world wide as a gift items. The national airliner earns millions of foreign exchange each year by airlifting tons of fruit to Gulf, Middle East and United Kingdom out of which major load is of mangoes produced only in this region”, he said.

Those who take their chance on the train to Khanewal have to muscle their way to this town thought the waves of tongas, rickshaws and animal drawn carts. And that is the first taste (and smell) of the railway town, which is full of animal transport. But first they have to negotiate layers of persistent sellers who roam about on the railway station exhibiting their merchandise on shoulders: from baby garments from Faisalabad to blue pottery from Multan.

Over crowding, population increase power outages and water shortages have all played their role in turning this small hamlet into a sprawling slum. Animal transport is probably the pervasive and correctable problem of Khanewal. The common means of transport in the town is sturdy and inexpensive tonga. It is Khanewal’s vehicle of convenience, which has come to symbolise the town. “The tongas (and rehras) move very slow and can not keep pace with other traffic hence cause traffic congestion on dilapidated roads where right of way has already been reduced due to excessive encroachments. The refuse of the horses and donkeys is a common cause of tautness and fill the atmosphere with offensive odour,” says a young dentist Madeha Kanwal.

Sometime very young boys are also seen holding the reins of horses who drive the tongas overloaded with passengers and goods. Accidents involving animals (untrained wild, unwilling horses or donkeys) are the commonest scenes on roads of the town. Much more than tongas and rehras registered with municipality come from the suburb to do the business in the town every day. “Tonga is the only business I can do,” informed a kochwan who started talking while bringing me to our destination down town. “I bring school girls from an adjoining village to the town and take them home after school and during school hours I work at the Railway Station and bus terminal in the town. My incomes varies between three to seven hundred rupees a day,” he added.

Situated on Karachi Peshawar main rail and road national arteries,  near Multan, Khanewal has exponentially growing trade links with Faisalabad, a major cotton trade centre of Pakistan. Degree colleges (one for boys and another for girls) in the town are playing important role in the education of the youth in the area.

A short walk in the town reveals the neglect of all concerned particularly the city development agencies. It seems that the town does not have a soul. Stadiums is poorly maintained and hardly used. The whiff from open sewerages drain passing adjacent to the stadium is prevailing all around. Similarly the road passing in front of the mosque (between block number 1 and block number 2) remains full of mud and a bowl like locality Ghrabi Abad Muhallah — over 125 years old — remains inundated even in dry seasons. And a light shower and plays havoc with all the roads and streets in the town and water enter in the houses.

So after the sweat, joy and frustration of the journey what has the town to offer in terms of social life or culinary delights? Nothing really. Certainly there are no operas theaters and concerts nor was Khanewal ever famous for its cuisine. For you appetite, there are many eating joints serving karahi gosht with a rich splash of desi makhan. Its sohan halwa is very popular among the locals as well as the foreigners. People usually go to Multan for any celebration or recreation. The town is littered with private clinics and private schools both proliferating professions any where in the country. You can see one at every corner.

Image: Mera Khanewal

Monday, September 20, 2010

Astola Island

Flying over Astola Island (Pakistan)‚ my first sight of the Island and the speed boat anchored in a bay far below quite took my breath. Pointing hull of the boat lay in pale blue shallows‚ riding on the swell. Even a hardened seaman would have melted at the sight of a creature as beautiful as the speed boat. I looked forward to the promise of sailing around the Island in a boat and later exploring it in the company of botanist experts on a purposeful visit.We landed on a rough helipad marked with a circle in lime on the edge. Soon a sleek and small boat puttered towards us. I felt like a warrior and navigator Vasco da Gama, when he reached Calicut on May 20, 1498.

The boat skated over shallow coral and bumped alongside the Island. Climbing aboard‚ we were introduced to the crew and a bunch of other guests. I resisted complaining of ennui that I experienced on the introduction to so many experts in the field I know nothing about. But soon instructions were shouted and guests joined in enthusiastically often snaring themselves in the lines and becoming more nuisance than help. Within minutes we had slipped into the rhythm of this trip: leaping off the bowsprit‚ snorkelling round the stern‚ or windsurfing around the Island. I climbed the bowsprit and watched the boat cleave through the chop. A frigate bird‚ twitching on the breeze‚ tracked our progress.

After short cruise around the Island, we descended and stepped ashore into a world of giant boulders. The flora and fauna are as they would have been centuries ago, but spellbinding: The natural vegetation is composed of the type able to survive arid climate. It does not only suffer from extreme drought but also from wind carrying saline particles. Salt sprays coupled with sand particles clog the respiratory mechanism of plants, affecting growth. “Prosopis juliflora is the most significant widespread species distributed in the island. Indigofera oblongifolia and Hycium depressum are also prevalent forming large bushes.

Other types of vegetation found include Sueda fruticosa, Aerua persica, and Tamarix dioca,” The experts gave these names but to me it looked like undergrowth in the form of shrubs and creepers. The island supports a large number of breeding seabirds including Larus hemprichii and several species of terns. The internationally endangered Green turtle and critically endangered Hawksbill turtle frequents the site for nesting purposes along the sandy beach threatened.

Astola is the only site along 1,000 kilometres Pakistan coast where Hawksbill turtles have been sighted. Dolphins and to a lesser extent, whales have also been reported. In fact, in December 1994, a large whale (possibly sperm whale) skeleton washed up on the shores of Ganz, Balochistan. The bones of the whale are on display in Gwadar town. Astola is also rich in corals, oysters and important commercial fishes.

Isolated island such as Astola, which has been cut off from the mainland for ages, supports endemic life forms. One such endemic species, Echis carinatus astoli, a sub-species of saw scaled vipor was discovered by a German scientist who took a specimen back with him for display at the Senckenberg Museum in Germany. If a detailed study is carried out, it is likely that many other types of sub-specie of small mammals, reptiles, plants, and shrubs could be discovered. No detailed surveys have been undertaken in the area as yet, so there is a lack of count data for the important species.

A short walk through the Island‚ a nesting site for many seabird species is most intriguing. Without the usual predators‚ fearless birds have been nesting on the ground‚ or on branches at eye level. Only a few visitors the Island attracts are able to come within centimetres of magpie robins‚ tropic birds or noddy terns staring straight back at you. Sadly, the sea-bird population has dropped over the years, as a result of increased numbers of feral cats which feed on the eggs and disrupt the nesting and breeding sites.

Astola is used as a base for fishermen who frequent the Island between September and May to catch fish in general and lobster and oysters in particular. Between June and August, the Island remains free from human interference due to rough sea and high tides. On finding a small Island ideal, the fishermen decided to bring their cats along in order to rid it of its resident vermin. What they do not realise is that by doing this, they trigger a change of events that leads to destructive changes in the Island’s habitat. A few fishermen and their pet cats on a trip to Astola unwittingly can almost destroy this unique ecosystem.

An NGO concerned with conservation of nature plans to initiate an awareness raising programme in Astola Island as a first step towards a community-based conservation programme to reverse the degradation of the Island’s biodiversity. Astola requires urgent conservation efforts, may be at government level, as the natural ecology is being damaged due to the introduction of feral cats.

About 25 kilometres south of Balochistan coast, Astola is six kilometres in length and administratively comes under Pasni subdivision of Gwadar district. According to the Balochistan Gazetteer, printed in the beginning of the 20th century, the island - known as ‘Satadip’ among Hindus - was held in extreme reverence by the Hindus and pilgrims from all parts of the Subcontinent venerated in increasing numbers. It is said that goats were taken to the Island for sacrifice; only the blood was spilt at the shrine of Kali Devi while the flesh and entrails were thrown out to the sea. Even now the Island has an aura of mystery. There are architectural remains of an ancient temple of the Hindu goddess Kali Devi. A prayeryard has been constructed in the memory of a Muslim saint associated with oceans. A small solar operated light tower has been installed on the top of one of the Island’s cliffs for the safety of passing vessels.

Locals have given it the name Haft Talar meaning seven rocks but the Island appears to form a single block with an estimated height of two hundred feet at its summit. An isolated rocky area has broken away from the main block towards the south end. Given that the Island is not sheltered from the open sea, it is subject to strong wave attack during the southwest monsoons, when wave height exceeds 3.5 metres. The coastline therefore suffers from severe erosion.

Astola is one of the biggest offshore islands in the Arabian Sea. Possessing a unique habitat, it was identified as part of a Global 2000 eco-region. It is the only significant offshore island along the north coast of the Arabian Sea, and as such maintains the genetic and ecological diversity of the area. But irony is that presently it does not merit even a dot on most Pakistan maps.

It would be worthwhile to study Astola Island’s leeward side as an offshore (oil or even for liquefied gas) embarkation platform in the extreme north end of the Arabian Sea. As the largest Island of Pakistan, Astola has a considerable potential for being developed into an eco-tourism site where both local and foreign nature enthusiasts can visit and behold rich flora and fauna of the Island, as well as witness the flourishing marine life in the clear waters through glass-bottomed boats.

The communities living on the mainland would benefit by providing services to the eco-tourists as an alternative income generating venture. Currently there is no recreational and or tourism activity on site for which it has potentials.

Our days ebbed away, an evening anchored beside the quintessential postcard coast Island and we sailed back, it was as though sea and wind‚ hull and rig were singing a perfect note. {Image Muzaffar Bukhari}

Doodh Wali Chai

Shopkeepers and vendors drive the country's activities and keep it bustling with life and energy. Dawn photographer takes a look at a few business which give Rawalpindi its old city charm. here a tea vendor Mohammad Saddiq pours tea from a ladle for his clients at a market. That is what makes Doodh Patti a delight. No?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

You are in Lahore

The morning rush hour is from 6am to 12pm

The evening rush hour is from 2pm to 9pm. Saturday’s rush hour starts morning.

You buy anything and everything from Al-Fatah

Your 'maassee' and driver have taught you fluent Punjabi

Your uncivilized next door neighbor just bought a BMW because he deals in property

A really souped up Civic stops next to you and instead of a groovy exhaust sound, the woofers blare out an Abrar number

At least one of your friends is a Butt

The people in your local Gourmet Bakery know you by face

The only solution to boredom is eating out

All directions start with, ‘Go down to Main Boulevard’

You think it’s okay to wait 5 hours in the queue for Bashir’s Fish in Mozang because he only opens 6 months in the year

You go to Shahjamal every Thursday to smoke weed with Pappu Saaeen

Its quite all right to run a red light if the traffic policeman doesn’t have a bike to chase you

When someone asks you ‘’Bhai yeh Fortress kahaan hai?'’, you spread an evil grin on your face and send him to Johar Town

If you are hungry at 3 in the morning, you go to Coffee Tea & Co in your pajamas instead of walking to your kitchen

Your cousins from Karachi ask you about Food Street and you say, ‘I went there back in 2003′

Your winning argument about how Lahore is better than Karachi is ‘Lahore Lahore aey’

Your childhood dream of attaining higher education was to go to Aitchison or Kinnaird

You always thank the rude shop owner because he actually let you buy something from his shop

You know it’s inevitable that you’ll be challaned on Mall Road.

Your cousins from America ask you about malls and you’re like ‘Yeah we have Pace, but I never go there’

You go to the Daewoo stand more than the airport

(Thanks Maryum)

People from Lahore are invited to add more…

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report 2009

Switzerland, Austria and Germany have the most attractive environments for developing the travel and tourism industry, according to the third annual Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report, published by the World Economic Forum. Among the top ten, France (4), Canada (5), Sweden (8) and Singapore (10) post improvements.

The rankings are based on the Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index (TTCI), which measures the different regulatory and business-related issues that have been identified as levers for improving travel and tourism competitiveness in countries around the world.

This year’s report, published under the theme “Managing in a Time of Turbulence”, reflects the difficulties the industry currently faces, which must be overcome to ensure strong sectorial growth in the future.

This is particularly captured by the topics covered in the analytical chapters, exploring issues such as the impact of oil prices on the tourism industry, the importance of price competitiveness for attracting tourists and the extent to which the Index explains differences in travel intensity between countries. Full report here

Ahmad Shah Durrani - Eighteenth Century Ruler

Pervaiz Munir Alvi

Ahmad Shah Durrani was born in 1722 as Ahmad Khan Abdali at the city of Multan. At the age of twenty five he become ruler of the vast territory stretched from Mashhad in the west to the Punjab in the east; the land mass that today roughly formsthe modern twin countries of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He rose to power at a timewhen the Mughal Empire (1526-1857) based in Delhi and the Safavid Empire (1501-1722) based in Isfahan were disintegrating. Ahmad Shah at the expense of these twoneighboring but dwindling empires was skillfully able to carve out an empire of his own. His rule although relatively short (1747-1772), was significant in the sense thatit ultimately changed the course of the history of the South-Central Asia.

1707 – 1747

During the half century rule (1658-1707) of Alamgir I (Aurangzeb) all territories now forming Pakistan, Kashmir and most of Afghanistan were part of the great Mughal Empire. Upon death of Alamgir I his son Bahadar Shah I succeeded him but five years later he too died fighting Sikh insurgents in Punjab. Soon after that intrigues took over the Palace. Syeds of Bihar had become the most powerful force in the Mughal Court. Two successive emperors, Jahandar Shah and Farokh Siar were murdered and the empire started to crumble from all directions. In the next quarter century multiple insurgencies of Sikh, Jat, Rajput, Marhatta and Rohila Afghans challenged the Mughal rule.

In year 1719, Sultan Roshan Akhtar, a grandson of Bahadar Shah I and great-grandson of Alamgir I, under the title of Mohammad Shah (1719-1748) was installed as emperor. In order to neutralize the Syeds, Mohammad Shah established two partiesof courtiers; a Turkic party under Chin Kulin Khan and a Persian party under Saadat Ali. Over the course of time these two noblemen and their respective descendants will play a significant role in the affairs of the Mughal Empire and would routinely interact with the Persian and Afghan monarchs in the west. In 1738, overwhelmed by the internal and the external troubles, these two courtiers of the Mughal emperor asked Nadir Shah Afshar of Persia to intervene. Nadir Shah attacked Delhi in 1738 and forced Emperor Mohammad Shah, to handover all territories west of the River Indus to the Persians.

Ahmad Khan Abdali at that time was only a young soldier in the Persian army of Nadir Shah who had given precedence to Abdali tribesmen over their rival the Ghilzais. However within a very short time Ahmad Khan Abdali rose from the level of Yasawal (personal servant) to the king to the rank of commander of Abdali regiment. When Nadir Shah died in 1747 at the hands of the Qizalbash (red-turbans) soldiers wary of the growing Abdali influence, Ahmad Khan provided security to thefamily of the late king. In October 1747 at a location near mausoleum of Muslim saint Sheikh Surkh, adjacent to Fort Nadirabad-Kandahar, Ahmad Khan called a meeting (Jirga) of tribal elders. At the meeting, under his new name Ahmad Shah Abdali, he announced himself as a leader of the Pashtun tribes. Haji Jamal Khan Mohammadzai, the other contender to the leadership withdrew his claim. Pir Sabir Shah, the spiritual guide of Pashtun tribes validated the selection by showering his praise for the young Ahmad Shah Abdali and declared him Durr-e-Durran (pearl of the pearls); hence the beginning of the name Durrani.

1747 – 1754

Following his mentor Nadir Shah, Ahmad Shah took control of Kandahar, Ghazna, Kabul and Peshawar. By December 1747 the provinces of Frontier, Kashmir, Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan - the areas roughly constituting Pakistan - were all under his control. On March 3rd 1748 Durrani and Mughal forces confronted each other near the city of Sirhind in east Punjab. Mughal forces were led by the Crown Prince and various members of the families of Chin Kulin Khan and Saadat Ali. On March 11th 1748 Durrani forces were defeated but at the end of the battle day, the leader of the Mughal forces Grand Vazir Qamar-ud-din, a son of Chin Kulin Khan died by a round shot while praying. Five days later on April 16th 1748 hearing the death of his Grand Vazir, the Mughal emperor Mohammad Shah also died seized by a strong convulsion. Soon after that Chin Kulin Khan, who had become Nizam of Deccan also died. The Crown Prince, a son of Mohammad Shah from his Hindu wife Udam Bai, under the title of Ahmad Shah (not to be confused with Ahmad Shah Abdali) became the new emperor (1748-1754). He appointed Safdar Jang, a nephew of Saadat Ali as Grand Vazir as well as Nawab of Audh and Nasir Jang, a son of Chin Kulin Khan as new Nizam of Deccan.

Abdali meanwhile, after securing eastern territories turned his attention westward and in 1750-51 captured the Persian cities of Herat, Nishapur and Mashhad. However in 1751 he had to return to Lahore to quell Sikh insurgencies. In 1752 he marched on Kashmir to consolidate his control. Soon after that the Mughal emperor made his peace with Abdali and formally ceded to him the provinces of Lahore and Multan. Abdali in return allowed Moin-ud-din (commonly known as Mir Mannu), a son of Qamar-ud-din and grandson of Chin Kulin Khan to be the governor of Punjab as an appointee of the Mughal emperor. This peace deal marks the end of the two and a quarter century long (1524-1748) rule of the Timurids over the land now constituting Pakistan. For the next two centuries (1748-1947) the country will be successively ruled by the Afghans, Sikhs, English and various petty Nawabs, Khans and Maharajas.

After the loss of the north-western part of the empire, the Mughal court once again slipped into internal intrigues and chaos. An open war ensued between the Turkic party and the Persian party in which Turks prevailed and another son of late Qamar-ud-din became the Grand Vazir. In their struggles for supremacy each party on its part sought support of Marhatta, Jat and Rohila Afghan outsiders. Finally Shahab-ud-din, another grandson of Chin Kulin Khan and a cousin of Mir Mannu
prevailed over all others. He declared himself as Grand Vazir and on June 5th 1754 deposed and blinded Emperor Ahmad Shah and put him in prison. On July 1754 another great-grandson of Alamgir I and a son of the late Emperor Jahandar Shah at the age of 54 was enthroned as Alamgir II. In Audh, Safdar Jang the nephew of late Saadat Ali too died on October 17th 1754, leaving Shahab-ud-din uncontested. By this time the once mighty Mughal Empire had been reduced just to the areas now called Utter Pradesh in India.

1754 – 1757

Mir Mannu the governor of Punjab had died in November 1753 in a horse fall. Abdali made his minor son Timur Shah governor of Punjab but left the administration in the hands of the widow of Mir Mannu and her Hindu aid known as Adina Baig. Not pleased with this change, Mughal Grand Vazir (Shahab-ud-din) decided to march on Lahore in the company of Crown Prince Mirza Ali Gouhar, took widow and daughter of Mir Mannu (whom he later married) and made Adina Baig commissioner
of Lahore. Abdali, obviously furious by these actions, returned to Lahore and then marched on Delhi for the second time. Twenty miles outside Delhi the two armies faced each other; only this time a major segment of the army of Emperor Alamgir II under the command of one Najib Khan, a Rohila Afghan soldier of fortune, moved over to the Abdali side as expected guests.

On September 11, 1757 Abdali entered Delhi and took over the affairs of the government. However before returning to his capital Kandahar, Abdali married a daughter of the late emperor Mohammad Shah and at the same time married his son Timur Shah to a daughter of Crown Prince Mirza Ali Gouhar; thus establishing his own family relations with the Mughal royal family. At the intervention of the widow of Mir Mannu victorious Abdali pardoned the Grand Vazir and the two agreed to join hands against other common enemies. He also made Najib Khan in charge of the Palace while a part of Abdali forces was left behind to safeguard Durrani interests. Timur Shah returned to Lahore as Durrani governor of Punjab. During this period at the orders of Ahmad Shah Abdali a set of two large size cannons were cast at Lahore. Surviving cannon of the pair, by the name of Zamzama now sits in front of the Lahore Museum for the public display.

1757 - 1761

Once Abdali back in Kandahar, the Grand Vazir (Shahab-ud-din) with the help of hired Marhatta mercenaries expelled Najib Khan from the Palace, and conspired against Crown Prince Mirza Ali Gouhar and his son-in-law Timur Shah. Mirza Gouhar was imprisoned from where he escaped. Timur Shah was chased out of Lahore by Adina Baig with the help of Marhattas. At the same time the Emperor Alamgir II was murdered by the men of the Grand Vazir in November 1759 by deceit
and another great-grandson of Alamgir I and grandson of Prince Kam Buksh under the title of Shah Jahan II was declared emperor. However in Bihar the fugitive Crown Prince Mirza Ali Gouhar also took the name of Shah Alam and declared himself as the rightful emperor. Abdali had no choice but to return to Delhi for the third time. He cleared Punjab of the Marhattas and then marched on to Delhi. The Grand Vazir fled in time and abandoned the city in advance of Ahmad Shah. When Abdali left the deserted city for his camp at Anup Shahr, to fill in the vacuum, Marhattas with the help of Rajputs and Jats took over Delhi in the December of 1759. The stage was set for another showdown.

The summer of 1760 was used by the two sides in building alliances, war preparation and troop movement. On one side was the Hindu Marhatta Confederacy and on the other side was the Muslim Mughal-Afghan Alliance. On October 17th 1760 combined Muslim army consisting of Rohila Afghans under Najib Khan, Mughals under Nawab Shuja-ud-daula of Audh and Durrani forces, all under the
leadership of Ahmad Shah Abdali made its move. First encounter between the advance troops from the both sides took place on October 26th. For the next two months small and large party duels and skirmishes continued, each adding to the Marhatta losses of men, ammunition and provisions. Finally, hungry cold and exhausted, on the night of January 6th 1761 the Marhattas took a desperate decision.
One hour before dawn they would take their last meal, paint their faces saffron and meet the enemy head-on ready to die.

Ahmad Shah Abdali was in bed when at 3:00 A.M. his spies broke the news. The Marhattas had opened fire. Throughout the morning hours the Muslim army took fire but stood its ground. By 1:00 P.M. Abdali gave orders to charge forward. By 3 o’clock the Marhatta forces were cut down with their chiefs either slain or on the run. Victorious Muslim allies moved back into Delhi. Fugitive emperor Shah Alam was recognized as the legitimate heir to the Mughal throne. In the absence of Shah Alam, his eldest son Mirza Jawan Bakht under the protection of Najib Khan was made the
nominal charge of the affairs. Shuja-ud-daula returned to Audh as new Grand Vazir. Abdali returned to Lahore and then to Kabul and Kandahar. Defeated Marhatta for the next eight years did not make any more attempts on Delhi.


Between 1761 and 1767 Ahmad Shah had to fight off many Sikh insurgencies in Punjab. With Emperor Shah Alam unable to return to Delhi, the capital was managed by Najib as regent of Crown Prince Jawan Bukht. However Najib was continuously being threatened by the Jats. Abdali had to return to Delhi one more time to assist Najib Khan and Prince Jawan Bukht. In April 1767 Durrani forces arrived outside Delhi for the fourth time. However soon after his return, Marhatta started to gain strength. Towards the end of 1768 they made some advancement and by 1769 once again started to threaten Delhi. In 1770 Najib Khan entered into some territorial accommodation with Marhattas soon after which he died at the age of sixty two and his place was taken over by his son Zabita Khan. By 1770-71 Marhattas were able to make a comeback. Only this time Abdali did not return to help Mughals. Zabita Khan fled the capital. Emperor Shah Alam with the help of Marhattas returned to his capital after an absence of eleven years.

Ahmad Shah Abdali, the founder of the Durrani Empire, died at the city of Murghah in 1772 at a relatively young age of fifty. Reportedly in 1764 he had developed a face cancer which ultimately took his life. Upon his death his son Timur Shah became the next Emperor. But soon after that the Durrani Empire started to disintegrate. Punjab, the most precious holding was wrestled away by the Sikhs. Timur Shah died in 1793. For the next thirty years five different but ineffective sons of Timur Shah ruled the much reduced kingdom from Kabul till in 1823, Ayub Shah, the last Durrani king was deposed and possibly killed. Today millions in Afghanistan and Pakistan identify themselves of the Durrani heritage.

Ahmad Shah Abdali, the founder of Durrani Empire is buried in his native city Kandahar where his imposing mausoleum as a testimony to his greatness still stands with an epitaph: The king of high rank, Ahmad Shah Durrani.

Main Source: The Fall of the Mughal Empire, By: H.G. Keene, Oxford, 1887.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Kissimmee – My next vacation destination

This is a Sponsored Post written by me on behalf of Kissimmee Tourism. All opinions are 100% mine.

Travelling for leisure and pleasure and vacationing are results of growing economic activities and prosperity, quality lifestyle, increasing awareness and above all wish to “be there and do that.” I have been travelling whenever I could. When it comes to vacation, I always go for a new place. I like walking into unknown.

Landscape beauty, serene environment, dinner shows, heritage trails, and water Pprks with cool nip in the air are some of the attractions that I look for at any vacation destinations. And on top of this setting, if I can get luxurious accommodation and best and modern amenities, it makes ideal setting that forcer me to choose a vacation destination.

While contemplating where to plan next vacation and looking online for information, I came upon Kissimmee - location in the heart of Florida that is closest to my ideal vacation settings. Have a look at neatly laid out site Kissimmee and get the feeler of what the place offers. There is no end to attractions all around for any taste. I am also subscribing to their newsletter to stay updated.

I liked Kissimmee. What else, I should be planning to have my next vacation there instead of writing this.

Visit my sponsor: What's Your Kissimmee Story?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Hellenistic and Parthian Gandhara

Pervaiz Munir Alvi

Pakistan is home to the ancient Gandhara Civilization. Its Buddhist character, which this civilization is best known for, was first established in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when colonial British military men and archeologists discovered various ancient religious sites near the city of Taxila in the Potowar region of Pakistan.

However since independence of Pakistan, the late 20th century studies and research conducted both by the Pakistani and Western scholars have documented and confirmed that Gandhara Civilization was not always Buddhist in character but had also gone through some well defined Hellenistic and Parthian periods as well.

The Hellenistic period of Gandhara starts with the arrival of Alexander the Great of Macedonia in 329 B.C. After conquering Taxila in 327 B.C. he remained in the areas now constituting Pakistan for another two years until his return via Indus Valley, Arabian Sea and Makran Coast also in Pakistan.

The ancient Gandhara proper consisting of the Peshawar Basin of Kabul River and Upper Indus Valley, along with the sister communities of Udayana in Swat, Pakistan and Bactria in north east Afghanistan has come to be known as the Greater Gandhara. Prior to the Greek arrival, thanks to its location on the now famous Silk Road, the area had already become one of the economically most prosperous regions of the world. But the
Greek conquest brought such significant cultural, economical, political and religious changes to the Greater Gandhara region that historians and anthropologists are now more than ever inclined to call the three subsequent centuries following the Alexandrian invasion as Hellenistic (330 B.C.-129 B.C.) and Parthian (247 B.C.-224 A.D.) periods of today’s Pakistan and Afghanistan.

As a result of the Greek conquest politically the region became part of the Alexandrian  Empire stretching from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Indus Basin. Before his return Alexander installed his various generals as local kings of the conquered territories. A string of kingdoms were established from one end to the other end of the empire even though Alexander who died in year 323 B.C. did not live long enough to taste the fruits of his exploits. Soon after his death, a local upstart of humble origin named Chandra Gupta Maurya was able to set up a kingdom in the Indus Valley. Seleucus, a general of Alexander, unsuccessfully tried to win back the lost territories (306/305 B.C.) but the counterattacks of the Mauryans forced the Greeks to retreat towards Bactria. Later his grandson Ashoka stretched the empire from Afghanistan to Bengal with Pataliputra
(Putna, India) as its capital. Ashoka converted to Buddhism and under his patronage Taxila gained further prominence. But the Mauryan empire died with Ashoka in 231 B.C. and Greeks under the leadership of Demetrius made a come back to reclaim Greater Gandhara.

Economically the Alexandrian invasion brought trade routes from the Eastern Mediterranean to Gandhara-the gateway to China-under Greek control. The most significant change was the opening of a second trade route. Sea ports like Alexandria, Egypt and Barbarikon near Karachi, Pakistan became important economic hubs. Under Greek protection commercial ships from Alexandria via the Nile River, Red Sea, Arabian Sea and lower Indus River would travel all the way up to the present day city of Multan, Pakistan with goods en route to China; further adding to the prosperity of the Greater Gandhara.

Culturally and religiously the Greek arrival added one more layer to the Gandharan diversity. Even though under Ashoka Buddhism had officially arrived in Gandhara, but still with the exception of monasteries and rock edicts commissioned by him, there have been no discoveries of Buddhist iconology as symbols of popular religion of that period. On the other hand the popular artifacts discovered from various sites near Taxila, and identified as belonging to the period between 3rd. century B.C. and 1st. century A.D., show Hellenistic and Parthian but not Buddhist characters. 

These carved stone pieces such as dishes and slabs, statuettes and other objects were made of schist, phyllite and steatite and are now part of a larger Samuel Eilenberg Collection housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Carved Greek mythical gods such as Apollo, Aphrodite, Daphne; characters such as wrestler Heracles and Nemean lion; symbols such as floral wreaths and grape wines regularly appear in these objects. The Buddhist icons discovered from ancient Gandhara sites, under latest studies are now dated as belonging to the post Greek and Parthian 1st century A.D. and later periods.

Greek period is marked by the distinct Hellenistic styles of town planning, western art and architecture, coinage and iconology, Greek language and personal drapery. From Greeks the political control of Greater Gandhara successively passed on to the Shakas, Parthians and Scythians. Parthians who had established a vast Second Persian empire stretched from Caspian Sea in the north, Mesopotamia in the west and Indus in the east considered Greater Gandhara as their domain and essential to their control of East-West trading routes. In the Mediterranean region the political power had passed on to the Romans. Even though Parthians and Romans continuously fought with each other, together the two empires controlled the land and sea trade routes between Europe and China. Under Parthian rule the Greek style and symbolism in Gandharan artifacts
gradually fades out and is replaced by the Parthian cultural influence.

First century A.D. marks the end of Hellenistic and Parthian periods of Greater Gandhara. Kushans, a nomadic tribe from Central Asia took control of Greater Gandhara and Indus Basin and then marched on to the Ganges Valley in North India. Kushans unlike Greeks and Parthians patronized Buddhism originating from the Ganges Valley as the state religion and thus set in the Buddhist period of Greater Gandhara that lasted until 6th and 8th centuries A.D. in present day Pakistan and Afghanistan respectively.


(1) The Art of Gandhara in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; 2007
Curator and Author, Kurt A. Behrendt.
(2) Pakistan; Oxford University Press, 1997
Gandhara Culture; Professor J.E. van Lohuizen de Leeuw
The Kushan Era; Professor Ahmad Hasan Dani

Eid Mubarak

My Eid greetings to all of you. But where is the joy of Eid?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Basic Needs

A woman displaced by flooding kneads flour at Sultan colony camp organized by the Asifa Imran foundation NGO, in Sultan, Pakistan

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Traveling through Thar is fascination but living is not

Previously, one only chewed over and thought of such far away places, or read about Thar's unusual life, of people, who sang and danced with exciting rhythm and melody, radiant colours in dress, Manik Chowkri, a beautiful and intricate design on ajraks and chadars and colours of rolling miles of desert sand. The remote area on the Southern edge of Pakistan, which is devoid of the basic infrastructure necessary for life or development, is a tourists' attraction.

Antiquity is the first message. The scenery is attractive in its own way. Goths (villages) and hills quaintly intersect the desert soil, open all around. The roads, wherever they are, swings and curves up and down. The vehicles bump up and down the roads and sandy track, giving fleeting glimpses of a rougher, more elemental existence. Villages pass by, with trees surrounding them and beautiful birds swashbuckling on the branches, like crows on a rainy day. The vegetation is reduced to the undergrowth and thorny shrubs. Cows move silently, hordes and hordes of them, jingling cowbells around their necks, and doves flutter in front of the moving vehicles, which may be struggling in the fourth gears. Fine waves of sand with bright silvery particles sparkle in the sunlight.

Sea was here in the past but it has now moved further south. That is why one still finds salt lakes along the roads. People of the area get the salt for their consumption from these lakes. Small mounds of salt are seen on the banks of the lakes. At places, crushers are seen working refining the salt and processing it into a powder form in the old fashion way.

British functionary Parker did so well in south-east Sindh that the district of Thar was renamed Thar Parker. But the things have not changed much since then in Thar region. The refusal can be felt everywhere. Whatever development has occurred in the other parts of the country, has bypassed Thar? The round mud dwellings with thatched conical roofs look good in photographs but may not be as comfortable to live in. Thar is supposed to be one of the most densely populated deserts in the world. If nothing else, one should remember how certain parts of the Thar had become the scene of battle during the previous wars with India. Once again it has become a political battleground these days.

Major attraction and one of the claims of the Sindh folklore to fame is the village Bhalwa where my curious sense was at its peak. Marvi -- Sindhi heroin famous for her chastity and patriotism -– lived in village. Just on the periphery of the village is a shed where it appeared that a tea stall had been set up during Marvi's melo (festival of Marvi). A few steps away is the "Marvi jo Khooh" (the well of Marvi) from where she used to provide water to her goats and sheep and where Umar Soomra had caught a glimpse of Marvi and had become so head-over-heels that he held the girl against her wishes. Lost in the magnificent stronghold, Marvi's longing for her native terrain gave birth to one of the most moving folklore of Sindh. Her tale has been immortalized by great Sindhi poet Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai. It is an integral part of our oral and folk heritage. Most Sindhi girls know all about Marvi. Ironically, Marvi is credited only with a dilapidated and poorly written sign in Sindhi and English languages.

Marvi has been treated in a manner as any other national legendary character. There is nothing inspiring about the village these days. The physical venue -- old well -- had been plastered over and totally replaced by an unmarked cemented structure, an absolutely uninspiring job. At the moment, the well is dry and no Marvi can come there and have her pitcher filled. All that is seen left of Marvi is her undying desire and ache for what is no longer there.

A mela organized here in her name has become one of the biggest social and business events in the Thar area. Local cultural committee organises the annual mela of one of the celebrated figures of Thar, with traditional zeal and enthusiasm. But the committee has no resources. Thousands of Tharis participate in the two-day mela. Scores of camels and horses are brought to the mela from various villages to take part in races. Malakhro (wrestling) also is held on the occasion. The stalls under shamyanas or in huts made of straw are set to do the business. One resident of Bhalwa said, "We Tharis realize that a nation which loses its connection with history soon loses its identity. Hence, we gather here to pay glowing tributes to Marvi, the legendary woman." Sadiq Faqir, Karim Faqir, Ustad Hussain Faqir, Yousuf Faqir, and Jeendo Khaskheli among other vocalists of Thar mesmerize the fans of the mela with their folk songs.

Further on the way from district headquarters Mithi to Nagar Parkar, Virawah is another important historic town. It used to be a seaport in the past. Remains and relics are scattered in and around this sleepy little town. But one notices the town afterwards. It begins just like any other typical dust and flies town on the roadside anywhere in remote Sindh, and it ends just as abruptly too. Before one could decide if this is the best place to explore, one is almost out of the village. The abrupt change in the landscape tells that village is left behind. Climb the nearby Karunjhar Hill and you can see landscape intersected by conical huts. At night I saw a series of lights from the hillock. Haloes of iridescent lights glowed in conical huts all around. This would be the place to come and take a look on Diwali nights when Hindu living in the area lit earthen lamps to mark the festival of lights I thought.

A segment of a wall existing there in the form of mountain of debris and some engraved stones give an ancient look in town that I photographed though the veracity of the wall's association with the past is yet to be discovered. But the site does give evidence of its distant past.

How do you people survive?" asked one of my more urban companions. "The greatest contribution of us Tharis is that against all odds we have kept the place inhabited for Pakistan," the answers came from one of the locals.

If those who are at the helm of affairs in the government have taken for granted that Thar does not occupy a significant place in the geography (and history) of the country, then they should read the Sur Marvi of the Risalo of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai. For the record sack!

The water from wells is said to have dangerously high levels of salts while studies have confirmed that underground wells in parts of the region have amounts of fluoride far above safety levels. —Photo by Aroosa Masroor

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Mandi Bahauddin - the first town that I visited in life

Originally Mandi Bahauddin was a village called as Chak number 51. It started expanding after the completion of Rasul Hydroelectric Power Station on Upper Jhelum Canal in 1901. Today, Mandi Bahauddin is an over crowded market town famous for its agricultural markets (Grain Market, Vegetable Market and Livestock Market) and local industry of making colourful bed legs.

The name Mandi Bahauddin originates from two sources: Mandi (market) was prefixed because it was a flourishing grain market and Bahauddin was borrowed from nearby old village Pindi Bahauddin, which has now become part of the town. After the partition, thousands of refugees from India rehabilitated on the evacuee property of Sikh and Hindu landlords. Lately, after the construction of Rasul Barrage, people from the belt along southern edge of Salt Range up to Pind Dadan Khan and other areas across the River Jhelum came settling in the town. Due to migrations and increase in business activities, the town has expanded in all directions. The result is that more than half of the population is living outside municipal limits without any civic amenities. More unplanned localities and kachi abadies are coming up everyday. The tendency to move from rural areas to urban centres is on the increase.

People from adjoining villages come to exchange their agricultural products like grain, chickens and Ghee with matchboxes and other commodity items and see the ‘bright lights’ in this dusty town. Donkey carts to heavy vehicles are plying indiscriminately on any road they feel like. The town roads have bumps, wobbles and unauthorized speed breakers (sleeping policemen). The right of way has been shrunk due to encroachments and fast growing traffic. Most cross-junctions like Hospital Chowk, Gurha Chowk, Sut Sire Chowk, College Chowk and two railway crossings are always busy and there are no traffic signals.

The sugar mills constructed ‘farm to mill’ road that can be used as a bypass for the traffic not concerned with the city. But it is not being utilized because there are no arrangements to divert the heavy traffic on to the 20 feet wide metallic road. Mixture of slow and fast moving traffic, lack of footpaths, parking facilities, presence of bus and wagon terminals and many tonga stands has aggravated the situation in this agricultural market town. It is located away from Grand Trunk road but well linked with Pind Dadan Khan, Jhelum, Kharian, Lalamusa, Gujrat, Gujranwala and Sargodha with railways and good road network.

The small town having gridiron pattern (all roads and streets meeting at right angle) has developed haphazardly into an overcrowded city. Rehries and temporary shops have intruded all the main bazaars. The rehriwallas have a strong union. They thwart any effort by municipal authorities or district administration to remove the encroachments. The result is that what to talk of vehicles even the pedestrians cannot pass through the bazaars. Dual carriage way was introduced from Sadar Darwaza - gateway built in 1930 - to municipal committee office but the encroachers have also occupied this bifurcation.

The right of way on roads going out of the town has also been reduced due to unchecked encroachments and linear development along the roads. Number of shopping centres has come up in the residential areas. Beside sugar mills, local shaped industrial concerns are spread in and brick kilns around the town. Bed legs and colourful furniture are famous products of the town. Commercial and industrial activities in the residential areas have put a great pressure on the demand of already deficient houses.

Grain Market is located in the centre of the town. Goods’ Forwarding Agencies and lack of amenities have made miserable the lives of merchants and customers of the Market. Large number of goods’ trucks is always standing in the 4.3 acres of market area, which adversely affect the business. The surrounding area of town’s landmark and highest building, majestic Jamia Mosque built by the corner of Grain Market is also noisy and bustling with commercial activities of ‘Lohar’ bazaar.

Even worst is the condition of Vegetable Market. There was time when much of what is today Sabzi Mandi was tranquil and pollution free market consisting of few shops. People could go to the market and buy some of the freshest fruit, vegetables and some of the choicest of spices, nuts, meat and chicken. But now it is very difficult to move in and out of this largest perishable’s market in the area because there is no regular sweeping or lifting of garbage and all the free space has been occupied by vendors who buy any one item in the morning and sit on ground to sell inside and around Sabzi Mandi.

Well chalking is another problem of the town. Political, religious, commercial slogans and different advertisements can be seen all over the town. Political slogans respecting one candidate who contested last elections, every time from a different platform can still be found written on the walls of the town.

Besides going to nearby Rasul Barrage for eating fish Kabab, there are no recreational or cultural facilities and no healthy activities Mandi Bahauddin that was made district headquarters in 1993. This has far eaching effects on the youth of the town. They are seen playing cards on roadsides or snooker in corners of every street. Large numbers of video shops have come up and are doing good business. Video shops rent TV, VCR and as much as five films at a time even in the period when multi channel satellite has become a household item. There are two old cinema houses with 803 seating capacity. Degree colleges (one for boys and one for girls) are doing good jobs but given the resources of the municipal educational institutions, they are not enough for the youth of the area.

A Lalamusa-Sargodha-Khanewal railway is a profitable rout. At present only one Peshawar-Karachi train - Chenab Express - runs on this route. It could be useful to introduce at least one more Peshawar-Karachi express train for passengers, agricultural products produced in the area and a few of the minerals from Salt Range. This track is linked with Khewara Salt mines as well. Moreover, this track is strategically important in case of any threat to Peshawar-Lahore-Karachi main railway track. In that case, Lalamusa-Sargodha-Khanewal rail route could take all the rail traffic.

The “Mandi Bahauddin Development Plan 1986-2012″ has not even come on the tables of people responsible for is execution. But a possible nice start for the town may be to declare at least two bazaars (Sadar Bazaar and Committee Bazaar) totally pedestrian, vehicular traffic and animal transport contained out. Any body listening please!