Monday, October 17, 2011

Derawar Fort

The historic Derawar Fort, enormous and impressive structure in the heart of Cholistan desert, is rapidly crumbling and if the immediate preventative measures are not taken, the edifice will be destroyed and the historians, researchers and sightseers deprived of the view of the legacy of the bygone era. Like so many other historic sites in the country, Derawar Fort is yet another sign of old times we are poised to loose forever due to the apathy of those who are responsible for its upkeep and preservation.
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Before it disappears, once again, I was on my way to Cholistan: the place that is crucible of one of the world's oldest civilization, where some of the past secrets are hidden, where history is still active.
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Derawar is the oldest fort and the only perennial water-hole in the area. But a visit to the Fort is painful for those locals or foreigners who value the heritage and other signs of past eras. They are disappointed with its fate and neglect of its wonders. Neither is it being maintained as a tourists’ attraction, for which it has good potential, nor as a historical and archaeological monument. Result: the days do not seem far when the Fort would be converted into a sand dune. Main entrance and ceiling have developed cracks. Most of its buildings and portions, which had been an abode of the Abbasi Nawabs, are already in ruins. The three-storey fort is now without any storey. There are also ditches in it which can be dangerous for anyone not walking with care. At least the boundary walls and the main gate of the fort can still be preserved so that something is left as an evidence of the past. The monument has architectural, historic, documentary, and symbolic values. Remain of the monument have to be preserved and saved from total ruination, a danger they are facing at present.

The Fort was built by Deoraj, a prince of Jaisalmir. It was in possession of royal family of Jaisalmir when it was captured by Abbasis in 1735. As per Bahawalpur Gazetteer (1904), in 1747 the Fort slipped from the hands of Abbasis in the reign of Nawab Bahawal Khan due to his pre-occupations at Shikarpur. Nawab Mubarak Khan took the stronghold back in 1804.

The lofty and rolling battlements made of thin red bricks, ten on each side of the fort are visible from miles around. The circumference wall is about 40 meters high. There are two old vintage guns mounted on pedestals in the dusty courtyard of the Fort. On the western side are small under ground cells now infested with bats and wood being eaten by termite. As per the fable the secret to change metal into gold was told to Prince Deoraj by his guru Yogi and there still is a treasure hidden somewhere in the Fort. (This idea keeps coming to me again and again: what if I can find the hidden treasure?) Nawab Bahawal Khan constructed a mosque with cupolas and domes of exquisite marble in 1849. It is a replica of Moti Mosque, Delhi. As per the legend there are some graves near the fort, which are said to be of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the other Muslim reformers who rendered great services to spread the light of divine Islam in the area. A few hundred yards from the Fort in a hall with engraved doors in witch Abbasi Amirs and their families are buried: Nawab Muhammad Bahawal Khan (2nd), Nawab Sadiq Muhammad Khan (2nd), Nawab Muhammad Bahawal Khan (3rd), Nawab Fateh Muhammad Khan, Nawab Muhammad Bahawal Khan (4th), Nawab Sadiq Muhammad Khan (4th), Nawab Muhammad Bahawal khan (5th), and Nawab Sadiq Muhammad Khan (5th), Sahibzada Abdullah son of Nawab Sadiq Muhammad Khan (5th), Rahim Yar Khan son of Nawab Sadiq Muhammad Khan (4th) are prominent among those buried there. There are graves of the ladies of the Abbasi family in the north-western corner.

On the way to Derawar, pass Shahi Wala and Burji 42 Hazar and start thinking of Cholistan as an idea for which no language has an apt word, something waiting to be discovered in some out-of-the-way place, difficult to access, if one is enterprising enough to go out and look; an indefinite thing, taking different shapes in the minds of different individuals according to their interests and wishes.

“Derawar itself is considered as pre historic and pre Harappan settlement. It survived not only during pre Harappan period but also afterwards,” says contemporary historian and researcher Nurul Zaman Ahmad Auj, “The fact that it was the first settlement of Indo-Scythian race also points to the antiquity of the place. The settlement existed when Alexander crossed the Hakra River near Derawar. It was one of the important boarder posts of the caravan route and lastly was the capital of Bahawalpur State. Abbasi rulers turned the Hindu city into a perfect Muslim metropolis.”

Leaving the road and the four wheels driven jeep at Derawar, it was while exploring beyond that I found a few of the desert realities. Aside from wildlife, scenery, big solitude, and nomad culture, Cholistan also offer plenty of wind. The rippled shadows of the landscape dissolve at midday, and then deepen again in the afternoon. You find the sense of isolation. The faint white ridge line that marks the far edge drops beneath the horizon and one finds himself adrift in a sterile sea of yellow dunes. Inspired by the gorgeous absence of everything but curves and light, get in the utter emptiness of the landscape and vividly see slight details: telltale irregularities in the texture of the sand; the metallic ping of the odd pebbles beneath feet; a lone big black ant marching up a dune, its abdomen tilted skyward, lizard (Kirla) raising head to look at you from the distance and then rushing to the sanctuary of a bill in hurry, camels marching in perfect order or grazing on shrub called Katran. There is a complete lack of odour in the air.

There is an inland dry delta southwest of Fort Derawar. Some researchers are of the opinion that this is the place where the Hakra River ended centuries ago. The presence of the delta suggests that all, or most, of the River’s water was sopped up in this area where it would have been used for intensive agriculture and other pastoral needs. There seems to have been enough water to support intensive agriculture but not enough to push through to the Arabian Sea. However, a second group of experts holds the opinion that the Hakra River did reach the Arabian Sea. Both the groups have substantial data to prove their points.

At night, walking through the desert under the light of the moon was quite similar to hiking the dunes in daylight. The only difference was that the air was cool, the sand was gray and the Milky Way was more clearly defined in the sky. Later at night, footfalls did not sound like they were coming from my own feet any more; I kept turning around to see if I was being followed. Even sudden patches of soft sand would give me an occasional start in the dim silence.

Eventually, my paranoid habit of veering caught up with me, when - just short of midnight - I found familiar Jeep tyre marks in the sand. Since I had been walking what I thought was east for nearly eight hours, I had been circling around the same set of dunes near the Fort.

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Tags: Travel, Tourism, , Cholistan

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Cheap flights

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Monday, October 10, 2011

The Bull and the Boulder

Salman Rashid started this story at Musa’s rock with the hole and the roof

Through the night the gusting wind kept at it. At sometime after five the sun broke through the shackling layers of gray haze and appeared as a pale yellow disc levitating just above the horizon. It was time to take the short walk to the crest of the ridge of Bail Pathar.

I am no mountaineer and though I’ve been in some high places, I have never actually climbed a real peak. But one thing I know: even insignificant peaks, simply by their very nature of being peaks and therefore higher than the surrounding ground, offer something more than just great views. It was here where long before the dawn of history primitive man placed his gods. Peaks were sacred. Whether it be the puny Miranjani near Nathiagali; or the 4800 metre Deo nau Thuk (Peak of the Jinn) on Deosai; or Musa ka Musallah in Kaghan; or Ilam in Swat; or Kutte ji Qabar (The Dog’s Grave) in the Khirthar Mountains; or Takht e Suleman, they, one and all, were revered places. Those were places for man to approach in worshipful and reverent state of mind, perhaps with an offering or two for whatever gods man believed in.

These gods were created not as man regarded the peak from the base. They were created only after our ancestors were driven up by that curiosity that made them human as distinct from the other primates. Upon the mountain, at the apex of human endurance, the excitement of the panorama those primitive eyes beheld was paled by the heightened consciousness of man’s own place in the great scheme of things. This realisation then as now is not of grandeur and supremacy, but of inconsequence and paltriness – man’s real station in the grand scheme of things. This is the light that removes the last swagger from lowly humans. On some hilltops (Tilla Jogian near Jhelum, for example) this awareness is higher than on others. And so it was that high places the world over became the seats of gods.

If this is the marvel insignificant peaks such as I have named can work, surely the highest places on earth would do the same many times over. Alpine and mountaineering clubs should therefore bear the motto, ‘Discover thyself.’ And if you ask me, that is the reason women and men have climbed whatever mountain is available – not ‘because it is there.’

Immediately below us to the east right where our camp was spread out was Sahib Talab – the Sahib’s Pond, glinting in the dull light of the hazy morning. Far beyond that was a blue-gray ridge and then the plains. On clear nights the lights of Dera Ghazi Khan and Taunsa, and on clear days the silver ribbon of the Sidhu River could be seen, we were told. To the west a wide valley, scoured by four dry streams, spread at the foot of our mountain. Beyond, rose a khaki ridge and on its other side Balochistan was spread out all but unseen in the dust haze. To the north were more hills and to the south a round knoll, the highest part of the Bail Pathar ridge, blocked further view.

Risaldar Yaqoob Shah of the huge pot-belly, the trencherman of this journey, had earlier told us the story of the bull and the boulder: once upon a time a Baloch came up this mountain with his bull. Tying the animal to a boulder, he went about some business and when he returned he found the animal dead. Since that day the boulder was considered possessed and if anyone tied their animals to it the animals died. End of story.

As stories go this one was the most banal and unimaginative, even rather stupid. Neither is a boulder called pathar in Balochi, nor a bull a bal. Furthermore the first part of the name is clearly pronounced ‘Bail’ and not ‘Bal,’ consequently the story could not be true. The origin of the name is lost in the mist of time and in the tradition of all self-styled thinkers who invent heroes (sometimes events) to match place names (Kamalia and Qabula are two pertinent examples in Punjab), some moron thought up this yarn. I hotly debated the point until Yaqoob Shah lamely said since ‘bail’ in Urdu was an ivy or creeper, it might be that there was a stone on this hill that was carved with such a form. The poor man got no respite and this notion was shot to pieces very quickly. How could it be, it was asked, that a whole mountain was named after some rock or the other and no one even knew where the rock was?

But back on the top of the ridge Rehmat Khan had arranged tea for us. We sat in the blustering wind and drank the sweet brew as he told us of the angrez woman. It was about thirty years ago that a white woman was found wandering about near a village at the eastern foot of the mountain. The man who first found her, being a true Baloch, asked her to wait in an otaq (guest room) and went off to fetch someone who could understand her language. When he returned the woman was gone. Disappeared. Therefore, it was swiftly deduced, she was a spy. Moreover, the woman had shown the man a map with the Bail Pathar school marked on it. The school with its roster of one teacher and ten pupils on a map! That was sufficient for anyone who doubted her being a spy to now be fully convinced.

The following day, the woman turned up in Rehmat Khan’s village on the west side of Bail Pathar. She must have been one hell of a walker to have gone up and down the desiccated hill without succumbing to dehydration. Word, travelling by the Baloch tradition of hal-ahwal, had already arrived and folks were about waiting for her. She was quickly bundled off to the authorities at Dera Ghazi Khan. Raheal suspected she might have been the good Dr Ruth Pfau, guardian angel for lepers in Pakistan, hunting for unreachable lepers, but Rehmat Khan put on a saturnine countenance, lips down-turned, and nodding gravely said, ‘ No question. She was a spy.’

One wonder, though, what some crazy white woman should be spying for in the parched wastes of west Punjab hill country. But more than that one wonders what the building that everybody thought was a school was actually being used for to have been so prominently marked on the spy’s map. Now that was something either straight out of an unlettered man’s mind or very, very mysterious indeed and worthy of the files of our intellgence agencies.

The story of Sahib Talab, on the other hand, was cannier. Howard, a Deputy Commissioner of the early 1940s, once visited this mountain. He found it dry and barren, perhaps because of a drought, and local shepherds greatly distressed. The good man ordered the pond to be excavated that has ever since been called the Sahib’s Pond. In the worst years of the drought that now seems to be coming to an end, the pond had run dry only a couple of times. But the nearly continual rains since December have filled it up besides generally greening the region.

We returned to camp in time for breakfast. Over the meal we discovered that Rehmat Khan was not permitting departure without lunch. That would mean travelling during the hottest part of the day and, worse, another roast lamb. But no amount of pleading worked. We resigned, asked him to have the blue and orange canopy put up again and sat back under its shade.

The Inspection Book was produced and Raheal showed me a past entry. Dated the last day of June 2001, it recorded Raheal’s first visit to Bail Pathar in the capacity of Political Agent. He is a strange person, this Raheal. I know for a fact that as Political Agent he was the first one since 1947 to visit some places in his jurisdiction in the tribal outback of Dera Ghazi Khan. Having travelled with him before I have seen Inspection Books inscribed by officers of the Raj in 1947 and then by Raheal. In the intervening half a century no Pakistani official had deemed it fit to visit those areas!

The point of interest in the notation from June 2001 was that having enjoyed his trip to Bail Pathar, Raheal had ended his note saying he would like to return to the mountain with me. His wish, he said, had come true. The visit back then was work for Raheal had cases to dispose of. This time around it was just something we had to do together. Meanwhile, word had got around that Raheal was visiting the mountain and soon a delegation of liberally turbaned Baloch elders arrived with their entourages. These latter were perambulatory arsenals and could have started a small war on Bail Pathar. Solemnly the elders sat cross-legged and presented their petitions to the sahib.

Having come with supplies Raheal, a trained medical doctor, had turned his earlier visit into a medical camp. Scores of women turned up to be treated for night-blindness He had distributed the necessary vitamins and we now learned that nearly all his patients were cured. As a result women unable to attend that first camp were asking for treatment and Raheal promised to return with medical supplies. Men travel to cities and get their requirement of a varied diet. But women, the lower order of humanity in a tribal setting, eating only the leavings of their men, unacquainted with fruit and vegetables in a harsh land that produces nothing but some cereal, are seriously malnourished. Raheal had only discovered the tip of the iceberg. The sloth-afflicted officials of the Department of Health unwilling to undertake such hard journey find it easier filling in registers in the comfort of their offices while the poor and the unknown of Jinnah’s Pakistan living on the edge of the Middle Ages continue to suffer in silence.

Midmorning was lunch time on Bail Pathar and I hoped I was seeing the last roast lamb for several years. Rehmat Khan said it was impolite to turn down a Baloch’s hospitality and that men so spurned are known to have forsworn their wives if the guest did not relent and accept the proffered hospitality. The word is zan talaq and it is used as a sort of a binding not only upon the one who utters it to do or not do something, but also upon the corrival to acquiesce. That was something like the boys’ rhyme of the Lahore of the 1950s that made all those ‘son of a pig’ if they didn’t take up whatever challenge was thrown. For my part, in order to forestall the hazard of more roast lamb I loudly declared, for all to hear, that I would stand divorced from my wife if Rehmat Khan and his people fed us one more time.

This took everyone by surprise. Such a thing was unheard of among the Baloch. One never said zan talaq in order to ward off hospitality. But I had said it and I was standing by it. Nevertheless as we walked down the mountain every time Rehmat Khan mentioned the possibility of more roast lamb at his brother’s home, I reminded him of my avowal. That led to the story of the large-hearted Baloch and his stingy wife who were visited by the man and his naseeb.

We arrive in the village of Ugair where Rehmat Khan’s brother nicknamed Akhrote (Walnut, but I never got around to asking why such an impressive person was thus named) was awaiting us. Thankfully there was only tea with biscuits, but the man kept on insisting that he be permitted to take down a lamb. Someone told him I had sworn zan talaq against more hospitality and that finally put the matter to rest. It was already well into the afternoon and if we tarried any longer we would miss the visit to the shrine of Pir Gahno.

This was another story related by Rehmat Khan as we were coming down the hill. Some years ago while visiting the tomb of ancestor Gahno; he got into an argument with his cousin who minds the shrine. The burden of the argument lay on the poor quality of food that had been served up to our Rehmat Khan. The argument dragged on with the cousin defending himself as vehemently as Rehmat Khan attacked him until our man pronounced zan talaq: never again was he to avail himself of the hospitality of the side of the family that kept the ancestor’s shrine. Time flew and soon Rehmat Khan was invited to a wedding in that family. He said he could not attend because that would necessarily mean partaking of his cousin’s hospitality and he would automatically stand divorced.

This was serious business. Family pressure mounted: as an uncle (and a maternal one at that) of the bride and one of the family’s decision makers Rehmat Khan had to attend the wedding. The ceremony needed his blessing. With the matter of zan talaq niggling at the back of his mind, he attended the party and, naturally, dined with his cousin – an act that automatically affected his divorce. Therefore, to keep matters in legal order a mullah had been imported from Taunsa to officiate over the second solemnising of Rehmat Khan and his wife’s nikah. The needful was done that same evening and by the mullah’s decree the new marriage between the old couple had to be consummated within ten days. With a glint in his blood-shot eyes Rehmat Khan said he had come through colours flying high.

There was one setback, however. Rehmat Khan’s wife was no dodo. As soon as the divorce became effective, she demanded her alimony. The man was flummoxed. Five thousand rupees was a good deal of money. But his wife would have it no other way. She had been divorced and she wanted her pound of flesh. Rehmat Khan paid up before he could be re-married.

Pir Gahno’s shrine, like Granddad Musa’s, was again an unpretentious cement block cubicle with a single satin-draped burial inside. The obligatory peelu tree with its multitude of coloured cloth bags containing the first shaving of sons born by ancestor Gahno’s agency was right outside shading the cubicle. It suddenly shone on me: two Buzdar ancestors, Musa and Gahno, revered as miracle-working saints. If this wasn’t ancestor worship it was nothing in the world. Why, I wondered, hadn’t any anthropologist ever considered working on ancestor worship among the Baloch?

Baloch lore gives them Arab origin – as if that isn’t the case for all Muslims in the subcontinent. Serious research shows however that a very long time ago, much before the advent of Islam, they came from the shores of the Caspian Sea to spread out into the desert regions of eastern Persia and what is now western Pakistan. They descend therefore from an ancient Parthian bloodline. Long centuries ago and far away under the shadow of the Elburz Mountains Baloch religiosity perhaps centered on ancestor worship. The practice appears to have persisted even after conversion to Islam. Where others were encumbered with the invention of Syeds whose tombs could be worshiped for sons and wealth, the Baloch simply continued to venerate their own ancestors.

The last item on the itinerary was Khan Mohammed Buzdar. Three years ago while travelling through here with Raheal we had overnighted at the BMP post of Hingloon. They had shown me the slightly bent bars of the jailhouse and told me how one minute Khan Mohammed was locked up inside and the next was outside beside the free men. I had wanted to meet with the man and Raheal dispatched some of his staff to get him. But Khan Mohammed was away in Taunsa and I had to come away without the interview.

This time around, Raheal had sent word to Hingloon in advance that Khan Mohammed was to be made available. With ordinary build, gentle face and grey beard he looked like no Samson. He also spoke very softly. It was in 1962 or thereabouts, there had been a gunfight, said Khan Mohammed. He had shot and killed one of the rivals’ number which landed him in the lock up. Outside, his brother Taj Mohammed waited with some men of the other party. Shortly after the last prayer of the evening, he heard a gunshot and the shout that Taj Mohammed had been shot.

‘I was beside myself with emotion,’ said Khan Mohammed. ‘My brother had been shot and perhaps killed. I called upon Pir Gahno and before I knew it, the bars were bent wide enough for me to get out.’

The BMP men present in the courtyard restrained Khan Mohammed. Quickly he was hand-cuffed and shackled and returned to his cell. Meanwhile, it was also known that Taj Mohammed had only received a flesh wound and was out of danger. The bar-bending superman was once again human.

On our first visit one of the witnesses who had seen it all had told me he heard this almighty roar of ‘Ya, Pir Gahno!’ The next thing the man knew Khan Mohammed was standing beside him. Everyone was convinced it was Pir Gahno’s blessing that the man was able to bend half-inch thick iron bars. Khan Mohammed himself believed that as well. When I asked him if he could reenact the long ago feat, he said with great simplicity that he could not have done it then without the saint’s help and he couldn’t do it now.

All those who know of Khan Mohammed’s exploit, believe it was Pir Gahno who did it for him. He had called out the saint’s name and the saint came to his aid. I tried to tell them it was the saint, the superman that lived within Khan Mohammed and indeed within all of us as well. But that made no sense to them. It was useless to tell them how karate experts, having discovered through training the superman within, can use his powers at will. And how a shout focuses these powers to a single point to help them achieve the seemingly impossible feat of smashing a pile of kiln-fired bricks.

Khan Mohammed’s Pir Gahno had bent thick iron bars for him – but just one time. The Pir Gahno of karate experts does the impossible for them every time they wish. It is only for humans to discover the superman that lives within. My lecture made no sense. Neither to Khan Mohammed nor to the BMP men. Tolerantly they heard me out.

We left under a lowering sky. Sheets of lightning flashed on the southern horizon and I dreaded being caught up by a swollen stream. It was all right for Rehmat Khan who promised us more roast lamb if we could stay. Promising to return in case of a flood we finally bade him farewell. Thankfully it rained only lightly that evening.

Fellow of Royal Geographical Society, Salman Rashid is author of several books including jhelum: City of the Vitasta and The Apricot Road to Yarkand, Riders on the Wind, Between two Burrs on the Map, Prisoner on a Bus and Sea Monsters and the Sun God. His work - explorations, traveling and writings - appears in almost all leading publications.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Kelash experience

Centuries old Kelash culture is at a greater risk today than any time in the past. Despite their remote location - landlocked in winters - last of the Kelash race is maintaining tenacious hold in district Chitral but is vulnerable to ravages of time and different pressures with external locus.

The onslaughts are clearly eating at their open and nonchalant culture. Many have been forced to join the drift to the cities. But when asked what they want, their collective answer was simple: we want our old way of life. Which is why, pastoral Kelash have been able to keep some of their cultural traditions and identity so far.Some historians and anthropologists think that the Kelash are descendants of Indo-Aryans who overran the region in the second millennium BC. The Kelash say they are from a place called Tsiam, though nobody is sure where that is. Commonly they are considered as descendants of Alexander from Macedon who came this way. Their warrior like forebears managed for centuries to keep everyone - including Tamerlane - at bay. In 1893, the British and Afghan governments agreed on a common border that cut right through Kafiristan dividing the community into two parts. Abdur Rahman who was then Amir of Afghanistan renamed Afghan Kafiristan as Nuristan - land of Light.

The Kelash are called Kafirs (infidels) and their land is known as Kafiristan. Between the 13th and 16th centuries the Chitralis gradually subdued the Kelash. By the 19th century, Kelash had been pushed into the higher valleys of the southern Hindu Kush. Rudyard Kipling set his book “The Man who would Be King” in Kafiristan, portraying the people as fierce and credulous though he never went there. And later, what Geoffrey Moorhouse has described in his book "To the Frontier" is no more there. Even the Chitral town of days when Russian were in Afghanistan (shops used to be full of the US goods like sleeping bags, shoes and field jackets) is no more there.

Not properly documented in our history books, I had the opportunity to explore the Kelash valleys in the widespread and on the edge district Chitral in Pakistan and know the people during my two years long in small village Mirkhanni – a gateway to Kalash trilogy. There are no villages called Rumbor, Bumbret or Birir. These are the valleys inhabited by Kelashis. One can take a 4 x 4 jeep (or hire one) from Attaliq Bazaar Chitral, or more adventurous type can get off on foot and walk along river Kunar up to Ayun.

From Ayun, the road forks left to Bumbret and right to Rumbor. After the fork, the barely jeep able roads to Rumbor and Bumbret - steady climb - will give you a new appreciation for walking particularly if you have been missing walking. There you will see lush green tree lined terraces, dancing and noisy torrents and lofty snow capped peaks set at a distance in the backdrop of forests of Himalayan. Rumbor is friendliest of all valleys where as Bumbret is most picturesque. The mouth of Birir Valley is at village Gahiret, about seven kilometres south of Ayun. Birir - the traditional of all valleys - peters out beyond village Guru. Near the village, you will find out a breathtakingly beautiful spring beneath a mound of stones. It is possible to trek between the valleys. There are also some good locations for 'rock repelling' and places for camping especially in Birir.

Lively by nature, the Kelash are a bit Mediterranean looking, though they gamut from fair and nearly blonde to quite whitish. Men have largely traded traditional goat skin tunics for Shalwar Qamiz and Chirtali caps, often with plumes, feathers, or fresh flowers in the brim. It is the dress of the women that is unique and quite amazing. Even in the fields, women wear immense black or brown dresses reaching to the ground, bound at the waist with a sash. Over locks of hair they wear splendid headpieces decorated with cowries, shells, beads, buttons, coins and plumes. The formal forms of these outfits are spectacular, with embroidery, mounds of bead necklaces and bells. They often decorate their faces with mulberry juice tattoos or pomegranate seeds or blacken them with burnt goat's horn (also for sunburn protection). I once saw a three years old child completely coated with the soot of burnt horns. A local told, "This will keep the baby fair coloured through out life."

The Kelash religion is complex and polytheistic with a single creator, called Dezau or Khodai, and many other lesser gods and spirits, each with its own responsibilities. Two important ones are the warrior gods Mahandeo, guardian of crops, animals, other public matters, and the female goddess Jestak who cares for home, family and private matters. All need occasional compensations, usually in the form of goat sacrifices and ceremonies at their shrines scattered through the valleys. The religious traditions are taught by one generation to the next.

Traditionally the dead are not buried. The wooden coffins used to be placed on the ground. Wooden totes or effigies were carved for wealthy or honoured people. At few old style graveyards I saw, the coffins fallen open, wood pieces and bones scattered about. Totems are scarce now; some carted off by anthropologists and treasure hunters. "Swat and Karachi museums have a few in good conditions," informed a German researcher Laila Mason, whom I met in village Bashala. These days the dead are simply placed on cart in the graveyard.

Tradition has it that women are less pure than men are and there are precise rules about what each may do, where they may go and how to purify people and places. Women during menstruation or childbirth are confined to a lodge called Bashaleni (which is also a shrine to the goddess Dezalik, who looks after births). Men cannot go in; even other women must be 'purified' after a visit. In old days, even food could be served to the women confined in Bashaleni only by virgin boys, untouched by women. Gradually these traditions are losing their power. But still it is the women that are seen working around in fields or homes and men spend all their quality time sitting on the pathways. The burden of perpetuating the last strains of Kelash culture is also born by women alone.

The Kelash take their festivals seriously. In addition to religious ceremonies there is always dancing and local made wine. Typically the older men stand in the centre, taking turns chanting old legends. Accompanied by drums the women dance round them arms around one another's waists and shoulders in spinning twos and threes or trance like encircling lines.

There may be day dancing (adua-naat) and night dancing (raadt-naat) or both. Some may even be closed to outsiders. Each valley has its own style and timing. The dates may not be fixed until the last minute, often depending on harvest or other work, so you could end up waiting days or even weeks for the kick off. Locals from down country may find it difficult to attend any such function but foreigners are often welcome. A Swedish tourist Toni has an interesting theory for this. He says, "Kelash people do not like those who go looking for alcohol, hashish, women or pure salageet.

This feast dedicated to spring and to future harvests is called Joshi. It includes day dancing and family reunions for four to six days in mid May. The summer festival Uchau, celebrating the wheat and barley harvests, is a big tourist draw. It may include night dancing every few days in successive villages, form mid June to mid August. Pul is held only in Birir, for three or four days in late September or early October. Night dancing is held in various villages and day dancing on the last day. It marks the walnut and grape harvests and the end of wine making, though its origins concern the return of shepherds from the high pastures. This solstice festival called Chaumos is probably the biggest for the Kelash, with visiting, feasting and night dancing for around 10 days starting in mid December.

"It is in unique culture that Kelash differ from the rest of the country," confirms Pordum, an elderly resident of village Guru. It is also perhaps the sole claim to fame for the region besides gorgeous natural beauty, poverty and backwardness. Laila Mason says, "unless opportunities are created and due respect is given, this unique culture will disappear fast."

Historic Horse Tram Returns to Gangapur

Owais Mughal

This post has turned 180 degrees in its tone in the past 30 minutes of our editing. Read below how.

I found the title photo of this post in a web search and was totally mesmerized by it. I strarted writing this post with an admittedly ignorant view of the subject and almost made fun of why a horse driven trolley could be a project to inaugurate in today’s modern world - as shown in the title photo.

But boy was I wrong! As I started a quick web search on this project, I realized the historical value of this seemingly old and rusty trolley. And now I am very grateful that someone has actually taken the initiative to rehabilitate this part of our history.

Chak Number 591-GB is a small village in Faisalabad Division. It is also called Gangapur - named after the famous philanthropist and Indian Civil Engineer Sir Ganga Ram. Some text on the web suggests that Sir Ganga Ram owned the village of Gangapur (confirmation needed). It is said that he was a landlord here and turned it into a model village of the late 19th century. He introduced modern agricultural means and machinery of the time to Gangapur. One such machine was a heavy duty Electrical Motor which was installed in 1898 on Gogira branch canal to pump water for agriculture. This motor was brought to Gangapur from Lahore by railways and this is where the story of our today’s post starts.

The nearest Railway Station from Gangapur is another village called Buchiana (101 km from Lahore on Sheikhupura - Shorkot branch line). From Buchiana to Gangapur the distance is approximately 3 kilometers and in 1890s there were no means avialable to transport a heavy electrical motor from Buchiana Railway Station to Gangapur. Therefore Sir Ganga Ram ordered a special railway track to be built for the purpose between the two villages and a horse-driven trolley was used to transport this electric motor to Gangapur. After the motor was installed, the horse driven trolley remained in operation to transport people between the two villages.

Therefore the horse driven trolley that we see in the title photo is now 112 years old (built in 1898). It remained in continuous operation for 100 years until 1998 when financial problems and disrepair of track and trolley put an end to the service. That was until yesterday. As our title photo from March 9, 2010 suggests that after 12 years of dis-repair and non-service the horse tram of Gangapur has now been rehabilitated and put back into service. Yes!

I’ve also read on the web that both PTV and BBC had made documentaries on this horse tram which attracted many tourists to the area.

OK. Now that I’ve given the serious history of the project, how about we go back to my original idea of discussing some lighter details of the title photos here.

Note how many pink color haar (garlands) have been put in the neck of the chief guest. As if they were not enough, a guy is holding several more spares in his arms on the same trolley. The single-vehicle entrouge has been provided with its own ample security too. One can see a policeman standing towards the back of the trolley along with several media people.

I want to end the post with this sher (poetic verse) - which I’ve used in another post earlier too - but let me repeat it anyways:
rau mein hai rakhsh-e-umr, kahaaN dekhiye thamay
na haath hai baag par, na paa hai rakaab meiN

Photo Credits: Tasawar Abbas at APP

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Hanjarwal - Lost from view

From very ancient times, this land was traversed by roads, roads and roads. There were arterial highways like the Rajapatha that connected Bengal with the Afghan highlands. We hear of it from the chronicles of the 4th century BCE and know that this was the very road that we eventually came to know as the Grand Trunk Road. There were others that stretched between important cities.

One such was the highway connecting Lahore and Multan that we today call National Highway 5 (N-5). Though this highroad had existed ever since time began, in the Middle Ages its importance grew when the peaceful years of the Mughal Empire spurred all-round growth. While Lahore in the north became a much favoured city as an alternate Mughal capital, Multan once again thrived as a rich centre of trade and commerce. It was one of the richer subas (provinces) of the empire during the reign of the third Mughal king, Akbar the Great.

To facilitate the passage of trade and travel, the old road connecting Multan and Lahore received a good deal of attention. Among other road furniture, new caravanserais were built where existing ones were falling to pieces. Now, distance between serais was dictated by the day’s travel which in those times was between twenty-five to thirty kilometres. Thus leaving the walled city of Lahore the first serai on Multan Road was at Hanjarwal. A victim of unplanned growth, this serai has long since disappeared.

Lost from view, overgrown with the ugly warts of unplanned rural architecture, Serai Chhimba sits amid blocks of agricultural land some thirty kilometres south of Hanjarwal. Lying a kilometre west of N-5, Serai Chhimba marks the alignment of the old road from the Middle Ages.

We know of Begum ki Serai adjacent to Attock Fort; Serai Kharbuza, midway between Taxila and Rawalpindi; Rewat, east of Rawalpindi and Rajo Pind just outside Rohtas Fort that are all believed to be fortresses. In truth, these are serais, fortified so that they could be locked up for the night to hold robbers at bay. Indeed, this was no deviation, but standard serai architecture all across Central Asia, Iran and the Indian subcontinent.

So too was Serai Chhimba built like a fort with massive walls and two gateways, one each in the direction of the rising and setting sun. In the interior, along the perimeter walls, was a series of sunken rooms with domed ceilings and thick walls to keep out the heat and cold. These were the residential rooms for passing travellers while their pack and riding animals were tethered in the broad enceinte.

The gatehouses on both sides are massive and have bulky arched openings which, going by their style, are clearly Akbari. While the western gatehouse is now occupied and turned into a residence, the one in the east serves as the only way in and out. Until a few years ago the timber leaves of the gatehouse were still in situ, but with the rise in street level, they became unserviceable and one day disappeared. Local gossip has it that the expensive teak was appropriated and sold by the keeper of the spurious shrine inside the serai. So much for those who pretend to be descendents of a worldly man turned holy post mortem by the accretion of yarns.

While the gatehouses mark east and west, the other two cardinal points are scored by massive vaulted structures. These and the gatehouses are each topped by two square towers rising to ribbed domes starkly reminiscent of Samarqand and Herat. None of them retains any of the coloured tiles that may have once adorned them. To emphasise its defensive strength, each corner of the serai has an octagonal turret.

The compound where travellers once tethered their animals is now choc-a-bloc with haphazardly placed houses bisected by streets. Houses along the perimeter wall incorporate the sunken rooms of the serai into their design: as bedrooms these are cool in summer and warm in winter. Everywhere there are signs of disturbance to the original structure of the serai in order to add rooms.

Only a few days before my visit in mid-February, the owner of the house adjacent to the east gate had pulled down one of the two domed towers in order to add a room on his roof. The debris of ancient Mughal bricks and lime mortar had still not been removed. It was his home and he felt he could do whatever he pleased with it – the historic monument be damned. Indeed, the two similar structures on the south wall had gaping holes: used as rooftop kitchens, the openings in the roofs served as chimneys. In the north wall only one of these towers remains. Inmates do not know what became of its companion but they have broken a large opening in it and use it as storage for cow dung patties. Its exterior serves as the post where the patties are dried.

Sometime after the advent of train and motor transport Serai Chhimba fell out of use as a way station. During the Raj when people were more than aware of the presence of the government, this historical inn would not have been appropriated for private residence. With independence two things happened. First, in the hands of incompetent politicians, the new state of Pakistan began to cede authority from the very first day. Secondly, in the absence of any settlement policy, the huge influx of refugees pouring in from across the newly-drawn border took over whatever they found handy.

Serai Chhimba, built about 1580 and therefore a protected historical monument, fell victim to this takeover riot. For some years after partition, it may have retained its serai atmosphere, but galloping population growth quickly smothered it with ugly and unplanned housing. For these refugees from Karnal and Rohtak, this is apparently still not home. They have no feeling for the land, its culture and its history. It is something to be appropriated and destroyed. Sadly, this is no aberration; this is the norm in this blighted land.

Looking at the whole lot of Pakistani people, this utter disregard for our own heritage is our only unifying national trait. Surely this must be the only country in the entire world where a citizen can destroy any historical building without fear of persecution. We see it happening in cities like Lahore, Bhera, Shikarpur, you name it. It is happening in Serai Chhimba as it happened at Hanjarwal where no more than part of the serai gateway now stands. Only some miles away to the east of Serai Chhimba, Dera Chaubara, another 16th century monument and exquisitely beautiful too, has been laid waste by treasure hunters (Herald April 2003). This same breed of ignorant philistine is destroying the hilltop monastery of Tilla Jogian in Jhelum district. This list is endless.

In another country where the writ of the state exists, such wanton destruction of the national heritage would cause uproar. Heads would roll, especially of those entrusted with the upkeep of national monuments. But in Pakistan we let things be. In another few decades, monuments that should have drawn ordinary tourists and students of history and medieval architecture to this land will be no more than heaps of rubble. And not because of age and natural causes, but because of our national indifference for our own heritage.

Fellow of Royal Geographical Society, Salman Rashid is author of eight books including jhelum: City of the Vitasta and The Apricot Road to Yarkand.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Cholistan in Lahore


"It is an island of tranquility only an hour away from home. It surprises me that so few people in Lahore or Kasur know of it. Such a place in India would have been swamped with visitors on weekends," says Salman Rashid. 

Do you have any idea where? Read the story by Salman Rashid here.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Tomb of Bhuman Shah

A quarter century ago, driving from Dipalpur to Haveli Lakha in Okara district of Punjab, I passed a gateway with a couple of human figures in terracotta. If memory serves, there were some more peering down from niches in the wall. Pausing, I learnt that this was the ‘tomb of Bhuman Shah’ in the village of the same name. Bhuman Shah, so my young informant said, was a great saint from even before his grandfather’s time – which in the vernacular means a very long time ago.

I looked in and noticed a building with an impressive façade flanked by octagonal turrets with a central gateway on my right. Straight ahead, at the end of the street could be seen another building with an octagonal turret. To the left, a battered dome that I took to date from the early 18th century reared up behind a wall. The young man invited me to look in on what he said was a fort, but it being just about sunset I declined hoping to return another time.

It took me twenty-five years to get back. The figures in the wall were gone, and only one remained in the gateway. Inside, the street seemed to be more crowded with houses and the building on the right with the pretty façade was fronted by ugly cubicles all but concealing it. Going up the street and turning left at the foot of the second turreted building, I was surprised to find the domed building all spruced up with a fresh coat of yellow wash. The tomb of Bhuman Shah had been restored, and furnished with booklets in English and Urdu encapsulating the man’s life.

Born in 1687 to Rajo Bai and Hassa Ram of village Behlolpur near Dipalpur, Bhumia is said to have been a miraculous child whose birth was not attended by the customary labour pains. Three hundred years is a sufficiently long time to veil his life with a mist of the usual formulaic miracles that are the staple of all saints. But if one were to sift through the murk, even as a teenager Bhumia was smart enough to have developed an impressive discourse on eschewing materialism and mortifying the soul through hardship to attain oneness with god.

When the boy saint was about thirteen and visiting an ashram at Pakpattan, he is said to have been recognised as the reincarnation of a great saint of the past. The keeper of the ashram, himself an accomplished monk, initiated the boy into monk-hood. There Bhumia learned the secrets of the Udasi order of monks who believe that true spirituality transcends religious division. When he was ready to set out to put his world to rights, his mentor suggested he take the name of Bhuman Shah.

Legend has it that he arrived near the village of Kutb Kot and camped by a well in the forest where Hindu, Muslim and Sikh alike came to seek his benediction. Among the seekers was the mother of Lakha Wattoo who was then serving time in the jail in Lahore. The woman petitioned the saint to bring her son back and Lakha was home in a few days. The yarn being that Bhuman Shah has appeared in his cell led Lakha through solid walls and within moments brought him back to his mother’s hearth. To show his gratitude, Lakha ordered his entire tribe to vacate the village and donate it lock, stock and barrel to Bhuman Shah. The chief’s word was law and Kutb Kot became Bhuman Shah as it is known to this day.

And so the saint who abhorred worldly wealth of a sudden became lord and master of a vast estate. With this newly acquired affluence, Bhuman Shah now had a headquarters where he began a kitchen that daily fed all comers regardless of caste or creed. By 1747, the year of his death, Baba Bhuman Shah had a large following. The body was cremated, the ashes buried at the very spot where saint spent his time in meditation and a domed building raised above it. Though he died unmarried and with no heir to inherit his holdings, Bhuman Shah passed on his mantle to one of his disciples and that remained the more: as he lay dying each man nominated a successor to lead the cult of Bhuman Shah.

The cult grew and the free kitchen that daily fed hundreds of hungry mouths seems to have won admiration all round. The ‘official history’ of the cult records an unnamed British divisional commissioner adding three thousand acres to the Bhuman Shah holding in appreciation of the good work being done. In 1910 with increasing numbers of followers resorting to Bhuman Shah for the four annual festivals, the magnificent edifices with the corner turrets were paid for from earnings from the agricultural holding. The one on the right as one enters the complex called the sarai or Bhajan Mahal and the other the fort. During the festivals, attended by all religious denominations in united India, the fort housed the upper crust of devotees while the sarai was for the middle tier. Commoners, it is told, had to make do as they found best.

The free kitchen continued to function until 1947 when the Hindu population was exchanged with Muslims. Finding the two buildings handy, refugees moved in and portioned them out according to their individual needs. The samadhi complex was spared only because it afforded no reasonable accommodation. As time went by and families grew, makeshift walls were raised to create courtyards until the once-grand edifices became virtual mohallahs. The cult’s agricultural land was similarly annexed by the new-comers.

Years passed, visa requirements stiffened and by the 1980s free travel between Pakistan and India became virtually unknown. The trickle of Bhuman Shah devotees that had continued after partition eventually dried out. A generation of Muslims grew up in Bhuman Shah without hearing bhajans and qawalis sung around the domed samadhi of the saint whose name their village carried. It was forgotten that Bhuman Shah had four annual festivals where tens of thousands of visitors congregated.

December 1992 saw one of the most shameful acts of all times: the razing of Babri Mosque in Ayodhia. Muslims all over Pakistan responded with the even more dishonourable deed of destroying everything that had anything to do with either the Hindus or the Sikhs regardless of the buildings’ religious or secular nature.

The occupation of Bhajan Mahal and the fort by dozens of families was a blessing in disguise for that held the vandals at bay. But the samadhi of Bhuman Shah was heavily damaged. Thereafter the derelict building became the refuge of drug addicts. Thus matters stood at the turn of the century. Meanwhile, easier visa requirements once again permitted some devotees to visit and locals were surprised to see Europeans among the visitors.

In 2005 Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB) responded to appeals from the followers of the Bhuman Shah cult in India and elsewhere. The complex containing Bhuman Shah’s samadhi and yet another one as well as a large building known as Darbar Hall was restored. But when ETPB turned its attention to Bhajan Sarai and the fort, those who had taken over the buildings and destroyed their character resisted.

Under the Antiquities Act 1974 the two buildings, as well as the samadhi complex, are protected monuments. Though Pakistan is famous for mindlessly destroying perfectly serviceable built heritage, we do have the example of a priceless building being pulled back from the brink in Chiniot. That happened because of official interest. Now, owing to pressure from cult followers abroad, ETPB has taken the right line of relocating the squatters to take over and restore the two residential houses.

It is imperative that the sarai and the fort be reclaimed and used only for the purpose they were originally built for. Religious tourism is a big thing and the Udasi cult followers from India alone mostly belong to the moneyed class. Restoring the festivals at Bhuman Shah will not only bring Muslim, Hindu and Sikh together, it will also bolster the local economy.

In the bargain, ETPB will have preserved two fine examples of the built heritage of Punjab.
Fellow of Royal Geographical Society, Salman Rashid is author of several books including jhelum: City of the Vitasta and The Apricot Road to Yarkand, Riders on the Wind, Between two Burrs on the Map, Prisoner on a Bus and Sea Monsters and the Sun God. His work - explorations, traveling and writings - appears in almost all leading publications.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Which country?

Once upon a time when ‘urbanisation’ had not yet caught on, this was another country. Outside the urban centres, this was a land of wide-open vistas of swaying fields of wheat, rice or sugar cane as weather permitted. This was a land of spreading banyan trees that, I was learn much later, figured on one-inch army topographical maps as ‘survey trees.’ And this was a country of fine stands of shisham and acacia trees, roadside ponds ablaze with red and blue lotus flowers and fresh water streams alive with tortoises and fish.

In those days of the late 1950s and through the following decade, when the family drove up the Grand Trunk Road to Rawalpindi or took the N-5 down to Multan, the ride was through a marvellous landscape. The Degh River just a few kilometres north of Lahore was a clear water stream whose banks were lined with anglers – especially if it was a Sunday. Gujranwala was a tiny little town where we swept past only a handful of stores and several lovely old town houses.

Similarly for Gujrat, while Jhelum was remarkable for the church that came into view as the car entered the old Jhelum River bridge. In those days the church stood in a wide-open meadow where buffaloes grazed. One thing that did not escape even us children was the very frequent spreading banyan tree shading a pond that could either be brick-lined or just plain. The sole surviving tree is the one near Sohawa (on the left side of the road as one motors towards Rawalpindi) whose accompanying pond is now sadly dry. All the others have been sacrificed to the ever-widening roads.

On the other side, along the N-5, my memory of passing Okara is not, I repeat, not seeing any habitation. An older cousin who was then an engineer told me that British road builders had ensured that all intercity roads pass one mile from habitation and were connected to it by a link road. Today passing through Pattoki, Okara or any other place that does not have a by-pass is nightmare.

In 1979 I moved to Karachi and for the next ten years travelled extensively in the interior of Sindh and Balochistan. Super Highway actually began at Sohrab Goth and ended in the wilderness outside Hyderabad. In its entire length of 160-odd kilometres, the only sign of human intervention was the Nooriabad Industrial Estate with its chimneys. Similarly, the old N-5 connecting these two cities via Thatta passed through the loveliest countryside imaginable. The Gharo River meandering through acacia and mesquite bushes was a sight and Thatta was a right lovely little town with its badgirs (wind-catchers) looking in open-mouthed wonder to the southwest

In the interior country roads such as what is now known as the Indus Highway (connecting Hyderabad and Shikarpur via Sehwan and Larkana) was truly magical. On the one side were occasional glimpses of the Sindhu River beyond patches of cultivation and on the other of the tortured, barren hills of the eastern-most offshoot of the Khirthar Mountains.

But the most magical of all places was Balochistan. It was the only land within this country where one could actually be with one’s self for mile after mile after mile. Even as recently as the mid-1980s, the drive from Karachi to say Lasbela or Kalat along the RCD Highway was remarkable for its loneliness. In the early 1980s I drove several times between Karachi and Lasbela and once all the way to Quetta and on all occasions I halted frequently simply to savour the peace and solitude of the land. For long minutes, perhaps even as much as half an hour, no traffic passed as I sat by the road to watch dozens of dust devils waltzing in the distance against misty blue hills.

In Makran there were no roads at all. The journey along the seaboard from Karachi to Gwadar took two days and one arrived with a goodly portion of the desert deposited on one’s self. It took a long, long bath to wash the dust away. The dirt road between Gwadar, Turbat and on to Panjgur passed through the most remarkable landscape of dry, broken hills and riverbeds that saw water only rarely when rain fell.

A handful of kilometres from Gwadar on the west bay the hills of Pishukan, completely unpopulated and waterless were the most fascinating place ever. Seen against a low sun they looked (and still do) like the skyscraper-filled skyline of some modern city. Now with Gwadar being turned into the next Dubai (or whatever else they plan), urbanisation has hit this region in a big way. Sooner than we know, west bay will be choc-a-bloc with concrete monstrosities that will block out the beauty of the Pishukan hills.

In recent years I have seen Karachi expand all the way to the Hub River both along RCD Highway and on the tree-shaded and peaceful Hub Dam Road. Along the former we have an industrial estate and its auxiliary residential areas as well as the shanties that were bound to happen. On the latter the sprawling Hamdard University has taken away the magic. Within years of the establishment of the university, Karachi began to encroach in that direction. Today as one drives up to the dam, one is never alone. And if I am not wrong, a lot of trees, mainly acacia and tamarisk, have been destroyed in the bargain.

Even the lonely RCD Highway has not escaped urban pressure as places as quaint and remote as Khuzdar and Wadh have encroached upon the road. This invasion is mostly in the form of glitzy restaurants and unseemly truck stops. Though I have not been on this road for nearly twenty years, friends tell me that no longer can one stop and savour the solitude of Balochistan for more than a few minutes at a time without being disturbed by passing buses.

In the case of Punjab and NWFP, the least said the better. Today one can drive from, say, Peshawar to Lahore or Multan or even all the way to Karachi and never be out in the country. Today the entire 1000 plus kilometre length of the N-5 is an endless bazaar. The views of swaying sugar cane or golden wheat along the road are a thing of the past. Now all one sees is an endless procession of grimy workshops and filthy restaurants. If it is not that, then it is a succession of equally unsightly factories.

Gone are the days of the wide-open vistas. Unchecked urbanisation has destroyed the magic of intercity travel. So few people today realise that as we once went tooling along the highways, we got to know this country; its rivers and trees, its birds and animals and all that grew on it that made up our food. Unchecked urban spread has not only deprived us of a landscape that my generation knew. It has defiled this land in more ways than one.

For one, vast tracts of farmland on the periphery of urban centres have been made over for housing estates. Indigenous trees were without fail the first casualty in this deal. All the wonderful, spreading banyan, pipal, mulberry, acacia and shisham were laid low to demarcate plots and lay out the grid of roads. In their stead, ignorant developers planted the water-guzzling eucalyptus and the only tree we now see is this accursed alien species. Secondly, unplanned urban expansion has destroyed dozens of fresh water streams. The Degh, the Aik and the Palkhu are just a few examples.

We now stand on the threshold of a new age where we will not know this country. In a few years most urban people will only know ugly concrete jungles, not spreading fields of wheat and paddy. Small wonder then that we are going crazier and crazier and ever more violence-prone.

Fellow of Royal Geographical Society, Salman Rashid is author of several books including jhelum: City of the Vitasta and The Apricot Road to Yarkand, Riders on the Wind, Between two Burrs on the Map, Prisoner on a Bus and Sea Monsters and the Sun God. His work - explorations, traveling and writings - appears in almost all leading publications.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Who is burried thee?

Salman Rashid

In the bleak, tortured landscape of the north-eastern Potohar Plateau Dhamiak had remained uncelebrated since the beginning of time. Lying amid a wearisome tangle of narrow and meandering gullies, tinged red by sub-soil salt and thinly covered with scrub, it never had reason for fame or glory. Its only claim to fame was for being a staging post just off one branch of the old Rajapatha, or King’s Road, that has been in use from ancient times. While the main royal road leading west through Punjab went by the Salt Range, this branch followed the same alignment as the modern Grand Trunk Road by way of Jhelum, Sohawa and Gujar Khan – though none of these towns would have then existed.

This latter was the road less travelled; the majority of traffic passing through the heart of the Salt Range. The celebrated Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsiang writes of his prolonged sojourn at Taxila (631 AD) and a visit to the monasteries of the Salt Range. Thereafter, he tells us of his journey to Kashmir. Though he does not describe his route, it is evident that he would have used this road. Nine hundred years later Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire in India, tells us of having travelled by the ‘sub-montane road’ through the country of the warlike Gakkhars of the Potohar Plateau en route to Lahore in November 1523.

In between a remarkable event took place by this lesser branch of the King’s Road. This event would have remained no more than a footnote in our history had we not become masters of a missile that needed to be named after a hero. And since from the moment of our conversion to Islam, we were divorced from our earlier history, all heroes had to be, necessarily, Muslims. So it is that Muiz ud Din, better known as Shahab ud Din Ghory, a Turkish chieftain from the narrow and impoverished valley of Ghor, southeast of Herat in Afghanistan, is celebrated by sub-continental Muslims for his invasion and mastery of the northern part of India.

In 1203 rumour reached the Khokhar Rajputs of the Salt Range that Shahab ud Din had been killed by the Mongols on the wind-scoured grasslands of far away Central Asia. Having been nominal feudatories of the Ghorid sultan, these doughty warriors began to assert their independence by closing the roads that passed through their territory. Thereafter they set about raiding Ghorid dependencies in Punjab. But it was only rumour: Shahab ud Din was alive and by 1205 brought retribution upon these people in full force. The battle fought near Gujrat was all but carried by the Khokhars until Turkish reinforcements under Qutub ud Din Aibak arrived from Delhi to turn the tide. The Rajputs were routed after a great slaughter and the country returned to Turkish control.

Smarting under the shame of defeat, the Rajputs set their hearts on revenge. Barely a year later, when the Ghorid sultan was returning from Delhi to the Afghan highlands, he was done in. The sources say that it was either a single individual or a small band of Khokhars (no more than three) that stole into the king’s camp, dispatched his bodyguards and repeatedly stabbed the king as he slept in his tent. And even before an alarm could be raised, these intrepid guerrillas had vanished into the dark of night while the sultan lay dying in a pool of blood.

The sources are also divided on another issue: the location of this historical event. At least two early sources tell of the king’s tent having been pitched by a ford on the Sindhu River and that the Khokhars entered his camp by swimming in. But the Tabakat-e-Nasiri of Minhaj ud Din Siraj, generally considered fairly reliable as an historical source, very categorically states that the murder took place at ‘the halting place of Dhamiak ….. at the hand of a disciple of the Mulahida.’ The Mulahida or heretics here being the Ismailis, a persuasion that many of the Khokhars followed at that time. Several contemporary and later writers agree with Siraj that Dhamiak was indeed the site of the murder.

And so it was that when it came time for us to name our missile we called it Ghory: therein lay a symbolism. The Indians call their missile Prithvi (after Prithviraj Chauhan) we are one up because Shahab ud Din Ghory had eventually won victory after an initial defeat at the hands of the Chauhan king. Having done that we also needed to re-invent history. This was easily do-able because we knew from folklore that Shahab ud Din Ghory had died at Dhamiak. Being well-known for our national aversion to reading, the creators of this new history did not bother to consult the books and simply went ahead to raise the white marble tomb of the Ghorid sultan at Dhamiak. The Turkish king was thus duly indigenised, but Dhamiak became the burial place of deception for real history has another tale to tell.

The Tabakat-e-Nasiri tells us of the dispatch of the king’s bier from Dhamiak towards Ghazni. Now, it needs be told that at the time of this murder (1206 AD), Afghanistan was held by the Turks as different principalities all owing allegiance to the sultan. While Ghor was held by the sultan’s cousins, Ghazni was under the control of Taj ud Din Yalduz, one of Shahab ud Din Ghori’s most trusted slaves and generals. As the funerary procession accompanied by amirs from both Ghor and Ghazni crossed the Sindhu River and arrived in the vicinity of modern day Kohat, a dispute for the possession of the coffin as well as the considerable treasure being borne with it broke out between the two parties.

From all accounts it appears that a minor battle was fought. The Ghoris were defeated and routed. The funeral then proceeded to Ghazni by way of Sankuran that we today know as Shalozan. This is a right beautiful, well-watered valley of orchards and farmland lying a few kilometres to the northwest of Parachinar. It was at Sankuran that Yalduz kept headquarters and as the bier reached in this vicinity, we hear of him riding out to meet the body of his lord and master. The histories tell us of how having seen the grim procession from a distance, Yalduz dismounted and came up to the bier with ‘utmost veneration.’ It is also recorded that he wept so inconsolably that his grief moved others to tears as well.

Arriving at Ghazni, the sultan’s body was buried in the madrasah he had founded during his lifetime and named after his daughter – his only child who survived beyond infancy. To recount the subsequent battles between the houses of Ghor and Ghazni over the late sultan’s treasures is beyond the scope of this story. Nevertheless all available histories tell of the corpse of Sultan Shahab ud Din Ghory safely reaching and being buried at Ghazni.

Yet we have a marble monstrosity plonked amid the furrowed badlands of the Potohar Plateau. The building can be reached by a blacktop motorable road that takes off to the east of the Grand Trunk Road at Sohawa exactly opposite the fork that goes in the other direction to Chakwal. Less than twenty kilometres from the main highway, the white tomb can be spotted from some way off. The façade bears a plaque that briefly tells of the sultan’s exploits against the Rajputs. It would be foolish to imagine that the plaque would also recall the chivalry of the victorious Rajputs in the first encounter. For the Rajputs a battle was no different from a sport: when they routed an enemy, they did not stoop so low as to pursue and annihilate a withdrawing army. They broke away and jubilantly went their own way. They permitted the vanquished foe to live to fight another day.

Be that as it may, the question is: if the king’s corpse was borne to Ghazni as history testifies, who is buried in this tomb? No one. At least not a person. It must not be forgotten that summer had begun and the body would have started to rot very quickly in the Punjabi heat. As was the practice, the sultan’s courtiers would in all probability have eviscerated the corpse. All that would have been buried at Dhamiak was the liver and the excrement-filled royal intestines. As time passed and memory faded, it was only remembered as the burial of Shahab ud Din Ghory ignominiously murdered at the hands of an Ismaili Khokhar sworn to revenge.

When it came time to reincarnate the Ghorid king as a missile, the tomb was raised as a sort of proprietorial claim over that exalted personage. History was not consulted and if official historians were required, of them there were aplenty falling over each other to attest to the veracity of the murder at Dhamiak. As has been the way of this breed of experts, the rest of the truth was not revealed. And so the marble Tomb of the Viscera was raised.

If, however, the mausoleum only commemorates the location of the sultan’s last moments on earth, then the raising of this edifice is doubly criminal. In a country where ordinary folks, superstitious as they are, worship every available tomb, this will only create yet another giver of sons and wealth. This will give them another demi-god to worship and pray to.

Postscript: When Jehangir, the fourth Mughal emperor of India, died in Kashmir in the summer of 1627, his body was brought to Lahore by way of Bhimber and Gujrat. As it neared this latter city, it was already beginning to putrefy. Evisceration was the only way to impede further damage. The material was buried just outside town. Today there stands a tomb over that site and the plaque commemorates the mausoleum as that of ‘Shah Jehangiri.’

Over time the humble intestines of a rather worldly monarch were deified. Today Shah Jehangiri boasts of a large weekly gathering; the annual urs being an even greater affair. Men and women come from distant corners of the country; it is said, to seek the intervention of the intestines in the acquisition of health, wealth and children. Some of them surely are granted their desires. The Auqaf Department that was raised to curb such mindless superstition actually abets in its spread for every new shrine in the country means more income for the department. Even if the shrines contain only excrement-filled intestines.

Fellow of Royal Geographical Society, Salman Rashid is author of several books including jhelum: City of the Vitasta and The Apricot Road to Yarkand, Riders on the Wind, Between two Burrs on the Map, Prisoner on a Bus and Sea Monsters and the Sun God. His work - explorations, traveling and writings - appears in almost all leading publications.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Virtual Travel Communities

The virtual world is beginning to blend seamlessly with the real world. The social side of technology is making the World Wide Web much more localized by bringing like-minded people together and in the process creating closely knit online communities.

A combination of features like worldwide accessibility and instantaneous communication has made it possible for backpackers, globetrotters, and other adventurers from all over the world to join together at different online platforms to exchange information, experiences, and plans in their favorite pursuit — travel.

Subscribers range from the professional travel writers to hardcore travelers and adventurers and regular folks who are simply interested in reading online. Travel communities are accessible by millions of interested people all over the world.

Out of some major and lesser travel forums on the Web, I have had the good fortune to belong to a few and have been visiting some others for my travel information needs.

Exceptions apart, all virtual travel communities have some common features. Communities mostly provide a warm, trusting, and supportive atmosphere. When members share information, they do it with great care and responsibility. They rely on each other more than they do on outdated travel guidebooks or on second-hand and static information from conventional travel literature.

Visit any online community and one finds anything related to travel, along with flames and off topic comments, which are sometimes informative, sometimes funny, and occasionally annoying. The mutual exchange of information is not restricted only to destinations, affordable places to stay and dine in, security issues, maps, weather conditions there. and where to find the best bargains and how to find public restrooms or which Websites better describe any particular place (or which dress a female anthropologist going to study Kalash clan up in northern district Chitral should wear during her extended stay there). It goes much further to helping in finding work, selling and promoting each other in local markets.

“Travel forums have become hunting grounds for meeting fellow travelers and making new friends. You really do not require any other reason to join a community or two,” says Atoorva Sinha, who intends building up the travelers’ community at Mindzwine.

Carla King is a founding member of one virtual travel community called Wild Writing Women for female travelers. She emailed, “When we published 'Wild Writing Women — Stories of World Travel' (an anthology of women’s travel stories) — we got a lot of publicity. People wanted to know how we traveled solo and weren’t afraid, and just how we went about it. We started giving workshops. We also started giving writing workshops and hosted a free monthly literary salon. People just gravitated, and we accepted them. We made a business of it and formed the online community. So it’s a profitable business for us to expand the community, and also, happily, it’s close to our hearts.”

Members are slow to respond sometime. Chris Heidrich, the director of BootsnAll says, “One has to be patient in waiting for a response from members and insiders. It should be understood that it is a voluntary favor and some people do not come on board or check email as often.” Court, who is always found on board in the same community adds, “Some time they may be away traveling to yet another location.”

The recipients of information have to keep in mind that whatever comes is based upon individuals’ personal experiences or empirical observations. One member may have had different experiences than others. When I posted a query about virtual travel communities (for this article) at the BootsnAll community, the first reply referred me to Nick, the mediator at another community at Bali Blog who in turn advised me to email direct to all on his mailing list. The replies I am still receiving are varied, showing so many perspectives. “There is nothing like variety,” says Nick.

The virtual world is composed of information rather than physical identities. Information spreads and diffuses. Those who belong to these impalpable spaces are also diffuse, free to take it or leave it.

Flying by Air Airk

The growth in human activities has given birth to increase travel service that facilitate you and help you get tickets, save money on airfares, hotel accommodations, hire cars and airport transfers at different destination around the world. I have been travelling whenever I could. Given my own interest, I try to keep a watch better services, newer services and cheaper services to get tickets. I use the info for my writings and also try them when I need to. Travelling to Africa by Arik Air is one of my new finds.

Pure competition is one of the best factors that have created great choices for frequent travellers. Every airline is trying to do its best in offering lowest fare, luxury and comfort to attract passengers. Air Arik is a case in point here.

While searching for cheap flights to Lagos from London and quality services to destinations in Africa, I came upon flights to Lagos from London – a travel company that can take care of all your travel needs.  BTW, if you can’t find your required route, call Airk and leave the rest to them.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

My Village

There are lessons in the first landscapes of every one's life. Mine was a vista of green paddy fields, smoking with Salt Range mist, against a setting of ribbon of River Jhelum which from distance looked like a shore of another land altogether. The rough, rugged hill range appeared uninviting against a sky withering with the morning, interrupted by the dawn's red and blue brush strokes. My first learning in life was also in the village.

In villages, people still live without assessable roads or other civic amenities of this modern age. No telephone or the Internet, even the electricity is the recent phenomenon; some are still without it. You see one village and you have seen all. This was the setting where I spent first twenty year of my life savoring the freedom of adulthood. It is where I decided what (and how) I wanted to do with life. It is where my mother, brothers and friends live. It is where I return whenever my active life allows me to. It is where I want to settle and spend my future.
My village is awe inspiring -- pollution free and quiet. Different shades and colors of waving crops and trees - solitary, in groves or avenues - beautify the landscape. The scene changes after the harvest. The air is always fresh and fragrant with the smell of earth. The only sound is singing of birds, ringing of cowbells and sighing of wind or some youth loudly singing Heer Waris Shah, Sassi Punun or Mirza Saheban at night. One sees butterflies fluttering, ladybirds creeping and squirrels jumping around. To me the place feels like a paradise.

My roots are in the village where no body seems to be in a hurry. Every time I go there, from the different cities where I happen to be living, I take small things like candies and toys for the kids of neighbors and my family in the village and they are so happy that the words cannot explain their delight. From the village I bring everything, and more than every thing I bring lot of love.

"I help my neighbors and my neighbors help me", is the philosophy of life in our village. Faith, sharing, contentment, grit, hard work and humor are few others. There are no marriage halls or other renting places. Daras (community centers where cultural diffusion takes place) are very useful 'institutions' for functions or for elders to sit and teach irreplaceable heritage of ideas to the younger generation. The learning that passed on to me in Dara turned out to be very precious: it was the legacy of the fable. Tandoor (Oven for backing bread) is still a meeting and talking place for women.

Guests of one family are shared by ever one at the time of marriage (or death). Hospitality is like one of the cultural benchmark, as villagers strongly believe that a guest comes with the blessings of Allah Almighty. Pull a hay cart into the shad, to rest, to dream. You shall be served with hookka (Hubbell-bubble), water and food. Cooing crows are still considered as a symbol for the arrival of guests in my village.

From our village, a group of seven students used to go to nearby town for attending school (and then college). Ghulam Muhammad was my buddy in the group. After completing the education, my dreams become out of control and took me on the darker roads of the life whereas Ghulam Muhammad, equipped with degree from Faisalabd Agricultural University, started progressive farming in the same village. He was a hardworking, gentleman, economically very sound and ambitious. Ghulam Mohammed's father soon started getting proposals for the marriage of his son from many wealthy landlord families of the area. But, my friend married his cousin: uneducated daughter of one of his poorest uncles and is living happily ever since. Village society is still simple, cohesive and based on similarities.

This time when I was coming back from the village, lot of people - family members, peers and neighbors - came to see me off as always. My mother had packed my vehicle with vegetables (fresh from the farm), palsies, atta (floor), and husked rice and even live chickens. Every body was advising me to consume every thing back in the city, as "they are fresh, pure, nutritious and desi". On my way back, a question kept coming in my mind: how much time this simple society will take to become complex and when will 'development' change the outlook of the villagers to life?

A cluster of memories - some overlapping, some isolated - of 'the village boy' I once always stay with me. I am a result of my childhood experiences. After having knocked on all the doors of opportunity that come in my way in life, I want to settle and spend my future in the village?