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?

Rims and Tires

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Monday, September 12, 2011

Silk Road

The souls that pave the way for the Silk Road still seem to flicker amongst the sharp moving shadows of the unstable rocks and the almost countless but crumbly semi-transparent glaciers that constantly threaten its existence. There has always been a 3,000 years of history and tradition, breathtaking landscapes of desert, mountain, and steppe, and glorious ancient cities and above all the warmest people in the world. Discover a new place, and discover yourself.

Those who want to best discover the old rout (and in the process want to discover themselves) must first have a look at Silk Road Treasure Tours – with them the world is more interesting. Silk Road Treasure Tours will help you get to any destination. Travel to places like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Central Asia. You can also explore Caucasus Travel - Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. I personally want to learn about Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyzs, Turkmans and Tajiks and learn more about their culture. Which is why a trip on the silk road is already on my wish list.

Let them arrange the tour for you and you may have one of the most enriching experience of your life. Maybe you'd like to combine tours? Their experience working with the many major and regional airlines makes it easy for us to arrange tours to multiple destinations. Approach them and they will take care of every detail. You simply enjoy your. When you are on their neatly laid out site, go through event calendar (Discover Uzbekistan, Central Asia Treasures: Art, Culture and Music, Silk Road Treasures of Central Asia, Uzbekistan Treasures) and see how you can plan your tour with the event that interests you more. Also go through tour testimonials and see what those who have travelled with them are saying about them. This will help you make an informed decision.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

This is where I get my supply of Salageet (Shilajit)

Some places are so peaceful and unspoiled that it is almost unbelievable. One such locality is the picturesque, tranquil and pollution free (and undeveloped) boarder village Arrandu in district Chitral. The very sound of the name is musical. This village is located 'on' the Pakistan Afghanistan boarder. Dir-Chitral Road bifurcates near village Mir Khanni and a jeep able track along Kunar River leads to Arrandu through Domail Nisar and onwards into Afghanistan.

Gateway to the South Asia, the Chitral valley has been center of activity since ancient times. Macedonians advanced through this region in fourth century. In 1338, Timur subdued the area on his way to the plains of Punjab. Mughal King Akbar garrisoned here in 1587 and the British in 1897 in Chakdara on Dir side of Lowari Pass. Among soldiers who served here in Chakdara then was young Winston Churchill who later became Prime Minister of Britain. So far about the past importance of the valley but the little hamlet got the international fame during Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. It remained in the news and was commonly called as 'BBC Baby'.
Arrandu is set up on the bank of Kunar River flowing into Afghanistan. Terraced fields of wheat, barley, maize and fragrant orchards of walnuts, apricots, grapes, apples and mulberries are strung up the valley like flags, at the feet of bare or thinly forested mountain walls.

The 3118-meter Lowari Pass is normally open to vehicles from June to October. One can sometime cross the pass on foot in May or November, despite the snow. One can also reach this small hamlet from Peshawar to Chitral by air and then by road to Arrandu or from Afghanistan. Though taking flight to Chitral is not everyone's cup of tea because the Fokker Friendship can cross the Lowari Pass only if weather permits. It rarely does particularly once the valley is landlocked in winters. First time, I landed in Chitral after three attempts by Fokker. Flying above the clouds, I had a window seat on the West Side of the small and noisy aircraft and could see the sighs of Hindu Kush where clouds allowed. Chitral to Arrandu via Drosh along Kunar River is easily one of the prettiest drives in the valley.

Chitral Scouts have kept this post in a very good shape. And, when ever I happened to pass the post conducting 'travelers' from down country or alone, I was always given a warm welcome and send off by Essa Khan, a local who has the biggest store cum tea house in the village. He also has arrangements for Trout fishing in Kunar River near his store. After zig zagging on a difficult road, one can spend a good day at the riverbank fishing and relaxing, with supply of tea from the Pinion Shah's teashop. And, to me Pinion Shah used to present, every time I visited him, a gift of pure salageet (Shilajit) - an oozing black paste from rocks famous among men in this part of the world as an anti aging and sexual health. After Afghan refugees and occasional travelers, now this road is used by herd of goats lead by a lonely Gujars to and from greener pastures. That is the place, which I use as a retreat from the hustle and bustle of urban life and that is where "I go to reminisce about fairies."

While the entire Chitral Valley is breathtaking in its splendor and beauty, one of my most enduring memories of Arrandu is watching the sunrise over the hills. And, when you devote enough time to look at the mountains, it becomes a bit chameleon - clouding over, changing colors, cliffs turning into convex and concave according to the slant light.

Arrandu has red roofed grand mosque and some makeshift provision stores that are stocked in summers when Lowari Pass is open to road traffic. There is also a water mill for grinding grain. Lot of tracks interlaces the area that is frequented by Mazdas or pedestrians.

At night, lights glow in this isolated village. One finds men spending their quality time sitting on the retaining walls along the razor edged roads and tracks while women (mostly with enlarged thyroid glands due to lack of iodine) working in the fields, homes or collecting woods from hills in conical wicker baskets. Even in their fifties men carry guns along with a belt of ammunition. The fact is that I found them friendly and at peace with themselves.

There are side valleys that yawn on both sides of Kunar River for hiking in its upper reaches. Friendly people of Tajik origin who had came from Badakhshan in Afghanistan only a few generations ago, to manufacture matchlock rifles for the Mehtar of Chitral populate the area. Arrandu Road is an ideal place to study the effects of land erosion: how it ruins the land and clogs waterways. And, there are some beautiful geological formations along the road. Besides scenery, there are many well-used camping grounds on both sides of the road and river, which run side by side.

Isolated from the rest of the country because of the remote location, Chitralis live a primitive rural existence without any civic amenities. Even the TV transmissions, telephone and electricity only in some parts of distract are a recent phenomenon. "Why would anyone want to live in a country like that?" Pinion Shah smiled and said, "I guess we like it here because we like to be left alone. Oh, it is nice to have people visiting. And we like people all right. But we like them on our own terms." And, he was right. I could hear him, murmuring sitting on his old stool: a freedom that meets other people only on its own terms - and yet forces you to care about every one of your neighbors scattered across the hillocks. Most of the Chitralis whom I asked confessed, "We like and want our own way of life." That is what is keeping them there.

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