The Peshawar Rhapsody

May 12, 2006

Pushpapura to Peshawar

The city of Peshawar is about 2000 years old and is one of the oldest cities in the world. The Kushan Kings moved their winter capital from Pushkalavati to the present site in the 2nd century AD and named it Pushpapura. It is derived from a Sanskrit word meaning City of Flowers. Peshawar's flowers are also mentioned in Babur's memoirs Tuzk-e-Babri. Invading Aryans, Greeks, Mongols, Turks, and Mughals have attacked it one after another to pass through it towards the distant lands of India. It was a fortified town with raised walls and sixteen gates. None of the gates survive.

Parts of the original wall are visible in some places of the old city specially the outer wall of the Lady Reading Hospital is actually part of the old wall. It was the main city enroute to India and its fabled riches. Peshawar lost its glory with the demise of the Kushan dynasty in the 6th century AD and remained a forgotten town for a thousand years till the Mughals discovered its strategic value, when Babur built a fort there in 1530.

Today, Peshawar is the capital of NWFP and is the most exciting city of Pakistan for its ancient ambience and romantic history of the proud pathan tribesmen who repulsed all attackers with their brave spirit, noble courage and undeniable faith. We were a bunch of old school friends who happened to visit Peshawar one summer in the not too distant past and were bewitched by this city and its wonderful people and decided to share our adventures with the readers.

The places to visit are: Qila Bala Hissar, Masjid Mahabat Khan, Peshawar Museum, Qissa Khwani Bazar, Chowk Yadgaar, The Cantonment, Darra Adam Khel and the famous Landi Kotal.

Qila Bala Hissar was built by Hari Singh Nalva in 1834 on the existing but smaller fort built by Babar.It is situated on a man- made hillock and contains the offices of the Frontier Constabulary. Its ramparts, crenellated stone walls, watch towers at each corner pierced with gun embrasures are very impressive.

The Mahabat Khan Mosque is in the old city and was built in 1670 in the Mughal style. It has a large open courtyard and a prayer hall with five arches, three fluted domes and two minarets. During the Sikh rule, the minarets were also used as a substitute for gallows for many years. Next to this mosque is the Lady Reading Hospital.

Coming out of the mosque, the road leads to the Qissa Khwani Bazar which looks quite ordinary at first sight and then your senses are hit by the noise, the colour, the cacophony the throng of people. The fruit vendors and the ice-cream and kulfi walla on the footpath shouting their wares, forcing the people to walk on the road amidst the on going traffic consisting of trucks, buses, cars, scooters, cycles, tongas, laden donkeys and people...lots of them. The smell of kababs wafting out of the " hotels" and other food items is a pure culinary delight.

There are shops of all shapes and sizes, selling a variety of items from textiles to pottery, kababs to birds to garam masala. The sight, sound and smell of Qissa Khwani Bazar transport you to a different world where every thing seems to be in fast forward which is hard to describe.

At the edge of Qissa Khwani Bazar is located Salateen Hotel, which serves the best chicken/mutton karhai in the world. Most of the tall narrow buildings in the Bazar have delicately carved wooden balconies and windows. Nearby are the Coppersmith's Bazar, Grain Bazar, Woolen Bazar, Bird Bazar at the end of which is an open square known as Chowk Yadgaar and is used for political rallies and meetings. Having visited the old town, we walked west to the Cantonment area and the first major building on this route was the museum alongside the railway line.

Peshawar Museum was built in 1905 as Victoria Memorial Hall in the classic Victorian style. This used to be the centerpiece of the Raj where the Official functions and the Grand Balls were held. It now displays the most priceless collection of Gandhara Art.

The museum is situated in the Cantonment area built by the British and is akin to all the Cantonments in India and Pakistan with its tree lined broad avenues, bungalows with neat white fences, large lawns and imposing gates.

In the same area is the famous Dean's Hotel on Shahrah-e-Pahlavi,which was one of the earliest properties of Mr. Mohan Oberoi. St.John's Church is the oldest church in NWFP. It was built in 1851 and is still in use. It is about one kilometer north of the Dean's Hotel. On the Mall, which is the main road of the cantonment, is an old park which was known as Company Bagh but has since been islamicised. The muslim name is Khalid bin Walid Park. It would have been appropriate to name it after the great poet-warrior Khushal Khan Khattak.

Next morning we made an early start to Darra Adam Khel which is about forty kilometers south of Peshawar. Darra Adam Khel or Darra is the toughest town in the world, where gun law rules. Five thousand craftsmen have established the biggest private arms industry in Pakistan turning out thousands of replica Kalashnikovs, Webbly Scotts, sten guns, rocket launchers, recoilless rifles, pistols, machine guns, Uzzis and even howitzers, mortars and anti aircraft guns.

We left Peshawar around 9.00 am after a hearty breakfast of Nihari and fresh naans, in a jeep driven by Abdul Majeed, who was introduced to us by Tariq. Abdul Majeed was a hindko speaking Peshawari of great humour and gentle nature. He was going to be our guide, friend and driver during our stay in NWFP.

Within ten minutes we were out of the Cantonment Area and on the Kohat Road leading to Darra.Majeed started his commentary as soon as we crossed the railway bridge and entered into Dabgari area. We drove south and soon passed Bhana Mari, Small Industries Estate on the right and a little later Bada Ber on the left side.

This is the place where the US Air force base was located in the fifties from where Gary Powers flew the U-2 and was shot down over Russian air space. The base is now under PAF.

We were passing through small villages of mud huts on either side of the road, small fields of vegetables and wheat. The land was flat and in the distant south one could make out shadowy shape of the Kurram range. The journey to Darra was uneventful, the smooth drive and the heavy breakfast made us sleepy. Suddenly we heard the sounds of machine gun firing in the distance followed by lighter arms.

The buying process of any arm in Darra involves pre-purchase testing of the gun by firing live ammunition to your heart's content to verify the quality of the product, because once a gun is purchased it can not be returned: hence, the constant firing of all caliber of guns during the business hours.

We were in Darra in a few minutes which consisted of mud walled shops on both side of the main street and all of them were selling toys of death. The guns were replica of famous brand names of the free world as well as the communist block and each gun was lovingly copied from the original, down to the manufacturer's name and the serial number.

We stopped in front of one of the shops and went in following Majeed. The owner was an old venerable Pathan with white flowing beard wearing a silver gray turban who greeted us and Majeed introduced us to the old man and the purpose of our visit. We were offered the extra sweet tea prepared in milk. The tea-pots were full of cracks, which were stapled together by metallic pins. This we were told was the fashion and these tea-pots were called "chainak". Once the tea was finished we were asked to choose our guns and test fire them in the air.

Next on our itinerary was a visit to the famous Khyber Pass, Jamrud, Landi Kotal and Torkham. Tariq and Tanwir wanted to drive up to Torkham, have lunch at Landi Kotal and return by the evening. Johnny and myself are steam engine train buffs and having come this far, we could not miss the chance of traveling on the Peshawar-Landi Kotal route which is considered one of the most desired trips by the train lovers. The problem was that the train ran once a week on fridays only and the next day was a thursday.

It was finally decided that we would leave for Torkham next day and stay overnight at the Pakistan Tourism Department's Motel and send the jeep back to Peshawar. Next day we would travel to Landi Kotal by bus/taxi and board the train on its return journey to Peshawar

Torkham is 55 kilometers from Peshawar and it is served by a metalled road, however, a trip to Torkham takes nearly three hours due to hair-pin bends and steep gradients on the route. We started in the morning and having crossed the Cantonment got on to G.T. Road. We passed along the sprawling Islamia College with its red brick structure composed of arches and domes built in the typical Raj style. Sahibzada Abdul Qayyum Khan also known as Sir Syed of the NWFP was the spirit behind the creation of this college at the turn of the 20th century.

The topography of the area was changing slowly from the flat plains of Peshawar valley to rugged hills on either side of the road. After about ten kilometers we entered the Khyber Pass after a series of hairpin bends. The road snakes up a range of vertical, craggy and dramatic mountains and there are viewpoints for admiring the scene and taking photographs of the vista below.

The Shagai Fort came suddenly into view on the left hand side after we had crossed a particularly twisted stretch of road, and the effect was dramatic to say the least. Shagai Fort was built in 1920 by the British and is now garrisoned by the Khyber Rifles.The road snakes downward for the next three kilometers till it reaches the Ali Masjid Fort. There is a cemetery in the fort wherein lie buried the British soldiers killed in the Afghan Wars.

We also observed along the road from Shagai Fort till Ali Masjid Fort, various British regimental crests decorated on the rock face commemorating the many skirmishes between the two warring factions. We stopped at the fort and went to the cemetery to read the tombstones of the young soldiers who laid down their lives for the Queen and country and took some photographs. These were literally kids, barely out of their teens and they were lying in this distant and hostile land far far away from their loved ones.

Some of the names on the tombstones spoke their own story. Gunner Timothy Coonan of the Royal Horse Artillery, killed in action at Ali Masjid. Private John Nelson of 51st Foot (King's Own Light Infantry) killed on 21st November 1878 at Ali Masjid. Sepoy Malay Khan of 6th Bengal Native Infantry. Naik Charat Sing of 14th Bengal Native Infantry, killed on 22nd November 1878, Ali Masjid.

However, the two most heroic soldiers killed at Ali Masjid on 21st November 1878 are not buried here but in Peshawar. They were the Commanding Officer Major.Henry Holwell Birch of the 27th (Punjab) Bengal Native Infantry and his second-in-Command, Lieutant. Thomas Otho Fitzgerald. Maj.Henry Birch was killed in action at Ali Musjid on the 21st Nov. 1878 while trying to retrieve a wounded Officer of the 14th Sikhs and was shot through the heart. His body was taken to Peshawar for burial. Lieutenant Thomas Fitzgerald was born in Glin Castle, County Limerick on 23rd February 1849 and died on 21st November 1878 at Ali Masjid while trying to recover the dead body of his Commanding Officer Maj. Birch. He was also buried at Peshawar next to his Commanding Officer. It was such bravery and loyalty that compelled Rudyard Kipling to pen his immortal The Young Soldier

If your officer's dead and the sergeants look white, Remember it's ruin to run from a fight: So take open order, lie down, and sit tight, And wait for supports like a soldier. Wait, wait, wait like a soldier . . .

When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An' go to your Gawd like a soldier.
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
So-oldier of the Queen!

From Ali Masjid Fort we drove on to Landi Kotal which reminded us of a frontier town of the old west in the late nineteenth century. Pathans, mostly of the Afridi Tribe, selling electronic items, textiles, luxury goods, jewellery, cigarettes, cosmetics and many more items, all smuggled in from Afghanistan. The buyers were from Punjab and even from Karachi and Sind. We roamed around the bazaar and bought a few items as gifts for our dear ones, had our lunch and departed for Torkham, the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

We got into PTDC (Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation) Motel and found we were the only guests apart from a German couple. The rooms were clean but the rates were pretty stiff for such a simple fare.

Next morning, we left for Landi Kotal in a 1956 Chevrolet Impala taxi with at least 15 other passengers who were put into the trunk, on the roof and inside the car. The suffocating closeness of unwashed bodies in the dry heat of the mountains and the unmistakable odour of 'naswaar' and the regulation spitting and the smelly sweat on the armpits mixed with bad oral hygiene was an experience none of us has forgotten.

We reached Landi Kotal, and caught the returning train to Peshawar. The train had three bogeys powered by vintage 1920's British built SG 060 oil fired engines, one at the front and the other at the back, alternately pulled and pushed by these beautiful machines. The line cuts through rocky grandeur of the Pass winding between gorges and climbs above 1000 meters on snaking hairpin bends looping in a series of tunnels. There are 34 tunnels and 92 bridges and culverts on the fifty kilometers of rail line. The story of this journey may be told some other time. We finally reached Peshawar in about three hours and that was the end of our romantic escapade.

itinerant traveler forever seeking meaning of life
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The Peshawar Rhapsody


Author: Banjaara


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May 12, 2006
09:36 AM


good quote from kipling:

When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An' go to your Gawd like a soldier.
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
Go, go, go like a soldier,
So-oldier of the Queen!

too bad the train has been cancelled...they were talking about restoring it...anything came off it?

nice tarvelogue...more?

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