Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

THE ENIGMA OF RANNIKOT

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In a word, Rannikot (pronounced ‘Runny Coat’ and not ‘Rani Kot’) is an enigma. And that is because medieval history makes no mention of such a magnificent undertaking. As for the name, that comes from the seasonal Ranni stream flowing through it and not from some rani.


Approaching it from the east via Sann village in Jamshoro district in Sindh, one cannot but remark on the resemblance of its fortification to the Great Wall of China. The ramparts, interspersed with stout turrets, dip and rise with the contours of the Lakki spur of the main Kirthar Mountains. If one were to circumambulate the fortification one would see how the builders incorporated the lay of the hills into the defensive scheme: where the hills are sheer and difficult to scale as in the northwest and northern corner, there are no ramparts. In this area of difficult access, there are only watch towers.
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What is the matter with us?

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Dawn today (06 April 2018) carries a news item on the back page about air quality inside courtroom number 1 of the Supreme Court in Islamabad being below acceptable level. This was in response to a petition filed by one Venu Advani of Karachi. This citizen is concerned about what we are breathing.

Going by his name, Mr Advani seems not to be a Muslim.

Nor too was Ardeshir Cowasjee. But as Venu Advani is now grieving over the air we are breathing, the venerable Mr Cowasjee fretted about everything wrong that the captains of Pakistan’s destiny were committing. Despite his years of lambasting the corrupt, the venal mafia of this country could not be leashed. In the end the grand old curmudgeon of Karachi said, ‘You cannot teach shame to the shameless’.

In Mithi (Tharparkar) I met Lajpat Sharma, a Brahmin and a practicing Hindu. As an official of the Wildlife Department, this man fearlessly confronted the rich and powerful in his drive against poaching. The last three years of his service before retirement about ten years ago he was posted at Mithi. It was his single-minded stubbornness and courage that today the once dwindling population of chinkara (ravine) deer has made a great comeback.
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GODDESS OF THE MOUNTAINS

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My Indian friends insist Sharda was a university in ancient times. I, however, find no reference to a school at the site. Sources only mention the temple. Nor, too, did I find any archaeological trace in the area around the temple compound.

The ruins of the Sharda Temple
Up in the valley of the Kishanganga (duly Islamised to Neelam) River, in the elbow where the Madhumati flows into it from the south-east, the ruined Sharda temple sits on a hill above the village named after the temple.
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CHILLAS AND PICNICS

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Gods, they say, live on mountaintops. They have Olympus for Greek deities and Kailas for our very own subcontinental ones. But when you roam this great and wonderful land of the subcontinent (even if you have to rely on maps because a border keeps you out of places) you find all sorts of lesser gods shivering in the snowy cold of high mountains.


On Takht-i-Suleman (3,447 metres) and Preghal (3,515 metres) in South Waziristan, I have seen altars where ancient believers of the Earth Goddess (Dharti Ma) would have sacrificed their black goats. So too on Sikaram (4,761 metres) in Parachinar and Musa ka Musalla (4,055 metres) in Kaghan. All have duly been converted to Islam and given proper names. On the Takht, the seven-metre square altar is said to be the grave of Kais Rashid, the supposed original Muslim Pakhtun — whatever ‘original’ might be in this case. Preghal is where Hazrat Ismail allegedly prayed for his progeny to grow. Sikaram is the burial of a fictitious Karam and the Musalla is where Gujjars bring their livestock for salaam so that the animals may bear many more offspring.
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Poisoning the earth

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Shabbir Ahmad Rana, the Central Zone chief conservator of forests, has got his facts all wrong. This is evident from a letter of October 2017 duly signed by him and sent to the Gymkhana Golf Club management committee in response to a letter written by the committee seeking his ‘expert’ advice on their proposed elimination of eucalyptus trees blighting the green.

Paragraph 2 of the letter reads: “I would also like to clarify that large sized trees do not eat up all water given to grassy lawns but they use only that which leaches down to the deep soil. Therefore, the hoax created by vested interests mafia or those with no scientific knowledge is baseless and highly detrimental to the environment. The reason for water level going down is not the trees but it is due to the shrinkage of water catchment areas in the uphills and foothills and resultantly depth of turbines in plans (sic) has to be increased throughout the province and removal of even all the trees from the province will not subside this problem. The recommendations of the Agriculture University are not, therefore, scientifically based.”
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Once Upon a Line

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Time was that I went around the country riding steam trains. From the narrow-gauge toy train connecting Bannu with Mari Indus to the metre-gauge trains of Sindh and the magnificent broad-gauge workhorses of what was once the North Western Railway, I rode quite a few. The last one I ever rode was the steam-hauled passenger train R-474 from Malakwal to Gharibwal. That was August 1994.

Gharibwal Railway Station

On that trip I met Iqbal Ghauri, foreman at the steam shed at Malakwal. Speaking only sparingly, and then unhurriedly, he kept his voice low, but exuded the air of a man who knew his job and was proud of it. All his life he had worked on steam locomotives and even as Pakistan Railway was phasing out steam, he was hopeful of keeping his engines going. It was clear he was terribly in love with those dark beauties. His commitment and dedication was remarkable and one could not but like the man.
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A Memoir of Partition

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On the twentieth day of March 2008, I headed home for the first time in my life. I was fifty-six years and a month old. Walking east across the border gates at Wagah I was on my way to the fulfilment of a family pietas of very long standing. I was going to a home I had never known; a home in a foreign land, a land that state propaganda wanted me to believe was enemy territory. But I knew it as a country where my ancestors had lived and died over countless generations. That was the home where the hearth kept the warmth of a fire first kindled by a matriarch many hundred years, nay, a few thousand years, ago and which all of a sudden had been extinguished in a cataclysm in 1947.

In that great upheaval, in a singular moment in time, that home ceased to be home. One part of the family made it across the border to become a tiny part of a huge data: they were among the nearly two million people uprooted from their homes. Another part of the family also became a statistic—a grim and ghastly one: they were part of the more than one million unfortunate souls who paid with their blood for the division of India and foundation of the new country of Pakistan for Muslims. They who died were not just Muslims who lived east of the new line drawn by Cyril Radcliffe. They were Sikhs, Hindus and even Jains who had homes thousands of years old, west of this line in the land that became Pakistan.
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Where’ll the new year take you?

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To the sand buried ruins of Dandan Uliq and Niya

A hundred and seventeen years ago, Aurel Stein, the Hungarian-British archaeologist then working in India, led an expedition to the Takla Makan Desert of Xinjiang in China. He sought to unravel the mystery of the ‘Sand-Buried Ruins of Khotan’, as his book is titled. This is the much-abridged non-technical version for general public. For the specialist, he wrote a huge, three-volume set complete with a large number of black and white images. This technical version is titled Ser India (or Upper India).

I first became acquainted with this treasure house of history in 1991 while researching at the Royal Geographical Society in London.

Among others, two of the ‘sand-buried’ ruins are the ancient cities of Dandan Uliq and Niya, in the vicinity of the city of Khotan, that were, even at the time of his visit in 1901, completely ruined and abandoned. However, the ultra-dry desert air of high Asia had preserved much of the organic material used by the natives in that bygone age.
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Debunking the Myth of the Silk Road

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Eos on December 3 carried an article on the journey of some people along the Silk Road. Some parts of this series were printed earlier and I admit I did not read any. In fact, I do not read anything written on the Silk Road by the average Pakistani. The simple fact is we have no clue about the geography and history of the classic Silk Road.

The old trade route dubbed the ‘Silk Road’ by 19th century German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen
One of the accompanying images in the mentioned article has a man and a woman standing in front of a sign saying ‘Old Silk Road’. The location of this sign is somewhere between Gilgit and Hunza. That the classic Silk Road ever entered what is now Pakistan by way of Hunza is patent rubbish. But if people repeat the same falsehood a few times, let alone over decades, it becomes established truth.
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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand


Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days