Monday, 9 October 2017

QK Archives: Whispering images of Peshawar

Whispering images Of Peshawar By Ahmed Sher Ranjha
Published by DAWN 1998

For a person from North-Western Pakistan to wander
through the history and landscape of Gandhara is like
passing through the vista of his own psyche. Like the
cumulated archeological layers of mounds such as Gorkhatri
in Peshawar, layers upon layers of new cultural
accumulations mix with previous ones.

The feeling of being somewhere which was more than
myself had begun the moment I crossed into the alluring
vale of Peshawar across the Attock bridge and stood
for a while on the high banks of the Indus to behold the
mighty scene around me. This was the fabled land of
Gandhara where contrasting cultures had mixed the way the
jade green waters of the Indus and the muddy stream
of the violent Lundai (River Kabul) were blending happily
together on my right. I found the lush bread basket
of Chhach Plain, rolling seductively towards Taxila across the
Indus, tempting enough to whet immediately the hungry
appetite of any invader, from the Greeks to the Mughals,
for a quick cross over and plunder.

Peshawar has been the great junction point where
racial, cultural and artistic currents from the ancient lands of
Persia, China, India and Central Asia met and
synthesized. By the time the little Kushans came and established
their rule in Gandhara, the land had already absorbed
the contrasting flavours of the Vedic, Persian, Buddhist and
the Hellenic. But the great King Kanishka and his
Kushans came and established their winter capital at Peshawar
(their beloved Purushapura). The old capital of
Pushkalavati (Charsadda) belonging to the ancient Vedic and
Achaemenian king was discarded. The Kushans were
staunch Mahayana Buddhists so the new city established
between the rich and well-watered plain of the River
Budni (a branch of River Kabul) and Bara became the hub of
their colourful religious and economic activity.

The city was pampered with prosperity and artistic
splendour. Graced with the finest stupas and monasteries, it
housed the choicest relics of Buddhist reverence. The
serene Buddhist currents rippled softly from Gorkhatri to
Sirsukh (Taxila) and onwards to India and China. But
the tranquil slumber of many peaceful centuries was bound
to end one day. Like some sudden, terrible
thunderclap, hordes of white Huns descended from 'Azghaib'. Now the
city was to pay for its prosperity and meditative
non-violence. Peshawar was plundered and quickly drenched in
blood. The splendour of Gorkhatri was levelled and
buried silently in its earthen womb. But the Huns had hardly
consolidated themselves when Sassanian/Turk forces
from Central Asia and the new rising star of the Kashatryia
force from the Ganges broke into Gandhara. The glory
of Peshawar from here on was to give place to Waihind, the
ancient Udbhandapura, or the new city of the Hund on
the right bank of the Indus which the new Hindu Shahia
kings, on a strategic retreat from Kabul valley
towards east, had chosen as their new capital. Then the Afghans,
the Mughals, the Sikhs and the British followed,
leaving their marks on the soul of the city.

Thinking of all this, I decided to head straight for
Gorkhatri where everything from Kanishka to Avitabile to the
British was condensed and which was the soul of
Peshawar.

I got up early in the morning not to miss my
breakfast of roghni kulcha fresh from the oven in the winding alleys
leading towards Gorkhatri. And soon I was out on the
road. I had decided to foot the distance for intimate detail
and flavour. I entered the walled city via the Kabuli
Gate. The citadel high grounds of the imperial Bala Hissar fort
lay on my left.

The magic world of interwoven streets and murky
catacombs of ancient passage-ways where history lives and
speaks from the wooden balconies and lofty havelis
was here. The famous Kissa Khawani Bazaar thoroughly
disappointed me. Cruelly criss-crossed by a network
of loosely hanging electric wires, this famous bazaar of the
story-tellers only had the painful story of
commercialism to tell. I turned into a bylane to quickly visit Peepal
Mandi to be under the spiritual shade of the great
peepal of the Buddhas. These was a pungent smell of spices
hard-and-soft Pukhto-Hindko hubub and two peepal
trees. I forgot about the little one and zeroed on to the bigger
one. By all accounts this must be the sacred tree of
the Jataka Buddhas. But where was its trunk, I wondered.
Nowhere. Only the rich green canopy of peepal leaves
and branches over the market place and no trunk. And then
I caught on. The crafty shopkeepers had stolen the
smallest possible space around the sacred tree trunk into the
hungry tummy of their shops. As a result the trunk
had simply disappeared in the congested beehive of the
cap-sellers' shops. So much for the Jataka Buddhas
and their sacred tree.

I then turned towards the famous clock tower to reach
Gorkhatri via the old Bazar-i-Kalan. Preserved in the ancient
glow of richly wood-carved balconies, arched
doorways, multi-storied havelis, the Bazar-i-Kalan impressed me. A
pleasant climb towards the mound of Gorkhatri, and I
was face to face with the mighty gateway of the place. The
hungry Sikhs in the habit of snatching even the
lowliest decoration of an old building must have defaced the rich
archeological beauty of Gorkhatri obliterating almost
all vital marks of history, I thought as I entered the massive
archway which opened into the extensive,
square-shaped enclosure of Gorkhatri. Both sides of the gateway
showed tell-tale signs of a prison which must have
been the brainchild of Ranjit Singh's Italian general who had
administered Peshawar. The narrow iron-barred prison
cells were full of a damp darkness.

This end of Gorkhatri housed the area's police
station. Many off-duty constables were roaming about leisurely in
'mufti'. I looked around me and thought I had entered
some bustling old caravan-serai. Shady trees, an inviting
temple, a wide open space in the middle with rows of
rest rooms. The history of the place smiled painfully through
the confusing chaos of its upkeep. The place visited
by meditating sadhus, chanting pilgrims, and monks with
shaven heads carries many centuries of history. Its
fortunes went into eclipse during the confused withdrawal of
the Shahias from Peshawar to Hund and from there to
Nundna and the far away obscurity of India. Thereafter in
the politico-military vacuum war-like races from the
west like the Yousafzais, Khalils, Daud Zais and Mohmands,
etc., came and settled in the valley to permanently
dye it in their own colour. The Mughals developed a fine liking
for Gorkhatri. Babar, Akbar and Jehangir never forgot
to mention the goodness of this place. Shah Jehan's gifted
daughter Jehanara Begum built a communal hamam, a
serai and a mosque here. This mosque of Jehanara was later
destroyed and replaced with the temple of Gorkhnath
by the Sikhs.

Moss covered, forlorn, and decaying under the shadows
of the old peepals, the temple in Gorkhatri is occupied by
bats and relaxing police constables. Its noble,
artistically arched, short corridor connecting it to the little "temple
of
Nandi" is decrepit. The famous "patra" or the bowl of
Buddha must have been placed somewhere here under the
unkempt peepal trees. I walked quietly in the
painfully chipped dusty corridor of the temple and felt terribly alone.
I
peeped into the ancient well. Its entire depth was
reeking of layers of collected filth. So much for the "heavenly
waters" of the famous well of Gorkhatri. I turned
round to have a look inside the dark cell- like rows of rooms
bordering the ancient enclosure. Police constables,
the happy masters of these rooms were found chatting,
cooking, relaxing, and chopping tomatoes.

I moved on and suddenly stumbled upon a hidden
treasure. I had chanced upon the elegant footmarks of our
erstwhile British masters so dutifully preserved in
this faithful repository of the history of Peshawar. Here in the
rooms on the eastern edge of the enclosure was the
"Fire Brigade Municipal Committee, Peshawar", established
somewhere in the opening decades of the 20th century.
But the most prized treasure here were the gracefully
sparking, vintage, fire-fighting vehicles of the
Merryweather Company, London. Well preserved under the expert
care of mechanic Shahzafar, these are two classic
vehicles, with sparkling heavy brass work and fitted with still
workable fire fighting equipment. The vehicles stood
gracefully on thin Dunlop tyres mounted on solid, heavy
spiked wheels. Shahzafar said the vehicles were of
1919 models. Four cylindered with eight plugs. How come? I
asked "The maker kept four plugs in reserve to be
activated when the original set of four failed at some crucial,
unforeseen moment." I took my position behind the
steering wheel of one of the vehicles. To my surprise, the
steering was fitted with an easy to handle adjustable
accelerator and a timing control knob. In other words speed
plus engine control were kept at the finger-tips of
the driver for quick response during a fire.

From soft Buddhist chants of antiquity to the
powerful thrust of an internal combustion engine, Gorkhatri is a
faithful treasury of the assets forming the soul of
Peshawar. A prism where all the strange colours of the
north-western psyche could easily be discerned by a
seeing eye. A place full of dreams, whispering mirages and
educative reverie. But the neglect and utter
ruination of the place today signifies that there is hardly any eye left

which can really see or dream. We can only pity
ourselves.


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