Abbottabad: beauty and buried bounty

Abbottabad may be infamous because of Osama Bin Laden, but hidden in its valleys and villages are treasures and folklore
Published November 24, 2014

Treasure hunting in Tanawal

A traveller revisits Abbottabad on a mission: excavate undiscovered Buddhist remains and medieval fortresses. What he discovers are great changes to the landscape but few in the strange lore of the land

By Salman Rashid

I noticed young Asad Tanoli when he posted an image of his native Sherwan on social media. It was a right picturesque little alpine village and not the image I retained from 1972. Lying about 30 kilometres west of Abbottabad, it was then a hamlet of stone and timber houses with a sprinkling of some mud-plastered ones.

On the phone, Asad spoke of dozens of kots around his village and the remains of a house built by old James Abbott. Now in the vernacular, a kot is a fortress and I had visions of them dotting every hilltop. As for Abbott’s old home, I conjured up an image of something with a touch of the eerie much like the old Murree Brewery ruins near Ghora Gali or Reginald Dyer’s ruined house in faraway Rabat in Balochistan.

So there I was with Asad in Haripur to drive up along what he said was once called Shahrae (Highway) Tanoli and now Chhapar Road that goes through Sherwan on to Mansehra. A wise choice it turned out to be, for we drove along a picturesque hillside with the blue-green waters of Tarbela Lake to our left. Along the shore were neatly parcelled blocks of harvested fields where cattle grazed and the whole scene looked quite a John Constable painting. Sadly, the sun was totally wrong for photography.

As we paused to admire the scene with the sun glinting off the lake to almost blind us, Asad sounded the ominous warning: Pohar, the village where he wanted to show me the shrine of Suba Khan was dangerous. It was a country of lawless, depredatory men. And with that menace ringing in my ears, we fetched up at the Pohar police post behind which the shrine lay. We asked directions and were soon making our way through undergrowth where we should not have been without machetes.

  Where Abdullah Shah Ghazi supposedly prayed
Where Abdullah Shah Ghazi supposedly prayed

By Asad’s reckoning, Suba Khan was a mid-18th century governor of the Saddozais. But as we drew up to the all but vegetation-covered monument I called out loud that it was not built later than the early 16th century. A low crenulated wall completely overgrown with wild vegetation enclosed an area of somewhat over one thousand square metres. On the east side was a gateway and of the four corner turrets of the wall only the one on the northeast remained.

The most interesting bit was the use of the gateway as a dovecote with its five dozen oblong holes that ran the way through the thickness of the structure. This was once obviously a busy nesting site for most holes contained dry twigs and other material but seemed to have fallen out of use. The one remaining corner turret was similarly pocked.

Within the walled area were the remains of a much later building: all of a corner with the spandrel of an arch. It had bits of lime plaster and simple floral frescoes that could be dated to the 18th century. So this was the burial of Suba Khan, the subedar (governor) also known as Zabardast Khan. The man was left here by the advancing Saddozais under Ahmed Shah in order to guard against Sikh attacks. The poor maker of this silly yarn did not know that in the early 18th century, the Sikhs did not range in this area.

  The gateway of the 16th century walled garden with the dovecote. The only remaining corner turret can be seen on the left
The gateway of the 16th century walled garden with the dovecote. The only remaining corner turret can be seen on the left

But this was no graveyard. This compound was a walled garden built very likely in the earlier half of the 16th century. Overlooking the Siran River, it was a place of pleasure and solitude for some bon vivant of old. The thick undergrowth and my fear of snakes kept me from checking out the place for foundations dating to the same time as the crenulated wall and gateway. More than 200 years later, when the garden was probably forgotten and neglected and the pigeons once so lovingly cared for having flown away, some freebooter came along to be buried here.

Going by the inferior construction of his shrine, this man was of little consequence. Whereas the early edifice lasted through nearly five centuries, the later building collapsed within a couple of centuries. Asad made him out as someone renowned for something or the other. However, later I found no substantial reference to anyone of this name in the couple of histories I consulted.

As we pottered about the ruin, a young man whose countenance screamed to tell the world that he was a soldier came around to quiz us. The man thought we were either ‘enemy agents’ or treasure hunters and angrily told us that the treasures of the shrine had been stolen by ‘outsiders’ like us. Since this was Tanawal, the land of the Tanolis, the man was also of the same tribe as my host. For him to lay off, Asad had to run through a directory of his relatives to prove his credentials.

This was the first tale of treasure. And this was just the beginning.

We drove on to make Sherwan before sunset. I came in for a deluge of treasure tales. The kots were all thought to be choc-a-bloc with treasure as indeed were all the graves. Every rock was placed above a concealed fortune and every field ploughed above wealth greater than that of Cyrus. Asad’s brother Saad was obsessed with graves. He talked only and only of them – only graves and nothing more. For him every grave was the receptacle of secret treasure.

  Siran River, a few kilometres before falling into Tarbela Lake. This view is from Chhapar Road to Sherwan
Siran River, a few kilometres before falling into Tarbela Lake. This view is from Chhapar Road to Sherwan

Saad related how he and his chums had once spent days digging up one of the nearby kots. I asked what they did with the wealth they came upon. He said they hadn’t found any. But there being so many kots to hand, he was willing to try his luck again.

The lure of treasure was a universal affliction in Sherwan. I was introduced to a man who had spent a lifetime digging up the country until the tension of every failed initiative gave him debilitating diabetes that left him unable to walk except with difficulty. He complained of the ‘Indians’ who dug up a grave in one of the several cemeteries and decamped with untold treasure in the dark of night. He was just warming up to tell me about the djinns and fairies that kept guard over the riches when I bolted.

As we walked away, I suggested to young Asad that instead of turning up the land, these people ought to purchase prize bonds and dream every month of winning a prize. That’s much less work than the outside chance of striking bullion.

In local lore, James Abbott, after whom Abbottabad is named, was a shady, on-the-run fraudster. Abbott arrived in the guise of a religious teacher in Tandhara, a nearby village. For a full 40 days, he masqueraded as the prayer leader in connivance with the keeper of the local mosque until his cover was somehow blown. The man absconded in good time before the impending lynching and made it to Sherwan. Here he tried to build a home for himself on a little hill outside the village. But the upright people of Sherwan would have none of that and they ran him out. Left with no other option, the evil man went away to establish Abbottabad.

The story was so stupid and senseless that I could only laugh and compare these people with the Baloch. Nearly 200 years after John Jacob did good for their land, those upright and honourable men still remember him as a saint. If that says something for Jacob, it speaks even more for the Baloch who will never forget a favour – and that is what we call honour. Here we have transformed a top rate army officer-turned-administrator into a dubious fraudster.

Tandhara, where Abbott led the congregation, is the ancestral village of a man called Captain Mohammad Safdar, currently First Son-in-Law. Word has it though he now claims to be a Tanoli; his family in reality is of the Dom or musician clan. If the good people of Sherwan were Lahoris, they would have joked that the captain had hardly reached above his station in marriage: from Dom to lohar (blacksmith) is scarcely a move up.

 Sherwan village. The red-roofed building is the girls’ college. —Photos by the writer
Sherwan village. The red-roofed building is the girls’ college. —Photos by the writer

Abbot Hill 1 and 2 were twin disappointments. There were no signs of the purported Abbott house or any construction from the mid-19th century. There were however remnants of one of the celebrated kots. Running around one of the sides was a wall of coursed rubble masonry. Earlier we had climbed another hill to inspect the kot Asad’s brother had dug up for the elusive treasure. The masonry in both was definitely older than a thousand years and I would want to believe that these little fortifications were built when the Huns under Mehr Gul overran the country in the early years of the 6th century of the Common Era. Though, as history shows, these paltry defences would not have done much against the Hunnic Juggernaut.

Asad wanted to show me all two dozen or so of the kots sprinkled around Sherwan. He seemed to believe I could divine hidden treasure. But I was a total disappointment: I told him two kots were one more than I cared to see and that none of them could possibly hold any fortune. Thereafter I had to pre-empt a spree of graveyards and old graves. Gosh, the obsession with burial sites was macabre.

But we climbed another hill to visit the bethak of Abdullah Shah Ghazi. It must have been a long sabbatical from protecting Karachi from cyclones that enabled the man to get to Sherwan. Other than the two glorious rag-festooned wild olive trees and an oblong pedestal inside a walled enclosure, there was nothing remarkable about the place.

Asad did not know that the man buried in Karachi was most likely Abdullah bin Nabhan. As leader of one of the several failed sorties against Sindh, he died in the fight with Raja Dahir’s army and therefore could not have embarked on this protracted gallivant.

I have long maintained that Sindhis have crafted the most evocative legends followed by the Baloch and Pakhtuns. Punjabis come last but the Hindko speakers of Tanawal are surely the pits. Their legends are uninspiring, to put it mildly. Even to think now of the fables I heard on this outing exasperates me.

I had embarked on this journey with great dreams of finding undiscovered Buddhist remains and medieval fortresses. But that was not to be. The good thing to come out of it was that young Asad Tanoli who unquestioningly believed all the tales he heard began to look upon them critically. In three days, this was a remarkable shift. Any longer and he will be a voracious reader.

I think I’ll go back at least one more time.

Back to the Stone Age

Despite its protected status, Abbottabad’s picturesque and forested Galiyat is falling prey to a stone-crushing ‘mafia’

By Obaid ur Rehman Abbasi

There was a time when friends never waited for a bus or taxi but preferred to travel by foot from Ghora Gali to our village, Nag Tootial, in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa part of Galiyat, some 20 kilometres away from the main Rawalpindi-Murree road. The walk home was mesmerising: the cool breeze blowing through the pine trees always created a unique whistling sound, there were countless birds in the wild, springs were dotted in the most unusual of places, and mountain foxes, monkeys and rabbits would be our companions.

Sadly, those days are gone; the area is now being mutilated by the stone-crushing mafia, who have ruthlessly, and for pure business purposes, wrought destruction upon the natural habitat of the area. As least 14 stone-crushing units are now operational in the entire belt, trees are being cut, green hills destroyed, while dust and unbearable noise greets you on the road and stays with you inside your homes. The natural springs and unique birds have all but disappeared, and the incidence of disease is reportedly on the rise.

Stone-crushing machines have sprung up on roadsides and an industry-like situation has also brutally damaged the road network, on which billions of taxpayer money has already been expended. Another stone-crushing unit is being set up near Dunna village by the same ‘mafia’.

Village elders on the KP side remain adamant, however, that their government is aware of the illegality of the way in which the stone-crushing business is being carried out, but due to unknown reasons, it has decided to maintain silence. Under the law of the land, it is necessary for stone-crushers to have dust and noise control units available on site, but these regulations are being ignored with impunity too.

It shouldn’t have come to this point to begin with, since the entire area has environmental protection since the days of President Ayub Khan.

“General Ayub Khan was fond of the Galiyat belt, specially the area surrounding Khanaspur, now commonly known as Ayubia,” explained a now retired senior official of the forest department some years ago.“One day, he was passing through Ghora Gali with one of his close aides, late Sardar Inayat Ur Rehman Khan Abbasi of Nagri Totial.

 A stone-cutting machine at work
A stone-cutting machine at work
Abbasi wished that the area from Ghora Gali to Lora (a union council in the adjoining Abbottabad district) and from Lora to Changla Gali via Nagri Totial, should be turned into a green belt and be preserved by the forest department so that the natural beauty of the area remains intact.”

The president ordered the forest department to immediately start horticultural work in the entire Galiyat belt. A nursery was developed near Nagri Totial, and Ayubia National Park was established. The forest department also planted a vast number of pine and other trees on the green top hills from Maloot to Lora, and unofficially also declared Rutti Mitti and the Burnalla Bridge on Lora road as a preserved area.

Today, those tiny saplings have grown tall, dotting the route between Ghora Gali to Lora with their immense beauty. Locals wholeheartedly supported the idea, and avoided any deforestation attempts. Except, they didn’t calculate the rise of the illegal stone-crushing business.

“The Pakistan Environmental Protection Act (PEPA)-1997 requires owners of stone-crushing plants to submit an initial environmental impact assessment to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) before commencing any project,” explains a senior officer of the KP environment department, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“The owners can only operate their stone-crushing units once the EPA has issued a no-objection certificate (NOC). In practice, the law is being violated as many stone crushers start operations without any permission or license,” claims the senior officer. Besides the environment department, he places the responsibility of upholding the law on the minerals development department and the industries department. “The Minerals Development department of the provincial government is responsible for shutting down all illegal plants,” he firmly asserts.

In truth, the Ghora Gali-Lora road falls between Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, making it the responsibility of both provincial governments to curb this illegal activity in their respective areas of jurisdiction.

Sources within the Abbottabad district government claim that the stone-crushing units were stopped once and their NOCs were cancelled, but the KP government allowed them to do business nevertheless. As per the law, sources add, no Peshawar-based authority can allow permission for these activities, as this power rests only with the district government.

When contacted, Abbottabad Deputy Commissioner retired Capt Khalid Mehmood explained that he had only recently assumed charge, and as such, could not comment on the exact on-site situation. “If these stone-crushing units are not acting in accordance with the law, they shall be shut down immediately. Rest assured that the local administration will not favour or support any illegal activities or law violators in the district,” assures Mehmood.

On the other hand, deputy director of industries in Abbottabad, Mr Shehzad, disclosed that about 20 stone-crushing units operate on site. He explained that on receiving complaints from some citizens, the industries department has issued show-cause notices to these units, with express directions to install noise and dust pollution units or else have their licenses cancelled. “We are very clear on the matter, and we know that these units are operating without fulfilling the required safety measures,” claims Shehzad.

 A stone-cutting shaft
A stone-cutting shaft

While acknowledging the threat posed by the stone-crushing units to the environment and public health, Industries Director Akhunzada Anwar Khan claimed that his department only issues permits after all requirements have been met. But he also saw a benefit to these units: “These units are also necessary for development, since stone is used in the construction industry. They also provide employment. I am also of the view that such activities must be within limits, and under rules and regulations.”

The widespread environmental degradation and abuse of law points to another reality: public interest litigation. “Weak regulation of the stone-crushing business has always been a big concern for the public,” argues Barrister M. Mumtaz Ali. “In some public interest litigation, superior courts have taken cognisance of the violation of environmental laws, but still, a lot more needs to be done.”

Elders of the area have conceded defeat in getting illegal stone-crushing stopped but social activist Sardar Wasiq Salim Abbasi says that he has already consulted lawyers and soon the Supreme Court would be moved for intervention.

“The entire road on which billions of rupees have been spent by the government has been completely damaged by these stone-crushing units. Dumpers are operating day and night; there is noise every hour of the day.

This area has turned into the most polluted area of Abbottabad,” maintains Abbasi.

And the piano played on

It is almost as if a plague befell the house of Colonel Alfred Fitzhugh: the pristine Chinar House in Abbottabad gained notoriety for a haunting tale of courtship and murder

By Salman Rashid

My friend Omer Salim Khan Tarin, historian and researcher, led me up the timber stairs. Nearly 130 years after the seasoned pine (or could it be teak?) had been cut and shaped for the stairs, it was as robust as on the first day. The landing at the top was littered with some old stuff and the door to the attic converted into a parlour was on the right. I looked in through the broken glass of the door and called out, ‘Miss Fitzhugh?’

Sitting amid spreading grounds, forever in dappled sunlight for the many trees around, 3 Club Road also known as Chinar House in Abbottabad, is a right beautiful English country house with a pitched roof, skylights and gables. Unlike an English house, where it would be an unnecessary adjunct, a veranda runs along the east side. Behind the house, detached from the main building, is a row of followers’ quarters and a high roofed ruinous byre shaded by a handsome old cedar.

The earthquake of October 2005 caused some damage to the attics on the top and since then the house has largely been unoccupied. By Omer’s research, whose family owns the property, the house was built in 1884 by Colonel Alfred Fitzhugh when he commanded the 5th Royal Gurkha Rifles. He does not seem to have enjoyed this lovely property for long because he left the battalion and presumably Abbottabad in September 1885.

The man retired from service as a major general, and he and his wife Cecilia Jane went back to live in England. In March 1911, following a surgery, Cecilia Jane went into depression.

 Stairs leading up to the once-haunted parlour
Stairs leading up to the once-haunted parlour
While convalescing in Folkstone on the sea, she managed to strangle herself with the curtain cord inside her locked room. Upon entry by window, she was found ‘quite dead’ in the words of the South Eastern Gazette of 21 March that year.

Fitzhugh lived on to the very ripe age of 92. He was buried in the Sussex village of Streat in February 1929. Incidentally, he was also born in the same village. Omer’s research does not reveal the names of any children.

But Alfred Fitzhugh left behind an abiding yarn at 3 Club Road. The story comes to us through Omer’s grandmother who knew a certain Mrs Pitman. Now, in 1950s, there lived in Pakistan an artist Hall Bevan Pitman. He is famous for painting a number of governor-generals of the newly independent Pakistan. His wife lived on into the 1980s at Abbottabad and is well remembered by Omer.

Mrs Pitman told Omer’s grandmother that in the converted parlour the Fitzhughs’ daughter, whose name is unknown, practiced the piano. Now, this bright young thing was wooed by two army officers. One served with a British regiment while the other, O’Brien, was in a Sikh regiment. The girl, more inclined to O’Brien was nevertheless of two minds. As for the colonel, he would much rather have the man from the British regiment as his son in law.

In the parlour, the two suitors, each in his own time, routinely met Miss Fitzhugh. One day, a violent event occurred. Following a loud and heated argument, so it is said, O’Brien and the girl were shot and killed. Now there are two versions of events. One has it that the pair was found in an intimate situation and the enraged colonel shot them.

Mrs Pitman however told Omer’s grandmother that while O’Brien certainly was shot by the colonel, the girl killed herself. Evidently, much to her father’s displeasure, she was more inclined to the dead young officer.

After the brutal deaths and Fitzhugh’s departure, the house reportedly remained deserted for a decade. Thereafter it passed through a number of occupants until shortly after independence the Tarin family acquired it in lieu of properties left behind in Simla. And here the story of the bizarre begins.

We will never know if it was ever told by earlier occupants, but Omer recalls it being said that on a certain evening, the house was filled with piano melodies wafting out of the parlour. In fact, he adds, his father claimed to have heard the music during the 1950s. In 1957 or thereabouts, Omer’s grandmother, wearying of the music and sundry noises, took notice and organised an Islamic exorcism. By the time Omer was born in 1966, the show had long since been over.

  The windows in the first floor gable look out of the parlour where the Miss Fitzhugh’s suitors came to woo her
The windows in the first floor gable look out of the parlour where the Miss Fitzhugh’s suitors came to woo her

Unsurprisingly, there was no swish of the unseen satin dress or the lingering fragrance of her perfume when I called out to Miss Fitzhugh from the landing in front of her parlour. Omer pushed the door open and we entered the low-roofed cubby hole of a room. But for layers of dust, it was empty and I felt no icy hand creeping down the nape of my neck and into my shirt. Even if she died violently, she and O’Brien now seem to rest in peace.

One day, 3 Club Road, Abbottabad will bite the dust even though earthquake damage can be repaired and the house restored to its original glory. Omer tells me he showed the premises to a renowned conservation architect who said the building can be saved.

But we do not know if that will happen. If the house goes, another bit of our built heritage will be lost forever.

Salman Rashid is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the author of nine travel books. He tweets @odysseuslahori

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 23rd, 2014