When I first started backpacking across the country, I set out on a quest to find all of the places that were printed on our currency notes. That quest led me to places I never imagined I would ordinarily go — from long-forgotten tunnels near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in the southern part of Pakistan to the highest mountain of the country in the North. That journey also led me 113km west of Quetta to the Khojak pass, a relic from the past that was featured on our (now defunct) five rupee note. In front of that tunnel is a place called Shela Bagh.
The Great Game was all about expanding powers in Central Asia by two forces — the British and the Russians — and controlling natural resources in the region. During the late 19th century, the British Raj in India had begun to worry about Russia expanding its power in Central Asia. Fearing that the Russians may enter the region from Afghanistan via Kandahar, the British decided to lay their railway tracks all the way to Kandahar so they could send their troops to counter Russian forces.
In order to do so, the British had to bypass the famous 2,290-metre high Khojak pass of Toba Kakar Mountain, which has been crossed for centuries by soldiers, merchants and conquerors.
The Khojak Tunnel is largely forgotten but is an essential part of the subcontinent’s history
The 3.9km tunnel was constructed from 1888 to 1891 under the Khojak Pass, and the tunnel was named after it: Khojak Tunnel. The railway track that goes through Quetta crosses the Khojak Tunnel and goes all the way to the Pak-Afghan border town of Chaman. The British could not go further than that.
On the front of the tunnel, on a small plate, its name and the period of its construction are inscribed. It lies at an altitude of 1,939.8 metres above sea level in the settlement of Shela Bagh. ‘Shela’ is a Pashto word which means a seasonal mountainous river, and ‘bagh’ of course means a garden.
There are several local legends about Shela Bagh — none of which can be verified, but the locals swear by them. The first is that that the area was named after a dancer called Shela who would entertain the labourers that worked tirelessly building the Khojak tunnel. The second, darker legend is that the chief engineer of the project killed himself before his masterpiece — the tunnel — could be completed. Nobody knows why.
The railway station building at Shela Bagh was constructed later. Those who have watched Moor, Pakistan’s Oscar-nominated film from last year, might recognise the train station from scenes of the film. The old archival photos of the tunnel show that it had two towers on its entrance which fell in the earthquake of 1935.
The State Bank of Pakistan recognised the marvel of this engineering and a picture of it was printed on the five-rupee note in 1976 which remained in circulation until 2005. The note shows the eastern settlement of the tunnel and is a reminder of how the Khojak tunnel once played an intergral part in the power politics of the subcontinent.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 23rd, 2016