How a veteran of Abdali’s Indian invasions laid the foundations of KP's oldest princely state

As the Mughal Empire's control weakened, communities across the subcontinent found themselves with more freedom.

Updated Nov 18, 2019 04:17pm

Most of the princely states which acceded to Pakistan at the time of Partition have their roots in tribal chiefdoms that emerged out of the political vacuum created by the collapse of the Mughal Empire.

The origins of Amb-Darband, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s (KP) oldest princely state, can be traced to an enterprising figure named Zabardast Khan Tanoli, who was given the title of Subah Khan by the Afghan king Ahmad Shah Abdali in the mid-18th century.

Amb-Darband was entirely submerged by the building of the world’s largest earth-filled dam at Tarbela in the 1970s. During my quest to connect with my roots in the region, I came across multiple oral traditions, forts, weapons and manuscripts linked to the mysterious Subah Khan.

The last of Subah Khan Tanoli’s mid-18th century mausoleum.—All photos by author
The last of Subah Khan Tanoli’s mid-18th century mausoleum.—All photos by author

A crumbling structure adorned with faded frescoes, enclosed by an imposing boundary wall is all that remains of Subah Khan’s mausoleum in the quiet village of Pohaar, about 36 kilometres north of Haripur in KP. It took me around 40 minutes to reach there from Haripur, through a scenic route along the Tarbela Lake known as Chappar Road.

After I explored Subah Khan’s last resting place, my friends led me towards the remains of a fortified village on a nearby mountain. I was told that the tribal chief spent the early years of his life there.

Subah Khan was born to Bahadar Khan Tanoli in the hilly trans-Indus region of Tanawal in KP in the first half of the 18th century. According to reliable oral traditions, Subah Khan’s ancestral elders from the Tanoli tribe had attracted the wrath of the mighty Mughal Empire by launching attacks on imperial forces and convoys in the region from their remote villages in Tanawal.

The presence of several defensive structures on the mountain top, along with the visible remnants of terraced farming, indicated that the settlement where Subah Khan grew up was once home to a fairly large community.

Hundreds of date palm trees high up on the mountain top made for a curious sight. The trees were a source of valuable nutrition when Subah Khan’s ancestors endured siege-like conditions under Mughal rule.

When I reached out to several archaeologist friends in KP to inquire about the origins of the mountain settlement, most of them reacted with surprise as they had never visited the area.

Subah Khan Tanoli’s elders held out in fortified mountain villages during Emperor Aurangzeb’s rule.
Subah Khan Tanoli’s elders held out in fortified mountain villages during Emperor Aurangzeb’s rule.

As the Mughal Empire’s control weakened, communities across the subcontinent found themselves with more political space and economic freedom to assert their power in ways that had not been possible earlier.

When Ahmad Shah Abdali announced his plans to invade Hindustan, he found in Subah Khan a young warrior who was keen to join his army with his clansmen.

Stories of Subah Khan’s adventures and valour in the Battle of Mathura, fought between Ahmad Shah Abdali and the Hindu Jats in 1757, live on through folklore in the villages of Tanawal.

On more than a few occasions, I met old men recounting tales of how their elders carried zamburaks (swivel guns) to battle alongside the Afghan king. Some of these centuries-old zamburaks are still scattered around the region.

A centuries-old zamburak (swivel gun) used by Subah Khan Tanoli’s clansmen while fighting alongside Ahmad Shah Abdali at Mathura in 1757.
A centuries-old zamburak (swivel gun) used by Subah Khan Tanoli’s clansmen while fighting alongside Ahmad Shah Abdali at Mathura in 1757.

Descendants of Subah Khan Tanoli discuss their lineage.
Descendants of Subah Khan Tanoli discuss their lineage.

Not satisfied with the lack of mention of the tribal chief in contemporary history books, I visited the village of Chamhed where retired headmaster Niaz Ahmed Tanoli is rumoured to have valuable historical manuscripts dating to Abdali’s era. Niaz is a direct descendant of Subah Khan.

A large family tree in Niaz’s meeting room showed in Subah Khan’s extended lineage the names of various Islamic prophets.

The exclusionary ideological narrative peddled by the Pakistani state for decades has created pressure on communities across the country to repackage their identity with an Islamic veneer.

Millions of people in KP and Afghanistan are confident that they are descended from the Judaic Bani Israel or Arab Quraish mentioned in the Islamic scriptures.

Afghan ruler Ahmad Shah Abdali’s letter of recognition and support to Subah Khan Tanoli.
Afghan ruler Ahmad Shah Abdali’s letter of recognition and support to Subah Khan Tanoli.

I was excited to see in Niaz’s collection of manuscripts a folio from 1771 bearing Ahmad Shah Abdali’s seal. It was a certificate from the Afghan king to Zabardast Khan Tanoli, conferring on him the title of Subah Khan for his support in the Indian campaigns, particularly in the fighting around Mathura.

According to the aging manuscript, Abdali awarded Subah Khan Rs12,000 and an annual jagir (grant) of Rs2,000, along with the right to tax caravans travelling between Kabul and Kashmir on the Tanawal route.

This can also be corroborated by the independent travel accounts of the British East India Company officer George Forster. While travelling through the region in July 1783, Forster saw trade caravans being taxed on the orders of Subah Khan’s son.

The Third Battle of Panipat (1761) between Ahmad Shah Abdali and the Marathas.—Courtesy British Library
The Third Battle of Panipat (1761) between Ahmad Shah Abdali and the Marathas.—Courtesy British Library

Firsthand accounts from Abdali’s own army offer grim portraits of the battle and subsequent sacking of the city of Mathura in 1757:

“Wherever you gazed you beheld heaps of the slain; you could only pick your way with difficulty, owing to the quantity of bodies lying about and the amount of blood spilt. At one place that we reached we saw about two hundred dead children lying in a heap. Not one of the dead bodies had a head. The stench and effluvium in the air were such that it was painful to open your mouth or even to draw breath.”

Although Abdali’s patronage elevated Subah Khan’s status to one of Hazara’s most powerful chiefs, the scenes he witnessed in the wars were to leave a long-lasting impression on him.

After returning home, he donated all the land in his capital at Mangal (on the skirts of modern-day Abbottabad) to a Sufi mystic and made the mountains his home.

Subah Khan dedicated the rest of his life to building new towns at Birkund and Bir (in districts Mansehra and Haripur). The new settlements were named after Bir Deva, the mythical Gandharan ancestor of the Tanoli tribe.

According to Hazara’s first historian, Lala Mehtab Singh (1846), after returning home from the Indian campaigns, Subah Khan settled a large number of Hindu and Sikh Khatri merchant families in Bir to develop his new town as a hub for trade and commerce.

On one occasion, when the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh citizens of Bir celebrated the birth of a child in Khan’s family, they were told that the news of a new settler in Subah Khan’s town would be more welcome to him than the expansion of his own bloodline.

Mehtab Singh’s records also mention that Subah Khan’s son, Gul Sher Khan, donated Rs2,000 to help the Hindu families in Bir build a place of worship for themselves.

The town of Bir was founded by Subah Khan after he returned from Abdali’s India campaigns.
The town of Bir was founded by Subah Khan after he returned from Abdali’s India campaigns.

The Indus at Amb-Darband, the now-submerged capital of the state of Amb.
The Indus at Amb-Darband, the now-submerged capital of the state of Amb.

Abdali’s invasions are a polarising topic of discussion in India and Pakistan today. Nationalist historians and commentators on both sides prefer viewing the conflict as a simplistic clash of faiths, rather than as a violent competition for power and resources.

This binary view of history makes it hard to capture the nuances and human stories of the participants and victims of the wars.

The substantial economic and political concessions granted by Abdali to Subah Khan enabled his descendants and clansmen to consolidate their power in Tanawal.

In the decades following Durrani rule, they would fiercely resist both the Sikh general Hari Singh Nalwa and Islamist reformer Syed Ahmed Barelvi’s attempts to control the region.

In 1858, the British would formally recognise the region as the state of Amb, a semi-independent tribal princely state along the Indus with its capital at the now submerged towns of Amb and Darband.


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Jahandad Khan is an Islamabad-based history researcher. He has an interest in the preservation of Sikh heritage in Pakistan.


The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (52) Closed

SAKY
Mar 29, 2019 05:40pm
Thanks for the nice and informative article Jahandad Khan. This region's history needs some attention from researchers like you. good work
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nadam ejaz
Mar 29, 2019 06:23pm
I was born near there
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nadam ejaz
Mar 29, 2019 06:23pm
I was born near there
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siddha
Mar 29, 2019 06:53pm
I love DAWN newspaper just because of this kind of historical articles. My hats off to the author. I wish if this article would have been bit more detailed.
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N_Saq
Mar 29, 2019 07:03pm
Good job and keep it up. History is indeed intriguing and (very) painful.
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Abbas Maqsood Awan
Mar 29, 2019 07:10pm
Great piece Jahandad. I watched your documentary also. As a native of Tanawal its great to see someone reviving our lost shared history.
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SecularIndian
Mar 29, 2019 07:11pm
Thanks for this article. History is full such plunder and savagery. When you create wealth by hard work and business acumen, you also need to strengthen your muscles to be able to hold on it.
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Sarai Alamgir
Mar 29, 2019 07:17pm
Great article, I am also interested in the Sikh culture in Pakistan, and being based in London, working with a few gurdwaras to start visiting sites in Pak,so they can appreciate their history. It would be nice to connect on imi40@hotmail.com
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SATT
Mar 29, 2019 07:32pm
He mentioned about the scene in Mathura and still persuading to into its political reason.
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gulzar rana
Mar 29, 2019 07:38pm
You should have interviewed descendants of Nawab of Amb. I met the nawab several times when I was a kid (around 1953-1956). I was born in Amb- Durband My grand father was a good friend of the nawab. He use to come and stay at our house in Model Town Lahore.
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gulzar rana
Mar 29, 2019 07:42pm
I was born in Amd-Durband. My grand father was the chief minister of the state and a very good friend of the nawab. I met him several times (1954-1956) WHEN HE USE TO COME TO Lahore and stay at our house in Model Town.
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Dr Tahir Hameed Tanoli
Mar 29, 2019 07:58pm
Wonderful and informative article
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Tariq
Mar 29, 2019 08:28pm
@gulzar rana, Please share with Jahandad Khan what ever you could, let it be recorded.
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Noor ur Rehman
Mar 29, 2019 08:33pm
Jahan Dad Khan Tanoli i appreciate your struggles and pray for you and your supporters for the out standing updates. I am from village JINJAKKA and from Kerguall family. Best regards to you and your family My father late MUHAMMAD KHAN TANOLI was friend of your Grand father.
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Daskalos
Mar 29, 2019 08:35pm
@gulzar rana, quite right. The present chief of Tanolis and head of former Amb state family is Nawabzada Salahuddin Saeed, ex-MNA from Mansehra. The Amb state and Phulra (vassal ) were in fact given by the British to Nawab Jahandad Khan, Hindwal Tanoli, in 1858 for loyalty . Before that the Tanoli tribe had been divided between Pallal and Hindwal sections and Jahandad's father Painda Khan brought them under one roof in 1830s. This whole story about Suba Khan /Zabardast Khan is untrue. Zabardast/Suba Khan was a Tanoli of the Pallal section who was a military employee of the Durrani Afghans and fought in some battles and he was , later, appointed a temporary administrator /governor of Tanawal region for some time. There was no 'princely state' at that time. After Suba Khan died, Tanawal was attached to the Afghan Kashmir subah for taxation purposes.
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Abdul
Mar 29, 2019 08:39pm
Thanks for the nice and informative article !!!
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Premsan
Mar 29, 2019 08:41pm
It pains to read such description of this invader Abdali. and his chelae shunh Khan on Hundreds of Hindu children lying in heaps with head severed creates horrific scene.
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Ram
Mar 29, 2019 08:48pm
Thank you so much for a brief but very refreshing (devoid of usual ideological stench) course on the history of this painful but beautiful land! Please keep up the good work. You are inspiring! Ram, a padosi
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Liaqat
Mar 29, 2019 09:13pm
Appreciate your efforts for digging our past. Visited the river side at Torghar facing Darband last year and the Indus view was magnificent.
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Naeem Malik
Mar 29, 2019 09:28pm
So basically they were fighting the Mughal invaders by joining forces with an Afghan invader, ultimately going against hard working people in the southern planes. Their barbaric past is something to be ashamed of, yet they're taking pride in it.
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Muhammad
Mar 29, 2019 10:25pm
Very informative article . Plz do write about Gilgit baltistan region. There are many historic places in GB too
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Peace Now
Mar 29, 2019 10:25pm
Afghanistan was once mighty. They never got a leader like Abdali again.
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Ranjiv Grover
Mar 29, 2019 10:29pm
Nice one... history is the mystery one would like to explore and understand that how in the end everything is a story.
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avtar
Mar 29, 2019 11:29pm
Interesting read. Despite so much destruction in the subcontinent surviving records can help in reconstructing history. Control of revenue and resources was the main reason of conflicts between Peshwas and Nizam of Hyderabad. Smaller kingdoms used to join the invaders (Afghans, Persians, Mughals) using the Khyber Pass route.
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tarik
Mar 30, 2019 03:04am
Good article, keep up the good work
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Surinder Bajwa
Mar 30, 2019 03:16am
It is fascinating to learn about the true story of our common ancestral home.
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Surinder Gill
Mar 30, 2019 04:16am
Thanks for informative article. I was feeling as walking in those small hills of area. I have friends in USA who belong to that area and they tell many stories peoples. Thanks once again.
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Har Puri
Mar 30, 2019 05:06am
It is gratifying to note that Subhah Khan knew the value of economic development with the aid of Khatris.
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Thind
Mar 30, 2019 05:09am
@Naeem Malik, well said Malik Naeem Khan!
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VK Garg
Mar 30, 2019 06:24am
@Naeem Malik, I agree with you absolutely.
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Murad Kasi
Mar 30, 2019 07:40am
Very nice article Jahandad, it is for the first time I am reading about the pricey the state of Amb. It would be great to know more about his style of administration and was there any military confrontation in resisting the neighbouring states.
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Nidhin Olikara
Mar 30, 2019 07:46am
Very well written. Keep it.up.my brother.
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AKHIL SRIVASTAVA
Mar 30, 2019 11:37am
Very good. Please keep charting enexplored paths.
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Sood A
Mar 30, 2019 11:48am
Very Refreshing to read a historical un-biased write. Thank you.
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Shah
Mar 30, 2019 11:48am
Fantastic landscapes.
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Shah
Mar 30, 2019 11:49am
@SecularIndian, You dont have to go deep into history to find oppressors. You can just see Delhi's occupation of Kashmir.
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Mir Wazir Khan
Mar 30, 2019 01:31pm
Very informative and interesting article about the history of an important region of Pakistan. Hope Jahandad Khan would contribute more to take us back in history!!!
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Sami
Mar 30, 2019 01:33pm
The powerful state of amb and darband is now lying under water and mud.
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hamid
Mar 30, 2019 03:18pm
Pakistani should respect and protect there past because anybody can not survive without there roots or identity of there ancestors.
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kabir khan
Mar 30, 2019 05:25pm
Very nice article and I think every place has such a hero; but his story is not revealed to the people, Dawn newspaper need to find out such more stories of history particularly in Balochistan and KP, one can find many historical stories like this one.
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Siva D
Mar 30, 2019 05:49pm
Beautiful write up sir. If approached with open eyes and minds, history will teach us a lot of things. If we close our intellect and look for strife, hatred and strife is all you get.
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Ashfaq Swabi - Canada
Mar 30, 2019 09:06pm
Being a keen student of our history, I couldn't resist reading this article, Jahandad, on my way back from work while on train. Thanks for your research and sharing. One things stands out clear, we have a rich history and historical sites that need to be preserved, protected and declared "HERITAGE ASSETS" regradless who built it - for our future generations awareness. Thanks to DAWN for initiating the Prism series.
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M Fazlur Rahman
Mar 30, 2019 11:06pm
Very nice article. Very informative. We have thousands of years of history in Pakistan which we have ignored. All the areas identified should be turned into national heritage so coming generations should know about the past.
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BARADA PRASAD MOHAPATRA
Mar 30, 2019 11:12pm
Thank you Jahanad Bhai for this article.
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MA
Mar 30, 2019 11:52pm
Insightful..
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Bangashkhan
Mar 31, 2019 02:31am
Nice fictional article mixed with some historical fact to give it credit and credibility... was not worth to read it and waste time
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historian
Mar 31, 2019 11:04am
The author writes: "As the Mughal Empire’s control weakened, communities across the subcontinent found themselves with more political space and economic freedom to assert their power in ways that had not been possible earlier." Is he sure that "communities" gained such "freedom," or if it was not simply the chiefs of these communities who now won the right to legislate their own interests viz. their communities?
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sridhar raghunatha rao
Mar 31, 2019 02:09pm
A good article on our past
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Asad Rehman
Mar 31, 2019 03:45pm
Amazing, historical record of immense value, but what good it will serve where now ????
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Echo29
Mar 31, 2019 04:46pm
Very interesting article on history of the region. We need to preserve the historyrather than current political rewriting of the nations history
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Ilyas jabbar
Apr 01, 2019 01:23am
Great research.glad to see comments from different hazaraywals.I belong to kotehra near Puwar.
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Sawjid
Apr 01, 2019 10:31am
Very good information about the national heritage...
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