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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