One doesn’t have to travel far in Pakistan to come across places named after yesterday’s saints, martyrs and leaders. These names typically evoke a sense of positive nostalgia about the past.
While reading the travel accounts of the Indian folklorist Charles Swynnerton, I was amused to learn about his visit in 1903 to the desolate hills of Gandgarh, which he translated as “Mountain of Filth.”
Why did the barren hills situated 50 kilometres northwest of what is today Islamabad earn such an unflattering name?
Local history and folklore books pointed towards the presence of several ancient caves along the Gandgarh range that contained cues about its past. A few months ago, I convinced my friend Ayaz Achakzai to join me in an adventure to search for these caves, using whatever limited information we had.
Our first destination was a cave concealed by a cliff under the ruins of an ancient fort called Kafirkot (not to be confused with the Kafirkot temples in Dera Ismail Khan).
According to Swynnerton, Kafirkot was where the people of Chach (adjacent to the Gandgarh hills) fled to escape Mahmud of Ghazni’s armies a thousand years ago. The ancestors of the Gakhar tribe inhabiting the Salt Range and Potohar plateau put up a ferocious fight but were unable to prevent Mahmud’s onslaught into the plains.
As per Swynnerton’s documentation of the area’s oral traditions, those seeking refuge at Kafirkot were slaughtered to a man; the secret cave we were looking for was where the unfortunate inhabitants of Kafirkot had made their last stand once the fort’s walls had been breached.
A donkey track from the lofty village of Chinarkot in the heart of the Gandgarh led us to the location of Kafirkot.
Our guide Bilal took us to the ruins of the fort along with his donkey, Chandni. He even joined us in the subsequent search for the cave under the oppressive sun.
Although our books indicated that the remains of Kafirkot’s walls were visible until a century ago, we could only find piles of rubble. The site bore marks of excavation attempts by amateur treasure hunters over the years.
On a sharp cliff located south-east of Kafirkot, we were relieved to discover the cave Swynnerton described as “so cunningly contrived by nature that only by accident could its existence by suspected at all.”
A well-concealed gap in the cliff opened into a small chamber that was the entrance to the cave.
Since we were without any lighting, ropes, safety equipment or formal training, we decided to halt after scaling 15-20 feet along the cave’s narrow walls with no end in sight .
According to the Tareekh-e-Hazara by Dr Sher Bahadur Panni, Maulana Ismat Ullah of Sirikot, a local who conducted an exploration of the cave in 1930, found a comprehensive network of steps leading to further chambers deep inside the cave. Swynnerton reported finding inside the cave “ashes and potsherds in abundance that attested its former occupation.”
As we took a moment’s rest in the unsettling silence of the cave, I thought of all the Hindu men, women and children who perished therein a thousand years ago. I imagined them in their last moments communicating with each other in the soft and earthy Hindko that I and others belonging to the region speak in our homes today.
Nuances such as this, or the fact that Mahmud of Ghazni and his son Masud also employed Hindu officers and soldiers in their armies, hardly seem to matter to South Asia’s chest thumping history commentators these days.
After saying goodbye to Kafirkot, it took us nearly 15 minutes to convince Bilal to accept compensation for his help and support. I’ve always found it disturbing when tourists take advantage of the generosity of locals, usually under the convenient garb of ‘respecting traditions’ of rural hospitality.
Our next destination was much easier to locate as it was situated close to the road. According to folklore, thousands of years ago it was here that an old woman had asked the mythical hero, Raja Rasalu, to rescue her only surviving son from a gang of giant man-eating demons who openly roamed the Gandgarh hills.
Our second cave corresponded to the location where Raja Rasalu imprisoned the giant, Thirya, for eternity, after slaying his companions, Baggarbath and Wazir. Thirya’s howls of agony could be heard far away after he was locked in the cave by Raja Rasalu.
Several historical sources mention reports of a roar-like sound that would occasionally emanate from Gandgarh.
While passing through the region in 1619, the Mughal Emperor Jahangir wrote in his memoirs:
“I heard from the people of this country that a noise like that of thunder fell from the ear from a hill in the neighbourhood, though there might be at the time no sign of rain, or cloud, or lightning. This sound is now to be heard every year, or certainly every two years. I have also heard this matter frequently discussed in my father’s (Akbar’s) presence.”
In June 1841, the Indus experienced the greatest flooding in its modern history when Sham Singh Attariwala and Arbel Singh, both experienced military commanders of the Sikh empire, were skirmishing with my ancestor Painda Khan Tanoli near the Gundgarh range.
Although the leaders on both sides managed to escape, the raging waters of the Indus obliterated both armies “like a woman with a wet towel sweeps away a legion of ants.”
Seven years after the incident, Hazara’s first colonial administrator, Captain James Abbott, interviewed survivors to ascertain what they witnessed on the day of the flood. According to Ashraf Khan, an eye witness, the armies mistook the forceful sound of the Indus’s incoming waters as the “Gandgarh’s bellowing”.
Whether or not there is truth to the claims of the roaring sounds is perhaps a question that geologists are best qualified to answer.
For laymen such as myself, the actual significance of the forgotten stories of the Gandgarh’s caves lies in what they can teach us about our primitive responses to human suffering.
If Raja Rasalu’s helping of the old woman against the giants represents our capacity to unite when confronted by external enemies, then our apathy to the massacre at Kafirkot represents our shallow tendency to suspend empathy when atrocities are committed by our co-religionists.
Although Swynnerton hinted that a third cave (called Manghar Kallanh) in Gandgarh contained further items of historical interest, we were content with our findings for the day and decided to head back home to Islamabad.
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