Listening for the roaring demons of Gandgarh’s past

The significance of the stories of Gandgarh’s caves lies in what they teach us about our response to human suffering.

Updated Jul 05, 2019 05:27pm

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.

Also read: Clueless in the abandoned centuries-old city of Tulaja in Soon Valley

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.

Our local guide showing us the way to Kafirkot.—All photos by author
Our local guide showing us the way to Kafirkot.—All photos by author

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.”

Entrance to the cave concealed on a cliff south east of the ruins of Kafirkot Fort.
Entrance to the cave concealed on a cliff south east of the ruins of Kafirkot Fort.

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.”

Fifteen feet inside the Kafirkot cave.
Fifteen feet inside the Kafirkot cave.

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.

The cave at Gandgarh where the mythical hero Raja Rasalu imprisoned Thirya the man-eating giant.
The cave at Gandgarh where the mythical hero Raja Rasalu imprisoned Thirya the man-eating giant.

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”.

A sketch of an ancient coin found near Gandgarh depicts a giant riding an elephant.—Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (Volume XXII)
A sketch of an ancient coin found near Gandgarh depicts a giant riding an elephant.—Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (Volume XXII)

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.

Are you exploring Pakistan? Share your experience with us at


Author Image

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 (22) Closed

Jul 04, 2019 06:31pm
Please focus on preserving the nature first around Islamabad by creating awareness in people to not to litter
Recommend 0
Zeeshan Ahmed
Jul 04, 2019 06:47pm
Great effort at historical preservation of important events, excellent article.
Recommend 0
Karma from Texas
Jul 04, 2019 07:51pm
Good stuff. Post more pictures next time
Recommend 0
B.Patel USA
Jul 04, 2019 09:30pm
Thanks for very interesting article. There are thousands of forgotten sites of past cultures on this earth. Some were defeated by armies, some fell by disease and natural disasters, but each has a story on its own and each deserves respect.
Recommend 0
Jul 04, 2019 09:34pm
Thank you so much for educating me by sharing your knowledge. I really admire you curiosity and perseverance.
Recommend 0
Jahangir saeed
Jul 04, 2019 09:46pm
Very well written..Masha Allah
Recommend 0
Adil Jadoon
Jul 04, 2019 10:12pm
Very interesting. Worth exploring.
Recommend 0
Jul 04, 2019 10:15pm
great read! Thank you Jahandad!
Recommend 0
pradeep singh
Jul 04, 2019 10:40pm
Good work. Empirical evidence if unearthed goes a long way to corroborate what story tellers have been passing for centuries. Then it becomes scientific history. Unfortunately most of the historians don't want to work it that way. After all in the subcontinent their objective is to get a good job by memorising the history books and land at a comfortable job.
Recommend 0
Dick Dastardly
Jul 04, 2019 11:50pm
Interesting and rarely visited area, thanks to the author for writing about this. I hope he will go back better equipped to explore the caves in the future. The flash flood mentioned, the one Abbot was investigating, was caused by a natural dam (created by a landslide) of the Shyok in Baltistan finally giving way.
Recommend 0
Jul 05, 2019 02:37am
Amazing work these historians are doing in preserving and exploring the heritage specially with connection to Sikh history , I salute them.
Recommend 0
Jul 05, 2019 03:10am
Thanks. Jahandad khan. I have read yours other articles on region around Islamabad. It is some thing like Machu Pichu of Peru.One of the biggest attraction of tourists
Recommend 0
Jul 05, 2019 05:21am
Superb evocative article.As the author put it so beautifully why do we Indians and Pakistanis continue to fight which only ensures mutual destruction. Look forward to more such articles.
Recommend 0
Jul 05, 2019 08:12am
"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." Very poignant line. This is why we desperately need to acknowledge that our history isn't simply a "Muslim" history. These innocent men, women and children were native to our soil, but will never be remembered for their suffering. If we want to honour Pakistan, and ourselves, we need to embrace our history in its entirety.
Recommend 0
Arfeen Khan
Jul 05, 2019 10:36am
Great job ... keep it up. We need more like you in all fields.
Recommend 0
Jul 05, 2019 11:50am
Well articulated peep into the past. It is worthwhile to delve deep into our forgotten eras even if it occasionally touches our raw nerve.
Recommend 0
Mohammed Aslam
Jul 05, 2019 01:06pm
Excellent and unbiased article salute to the writer
Recommend 0
Jul 05, 2019 02:57pm
Recommend 0
Jul 05, 2019 10:57pm
Coin has Greek written on it; Very interesting article, I wish it was more detailed.
Recommend 0
Jul 05, 2019 11:21pm
Good article. Isn’t Mahmud of Ghazni looked at in good light in Pakistan. Why is that ? Serious answers only please, no unnecessary flames.
Recommend 0
khalid masood
Jul 06, 2019 11:12am
Good research indeed, I think Raja Rasaloo, Raja Hoodi and ,Raja Serkup, have historical evidences , all history befor it became to be documented, written, had many flaws,and legends.
Recommend 0
khalid masood
Jul 06, 2019 11:17am
good effort indeed, still the old characters, like Raja Rasaloo, Raja Hoodi and Raja Serkup,need more work by the historians to unearth, the facts.
Recommend 0