As the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge recently made their way to Pakistan following in the footsteps of Princess Diana, they were not only following the same path treaded by England’s royalty — including Queen Elizabeth — but also by thousands of British civil servants and soldiers who fought for the Crown, countless miles away from their homeland in the mountains of Chitral, Waziristan and the Khyber Pass at the height of the 19th century ‘Great Game’ between England and Russia.
This time around, while the royals were able to visit Chitral and the mythical Kalash valley, their plans to visit the historic Khyber Pass that connects Afghanistan to the sub-continent were scuttled due to inclement weather. Disappointing as it may seem, they now have a reason to return to Pakistan because no visit to the country is complete without paying homage to the legendary Khyber Pass.
Khyber Pass was the route used by many invaders to conquer India, starting from Alexander the Great to the Mughals and the Afghans. Whereas the conquests in reverse, primarily by Ranjit Singh or the British, were almost always a failure.
Last winter, I was in Peshawar with my family to explore the city, where we ended up staying at the Peshawar Services Club built in the colonial era; founded in 1863 to be precise. Our trip was aimed at exploring the city, understand its history and check out some of the top spots that define Peshawar, with the historic Khyber Pass topping the list. So on one kind, sunny morning, we set out for Torkham and in 30 minutes, crossed the iconic Khyber Pass gate into Jamrud — the gateway to the erstwhile Khyber Agency, now Khyber District. The road was excellent from Jamrud onward and as we entered the Khyber gorge, we were stopped at a Khyber Rifles checkpost for identification. This is also the point where the historic Khyber Railways track starts running almost parallel to the road.
Soon we crossed the 1927 Shagai Fort, which is situated right next to the road. This fort is currently with the Khyber Rifles detachment, painting a very different picture from what was the case a few years ago. During the days of the Taliban insurgency in 2007-2009, the area between Shagai Fort and Landi Kotal had become a no-go zone, but owing to the government's measures to counter these forces, things appear to have returned to normalcy.
As we drove forward, the gorge became narrower, and all along the route, the Khyber Railways track snaked along, passing through tunnels and bridges.
The Khyber Railways was originally planned by the British in the late 19th century as a strategic project to counter suspected Russian invasion of the sub-continent via Afghanistan in the era of ‘The Great Game’ with Russia and Queen Victoria’s government trying to fight it out in the barren lands of Afghanistan. However, sanity prevailed and in 1907, both sides signed an agreement to stick to their domains. Still, the Khyber Railways was commissioned as an efficient way of moving troops at short notice. The 52 kilometres railway track traverses the whole way from Peshawar to Landi Khana at Torkham, way beyond Landi Kotal, the main frontier town. The track was completed around 1925 with some 34 tunnels and 92 bridges and the broad-gauge railways ran for almost 80 years carrying passengers and goods via the historic pass.
There used to be a Khyber steam safari with steam engines pulling and pushing the rolling stock, with engines at both ends but the last train chugged in 2006 before the track was destroyed at places by torrential rains and floods, and wasn't repaired again. The expansive 1925 Landi Kotal railway station with its water tanks, ticket-house and waiting rooms, still remind us of the glory of a bygone era.
Back to Khyber Pass, soon we reached the area where there is the Ali Masjid area. This is the narrowest part of the Khyber gorge and at one point in history, only one camel laden with trading goods could pass the gorge one at a time. But more so, this was also the most strategic point for tribal Afridis and Shinwaris who would control the surrounding mountaintops and practice their shooting on archaic ‘Gazails’ in invading armies — be it the Sikhs or the British.
Whoever controlled the heights in the Ali Masjid area, would have the strategic benefit; the British understood this well and always tried to capture the Ali Masjid Fort, located beside Ali Masjid, though they were not always successful. The fort was first constructed in 1837 by Afghan ruler Dost Muhammad Khan but was later burnt, reconstructed, captured and recaptured in battles by opposing British, Afghan or tribal forces. Ali Masjid has witnessed intense battles between the British and tribals both in the first Afghan war in 1842 and the second Afghan war in 1879.
I drove up to the fort unannounced and was welcomed by a detachment of the Chitral Scouts that was on deputation here. There was a nice sun-room at the top and the fort was divided into an old colonial block and a newer block. The caretakers offered to show us a World War II hospital nearby, that was carved inside of a mountain, but unfortunately, we were pressed for time.
Interestingly, you never realise the importance of heights unless you are at one; it gives such a commanding view of the surrounds that in a conflict, it can become impossible for the opponents to evade you. If you look closely, you would also notice various militia posts at most mountaintops all through your journey on the Khyber Pass.
In about two hours after the start of our journey, we entered the Landi Kotal town and were greeted at the entrance by a second-century Buddhist stupa right next to the road and a mountain wall embellished with colourful commemorative tablets of British regiments stationed in this territory since 1857. Thanks to a good friend in the forces, we went straight into the historic Khyber Rifles mess.
Dating back to 1878, Khyber Rifles is one of the most decorated arm of the Frontier Corps on account of its strategic location and a role spanning over a century and a half. Its first commandant was Sir Robert Warburton, son of an Anglo-Irish soldier Robert Warburton of the Bengal Artillery.
Rudyard Kipling probably had Khyber Rifles on his mind while writing his classic 1885 The Lost Legion, where he says, "You must know that along the North-West frontier of India is spread a force who move up and down from one little desolate post to another, they are ready to take to the field in ten minutes notice, they are always half in and half out of a difficulty somewhere along the monotonous line, their lives are as hard as their muscles and papers never say anything about them."
The Khyber Rifles took part in the second and third Afghan Wars, the black mountain expeditions of 1888 and 1891 and were routed in the general tribal uprising of 1897, when the forces fell back to Jamrud and were able to take back the forts only after a reinforcement of some 44,000 troops and four months of battles all over the Khyber Pass. Khyber Rifles was disbanded during the Third Afghan War in 1919 in light of desertions and as their loyalty to the Crown was being questioned. However, it was reconstituted in 1946 after the Second World War.
The Khyber Rifles' mess is like a time capsule with relics, including antique guns, maps, navigation instruments and weaponry. The walls are adorned with photographs of dignitaries who have visited the Khyber Rifles mess and the illustrious list include Queen Elizabeth of England, Princess Anne, the Shah of Iran, Margret Thatcher, Jaqueline Kennedy and Lady Diana. Among Pakistani dignitaries, starting from the founder of the nation Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Fatima Jinnah, perhaps every president and prime minister has been to this historic place.
The caretaker of the mess helped us calculate the time using a ‘sundial’, a colonial time clock fitted in the gardens and the clock calculates the time to the dot. But the icing on the cake was meeting the good old tree imprisoned since 1898 on the orders of one Captain James Squid. The story goes something like this: one Saturday evening, the young captain noticed that the tree was too drunk and was moving wildly so he ordered the mess sergeant to arrest the tree and chain it until further orders. The tree is chained to this day and I would leave it to you to decide who was more inebriated that Saturday night.
It was time for us to visit Torkham town right on the Afghan border. Around 15 minutes from Landi Kotal, we stopped at the historic 1925 Michni post. This post holds a commanding view of the Torkham border and while we were there, our friendly guide gave us a complete history lesson on the significance of the Khyber Pass.
Just between Michni and Torkham, he pointed to an infamous dungeon of King Tamerlane. Tamerlane had this ingenious way of punishing his opponents that he developed a long vertical tunnel fixed with sharp blades where he would throw his opponents at the top end and what came out at the lower end of the tunnel was too gruesome to be mentioned. That dungeon is still there but it is too daunting for anyone to venture into.
From Michni post, it was a sharp descent into Torkham. The good old Khyber Railways accompanied us to Landi Khana, just before Torkham.
Torkham is a bustling trading town with people and trucks crossing to Afghanistan and coming back, 24 hours a day and seven days a week. After Torkham, the valley opens up into plains and Jalalabad is only about an hour's drive away.
There cannot be more history associated with one mountain pass as is the case with the Khyber Pass. You can stand at the Ali Masjid Fort and imagine Alexander the Great riding his horses into the sub-continent, later to be followed by Mahmud of Ghazni, and then the Mughal King Babar. One can only imagine the impact this pass has had on the political history of this entire region.
Imagine the East India Company’s 15,000 strong forces attacking Kabul in 1841 for the first Anglo-Afghan War, with only an army surgeon William Brydon making it back through the Khyber Pass to tell the horrific tales, an event giving birth to the classic Victorian painting Remnants of an Army. Imagine the pain and the anger in the eyes of General Nicholson on finding the tortured body of his beloved young brother near Ali Masjid. And now imagine the valour of Khyber Rifles sepoys and officers surrounded by treacherous extremists in more recent times.
Khyber Pass has a beautiful landscape, tall mountains and deep narrow gorges. It has forts where battles were won and lost and a railways system which evokes colonial nostalgia. The great game may be no more but there are other battles to be fought and won and the men of Khyber Rifles stand tall as they do their duty.
Meanwhile, the government can consider working on the revival of Khyber Railways and possibly also open some of these forts and militia messes; starting with opening a few rooms for booking by the general public at Bala Hisar, Ali Masjid Fort, and the Khyber Rifles mess, and even think about starting a history tour in the Tamerlane killing chambers. All of this would make the area a magnet for travellers, who can fantasise about a steam train chugging through the Khyber Pass to Landi Kotal and beyond.
Kipling called the Khyber Pass "a sword cut through the mountains", and yet also understood the seductive intrigue of this land. Narrated in his famous poem, The Ballad of The King's Jest, Kipling weaves with his words an imagery of this magnificent place that rings true to this day.
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