Great Gateway: Khyber Pass, Pakistan

Associated with (and named after) Khyber Fort in Arab peninsula that was conquered by the Caliph Hazrat Ali (AS) in early days of Islam, Khyber Pass in Pakistan is amazing defile that has seen and made history for centuries. From Central Asia to South Asia, the pass has held open the route for many, who ventured to reap the fortune of the extensive plans in the Subcontinent. It is awesome to see the marks and symbols left by those who took their chance through this way.

Gateway to the South Asia, the Pass has been centre of activity since ancient times. Caravans of merchants, missionaries, preachers of different philosophies, conquerors, artists and architects – from Aryan to Mughals – have moved from Central to South Asia for centuries. (In fourth century, Alexander from Macedon never took this route as it is wrongly considered, though. He took much difficult route further up in the north.) And, these days Afghan refugees come and go this way. Rail and modern automobiles commute through the historic pass where once only horses and camels used to stumble.

For the first time traveller, the scenery through out the range is rocky, wanting in softness and beauty. In many parts it becomes barren and uninviting. But, in truth the range is dotted with historical wonders, romantic legends, archaeological remains and varying geological formations. A trip through the Khyber Pass provides a wonderful experience of mountain formations with barren hillsides and spots of ever lasting historic memories: remains of forts, stupas and other symbolic sites.

The Khyber Pass is the meeting place of a series of grey brown crags, narrow low-lying valleys and small plans with Safed Koh Range forming its southern boundary. On the inside of the Khyber Pass is the Torkham plain and on its highest point is situated the Shahgai fort, form where the Khyber River flows sluggishly towards Jamrud. In between comes the narrowest gorge at Ali Masjid – a bottle neck in the line of advance-where in earlier centuries the Buddhists stopped to nearby water spring and left behind traces of their sojourn. Relics of Stupa from Khushan period are still there. It is strange that all the three epic traditions the Buddhist of Gandhara, the Persian, and Muslim association have stuck to one or the other hill feature of the region.

The Khyber Pass is not ‘at’ the boarder. The pass extends form Torkham to Jamrud. Strictly speaking the term applies to the defile between village Shadi Bagiari and Landi Kotal. To the north stand the lofty peaks of the mountain stretching like a chain towards Landi Kotal. Rising to the south, the pass is bounded by broken ridges, at places rising to great heights and traversed by several paths. Beyond Landi Kotal, the road falls rapidly in a zigzag path to village Landi Khana and Torkham, the Pakistan border post. Through out the pass, villages are seen presenting a wonderful view of fortress walls and towers with musketry holes, on which the locals keep watches. Tending agriculture is a difficult occupation for lack of water.

Zahir ud Din Babar – the founder of the Mughal dynasty in South Asia – was the first determined invader who chose Khyber Pass for his eastward march and gave the pass its claim to universal prominence. Babar’s description as quoted by Dr. Ahmad Hassan Dani in his book is quite vivid. Babar wrote, “it was in the month of Shaban 910 AH (January 1501 AD), the sun being in Aquarius that we rode out of Kabul for Hindustan. We took the road of Badam Chashma and Jagdalik and reached Adinapur in six marches. Till that time I had never seen a hot country or the Hindustan border land. In Ningrahar another world came to view, other grasses, other trees, other animals, other birds and other manners and customs of clan and horde. We were amazed, and truly there was ground of amaze…”

The majestic and symbolic entrance known as Bab-i-Khyber stands near Jamrud village. The arched portal was built in 1963 to commemorate Jashn-e-Khyber celebrated that year. President Muhammad Ayub Khan inaugurated the gateway on June 10, 1963. The gateway arch spans over the road, which is marked by round tapering tower on its either side with canons on the top. There are inscriptions on the gateway, narrating the history of the Khyber Pass.

One of the gems in the history of the Pass is towering fort built by the Sikhs near Jamrud village. Harui Singh founded the fort on a vantage point in 1836 AD, to guard against the invading force through the Khyber, but ultimately the fort became the last resting place of the Sikh General. The Fort presents a picturesque view in the background of the hill. Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah came here in 1948 and announced his policy on “the freedom and responsibilities of the tribes.” The ancient caravan path survives alongside the new metalled road – first constructed in 1585 – and parallel to it runs the winding railway line, bearing the railway carriages, pushed and pulled by double steam engines, one from front and another from behind. The railway line run through thirty-four tunnels and advances over ninety two culverts. The construction of railway track was certainly a master feat of engineering. But, it has become off limits for a common people because of the charges of the trip, which is scheduled in advance.

The Khyber Railway has a unique history of its own since it was laid in 1925 by the British as a secure means of transport for troops. The British also built two important forts (at Shahgai and Landi Kotal) and a series of watch towers to safe guard the railway line. Its first stage, form Peshawar Cantonment Station to Jamrud, is an easy go as it covers the plains at the foot of the hill. From Jamrud onward are a steep rises and the difficult passage until Torkham border.

Besides railways, the only means of communication through the Khyber Pass had been private journeys by foot, on horses or camels. With the opening of the railways, the tribesmen adjusted their pattern of travel to these new types of journeys. Soon after independence, as the condition of the road improved, bus service also became regular. It is this particular feature of the journey through Khyber that is most enjoyable: one meets a blend of the people that hail form different tribes in their peculiar dress and complexion and still different habits and customs.

With condensed overlays of historic wonders, archaeological remains, legends, hidden secrets and unanswered questions, savouring Khyber Pass in a hurry is like eating an elephant in one gulp. My recommendation: give it a try bit by bit.

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