Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Bhamala Stupa, the Ever Serene Monastery and a Volkswagen Camper

So we were sitting at Romano's place discussing the launching of Ali Akbar Khan's book, Rawul Pindee, The Raj Years, when Romano talked of the discovery of the largest Budhha Statue at the Bhamala Stupa. Both our ears cocked up, especially since I hadn't been to Bhamala in quite some time as the last plan to Bhamala with Hermes (the God of Traveling and Writing, i.e., Salman Rashid) was diverted to Pharwala.

Even though I wanted to show-off my discovery of the short-cut over the Margalla Hills, we decided to go via the Taxila-Khan Pur route, especially since Romano agreed to bring his VW Camper.  So setting off at 9 am on a lovely Sunday morning, we were at the Khan Pur Lake by 10:15 am. The Water in the turquoise lake was at the highest I had ever seen.

Just at the end of the Lake, there was the blue Department of Archaeology sign board with BHAMALA written on it (BTW the sign board has been badly mauled by some passing vehicle and needs a sharp eye to be spotted) and the narrow shingle road took off to the right. The ruined monastery is 6 km from the turn-off.

Fortunately the last 2 Kms have been cemented and drive is actually not that bad. The scenic route along the way is breath taking, I might add.

 So we decided to go slow, absorbing all the beauty as we went along, reaching Bhamala by 11 am, the site being named after the village it is next to. The village is actually pronounced as Pumbahlaa (پمبہالہ) which has been Urduized into Bhamala, or should I say Arabized.

A stone stairway leads you up to the flat site with the Stupa looking like an Aztec / Mayan Pyramid.

Situated on an elongated hill above the right bank of the Haro River where the valley is only a couple of hundred metres wide, Bhamala is as secluded as it can get. On three sides the hills loom high, only to the southwest is the view open where the narrow valley looks into what was once a large depression containing a few villages but now lies submerged under the placid blue waters of Khanpur Dam.
If it has a unique setting among the other Taxilan monasteries, Bhamala also has one distinctive feature of archaeological interest: its main stupa is built upon a cruciform base as opposed to the circular stupas in the other monasteries. Long before John Marshall struck the first spade to uncover its secrets in 1931, this stupa had already been dug into and somewhat damaged by treasure hunters. A reminder of that act of vandalism is the cleft running clear across the body of the structure.

The area immediately around the stupa base is paved with terra-cotta tiles which is another one of its unique features. Arrayed around the main stupa and just outside this paved area is a number of smaller votive stupas. 

 To the east, the monastery itself sits behind its high wall with a gate facing the main stupa. Like the other monasteries, the monks’ rooms run around the wall that forms the perimeter and look inward to the courtyard. The standard feature of the central water tank is missing here, perhaps because of the nearness to the Haro just below the hill.

Romano met these kids from a nearby village who had come to spend the day at Bhamala and was soon playing with them, while I managed a few snaps.

So then we proceeded to the find of the century here at Bhamala. In March 2015, a team of Archaeologists from the Hazara University found the largest known statue of the Budhha from the Gandhara civilization, at 14-meter (46 feet) long. It rests on a 15-meter (49 feet) platform, and portrays a scene known as Maha Pari Nirvana, said to be the moment Buddha’s consciousness left his body and he died.
Access to this chamber is given through three openings at regular intervals, while the chamber is made of stone in semi-ashlar masonry.

Now as you can see the head is missing and there is extensive damage to the statue in the middle; apparently the enthusiastic students of the Hazara University were a big too trigger-happy or perhaps it was the grave robbers. I heard from someone at the site that it was Professor Dr Mark Kenoyer, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, who pointed out that this was in fact a Maha Pari Nirvana statue. You can see the wrinkles of the clothes as they were carved in the rock.

They have dated the artifacts to the 3rd Century CE and believe it has Kashmiri influence, since the cruciform Stupas have not been seen elsewhere. Recently they have also discovered terracotta artifacts, stucco sculptures, architectural elements, copper coins, iron nails, door sittings, pottery and 14 coins from the Kushan era.

Anyhow, the only good thing I could see was the shed they had made over the priceless statue, which may keep it preserved for future generations.

The best part of coming to Bhamala is the serenity and the feeling of peace which this mound exudes. You can literally hear the Silence !

In the words of Salman Rashid, Bhamala fell in the early years of the 6th century CE to the savage Central Asiatic Huns under their leader Mehr Gul (Mihirakula). It is not for nothing that the epic Rajatarangini – Chronicles of Kings [of Kashmir] written 1160, tells us that this barbarian was a killer of ‘three crore’ people. He had, so we are told, no pity either for women or children or the elderly and that his progress across the country was marked by a dark cloud of crows and vultures keen to feed on the corpses the savages left behind.

One morning as the monks from Bhamala were preparing to set out on their alms-seeking trip to the streets of Taxila, they would have seen the dark cloud of birds and heard the din of the advancing army. Some may have stayed to try and defend what they and so many generations before them had held dear to their souls. Others would have fled into the hills. But not one who stayed lived to tell the tale of what transpired. When the smoke finally cleared, the monastery had been completely sacked. A silence descended upon its ruined walls and structures; a silence that was broken fifteen hundred years later when John Marshall's team struck the first spade to reveal the ashes left behind by the Huns.
We were pleasantly surprised to see a bus of College Girls from Haripur that had come all the way up to Bhamala for a field trip. As we talked to the girls, we saw hope in their eyes, though most were busy taking selfies.

So after spending a good couple of hours, absorbing the placid aura of the site, we decided to head back to the Camper, parked just below the Stupa mound at the Bhamala Village

The Village Bhamala

And on the way back, we were pleasantly accosted by these partridges on the road, taking a dust bath.

P.S. This blog was written at the express request of my friend, Krish

An added benefit of the trip was the incredible selfies galore :)

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

A Double Sunset

Apparently a Double Sunset is a rare astro-geographical phenomenon and on 23rd September 2015 at 5:55 pm, I took this beautiful picture of a Double Sunset from my bedroom window.

Photo taken by an LG G3 VS985 via the lgCamera App

It had been a lovely day, where the heavy rain from yesterday had really cooled the weather. With clouds puffing around all day, I had been pretty much glued to the sky, taking pictures quite frequently.

It was just a coincidence that I looked out the window, as the sun was about to set, and I saw what looked like Solar Flares to me, reaching us down here on earth:

Solar Flares
At this moment, the sun was obscured by the clouds, though you could see the sunbeams on the clouds above, and then within no time, the cloud split open and I was presented with this intense yellow patch. Loaded with my Cell phone I just zoomed in to grab these two pics:

Now I had heard about Double Sunsets being a stuff of legend, and had seen a couple of pictures on the internet, most of which seemed to have been Photoshopped. But lo and behold, there it was, right in front of me. I didn't panic and quickly zoomed to the maximum and took this pic:
A Real Double Sunset
It was slowly slipping into something else so I quickly took another one:

So that's how I got to capture this unique picture of a Double Sunset.

There is no trickery involved, no Photoshop and no smoke and mirrors. I was just lucky to have observed this phenomenon. I am not sure what caused it. But it seemed to last just a few seconds.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Pharwala Reckonings by Salman Rashid

I took him to Pharwala from a route he hadn't taken before, much to my amusement. The great SR is dis-oriented, I thought ! He had probably come to Pharwala earlier via an alternate route, which invloved a tedious trek of 3-5 kms on foot, since this road didn't exist 18 years ago. He was definitely pleased to see the Great Fort so up-close after such a long time.

SR scampering over the rock in the Soan River

Now there is not a place in Pakistan where Salman Rashid has not left his foot prints. Some of the places have been graced by him more than once. Having such a vast plethora of tales, he can start going into the itsy bitsy details, like mentioning the sixth finger of the Kotwal who blinded Kamran Mirza or how the weather must have been like when Babur first came to Pharwala.

It was indeed an honour to have accompanied him on this remarkable trip to Pharwala and albiet the fact that I was 'walking wounded', the pleasure was all mine !

SR shooting the Baygum Durwaaza - Naweed in the BG

Here is the account of the journey to Pharwala in the pen of the Master himself.


Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Pharwala Fort - قعلہ پھڑوالہ

The summers were at their peak in Islamabad. Salman Rashid had announced a couple of months earlier that he'd be coming to Islamabad in June for some official work and he'd be at my disposal in his free time. I had recently discovered a jeep-able track to the Bhamla Stupa on the Haro River, near the Khan Pur Dam, via the Margalla Hills and was writhing to show off my discovery to the Great Travel Writer (if not the greatest) of our land and time. But it just so happened that he was coming on a Sunday at 3 pm and we wouldn't have been able to make the journey in the limited time available. So we decided to go to the Pharwala Fort, yet another road discovered by me, that took you right up to the secluded Fort.

Pharwala Map

Now the Fort of Pharwala is located just 16 km from the Islamabad Highway, you take a left from the Pagh Chowk on to the Mehfooz Shaheed Road that was formerly called the Bhimber-Trar Road. This turning is by the way opposite the Lohi-Bher Park turning (a more renowned place). The single road for over 80% of the journey is pretty good and you can go at speeds over 60 kph with a few bumps and bad patches, reaching the destination in about 35 minutes, i.e., if you know the exact route at the end.

We were also going to be joined by a few friends from twitter, so I thought it best to do a bit of recce, so as not to look like a fool on the big day. So a day before the actual journey, I went to see the road and was able to reach the end point easily without much hassle. Just a few attempts of using the “chacha compass”, ie., asking directions from the locals and I was right there at the Fort, with just a rivulet of Soan to be crossed.

The Recce Pic

On the day, i.e, 14 June 2015, Noor chickened out and went to Lahore and we were only going to be joined by Pharahnaz and her husband Naveed. Now normally Salman Rashid is very punctual and meticulous about his travel timings, and I was to pick him from the Kashmir Highway at 3pm, take him up to my place for a quick change and then on to Pharwala, but he called me up at around 1:45 pm saying that he was getting off the Motor-Way and would be at the rendezvous point in 10 minutes. I was taking our dog with the kids for his final rabies shot. I tried to explain my address to the great Traveler, but he excused himself from listening to the intricacies of Islamabad’s map and decided to go to a friend’s place instead where I could pick him up after I finished. So I informed Pharahnaz about the early arrival and told her about the revised ETA.

An ancient tree at Bhimbar Trar

Salman Rashid (SR) met me with his singular guffaw, put the camera gear on the back seat and we were off. Pharahnaz and her husband Naveed (a retired Colonel with a big burly walrus moustache) joined us at the Karal Crossing and we were off. Now there is no place in Pakistan that SR has not visited, and he had written about Pharwala Fort in his book, "The Salt Range and the Potohar Plateau", a long time ago, but he also wanted to get some digital snaps of the Fort, or what was left of it. So we had to hurry, so as not to miss the light. That meant I had to drive like a rally car driver! And I did. We were flying away only to be held back to see Pharahnaz’s car in the rear view mirror. By 4 we were there. The Fort was just a couple of hundred meters across the canyon and there were many shallow points. So we parked our cars and set off to cross the river at its shallowest.

Being bestowed with great leadership qualities I quickly spotted a shallow part of the river which was very easily tread-able and guided everyone down to it. Even though the crossing was very easy and smooth, the soles of one of my old shoes came off as I slipped over a rock. Now I had seen the terrain the day before and had actually contemplated wearing my Mountain shoes, but brushed the idea aside since I wasn’t climbing K-2. Plus they were too heavy. I also didn’t want to ruin my brand new Nike trainers by wading thru the water, so I had decided to put on my old faithful pair of sneakers. Not caring much for the “lost sole”, I marched on. Now we had to climb a hill which was as steep as a cliff. The others easily trotted off while I straggled behind, panting and limping and huffing and puffing. Salman Rashid promptly set up his camera and was snapping away while Pharahnaz came back to check on me saying “are we tiring the mountain or the mountain tiring us”. I was too out of breath to respond and just smiled. Finally up at the top, some locals gathered around and told us that we had come the wrong way. The path "I" had chosen, took us to a steep gorge with the Fort beyond our reach. It was hot, I was tired and thirsty as hell. Yes we geniuses hadn’t thought of bringing any water along. Thanks to the local villagers, we got water and they also guided us to a path to reach the fort without having to go back the way we came.

The sweet water provided by the locals - And the Colonel's moustaches

The deep gorge shallowed out as it ran east and we descended it at a passable point, only to climb the other side of it and reach the fort. The first gate we came across was the famous Hathi Durwaaza (the Elephant Gate), named after the infamous Hathi Khan Gakhar (Babur calls him Hati Kakkar).

Across the Gorge

Salman Rashid

Now the story is that the great Pharwala Fort was constructed by Sultan Kaigohar Gakhar in the 11th century, but some say it was built over an existing Fort of the Hindu Shahiya period. At the start of 1519 the Gakhars were been ruled by Tataar Khan Gakhar and his nephew Hathi Khan Gakhar. Tataar ruled from Pharwala, while Hathi's strongholds were further into the mountains. Sultan Tataar Khan Gakhar, the father of the famous Gakhar Warrior Sultan Sarang Khan had accepted the authority of Daulat Khan, the governor of Lahore for the Sultan of Delhi, but Hathi did not. During Babur's first expedition into Hindustan in February-March 1519, Tataar, who had been blockading Hathi, was ambushed by his nephew and poisoned to death. Hathi Khan now took over the command of the fort and became the sole leader of the Gakhars. Salman Rashid tells us that Hathi Khan was so tall that his head was visible above all his horsemen.

It was the Janjuas who bad-mouthed Hathi Khan to Babur, who came to Pharwala (Parhala in Baburnama) on 18th March 1519 and conquered it, with Hathi Khan escaping from the Nort-Western Gate. He later acquiesced to Babur and the Gakhars became the allies of the Mughals for all times to come.

Hathi Khan Gakhar was the first ruler to rise from among the Gakhars to establish a dynasty, which he did by defeating the Janjua Rajputs of the region and driving them away from the present tehsils of Kallar Syedan, Kahuta and Rawalpindi. The fort they say, was completely renovated by Hathi Khan and was the seat of the power of the Gakhars, up until Sultan Sarang Khan moved to Rawat in the 1530s. Sultan Sarang Khan was later flayed alive by Sher Shah Suri for siding with the Mughals and all his sons and nephews, save one, were killed. The 16 sons and nephews along with Sultan Sarang Khan are buried in the caravan-serai at Rawat.

Apparently the Gakhars had converted to Islam by then and we find the oldest mosque of the region just across the river near the village of Bagh Jogian, known to have been built by Mai Qamro, Hathi Khan’s Wife.

Just as we were trying to photograph the Hathi Durwaaza, it started to rain. Clouds had miraculously gathered over the Fort, as if to provide the much needed relief from the heat, though much to the dismay of Salman Rashid who’d lost his light ! We later found out that it had rained just over the fort, in fact just around the Hathi Durwaza. Our cars parked just 500 meters away were totally dry.

The Side Rooms of the Hathi Durwaza being used as a granary

So we sat under the Gate as the downpour lasted a good 20 minutes and we were joined by a local lad who told me with great confidence that the fort had been built by the Emperor Akbar the Great. The Gate being in a pretty dilapidated form, was still being used as a granary. As soon as the rain ended, the clouds began to disappear and the sun came out and Salman Rashid bet his Mule, that we were going to get a rainbow, and voila, we did.

Hathi Durwaza & the Rainbow

The rain had really taken its toll on the time and we hurriedly tried to get some pics of the Baygum Durwaaza (the Queen’s Gate) on the north western side, just above the river. The local lad led us up to the Baygum Durwaaza, taking us through the Soan Durwaaza, into the settlement inside the fort, and up to the Baygum Durwaaza.

By the time we headed back, the soles of both my shoes had come off and I was virtually walking barefoot. Coming down the rocky hill with jagged edges became a nightmare and I was forced to improvise a quick and dirty solution.

Salman Rashid at the Baygum Durwaaza
Baygum Durwaza

The Sun was really low and the clouds were making spectacular patterns on the sky. As I crossed the river, I was just overawed by the beauty of all that surrounded me and took to taking quite a few snaps of my own.

Naveed then announced that they had some special Patties and other eatables in their car and if I didn’t join them soon, they would not be able to ensure my share being available. With this wake-up call I promptly got up and soon took them over.

The journey had come to an end. We stopped on the way at a “Driver Hotel” and enjoyed the Patties with a Cup of Tea. Speeding back we saw magnificent glimpses of the Korang Stream before we reached the Islamabad highway and bid farewell to Pharahnaz and the Colonel.

What really troubled me was that the Fort’s remaining walls were being cannibalized into making the homes for the locals. Though they were the original descendants of the Gakhars living there, I saw no attachment of the locals with the place or any hint of preserving this beautiful place.

Looking South down the Soan Valley

P.S. The Naval Anchorage goes up to almost the mid-way point of the road to Pharwala and I am sure pretty soon, it would become more accessible.

P.P.S. All pics were taken with my LG G3 Phone, and enhanced with SnapSeed. Please feel free to use these pics! Hate morons who inscribe their names on pics.

This is how I managed to walk

Yours Truly in the River