By the banks of
It's snowing in Murree and the heart is melting
Weather is a great metaphor for life -- sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad, and there's little you can do but carry an umbrella. Or you can opt for Murree and its all-weather beauty and balm for the troubled Pakistani soul
By Adnan Rehmat
Murree is probably Pakistan's favourite all-weather hill station. In the summers it gets crowded by people seeking to beat the heat of the plains. The cool scent of pines and the wheezing breeze feel like a soothing balm on tired sores. In the winters there's the same crowd but for a different reason: the snow. Heaps of it; a layer of white on all layers of all colours… on trees and hills and houses and roads.
Come winter and a mass of people of the plains, mostly hordes from Punjab's north and central belt, make a beeline for what is popularly christened as the 'Queen of the Hills'. Make no mistake, Murree in the winter serves as the poor man's Switzerland. The rich man, of course, maintains strategically located - mostly off-road and off-the-beaten-track - bungalows and cabins with sloping roofs and logged fireplaces, terraced and winding tracks leading to them from the main roads. For them public is not a delight; their pleasure is private.
Murree is also where you take your wife to for the honeymoon (if you live within 500 miles of the station) whether immediately after the nuptials (to light up the nascent flame of love), or even 10 or 20 years after, to relive a youth slipping by like water through your fingers and to light up a fire going dim inside you both. You can pick out the new couples in winter Murree straight away; their woollies and jackets are new and bright colours always slip out of corners to defy the drab dull shades of their overalls. Many are not shy to hold hands and their steps are pregnant with purpose. Their measured gait is akin to drawing a map for found lovers, the snow and the cold acting as an antidote to runaway passions.
The snows fell unusually late this year in Murree, prolonging the mad rush that inevitably follows when everyone and their aunts make a beeline for the hill station. A fortnight ago, my friends and I decided to make the annual pilgrimage from our life's station in Islamabad to the snows of Murree. The weekend sky was deliciously overcast, the swirling grey clouds pregnant with the possibility of snow falling during the day also.
The drive to Murree takes barely an hour, the distance being hardly 50 km although the option of a 30-minute pause for freshly-made spicy pakoras in one of the dozen 'mid-way' stopovers to snow land is one that is usually availed.
Four-fifths of the way up to Murree, nestling 7,500 feet above the sea level, there was no snow and we started to suspect that the news was false and that the TV channels had run old footage. But in the last 15 minutes, before hitting town, the snows became visible, growing in spread, thickness and piles all around us.
Everything was white as we swept into town. We deliberately chose to avoid central Murree between what's called the 'Pindi Point' and 'Kashmir Point' because it is uncomfortably crowded with too many people trying to negotiate too many slopes and bends with crowded shops selling interesting trinkets and souvenirs that hold charm for only the first few timers of Murree.
The town part of Murree was built in line with early European cities, complete with a church at its centre and The Mall nearby. Sure enough, The Mall in Murree is there as a reminder of the alien rulers of yore, running along commercial spaces and administrative offices. As it was in the run up to the Partition in 1947 it is still now the centre of attraction for tourists, although until August of that year natives were not allowed in this part. As far as traffic and people go, it's different today. The Mall in Murree is a favourite of women (a large number of them out of their hometowns for the first time with the new men in their lives) because of the shopping options. And because of the huge number of women and girls, the boys from the plains beyond Islamabad abound. Unless you're hormonally driven and are adept at mixing the reckless with the chill, this place is best steered clear of. Which is what we did although I guess that proves our gang was old at heart, even if not age-wise…
Away from the crowds and the snow takes centerstage in Murree in winters. As we slipped through the maze of winding tracks and away from the madding crowd of The Mall and its crass eateries, breathtaking beauty grew around us. Sad-voiced ravens shivering atop pines accentuated the haunting beauty of the snow somehow. Terraced slopes of the hills supporting stilted and slope-roofed bungalows, whose designs have not changed too much from the days of the Raj colonial era, added a touch of poignancy, I thought.
Murree was developed by the British as a recuperation station - one of several in the foothills of the Himalayas - for its officers and troops feeling suppressed by the heat of the plains as they grew hot under the collar. This served as the summer capital until a new one at Simla in present-day India became a summer station of greater import in 1875. I thought of all those colonial officers and their memsahibs sipping their tea in the breezy summers on the patios of the still-green roofed bungalows. And all of a sudden the cold didn't seem unbearable. Maybe it was nostalgia for something I paradoxically never lost. Or maybe it was the blood in my veins warming up with my friends and I negotiating the slippery slopes in our stride now, our tread softly breaking the stillness.
I don't quite like winters but it's difficult to treat snow with a sneer. After about two hours of mixing with the snow I realized why it appeals to nearly all: it doesn't give a soft white damn whom it touches and you can't help but think all the falling snow could be unassembled snowmen. As my shoes gave up its stiff resistance to the cold and snow and the feet grew wet, it didn't seem to provoke the angry response of withdrawal. An inner peace shaped up, the sharp edges of my everyday routine dulled. As we made our tired but reluctant descent to Islamabad and the last of the snows melted into an inky darkness, I couldn't help wondering where does the white go when the magical snows melt.
No one in this country gives a damn about the significance of historical monuments -- as opposed to India, where apparently the Department of Archaeology is wide awake on the issue
By Salman Rashid
Years ago, when he was still alive, my uncle Dr Habib ur Rahman once told me that he and his cousins used to cycle out from Uggi (our ancestral village in Jalandhar) to the Bien, a small stream. It was only a few kilometres away and they would spend their summer days swimming in its pellucid waters and picnicking on its sandy banks.
On my last visit to Uggi, I asked Bakhshish Singh to take us to the river. Now Bakhshish, in his early 30s, tall and very good-looking is a mona Sikh, while his father, the venerable Saudagar Singh, large-boned and bewhiskered, keeps the tradition of the great Guru Nanak alive. Back in March 2008, my first ever visit across the border, I was introduced to Bakhshish by the good Gurmeet Singh who looks after the Desh Bhagat Hall in Jalandhar (of this at another time). Bakhshish took me home to show me the village of my ancestors. It turned out that this family and I, they Kamboh and I Arain by caste, were kinsfolk from a distant past.
So the last time we were in Uggi, we stayed with them and I asked Bakhshish to see the river where my uncle went swimming as a teenager. Sadly, the story of the Bien is no different from so many such rivers in our part of the subcontinent: it is now a sewer. Gone are the birds that fed by its banks and the fish that swam in its limpid waters, gone too are young picnickers and anglers. The Bien is dead.
While there, Bakhshish said we might as well check out Jehangir. Not far from the banks of the Bien, Jehangir was a fort built by the fourth Mughal king. We parked in village Malhi and there on the far side of the stream were the high walls of the fort spiked with scaffolding. Past the lofty main entrance, we entered a broad compound and I immediately knew this was no fort; it was a caravanserai because we were on the old alignment of the Grand Trunk Road. Stylistically, it seemed to belong to Jehangir's period.
Adopting an architectural style predating their arrival in the subcontinent, the Mughals favoured the fortified serai. This was handy, for one, such a serai could house a detachment of soldiers for security. As well as that, once it was closed for the night, there was little chance of marauders getting in to plunder.
Arranged along the four cardinal points with the entrance in the east wall and another gateway to the west, the four walls were neatly lined with rooms. Some hundred and ten in all, they served as overnight accommodation for travellers. A small mosque of very fine construction sat in the southwest quadrangle of the compound. The mosque was in good fettle, but the travellers' rooms had nearly all collapsed at some distant point in time. What I found singularly remarkable was the well-kept garden inside the serai. It was apparent that the Indian Department of Archaeology was wide awake and looking after its historical monuments.
Indeed, we were the only visitors in Jehangir on that particular day. The host of men in the serai were engineers and labourers working on the restoration of the ruined rooms. Those along the north wall, all 30 odd of them, were almost complete and this was a bit of a record because Bakhshish said work had commenced in the spring of 2009 (we were there in December). If this is something to go by, the Indians are actually serious about preserving their built heritage.
This brought a sad thought to my mind. I have seen dozens of historical monuments across the length and breadth of this country ruthlessly being torn down and consigned to oblivion by ordinary people. I have written about them, nothing has ever happened. I have appealed to officers of the concerned department, even director generals of archaeology and nothing has happened. No one seems to care. They all like to be in the seat, getting their salaries and driving around in official cars to do nothing but make laws about prohibiting photography. If there is some lunatic in the provincial or federal departments of archaeology who cares, he is very likely dismissed as a madcap to be ignored.
I say this on good authority. In March 2009, I visited Serai Mughal, less than 30 kilometres south of Lahore along N-5. Dating back to Akbar's period, this fortified serai is now a village. The travellers' rooms are incorporated into people's homes and everyone is demolishing this or that part of the historical serai to add additional rooms to their homes as they see fit.
That is not the only one. Shergarh Fort where the great Mir Chakar Khan Rind took refuge in the 16th century is now a bustling village. The fort of Hyderabad in Sindh is as if it has been attacked by locusts. The list is endless. This steady and anarchic take over of historical monuments by ordinary citizens should have been stopped when it began 62 years ago. But because the government was asleep and has remained so in the past six decades, people now know they can get away with bloody murder. If things carry on like this Rohtas will soon be taken over by the village that is steadily expanding within its walls.
One case in point is the ruined city of Pushkalavati outside Charsadda. The excavation has been destroyed by local villagers, and everyone has his own private dig on the huge site. Everyone is busily plundering the 3000-year-old mound to sell the statues to eager foreigners. What I had seen in 1994 is now lost forever. Such a manifest case of the ineffectiveness of the government cannot be seen in any country. Not even Sudan, I am certain.
Indeed, the Jehangir period serai of Rajo Pind across the Kahan River from Rohtas has already been taken over. Sadly, one of its two mosques was torn down some years ago to be replaced by a bathroom tile model. The other one is used as a byre. No one who lives within its walls gives a damn about its historical significance. But they are only ignorant rustics who have long been fed only untruths in the name of ideology. The real culprits are the federal Department of Archaeology whose director general needs to be lynched.
Other than the well-known monuments in Pakistan, there is hardly any that has not been taken over. I am not sure if such a thing has been permitted in India as well. If it has happened, it must be as rare as the monument that we managed to preserve in Pakistan. Instead of always looking upon India as an enemy, we should start learning some few things from them.