Three British-era cemeteries in Khyber Pass ought to be notified as threatened monuments and included in the list of protected national heritage sites
By Dr Ali Jan
The legendary Khyber Pass in the North West Frontier of Pakistan is the most famous passageway in the Himalayas. No other pass in the world has possessed such strategic importance or retains so many historic associations and romance as this gateway. It is the fabled ancient route that led into Afghanistan from the British India of yore and it was in this rugged terrain of slate and rock that the actual strategies of the 'Great Game' of Imperial conquest were played out and where several battles of the Anglo-Afghan Wars of 1839-42, 1879-80 and 1919 were fought. Carved on rocks, alongside the road are numerous military crests which remind visitors of the many battalions that once passed through here a long time ago.
The pass is 33 miles long and lies in the 'forbidden' Tribal Territory mainly inhabited by the warlike Pakhtun tribes like Afridi and Shinwari. The plains of Peshawar in Pakistan stretch from its eastern mouth, and those of Jalalabad in Afghanistan from the western. The pass itself begins at Jamrud where a symbolic gateway (Bab-e-Khyber, constructed in 1963) stands on the main road about ten miles north west of Peshawar and twists through the hills for about 33 miles and ends near Dakka. The most important points en route are: Ali Masjid ten miles from Jamrud, Landi Kotal, the summit of the pass ten miles further, and Torkham at which point the pass enters Afghan territory.
Three old British-era cemeteries have survived in Khyber Pass in one form or the other and are a poignant reminder of the British lives lost in the tribal region. These are Jamrud Cemetery (near Jamrud Fort about 11 miles from Peshawar. Now almost non-existent), Ali Masjid Cemetery (near Ali Masjid Mosque and Fort. It has six surviving graves of English soldiers in a dilapidated state) and lastly Landi Kotal Cemetery (near the Khyber Rifles Mess at Landi Kotal cantonment)
The cemetery at Landi Kotal is the largest of the three English burial-grounds in the Khyber Pass and is approachable by road from Peshawar. It is accessible by railway as well. However, the 'Khyber Steam Safari' which is an internationally known and famous tourist attraction is temporarily suspended these days due to the prevailing regional security situation. Moreover, the historical rail track that got damaged at a few places as a result of floods last year has regrettably still not been repaired by the authorities concerned.
A general interest in travel and history, pepped up by a desire to add this cemetery to an extensive database I maintain of burial records of cemeteries in Pakistan prompted me to undertake a journey to Landi Kotal. I first arrived at the famed Khyber Rifles Mess. Even during the British period, their headquarter was at Landi Kotal as is now. The three main Khyber Rifles garrisons were Landi Kotal at the western end of the Pass, Fort Maude to the east and Ali Masjid in the middle.
I learned that the cemetery was closeby, at walking distance. While its main gate is kept locked by order of the Diocese of Peshawar, however, fortunately a Christian family that looks after a small chapel behind the Khyber Rifles' Mess had a spare key. Couple of members of this family work in the Photography Section at the Mess. They are cooperative and can be easily reached there if one wants to visit the graveyard.
The cemetery itself is about the size of a soccer field. Its burials date mainly from 1879-80 (Second Afghan War) and 1898 (Tirah Campaign and Afridi uprisings 1896-1898) and 1919 (Third Afghan War). Many regiments and battalions are represented here. Two stone obelisks stand in the middle, each bearing a plaque. The inscription on one is almost faded and the other records: "Sacred to the memory of the British soldiers of all ranks who lie buried near this spot 187 of whom died at Landi Kotal from the result of wounds received in action and from disease during the Afghan Campaign of 1879-80 and the remainder since the reoccupation of the Khyber in 1898."
The older graves lying towards the far end are unfortunately not very well-preserved and sometimes it is not even possible to tell who is buried underneath. Many headstones have disappeared altogether. At few places, piles of rocks mark the broken stumps where perhaps crosses had once stood. Presence of a few recent burials indicates the cemetery is still in use by a small settled community of Christians.
The newer graves dating from 1898 onwards which are closer to the entrance, are in a relatively better-preserved state. A good number of them belong to the soldiers of 2nd battalion of the Oxford Light Infantry (O.L.I.), and they appear to have been restored by that unit in more recent times. This battalion had lost many young soldiers particularly during the Tirah Campaign 1897-98. For instance, on Dec 30, 1897, the 2nd O.L.I. was ambushed at a village near Landi Kotal. It sustained heavy casualties and the military annals record that it fought a "fighting retreat to extricate itself from a closing trap."
Interviews with a Christian family that looks after the Landi Kotal cemetery revealed that there has been no funding from any quarter for its upkeep in the last two or three decades and therefore the cemetery has gone into gradual decline. It is a real pity considering this is one of the most important cemeteries in the North West Frontier from both historical and tourism points of view and is invaluable for family history research as well.
The Khyber Pass cemeteries ought to be notified as threatened monuments and they must be included in the list of protected national heritage sites under the Federal Antiquity Act of 1975. Besides local initiatives by Frontier Corps and Khyber Rifles, the British and Pakistan governments and their agencies need to play a more proactive role in their upkeep. Moreover, the involvement of national and international NGOs in their conservation is also necessary to seek a broader base of support. It is essential to preserve all such surviving Victorian-era cemeteries in the Frontier region before it is too late, as in another few years these irreplaceable landmarks and memorials might be lost forever due to sheer neglect.
The 550-km long Balochistan Coastal Highway that connects Karachi to Gwadar is laden with light brown coloured majestic mountains and green coloured beautiful beaches that remind one of Sri Lanka.
In between one finds patches of china clay rocks washed by rain in surrealistic shapes. It seems as if one is witnessing Egyptian pyramids. It is probably the archeology department that has affixed a board on one of such structures and it has been named as 'Princess of Hope' and it seems to be carved by great sculptor.
At 157km from Uthal in Balochistan province one finds Hingol National Park, the largest national park in Pakistan with a sign board: 'Conserve wildlife'. There is Hingol River with greenish water flickering in sunlight as if stars are twinkling in the sky. A lone flamingo tastes the unpolluted water and flies to an unknown destination.
Then comes Kund Malir with bunches of date palm trees and sand dunes along the mighty Arabian Sea that dots the entire Balochistan Coast. On one side of the road is located a small village with about a dozen small, concrete houses with a perspective of tall mountains as if they are protecting the villagers from rough weather and intrusion by aliens.
Abdul Hameed, 26, a fisherman at Hangol Kund Malir fish market proudly narrates that there are 100 boats in the area and thousand of fisherfolk earn their livelihood through fishery.
"Sometimes the daily catch is about one million rupees but on lean days it may drop to 2000 rupees," he said.
"The catch is transported from Hangol Kund Malir fish market to Damb and Sonmiani in Balochistan and from there it is shifted to Karachi Fish Harbour," he said.
Nature has bestowed Balochistan with oil, gas, uranium, gold, copper and other metallic and non-metallic treasures but sadly enough it has not improved the lot of the poor but very proud people of this land.
Along the road one finds graffiti in favour of slain Pakistan People's Party Chairperson Benazir Bhutto, quite an unusual site in a province that has been harbouring resentment against that party and the federation since 1973 when a military operation was conducted against an impoverished people in the era of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
Though one do not witness separatist graffiti on the Balochistan Coastal Highway one does find a slogan of 'BLA' (Balochistan Liberation Army) at one of the milestone indicating it does exist in the province.
After traversing miles of barren land one is amazed when one reaches Gwadar where a new city has emerged amid opposition from the local population that fears it would become a minority on its own land due to internal migration.
Pearl Continental Hotel sits on the top of a hill from where one can see the entire Gwadar City along the mighty and majestic Arabian Sea. The bazaars in the city are full of Iranian goods and gas stations sell Iranian petroleum at a slightly higher price than that in Karachi. Even electricity to the city is supplied from Iran.
Along the beach have cropped up many decent motels that offer good food and accommodation to tourists but the plight of locals have not changed.
"The entire Balochistan depends on the sea. There are no jobs here except fishing," said Majid, 30, a boat-maker.
He said a boat costs 180,000 rupees and 11-12 boats are made in Gwadar every day.
"I am not educated because there is no such facility here but I earn 50,000-60,000 rupees every three months through boat-making," he said. "Three craftsmen are needed to make a boat and about 250 people are involved in this profession in Gwadar."