Known as one of the oldest living cities of South Asia, Peshawar is famous for its shady boulevards and heavenly sunsets against the towering Tatara Mountains.

Derived from Sanskrit word “Pushpaur”, Peshawar means the city of flowers.

According to noted archeologist and historian, Professor Fidaullah Sehrai, “It was the second capital of Gandhara during the days of Kushan emperor Kanishka in 78AD. Kanishka planted the sapling of Bodhi (banyan) tree in Peshawar, under which Buddha achieved enlightenment at Bodh Gaya in India”.

The Chinese pilgrim Sungyun writes, “It was a tree whose branches spread out on all sides and whose foliage shut out the sight of sky”.

Kanishka constructed the tallest stupa (400 feet) over the relics of Buddha at Shahji ki Dheri. The relics of Buddha in the form of three fragments of his bone were found here.

Olaf Caroe writes in ‘The Pathans’ [1958] “…Kanishka had developed a golden age of Buddhism that famous Chinese pilgrims Fa-Hien and Hiuen-Tsang later made it one of the bournes of their pilgrimage. Outside the Ganj gate (King’s mound) was discovered in 1909, that remarkable relic casket of Kanishka by Dr D B Spooner, curator of Peshawar Museum.”

No wonder then that various travellers, historians and writers from the 6th century BC onwards have waxed eloquent about Peshawar’s myriad wonders. ‘The gateway to Central Asia’, ‘Melting pot of civilisations’, ‘Paris of the Pathans’, ‘Gateway to East and West’, ‘A city steeped in romance of history’, ‘Casablanca of the East’, are just a few names accorded to the city since Herodotus and early Buddhist travellers traversed its fragrant gardens, orchards and streams.

‘Baburnama’ extensively describes its varied flora and fauna and mild climate. These find exquisite descriptions in dairies and memoirs written by Mountstuart Elphinstone, Alexander Burne and Raverty.

Mountstuart Elphinstone, a Scottish statesman and historian associated with the government of British India, describes the splendour of Shah Shuja’s court in 1809 thus, “The view from the hall was beautiful. Immediately below was an extensive garden, full of cypresses and other trees, and beyond was a plain of richest verdure; here and there were shining streams…. Our evenings were not less delightful, when we went out among the gardens round the city, admired the richness and repose contrasted with the gloomy magnificence of the surrounding mountains, some dark others covered with snow, we enjoyed the quiet sunshine of the plain”.

This city of gardens and flowers of the Mughal period was ransacked and burnt by Ranjit Singh’s hordes. The famed Ali Mardan, Shahi Bagh and Shalimar gardens ruthlessly mowed down. The British restored some of its bygone glory with tree-lined boulevards and gardens, and the colonial architecture in Cantonment gradually began to lend a majestic grace to the traditional architecture of the Walled City.

After Partition in 1947, what once was a cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic and variegated culture was robbed of its rich past, when rich Hindu and Sikh families with properties in the Cantonment and the Walled City fled to make way for a new breed of evacuee property grabbers. Big businesses and palatial bungalows changed owners overnight.

Yet some heritage jewels remained hidden from prying eyes despite the ravages of time.

Some top Bollywood icons belonged to this historic city. Inside the Walled City, Dilip Kumar’s home is on the verge of collapse, Shah Rukh Khan’s ancestral home in Mohallah Khudadad still exists, Prithvi Raj Kapoor’s imposing haveli ‘Kapoor House’ in Dhaki Munawar Shah, Asamai Gate may fall prey to property developers; one of Anil Kapoor’s two homes still stands and Kamini Kaushal’s palatial ancestral haveli was recently pulled down in the nearby Kohat city.

After the mass exodus of old residents from the Walled City to the suburbs in the early 1980s, followed by the war on terror, most of the heritage landmarks of the bygone period have been erased. The grand Landsdown Theatre (renamed Falaksair) belonging to the famous Sardar Kirpal Singh family was pulled down recently by the land grabbing mafia. A tacky plaza stands there today. Majestic Dean’s Hotel met the same fate a decade ago. However, Capitol Cinema, the last vestige of that romantic period remains, but its fate is sealed if efforts are not made to conserve it.

Godin and Sons, the earliest gramophone and piano shop dating 1920 and the ornate Medicos dating even earlier disappeared only this year.

The Gandhara period banyan trees at Pipal Mandi and Ander Shehr were mowed down in the mid 1970s.

In these troubled times where security issues dominate, Tourism Corporation Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (TCKP) is striving to restore the intangible heritage and culture. TCKP has been on the forefront in holding several cultural events and folk festivals. But the larger picture of conservation remains a distant goal, though the 18th Amendment and devolution of culture department to provinces should make this task easier if taken seriously.

“Such was Peshawar in the days of royal glory. Every stone, every rafter, every tree of all this beauty was destroyed by the Sikhs. But the English who followed the Sikhashahi strove to make Peshawar once more a city of gardens, though with a suburban, not a stately taste. Working as best they knew, they remade a tradition which Pakistan must have the will to preserve”, writes Olaf Caroe in ‘The Pathans’.

It must be kept in mind that Peshawar’s 3000 year history cannot be sacrificed at the altar of money-making, destructive projects and jihadi wars.

The writer is the founding member of Sarhad Conservation Network and Citizens for Clean Environment, Peshawar. Email










With the advent of modernity, the society is faced with a dilemma of striking a balance between change and continuity. Change demands adoption of new mediums at the expense of traditional ones through which historical memory and literary sensibilities were expressed.

So strong were the winds of change that even the culture and literature of Gilgit could not be saved.

Shina is one of the major languages of Gilgit-Baltistan that is facing the dominance of written culture. The literate people of Shina language opted for the written word; thereby, causing rupture from traditional mediums of oral culture and literature.

However, introduction of Shina on the airwaves of radio has provided an apt medium to transmit and disseminate literary works orally.

Among the various genres of modern Shina literature, drama has played a vital role in the formation of discourse about self, society, religion and culture of a society that was on the cusp of change. The book ‘The Meeting Place (Bayaak)’ is comprised of seven features written by Mohammad Amin Zia for Radio Pakistan in the mid-1980s.

Mohammad Amin Zia belongs to a generation that has experienced both cultures of orality and writing. He is a well-known teacher, poet and writer of Gilgit-Baltistan. To his credit, Amin Zia has authored eight books on grammar, indigenous literature and wisdom, poetry and linguistics.

Introductory section of the book discusses the context, limitation, and brief history of the Shina programme on radio and setting of features. However, it is too short to provide the socio-economic, political and cultural context that underpins the features in ‘The Meeting Place’. A close reading in relation to its time clearly reveals the ideological context within which the institutions operated and discourse of social change took place.

It was a period when General Ziaul Haq tried to change ideological moorings of the state and society.

All the features revolve around three dramatis personae Tranpha, Taaj and Maastar Saap. They are not complex characters. The space in all features remains static as the characters gather in a public place called Bayaak (the meeting place) in Shina language. Time in the feature is ubiquitous only by its absence. The characters are representatives of a mindset particular to old and new generation. Tranpha represents traditional power and values, whereas the Taaj stands for rebellious youth. Tranpha has antipathy for modern spaces and things like bazaars, restaurants, alleys, cinemas and means of communication.

Whenever a debate reaches a point of confrontation, a teacher named Ustad appears to make a rapprochement between the contesting parties. At times, the abrupt appearance of the teacher in different scenes and the quick solutions he offers to intractable issues appears to be an act of deus ex machina. Perhaps the medium of radio imposed restrictions on the writer to give more time and thought to fully develop flat dramatis personae into round characters.

A recurrent leitmotif in all the seven features of the book is tension between tradition and modernity. Even the very space, where debates about tradition and modernity take place, belongs to traditional space and power. The very space for public discourse is threatened by encroaching modernity in the shape of rapid urbanisation and creeping consumer culture in the private domain. There is a paradox of place and themes as all themes of the features are related to urban issues, whereas the public space Bayaak is a space typical of a traditional village.

This space did not survive the rapid urbanisation of Gilgit. It is not clear why issues of urbanity are discussed in a traditional space of a village.

Dialogues between individual characters in the book epitomise the overall situation of a society that has lost the indigenous worldview on one hand, and cannot make sense of the modern order of things on the other. To avoid ‘meta-physical’ pathos of losing old certainties and inability to create new meaning in a new order, it resorts to religion for rescue. Whenever the characters face insolvable situation or crisis of meaning, they seek guidance by alluding to religious tradition and books.

With the disappearance of old ways of life, the very meaning of the same act mutates. One of the beautifully-dealt themes in the book is related to inversion of morality when an everyday cultural practice of yesterday falls into disrepute because of chance of cultural ethos in modern age. Traditionally, it was considered bad manners to call at somebody’s without a gift. Now it is viewed as act of greasing the palm.

All the features are peppered with references to the Quran, Hadith and anecdotes from religious history. This is not to say that the writer is inculcating conservatism, but to highlight reasons for dominance of religion in a society that operates in an ideological vacuum. Similarly, it depicts the process through which creativity sublimates in a state of censorship. ‘The Meeting Place’ is written in a period when Gilgit did not have local newspapers and facility of TV. In the absence of alternate mediums, radio proved an instrumental tool to express ideas within the confines of state censorship.

A salient feature of the book is that most of the similes and metaphors are derived from animals and birds’ kingdom. Even when the characters are in lighthearted mood they try to illustrate a point or situation by referring to animals. For example, Taaj quips at Tranpha on his arrival in Bayaak, “It seems you have come as a duckling isolated from the flock today”.

At points the book problematises historiography of the war of independence of Gilgit-Baltistan and points at ruptures in dialogue between old and new generations. Overall the book gives the impression that the dialogue for change is stifled by new stakeholders of power who try to provide legitimacy to their role in the new configuration of power in the garb of religion.

The writer has rendered idiomatic Shina into simple English. For Shina speakers the straightjacket of translating process becomes palpable in different sections of the book, but introduction, grammatical analysis, phonetic script of Shina text and interlinear analysis by Georg Buddruss and Almuth Degener proved helpful in overcoming this hindrance.

For general readers who are not familiar with Shina language, a list of glossary is provided in the end.

In the feature titled ‘International Year of Youth’ Taaj is consistently misspelled Taa.

Shina language does not have a strong tradition of prose. In the absence of such a base of prose in Shina, the writer unconsciously relies upon Urdu diction. There are points where unnecessary Urdu words have been inserted into dialogues. It should not be deemed as writer’s personal predilection; rather it is symptomatic of a general trend in Gilgit where Urdu has become lingua franca during the last three decades. Publication of ‘The Meeting Place (Bayaak)’ is an important step because it retrieves a genre from audio archives and provides readers of another generation an opportunity to get insights into the socio-economic, political and cultural undercurrents that have shaped what is Gilgit today — a cauldron of sectarian violence.

The writer is a social scientist from Gilgit. Email:

The Meeting Place

By Muhammad Amin Zia & Almuth Degener

Editor: Georg Buddruss

Publisher: Harrassowitz Wiesbaden,

Germany, 2012

Pages: 308

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