Khyber Kaleidoscope

World-famed Khyber Pass, the scene of so many deeds, the witness of so. many significant events, so rich in memories of every age. 

Khyber Pass, one of the great conduits of the world, connects South Asian lands to the vast stretches of Central Asia and beyond. Arena of some of the fiercest resistance in history,it is inhabited by the Afridi tribe. Their adobe villages are built like fortresses complete with watch-towers. This architecture speaks imposingly of jealously-guarded privacy, the insecurity that prevails, inter-tribal rivalries and fierce independence. Time and again outsiders have paid a heavy price. During the Sikh.period, the Khalsa rule never extended beyond jamrud which was reached in 1836. The British dared to tread the Pass during the First Afghan War. Captain Wade with 10,000 to 12,000 men with 2 field guns paid for the incursion with 22 dead and 158 wounded. The Afridis had only 509 jazails / "muskets." Similar incidents continued during the Raj and the Khyber saw some major disasters for the British. Between Shagai and Ali Masjid, on the left of the' road, is an enclosed British cemetery. It reminds the visitor of the Second Afghan War and the famous battle of Ali Masjid, fought in 1878. During the 1897 disturbances, the Khyber Pass was a source of special concern. Afridi attacks and the stubborn defence by the Khyber Rifles, an irregular corps of militia, spoke volumes for both sides. British campaigns and regiments, which manned the fort and the many pickets on the route, are commemorated by insignias Gordon Highlanders, South Wales Borderers, Royal Sussex, Cheshire and Dorest regiments - carved and painted on rocks. Terrain and tribe, collective courage and individual heroism combine to give this Pass its legendary status.

The Bab-i Khyber/Khyber Gate built in the 1960's, marks the beginning of the Pass. It was here, in 1948, that the Father of the Nation, Muhammad Ali Jinnah proclaimed Pakistan's policy for the tribal areas, which transformed the hostile tribes into patriotic citizens of a new state. The Pass begins in the picturesque Valley of Peshawar at jamrud where the mud-walled fort looks, from a distance, like a "battleship sailing across the stony waste." Extending for about 35 miles from Torkham to Jamrud, the Pass is actually the 25-milestretch between Landi Kotal and the Shadi Bagiari village and meanders through "stark and grim"4 hills which seem "barren spiky, cruel. ..as if.. .only half created". The complete barrenness of the hills under the summer sun shimmers and shivers in the yellow heat which intensifies the aridity. Yet according to Afridi legends, these hills were once covered with trees and the climate was far more pleasant. Now however, the temperature in midsummer can rise upto 115°F and the air can be particularly hot and dry. 

The Pass with the gradient of one in fifty, on an average of 2%, has four distinct stages. The initial stage is the steep rise from Jamrud, with its fort built by the Sikh General Hari Singh Nalwa in 1836, to Shahgai. With characteristic Sikh optimism the new fort was named "Futtehghur" / "Fort of Victory". As Governor of Peshawar, he fought his last battle here and was killed in the western gate by a Mullagori tribesman. Nalwa's ashes are entombed in the white structure visible near the outer battlements. Burnes visiting it during 1836-1838 in the company of another general of the Sikh army, Avitabile, wryly observed that "in reality it was the scene of defeat", and that "although some months had elapsed since the battle, the effluvia from the dead bodies, both of men and horses, were quite revolting". At Shagai the British-Indian Artillery sappers and miners erected the fort in 1928-1929 to command the approaches from Tirah.The second stage is the level stretch along the Shagai Bridge through the narrow gorge guarded by the high Ali Masjid Fort. The Fort stands on a limestone crag overlooking the mosque after which the whole area is named. Here toe tough battle of 1878 was fought. The third section is the ascent of the Khyber Valley to the summit at Landi Kotal. The final stretch is the steep drop from Landi Kotal. Here the Michni Post presents the most panoramic view of the Durand Line or the Afghan border,towards which the road winds its way. Here the prison of Taimur, or Tamerlane, can also be seen in the near distance. The Pass, some thirty miles long from the plains of Afghanistan to the fertile valley of Peshawar, rises about 3,500 ft.

This torturous route had been traversed by men and beast by caravans and merchants since times unrecorded. During the campaign of summer 1581, Emperor Akbar's chief engineer, Qasim Khan, first built a road through the Khyber Pass that was practicable for vehicles. "A road hard to negotiate even by horses and camels", says Abdul Fazal in the Ain-i Akbari. "After Qasim Khan's improvements [it] could be passed with eaSe by wheeled carriages". This was the alignment followed when the road was rebuilt almost three and a half centuries later.

In the mid-nineteenth century the theatre and threat of war in Central Asia obliged the British to safeguard the north-western peripheries of their empire. The Pass, being crucial to their strategy, was given serious thought. Prompted by Russian advances in Central Asia, the British in India adopted the "Forward Policy" to check them. The Durand Line had been negotiated and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa secured against any Russian adventurism beyond the buffer emirate of Afghanistan. The Great Game had begun decades earlier. Now it began to be accorded due attention. The Industrial Revolution in England was an impetus. The steam-engine had become a mighty agent of change. A large number of troops and heavy armament could be transported with greater speed to even remote areas. This invention was brought to play its role to secure the imperial borders. The result was one of the great wonders of modern engineering: the construction of the railway line from Peshawar through the Khyber Pass to the border of Afghanistan at Torkham. This marvel of human ingenuity and skill was conceived in the minds of colonials long before its actual execution. The survey of the route was started by Lt. Col G. R. Beran but construction began after the First World War when Victor Bayley, the Executive Engineer of the Railway Department arrived on the scene.  

The first sod was turned on this brave new undertaking in January 1921. Earthwork, with labour provided by men of various hill-tribes, began under the watchful eye of the irregular force of the khassadars. Sporting rifles, they manned the defensive pickets along the route to provide security to the workers. At one time a force of 470 rifle-men was employed. The work on the railway line started at the end of 1920 and steadily progress was made, cutting through mountains of shale, drilling tunnels through the slopes, negotiating the sharp ascent and the sheer drop to the Torkham border. By 1924 the work was complete. The drilling of tunnels was particularly dangerous. Though the supplies of brick and mortar were at times carried by donkeys over goat-tracks, these constructions were put in place. Ventilation, water supply and electrical lights were provided along with the human requirement of sanitation and medical services. Excavations were carried out by labourers and carpenters and masons. All worked in trying conditions to achieve this remarkable feat of engineering. They battered, during the four long years, some of the most difficult terrain in the empire, through heat, and dust and freezing cold. The tenacity and hard work of these workers along with the British engineers produced a marvel of modern achievement. The track was laid across 92 bridges and culverts and 34 tunnels. As the steam engines chugged, snorted and whistled up the tracks on the historic day in 1925, this hitherto untamed terrain saw the birth of a new era of transportation. Sir Charles Innes, the railway member of the Governor General's Council, acting on behalf of the Viceroy performed the ceremony of opening the Khyber railway on November 21, 1925. The enterprise had cost a phenomenal sum of 210 million rupees. "This was the high point of imperial engineering in every sense of the word: British power and prestige lapping the very borders of the ... sub-continent yet at the very moment when the tide was turning at the centre."  

As one of the wonders of the world, it was invariably a part of the itinerary of distinguished European and British travellers, both male and female, on the tour of imperial India. The Prince of Wales, Clemenceau, Countess Roberts, daughter of Lord Roberts were some of the distinguished personalities who visited the site in the early years. During the 1920' s ladies were permitted to visit the Khyber in a car only twice a week between the hours of ten and three "under suitable male escort". "Passes for this adventure were sparingly given by the Political Agent to Persons of Undoubted Discretion and Un-exampled Virtue". It was said in the 1920' s that there were two places in the world where if one waited long enough one could see everyone of any importance. One was the Victoria Station in London and the other was Landi Kotal in the Khyber Pass.

Landi Kotal is now the headquarter of the Khyber Rifles. Its Mess is a grand institution visited by kings and queens, royalty, celebrities and Hollywood stars, including Robert de Nero. All have left their autographed photographs as gifts.

For centuries camel-caravans had carried fruits, carpets and wool from Afghanistan and taken back the produce of the Peshawar Valley. Thus Rudyard Kipling, the 1907 Nobel laureate for Literature, evokes the timeless scene:

And the camp-fires twinkled by Fort Jumrood;

And there fled on the wings of the gathering dusk 

A savour of camels and carpets and musk, 

A murmur of voices, a reek of smoke,

To tell us the trade of the Khyber woke.

By the 1920's they carried back matches, corrugated iron, metal sheets, sewing machines and gramophone records. 

The railway project was motivated not by commercial concerns, as most other railway schemes in British India. It was prompted and propelled by strategic concerns of the Great Game. In times of peace however, it provided transportation for the local population. It also provided employment to them in the Railway Department while integrating the region decisively with the rest of the country. With the passage of time and the improvement of road transport, the tracks are now only occasionally used between Peshawar and Landi Kotal. Although the crucial section between Landi Kotal and Torkham on the border has fallen to disuse, the train safari between Peshawar and Landi Kotal still remains one of the most spectacular in the world.

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