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The Changing Pakistan of a Travel Writer

Salman Rashid

Editor's Note: A longer version of this essay first appeared in The Aleph Review, Vol. 2 (2018). I curated excerpts that best reflect my theme of archival memory for this fortnight. As the essay expresses, changed realities have altered the memories of our own heritage.

— Hassan Tahir Latif

Even before I began writing in the early 1980s, I had been travelling around Pakistan for a decade. Things were so different then! For one, our built heritage was intact. It had not yet been attacked by ‘treasure hunters’ and brought down to dust in full view of all. But the other thing was the behaviour of common people one met while on the road.

Television—in my view, the greatest corrupter of the mind—was still in its infancy in Pakistan then and was watched only by limited numbers in the country. Consequently, ordinary elders safeguarded ancient lore as it had been passed down to them through the generations. And, since there was neither television nor cell phones to keep one busy, the younger generation spent more time with their seniors and imbibed those stories.

In 1974, fooling around at Rohtas Fort, my friend and I were accosted by a tall, rail-thin man carrying a sack of tinder on his back. He hailed us as ‘boys’ and asked what mischief we were up to. I said we had come to see the fort. He put down his sack and asked if we knew the name of the gate that we were standing under. We had no clue.

“This is Zohal Darwaza,” said our self-appointed guide.

He explained that at the time of building of this part of the fort, the planet Saturn (Zohal in Arabic) was right overhead, hence the name. Then he took us around the rampart to the gateway whose arch was broken at the top. This was Darwaza Under Kot—Gate of the Inner Fort. The top was smashed by Humayun’s artillery fire when he returned to India, said the man.

Idol (opaque watercolour on paper, 2017)

More than two decades later the old man’s knowledge was confirmed. The south gate was indeed Zohal and Humayun, returning to India in 1555, did indeed fire a single cannon shot at Rohtas. Though history does not record where the fort was hit, we do know that the Pathan garrison bolted and Humayun walked into an undefended fort. That one ball may have knocked off the top of the inner fort gateway.

Incidentally, our guide had given no importance to the unmarked graves in both gates. Within the decade, superstition in the garb of religiosity had replaced the character of our nation. Zohal Darwaza became Sohail Darwaza after the saint Syed Sohail Shah buried near it. Likewise, Darwaza Under Kot is now named after some fictitious saint Chand Wali. However, no one can tell me how these names were ‘revealed’, since they were unknown until the late 1970s.


After the dictatorship of the 1980s, everyday stories brought forward from thousands of years began to change complexion. Just as the two gateways in Rohtas were attributed to supposed saints, so too were other stories corrupted. Beginning with state television and now carried forward with great speed by dozens of private channels, the tradition is that men and women of little education and even less common sense and critical thinking are beaming their ignorance into millions of Pakistani homes.

Unsurprisingly, more and more people believe in the fantastic. If forty years ago it was easy to convince them with logical argument, it is now impossible. The refrain is “But we heard it on television!” And television broadcasts a peculiar quasi-religious belief. I have been told in Rohtas that the saints under the doorways have always helped living folks since the beginning of time. They no longer believe me when I tell them that in 1974 their demi-gods were unknown.

The other change, one that hurts deeply, is the way we have destroyed our built heritage. The two dozen or so smadhis I saw in 1974 near the Mughal water tank up on the peak of Tilla Jogian (Jhelum district) today stand smashed. The lovely little dome where Guru Nanak Dev spent his time in worship is broken, as are the few domes within the temple complex and the temples themselves. What hurts the most is that the smashed domes within the complex very likely date back to the thirteenth century. All have been done in by treasure hunters.


Back in the 1980s, Pakistani backpackers were an unknown item. Those few who travelled, did so in groups. As a solo walker, I was never trusted. I have seen the insides of police stations and other agencies in several places across the country. My inquisition would begin on the road with an ominous, “Proob your un-dent-tity!” And then, my credentials having been ascertained by the identity card, I would yet sometimes be escorted to the police station. I was lucky to have always got an easy interrogation and was never beaten up ‘to get the truth out of me’. The unfailing central question was why I was travelling alone.

Warden (opaque watercolor on paper, 2017)

This was due to the fact that I looked local and yet I was doing what only crazy Westerners were known to do. Hence, I was to be looked at askance. Once it was established that I was just another loony passing through, another question never failed to be asked: “How much is the government paying you to do this?”

I always countered with my own query: what was ‘this’ that the government should pay me to do? This was always the most enjoyable bit for me because my interrogator would be completely flummoxed. But I knew then, as I know now, that up in the region that we now call Gilgit-Baltistan, most elderly men still suffered from a hangover of the 19th century Great Game. They could not be faulted for taking me for a spy. Though neither they nor I had a clue who one would be spying for in 1988!


In 2009, driving through Shishkat that now sadly sits under Attabad Lake, I said to my friend that I would show him something that will never change. We stopped the car, got out and I asked two youngsters chatting by the roadside if we could pick some apricots. One of them made an expansive wave of his arm signalling we had free run of the spreading orchards. Once again, the man guided us to the sweetest trees. As we ate our fill, our driver and his sidekick filled two plastic bags each weighing more than ten kilograms. I laughingly pointed out this crime to the owner. That was nothing, he said. We were free to fill as many bags as we wanted.

When young people ask advice about backpacking in unfrequented areas, I always tell them not to be burdened by tents and too much food. Many have heeded my advice and returned with tales of how well they were treated by strangers whose doors they had knocked.

We may have lost some in our struggle through the latter part of the past century, but we have also won some. And that squares it all out.


Salman Rashid is a travel writer who lives in Lahore and has nine books under his belt. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and writes his witty and well-researched pieces on his blog,

About the featured artist: Irfan Hasan graduated from the NCA with a major in Indo-Persian miniature painting. Achieving a distinction in his thesis project, Hasan moved on to receiving numerous awards, namely, ‘Best Young Painter’ from the Punjab Arts Council in 2007 and 2008 and the ‘Commonwealth Connection International Fellowship’. He has also attended residencies, including Art OMI, New York, Storefront Artist Project, Massachusetts, VASL, Karachi, Commonwealth Connection International Fellowship at GCAC, Kolkata, and the Second Rybon International Artist Workshop in Tehran, Iran. He taught at the Indus Valley School of Arts and Architecture, Karachi before taking on a teaching post at NCA.Hasan has held several solo projects and group shows nationally and internationally. For the last few years he has been taken up by classical European portraiture and figurative painting. Artwork courtesy of O Art Space.


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