One fine morning in late November, I found myself standing on the shores of river Indus at Kalabagh. I was staying at a Government rest house along with a few friends and the plan was to see the historic town of Kalabagh as well as take a boat ride up the Indus gorge. The good old care taker was telling us how the 2010 floods inundated all the historic villas and rest houses on the banks on Indus when our boat arrived to take us up the Indus gorge. All the prominent villas and rest houses in Kalabagh have their own mini docks to aboard or alight from the boats however apparently Kalabagh has seen its best days and there are not many boats or ferries seen plying the Indus these days.
So what started as a short boat ride became one of the most memorable and scenic venture into wild west. Soon we crossed the 1928 railway bridge constructed by Clutha Works Glasgow. Originally it had a wooden floor later replaced by metalled road with narrow gauge railway line running through the middle. The historic ‘Bohr Bungalow’ as well as ‘Peepal Bungalow’ stood magnificently at the shores in all their glory testifying to the good days Kalabagh has seen once upon a time.
As we headed up north, we crossed the ancient town of ‘Mari’ on our right. Mari is still a bustling small town and ‘Mari Indus’ gets its name from ‘Mari’. One is amazed to see ancient Buddhist or Hindu temples dotting the small mountains next to Mari and this speaks of the rich Indus valley history. One of my uncles told me the story of a Hindu he met during 1982 Asian games in Delhi who had migrated from Mari Indus. The gentleman was fond of Nawab of Kalabagh who distributed sweets in the area on his birth despite some rivalry between his trader father and the Nawab. Apparently no Hindus live in the area anymore.
The gorge became narrower as the boat pushed its way up. On our left side started Karak and Kohat Districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province while Mianwali and Attock Districts were on our right. The landscape is rugged mountains on the left i.e. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa while somewhat greener mountains on the right i.e. Punjab. The wilderness was complete barring small hamlets of gypsies or fishermen. We occasionally crossed rickety locally made cable carriages to take the villagers from one side of the river to the other.
Soon we saw relatively large and well made cable system spreading across the Indus near the village of Peer Pahai at the banks of the river. This was the site of Kalabagh dam which was not to be made, neither by dictators nor by democrats. The site draws a sad feeling that at times plain politics can keep a country away from a very beneficial project. Confessing being a non technical person, I still don’t understand why Kalabagh dam cannot be made just to store the flood waters as this would not only save our towns and villages from destruction by floods but shall also keep the water level steady in lower Indus and Sindh. However not my subject and Federation is indeed more important than Kalabagh dam.
Soon upwards of Kalabagh dam site, I saw another dream being fulfilled and that was to see Soan river merging into mighty Indus. Contrary to popular perception, Soan river here was a substantial body of water and looks almost equal to Indus river, owing apparently to multiple small rivers and streams flowing into Soan across Attock District.
About twenty minutes more and we saw the historic town of Makhad on our right or on the left banks of Indus to be precise if you go by the flow of river. But what caught our eyes before anything else was again an ancient Hindu temple. As we climbed up the dock, we inspected the temple however as expected no tourism or archeology department reaches here so there were no plaques to tell us about the history of this seemingly important temple. At Makhad, we could see regular ferries bringing disciples of Makhad shrine from Kohat to Makhad and back.
At Makhad, we visited the shrine of Hazrat Ali Chishti with its rich library. The library had thousands of books in Arabic and Persian dating back to four or five hundred years. We were treated to famous Makhadi halwa as well as locally made biscuits. Later we visited the main shrines of Peers of Makhad of which one arrived from Lucknow and the other from Baghdad at some point in history. The Peers of Makhad were close to British and enjoyed enough political influence in the area. We unfortunately did not have time to explore Makhad town in detail but then there should always be a reason to go back to a place. It took us slightly more than an hour to reach Makhad from Kalabagh in our speed boat however locally plying boats normally take three to four hours for this journey.
The way back to Kalabagh was more smooth with the flow of river except it was becoming cold. The sun was slowly going down and the various shades of light in the gorge were truly amazing.
In the 1915 Mianwali gazette, I had read about a ‘hamlet called Kukranwala Wandhan lying opposite Mari and a couple of miles above Kalabagh, is an excellent place for watching what is often a most glorious sunset’. The 1983 gazette mentions a number of dignitaries enjoying sunset at Kukranwala without naming them so we also decided to add to this prestigious list.
Kukranwala is a couple of miles north of Kalabagh opposite the ancient town of Mari and one has to trek a narrow alley along the rocky gorge to reach Kukranwala. It is perhaps the only village of Punjab where you can reach by road only from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The village is on the right banks of Indus along notorius hill torrent Khartoub and to reach the village, you have to go to Shakardara in Karak and then take a jeep trek down to Kukranwala. During recent floods, Chief Minister Punjab visited Kukranwala so many times that people thought that Kukranwala may be declared a tehsil in itself.
At Kukranwala, Indus starts leaving the narrow gorge and starts entering the Punjab plains and widens up. Looking west from Kukranwala at sunset gives you this amazing view of rolling mountains on the sides, a colonial angle iron bridge in the distance over the vast expanse of mighty Indus and the sun setting in the horizon leaving behind the sky on fire. Close your eyes and imagine. It was indeed a splendid spiritual experience and the only comparable experience I ever had was seeing sun setting on Rakaposhi in Hunza. Perhaps that was the reason that a princess from Hunza descended to Kalabagh some fifty years back but perhaps that is a story for another time.
While heritage and tourism has yet to be prioritized by the Government, it is not too much to ask for some basic facility to reside at Kalabagh with decent boating options to explore ancient temples at Mari, visit Makhad Shareef and enjoy the sunset at Kukranwala. The weather is great from October to April and Kalabagh has a lot to offer to heritage and adventure lovers.
Omar Mukhtar Khan is a development professional based in Lahore and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also blogs at www.countryroads.pk.