Once upon a time in Kalabagh

In 1967, a wedding procession landed in Gilgit by the regular Fokker plane and proceeded to Karimabad in Hunza on the precarious jeep track along Hunza river. The procession travelled hours and hours on hair raising track with the wedding party over awed all the way by the dominating snow covered Rakaposhi peak. The procession spent a night in Karimabad and returned with the bride, the daughter of Mir of Hunza. As the wedding party reached Gilgit, they found a C-130 Air Force plane waiting for them. The plane flew from Gilgit and by-passing Rawalpindi, landed at Mianwali where the procession was received by Air Marshal Noor Khan. The occasion was the wedding of Nawab Asad Khan of Kalabagh with daughter of Mir of Hunza.


Situated on the banks of mighty Indus, Kalabagh is best known for the fearsome Governor of West Pakistan Nawab Ameer Muhammad Khan who ruled West Pakistan from 1961-66 with an  iron fist. Nawab Kalabagh was known for his strong administration, rural wisdom, intelligence network as well as for his benevolence. The 1915 Gazetteer of Mianwali reports Nawab family being in the area for over two hundred years while their landholdings or Jagir extended from Bhangikhel in the north of Indus to Massan in south east and to Isakhel in West with Kalabagh being the principal seat. The family had vast hunting grounds where the leading Generals and politicians of the time would come for a shoot.


One such hunting General was Iskandar Mirza after whom Iskandarabad is named near Kalabagh. Iskandar Mirza was Defence Secretary in 1950 and once he arrived on his hunting spree at Kalabagh accompanied by a Major General in uniform. Iskandar Mirza told Nawab Kalabagh that the gentleman accompanying him shall be the next Commander in Chief and in January 1951, the man in uniform Major General Ayub Khan was made Commander in Chief of Pakistan Army. General Ayub Khan is known as one officer who made it from no star to four stars in a matter of four years from 1947 to 1951. Just like in case of Bhutto, the friendships developed in hunting grounds went a long way and in this case ended up with Nawab becoming Governor of West Pakistan.


The history of Nawabs of Kalabagh dates back to atleast sixteenth century when one Bandey Ali settled at Kalabagh from nearby Dinkot fort, the ruins of which are still a few miles from Kalabagh. Bandey Ali apparently descended from one of the Generals of Mahmud Ghaznavi however other records mention a local Rajput connection. Anyways Nawabs aligned with Sikhs during Ranjit Singh rule however later they shifted their allegiance to British and the 1915 gazetteer appreciates Nawabs for supporting the British during Sikh wars. The family again supported British during 1857 war of Independence and were later given jagirs, titles of Khan Bahadur or Honorary Magistrates and the next hundred or so years would see Nawabs of Kalabagh rise both in terms of social status as well as influence.


As we entered the 1830s fort of Nawab of Kalabagh, we were shown around by humble and courteous care taker Abdur Rehman whose many generations have served the Nawabs with zeal and pride. The fort is a small museum in itself and has two main portions, one being residential quarters of Nawab’s family and the other being open court where guests and visitors are received. The compound displays historic relics ranging from canons to numerous hunting trophies as well as Victorian furniture. The Scotland manufactured girders supporting the roof do not escape wandering eyes as the fort was apparently fully renovated in 1911.


As you enter the building, one is amazed to see the medal conferred to Nawab on the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953 as Pakistan had yet to become a Republic and Queen was still Head of the State. The Times of India Illustrated on June 28, 1916 carried a picture of the air craft gifted by Nawab Atta Muhammad Khan to British during World War I at the cost of Rs 75000 in addition to his contribution of Rs 35000 for Cavalry remounts. Similarly pictures of steamers plying Indus at Kalabagh or Nawab’s pictures taken at Governor House Lahore with Queen Elizabeth, Shah Faisal, Nehru and Jacqueline Kennedy reminds the glory of a happening era. The fort is over all immaculately maintained.


The 1915 gazetteer mentions about Nawab Allah Yar Khan passion for maintaining a large stud of excellent brood mares as well as his love for horse riding. The studs with pedigree horses are maintained to this date and a visit to stables is a treat to eyes especially for horse lovers. Similarly Nawab Ameer Muhammad Khan was known for his knowledge of fruits and crops and Kalabagh used to boost one of the most modern agriculture farms at one point in time. Praising Nawab’s knowledge of varieties of guavas during a luncheon at Governor’s House, Jacqueline Kennedy is said to have quipped about making Nawab Agriculture Minister for United States of America.


It was time to sneak into the Kalabagh postcard ‘Bohr Bungalow’. Bohr Bunglow is so named because it was constructed under the shades of a huge centuries old Banyan tree. Kalabagh actually got its name from ‘Kala’ meaning black as the place appears dark due to huge Banyan trees and orchards all around and ‘Bagh’ meaning garden. Bohr Bungalow used to be the rest house where Nawab shall entertain important dignitaries including Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, General Ayub Khan or Benazir. One such visitor was former first lady of United States of America Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of war time President Franklin Roosevelt, who visited Pakistan in 1952. Mrs Roosevelt was a state guest and celebrated Air force pilot Lanky Ahmad served as his Aide during the visit and writes in his memoirs ‘The hectic programme also included a luncheon party, given by the Nawab of Kalabagh at his fort, overlooking the Indus river near Mianwali, although he was not the Governor of the Punjab in those days. He escorted Mrs. Roosevelt inside the house to introduce his family who were in ‘parda’ and segregation’. The bungalow again has many historical artefacts but is currently undergoing extensive renovations. Nawab had extensive properties and included Bohr Bungalow, Kalabagh fort, Peepal Bungalow, the hunting ranges as well as bungalows in Lahore and Islamabad. These properties have now been divided among various heirs of the family.


As earlier mentioned, Nawab Ameer Muhammad Khan was a towering figure of his times and actually the title of Nawab of Kalabagh is best associated with him. After Nawab’s death in 1967, the title gradually lost its charm. Like all significant people in history, Nawab had his share of contradictions in his life. Having studied at Aitchison College and later Oxford, he is know to have sent famous socialist Eqbal Ahmed and his friends back ‘by the next bus or they shall be skinned alive’ when he arrived in Kalabagh to teach poor children of this backward town. Similarly, no one in Kalabagh would dare look at the women of the family when they were travelling in the Estate. Any family procession used to be preceded by a drum beater announcing the passage of the family and all men would turn their backs towards the walls and shut their shops. Later the family would cross in style surrounded by baton wielding guards who would not hesitate to thrash any onlooker then and there.


Nawab was succeeded by four sons and today the third generation of the formidable Nawab is in politics however the influence of the family has also been considerably diluted with emergence of new money politicos. Unfortunately despite the Municipal Committee of Kalabagh having been established in 1880s, you don’t see much development in Kalabagh where there are still few hospitals, schools and roads. A number of scions of the family including Malik Amad Khan, Ayla Malik and Sumaira Malik have remained Members of Parliament and probably they can join hands to develop Kalabagh into a modern river side town.


The story of Kalabagh is not complete without a mention of once famous salt mines. Kalabagh saw significant economic growth around mining and the activity was a boon for the area. I remember my parents buying nice salt lamps from the shops in Kalabagh but the artisans have probably left now and mining appears to be less significant. Today the orchard are gone, the Nawabs stay in Islamabad and Kalabagh is a small old town comprising narrow streets spread along the mountain slope on the side of Indus, the only significance of the town being on a main trading route between Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab.


Kalabagh has so much heritage in shape of forts, old rest houses, temples, railway stations, bridges and a centuries old story to tell however there is not a single hotel to stay and not a single tourist boat available to ply in the Indus. Converting the fort and the historic Bungalows into heritage hotels coupled with a ferry service and a small circuit of narrow gauge railway line, may bring Kalabagh back on the tourist map both for domestic and foreign tourists. The gazetteer of Mianwali rightly exclaims ‘ Uttay Pahar, thalay paani, Kalabagh dee aayho nishani’ meaning that mountains above and water below, this is where Kalabagh is.

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