Of Sahibs and Forest Rest Houses I

Besides building magnificent official and residential mansions in Rawalpindi, Lahore or Karachi, British left their foot print almost in every town they went to like Murree, Nathiagali, Multan, Sahiwal etc.   British would ensure that their officials ‘Sahibs’ are properly cared for when they are on inspection visits touring the country. Hence they started constructing ‘Dak’ bungalows for postal department, canal rest houses for Irrigation department especially in colony districts and forest rest houses all over the place but especially in Northern Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Over time all of these rest houses would be known as ‘Dak bungalows’ as postal service was considered by the British as the most vital service to be maintained at all times. Depending upon the requirements of various departments, these Dak bungalows would be at fixed distances from each other, normally around eighteen miles, a distance coverable during a day’s pony ride. These rest houses had various categories and were equipped with basic boarding and lodging facilities for the ‘Sahibs’, camp followers and their beasts of burden.

During my two years stay in Islamabad, I was lucky to visit a number of these colonial forest rest houses set in dense pine forests deep in the hills. Most of these forest rest houses have a century old visitors’ book available with the care taker and usually this book is a treat to read. Interestingly, besides officers of Imperial Forest Service and Indian Civil Service, I found General Muhammad Ayub Khan, C in C and President of Pakistan, a frequent visitor to these forest rest houses in 1950s. Later in 1990s, both Sharifs and Imran Khan would occasionally turn up in one of these rest houses for a short visit.

In this article, I shall introduce you to some of these serene pieces of history which you should explore on your day trips out of Islamabad. So fasten your seat belts and take the road to Lehtrar from Chak Shahzad. As you cross Nilore on your right, the road forks into two at Charah chowk. The left road goes to Patriata bypassing Simli Dam however take the right one to Lehtrar. As you cross river Soan, the road becomes hilly and after crossing few villages on the way, you would reach Lehtrar, ask anyone and they shall guide you to the Lehtrar forest rest house just off the main road. The Lehtrar forest rest house is a small two bedroom rest house constructed in late nineteenth century with picturesque valley views’ however with expanding villages all around, the views have been compromised but still worth a peaceful evening picnic. If you carry on the main Lehtrar road towards Kotli Sattian, another twenty minutes from Lehtrar, take a u-turn to your right on the road to Danoi village. You should reach the Danoi forest rest house in about ten minutes. Constructed on a leveled piece of clear land surrounded by tall pine trees, the 1928 Danoi forest rest house is situated in a picture postcard setting. Danoi rest house is also the staging post to four hours trek to ‘Punj Peer’ shrine up in the mountains. There is also a 1908 Narar forest rest house near the shrine however that is currently occupied by security forces and not accessible being close to Kahuta.  Danoi is not only connected to Narar forest rest house through a proper trek but also to Lehtrar forest rest house down the hills. These treks or bridal paths in forest lingo were used in the days long gone by Sahibs and their entourage while doing forest inspections and the practice continue by local foresters to this day. The name ‘bridal path’ apparently comes from brides being carried in palkis similar to Gora sahibs.

From Lehtrar, come back to Nilore and turn right at Charah chowk towards Simli Dam and Patriata. In about thirty minutes, you would by pass Simli dam and would see the spill way to your left. Drive another thirty minutes in the mountains and you shall reach Karor. Ask anyone about the Chawan forest rest house and they shall guide you to a nice 1888 two bed room rest house on a small hill with clear valley views. The visitor’s book kept at the rest house is a treat to read with one Sultan Mohammad Khan complaining perennially about malfunctioning chimneys while the chowkidar complaining about ‘Police methods and harassment’ by an unauthorized Police officer who barged in with his camel men and other followers. Similarly the chowkidar is being warned for allowing a Naib Tehsildar to stay and all this bickering is going on the page which also mentions ‘we were very well looked after’ by General Ayub Khan who was there from 18th December 1950 to 19th December 1950. Besides Ayub Khan, the rest house hosted Roedad Khan, General K.M Arif, General Rafaqat and a number of Imperial Forest Service and Indian Civil Service officers. Mrs Tahira Izhar in 1984 mentions listening to ‘ Ghungroo’ (ankle dancing bells) and firing sounds which made her fearful however Tehmina Khan from Government college Sialkot takes the prize by giving vivid details in 1985 of deadly howling dogs throughout the night who were trying to enter the rest house.

You can always come back from Karor and after crossing the Simli dam spill way, take a turn towards right to Simli dam and lake. However to enjoy a cup of tea at the picturesque Simli rest house, you need prior permission from Capital Development Authority. But today we are following forest rest houses so don’t turn back from Karor and carry on to Patriata. In about another thirty minutes from Karor, you should reach the small town of Ban. Now Ban does mean jungle in urdu and I have no idea if this is just a coincidence. Again like almost all other forest rest houses, you shall find yourself driving to the top of a hill from the main road. Ban forest rest house was constructed at a cost of Rs 1875/- in 1905 and has around four decent bedrooms with limited supply of water. And yes I was able to lay my hands on the visitors’ book starting in 1923 with one Mr Muhammad Khan who stayed here for a week in June 1923 along with his children. My eyes stopped at Mr and Mrs D.N. Wadia from Geological survey of India, Calcutta who stayed at the rest house in 1924. A bit of google search revealed him to be one of the most eminent geologists of his time who later also became Advisor to Nehru in 1947.

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