Having lived and loved the splendors of the Mughal and British Raj, that adorns the city scape of Lahore, and immersed in the mystique of Lahore the Great, I had shared the wisdom of my peers, that Rawalpindi was merely a garrison town, devoid of any assets of historical or cultural value. Perhaps, its nondescript past is aptly reflected in the shorter version of its name, Pindi, as it is commonly called, translated in Potoharilanguage, as a village. I never fully realised the depths of my profound ignorance, until recently.
Internationally recognised references of Rawalpindi’s irreplaceable natural heritage form a small fraction of what survived from the past and are preserved in Islamabad’s Natural History Museum.
Ghandharan civilisation left its marks on the landscape of the entire Potohar region in the form of stupas and monasteries. More than eight centuries of Ghakkar rule in Potohar, a group of tribes claiming a Persian descent and key allies of the Mughals, left a wide range of monumental architectural heritage.
The entire heritage is being decimated mercilessly by expanding the urban conglomerate of expensive housing societies in the suburbs of Rawalpindi, without a thought or care for setting up museums, if merely, as a token reminder of what we lost at the altar of our crass commercialism.
British colonial archaeologists picked up the traces of an ancient city called Gajnipur. Mughal chroniclesciteFathepurBaori, as the older name of the city. The city received its contemporary name Rawalpindi, when Jhanda Khandeveloped and expanded it in1493. With the decline of the Mughals, Sikhs Misls began to assert their political power in the region. Sultan Muqarrab Khan, the last Ghakkar ruler, was defeated bySardarMilkha Singh Thehpuria in 1765. To rebuild the city, Singh invited traders from neighboring commercial centers of Jhelum and Shahpur to make the city their home. The family of Sardar Sujjan Singh, cited in Chiefs of Punjab, was among the earliest Sikh settlers who made Rawalpindi their home. The city was taken over by Sikh ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1818 and it remained part of the Sikh Kingdom until their defeat at the hands of the British East India Company in 1849.
From ancient to modern times, Rawalpindi has gone through a vicissitude, largely due to its strategic location on the Grand Trunk Road.Rawalpindi’s locations owed the seeds of city’s development as well as its destruction.As a transit point, Rawalpindi played a major role in exchanging goods and services, receiving and transmitting religious and political ideas.
Given the vulnerability of the city to foreign aggression, the city was never chosen to be a fortified settlement. Its name is also associated with the blood trail of fabled diamond Kohinoor, a prized passion of Indian rulers over centuries. With the conquest of Delhi in 1739, Nadir Shah took Kohinoorand kept it in his imperial collection. Shah Shuja, the grandson of Ahmad Shah Durrani and fifth King of Afghanistan, carried it in his personal possession, as he fled from Kabul after losing his kingdom in 1809. He took refuge in Rawalpindi, at the residence of his elder brother Shah Zaman, the third King of Afghanistan.In 1813, Shah Shuja was lured into Lahore, in the hope of winning back his Afghan throne and was forced to surrender the Kohinoorto Ranjit Singh.
Much of Potohar’s history is shrouded in mystery and what is popularly known through travelogues is steeped in controversy. Academic research on cultural history is at its infancy, with handful of archaeological base line surveys led by international academicians.
Historical literature is scarce. There are Mughal sources of medieval history but they offer a fleeting account of cultural history.
Kai-Goharnama, a tripartite series of text, is an indigenous source of political history. Composed in Persian prose and metric forms, it is one of the rare accounts of theGhakkarSultans.Modern historical writings, though helpful, are laden with colonial narratives that create skewed understanding of the multi-cultural past.
Sadly, the contemporary scholarship on Potohar in Urdu and English is growing largely oblivious to the emerging paradigms of history writing and without recourse to primary, written sources, or in-depth field work. The use of oral history methods is singularly lacking. There is an urgent need to shift the emphasis, from the grand narratives of Pakistani history, and attend to local, marginal and eclipsed hi(s)tories.
The writer is an anthropologist, former Director of National College of Arts, Rawalpindi campus, currently working for the Center for Culture and Development (C2D), Islamabad & Vice President of the Council of Social Sciences.