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Of sahibs and forest rest houses — I

Visiting the colonial era Dak bungalows set in dense pine forests deep in the hills of Northern Punjab and reading the century-old visitors’ books

Of sahibs and forest rest houses — I
1888 Chawan Forest rest house.

Besides building magnificent official and residential mansions in Rawalpindi, Lahore or Karachi, the British left their footprint in almost every town they went to — like Murree, Nathiagali, Multan, Sahiwal etc. They ensured their officials ‘Sahibs’ were properly cared for while 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 caretaker, which is usually 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 the 1950s. Later in the 1990s, both Sharifs and Imran Khan would occasionally turn up in one of these rest houses for a short visit.

There are some serene pieces of history which you should explore on your day trips out of Islamabad. Begin on 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; take the right one to Lehtrar. As you cross river Soan, the road becomes hilly and after crossing a few villages on the way, you reach Lehtrar. Ask anyone and they shall guide you to the Lehtrar Forest Rest House just off the main road.

Lehtrar Forest rest house

The rest house comprises two small bedrooms, constructed in late nineteenth century with picturesque valley views. 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.

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.

Constructed on a levelled piece of clear land surrounded by tall pine trees, the 1928 Danoi rest house is situated in a picture postcard setting. It 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 rest house through a proper trek but also to Lehtrar rest house down the hills.

1928 Danoi Forest Rest House.

1928 Danoi Forest Rest House.

These treks or bridal paths in forest lingo were used in the days long gone by Sahibs and their entourages while doing forest inspections and the practice continues 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 bypass Simli Dam and see the spill way to your left. Drive another thirty minutes in the mountains and you shall reach Karor.

Read also: Of sahibs and forest rest houses – II

Ask anyone about the Chawan Forest Rest House and they shall guide you to a nice 1888 two bedroom rest house on a small hill with clear valley views. The visitors’ 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 unauthorised 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 Dec 18-19, 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. But to enjoy a cup of tea at the picturesque Simli rest house, you need prior permission from Capital Development Authority.

Since 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.

Ban Forest rest house.

Ban Forest rest house.

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.

(to be concluded)

Omar Mukhtar Khan

Omar Mukhtar Khan
The author is a development professional with a passion for travelling. He may be contacted at [email protected]

3 comments

  • Simply put it, good job. I would like to invite the author to explore some additional entities in the region. Tower at Kotli Sattian, 9 yard grave at Domat, some 7 kilometers further toward Azad Kashmir, an old grave of Hans Khan at Donga Kather, Mallot Sattian, with headstone marking 250 years age of the man. There are also 5 war memorials in Kotli Sattian honoring WWI solders from the region. There are many many more things to explore. Good luck.

    • Thanks Satti Sb, Please email me at [email protected] and i would love to be in touch to explore with someone with such local knowledge. Thanks and regards,

  • Congratulation Mukhtar Khan. I have wandered around these and other places and gone through entries in the visitors books. It is gratifying that you have begun to document this aspect of local environmental history. You must have noticed that old forest rest houses were simple in architecture but highly aesthetically located.

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