Living in a small town is like living in a large family. The thumb rule for life in Pakistani small towns in the 1960s and ’70s is that they were remarkably simple. My friend Shahzad Bangash had spent his entire childhood in Kohat and his adolescence in the dungeons of Cadet College Kohat. He had fond memories of his childhood: of being taken to Felix Cinema by his father dressed in his best clothes to watch Raquel Welch’s One Million Years BC, of being treated with ice-cream outside King’s gate, and of family expeditions that involved hunting partridges in the wilderness around the city. His oozing nostalgia convinced me to visit Kohat with him.
As per a local legend, at the time when Buddhism was the predominant religion of Indus valley, two Rajas came and settled in the adjoining areas of this district. Raja Kohat laid the foundation of a town which was named after him. Raja Adh built a fort on the hillside four miles west of this town. Adh-i-Samut is a strange ruined fort with only a battered bastion of inferior masonry with no evidence of any building in it. The legend recorded in the District Gazetteer of 1883-4 lacks in historical evidence.
Kohat was first mentioned in Tuzuk-i-Baburi when Babur, on the insistence of his friend Baki Cheghaniani, visited the town during his first Indian incursion. The year was 1505 and the town suffered from plunder and ‘the pillar of heads’. The history of the region thereon is more of an account of Bangash and Khattak tribes taking possession of various parts depending upon which tribe was supported by whom. The city remained under the administration of the Durrani dynasty after the invasions of Nadir Shah and Ahmad Shah Abdali and their brutal sacking of Delhi. After the fall of Shah Shuja in 1810 in Kabul, Kohat like the rest of Afghanistan was subjected to a constant change of masters till the Sikhs marched into Peshawar in 1819.
In 1827 Charles Masson, a deserter from the East India Company’s army, turned into an eminent explorer and archaeologist, wandered through Kohat and left behind a written description of the town. According to him, the town was seated on and about an eminence with weak dilapidated citadel. He found the place giving a look of antiquity, Hindus doing brisk trade, and the manufactures included rifle barrels of good reputation. He found a mango tree bearing fruit in company with apple and walnut and aptly described the environs as “the fruits of Kabul mingled with those of India”.
When you visit an old city, it is prudent to go with an elderly resident who knows the streets and the inhabitants like the palm of his hand. Kohat is lucky to have one such soul by the name of Mohammad Iqbal, an eminent retired professor who seems to know everybody in the city. Shahzad and I walked through the old city, stopping to see landmarks or to hear anecdotes from Professor Iqbal which are a part of the unrecorded history.
We entered the city through the Cantonment gate which was christened as the King’s Gate at the time of coronation of King George in 1905 and renamed as Faisal Gate in 1985 after the Saudi monarch. From here the main bazaar runs east to west in a straight line. According to the District Gazetteer of Kohat (1883-4), the town was surrounded by twelve feet high wall which is no more traceable. We were led through various mohallas as they branched off from the main bazaar with a live commentary of who-was-who.
In Mohallah Zar-ghar, the jeweller street had more meat shops than the ones selling jewels. The entry to Mohallah Hinduan was restricted through two streets only, each protected by wooden doors which were closed ceremoniously each day after sunset in the last decades before 1947 for security reasons. A Hindu temple with its elaborate murals is now occupied by a family courtesy evacuee trust property.
In a nearby lane lived the popular Wasti brothers. Shaukat Wasti, the elder of the two, was a professor of history who organised social and literary functions in the area. He himself was a poet of considerable standing and had translated Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ and ‘Paradise Regained’ into Urdu and had the honour of arranging ‘Mushairas’ at Miranshah and Parachinar while he was posted in the respective local college as the principal.
Professor Iqbal was a young man in 1960 when he attended a literary function arranged in the college by Shaukat Wasti in the honour of Toynbee. The famous English historian stayed in Kohat as a guest of Wasti. Such activities in small towns are unthinkable in present times.
In his travelogue “Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan and the Punjab — 1824-1840”, Charles Masson had noted that Kohat is distinguished by its public baths which are fed “by springs of water gushing from the rock on which the masjid is built. The water of Kohat is much vaunted for its sanative properties; that of Hangu, although beautifully transparent, is reputed to be unwholesome.”
We headed next to Mohallah Hamam, the public bath street where Shahzad’s family haveli still stands neglected and dilapidated. Kohat had traditional hamams, reminiscing of Persian tradition, but the last public bath had closed down in the 1980s. These baths were frequented by visiting tribesmen and local residents alike. Next we went to Mohallah Kaazian (Judges’ Precinct) to see the “Kareze Mosque” which was so aptly described by Masson in his 1825 narrative. Fresh water which flowed through it from an underground channel watering the ablution section had been demolished. This ancient mosque was named after its water supply system, as the underground water channel is called ‘kareze’ even in Kohat contrary to my understanding that this term was limited only to Balochistan. The old facade of this mosque has been totally obliterated in the recent decades by cement plaster, bright paints and a plain lack of ethics.
The centre of the city is located on a low hill which is known as Sangher. Rambling through narrow lanes, crumbling balconies, crowded shops and punk boys with strange haircuts, we finally reached the shrine of Haji Bahadar Baba which is positioned at the highest elevation in the city centre. The shrine of this reverent saint finds mention in the narration of Charles Masson. The District Gazetteer tells us that most cases settled by jirgas were based on the oath of holy book taken at this shrine. Surrounded by a graveyard, the shrine is a plain domed structure with no worthwhile architectural pretension. Most of the devotees exchanged pleasantries with our Professor Iqbal.
Close to this shrine is Islamia High School, reflecting a rich architecture. The school was built overnight without official permission in the 1920s by the activists of Anjuman Himait-i-Islam. It was an act of defiance of the Kohati Muslims against the imperial government in the backdrop of Khilafat Movement and what was perceived as a growing Hindu domination. Shahzad’s father had done his matriculation from this school which of late is converted into a girl’s school.
Finally, we emerged out of the western end of the city through the Tehsil Gate and stepped into Tirah Bazaar. Oddly, the upper portion of the gate had a few rooms which served as an office of Tehsildar and that defines the name. Tirah Bazaar had a mixed bag of shops selling meat, typical footwear called Kohatian sandal, fire-wood, mechanics and machinery. Decades ago, this bazaar had a number of serais (inns) where the tribals would spend the night after long arduous journeys and enter the city in the morning only after the Tehsil Gate was opened.
All these serais are now converted into multistoried plazas except Jalal Serai which still maintains the old flavour. It has a huge triple-arched entrance which contains a few shops selling toiletries, a wayside barber, a small public bath, and a cobbler doing booming business. The central courtyard was filled to capacity with parked wagons coming from distant areas. Motorised vehicles have replaced tongas. The rest is a rectangular double-storey building with spacious rooms, each occupied by a large family or travellers from the same tribe. Veiled women, playful children of various ages, jovial faces and clothes hanging from the lines along the front verandahs are encouraging signs that not much has changed since this city was last visited by Masson in the eighteenth century.
Masson recorded his comic encounter when he first tried to leave Kohat for Peshawar. A day’s march out of the city, he stumbled upon an ‘idiot’ whom he described as “being unfit for labour, was unasked to perform any, and therefore generally loitered about, asked me for my cap”. Thinking that the next thing that he would ask for would be his head, he refused. “I received three slaps on my face, and more buffets, and was at loss what to do with the fellow, being averse to strike him…..” He and his coveted ‘ferangi’ cap were saved by the timely appearance of someone he calls a man with sanity.
The second incident was when he was suddenly stopped by galloping horsemen on the road whom he thought would search him for papers. But he was taken back to Kohat with honour and the next time he took the road for Peshawar, he was riding an elephant with Pir Mahomad Khan, the governor of Kohat. The Prince and the wandering pauper were seated together.
Our last destination in the day was driving along Shahpur Road to the historic graveyard a few kilometres outside the city. You can get there by crossing an unmanned railway crossing on the abundant yet historical narrow gauge Kohat-Thal railway line which in 1929 became the nucleus of the Great Game. But that is another story which needs a separate narration.
(To be continued)