“You Punjabis love to appropriate all important laurels to your own province,” blasted my old friend, Malik of Tangi — a quintessential Pakhtun, full of fire, hospitality and love. “Punjab is not the only area with five rivers; my sweet Charsadda is also a land of five rivers”.
And that was how I came to know about the richness and charms of a lesser appreciated tourist destination — Charsadda or Pushkalavati (Lotus City) as Malik of Tangi calls it.
I arrived one sunny morning in Charsadda on the invitation of Malik of Tangi and faced a conundrum. I had been directed to reach Malik Sahib’s village in Tangi from whence he was to show me around the scenic bounties of his beloved town. Following Malik Sahib’s directions, I thought I had reached his killay but the “big canal” on whose bank his village was supposed to be found was nowhere to be seen.
After a lot of hassle and frantic mobile calls, Malik himself appeared. I requested him to show me the big wretched canal that had been so painstakingly referred to by him as a landmark for finding his village. Pointing to a small pacca water channel nearby, Malik lamented how I could have missed his “big canal”. I accepted my ignorance and admitted that being used to huge canals of Punjab, I could not locate the canal next to his killay. My meek admission was generously accepted by Malik Sahib who spent the next half hour, lamenting the water hegemony of the “bigger brother”, resulting in smaller canals and lesser waters for his district.
Reaching his village, we indulged in an early lunch in Malik Sahib’s hujra. The meal looked more like a mere pretext to devour the maximum possible quantity of meat in all imaginable forms and tastes. It was during this lunch that Malik Sahib introduced me to a wide variety of dietary specialties of Charsadda, including sizzling chapli kebab, achaar ki lassi, mota chawal and dark coloured gur — the likes of which I had never tasted before
It was also during this lunch that Malik Sahib announced that our visit to Charsadda would be in two parts — an exploratory archaeological tour and the return journey to Peshawar when he would show me his five rivers to repudiate Punjab’s claim to be the sole home of five rivers.
As we started our tour in Malik Sahib’s vintage vehicle, he began by sharing the information that Charsadda (also known as Hashtnagar) was actually a collection of eight individual localities, which combine to form the modern day Charsadda. These erstwhile villages, namely Prang, Charsadda, Rajar (Razarh), Turangzai, Utmanzai, Umarzai, Sherpao, and Tangi were all steeped deep in ancient history and almost all offered attractions of their own in abundance.
Malik Sahib took me to Prang and showed me a huge graveyard complex which must have been spread over hundreds of acres. I was taken to several mounds which all appeared to be rooted in ancient times and no doubt would have revealed a wealth of history had a serious excavation effort been made.
Malik Sahib was of the opinion that Prang was possibly a corruption of Hindi word “Parayag”, denoting confluence of rivers. Close to Prang, rivers Kabul and Swat met, rendering the area a sacred connotation. That according to him was the prime reason why the dead had been buried in this necropolis for centuries. I was humbled by the vastness of the graveyard which carried geometrically symmetrical graves made of pure black and brown stones of all hues cut in immaculate fashion.
Sitting near a huge mound in the midst of the imposing graveyard, Malik Sahib graphically narrated the ancient history of Charsadda. In all probability, the ancient city of Pushkalavati existed somewhere within the precincts of modern day Charsadda. It was then the pre-Kushan capital of Gandhara from about 6th to 2nd century BC. Alexander the Great subsequently conquered the city in the year 324 BC.
Pushkalavati also finds a reference in the Hindu epic story — the Ramayana. It was one of the two cities founded by Bharata (brother of Ramchandra) after the conquest of Ghandarvesa, the other one being Taksha (Taxila).
Malik Sahib also proudly announced that father of Sanskrit grammar — Panini —hailed from this area somewhere around 500 BC.
After briefly narrating the impressive history of Charsadda, Malik Sahib took me through a roller coaster visit to various attractions. We started with Bala Hisar and Shaikhan Dheri where excavations were carried out by John Marshall at the beginning of the last century. Many layers of mudstone and pottery can be seen even today at the partially excavated sites.
From there, we went to Bibi Syeda Dheri. This site is located close to modern day Umerzai village of Charsadda and also carried an impressive yet unexcavated mound. Malik Sahib informed that this mound was actually a stupa, which was erected to commemorate conversion of goddess hariti by lord Buddha, the former being notorious for devouring children from the locality.
Near this spot, we also visited shrine of the lady saint, Bibi Syeda.
Malik Sahib informed that earth collected from around this dargah is an effective antidote for many diseases including small pox.
After paying homage at Bibi Syeda’s shrine, we visited archaeological sites of Shehr-e-Napursan and Palatu Dheri. The former is located close to village Rajan, where excavations have been made. These excavations have revealed different settlements dating to Buddhist as well as Muslim periods. The other site, Palatu Dheri, exists close to Shehr-e-Napursan, where we visited a mound, carrying the remains of an old stupa. This, according to Malik Sahib, was the same stupa referred to by Chinese tourist Hiuen Tsiang, from where some coins as well as image of goddess Kalika Devi were found. Some of the excavations from this site, including three inscribed jars, can also be seen in the Peshawar Museum.
By the time, we left Palatu Dheri, evening was approaching and Malik Sahib announced that it was the ideal time to travel back and feast eyes on his rivers. So we started our backward journey and true as Malik Sahib had promised, came across as many as five rivers on our way to Peshawar, located at a distance from one or two miles from each other. These included rivers Sardaryab (Kabul), Naguman, Shalam, Khyali and Jindi . Bordered by rows of towering poplar trees, these rivers glittered like golden ribbons in setting rays of evening sun.
Starting as raging torrents in lofty valleys of Dir, Swat and Chitral, these rivers appeared to be taking a peaceful slumber in hospitable Charsadda terrain. Malik Sahib (an ardent disciple of Bacha Khan who also hailed from this area) would of course not ascribe it to area geography but insist that even rivers become nonviolent once in Charsadda. When I pointed out that some of these rivers might actually fall in Peshawar rather than Charsadda, Malik Sahib snubbed me in an enchanting manner with something of a “Hur Mulk, Mulk I Maast” argument that only a proud Pakhtun with Pushkalavati connection could win.