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Once upon a time in Kalabagh

A small river-side town bustling with heritage and history that holds great potential as an attractive tourist destination

Once upon a time in Kalabagh
A little town on the river.

Situated on the banks of the mighty Indus, Kalabagh is best known for the fearsome Governor of West Pakistan — Nawab Ameer Muhammad Khan who ruled West Pakistan from 1961-66 with an iron fist. The 1915 Gazetteer of Mianwali reports the nawab’s family being in the area for over two hundred years while their landholdings or jagir extended from Bhangikhel in the north of Indus to Massan in the south east and Isakhel in the west with Kalabagh being the principal seat. The family had vast hunting grounds where the leading generals and politicians of the time would come for a shoot.

One such hunting general was Iskander Mirza after whom Iskandarabad is named near Kalabagh. Iskander Mirza was the defence secretary in 1950 and once he arrived on his hunting spree at Kalabagh accompanied by a major general in uniform. Iskander Mirza told Nawab of Kalabagh that the gentleman accompanying him shall be the next commander-in-chief. In January 1951, the man in uniform Major General Ayub Khan was made Commander in Chief of the Pakistan Army. General Ayub Khan is known as one officer who made it from no star to four stars in a matter of four years from 1947 to 1951. Just like in the case of Bhutto, friendships that had developed on hunting grounds went a long way, and in this case they ended up with the Nawab becoming Governor of West Pakistan.

The history of Nawabs of Kalabagh dates back to at least the sixteenth century when Bandey Ali settled in Kalabagh from the Dinkot Fort nearby, the ruins of which are still a few miles from Kalabagh. Bandey Ali apparently descended from one of the generals of Mahmud Ghaznavi; however, other records mention a local Rajput connection.

Anyway, the nawabs aligned with the Sikhs during Ranjit Singh’s rule; later they shifted their allegiance to the British and the 1915 gazetteer appreciates the nawabs for supporting the British during Sikh wars. The family supported the British during the War of Independence of 1857 again and was later given jagirs, titles of Khan Bahadur or Honorary Magistrates. The next hundred or so years saw the Nawabs of Kalabagh rise both in terms of social status as well as influence.

Despite having studied at Aitchison College and later Oxford, he is known to have sent famous socialist Eqbal Ahmed and his friends back ‘by the next bus’ or they would be ‘skinned alive’ when the latter arrived in Kalabagh to teach the poor children of the backward town.

As we entered the 1830s fort of the Nawab of Kalabagh, when visiting the place in November last year, we were shown around by the humble and courteous caretaker Abdur Rehman whose many generations had served the Nawabs with zeal and pride. The fort is a small museum in itself and has two main portions — one being the residential quarters of the nawab’s family and the other being the open court where guests and visitors are received. The compound displays historical relics ranging from canons to numerous hunting trophies as well as Victorian furniture. The Scotland-manufactured girders supporting the roof are noticeable — the fort was apparently fully renovated in 1911.

As one enters the building, one is amazed to see the medal conferred to the nawab on the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953 as Pakistan had by then become a Republic and the queen was still head of the state.

The Times of India on June 28, 1916 carried a picture of the aircraft gifted by Nawab Atta Muhammad Khan to the British during World War I costing Rs 75,000 in addition to his contribution of Rs 35,000 for cavalry remounts. Similarly, pictures of steamers plying the Indus at Kalabagh or Nawab’s pictures taken at the Governor’s House Lahore with Queen Elizabeth, Shah Faisal, Nehru and Jacqueline Kennedy remind of the glory of a happening era. The fort is overall immaculately maintained.

Nawab, Bhutto and Ayub Khan.

Nawab, Bhutto and Ayub Khan.

The 1915 gazetteer mentions Nawab Allah Yar Khan’s passion for maintaining a large stud of excellent broodmares as well as his love for horse riding. The studs with pedigreed horses are being maintained to this date; a visit to the stables is a treat to the eyes especially for horse lovers. Nawab Ameer Muhammad Khan, on the other hand, was known for his knowledge of fruits and crops — Kalabagh used to boast of one of the most modern agriculture farms at one point in time. Praising the Nawab’s knowledge of varieties of guavas during a luncheon at the Governor’s House, Jacqueline Kennedy is said to have quipped about making the Nawab the Agriculture Minister for the US.

It was time to sneak into the Kalabagh postcard ‘Bohr Bungalow’. Bohr Bungalow is so named because it was constructed under the shades of a huge centuries-old banyan tree. Kalabagh actually got its name from the word ‘Kala’ meaning black (as the place appears dark due to the huge banyan trees and orchards all around) and ‘Bagh’ meaning garden.

Bohr Bungalow used to be the rest house where the Nawab entertained important dignitaries including Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and General Ayub Khan. Among the guests was also the former first lady of the US, Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of war-time President Franklin Roosevelt, who visited Pakistan in 1952. Mrs Roosevelt was a state guest and celebrated Air force pilot Lanky Ahmed served as his aide during the visit and writes in his memoirs ‘The hectic programme also included a luncheon party, given by the Nawab of Kalabagh at his fort, overlooking the Indus river near Mianwali, although he was not the Governor of the Punjab in those days. He escorted Mrs. Roosevelt inside the house to introduce his family who were in ‘parda’ and segregation’.

Bohr Bungalow on the banks of Indus.

Bohr Bungalow on the banks of Indus.

The bungalow has many historical artifacts but is currently undergoing an extensive renovation. The Nawab had extensive properties including Bohr Bungalow, Kalabagh Fort, Peepal Bungalow and the hunting ranges as well as bungalows in Lahore and Islamabad. These properties have now been divided among various heirs of the family.

Nawab Ameer Muhammad Khan was a towering figure of his time and actually the title of Nawab of Kalabagh is best associated with him. After the nawab’s death in 1967, the title gradually lost its charm. Like all significant people in history, the nawab had his share of contradictions in his life. Despite having studied at Aitchison College and later Oxford, he is known to have sent famous socialist Eqbal Ahmed and his friends back ‘by the next bus’ or they would be ‘skinned alive’ when the latter arrived in Kalabagh to teach the poor children of the backward town.

To add to this, no one in Kalabagh would dare look at the women of the family when they were travelling in the estate. Any family procession used to be preceded by a drum-beater announcing the passage of the family and all men would turn their backs towards the walls and shut their shops. Later, the family would cross in style surrounded by baton-wielding guards who would not hesitate to thrash any onlookers then and there.

The nawab was succeeded by four sons and today the third generation of the formidable nawab is in politics. However, the influence of the family has also been considerably diluted with the emergence of new money politicos. Unfortunately, despite the Municipal Committee of Kalabagh having been established in 1880s, one doesn’t see much development in Kalabagh where there are still few hospitals, schools and roads. A number of scions of the family including Malik Amad Khan, Ayla Malik and Sumaira Malik have remained members of the parliament and probably they can join hands to develop Kalabagh into a modern river-side town.

The stud farm.

The stud farm.

The story of Kalabagh is not complete without a mention of the once famous salt mines. Kalabagh saw significant economic growth brought about by mining – the activity was a boon for the area. I remember my parents buying nice salt lamps from the shops in Kalabagh but the artisans have probably left now and mining appears to be less significant.

Today the orchards are gone, the nawabs stay in Islamabad, and Kalabagh is a small old town comprising narrow streets spread along a mountain slope on the side of Indus — the only significance of the town being on a main trading route between Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab.

Kalabagh has such a rich historical heritage in shape of forts, old rest houses, temples, railway stations, bridges and a centuries-old story to tell. Yet, there is not a single hotel to stay and not a single tourist boat available to explore the Indus.

Converting the fort and the historic bungalows into heritage hotels and providing a ferry service as well as a small circuit of narrow gauge railway line may bring Kalabagh back on the tourist map both for domestic and foreign tourists. The gazetteer of Mianwali rightly exclaims ‘Uttay Pahar, thalay paani, Kalabagh dee aayho nishani’ meaning ‘mountains above and water below, this is where Kalabagh is’.

Omar Mukhtar Khan

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

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