Rivers, the most alive phenomenon of the physical world, have captured the fancy of some curious humans. Like them, I too have always dreamed of following rivers from their points of origin to culmination. Constrained by the fact that majority of our rivers originate on the ‘wrong’ side of the divide, I earnestly longed to visit the initial meander of some river before its downstream sojourn marred and sullied its pristine waters.
The fantastic glacial complexes of Himalaya and Baltistan, the birthplace of the Indus, being too distant I chose to explore the lesser known tributaries of Mighty Sindhu as a more practical option.
The succour for this quest came from a totally unexpected source, Rigveda, where it refers to slaying of Vritra (epitome of droughts) by Indra (symbolizing verdure), releasing seven mythical rivers across the pre-historic subcontinent. Leaving aside the fantasy-laden Saraswati and five rivers on the ‘enemy’ side, my interest focused on the seventh river called Sindhu with a tributary namely Sashoma. Going through several commentaries and precious readings from the likes of legendary Professor Dani, the conviction came too soon that one of these mythical Vedic rivers, Sashoma, could be none other than our own Soan of Potohar area.
But Soan was no river originating from the Himalayan snows; instead it owes its origin to some gushing water springs between Lehtrar and Ban in the backyard of Murree hills. However, any river finding place in Vedic literature ought to possess more phenomenal features than a calm, serene genesis. Further research and inquiries from the more knowledgeable revealed some truly fascinating facts about the lesser-known Soan River.
“Soan Cut” was how it was explained to me by an old and retired forest guard of Ghakkar clan, whose forefathers had worked in the forest department of British India in the lower Himalayan region. “My grandfather had worked with a Hindu Range Forest Officer, who also happened to be a Brahmin from Kahuta area. According to that Brahmin, Soan Cut was actually the glory associated with this river of Vedic origins”.
“And what is this Soan Cut?” was my obvious next question which was replied in some detail by Ghakkar sahib.
The upshot of his narration was that on its way, Soan cuts through a narrow and tall mountain wall that no river or stream has ever cut. The presence of Soan in the foot of this towering mountain range proves that the source of the river’s origin is much before these Himalayan formations — hence the mythical importance of Soan (erstwhile Sashoma) as one of the seven legendary Vedic rivers in this part of subcontinent from pre-historic times.
Trying hard to contain my excitement, I asked the retired forest guard if he would mind taking me to this historical spot to which he replied, “By all means, sahib, provided you also agree to undertake some serious ascent above the fabled Soan Cut to visit the relics of centuries old Pharwala Fort, the jewel of Ghakkar suzerainty in this region”.
A river with associated Vedic lore, some unparalleled geographical features and a centuries’ old citadel — I could not ask for more!
After leaving the Sihala-Kahuta road followed by a long and tiresome walk inside the thick scrub jungles and boulder-strewn country through the mouth of Lehtrar valley, we reached our destination on the Soan River in around two hours, panting and sweaty. As we cleared the last ridge to descend towards the rocky amphitheatre, house to Soan Cut, Ghakkar sahib pointed to the top of the rocky cliffs across river. I could see the outer dilapidated walls of Pharwala citadel.
With proud exuberance, Ghakkar sahib started narrating the history of his forefathers and, in the process, casually inquired about my knowledge of his illustrious clan.
Without realising what I was getting into, I naively recounted what I knew about the Ghakkar tribe from my standard school textbooks regarding the “treacherous slaying” of the valiant Muhammad Ghori at the hands of some enterprising Ghakkar warriors, in the early part of the last millennium. This was like showing a red rag to a veteran jungle official, a proud Ghakkar who spent the next few minutes clarifying the difference between an outsider Afghan fortune-seeker (Ghori) and the glorious sons of the soil (Ghakkars) who taught him a lesson for encroaching their motherland.
To him, it was an act of heroism that Muhammad Ghori, who had himself trounced the combined armies of ferocious Hindu Rajas, was murdered by a handful of bold Ghakkars. Perched at the top of a perilous rocky cliff overlooking the frothy Soan River alongside a veteran Ghakkar bent upon upholding the honour of his forefathers, pleading for Sultan Ghori’s case was obviously a hopeless cause.
The moment we descended the cliff and reached the crystal clear, bluish-green waters of Soan clearly showing colourful fish in sparkling sunny rays, my thoughts immediately shifted from the marauding Afghan hordes to the mythological Vedic eras. After bending around the legendary Soan Cut, the waters of the river rested for a while in a deep blue pool with jumping fish — a spectacle fit for devi Saraswati and Parwati to dance. The water at this point was indeed so pristine and pure that crossing it gave us a feeling of sinful violation.
Another stiff climb and we had entered the periphery of Pharwala Fort through Begum Gate which still carried the glimpses of past glory. Once inside, it felt as if we had travelled back several centuries. Amidst crumbling walls of the fort, a small resilient community of Admal Ghakkars still resides in small and scattered houses made of mudstone. Every now and then, we came across the some old, crumbling structure, now in the last throes of survival battle against the vagaries of nature and our own apathy for history. Lazy cattle roamed around in slow motion beneath the many old, towering banyan trees. There were graves and then more graves — each telling stories of battles, vanquish and conquests from bygone eras.
Ghakkar sahib told me that the graves beneath a gigantic banyan tree complex date back to 1519 when Emperor Babar was confronted by the valiant Ghakkar chiefs, Tatar and Hathi Kakar. Another group of graves beneath the massive banyan was pointed out to me, dating back to struggles against Sikh rulers of Punjab in 1800s.
The Banyan complex (I cannot find a more suitable name for this mammoth conglomerate of countless, twining branches and buttresses) is indeed a unique specimen of its type. Standing next to Qila Gate, it is spread like a vast canopy which at once looks scary, surreal and overpowering. To me, this appeared to be the most stunning feature of Pharwala Fort symbolising the invincibility of this citadel atop perilous rocky amphitheatres for centuries, ably and jealously preserved by its valiant sons from Ghakkar lineage.
As we reached the fourth and last existing gate of Pharwala Fort (three others having already crumbled and vanished), I saw what was decidedly the best view to be had in that arena. Hill after rolling hill, all clad in green scrub and scattered pine trees, gaining height towards Lehtrar and Panjar ranges, making for a blessed, heavenly sight. But looking across the Lashkri Darwaza, I was startled to note heavy machinery and bulldozers, clearing the southern ridges next to Pharwala ridge.
I looked back at Ghakkar sahib who referred to the increasing trend of land grabbing and indiscriminate jungle clearance on the pretext of developing housing schemes.
What I knew in the next few minutes from Ghakkar sahib convinced me that the recluse heaven of Pharwala Fort and Sashoma River with Soan Cut and dancing goddesses were up for a final Yudh (epic fight) against adversaries more pernicious than Kali. Vanquishing of Soan appeared only a matter of time, much like the fabled, lost Vedic river of Ghagra. A faithful culmination to a fascinating beginning.