View of Karimpura - Outside a sweetshop for morning breakfast
Pictorial: A motorbike tour of the Walled City of Peshawar
A wonderful way to discover the ancient city on two-wheels. I own a Suzuki Inazuma 250. It is perfect travel companion for leisure trips. I chose an early morning time on a Sunday (holiday) when the traffic is at its thinnest while the city is waking up.
Peshawar (pronounced Pe-SHAH-wur), the capital of Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa (NWFP) in Pakistan, is a frontier town, the meeting place of the subcontinent and Central Asia. It is perhaps the oldest Living City in this part of Asia – a place where ancient traditions jostle with those of today, and where the bazaar in the old city has changed little in the last hundred years except to become the neighbour of a modern university, some modern hotels, some international banks and one of the best museums in Pakistan.
No other city is quite like old Peshawar. The bazaar within its walls is like an American Wild West movie costumed as a Bible epic. Pathan (Pukhtun or Pashtun) tribesmen stroll down the street, their hands hidden inside their shawls and their faces partly covered by the loose ends of their turbans (they have now been forbidden to walk armed in town). With his piercing eyes and finely chiselled nose, the Pathan must be the handsomest man on earth. Overlooking all the crowded and narrow streets are the massive Balahisar Fort — still used by the army, and the elegant Mahabat Khan Mosque.
The railway, built by the British, divides Peshawar’s old town from the Cantonment, laid out by the British after 1850, with wide tree-lined streets bordered by once gracious administrative buildings and spacious bungalows in large gardens. Clubs, churches, schools, The Mall, Saddar Bazaar and the airport are all part of the British contribution to modern Peshawar. Peshawar University, founded in 1950, and surrounded by University Town, lies to the west on the road to the Khyber Pass. Hayatabad, the newest suburb, is west of the university nearer the Khyber Pass.
Peshawar is divided into four sections:
•The old walled city,
•The British cantonment,
Walled City of Peshawar
The most exciting part of Peshawar is the old city, which dates from Buddhist, Mughal and Sikh times. It is a labyrinth of narrow lanes and colourful bazaars, a mosaic of traders, travellers, Pathan tribesmen and Afghans. Until the 20th century, it was surrounded by a wall. In typical Asiatic style, shops selling similar wares are found together; they are almost always open except during Jumma prayers on Friday afternoon. A tour taking in all the most interesting and picturesque bazaars, and some of the specialist shops and workshops, can be accomplished in two to three hours on a bike if you do not stop for the endless cups of tea offered by the shopkeepers.
Chowk Yadgar is the ‘Speaker’s Corner’ and central square of old Peshawar. The monument at the centre commemorates the heroes of the 1965 Indo–Pakistan War and is the traditional town meeting place, where most political rallies and demonstrations take place.
On the left of the square the money-changers squat on their hand-knotted carpets with their safes behind them and their pocket calculators and mobile phones at the ready. They will change any currency, but only accept clean notes.
From Chowk Yadgar there are two interesting walks, one to the west and the other to the east. Running off the square to the west is Andershehr Bazaar, a narrow street of gold- and silversmiths selling jewellery (both tribal and modern), antique silver, old coins and military buttons and buckles. While you rummage through the boxes of treasures, trying on nomads’ earrings, the shopkeeper plies you with cups of sweet green tea brewed in huge copper samovars. Shinwari Plaza, 70 metres beyond the Mahabat Mosque on the right, is a plaza full of the best Afghan shops, happy hunting ground for jewellery and carpets, and all things Afghan.
Mahabat Khan Mosque is at the top of the hill on the right (north), its entrance a narrow gateway between the jewellery shops. Built in the 1670s, this beautifully proportioned Mughal mosque, named after a regional governor who served under both emperors Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb, is orthodox in design. Its open courtyard has an ablution pond in the middle and a single row of rooms around the sides. The prayer hall on the west is flanked by two tall minarets. According to the late 19th-century Gazetteer, the minarets were frequently used in Sikh times ‘as a substitute for the gallows’. A fire that raged through the Andershehr Bazaar in 1895, (the Gazeteer continues) failed to destroy the mosque thanks only to the ‘unremitting efforts of the faithful’. The interior of the prayer hall is sheltered beneath three low fluted domes and is lavishly and colourfully painted with floral and geometric designs.
From Andershehr Bazaar, a street leads into Dhaki Munawar Shah where the famous Bollywood actor Raj Kapoor’s ancestral house is located. Dilip Kumar’s house is nearby too.
Cunningham Clock Tower. It was built in 1900 ‘in commemoration of the Diamond Jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen Empress’, but is named after commissioner of Peshawar of that period. A marble tablet on one side of the monument calls one’s attention to the sacrifices made by the people of the city in foreign lands: “From this city 200 men went to the Great War 1914-1919 of these 7 gave up their lives.”
Sethi Street continues up the hill to the Mughal caravanserai (Gor Khatri). Most of the old interconnected houses here belong to the Sethi family, one of the oldest merchant families in Peshawar. They once had offices in Czarist Russia and Shanghai; they imported silks and china and exported cloth, indigo and tea. The tall houses with wooden balconies have intricately carved wooden doors leading into spacious courtyards. Cool cellars, 15 metres deep, provide a retreat from the heat in summer. Victorian glass chandeliers evoke 19th-century opulence. Hidden inside these houses, covering their ceilings and walls like a mantle, is decorative woodwork of exquisite quality. Through a galaxy of pre-Islamic, Moghul, Sikh and even British motifs, much of Peshawar’s rich and varied cultural history can be traced.
The Gor Khatri was once a Mughal caravanserai crowning the hill at the top end of Sethi Street. Huge Mughal gateways on either end lead into a large courtyard, over 200 metres square, that was once surrounded on all four sides by rooms for travellers. The site has been considered holy for more than 2,000 years. In the second century AD, it was a Buddhist shrine and monastery known as the Tower of the Buddha’s Bowl. Remains of a Hindu temple to Gorakhnath, a yogi sect, stand in the south-eastern corner of the courtyard, with a shrine to Nandi beside it.
An ongoing archaeological dig in the north-eastern corner of Gor Khatri has established that Peshawar is one of the earliest living cities in this part of Asia, inhabited continuously from the 4-6th century BC, when it was a province of the Persian Achaemenian Empire. From then onwards it was ruled in turn by the Mauryans, Greeks, Scythians, Kushans, Sasanians, White Huns, Hindu Shahis, Ghaznavids, Ghorids, Suri Afghans, Mughals, Durrani Afghans, Sikhs, and the British, before becoming Pakistan in 1947. [Peshawar, by Isobel Shaw and Ali Jan/ TCKP)
(Ali Jan is a travel writer and can be reached on email@example.com)