History of Pakistan

Pakistan is a land of contrasts; the land of the Indus, which flows through the country for 2500 kilometers. It is a land of snow covered peaks and burning deserts, of fertile mountain valleys and irrigated planes. It is a land of striking variety of colours and customs. Its name means the ‘land of the pure’ in Urdu. The best way to see this rich countryside is to travel by road. The deserts, the mountains, the rivers, the arid plateaus, the green field all hold a special attraction. Their enormity and grandeur can only be experienced if you have seen them for yourself for it is impossible to appreciate the beauty of the scenery by just reading about it.

The Himalayas and Karakoram are the world’s newest mountains. About 55 million years ago, the Indian geological plate drifted northwards and collided with the Asian plate, its northern edge nosing under and pushing up the mountains. The Indian plate is still driving northwards at about five centimeter’s a year, causing the mountains to rise about seven millimeters annually.

Pakistan has four provinces, Sind, Baluchistan, Punjab and the NWFP. Sind is the southern part of the country and Karachi it’s the major city. Baluchistan lies to the west of the country and Quetta is its main city. Punjab borders with India and is towards the east of the country with Lahore, Islamabad and Rawalpindi as the major cities. NWFP is the North West Frontier Province and Peshawar is the major city. A network of roads, which are fast improving towards international standards, connects all these cities.

In northern Pakistan the mountains are divided into four ranges. The northernmost tip if the country is the hub of the system. Radiating out to the west, in the border with Afghanistan, lie the Hindu Kush, whose eastern boundary is marked by the Ishkoman and Karumbar rivers in Gilgit District. Flowing north from these, the Pamirs run up into the former Soviet Union. Spreading from the centre to the northeast, along the border with China, lie the Karakoram – the main block of mountains in Pakistan, 250 kilometers long and 150 kilometers wide. Finally, in the southeast corner, separated from the Karakoram by the Indus River, the western tip of the Himalayan range lies along the disputed border with India. Within the mountains of northern Pakistan are four main valleys – Indus, Gilgit, Hunza and Chitral, all within the Indus drainage system.

The Indus existed before the mountains formed, and the mighty river was able to maintain its course as the mountains rose. It enters Pakistan flowing northwestwards into baltistan, having already traveled nearly 1000- kilometers from its source in Tibet, passing through ladakh in northern India along the way.

Of the four mountain ranges, the Karakoram is the most remote and wild. The area is a mountain desert whose few inhabitants live by irrigating small oases of terraced land along the rivers, small green patchworks of fields sewn onto the grey valley walls. Were it not for the glacial melt waters, all would be barren. Even today, these mountains are less well explored and mapped than other comparable mountain regions, and many peaks over 6,000 meters remain unnamed and unclimbed.

The Karakoram glaciers are stupendous – huge expanses of tortured ice covered in a blanket of boulders and gravel. Along their lower edges, though, are alpine meadows watered by the melting ice and shaded by willow and juniper trees. These draw the shepherds and their flocks up from the villages for the summer months. These summer pastures, carpeted in edelweiss, gentians and primulas, with banks of orchids along the glacial streams, wild roses and honeysuckle scattered amid the rocks, all surrounded by towering jagged peaks and tumbling cascades of ice, are the reward for the determined few.

Here the present is so simple and satisfying … and so full of peace and beauty – that one is more than willing to pretend nothing else ever existed or ever can exist. Each day I seem to feel more deeply content and inwardly stronger, as though the uncomplicated joys of travelling through these mountains were a form of nourishment.

Dervla Murphy, Where the Indus is young.

The area surrounding most mountain village is semi arid desert with clumps of scented artemisia, pale-blue and white globe thistles (Echinops), some berberis, the odd juniper and pine tree and scattered buckthorn bushes (Hippophae rhamnoides) covered in orange berries in autumn. Along the river valleys you find several kinds of tamarisk (Tamarix indica and Tamaricaria elegans) with along feathery heads of pink flowers. In parts of Chitral. Swat and Indus Kohistan, the lower slopes are covered with evergreen hollyoaks (Quercusilex).

As you rise the air gets cooler and less dry. From about 2,000 to 3100metres in some of the more remote and sheltered valleys, there are quite large coniferous forests of Himalayan blue pine (pinus wallichiana), silver for (Abies pindrow )and spruce (Picea smithiana). On the drier slopes are scattered stands of the magnificent deodar (Himalayan cedar, or Cedrus deodara), some specimens up to fifty meters tall with trunks ten or eleven meters in circumference, and a few Chalgoza pine (Pinus gerardiana) with smooth, Grey bark peeling in dappled flakes. These trees bear cones that contain nutritious oily seeds that are delicious roasted.

Above this, to over 4000 meters, dwarf or creeping juniper (juniperus communis), willow and Himalayan birch (Betula utilis) reach tree size at the lower altitudes but crouch as bushes higher up. Their brown and white peeling bark easily identify the birch trees. Scattered throughout is the juniper, still burned for its purifying smoke.

Above the tree line, the moisture content of the air drops and you enter alpine meadows covered in a variety of flowers. In rocky places are saxifrages (Bergenia), pea flowered Astragalus, spurges (Euphorbia), stonecrops (sedum and Rhodiola), edelweiss and rock jasmines, with carpets of potentillas, primulas and gentians on the meadows. You also find taller, bright pink and yellow louseworts (Pedicularis), yellow fumitory (Corydalis) and the pretty fringed white flowers of alpine campion (silene).

There are many times when one is surprised at the flowers, which no one has mentioned, enormous dark pink rose bushes up to five meters high and bristling with thorns. Spectacular displays of red willow herb on lateral moraines, whole slopes carpeted with purple geraniums, several species of tall blue delphiniums, and the creamy white spires of Sorbaria. On the damper slopes, pink bistort (Polygonum affine), individual clumps of nectar filled columbines (Aquilegia). Mauve asters, white anemones, the drooping blue bells of campanulas (Codonopsis), lilies, buttercups and tall spires of poisonous monkshood (Aconitum). The variety of flowers is breathtaking, as is the terrain.

The ancient Invaders

Small communities of hunters and herders first visited the mountains of northern Pakistan at least six thousand years ago. Traders and pilgrims have been finding their way across the mountain passes dividing China, India and the West at least since ancient Greek and Roman times and Probably earlier.

The Aryans invaded northern Pakistan from Central Asia in the eighteenth century BC, and we know from their religious text, the Rigveda, that they fought battles on the banks of the Suvastu River, now called the River Swat.

Darius the Great of the Great of Persia took part of northern Pakistan in the seventh century BC, and Alexander the Great of Greece passed through Swat on his way to India in the fourth Century BC. The rulers of Hunza and the Kalash of Chitral both tell picturesque legends in which they claim to be descended from Alexander and his troops.

Later came the heyday of the Silk Route, during which time Central Asians became rich as the middlemen in the trade between China, India and the Roman Empire Merchant caravans struggled through the mountains, following various trails across 4000 to 5500 meter passes both south and west from Kashgar. Silks, ceramics, lacquerwork, bronze, iron, furs and spices came from China, and wool, linen ivory, gold, silver, precious and semi-precious stones, asbestos, glass, perfumes, horses and other animals and plants were traded in exchange.

The trade started during the Han Dynasty (206BC to AD 220), which had its capital at Xi’an. The Chinese sold their merchandise to Central Asian middlemen, first the Scythians (Iranian nomads) in the second and first century BC, then the powerful Parthians (from east of the Caspian Sea) who grew rich on the trade. In 53 BC, the Parthians defeated the Romans in battle by waving silken banners that were so fine and light that the Roman soldiers fled in terror, thinking the material could only be the work of sorcerers. Next to reign in Central Asia were the Kushans, who established themselves at the center of the lucrative silk trade, Roman demand for the gossamer fabric having by this time become insatiable.

The Kushans established the winter capital of their Gandhara kingdom at Peshawar, and by the second century AD had reached the height of their power, with an empire that stretched from eastern Iran to the Chinese frontier and south to the Ganges River. The Kushans were Buddhist, and their most famous king, Kanishka, built thousands of monasteries and stupas, while Buddhist missionaries joined traders travelling the treacherous routes through the mountains. Soon pilgrims from the east joined the traffic across the passes, heading to Gandhara in search of the holy sites, scriptures and original sources of Buddhism. Trekkers in Pakistan still find thousands of Buddhist carvings left by these pilgrims along the Indus, Gilgit, Hunza and Chitral rivers and near the tops of the passes.

The most famous Buddhist pilgrims to cross the mountains of Pakistan were Fa Xian in 403, Song Yun in 519, Xuan Zang in 630 and Wu Kong in 750, all of whom left impressive accounts of their journeys.

As the Kushan Empire declined between the third and fifth centuries, the Sassanian rulers of Persia absorbed the northern reaches of the empire. With the rise of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) in China came the golden age of the Silk Route, as more traders, missionaries and pilgrims than ever moved through the high mountain passes. The most famous of all Buddhist missionaries, Padmasambhava, left Swat in Pakistan for Tibet during this time, in 747.

But by the end of the seventh century the Persians had discovered the secret of making silk, and by the end of the eighth Century Sea routes had been opened for East-west trade. The Arab expansion caused political instability in Central Asia, breaking the area up into tiny principalities and making the land routes unsafe. These developments conspired to rob the Silk Route of its value.

When the Mongols united Central Asia with their Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) in China, the trade routes opened again for more than a Century, allowing Marco Polo to pass through in about 1273 and reviving strong cultural and commercial links through the mountains.

The next strong central power was the Moghals, who stabilized India throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, allowing trade to resume through the mountains to China.

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