Associated with (and named
after) Khyber Fort in Arab peninsula that was conquered by the Caliph
Hazrat Ali (AS) in early days of Islam, Khyber Pass in Pakistan is amazing
defile that has seen and made history for centuries. From Central Asia to
South Asia, the pass has held
open the route for
many, who ventured to reap the fortune of the extensive plans in the
Subcontinent. It is awesome to see the marks and symbols left by those who
took their chance through this way.
Gateway to the South Asia, the Pass has been centre of activity since
ancient times. Caravans of merchants, missionaries, preachers of different
philosophies, conquerors, artists and architects - from Aryan to Mughals -
have moved from Central to South Asia for centuries. (In fourth century,
Alexander from Macedon never took this route as it is wrongly considered,
though. He took much difficult route further up in the north.) And, these
days Afghan refugees come and go this way. Rail and modern automobiles
commute through the historic pass where once only horses and camels used
For the first time traveller, the scenery through out the range is rocky,
wanting in softness and beauty. In many parts it becomes barren and
uninviting. But, in truth the range is dotted with historical wonders,
romantic legends, archaeological remains and varying geological
formations. A trip through the Khyber Pass provides a wonderful experience
of mountain formations with barren hillsides and spots of ever lasting
historic memories: remains of forts, stupas and other symbolic sites.
The Khyber Pass is the meeting place of a series of grey brown crags,
narrow low-lying valleys and small plans with Safed Koh Range forming its
southern boundary. On the inside of the Khyber Pass is the Torkham plain
and on its highest point is situated the Shahgai fort, form where the
Khyber River flows sluggishly towards Jamrud. In between comes the
narrowest gorge at Ali Masjid - a bottle neck in the line of advance-where
in earlier centuries the Buddhists stopped to nearby water spring and left
behind traces of their sojourn. Relics of Stupa from Khushan period are
still there. It is strange that all the three epic traditions the Buddhist
of Gandhara, the Persian, and Muslim association have stuck to one or the
other hill feature of the region.
The Khyber Pass is
not 'at' the boarder. The Pass is a 53-kilometer (33-miles) passage
through the mountain range extending form Torkham to Jamrud. Strictly
speaking the term applies to the defile between village Shadi Bagiari and
Landi Kotal. To the north stand the lofty peaks of the mountain stretching
like a chain towards Landi Kotal. Rising to the south, the pass is bounded
by broken ridges, at places rising to great heights and traversed by
several paths. Beyond Landi Kotal, the road falls rapidly in a zigzag path
to village Landi Khana and Torkham, the Pakistan border post. Through out
the pass, villages are seen presenting a wonderful view of fortress walls
and towers with musketry holes, on which the locals keep watches. Tending
agriculture is a difficult occupation for lack of water.
Zahir ud Din Babar - the founder of the Mughal dynasty in South Asia - was
the first determined invader who chose Khyber Pass for his eastward march
and gave the pass its claim to universal prominence. Babar's description
as quoted by Dr. Ahmad Hassan Dani in his book is quite vivid. Babar
wrote, "it was in the month of Shaban 910 AH (January 1501 AD), the sun
being in Aquarius that we rode out of Kabul for Hindustan. We took the
road of Badam Chashma and Jagdalik and reached Adinapur in six marches.
Till that time I had never seen a hot country or the Hindustan border
land. In Ningrahar another world came to view, other grasses, other trees,
other animals, other birds and other manners and customs of clan and
horde. We were amazed, and truly there was ground of amaze..."
The history of the Khyber Pass as a strategic gateway dates from 326 BC.
In the AD 900s, Persian, Mongol, and Tartar armies forced their way
through the Khyber, bringing Islam to India. Centuries later, India became
part of the British Empire, and British troops defended the Khyber Pass
from the British Indian side. During the Afghan Wars the pass was the
scene of numerous skirmishes between Anglo-Indian soldiers and native
Afghans. Particularly well known is the battle of January 1842, in which
about 16,000 British and Indian troops were killed. The British
constructed a road through the pass in 1879 and converted it into a
highway during the 1920s. A railroad was also built here in the 1920s.
Today, two highways thread their way through the Khyber Pass - one for
motor traffic, and one for the traditional caravans. A railway line also
travels to the head of the pass. Recently, the Khyber Pass has been used
to transport refugees from the Afghan civil war into Pakistan.
The majestic and symbolic entrance known as Bab-i-Khyber stands near
Jamrud village. The arched portal was built in 1963 to commemorate Jashn-e-Khyber
celebrated that year. President Muhammad Ayub Khan inaugurated the gateway
on June 10, 1963. The gateway arch spans over the road, which is marked by
round tapering tower on its either side with canons on the top. There are
inscriptions on the gateway, narrating the history of the Khyber Pass.
One of the gems in the history of the Pass is towering fort built by the
Sikhs near Jamrud village. Harui Singh founded the fort on a vantage point
in 1836 AD, to guard against the invading force through the Khyber, but
ultimately the fort became the last resting place of the Sikh General. The
Fort presents a picturesque view in the background of the hill.
Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah came here in 1948 and announced his
policy on "the freedom and responsibilities of the tribes."
The ancient caravan
path survives alongside the new metalled road - first constructed in 1585
- and parallel to it runs the winding railway line, bearing the railway
carriages, pushed and pulled by double steam engines, one from front and
another from behind. The railway line run through thirty-four tunnels and
advances over ninety two culverts. The construction of railway track was
certainly a master feat of engineering. But, it has become off limits for
a common people because of the charges of the trip, which is scheduled in
The Khyber Railway has a unique history of its own since it was laid in
1925 by the British as a secure means of transport for troops. The British
also built two important forts (at Shahgai and Landi Kotal) and a series
of watch towers to safe guard the railway line. Its first stage, form
Peshawar Cantonment Station to Jamrud, is an easy go as it covers the
plains at the foot of the hill. From Jamrud onward are a steep rises and
the difficult passage until Torkham border.
Besides railways, the only means of communication through the Khyber Pass
had been private journeys by foot, on horses or camels. With the opening
of the railways, the tribesmen adjusted their pattern of travel to these
new types of journeys. Soon after independence, as the condition of the
road improved, bus service also became regular. It is this particular
feature of the journey through Khyber that is most enjoyable: one meets a
blend of the people that hail form different tribes in their peculiar
dress and complexion and still different habits and customs.
With condensed overlays of historic wonders, archaeological remains,
legends, hidden secrets and unanswered questions, savouring Khyber Pass in
a hurry is like eating an elephant in one gulp. My recommendation: give it
a try bit by bit.