Rawalpindi Rhetoric and
landscapes of the rough, rolling plains beginning from the foot of the
Murree hills, Rawalpindi city, commonly called Pindi, has a kaleidoscopic
history spread over several millenniums extending to the ancient times
corresponding with the decaying period of Buddhism to the invasions of the
Macedonians and then to the dawn of the Muslims era. The long spells of
darkness overcast the history of the religion as well as the city before
From its small beginning as a camping ground called Ghaznipur after the
invasions of Mahmud Ghanzavi, the city eventually came to be known as
Rawalpindi after the Gakkhar chief who ruled the locality.
Following the British occupation in 1849, the city became permanent
cantonment of the British army in 1851. It was around 1881 that the
railway line to Rawalpindi was laid. It is 110 years ago that the colonial
type building of the Rawalpindi Railway Station (along with many others)
was built. The need for having railway link arose after Lord Dollhouse
made Rawalpindi the headquarters of the Northern Command. And, Rawalpindi
became the largest cantonment in the South Asia.
Like the rest of the region constituting Pakistan, the people of
Rawalpindi and adjoining areas took heroic part in the War of Independence
in 1857. The British troops based at this strategic location used to be
sent to the scenes of insurgency in the adjoining districts up to Hazara,
Peshawar and Murree hills. According to Punjab Gazetteer, "the British
troops were sent from Rawalpindi to Murree hills to deal with the most
extensive rebellion that occurred in the Punjab."
The Leh Nullah flows zigzagging through the city. An early edition of the
Encyclopaedia Britannica describes the Leh Nullah as a river. Until 1923,
according to the old timers, the water of the Leh was crystal clear and
considered fit for human consumption or performing ablutions. At that
time, the city drains were not allowed to be discharged into the Leh as
all the nullahs were supposed to flow toward depression on the other side
of the Arya Mohalla running along the Murree Road. Now it has been reduced
to a carrier of sewage of the twin cities. Heavy amounts of industrial
wastes combined with the domestic refuse are deposited in Leh. The
presence of two factors had made the Leh water highly polluted and
rendered it unsafe even for agricultural use in the suburbs of the city.
And, pungency of the flowing water has made the life of those living
beside the nullah miserable.
Rawalpindi's Thandi Sarak, better known as The Mall - the glory of the
cantonment - with its row upon row of the senior Cypresses and seasonal
flower beds, was formally inaugurated in 1910 with the beautifully
sculpted statue of Queen Victoria standing majestically at the convergence
point of the Murree Road an The Mall in close vicinity of the flashman's.
The statue was chiselled in the United Kingdom in 1906. After
independence, the statue was shifted from The Mall to the British High
In old times, Rawalpindi had developed a unique architectural style. Both
in the older quarters of the city and cantonment, it was considered
fashionable to have wooden balconies with intricately designed motifs. Lal
Haveli - in the downtown - is located in the neighbour hood of the Purana
Qilla, Sarafa Bazaar, Bohar Bazaar and Moti Bazaar. In 1920 in the
pre-partition days, it was home to Budhana Bibi, a famous dancing girl.
Enter the old part of the city and you will find yourself in archetypal
form of an ancient town - crooked and narrow streets, dense housing,
intricate woodwork on Jharokas, bay windows and doors, cut brick
corbellings. Like Multan, Pakpattan or Lahore, the old quarters of the
city, better known as the Purana Qilla, have a series of alleys with some
of them being so narrow that they barely leave enough space for two people
to walk side by side at the same time. At least there is one street
through which only one person can walk. It is the entire urban fabric of
the place that is historic. There is still a chance of seeing specimen of
solid old masonry in construction of some of the old buildings. Homes have
also retained their essential trait despite renovations to make them
comfortable for modern living and their division for growing population.
The old sleepy Barrack City of Rawalpindi is no more a city of the khakis
alone. It is rapidly undergoing a change. In Chaklala, Westridge and some
other areas of the cantonment, the architectural style is fast changing
with the quaint buildings replacing the old ones.
My own alliance with the city started in mid 1970s when I commenced my
Rawalpindi. It was like boarding an express train. Later, I was admitted
in National Institute of Modern Languages Islamabad but I stayed in
Rawalpindi for three years commuting daily to and from Islamabad via
Murree Road. Inter city buss terminals then used to be in Liaqat Bagh. Now
the terminals have been shifted to Pirwadhai but the situation of traffic
on the main city roads has not improved. Moreover, Pirwadhai is no more
out of the city. The city has expanded so much that one can not define as
to where Rawalpindi finishes or Islamabad starts.
The number of vehicle plying on the city roads has exponentially grown.
Seeing the mixed traffic on every road, one wish that some of the roads -
Raja Bazaar or few of the byways in Saddar Bazaar - might be declared
totally pedestrian with vehicular traffic and all hustle-bustle contained
out side. This idea might look new but is very common in many large cities
the world over.
Once upon a time, Rawalpindi was famous for its tongas, which were in
demand throughout the country. The tonga has now been replaced with Suzuki
Pickups. One sees huge and artfully decorated structure indigenously
mounted on small chassis of vehicles lined up in Raja Bazaar or on
Islamabad International Airport and young conductors shouting Tench Bhata
or Saddar. The vehicle of convenience is being used as carrier and or
loaders on almost all routes within the city. Foreign tourists wonder to
see the innovative use of the utility vehicle and make their photos like
Every available inch of the small vehicles seems decorated in some
fashion. Badges and motifs plastered across the grills, fringes hanging
down beneath the bumpers, gewgaws hanging from the mirrors, studs pined on
to the mud flaps, a pyramid succession of mascots stacked on the front
like the prow of an ancient sailing galleon, a star burst of reflectors
across the back are common sights. A vision-obscuring decorative edge
applied around the inside of the windscreen is also popular. Flickering
lights, tassels, streamers, plastic flowers, glass-patterned metal
cut-outs and other kitschery complete the happy picture.
Another class that has grown exponentially is that of beggars in the city.
The moment traffic light turns red; they will flock around you. Most of
them are of very tender age.
Get off the motorway to enter the twin cities; you are instantly reminded
of familiar city roads with water filled in the potholes, right of the way
reduced due to excessive encroachments and horn blaring mixed traffic.
Rawalpindi city is a place where the cultural traditions of at least two
provinces (Punjab and NWFP) meet. Local population is a heterogeneous mix
of both the provinces. Tourists from foreign countries and embassies in
Islamabad are yet another fraternity found in Rawalpindi that adds an
extra dimension to the city life.