World-famed Khyber Pass, the scene
of so many deeds, the witness of so. many significant
events, so rich in memories of every age.
Pass, one of the great conduits of the world, connects
South Asian lands to the vast stretches of Central
Asia and beyond. Arena of some of the fiercest resistance
in history,' it is inhabited by the Afridi tribe.
Their adobe villages are built like fortresses complete
with watch-towers. This archi¬tecture speaks imposingly
of jealously-guarded privacy, the insecurity that
prevails, inter-tribal rivalries and fierce inde¬pendence.
Time and again outsiders have paid a heavy price.
During the Sikh. period, the Khalsa rule never extended
beyond jamrud which was reached in 1836. The British
dared to tread the Pass during the First Afghan War.
Captain Wade with 10,000 to 12,000 men with 2 field
guns paid for the incursion with 22 dead and 158 wounded.
The Afridis had only 509 jazails / "muskets."
Similar incidents continued during the Raj and the
Khyber saw some major disasters for the British. Between
Shagai and Ali Masjid, on the left of the' road, is
an enclosed British cemetery. It reminds the visitor
of the Second Afghan War and the famous battle of
Ali Masjid, fought in 1878. During the 1897 disturbances,
the Khyber Pass was a source of special concern. Afridi
attacks and the stubborn defence by the Khyber Rifles,
an irregular corps of militia, spoke volumes for both
sides. British cam¬paigns and regiments, which
manned the fort and the many pickets on the route,
are commemorated by insignias ¬Gordon Highlanders,
South Wales Borderers, Royal Sussex, Cheshire and
Dorest regiments - carved and painted on rocks. Terrain
and tribe, collective courage and individual heroism
combine to give this Pass its legendary status.
Bab-i Khyber/Khyber Gate built in the 1960's, marks
the beginning of the Pass. It was here, in 1948, that
the Father of the Nation, Muhammad Ali Jinnah proclaimed
Pakistan's policy for the tribal areas, which transformed
the hostile tribes into patriotic citizens of a new
state. The Pass begins in the picturesque Valley of
Peshawar at jamrud where the mud-walled fort looks,
from a distance, like a "battleship sail¬ing
across the stony waste."3 Extending for about
35 miles from Torkham to Jamrud, the Pass is actually
the 25-milestretch between Landi Kotal and the Shadi
Bagiari village and meanders through "stark and
grim"4 hills which seem "barren spiky, cruel.
..as if.. .only half created". 5 The complete
barrenness of the hills under the summer sun shimmers
and shivers in the yellow heat which intensifies the
aridity. Yet according to Afridi legends, these hills
were once covered with trees and the climate was far
more pleasant. Now however, the temperature in midsummer
can rise upto 115°F and the air can be particularly
hot and dry.
Pass with the gradient of one in fifty, on an average
of 2%, has four distinct stages. The initial stage
is the steep rise from Jamrud, with its fort built
by the Sikh General Hari Singh Nalwa in 1836, to Shahgai.
With characteristic Sikh optimism the new fort was
named "Futtehghur" / "Fort of Victory".
As Governor of Peshawar, he fought his last battle
here and was killed in the western gate by a Mullagori
tribesman. Nalwa's ashes are entombed in the white
structure visible near the outer battlements. Burnes
visiting it during 1836-1838 in the company of another
general of the Sikh army, Avitabile, wryly observed
that "in reality it was the scene of defeat",
and that "although some months had elapsed since
the battle, the effluvia from the dead bodies, both
of men and horses, were quite revolting". At
Shagai the British-Indian Artillery sappers and miners
erected the fort in 1928-1929 to command the approaches
from Tirah.10 The second stage is the level stretch
along the Shagai Bridge through the narrow gorge guarded
by the high Ali Masjid Fort. The Fort stands on a
limestone crag overlooking the mosque after which
the whole area is named. Here toe tough battle of
1878 was fought. The third section is the ascent of
the Khyber Valley to the summit at Landi Kotal. The
final stretch is the steep drop from Landi Kotal.
Here the Michni Post presents the most panoramic view
of the Durand Line or the Afghan border,towards which
the road winds its way. Here the prison of Taimur,
or Tamerlane, can also be seen in the near distance.
The Pass, some thirty miles long from the plains of
Afghanistan to the fertile valley of Peshawar, rises
about 3,500 ft.
torturous route had been traversed by men and beast
by caravans and merchants since times unrecorded.
During the campaign of summer 1581, Emperor Akbar's
chief engi¬neer, Qasim Khan, first built a road
through the Khyber Pass that was practicable for vehicles.
"A road hard to negotiate even by horses and
camels", says Abdul Fazal in the Ain-i Akbari.
"After Qasim Khan's improvements [it] could be
passed with eaSe by wheeled carriages". This
was the alignment followed when the road was rebuilt
almost three and a half centuries later.
In the mid-nineteenth century the theatre and threat
of war in Central Asia obliged the British to safeguard
the north-western peripheries of their empire. The
Pass, being crucial to their strategy, was given serious
thought. Prompted by Russian advances in Central Asia,
the British in India adopted the "Forward Policy"
to check them. The Durand Line had been negotiated
and the Frontier secured against any Russian adventurism
beyond the buffer emirate of Afghanistan. The Great
Game had begun decades earlier. Now it began to be
accorded due attention. The Industrial Revolution
in England was an impetus. The steam-engine had become
a mighty agent of change. A large number of troops
and heavy armament could be transported with greater
speed to even remote areas. This invention was brought
to play its role to secure the imperial borders. The
result was one of the great wonders of modern engineering:
the construction of the railway line from Peshawar
through the Khyber Pass to the border of Afghanistan
at Torkham. This marvel of human ingenuity and skill
was conceived in the minds of colonials long before
its actual execution. The survey of the route was
started by Lt. Col G. R. Beran but construction began
after the First World War when Victor Bayley, the
Executive Engineer of the Railway Department arrived
on the scene.
first sod was turned on this brave new undertaking
in January 1921. Earthwork, with labour provided by
men of various hill-tribes, began under the watchful
eye of the irregular force of the khassadars. Sporting
rifles, they manned the defensive pickets along the
route to provide security to the workers. At one time
a force of 470 rifle-men was employed. The work on
the railway line started at the end of 1920 and steadily
progress was made, cutting through mountains of shale,
drilling tunnels through the slopes, negotiating the
sharp ascent and the sheer drop to the Torkham border.
By 1924 the work was complete. The drilling of tunnels
was particularly dangerous. Though the supplies of
brick and mortar were at times carried by donkeys
over goat-tracks, these constructions were put in
place. Ventilation, water supply and electrical lights
were provided along with the human requirement of
sanitation and medical services. Excavations were
carried out by labourers and carpenters and masons.
All worked in trying conditions to achieve this remarkable
feat of engineering. They battered, during the four
long years, some of the most difficult terrain in
the empire, through heat, and dust and freezing cold.
The tenacity and hard work of these workers along
with the British engineers produced a marvel of modern
achievement. The track was laid across 92 bridges
and culverts and 34 tunnels. As the steam engines
chugged, snorted and whistled up the tracks on the
historic day in 1925, this hitherto untamed terrain
saw the birth of a new era of transportation. Sir
Charles Innes, the railway member of the Governor
General's Council, acting on behalf of the Viceroy
performed the ceremony of opening the Khyber railway
on November 21, 1925. The enterprise had cost a phenomenal
sum of 210 million rupees. "This was the high
point of imperial engineering in every sense of the
word: British power and prestige lapping the very
borders of the ... sub-continent yet at the very moment
when the tide was turning at the centre."
one of the wonders of the world, it was invariably
a part of the itinerary of distinguished European
and British travellers, both male and female, on the
tour of imperial India. The Prince of Wales, Clemenceau,
Countess Roberts, daughter of Lord Roberts were some
of the distinguished personalities who visited the
site in the early years. During the 1920' s ladies
were permitted to visit the Khyber in a car only twice
a week between the hours of ten and three "under
suitable male escort". "Passes for this
adventure were sparingly given by the Political Agent
to Persons of Undoubted Discretion and Un-exampled
Virtue". It was said in the 1920' s that there
were two places in the world where if one waited long
enough one could see everyone of any importance. One
was the Victoria Station in London and the other was
Landi Kotal in the Khyber Pass.
Landi Kotal is now the headquarter of the Khyber
Rifles. Its Mess is a grand institution visited by
kings and queens, royalty, celebrities and Hollywood
stars, including Robert de Nero. All have left their
autographed photographs as gifts.
For centuries camel-caravans had carried fruits, carpets
and wool from Afghanistan and taken back the produce
of the Peshawar Valley. Thus Rudyard Kipling, the
1907 Nobel lau¬reate for Literature, evokes the
And the camp-fires twinkled by Fort
And there fled on the wings of the gathering dusk
A savour of camels and carpets and musk,
A murmur of voices, a reek of smoke,
To tell us the trade of the Khyber woke.
By the 1920's they carried back matches, corrugated
iron, metal sheets, sewing machines and gramophone
railway project was motivated not by commercial con¬cerns,
as most other railway schemes in British India. It
was prompted and propelled by strategic concerns of
the Great Game. In times of peace however, it provided
transportation for the local population. It also provided
employment to them in the Railway Department while
integrating the region decisively with the rest of
the country. With the passage of time and the improvement
of road transport, the tracks are now only occasionally
used between Peshawar and Landi Kotal. Although the
crucial section between Landi Kotal and Torkham on
the border has fallen to disuse, the train safari
between Peshawar and Landi Kotal still remains one
of the most spectacular in the world.