By Syed Farooq Ali
THE beautiful valley of Chitral surrounded and hidden in the mountain peaks of the Hindukush is accessible by road only through its two famous high-altitude hilly passes — Lowari Pass (above 10,000 ft) north of Dir and the much higher and difficult 12,000 ft-high Shandhur Pass from Gilgit on its northeast side. Both these passes are often closed in winter due to heavy snow.
The town of Chitral, with a population of about 25,000 and hardly a mile long, lies along the green banks of the Mastuj River, which further divides into the Chitral and Kunar rivers. The town is connected by a few bridges, shiny river banks overlooking the peak of the snowcapped Trich Mir (7,708 meters) — the highest point in the Hindukush range.
The middle of the town is dominated by the Chitral Scouts Building, which dates back to British rule, and the presence of the 14th Century Chitral Fort with its red brick front building. A later British addition makes a beautiful backdrop if viewed from the other side of the river bank. Alongside the fort are visible the three white domes of the Shahi Mosque, which has survived for more than a hundred years and has retained its profuse beauty.
The history of Chitral is full of interesting events punctuated by sporadic events of assaults by foreign armies from neighbouring and even distant empires. This was due to the fact that the valley controlled the shortest and the easiest routes from China and Central Asia to the North-west of India. The famous Chinese Buddhist pilgrim, Fa-Hsien, passed the valley in A.D. 403, followed by Suang Yun in A.D. 519. A detailed description of upper Chitral is recorded by Chinese pilgrim Yuan Zang. The Chinese ruled Chitral in A.D. 750, but were defeated by the invading Arab Muslim armies.
It is interesting to know that during the Mongol invasions of Eurasia during the 13th Century, the valley of Chitral was traversed by Mongol armies and the famous Italian traveller, Marco Polo, (c. 1273) passed through Chitral on his way to Mongolia. He described the Chitral of that time as noisy with kingdoms. The turmoil of warring kingdoms lasted till the early 19th Century, when eventually the British rulers of India started taking keen interest in the valley for its control due to its strategic location, wary of the expanding Russian empire. The British, in their 100-year rule, not only established a strong footing in the valley, but also built and developed a local army to control and defend the widespread area of Chitral.
A visitor to today’s Chitral town will notice a number of upcoming shops and roadside hotels, a majority of which are now owned by Afghan refugees. Chitral valley represents a mix of cultures — of these the two namely Khowar and Kelash are the oldest and surviving, to-date. Kelash are famous for their unique and uninterrupted ancient customs and have retreated, with time, to the safe hilly areas of Bumburet and Rambur, while the Khowars are widely present and larger in numbers, living in small semi-urban settlements. These people were originally hunters and animal grazers. An interesting disclosure which Khowar folklore revealed is that in the distant past, the glaciers between Chitral and Wakhan strip of Afghanistan were not as thick as they are today, and there were many places in the Hindukush range to cross into the valley, particularly in summer.
Like many other ancient tribes, the people of Chitral also adore fairies and believe that the hilltops are ruled by them. And so the snowy peak of Trich Mir belongs to a fairy queen who rules it with her five children, one son and four daughters. The children and other fairies are responsible of controlling the neighbouring mountain caps. The legend goes on to suggest that wildlife such as the Ibex (Markhor) are in fact owned by the fairies and so one shouldn’t hurt them.