Pakistan History and Culture Guide
|796,095 sq km
|Punjabi, Sindhi, Siraiki, Pashtu, Urdu, Balochi, Hindko, Brahui
|Urdu, Punjabi, English, Sindhi
|97% Muslim, 3% Others
|GDP per Capita
|Textiles, sugar, vegetable oils, agricultural products,
cement, fertilisers, steel, chemicals, sporting goods, carpets
|Major Trading Partners
|US, Japan, Germany, UK, Saudi Arabia, UAE
The pleasures of Pakistan are ancient: Buddhist monuments, Hindu temples, Islamic palaces, tombs, pleasure grounds and Anglo-Mogul mansions – some in a state of dereliction which makes their former grandeur more emphatic. Sculpture is dominated by Graeco-Buddhist friezes, and crafts by ceramics, jewellery, silk goods and engraved woodwork and metalwork.
Pakistan’s flotillas of mirror-buffed and chrome-sequinned vintage Bedford buses and trucks are dazzling works of art. Traditional dances are lusty and vigorous; music is either classical, folk or devotional; and the most patronised literature is a mix of the scholastic and poetic. Cricket is Pakistan’s greatest sports obsession.
Nearly all Pakistanis are Muslim, and Islam is the state religion. Christians are the largest minority, followed by Hindus and Parsees, descendants of Persian Zoroastrians. Note that dress codes are strictly enforced: to avoid offence invest in a salwar kameez – a long, loose, non-revealing garment worn by both men and women.
Pakistani food is similar to that of northern India, with a dollop of Middle Eastern influence thrown in for good measure. This means menus peppered with baked and deep-fried breads (roti, chapattis, puri, halwa and nan), meat curries, lentil mush (dhal), spicy spinach, cabbage, peas and rice, and of course that staple of hippies, the sturdy Hunza pie. Street snacks – samosas and tikkas (spiced and barbecued beef, mutton or chicken) – are delicious, while a range of desserts will satisfy any sweet tooth. The most common sweet is barfi (it pays to overlook the name) , which is made of dried milk solids and comes in a variety of flavours.
The first inhabitants of Pakistan were Stone Age peoples in the Potwar Plateau (northwest Punjab). They were followed by the sophisticated Indus Valley (or Harappan) civilisation which flourished between the 23rd to 18th centuries BC. Semi-nomadic peoples then arrived, and by the 9th century BC they had spread across northern Pakistan-India. Their Vedic religion was the precursor of Hinduism, and their rigid division of labour an early caste system. In 327 BC Alexander the Great came over the Hindu Kush to finish off the remnants of the defeated Persian empire. Although his visit was short, some tribes tell picturesque legends in which they claim to be descended from Alexander and his troops. Later came the heyday of the Silk Route, a period of lucrative trade between China, India and the Roman empire.
The Kushans were at the centre of the silk trade and established the capital of their Gandhara kingdom at Peshawar. By the 2nd century AD they 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 under King Kanishka built thousands of monasteries and stupas. Soon Gandhara became both a place of trade and of religious study and pilgrimage – the Buddhist ‘holy’ land. The Kushan empire had unravelled by the 4th century and was subsequently absorbed by the Persian Sassanians, the Gupta dynasty, Hephthalites from Central Asia, and Turkic and Hindu Shahi dynasties.
The next strong central power was the Moghuls who reigned during the 16th and 17th centuries. A succession of rulers introduced sweeping reforms, ending Islam’s supremacy as a state religion, encouraging the arts, building fanciful houses and, in a complete volte-face, returning the state to Islam once again. In 1799 a young and crafty Sikh named Ranjit Singh was granted governorship of Lahore. Over the next few decades he proceeded to parlay this entity into a small empire, fashioning a religious brotherhood of ‘holy brothers’ into the most formidable army on the subcontinent. In the course of his rule, Ranjit had agreed to stay out of British territory – roughly southeast of the Sutlej River – if they in turn left him alone. But his death in 1839 and his successor’s violation of the treaty plunged the Sikhs into war.
The British duly triumphed, annexing Kashmir, Ladakh, Baltistan and Gilgit and renaming them the State of Jammu and Kashmir. Thus they created a buffer state to Russian expansionism in the northwest and, unwittingly, introduced what would transpire to be the subcontinent’s most unmanageable curse. A second war against the British in 1849 brought the empire to an end, and the annexation of the Punjab and the Sind in the 1850s; these were ceded to the British Raj in 1857. National self-awareness began growing in British India in the latter stages of the 19th century.
In 1906 the Muslim League was founded to demand an independent Muslim state, but it wasn’t until 24 years later that a totally separate Muslim homeland was proposed. Around the same time, a group of England-based Muslim exiles coined the name Pakistan, meaning ‘Land of the Pure’. After violence between Hindus and Muslims escalated in the mid-1940s, the British were forced to admit that a separate Muslim state was unavoidable. The new viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten, announced that independence would come by 14th August 1947.
British India was dutifully carved up into a central, largely Hindu region retaining the name India, and a Muslim East (present-day Bangladesh) and West Pakistan. The announcement of the boundaries sparked widespread carnage and one of the largest migrations of people in history. Kashmir (properly The State of Jammu and Kashmir) , though, wanted no part of India or Pakistan. When India and Pakistan sent troops into the recalcitrant state, war erupted between the two countries. In 1949 a UN-brokered cease-fire gave each country a piece of Kashmir to administer, but ultimate control still remains unclear.
Pakistan’s neighbours are an eclectic and ornery bunch: Iran to the south-west; Afghanistan to the west and north; China to the north-east; and India stretching down its eastern side. The southern coast abuts the Arabian Sea. The country is composed of towering peaks in the north (including K2, at 8611m/28,245ft the second-highest mountain in the world), dry and scrubby mountains in the west, an inhospitable plateau in the south-west, barren deserts in the south-east and alluvial plains everywhere else. These plains, constituting about a third of the country, are Pakistan’s ‘heart’, where most of its people live and most of its food is grown. Coursing through all this tumult is the Indus River, which falls from Tibet then travels 2500 km (1550 mi) south before emptying through an immense delta into the Arabian Sea.
Natural vegetation in Pakistan’s lowlands is patchy – mostly scattered clumps of grass and stunted woodlands. However, as the landscape rises, there are quite large coniferous forests and carpeted slopes of multicoloured flowers in the northern mountains. Fauna includes bears, snow leopards, deer and jackals. Pakistan’s 800 km (500mi) of coastline teems with sharks, shellfish and sea turtles, while the Indus delta is home to the marsh crocodile. Pakistan has three seasons: cool (October through February); hot (March through June); and wet (July through September). There are, however, big regional variations. In the south, the cool season brings dry days and cool nights, while the northern mountains attract drizzle and plummeting night-time temperatures. The hot season means suffocatingly hot and humid conditions in the south but pleasant temperatures northwards. During the wet season, the tail end of the monsoon dumps steady rain mostly in the narrow belt of the Punjab from Lahore to Islamabad. Further north, the high mountains block all but the most determined clouds.
The Northern Areas see few travellers, but those who brave the unruly terrain normally end up in Gilgit, the capital. There’s not much in the city, save a bazaar that’s full of Central Asian traders, but it’s an excellent base for alpine walks, trout fishing and pottering about for historical ruins in the countryside. Baltistan, once an unexplored dead end, is now privvy to world-class mountaineering, fine treks and lovely scenery.Northern Areas
More accessible and just as striking – check out the irrigated terraces rippling down the slopes – is the region of Hunza, Nagyr & Gojal towards the Chinese border. Flying into Gilgit is possible, if not uncomplicated. It’s a fiendishly difficult balancing act between the weather, prior cancelled flights, waiting lists, timing, and a little bit of luck. Your star sign and karma have nothing to do with it; it just seems that way. Going by bus, minibus, or jeep, may be easier to arrange but won’t give you those spectacular bird’s eye views. Gilgit is nearly 330 km (205 mi) from Islamabad.
Missionaries, anthropologists and Dudley Do-rights come to the Kalasha Valleys, south of Chitral, for one thing – to gawk at a non-Muslim tribe (yes, you read correctly) that lives there. The people refer to themselves as Kalasha, live in solid houses made of wood, stone and mud, and quietly go about their pastoral lives raising grains and herding the odd goat. Amazingly, they seem unfussed by all the attention and seem to welcome interested observers. Unless you walk, the only way into Chitral is by air (weather permitting), or via one of two passes high up in the altitudes, and even these are closed during the winter. And it’s a long walk from Islamabad: 393 km (245 mi) to be exact. Once in Chitral you can reach the Kalasha Valleys by jeep, or by taking a bus part of the way and then doing the rest the hard way; on foot.
The Nanga Parbat massif (the name means ‘Naked Mountain’ in Kashmiri), in the southernmost part of the Northern Areas, has a 4500m (14,760ft) wall that is so steep even snow refuses to stick. The same can be said of a large number of climbers – they’ve been dropping from the scene for years. Beside it is a stomach-churning track that climbs up a valley and then over a pass. It regularly claimed jeeps over the side until the route was improved in 1987.
First off, you’ll need to get to Gilgit and from there catch a bus or get a jeep to Astor. From Astor you can jeep it to several small villages in the area and after that it’s strictly the hard yards on foot. Activities With some of the most magnificent mountain terrain in the world, Pakistan is naturally enough a trekkers rave. There are all types of trekking available, from those organised by overseas companies to Pakistan-based outfits. Popular trekking routes that can stretch from a day to a month are found mostly in Gilgit, Nanga Parbat, Balistan (from where treks leave to K2) and Hunza, all in the country’s north. For something a little less demanding there are good one-day hikes in the Ziarat Valley, near Quetta. Other activities include cycling along the Karakoram Highway (from Rawalpindi to the Khunjerab Pass), Potwar Plateau (Islamabad to Peshawar) and the Margalla and Murree Hills (north of Islamabad); mountain biking from Gilgit to Chitral; and white-water rafting along the Hunza, Gilgit and Indus rivers.
The capital of Punjab is Pakistan’s cultural, educational and artistic centre, and easily the most visited city in the country. With its refuge of shady parks and gardens, its clash of Moghul and colonial architecture, and the exotic thrill of its congested streets and bazaars, it’s not hard to see why. A collection of some of the city’s attractions include: The Mall, an area of parks and buildings with a decidedly British bent; Lahore Museum, the best and biggest in the country; Kim’s Gun, the cannon immortalised in Kipling’s classic Kim; Aitchison College, an achingly beautiful public school; Lahore Fort, filled with stately palaces, halls and gardens; and the Old City, where a procession of rickshaws, pony carts, hawkers and veiled women fill the narrow lanes. The city has too many tombs, mosques and mausoleums to mention.Lahore
Lahore, 250 km (155 mi) south of Islamabad, is serviced by a plethora of international and domestic carriers. Long hauls overland can be done in the comfort of reliable, air-conditioned buses, and smaller trips in the ubiquitous minibuses. Lahore lies on the main national line between Peshawar and Karachi, and there are frequent direct services to all major destinations.
Pakistan’s commercial centre and largest city is a sprawling place of bazaars, hi-tech electronic shops, scurf-infested older buildings and modish new hotels. Its sights are spread far and wide, so a taxi or rickshaw is necessary to travel between them.
A good place to start is the Quaid-i-Azam Mausoleum, a monument to Pakistan’s founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah, which can be charitably described as distinctive. More impressive is the remarkable white-marbled Defence Housing Society Mosque. The single dome, claimed to be the largest of its kind in the world, will make your gum cleave to the roof of your mouth. Above the mosque is Honeymoon Lodge, birthplace of the Aga Khan. Other sights include the Holy Trinity Cathedral and St Andrew’s Church (both good examples of Anglo-Indian architecture), the city’s zoo, and the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence, hills where the dead are traditionally exposed to vultures.
Karachi South of the city is Clifton, a former British hangout and now an exclusive coastal corner for the local wealthy, the popular but rather drab Clifton Beach, and Manora Island, a less-crowded beach resort Saddar, the city centre, is the main shopping area with thriving markets selling carpets, fur coats, leather jackets, snake-skin purses, silk scarves and the country’s biggest range of handicrafts. It also has a number of food stalls and cheap restaurants and the majority of budget hotels. Nightlife in Karachi is an oxymoron. If travel outside of Karachi is possible, then the archaeological site of Moenjodaro – once a city of an Indus Valley civilisation – and the Chaukundi tombs are well worth a visit. Being the commercial and unofficial capital of Pakistan, flights in and out of Karachi are numerous but it’s worth checking the ETA of your flight. Karachi is at the epicentre of political and ethnic tensions; a tension that is cranked up to knife edge proportions when combined with rival drug gangs, political assassinations and terrorist bombings. If your flight touches down in the middle of the night, it would be wise to wait until sunrise before catching a taxi. For the same reason catching buses should be avoided for the foreseeable future. Buy a train ticket instead: trains run from Karachi to most major destinations.
Little-visited Multan, in the lower Punjab, is claimed to be the oldest surviving city on the subcontinent, dating back some 4000 years. Once an important centre of Islam, it has since attracted more mystics, holy men and saints than you can shake a shalwar qamiz at. Today, Multan is dominated by their tombs and shrines, a fort that affords superlative views over the city, and one of the best bazars in Pakistan – those not converted by Anita Roddick might like to snap up the skin potion made from lizards that’s said to be an excellent revitaliser. It’s a 570km (353mi) trek down to Multan from Islamabad. Buses and minbuses descend on Multan from a variety of destinations including Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Faisalabad and Hyderabad, dropping passengers off at the chaotic general bus station. Trains (a more comfortable way to travel) shuffle between Lahore, Karachi, and Rawalpindi.
The capital and only place of any size in the parched, barren province of Baluchistan may be light on ancient monuments but it’s fit to bursting with a vigorous blend of peoples, wide tree-lined boulevards and sterling British architecture. Even more compelling, Pakistan’s fruitbowl has a dramatic setting, with a mountainous backdrop on all sides. And unlike Karachi, most sights can be easily walked in a day. Don’t miss the impressive Archaeological Museum of Baluchistan, the fort or the city’s many colourful bazaars – great places to pick up marble, onyx and some of the finest carpets in Pakistan. Just outside Quetta are the postcard-perfect Hanna Lake, plenty of picnic spots in Urak Valley, and the protected Hazarganji Chiltan National Park. Also near Quetta is the refreshingly cool hill station of Ziarat, which is both a restful destination and a good base for trekking or mountaineering. Quetta is a hefty distance from any other major town and a whopping 1000km (620mi) from Islamabad. The geographic obstacles, however, are not as worrying as the frontier mentality that thrives in the isolated conditions: general lawlessness, intertribal frictions and guns make for a volatile mixture. Theoretically tourists are allowed to travel anywhere, but in practice local authorities cannot guarantee your safety. You can avoid some of the problems by flying into Quetta on a domestic flight. Failing that, air-conditioned buses and trains can be taken for the long hauls, and minibuses for the shorter trips.
Punjab is Pakistan’s most fertile province, rich in both agriculture and ancient history. It’s also one of the more stable of the country’s regions, and travellers should have few of the problems that are faced further south and in the north. Punjab The prosperous and hospitable town of Bahawalpur is a gentle introduction to the area. From here you can journey into Cholistan – a sandy wasteland dotted with nomadic communities and wind-swept forts – or the Lal Suhanra National Park, an important wildlife reserve. Further north is Harappa which is, after Moenjodaro, the second most important site of the Indus Valley civilisation. Rawalpindi and the country’s capital, Islamabad, are twin cities. The former is a patchwork of bustling bazaars while the latter is subdued, suburban and still being built (construction of the new capital didn’t begin until 1961). From here you can visit Taxila, an archaeological repository, and Hasan Abdul, a place of holy pilgrimage. Bahawalpur is the most southerly town in the Punjab. There are daily flights from Islamabad about 555 km (344 mi) away. Most of the major destinations in the Punjab can be reached by bus, minibus, and train.
Northwest Frontier Province
Impenetrable mountains, intractable people and impossibly romantic cities are just some of the reasons why the Northwestern Frontier Province is perhaps the most memorable of Pakistan’s destinations.
Most visits begin in Peshawar, the rough and ready provincial capital. The highlight here is the Old City- a brawl of vendors selling everything from tribal jewellery to leather pistol holsters. NWFP Clopping horse-drawn tongas choke the streets, which are thick with fearsome-looking Pashtuns (members of a vast tribal society), Afghans and Chitrali. A short distance outside Peshawar (but a million miles away) is the Smugglers Bazaar. It’s definitely not what you’d expect: turbaned merchants in tents have been replaced by Westernised malls stocking the latest TVs, VCRs and refrigerators. There’s even a shop flogging Marks & Spencer’s merchandise. The fabled Khyber Pass, sprinkled with tiny army forts, is nearby. North of Peshawar is the district of Swat, reckoned to have the loveliest scenery in Pakistan’s northern valleys, and Chitral, a relatively unspoilt area of lush valleys, hot springs and great walks. Vertigo sufferers should steer clear of Indus Kohistan to the west, a land of colossal peaks and bottomless canyons with more good walks. Those intending to visit Swat should also check the political situation prior to departure. You can catch domestic flights from Peshawar to any number of Pakistani destinations, as well as direct flights to Qatar, Tashkent, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Jeddah. Buses and minibuses go to and fro from Lahore and Rawalpindi all day, although the train is as cheap, and safer than, the buses. Peshawar is 150 km (93 mi) west of Islamabad.