In my life, I have lived in many diverse places; Miram Shah in North Wazirstan, Abbottabad, Alizai in Kurram, Pabbi, Nowshera, Murree and Nathia Gali come to mind. Each one of them was unique, even if most of them did not qualify as sought-after destinations. For me, however, they were all memorable. But somehow, the city of Bannu has left a deep impression on me. In that provincial town, I spent many a summer vacation in the early 1950s with my elder brother Zulfiqar Hussain, who worked as a civil engineer in the provincial Public Works Department.
Bannu was once, in the early 1950s, a small provincial town in the then province of NWFP. Located 120 miles south of Peshawar, the town is in Kurram Valley close to the river that carries the same name. Its history is dominated by foreigners who have a deep imprint on the city.
Lieutenant Herbert Edwardes was a junior officer in the service of East India Company. He was appointed assistant resident to the legendry Sir Henry Lawrence who as Resident was the British officer in charge of Punjab. Later, Edwardes was sent as Political Agent to trans-Indus district of Bannu. There he worked for Maharaja Dilip Singh, but in name only. His real boss was Sir Henry Lawrence, the British Resident in Lahore.
Bannu is a relatively new town, founded in 1848 – compared with cities and towns in the Subcontinent that were founded millennia ago. The area where Bannu was built was at the time a cluster of decaying mud forts. The center of commerce was a nearby place called Ahmed Shah Bazaar.
Herbert Edwardes planned and oversaw building of the new town. He had the decaying mud forts levelled and a new town laid out in a grid pattern. It was the only city that was built on a grid with wide streets and bazars that crossed at right angles.
Due to its proximity to Kurram River and its location on the ancient north-south trade route and its proximity to Miran Shah the capital of North Wazirstan, it soon flourished as an important trading center. It was first called Dilip Nagar after the nominal ruler of Punjab and later named Edwardesabad in 1868 upon the death of Herbert Edwardes. Many decades later the name was changed to Bannu. It is interesting that a new town in Hazara hills was named after Sir James Abbot, a contemporary of Herbert Edwardes. Whereas Abbottabad is still there, Edwardesabad is present now only in history books. However venerable Edwardes College, Edwardes High School, and a city gate in Peshawar (also called Kohati Gate) still carry Edwardes’s name.
Before 1947, the majority of Bannu residents were Hindus. During the Partition, almost all of them left for India and the city emptied out. The vacuum was filled by Muslims from other parts of the province as well as people from the countryside. Soon it became a thriving town again. A small Christian community has, however, remained constant.
From the time of the arrival of Herbert Edwardes in Bannu in 1848, it took the British few decades to completely control the area. As was the custom of British rulers, in 1891 they built a cantonment or garrison town outside the city for troops and officers.
We don’t know the origin of the name Bannu. According to Salman Rashid, the preeminent travel writer of Pakistan, name Bannu is derived from Pono, a city located in the same general area mentioned by the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Faxian in year 400 of the Common Era. But it took almost 600 years to restore the name Pono or Bannu when in the early 1900 the name Edwardesabad was abandoned, and the town was renamed Bannu. The residents of Bannu are called Banuchis and they affectionately call their city Bani Gul.
Salman Rashid also mentions the archeological remains of ancient Bactrian Greek civilization outside Bannu at a place called Akra. He draws a parallel between the old Greek custom of enjoying life in public places and the custom of revelry that takes place every evening in the Chowk Bazaar in Bannu City. Like the people in other cities of the Subcontinent, Banuchis have also forgotten the links to their ancient past.
Before 1947, the majority of Bannu residents were Hindus. During the Partition, almost all of them left for India and the city emptied out. The vacuum was filled by Muslims from other parts of the province as well as people from the countryside. Soon it became a thriving town again. A small Christian community has, however, remained constant. They have their churches and schools and have been integral part of the city.
There are ten gates in the city wall. As was the custom the gates are named for the cities or areas they face. There is Lakki Gate that faces Lakki Marwat in the southeast. Preedy (pronounced Praiti) Gate is named for some obscure British officer. Qasaban Gate had butchers’ market just inside the gate. Some gates are named after the villages that face the city.
During British rule, Bannu was connected by small gauge tracks to Mari Indus railway station where the transition from small gauge to large standard tracks took place. The train service was closed in the 1990s because of declining cargo and passenger revenue. Commercial buses and trucks were more efficient and took less time. The derelict Bannu Railway Station, a relic of the past, is still there.
In 1893 a missionary surgeon by the name of Theodore Pennnel arrived in Bannu to administer medicines along with a hefty dose of proselytising. He was trained as a surgeon in England and volunteered to work in India as a medical missionary. After working in makeshift facilities, he built a small Afghan Mission Hospital and a missionary school in Bannu with his own money. People flocked to the hospital from surrounding areas as well as from across the border from Afghanistan. Occasionally he would take his medicine and religious overtures to the people in the countryside.
Dr. Pennell was a fascinating man. While he dispensed Western medicine, his underlying idea was to find stray sheep for his flock. The doctor would preach every week in the chowk bazaar. Dr. Pennell lamented that he could convert but only a handful of local people.
He died in Bannu of blood of septicemia (overwhelming blood infection) that he contracted while operating on a patient with severe infection. He was 45-years old.
Mr brother Zulfiqar lived in a specious house in an alley inside Qasaban Gate. The alley led to the main bazaar and at that junction was located a cinema known as Salim Theater. The theater belonged to a Hindu but at the time of Partition when the city emptied out of its Hindu citizens to make their way to the newly created border between India and Pakistan, the owner opted to stay, converted to Islam, and assumed the Muslim name Salim. The theater was renamed Salim Theater.
I have vivid memories of seeing some of the classic Indian movies of the late 1940s and early 1950s in that theater. After seeing a movie, we would at night, while lying on our cots under the open sky, listen to songs and dialogues of the movie wafting over the neighbourhood. Just listening to the soundtrack, we could visualise scenes that were being played on the screen. Listening to the songs of such movies as Albela, Aan, Babul, and Jogan have left a deep imprint on me. Even now, from a distance of 69 years, those songs take me back, instantly, to Bannu and Salim Theater.
Bannu has produced some remarkable men who made a name in politics, medicine, armed forces and academia. It is not possible to mention them individually in this rather short essay.
In 1950 when I was an 8th-grade student, I went to Bannu for the first time. I used to explore the city either on foot or on bike. My favorite route was the 15 km circular road that went around the city. My days were spent taking long walks, doing homework, and reading. It was during those summer vacations in Bannu (and later in Miram Shah) that I read large number of books of Urdu fiction. That early dive into Urdu literature served me well in my life.
I appeared in the 10th-grade exam in 1953, when I was a student at Government High School, Peshawar. As was the custom, we were given a month-long preparatory holiday before the final examination. On the last day of classes, our class teacher Master Fazal Ahmad had a talk with us. He pointed out a dozen or so students and said they would pass the exam with very high marks. He then pointed out another set of students and said they would also pass the examination and get excellent marks. Then there was a group that, according to the teacher, would squeak through. That left about 15 students, including myself, that the teacher had left out of his predictions. “How about me, Sir?” I asked. He thought for a moment and said that if I worked very hard, I may be able to just pass the exam.
I prepared for the exam as best as I could. And after finishing the exam, I took the long 120-mile bus ride from Peshawar to Bannu. In those days, there was no set time for the results to be announced. Peshawar University, as the examining body, used to announce the results by posting them on the University’s bulletin board and providing the results to local newspapers. Radio Pakistan Peshawar would make the announcement that the result has been declared. I heard the radio announcement and wondered about my fate. In 1953, the only mode of communication was through the postal service, and in case of dire emergency, by telegram. I would have to wait for the arrival of Peshawar newspapers on the bus coming from Peshawar the following day. The bus usually arrived in the middle of the afternoon.
I spent a restless night. Next day, I went to the bus adda outside Lakki Gate, two hours before the expected arrival of the bus.
After seeing a movie, we would at night, while lying on our cots under the open sky, listen to songs and dialogues of the movie wafting over the neighbourhood. Just listening to the soundtrack, we could visualise scenes that were being played on the screen
As I waited for the bus, I wondered if it would be on time. It was common practice in those days for the south-bound busses from Peshawar to procrastinate in starting the journey. The driver would take the bus through neighbourhood bazaars to drum up more passengers. When asked about the time of departure, the driver would answer with a number like 450 – which had nothing to do with the time but with the money he must have before embarking on the journey. It used to take about 7 to 8 hours to travel 120 miles from Peshawar to Bannu with stops at Darra Adam Khel, Kohat, Banda Daud Shah and Domail.
As I anxiously waited, I had images of bus getting in an accident, highway robbery and even the death of an ailing passenger. Or maybe the lunch of curried chicken and naan at Banda Daud Shah took longer than usual.
I was deep in my thoughts when someone shouted that the bus was here. Yes, indeed the bus had arrived at Lakki Gate bus stop. The conductor climbed onto the roof and started unloading the luggage. Then he hurtled to the ground bundles of newspapers.
I approached the man who was collecting the bundles and asked him if I could buy one copy of Shahbaz newspaper. He said that he could not undo the tightly packed bundles, and that I could, in few hours, buy the paper at one of the newsstands in the city. That meant another three-hour wait.
I pleaded with the man that I had been waiting for the bus for two hours. The newspapers carried the results of the Matric examination, and I was anxious to learn about my fate. He changed his mind and tried to pull a copy from the tightly packed bundle. In the process, he tore the paper but somehow fished out the remaining pieces and gave them to me. He refused to take money, and wished me good luck.
Contrary to Master Fazal Ahmad’s dire prediction about my chances of success, I had not only passed the Matric examination, but I had also passed it with high marks.
As I boarded the bus to Peshawar next morning, I was for once happy to prove my schoolteacher wrong. My childhood dream of entering Islamia College Peshawar had come true.
That was almost 70-years ago. Even now, when I hear the following Pashto song, I am instantly transported to the city built by the river:
It is raining lightly in the upper reaches of River Kurram Fate has brought me to the lower Kurram O my love, give me your hand And let us be together and walk together (on the life journey