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The North West Frontier,
Published in Khyber.ORG on Tuesday, March 1 2005 (

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The North West Frontier

Publishing Date: Tuesday, March 1 2005

Geographical Location: 31 4 and 36 57 N, and 69 I6 and 74 7 E.

Border with Afghanistan: 1100 km

Approximate Area: 38,665 Square Miles (Settled Areas: 13,193 Square Miles)

Population: (1901 Census by British: 2,125,480 - 1911 Edition Encyclopedia)

Surrounded By: North (Hindukush), South (Balochistan, Dera Ghazi Khan of Punjab), East (Kashmir and Punjab), West (Afghanistan)

Stretching 700 m (1100km) along the border with Afghanistan, astride the Khyber Pass and other historical gateways to India from Persia and Central Asia and embracing some of Asia's most impenetrable mountains and intractable peoples is the North West Frontier Province. Here, Buddhism matured and was launched through the Karakoram into Asia. Some of history's most famous conquerors got their noses bloodied by fierce tribes. This was British macho colonialism's favorite battleground, home to some of its most admired enemies. Today the province contains the world's biggest autonomous tribal society, that of the fiercely independent but conspicuously hospitable Pashtoons.

The province itself was a British invention fortifying the British Raj in India against the Russian expansion from Central Asia. It was chalked by the British on 25 October, 1901. Roughly, one can say it is a territory north of Balochistan in between Afghanistan and the Indus River. In the south of the province, barren hills along the border drop to the arid Indus plain. The fertile scenic northern districts correspond to major river basins across the Hindu Kush and the lesser Himalayas, Chitral, Dir, Swat, and Indus Kohistan.

More exactly, it consists of:

  • The cis-Indus district of Hazara
  • The comparatively narrow strip between the Indus and the hills constituting the settled districts of Peshawar, Kohat, Bannu and Dera Ismail Khan
  • The rugged mountainous region between these districts and the borders of Afghanistan, which is inhabited by independent tribes.

Part of NWFP's attraction lies in its mysteries, the things visitors can't see or fathom tribal life, border areas, remote Kohistan, the secret traditions of the Kalash valleys. The dark side is that some places like the Tribal areas and the Remoter Kohistan may be considered unsafe for outsiders to visit.

Peshawar is its capital, and the Vale of Peshawar, fertile and well watered by the Kabul and Swat rivers, is its heart. This was also the heart of the ancient kingdom of Gandhara and is rich in archaeological remains. The northern half of the province consists of five river valleys running roughly parallel, north to south: the Chitral, dir, Swat, Indus and Kaghan. These valleys are on the northern edge of the monsoon belt, so are fairly green and partly wooded in their southern sections. Northern Chitral and the upper regions of the Indus Valley are mountainous deserts, where cultivation depends entirely on irrigation. The NWFP south of Peshawar is below the monsoon belt and consists of low, rocky mountains and wide, gravelly plains.

The warlike Pathans (or Pushtuns or Pukhtuns), who live in NWFP and the adjoining areas of Afghanistan, number about 17-30 million (Numbers vary according to source), making themselves a race apart, a chosen people, and no one has ever managed to subdue them. The Moghuls, Sikhs, British and Russians have suffered defeat at their hands. The Pathans are divided into numerous sub-tribes and clans, each defending its territory and honor. Though of less significance, the tribes in Pakistan and Afghanistan are divided by a boundary known as the Durand Line drawn by Sir Mortimer Durand in 1893 who was the then foreign secretary of British India.

Brief History

The history of the North West Frontier, particularly the Federally Administered Tribal Areas is full of romance and glorious adventures and numerous legends are woven around the character of its inhabitants. This land of patriotic, virile and hardy mountaineers stood witness to countless historic events. It saw the caravans of invaders passing through the mountains and celebrated passes on their way to the rich and fertile plains of the South Asian sub-continent. It witnessed the march of Renowned conquerors and soldiers of fortune, viewed with interest the prodigies of velour and feats of bravery and above all scenes of spirited battles. This part had, perhaps, been involved in more foreign invasions than any country of the world. Its charming valleys were echoing with the cries of war and are still vibrating with the thuds of the horses of Alexander, Mahmud, the idol breaker and other famous captains who made this area their base of operations against the rulers of India.

The Peshawar plain, the broad Kabul river valley from the Khyber Pass to the Indus was called Gandhara by the Hindu tribes living here in the 2nd Millennium BC. This valley was then ruled by Alexander when he arrived in 327 BC. Alexander's successors ceded Gandhara to the Mauryan empire, whose king Ashoka opened it to Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. Ashoka's edicts on morality are still visible, inscribed on rocks at Shahbaz Garhi and Mansehra. With his death, the empire caved in to the Bactrian Greeks and later invaders; the Kushans. Gandhara in the 1st to 3rd centuries AD was the heart of the Kushan Empire, center of Mahayana Buddhism and birthplace of sublime Graeco-Buddhist art. It was from here that Buddhism spread into Asia. By the end of the 3rd century, the Kushans were vassals of the Persian Sassanians and in 467 AD the Huns savaged Gandhara, though Buddhism survived in swat right into the 15th century. Swat was probably the birth place of Vajrayana (Tantric or Tibetan) Buddhism. By the 7th century, the Turkic Shahi dynasty ruled the Kabul valley and Gandhara. Their last king was deposed by his Brahman Hindu minister who founded the Hindu Shahi dynasty, which carried on through the 10th century. Islam appeared briefly in the 8th century in Chitral when an Arab army clashed with the Chinese. It came to stay with raids from Afghanistan by Mahmood of Ghazni, who got to Hazara in the 11th century and Muhammad of Ghor, who reached Lahore in the 12th Century. By then the name Gandhara had disappeared from use. Chengiz Khan's Mongols stormed Peshawar during forays in the Hindu Kush in 1221. In 1398, Taimoor subdued Chitral en route to the Punjab, leaving through Bannu the following year. Afghan tribes bickered over the region through the 15th century.

Moghul Emperor Babur, a grandson of Taimoor, raided across the Khyber Pass in 1505 and attacked Bajaur and Swat in 1518 AD on his way to founding the Moghul Empire. Though the Moghuls held on to the Peshawar valley, the Pashtoons rose up against them repeatedly. Soon after Babur died the Pashtoon Sher Shah Suri seized the Moghul throne for six years. In the 1680s Aurangzeb lost Peshawar to an insurrection inspired by the Pashtoon poet warrior Khushal Khan Khattak and the Moghul grip began to slip. In 1738 the area fell to the Persian Kind Nader Shah and then to the afghan Durrani dynasty.

The Durranis in 1799 granted governorship of Lahore to Ranjit Singh, a Sikh chief from Punjab who proceeded to expand his domain into a small empire. In 1818, the Sikhs occupied the Peshawar valley and ransacked Peshawar. By 1840 they ruled most of the Punjab, Kashmir, Hazara and the Peshawar valley, and harried the Pashtoons as far as Bannu.

The British fought two short, sharp wars with the Sikhs, annexed their lands in 1849 and set about trying to subdue the tribes on their North West Frontier as a bulwark against the Tsarist expansion. Having failed to extend their will even further in two embarrassing wars with the Afghans (1838-42 and 1878), the British finally agreed with them in 1893 on a common border, the so called Durand line. This annoyed the Pashtoon tribes, through whose homelands the border line was cut. A major uprising at Malakand, Chakdarra and the Khyber Pass in 1897 was barely put down.

In 1901 the NWFP was made a separate province and Pashtoons were granted almost total autonomy in a strip along the afghan border, known as the Tribal Areas. But there were still skirmishes as late as 1935.

The proposal to make the frontier districts into a separate province, administered by an officer of special experience, dates back to the vice royalty of Lord Lytton, who in a famous minute of the 22nd of April 1877, said: "I believe that our North-West Frontier presents at this moment a spectacle unique in the world; at least I know of no other spot where, after 25 years of peaceful occupation, a great civilized power has obtained so little influence over its semi-savage neighbours, and acquired so little knowledge of them, that the country within a day's ride of its most important garrison is an absolute terra inconstant, and that there is absolutely no security for British life a mile or two beyond our border."

The result of this minute was that a frontier commissionership, including Sind, was sanctioned by the home government, and Sir Frederick (afterwards Lord) Roberts had been designated as the first Commissioner, when the outbreak of the Second Afghan War caused the project to be postponed. It was afterwards shelved by Lord Ripon. Twenty-three years elapsed before the idea was revived and successfully brought to completion by Lord Curzon, whose scheme was on a more modest scale than Lord Lytton's. It omitted Sind altogether, and confined the new province to the Pathan trans-Indus districts north of the Gomal. The purpose of the change was to subject all the independent tribes from Chitral to the Gomal Pass to the control of a single hand, and to ensure a firm and continuous policy in their management. The administration of the province is conducted by a chief Commissioner and Agent to the Governor General.

After partition of the sub continent, Pakistan has maintained Britain's arms length approach to the tribal areas. Agitation for an independent Pashtoon state has been dampened by the Pakistan Government's reforms for agricultural development in the tribal areas. In 1969, Chitral, Dir and Swat were added to the NWFP.

The province swelled with almost four million refugees from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1970s. More arrived after major earthquakes near the border in 1991 and 1992. NWFP was a place of International significance during the Jihad against Russians in Afghanistan. It has again attained that significance in the US phony war on terror whose sole aim is to control the wealth of the Central Asian republics and Afghanistan.

The Tribal Areas

The tribal areas consist of seven agencies. Internal tribal affairs are conducted according to tradition, but each agency is overseen by a political agent, who acts as a middleman between the NWFP government and the Tribal Maliks. This is essentially the old colonial arrangement, which Pakistan agreed at partition to maintain. Only Maliks vote for representatives to central government. Nowadays, many spend their time power brokering in Peshawar. The Political Agent's limited control comes through the dispensing of subsidies, and in extreme situations for the frontier police. The agencies are: Bajaur (Utman Khel and Tarkani), Mohmand, Khyber (Afridi), Orakzai, Kurram (Turi), North Waziristan (Wazir and Dawar) and South Waziristan (Mahsood and Wazir). Mohmand was created in 1951, Bajaur and Orakzai in 1973. Of these agencies, only Orakzai doesn't share a border with Afghanistan.

Other tribal pockets called frontier regions are governed directly by the provincial government. These are the Peshawar, Kohat, Bannu, Lakki Marwat, and DI Khan districts. The agencies are closed to foreigners and to non Pashtun Pakistanis. With the exception of a few roads, e.g. to the Khyber Pass in Khyber agency and over Kohat pass in Orakzai agency, even a few meters off those roads, Pakistani laws don't apply and the Pakistani government has no authority.

Geographical Description:

Below Chitral District are found the thickly timbered forests of Dir and Bajour, and the fertile valleys of the Panjkora and Swat rivers. Between this agency and the Khyber Pass lie the Mohmand hills, a rough country with but little cultivation, under the political control of Peshawar.

West and south-west of the Khyber again is the country of the Afridis and the Orakzais. The boundary of the province here follows the line of the Safed Koh, which overlooks the Afridi Tirah and the upper Kurram valley. Dotted with towered hamlets and stately chinar groves the valley of the Kurram runs south-east from the Peiwar Kotal (below the great peak of Sikaram), past Thal in the Miranzai valley, through the southern Kohat hills to Bannu.

South of the Kurram is the Tochi valley, separating it from Waziristan, an isolated mountainous district bounded on the south by the Gomal and the gorges that lead to the Wana plain. The lower ridges of the frontier mountain system are usually bare and treeless, but here and there, as in the Kaitu valley, in northern Waziristan and round Kaniguram in the south, are forest clad and enclose narrow but fertile and well-irrigated dales.

In places, too, as, for instance, round Shawal, the summer grazing ground of the Darwesh Khel Waziris, and on the slopes of Pir Ghol, there is good pasturage and a fair sprinkling of deodars. The valleys of the Tochi and Wana are both fertile, but are very different in character.

The former is a long narrow valley, with a rich fringe of cultivation bordering the river; the latter is a wide open alluvial plain, cultivated only on one side, and for the rest rough stony waste. South of the Gomal the Suliman Range culminates in the famous Takht-iSuliman in the Largha Sherani country, a political dependency of Dera Ismail Khan district. The Kaisargarh peak of the Takht-iSuliman is 11,300 ft. above sea-level.

The Settled Districts

The tract between the Indus and the hills consists of four open districts, Peshawar, Kohat, Bannu and Dera Ismail Khan, divided one from the other by low hills. The vale of Peshawar is for the most part highly irrigated and well wooded, presenting in the spring and autumn a picture of waving cornfields and smiling orchards framed by rugged hills. It has, however, an evil name for malarial fever.

Adjoining Peshawar, and separated from it by the Jovaki hills, lies the district of Kohat, a generally hilly tract intersected by narrow valleys. The largest of these traverses the district from Kushalgarh on the Indus to Thal on the Kurram, narrowing in places, but usually opening out into wide corn lands and pastures dotted with the dwarf palm.

This district affords striking contrasts of scenery, from the sheltered fields of Miranzai to the barren desolation of the salt mines. The southern spurs of the Kohat hills gradually subside into the Bannu plain. Where irrigated from the Kurram river, especially round Bannu itself, this tract is well cultivated and forms a great contrast to the harsh desolation of the Kohat hills. But beyond the sphere of irrigation, where the land is dependent on the rainfall, there is much rough stony ground broken by great fissures cut by flood water from the border hills.

To the east this gives way to the broad level plain of Marwat, which in favourable years presents a uniform expanse of rich cultivation extending from Lakki to the base of the Sheikh Badin hills. These hills consist of a broken range of sandstone and conglomerate dividing the Bannu plain from the cultivated flats of Dera Ismail Khan.

Turning to the mountainous region north of Peshawar, lies the districts of Dir, Swat and Chitral. Chitral itself consists of a narrow valley enclosed between rugged mountains.

Mountain Ranges

The mountains of the Hindu Kush running from east to west form the northern boundary of the province, and are met at the north-east corner of the Chitral agency by the continuation of an outer chain of the Himalayas after it crosses the Indus above the Kagan valley. From this chain minor ranges run in a south-westerly direction the whole length of Bajour and Swat, till they merge into the Mohmand hills and connect the mid-Himalayas with the Safed Koh. The range of the Safed Koh flanks the Kurram valley and encloses the Kabul basin, which finds its outlet to the Indus through the Mohmand hills. The Suliman system lies south of the Gomal unconnected with the northern hills. To the east the Safed Koh extends its spurs into the Kohat district. The Salt Range crosses the Indus in the Mianwali tahsil of the Punjab, and forms the boundary between Bannu and Dera Ismail Khan, merging i eventually in the Waziri hills. The chief peaks in the province are Kaisargarh (11,300 ft.) and Pir Ghol (11,580 ft.) in Waziristan; Shekh Budin (4516 ft.), in the small range; Sikaram (15,621 ft.) in the Safed Koh; Istragh (18,900 ft.), Kachin (22,641 ft.) and Tirach Mir (25,426 ft.), in the Hindu Kush on the northern border of the Chitral agency; while the Kagan peaks in Hazara district run from 10,000 ft. to 16,700 ft.


With the exception of the Kunhar river, which flows down the Kagan valley to the Jhelum, the whole drainage of the province eventually finds its way into the Indus. The indus enters the province between tribal territory and Hazara district. After leaving Hazara it flows in a southerly direction between the Punjab and the North-West Frontier Province, till it enters Mianwali district of the Punjab, from which it emerges to form again the eastern boundary of the province. From the east it is fed by three or four rivers of Hazara district. At Attock the Kabul river brings down to the Indus the whole drainage of Kafiristan, Chitral, Panjkora, Swat and Peshawar district. The Kurram river rises in the southern slopes of the Safed Koh, and after leaving the Kurram valley passes through the Kohat hills and enters Bannu district. Three miles below Lakki it is joined by the Tochi or Gambela, which carries the drainage of North Waziristan. The Kurram then empties itself into the Indus. From this point until it leaves the province the Indus receives no tributary of any importance. The Gomal river drains a large area of central Afghanistan and forms the most important povindah (or Kafila) route on the frontier.

People of NWFP

The NWFP and eastern Afghanistan are the land of the Pashtoons or Pakhtoons. A widely diverse people with as many internal as external hatreds, they nonetheless claim a common ancestry. There is continuing, if lukewarm, talk of Pashtunistan, a reunited, independent homeland. the aging patriarch of Pashtun nationalism, Khan Abdul Wali Khan, lives in Charsadda and his Awami National Party (ANP) has for years harassed the Pakistan government for more self determination and control over resources.

Even as enemies, the British could barely conceal their admiration for the Pashtoons as fighters and generally noble folks. one thing that appeals to westerners is their ironclad, if bloody, moral code, Pashtoonwali or Pakhtoonwali.

Pashtoons in the NWFP belong to around 80 different tribes and within these, to clans and families, in pre British days, there were few towns, only family related clusters of heavily fortified homes.

Pashtun tribal leaders or Maliks arose by virtue of age, wisdom, or cunning, though since colonial times the ruler ship system has expanded into a formal administrative network. many tribal leaders have acquired immense wealth and established their own de facto mini states.

In northern NWFP, Pashtoons predominate only to the southern tip of Chitral, the middle of Swat and from Besham across the Indus to Battagram and Mansehra.

Pashtoonwali The Code of the Pashtoons:

Pashtoonwali , the Pashtun moral code, which ideally takes precedence over anyone's laws has four main elements. decisions about its application in particular circumstances are matters for Jirga, or council of elders. if necessary, they may be enforced by a Lashkar.

Melmastia: this means showing hospitality to all visitors without expectation of reward. all Muslims are obliged to be hospitable but Pashtoons are lavish about it. if you are a guest, your host, however important he is, may serve you himself. you'll be treated and fed better than he, but Melmastia can also mean hospitality to a prisoner, sheltering a wanted criminal if he asks, even laying down one's life for one's guest.

Badal: the word means revenge and refers to the obligation to avenge an insult or injustice. even unintended. to self, family or tribe. vengeance may be exacted on other members of the offender's family or village, even years later. the practice tends to get out of hand, in the form of prolonged vendettas.

Nanawatai: this refers to the absolute submission of vanquished to victor in a fight or dispute, a kind of formal abasement. the loser goes to the winner in utter humility and begs for forgiveness, after which his dignity is restored.

Nang: this means honor, and covers a wide range of matters, by far the most prominent of which is the honor of women. a Pashtun man has a duty to defend the honor of the woman of his family or clan, which may be violated by as little as a lingering glance form an outsider.

a perverse twist carries in the case of willing liaison, even a mere conversation, win which case its the honor of the rest of the family that must be restored, possibly by the death of the couple, she at the hands of her father or brother, he by father or uncle. unresolved man woman issues tend to generate the longest and bloodiest feuds.

Languages of NWFP:

Pashto is Pashtun speech used in the NWFP, Balochistan and eastern Afghanistan. Other NWFP languages are Chitral or Khowar, Kohistani (upper Swat, Indus Kohistan) and Hindko Punjabi (Abbotabad).



Buzkashi is a rip roaring game, a kind of no rules rugby on horseback. Buzkashi is a wild and turbulent game of Afghanistan and its is its national game. Buzkashi is a test of the ability of a man on horseback to pick up a carcass of a calf weighting between 40-80 pounds (20-40 Kg) from one spot and take it to another. A task which is complicated only by the fact that there are anywhere between 20-40 other horsemen trying to do the same thing. In the original game, all the horsemen had to do was grab hold of the carcass and get clear of the mob of other horsemen. In the modern version, two teams of 10 horsemen compete. A calf carcass is dropped in a starting circle to begin play. To score points, the carcass must be carried around a flag some 40 or 50 yards away and brought back to a team's scoring circle, adjacent to the starting point. The other team can wrestle its way in and grab/snatch the carcass and do the same. Opportunities of mayhem are plenty. Play is non stop for an hour or two hours, or however long the strength of the horsemen lasts. For as long as play continues, strong men whip strong horses into a frenzy, pushing them into a surging mass until one of the men is in a position to reach down and grab hold of the carcass. Then, sometimes, with a team mate holding the reigns of his horse, and others trying to clear the way, he tries to break from the crowd. Sometimes, the rider breaks clear only to lose his grip on the carcass and see the pursuing horsemen plunge into a melee where someone else tries to grab it. Sometimes, the horse men plunge into full speed into the crowd lining the field or go out of the playing field altogether. There are rules in this game as well, only if there is a referee who has the power and enough influence to enforce them. If you have seen the American Movie Rambo III starring Sylvester Stallone playing a horseback game in the initial stages of the movie with the Afghans, then that can give you a general idea of what kind of game Buzkashi is.


Polo is an equestrian sport with its origin embedded in Central Asia dating as far back as sixth century BC. At first it was training game for Cavalry Units for the King's guards or other elite troops. To the warlike tribesmen who played polo with as many as 100 players to a side it was a miniature battle.

Polo became a Persian national sport played extensively by men as well as women in the sixth century AD. Usually played in front of royal palaces, marble goal posts still stand in front of the palace in Teheran. From Persia the game spread to Arabia, then to Tibet, China and Japan. In China, in the year 910, the death of a favorite relative in a game prompted Emperor A-PAO-CHI to order the beheading of all players.

In the sub-continent polo was introduced by the Muslim conquerors in the thirteenth century. the English work Polo is the Balti word meaning 'Ball'.

There are four players to a side but this is by no means a rule in local polo games. In the past there was no limit to the number of players on each side and no time-limit either. Whichever team scored nine goals first was the winner in all official tournaments. The present game with a team of six players in a side lasts one hour with a ten-minute break.

Gilgit, Chitral and Baltistan have always played the game of polo closest to its original form. In the past the local Rajas, Mirs and Mehtars were the patrons of the game. At times more than 50% of the annual budget of their principalities would be spent on supporting the game of polo.

The first time a polo tournament took place at the Shandur Top was in 1936. A British Political Agent, Major Cobb, who was fond of playing polo under a full moon had the polo ground near Shandur named 'Moony Polo Ground'.

Archaeological Sites

Gandharan Remains

The three most interesting archaeological remains from Gandhara arc Takht-e-Bahi (a ruined Buddhist monastery), the Ashokan edicts (two inscribed boulders) and Charsadda (an excavated mound that was once the capital city). These three places can be visited in a one-day outing from Peshawar or en route between Peshawar and either Islamabad or Swat. An interesting loop takes in Charsadda and Takht-e-Bahi on the way up to Swat via the Malakand Pass, then the Ashokan edicts on the way down from Swat via the Ambela Pass. The kingdom of Gandhara centered on the Peshawar area from the sixth century BC to the 11th century AD and enjoyed its high period from the first to the fifth centuries AD under the Kushan kings. This was a time of great international contacts, and Buddhist Gandhara was at the hub of Asia, trading with China, the Mediterranean and India. The kingdom is remembered chiefly for its Buddhist art. Museums all over the world display the fine stone and stucco sculptures of Gandhara, works that reflect a society that was mature, prosperous, advanced and (in the best Buddhist tradition) gentle. The first capital of Gandhara was Pushkalavati - the Lotus City - on the banks of the Swat River just north of its junction with the Kabul, at a place now called Charsadda. Under the Kushans, The capital moved to Peshawar, and under the Hindu Shahi kings from the ninth to the 11th century the capital was at Kund, on the Indus. After Mahmood of Ghazni conquered the area and converted it to Islam in AD 1026, the name Gandhara disappeared. Only a few ruins and the civilization's great art remain.

Though there is little to see, it is still exciting to stand on the mound where the Lotus City once flourished and to imagine Alexander the Greats' army attacking in 327 BC, to read Ashoka's edicts of 260 BC at Shahbaz Garhi, and to visualize the life of a Buddhist monk at Takht-e-Bahi in the third century AD.


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The North West Frontier,
Published in Khyber.ORG on Tuesday, March 1 2005 (