Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), the land of gallant Pakhtuns, is one of the four administrative provinces of Pakistan located to the northwest of the country. Geographically, the smallest province of Pakistan, KPK is the third largest by population and economic contribution. The province houses some 35.53 million (2017 census) people in 101,741 km² landmass. It was formerly called the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and later in 2010, the province was renamed as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK). Peshawar is the provincial capital and the largest city.
Geographically, Afghanistan makes the 1100 km long northwestern section of the province’s border, Gilgit-Baltistan is located to the northeast; the Federal Capital of Islamabad, Azad Kashmir, Punjab cover the southeastern section and the northern tip of Balochistan makes up the southern border of the province.
The province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has 35 districts and 46 cities. Peshawar is the provincial capital and the largest city of the province. Major cities and towns of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are Abbottabad, Bannu, Barikot, Charsada, Chitral, Haripur, Mardan, Mingora, Mansehra, Nowshera, Peshawar, and Saidu Sharif.
The region making today’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province has for centuries been a doorway to the subcontinent. Its unique landscape and strategic location made it home to the grand civilizations of history. However, being a stronghold of Buddhism, the region’s history was characterized by successive invasions under various empires because of its proximity to the Khyber Pass.
Persians, Greeks, Mauryans, Kushans, Shahis, Ghaznavids, Mughals, Afghanistan, Sikhs, and the British Empire have all left strong imprints at various points in history. Today, the ruins of the ancient kingdom of Gandhara, including its capital Pushkalavati near modern-day Charsada, spread in major areas of the province making it one of the alluring regions of the world. Takht-e-Bahi, one of the six UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Pakistan, is located in the province of KPK. The entire region is abundant in tourist attractions that have a universal significance.
Culture and Heritage
The region is home to 11.9% of Pakistan’s total population of the country. Majority of the inhabitant’s being Pakhtuns or Pashtuns followed by Hazarewal, Chitrali, Kalash, and Gujjars. Pashtun or the Pathans being the majority in number (more than 75%) are the dominant groups in the province. They are very well known for their bravery, loyalty, and gallantry. Most of the disputes are settled in the Jirgah system headed by the tribal elders of the society. Major tribes included Yusufzai, Bangesh, Khattak, Marwat, Afridi, Orakzai, Mohmand, Mahsud, Wazir, Bannuchi, Bhittani, Daavi, Qazi Khel, Gandapur, and Ghargasht. The non-Pashtun tribes living in the province are Jhut, Mughal, Turks, Rajputs and Abbasi Syeds. According to Thomas H. Jhonson and M. Chris Mason in “No Sign Until the Burst of Fire”, “Pashtun believes that their social code produces men, who are superior to those under the western model, and they have no desire to have a new social system imposed on them by outsiders”.
The traditional dress of Pashtun men usually comes in Shalwar Qameez (Partoog-Korteh in Pashtu) with a turban which is considered a symbol of honor. However, the turban is usually worn by old men while the new generation either wears topi or kufi which is also unique to the Pashtuns. Besides Pakistan, Pashtuns in Quetta and in Afghanistan have almost the same dress code. Since they have a strong tribal-based society, the tribe leaders usually wear a Karakul hat. Peshawari Chappal is the traditional footwear not only famous in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but across the country. Women in the urban areas are dressed as per existing trends, however, in the rural areas, women wear Burqa to cover the entire body.
The majority of the residents of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa are the followers of Islam while the tribes of Kalash in southern Chitral still have been able to retain their ancient Greco Animist religion. Moreover, there are very small numbers of adherents of Roman Catholicism sect of Christianity, Hinduism, and the Sikhism
Arts & Craft
Major arts and crafts of the province included woodwork, Chappal making, stone jewelry, vessels of brass and copper, hand-woven woolen fabrics, leatherwork, and hand knotted rugs, carpets, caps, made of wool etc.
Pashtu culture is based on Pashtunwali which is an ancient way of life characterized by the use of pure Pashtu language and wearing traditional dress. Besides the dress code, Pashtu poetry, folk music, and traditional dances are a great part of the rich culture of the Pashtuns. People still live in the joint family system and the arranged marriage system is part of the culture. Historically, the Pashtu culture traces its roots back to the time of Alexander the Great. However, over the centuries, the Pashtun culture has to some extent been influenced by the people of south and western Asia. The Hindko culture has many resemblances with the Pashtu culture, however, the Chitrali and the Kalash tribes have entirely different patterns. The Kalash people have their own architecture, rituals and folktales and musical instruments. The Chitrali people have their own distinct set of cultural values having resemblance with that of Gilgit-Baltistan.
Pashtu is the provincial language of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa spoken by the majority (more than 75%) of the total population as the first language. Hindko, Saraiki, Khowar, Kohistani, Kalasha, and Gojri are the secondary languages spoken by different ethnic groups in the regions they are residing in. Urdu, the national language, is a medium of communication in educational institutions and spoken for official communication while English is used for official correspondence and also taught in academic institutions. Arabic is used as religious purposes and education. The provincial government, in 2011, approved the introduction of Pashto, Hindko, Saraiki, Khowar, and Kohistanis as compulsory subjects for the schools in the areas where they are spoken.
The cuisines of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are famous across Pakistan as the Chinese food is famous around the world. These are the devoted and hardworking individuals value the importance of good eating. Famous food items include Tikka, Dunba Karhai, Chappal Kabab, Kabuli Pulao, Saag and roti (bread) of Jawar, and their special long bread. The Chitrali and Kalash people living in the remote colder zone of the province eat organic and low-fat food mostly made of dry fruits, meat, and organic veggies.
The province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has a rich blend of tourist attractions and a tourism friendly environment. Due to its geographical location, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has had been a confluence of different civilizations which flourished and vanished with the passage of time.
The region is divided into three major zones geographically.
The Northern Zone is a mountainous region comprised of the remarkable valleys of Swat, Galiyat, Kaghan, Naran, Kalash, Chitral, and Dir. The majestic tourist destinations of the northern zone are rich in natural picturesque valleys, national parks, serene lakes, gushing rivers, glaciers, mountains, historic places, and cultural diversity providing opportunities for winter sports and a great retreat in summer. The mountainous zone has a worldly recognition particularly for its Kalash region and the tribe sustaining a unique culture.
The Central Zone consists of Peshawar Valley which has been a seat of various successive civilizations left their strong imprint in the region making great history for the generations.
The Southern Zone of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa comprises of the districts of Kohat, Karak, Bannu, Lakki Marwat, Tank and Dera Ismail Khan, and adjoining tribal territories featuring rugged, dry hills and vast gravelly plains with patches of alluvial agricultural fields. The area has seen many ups and downs because many invaders in the past marched on Hindustan through this region. The ruling dynasties have therefore left their imprints in the area, which are of interest to historians, tourists, and researchers.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has the third largest economy of Pakistan contributing to 10.5% of the country’s GDP. Agriculture, where the main cash crops include wheat, maize, tobacco, rice, sugar beets, as well as fruits; forestry; and mining are the major components of the province.
Major industries that support the economy of the province include canning and preservation of fruits and vegetables, as well as manufacturing and refining of sugar, cotton textiles, cement, furniture, and tobacco processing. Similarly, mineral products including Limestone, marble, rock salt and gypsum are also the strong components contributing to the economy of KPK. Besides, there is also trade that involves almost every product to help the economy.
Since the province stretches from the northern mountainous region to the southern dry hills and gravelly plains bordering Balochistan, its climate varies immensely from north to south. The northern zone experiences cold and snowy in winters with heavy rainfall and pleasant summers. The central zone is made of Peshawar basin which is hot in summer and cold in winter with moderate rainfall. The southern zone, being arid, has extremely hot summers and relatively cold winters.
Rainfall also varies widely in the region making a diverse landscape. The large parts of the province remain typically dry yet the province contains the wettest parts of Pakistan in its eastern periphery especially in monsoon season from mid-June to mid-September.
Best time to visit
Since the region is diverse geographically, climatically, and in terms of tourist attractions, one can always find a reason to be in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. If there is no any reason, the rich food at Namak Mandi in Peshawar can be a solid one. Peshawar also has a diverse range of attractions and can be visited round the year except for peak summers of June, July, and August. The southern parts are good to visit in winters. The northern parts are considered Paradise and good to visit its different parts from blossom in March till autumn in fall.
Things to do
The ranges of activities vary as does its diverse landscape and cultural attractions. The northern valleys in the mountainous regions are good to visit during spring, summers, and fall. The different valleys of Chitral and Kalash manifest spellbinding beauty during blossom and fall providing a great opportunity for photographers and nature lovers. Likewise, the mountains and glaciers of Chitral attract foreign tourists to undertake mountaineering and climbing activities during summers. There are cultural festivities in the Kalash valleys during early summer and fall that also engage tourists. Swat, Chitral, Kaghan valleys and the Galiyat receive enough snow and provide winter sports opportunities for tourists during winters and provide a great retreat in summers. Peshawar is more historical with its archaeological and cultural sites and great to visit almost year round. The southern part is historical yet not as alluring as the central and northern regions.
Peshawar has an international airport while Chitral has a domestic one. But KPK is located at easy access from all parts of the country because of its latitudinal expanse touching Balochistan, Punjab, Islamabad, and Gilgit-Baltistan.
The Lulusar Lake is a gorgeous lake and a major tourist attraction located in the Kaghan valley of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan. The lake is situated at an elevation of 11,200 ft (3,410 m) above sea level on the main Naran-Babusar road. Lulusar basically is the name of a mountain and the lake was therefore named after it. The term Lulusar is the combination of two words Lulu and Sar where the word “Sur” means top or peak in Pashtu language.
Lulusar is prominently located about 48 km north of Naran reachable in an hour or so. Tourists traveling around Naran usually plan a half/full day excursion to the Babusar Pass and Lulusar being 15km short of the pass becomes the part of the trip on the way. The road is asphalted and suitable for any type of vehicle. Besides Lulusar Lake; there are several other attractions on and off the way. The soft top trendy Willis Jeeps in Naran are available for day excursions.
The entire Kaghan Valley remains inaccessible during winters – roughly from November till June – almost for the most part of the year due to heavy snowfall in the region. As soon as the snow melts and Babusar Pass becomes accessible, domestic and international tourists visit the region in thousands each day.
Lulusar Lake is larger than any other lakes found in the Kaghan valley. The 3,400m long lake is fed by the Kunhar River originating from the mountains surrounding the Babusar Top and flows southwards through the length of the Kaghan valley via Jalkhand, Naran vale, Kaghan, Jared, Paras, and Balakot till it meets the Jhelum River.
The crystal clear water reflection of the Lulusar Lake contains peaks topped by dense white layers of snow. During summers, the lake is surrounded by local herds of cattle as the lower parts of the mountain surrounding the lake are clustered with grass and wildflowers.
Lulusar Lake serves as a bird sanctuary and offers a splendid opportunity for fishing. The lake also has a historical significance and marks the arrest place of the 55 participants of the 1857 war of independence.
The Naran-Gilgit road is the ultimate choice of tourists traveling up Gilgit-Baltistan during summers being it comparatively 100 km shorter and scenic. Most tourists making their way onwards to Fairy Meadows, Gilgit, Hunza & Nagar, and Skardu via Babusar Pass during summers make a must stopover at Lulusar Lake on the way. Its scenery and serenity make it an ideal spot for relaxation. For the best view of the lake, there are several elevated spots along the roadside.
Babusar Pass or Babusar Top is a mountain pass at an elevation of 4,170 m (13,690 ft) connecting the northernmost edge of the of the 160 km long scenic Kaghan Valley of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province of Pakistan with the southern limits of Chilas in Diamer District of Gilgit-Baltistan. A sharp descend along the 45 km downhill gorge called Thak Nallah strikes the Karakoram Highway (KKH) 5 km north of Chilas in Gilgit-Baltistan.
Historically, Babusar Top, making the summit of Kaghan Valley, was the part of old summer route giving access to the Gilgit-Baltistan area before the advent of the all-weather Karakoram Highway. It was the prime route from 1947 to 1978; by the time the KKH was officially opened for conventional transportation. It was built by the British in 1890 to connect Gilgit-Baltistan with British India. Before the separation of the subcontinent, people would travel from India and Kashmir through Babusar Pass to Gilgit-Baltistan. Even before the invention of Babusar pass, Burzil Pass (4,100m) was the caravan route from Srinagar to Gilgit via Astore. Most of the Kaghan Valley runs parallel to the Neelum Valley of Azad Kashmir only separated by a mountain ridge.
The Kaghan road passing through Babusar Pass is the shorter and scenic passage to Gilgit-Baltistan as compared to the KKH. However, Babusar Pass only remains open for a short period every year between early June and early November (depending on the fluctuating weather patterns). The remainder of the year, it remains inaccessible due to extreme weather conditions, mostly due to heavy snowfall throughout the Kaghan valley. The entire Kaghan Valley is at its best during summer.
From Islamabad, the Kaghan area can be reached by road via the towns of Abbottabad, Mansehra, and Balakot, while one can also travel through Murree hills to Muzaffarabad and then to Balakot via Gari Habibullah, which is a comparatively a shorter route. Naran is the prime site people mostly prefer for an overnight stay. Naran is accessible in about 6 hours from Islamabad and more or less 5 hours from Gilgit. Please note that there are specified timings for traveling through Babusar Pass, prior verification before making the way through this road is advisable.
The journey from Naran to the Babusar Top is just mesmerizing. There are a number of scenic views and sites including frozen peaks making the background of panoramic valleys, vibrant waterways, lush forests, picturesque pastures, and green terraced fields – all compelling tourists to make short stopovers on the way to the top. The silent Lulusar Lake is the prime location one must stop for a while.
The Babusar pass serves as one of the beautiful tourist attractions drawing thousands of tourists on a daily basis. For tourists traveling to Naran during summers, Babusar Top is a must-visit tourist attraction and a preferred day excursion located at about 70 km from Naran. The top always remains full of lively tourists and provide jaw-dropping views of surrounding mountains. It remains snowbound during summers and for tourists making an excursion from Naran or traveling to Gilgit-Baltistan, Babusar is a fun spot to make a stopover, eat, drink, and explore. It is one of the ideal sites for photography during summers. The whole panorama spreads out from the top with a splendid view. Walking slightly up the ridge and standing on the top, on a clear day, one can easily sight the summit of Nanga Parbat (the killer mountain), the second highest mountain after K-2. Moreover, one can also have the panoramic view of Malika Parbat, the highest peak (17,000 feet) of the KPK district and striking views of snow-covered peaks of Kashmir on a sunny day.
The melting waters from the mountains surrounding the Babusar Top actually originate to form the Kunhar River. There are several streams and creeks meeting the Kunhar River ultimately entering Jhelum River in Kashmir. Lulusar Lake near the top is the biggest lake in the region fed by the Kunhar River. The Kunhar River flowing through the length of Kaghan valley, all the way through famous tourist spot Naran, is an ideal place for rafting.
Although there are not very decent restaurants on the top yet new hotels/restaurants are underway. All these facilities add to draw tourists to Babusar Top making it more attractive and valuable.
For tourists traveling to or through the Babusar top, it is advisable to be well stocked with food, warm layers of clothing, necessary medicine, and with photography kit if you are really into it.
- Weather fluctuates unexpectedly and it is helpful to check the forecast before departure.
- People with altitude sickness should not stay longer on the top.
- Avoid traveling in the offseason
- Make sure your vehicle is in good condition and fuel topped up.
The relics of the imposing Takht-i-Bahi Monastery and Sahr-i-Bahlol are two major Buddhist sites 5 kilometres apart from each other. Both important sites are located in Mardan city of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa which has once remained a major city of Gandhara civilization. Both sites date from the same era – early 1st century – and made up to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Pakistan in 1980.
Takht-i-Bahi: Brief overview
Takht-i-Bahi is a combination of two Persian words Takht & Bahi where Takht means “top” or “throne” while Bahi stands for “spring” or “water”. According to locals, the term refers to two springs on a nearby hill and thus symbolizing a “high spring”. The other yet credible notion is the term referring to as Throne of Origin which is a context widely used.
The Takht-i-Bahi grand monastery is situated on the flank of about 36.6 meters to 152.4 meters high hills. It is about 2 km east of Takht-e-Bahi bazaar on Mardan-Swat road. The main monastic complex is about 60 meters above the surrounding plains. There are a number of ruins stretching on the mountain around the main complex which can all be viewed from the top.
The scenic view from the top of the crest behind Takht-i-Bahi archaeological relics makes the hike up the worth of visit. One can see, across the plains, as far as Peshawar on one side and the Malakand Pass and the beautiful hills of Swat on the other. Sometimes fog covers the region in winters making it is even impossible to sight even the nearby Takht-i-Bahi bazaar and Mardan city.
The monastery of Takht-i-Bahi was first discovered by European Lieutenants Lumsden and Stokes in 1852. The remains, however, were mentioned in 1836 by General Court, the French officer of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Later in 1871, Sergeant Wilcher found numerous sculptures from the site depicting life stories of Buddha. For detailed information excavation was carried out in 1911 to 1913. However, the outcome never turned to be as expected due to lack of proper recording. The site underwent major restoration in 1920.
Historically the monastery was in continuous use from 1st century B.C. to 7th century A.D. Archaeologist divide the history of the complex into four distinct periods.
It was believed that the monastic complex was founded in 1st century B.C. The basis serving as proof are the inscriptions found bearing the name of Gondophares (20-46 A.D.). The place then fell under the first Kushan king Kujula Kadphises. Likewise, in the second century, it came under Kushan king Kanishka, the Parthian and then again, the Kushan Kings.
Similarly, the second period which largely is believed as the creation of the Stupa Court and Assembly hall period is during the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D.
The third period is associated with the later Kushan dynasty as well as the Kidara Kushana rulers occurred during the 4th and 5th centuries.
The last construction period relates to the creation of the Trantic complex in 6th and 7th centuries which was overseen by invading Hun rulers.
Two different notions prevail regarding the destruction and abolishing of the site. According to historians White Huns of Central Asia destroyed the site along with other Gandhara sites. But according to the other account, one of the kings destroyed 1600 Stupas and monasteries and killed about two-thirds of Gandhara population. Thus, it was abandoned.
The remains comprise of four main areas of the complex which are:
- The main “Stupa Court” is a cluster of Stupas around a central courtyard.
- The monastic chambers comprising of individual cells around a courtyard.
- A temple complex consisting of several Stupas
- The dark cells with low openings in the basement constructed for meditation
It is also believed that a number of other double-storey structures which may have served as residence or assembly halls also exist in the main complex as well as in the surroundings. The structure is all built with grey colored limestone in mud mortar. The reputation of this splendid complex, indeed, is based on its state of preservation and its prime location. Its location, hence, made it invincible from successful invasions.
The second component is the neighboring city remains at Sahr-i-Bahlol. It is also pronounced as Seri Bahlol or Sehri Behlol. The ruins at Sahr-i-Bahlol are the remains of a small fortified town from Kushan period. The mound is about 9 meters high surrounded by a stone fortified wall. It was constructed around 3,000 years ago covering 9.7 hectares. The wall has damaged at several places.
The site contains remains of Buddha which have not properly been excavated. The local people, however, carried out illegal excavations to erect their own properties by building houses. As a result of excavations, people are said to have found antiques such as statues, coins, jewellery, and utensils. The covered site is surrounded by fertile fields. The site is now in danger of extinction due to continuous constructions.
The name Seri Bahlol refers to the combination of two Hindi words Sehir, Sheri, or Sri. and Bahlol. “Sheri or Sri” means Sir and “Bahlol” the name of a prominent political and religious leader of the area. On the contrary, another account explains Sahri-i-Bahlol as the city of Bahlol.
Mardan city is about 80 kilometers from the main Peshawar city and can be reached in an hour and a half. It is about 150 kilometers from Islamabad and takes some 2.5 hours to reach. A day excursion from both cities is possible and both sites can be explored.
Takht-i-Bahi monastery, with a guarding view of the city, is situated on the crest of a small hill about 16 kilometers northwest of main Mardan city. The other component is the remains of the walled city of Sahr-i-Bahlol located to the left side of Mardan-Swat road about 12 kilometres from main Mardan city.