The small town of Khanspur is a relatively isolated place as compared to the rest of the Galiyaat, replete with natural beauty and greenery even today
On May 9, 1945, with Germany having surrendered unconditionally to the Allies just a day before, the US Army Rest Camp no 6 readied itself to enjoy a special “VE Day” dinner to celebrate the end of World War II. The menu that day would include such delectable items as the “Khanspur Salad,” VE Fish Plate, Baked Virginia Ham-ilton, Browned Punjabis, Devil’s Food Cake and “Murray” Apple Pie.
The site of these long-forgotten celebrations was the small hill town of Khanspur, now part of the Ayubia National Park, an unassuming place, relatively isolated as compared to the rest of the Galiyaat, replete with natural beauty and greenery even today.
Located at a height of 7,500 feet and only 45 minutes’ drive from Murree, this colonial Himalayan hill town has generally been spared the fate of Murree and Nathiagali where hordes of local tourists descend every season polluting the hills and threatening the ecosystem.
Often compared to Kashmir for its beauty, British and American troops stationed there in bygone days called it a paradise furlough destination. Its beauty enchanted the homesick heart of the young memsahib Sarah Cunningham, who was staying in Khanspur during the hot Indian summer, as described in her memoir, Adventures of a Soldier’s Wife: the track leading into an “avenue of tall Pine, Oak and other trees,” “the whole of the hills… covered with the shrubs and wildflowers that provided a blaze of colour.” The sight of the snow-clad mountains in the distance gladdened her heart and it was “so quiet and peaceful in the hills “except for the occasional bird’s cry or the sound of the rustling wind. The same peace and quiet and relatively dense forest cover meets the modern day tourist in Khanspur even now, though sadly this may not last much longer.
Most of the old army barracks that dot the area were auctioned off post-Partition, and many now serve as holiday homes of well-to-do Pakistanis who travel up to the hills in the summer in time-honoured colonial tradition. One of these presently houses a school while others have been purchased by various entities like banks and universities as rest houses for their employees.
Another former barrack is now one of the most beautifully located youth hostels in the country. However, perhaps the most notable owner up until the 1970s was apparently the former prime minister of Pakistan, Zuflikar Ali Bhutto.
As children, we were fascinated by the sight of this beautiful cottage perched up on a small hill with magnificent views of the valleys below, including Murree, and all the way up to Kashmir. Sadly, we watched it fall into disrepair in the 80s until it completely disintegrated with most of the stone pilfered for local construction and mere foundations left by the 90s. Today, although nothing remains of the cottage itself, the site where it once stood is still known as Bhutto Point.
Up until the 70s, Khanspur even boasted a functioning club for its residents. In fact, right across the maidaan (now known as the polo ground), tombola nights and lively evening soirees were held regularly during the summers. But all good things come to an end, and so by the 80s these glittering social events had simply dwindled away into the pleasant reminiscences of some older residents.
For me personally, Khanspur is a magic word that conjures up instant childhood memories of seemingly endless vistas of pine trees, cool mountain air, ladybirds, monkeys and flying foxes, wolves howling at night and the ever-present, though mercifully un-encountered, threat of an occasional leopard. To this day, I remember the dampness of descended clouds wetting my cheeks, the never-ending monsoon rains beating hard all night long on the tin roof, the ear splitting thunder making us children huddle under the covers, and long power breakdowns and candle lit nights. It reminds me of the unadulterated bliss of summer holidays filled with omelette paratha breakfasts, copious amounts of hot, sweetened tea and cream rolls from the travelling baba’s treasure chest of baked delicacies.
Then there was wild berry-picking, barbeques and bonfires, stargazing, long waits at the telephone exchange for calls to Lahore and never-ending bouts of ludo, carom, colour and bhabi thulla. Of course, we were also beset by silverfish rashes and upset stomachs but these never bothered us much.
Our three-month long summer vacations were invariably spent in a 1913 built B-class quarter barrack with us cousins roaming all over the hills, creating a ruckus with our ever-present tape recorder belting out popular songs of the day. We would hike along the Doonga Gali pipeline track to devour samosas and pakoras on the other side, explore abandoned haunted barracks and climb down the khud to see where it ended.
Sweet memories of happy, carefree days spent in this emerald paradise live on inside me, just as they do in the countless memoirs and heartfelt accounts of long-departed colonial memsahibs and British soldiers who too spent memorable summers in Khanspur in bygone days.
Our favourite pastimes included trekking down to the waterfall or the little village nearby, going up on the rather rickety chairlifts at the nearby Ghora Dhaka and coming back down on foot, playing cricket with the locals on the polo ground and huffing and puffing our way up to the Church for picnics.
A distinct memory is of our daily visit to Swat Khan’s store. The only general merchandise store in the 80s and the biggest up until the early 90s, Swat Khan, a tall gentle local, was our main supplier of cherished goodies like soft drinks, sweets and toffees, chips and imlee (tamarind). According to Phil Aldrich Milbank, a US soldier stationed at Khanspur in 1944, who received a letter from Swat Khan in 1956 sending his regards, he originally worked at his rest camp as a coolie. Sadly, after Swat Khan’s death, the store ownership changed and for those of us who had known him as children, his calm, benign presence is sorely missed.
Our favourite picnic spot, the Virgin Mary Catholic Church still stands precariously perched on the hillside, a living testament to Khanspur’s colonial past. Completed in 1911, it was probably built by the Connaught Rangers, according to a photographic inscription from the photo album of Brig Cecil Aubrey Dixon, the Chief Inspector of Armaments in Pakistan in the 50s, as was the St Matthews Church in Nathiagali.
The Connaught Rangers were stationed in Rawalpindi and apparently used the galis as their hill resorts. Dane Keith Kennedy observes in The Magic Mountains: Hill Stations and the British Raj how a church formed the “symbolic centre” of almost every English village “and so it did in nearly every Indian hill station.”
Further, the Report on the Administration of the Punjab and its Dependencies describes how in 1914, a grant of Rs 910 was made by the local government to the Anglican Church at Khanspur as “compensation for sittings provided in the church for Church of England soldiers attending the services.”
While some historical accounts suggest Khanspur’s establishment to have been an outcome of the Great Game being played out in Afghanistan and Central Asia by the British and the Russians, Khanspur has traditionally been considered a rest station for the British Army. The Imperial Gazetteer of India Vol 15 spares a short paragraph for Khanspur, describing it as part of the “Ghora Dakka cantonment in Hazara District, North-West Frontier Province,” further elaborating how it was occupied by a detachment of British Infantry “during the summer months”.
In Durham Light Infantry: The United Red and White Rose, the Hon WL Vane describes how three companies of the 1st Battalion proceeded, by road, to Khanspur, in April 1912, where they were stationed up until the middle of October before returning to Nowshera. In later years, as per the soldiers’ accounts, these long stays were reduced to two-week breaks.
There were essentially three categories of barracks in Britain and its colonies: “a,” “b,” and “c,” with the “a” quarters consisting of one bedroom, “b” two, and “c” three bedrooms, along with a living room and scullery each. However, for India, the barracks were modified and improved. In India, circa 1910, 14 soldiers shared one dormitory with 5.6 sq metres’ space for each soldier, much more space than that enjoyed by the British Army soldiers in England or anywhere else in the British Empire. Despite more room per soldier, sanitation was always an issue, with the British government constantly commissioning reports on how to improve the conditions, especially poor ventilation and stench due to bad drainage. So, all was not so rosy up in the mountains.
Of course, the idea behind creating sanitariums in the mountains for invalid soldiers was to escape the heat and diseases of the hot plains. Dr JM Cosh, a retired staff surgeon, Bengal Army, opined in the Report of the Commissioners Appointed to Look into the Sanitary State of the Army in India (commissioned by the Government of India in 1866) that while the “cool temperature” of hill stations ensured the absence of such tropical diseases as malaria, cholera and smallpox, these stations showed a “disposition to diarrhea” which could turn into dysentery if not treated.
And so, many still lost their lives on these hill stations, often at very young ages. The British cemetery between Ghora Dhaka and Khanspur once bore testament to this sad truth of colonial life, with several tombs of infants and young children. The National Archives of India houses a document showing a demand for Rs 3,942 made in 1920 for Ghora Dhaka cemetery extension and enclosure wall construction. Until the 90s, our Khanspur visits always included a hike to the cemetery, fascinated as we were by the century-old tombstones and deathly silence of the place. Even back then, the cemetery was being dismantled tombstone by tombstone and is now unfortunately just another casualty of the past.
With death, however, came new life as well. In 2012, while researching online, I came across one Jeremy Wraith who was born in Khanspur in 1938. Jeremy’s father was in the Army Education Corp with the 13th/18th Hussars and stationed in Khanspur where he was born.
One of the major attractions of Khanspur is the Doonga Gali pipeline trek, originally covering a distance of approximately four kilometres, taking up to 40 to 50 minutes one way. The pipeline was laid down by the British to supply water to Murree, a nearby hill station. The trek is through dense forest harbouring different species of animals, including a wide variety of birds such as the yellow beaked magpie, crested grey finch, red blood finch etc.
Towards the end of the trek, one comes across several British army insignias of the regiments that helped build the pipeline. These insignias were once displayed all along the pipeline including on what is known as the Motto Bridge, the only bridge on the pipeline track built over a gorge and under which quite a large and beautiful waterfall once flowed.
Quite recently, the government opened the 129-year-old Motto Tunnel for tourists walking the pipeline trek. Previously buried under debris and trash, it has since been painstakingly restored: a 250-metre long, six-foot high and four feet wide tunnel with the year “1881” inscribed on top, a water pipeline running through it. The tunnel apparently connects Ayubia with Khaira Gali.
With the opening of the tunnel, the pipeline walk has reportedly been extended by another 12 kms.
With local tourism on the rise in Pakistan, Khanspur’s days as a small peaceful hill town appear sadly numbered, especially with new hotels, apartments and airbnb rentals springing up to replace older, more graceful British-era construction. While increased tourism could mean an economic boom for the locals, one fears it shall also mar the scenic beauty of the place with the same unchecked construction, weak sewage disposal and lack of civic sense that has characterised tourism in the Galiyaat and Murree.
Meanwhile, sweet memories of happy, carefree days spent in this emerald paradise live on inside me, just as they do in the countless memoirs and heartfelt accounts of long-departed colonial memsahibs and British soldiers who too spent memorable summers in Khanspur in bygone days.
The writer is a development professional and an avid traveller. He blogs at www.travelpangs.com and can be reached at [email protected]