Recent air strikes by India have put Balakot in Pakistan squarely on the map, in striking contrast to the reason this region once enjoyed great prominence. Balakot was at the heart of the great Gandhara culture, and the Mansehra rock edicts of Emperor Ashoka can still be found just 24 km away. Sadly, it is just a wasteland today, lost to conflict.
Balakot is situated in the Hazara region of Pakistan, in the Khyber Pakhtunwa province earlier referred to as the North West Frontier Province. Just east of the Indus river, this sat plum on the Silk Route and was therefore a transit point for trade and cultural exchange.
According to noted Indologists like Aurel Stein, ‘Hazara’ is derived from ‘Urusha’, the ancient Sanskrit name for the region. Interestingly, even in ancient times, the region was well known to the world at large. In the work of 2nd century Greek Geographer Ptolemy, Geographia, he referred to it as ‘Ovapa’ – the country between the Hydaspes (Jhelum) and the Indus. Ptolemy also writes that during Alexander’s invasion of Punjab in 327-26 BCE, a king named Arsakes ruled the region. He says that while the great city of Taxila (Takshashila) submitted to Alexander’s armies, the brave King Arsakes allied with King Porus and resisted. Surprisingly, while King Porus is famous in Indian folklore, King Arsakes remains unknown.
Hazara, interestingly, also has a link with the Indian epic, Mahabharata. Around 60 km from Mansehra is the Hill of Mukeshpuri or Mokshpuri, where the Pandavas are said to have meditated.
Hazara was a strategic region as it was situated on the Silk Route. It was at Mansehra that the Silk Route, which came down from Central Asia to Taxila, intersected with other trade routes from the Kashmir valley and Tibet. Noted historians like R C Mazumdar and Upinder Singh also believe that the region was a part of the Kamboja Mahajanapada, one of the 16 Mahajanapadas or republics of ancient India (700 BCE - 300 CE), with its capital at present-day Rajouri in Kashmir.
It is Chandragupta Maurya who is said to have brought the region under the Mauryan empire, after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE. The most important relic of the Mauryan era here are the famous Mansehra Rock Edicts of Emperor Ashoka dating to the 3rd century BCE. Inscribed on three boulders, on a rock-faced hill outside Mansehra are 14 edicts in Kharoshti script (a script used in the ancient Gandhara region), which mention Ashoka’s views on statecraft and religion.
Noted historian Romila Thapar, in her book Asoka And The Decline of the Mauryas, points out how the Mansehra edicts, though written in Prakrit language in the Kharoshti script, contains a number of Iranian words, and may have been targeted at the large Iranian population settled in the region at the time.
The Hazara region also finds mention in Rajatarangini, the chronicle of Kashmir’s kings written in the 12th century by Pandit Kalhana. He talks of King Shankaravarman of Kashmir (10th CE) being treacherously attacked and killed by local inhabitants while passing through this region. Kalhana also mentions that by 1063 CE, the region became a tributary of the kings of Kashmir. In subsequent centuries, while invasions rocked much of North India, this region remained untouched. However, with the collapse of the Central Asian trade routes by the end of the 13th-14th CE, Hazara turned into a sleepy backwater.
Known for its numerous tribes, the region would go on to serve as a recruitment ground for the armies of the Delhi Sultanate, the Mughals and later the Afghan rulers who controlled the region. These empires left the tribes alone and did not interfere in local affairs as long as they paid their tribute. In 1818, Hazara came under the rule of the Sikhs, under Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
It is during Sikh rule that a radical preacher, Syed Ahmad Barelvi (1786-1831), attempted to ferment a revolt and establish an Islamic state. Barelvi and a thousand of his followers were defeated by the Sikh army in the Battle of Balakot in 1831. While Barelvi was captured and beheaded, he became a local hero for the jihadis (Islamic militants). Interestingly, it is believed that this connection with Barelvi prompted the Jaish-e-Muhammad and Masood Azar to open a terrorist training school in Balakot in 1995.
In 1846, the Sikhs originally allotted the region to Raja Gulab Singh of Kashmir. However, recurring revolts by local tribes meant that in 1847, he was only too happy to exchange the Hazara region for lands in Jammu. In 1849, Punjab was annexed by the British and they too left the local tribes alone.
This appears to have been a period of relative peace because the British even established a beautiful hill station at Abbotabad. Old mansions from the period are still scattered here and it was in Abbotabad that the US Special Forces hunted down Al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden in 2011.
Sadly, much of the Hazara region’s historic past and its monuments have been lost, not only to frequent wars but also earthquakes over the centuries. The devastating earthquake of 2005 wiped out the entire old city of Balakot.
It is a pity that this ancient territory is in such a sorry state and that there is little to hint at its old glory. Both man and nature have been hard on this land and it seems there is little hope for respite.