Khota Qabar & the story of a lost battle

balakotThe city of Balakot in the morning



by Mast Qalandar


I must have passed by this place countless times on my way to Abbottabad and back and was always intrigued by its name. Khota Qabar! Donkey’s grave, that is. Why, I wondered, so much reverence for a donkey? Khota Qabar:

Khota Qabar lies on the Karakoram Highway about 60 miles north of Islamabad and 7 miles short of Abbottabad. It is precisely where the road starts climbing into the mountains of Mansehra and onwards into the picturesque Kaghan valley and the Northern Areas. I always knew it as a place where truck drivers coming up from the planes stopped to cool their engines and top up the radiators with cold water from a nearby stream to ready their vehicles for the climb ahead. Because of the presence of truck drivers a couple of khokha restaurants have sprouted at this spot and are doing a thriving business.

It is so small a place that you won’t find it on any map of Pakistan. However, to my pleasant surprise, a Google search turned up the following information onKhota Qabar or Khote di Qabar: latitude 34.09; longitude 73.17; elevation 3,251 feet.

I was impressed — with Google, that is.

Like many other places and things in life I took this place for granted and never enquired how or why it came to be so named. But when I did – only recently – I uncovered a fascinating story behind it. A story of a man and his mission.

The story begins, of all the places, in Rai Breilley, a town in present day Uttar Pardesh, India (renowned for being the constituency of Nehru-Gandhi family), and ends in the mountains of Balakot, a town in the far North of Pakistan.

It is the story of a man named Syed Ahmed. He was born in Rai Brailey in 1786. He was a deeply religious man. His life mission was to usher in, once again, the glorious Islamic past. He wanted to establish an Islamic state on the pattern of the early caliphate, first, in the subcontinent and then, possibly, in the rest of the world. To achieve this he decided to wage a jihad against the “infidels” who ruled the subcontinent then. Thus, he became one of the earliest, if not the first, native Jihadi of the subcontinent.

This was the time when the Mughal rule in India had virtually ceased to exist. The Mughal Empire stretched barely beyond the modern city of Delhi. The dominant powers of the time were the British Empire, represented by the East India Company, which controlled most of the Northern India, the Marhatta Empire to the south, the Sikh Empire in the North-West and Kashmir, and hundreds of minor kings, maharajas and Nawabs in various parts of the land.

Syed Ahmed understood that it was not feasible to fight the British. They were better organized, better equipped and in firm control of most of Northern India. He, therefore, decided to emigrate to what is today NWFP in Pakistan and wage a jihad from there. After beating the Sikhs in the NWFP and Kashmir, he imagined, he could then take on the British.

His choice of NWFP as a launching pad for jihad was based on the assumptions that it was predominantly a Muslim area bordering on another Muslim state, Afghanistan; that its people had a reputation of being good warriors and that they were unhappy with the Sikh rule and ready to take up arms against them.


(Right) The stone plate depicting the final resting place of Shah Ismail Shaheed

Armed with these assumptions and total faith in his mission and trust in God, Syed Ahmed and his devotees left their homes and families (Syed Sahib left behind his two wives) and embarked on a difficult and circuitous journey to Peshawar via Sindh, Quetta, Qandhar and Kabul. Among his companions was also Shah Ismail, a grandson of Shah Waliullah of Delhi.

mazar-balakot-3(Left) Gravestone: Syed Ahmed Shaheed’s mazaar in Balakot

After reaching Peshawar, Syed Sahib tried to enter into alliances with the local chiefs and khans, often unreliable, to gain their support for his Jihad. He managed to raise an “army” of mujahideen who engaged in a few skirmishes with the Sikhs and also launched nighttime raids on a few towns, notably AkoRa Khattak and Hazro. But these skirmishes and raids did not yield any strategic gains.

Most narratives on the subject, at least the one’s I have perused, even though rich in trivia, are incoherent and terribly confusing. Cutting through the web of confusion, however, one finds that Syed Ahmed Brelvi, moving from place to place for 4-5 years in the Frontier province turned up at Balakot sometime in the first quarter of 1831. He was 46. In the process he also acquired a third wife, a young woman from Chitral, named Fatima.

Syed Sahib’s strategy was to defeat the Sikhs at Balakot and then march on to Kashmir next door. His starry-eyed optimism is evident from one of his last letters he wrote to the Nawab of Tonk in India, who, as a gesture of support and sympathy, was housing Syed Sahib’s two wives as guests on his estate. The letter was written on 25 April 1831 (translation and paraphrasing is mine):

“I am in the mountains of Pakhli (name of the area). The people here have welcomed us with warmth and hospitality and have given us a place to stay. They have also promised to support us in the jihad. For the time being I am camped in the town of Balakot, which is located in the Kunhar pass. The army of the infidels [kuffars] is camped not too far from us. Since Balakot is located at a secure place (surrounded by hills and bounded by the river), God willing, the infidels will not be able to reach us. Of course, we may choose to advance and enter into a battle at our own initiative. And this we intend to do in the next two or three days. With the help of God, we will be victorious. If we win this battle, and, God willing, we will, then we will occupy all the land alongside the Jehlum River including the kingdom of Kashmir. Please pray, day and night, for our victory.”

Obviously, Syed Sahib believed in and greatly relied upon divine help and miracles.

Hari Singh was the governor of Kashmir and NWFP at the time, representing Maharaja Ranjit Singh who sat in Lahore. He was a clever and ruthless administrator. His forces under the command of Sher Singh lay in wait for the mujahideen at Muzaffarabad. Their contingents had already moved to occupy the hilltop, known as Mitti Kot, overlooking the town of Balakot.

Syed Sahib, in his plans, expected the Sikhs to come down from their perch at Mitti Kot and attack the mujahideen. He, therefore, had the paddy fields, which lay between the town and the hills, flooded hoping that the advancing Sikhs would get mired in them and the Mujahideen could then pick them like sitting ducks — literally. But the Sikhs had their own plans. They did not move and waited, instead, for the mujahideen to make the first move.

The mujahideen obliged on May 6, 1831. It was a Friday. A bizarre incident occurred that morning that precipitated the battle. While the mujahideen were still having breakfast and, at the same time, keeping a wary eye on the movement of the enemy at Mitti Kot, one of them, Syed Chiragh Ali from Patiala, suddenly expressed a desire to eat kheer (rice pudding).

Since kheer was not on the menu that morning, Chiragh Ali fetched the necessary wherewithal and set about preparing kheer for himself. (It sounds bizarre, but as the Punjabi saying goes: shouq da koi mul naeen or fulfilling a whim has no price – nor a time.)

While Chiragh Ali was stirring the pot and nervously looking at the Sikhs on the hilltop, something came over him and he shouted, “There! I see a beautiful hoor (houri) dressed in red. She is calling me!” He threw away the ladle with which he was stirring the pot, and declared that he would eat only from the hands of the hoor. With this announcement he charged headlong at the hill, shouting Allah-o-Akbar. It all happened so suddenly that before anyone could realize what was happening, Chiragh Ali was in the middle of the paddy fields, struggling to run successfully in the mud. The Sikhs who must have been watching the scene with some amusement picked him in the sights of their rifles and shot him — dead in the mud. According to the narrative, Syed Chiragh Ali was the first martyr of the battle of Balakot.

What followed the shooting was total chaos and confusion. Syed Sahib, abandoning his earlier plan, ordered his men to attack. The mujahideen rushed forward and they, too, got mired in the muddy fields. The Sikhs then made their move. In a battle that lasted most of the day, amidst shouts of Allah-o-Akbar and Wahe guruji ka khalsa, wahe guruji ki fateh, Syed Ahmed and Shah Ismail were killed along with many mujahideen. The number of dead mujahideen varies, depending on the source one uses, from 300 to 1300. Whatever the numbers, however, the mujahideen had met their Waterloo at Balakot.

Nearly two centuries later, on October 6, 2005, an earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale shook and flattened the town of Balakot. Miraculously, however, it spared the graves of Syed Ahmed Shaheed and Shah Ismail Shaheed. Perhaps, as a reminder that miracles do happen but one cannot rely upon them!

What about Khota Qabar? Why was Khota Qabar so named?

On their way to Balkot the mujahideen camped somewhere near present day Abbottabad. The Sikhs, in order to choke the mujahideen’s supply lines, posted troops on the hills overlooking the road that led through a gorge to Abbottabad. The mujahideen, sensing the risk of sending convoys through the gorge, cleverly, hired the services of a donkey without a handler to carry their supplies. Yes. Just one donkey.

Even though the donkey has, for some reason, become a metaphor of stupidity in our part of the world, it is not stupid. One of the unique traits of the donkey is that once he carries a load to a destination he memorizes the route and does not need the help of a handler to go back to where he came from. Just a light kick in the back sends him trudging quietly to his destination. So, unknown to the Sikhs, this dutiful donkey trudged back and forth in the darkness of night carrying supplies to the mujhideen.

It wasn’t long before the Sikhs found out who the secret courier was. They shot him dead one night when he was carrying a load of goods through the gorge. The mujahideen mourned the loss of the donkey and honored him by burying him respectfully in a grave. The place came to be known as Khota Qabar. The grave may not have survived but the name did. Only a couple of years ago someone decided to change the name to Muslimabad!

But the people in the area still know the place by its old name. And so does Google!

The above story, except the part on Khota Qabar, which is anecdotal, is based on the following books:  1. Syed Ahmed Shaheed – Mujahid-e-kabir by Ghulam Rasool Mehr, 1981 2. Roedad-e-Mujahideen-e-Hind by Muhammad Khawas Khan, 1983

Photo Credits: Title photo by Ishtiaque, remaining by writer. Mast Qalandar is a Pakistani writer based in Islamabad.
This post first appeared in Adil Najam’s pakistaniat.comwebsite.



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14 replies to “Khota Qabar & the story of a lost battle

  1. Thanx MQ for correction. Actually the intro line was taken from the website where your first article, which we also posted on our blog site as well “Heer Ranjha, the folk tales of Pakistan”, first appeared. Anyway thanks for informing us. We are happy that you are in & not far away from Islamabad the beautiful.

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