The city of Mardan has never failed to surprise — especially in matters pertaining to heart and soul and in affairs related to the quest for lasting emancipation. Such has been its defining feature for well over two millennia now.
In all likelihood, this all started over two thousand years ago when a Parthian Monastery was established atop a panoramic hilly mound namely Takht-i-Bhai, nestling adjacent to imposing Malakand mountain range. Literally, the name Takht-i-Bhai implies site of high water springs. The area gradually transformed into a big Zoroastrian complex, before ending up as a well-established Bhuddist meditation place. Its many stupas, zigzag monastic chambers, and myriad temple complexes continued to spread Buddha’s alluring message of tranquility and peace for many centuries to come.
Beginning of 12th century saw yet another manifestation of the city’s infatuation with spiritual ascendency. It was then that the renowned saint, Ali Mardan Shah — lovingly called Madai Baba amongst Pashtuns — reached the area and started spreading light of spiritual emancipation. Arrival of the great saint had lasting impact over the inhabitants who showed their respect and infatuation for the saint by fondly naming their city after the holy person as Mardan.
A few centuries passed and we come across two more episodes of intense love and faithfulness, to the call of one’s destiny, associated with Mardan. One of these two spiritual sagas has origins in colonial times but came to notice of the world at large through the epic English literature novel, The Far Pavilions. Amongst other places, some of the major events in this novel are set in British-era Mardan. The main character of the novel, Ash, is brought to Mardan by his Hindu Aya, Sita, to live with his English relatives. Subsequently, the novel figures a love story between Ash and a Hindu princess, namely Anjuli. In a major turning point of the novel, Ash rescues Anjali from being lynched as she is forced to perform the rites of Satti, following the death of her ex-husband — a Hindu prince. After the rescue, both the lover and the beloved, set upon to find their eternal heaven in forest-clad Himalayas — The Far Pavilions — where they could live their life peacefully and blissfully, forever.
But it is the second saga of faithful and true love which is more widely known among Pashtuns in relation to the love-smitten city of Mardan. This is about the famous Pashto love story of Yousaf Khan and Shehar Bano, set in Swabi, erstwhile tehsil of old Mardan. As the folklore goes, major events of the story unfurl amidst towering hilly range of Karamar, which exists along main Mardan-Swabi Road. Principal character of this love story is a valiant, handsome Pashtun youth, Yousaf Khan, who faces endless tribulations after falling in love with “dove-eyed” Shehar Bano. He first narrowly escapes death when his jealous brethren and cousins try to murder him by throwing him down the precipice of “cobra head” mountain but his life is saved after being caught in sprawling branches of a big, ever-green pine tree. Ultimately, he is rescued by his beloved. Shortly afterwards, however, calamity befalls yet again. Yousaf Khan courts tragic and painful death when he is blown deep-down a narrow, perilous gorge — only to be followed by his betrothed — Shehar Bano — as both head for the ultimate resting place of lovers, “The Far Pavilions” of Mardan.
Come more recent times, towards the beginning of the last century, and Mardan witnesses yet another love affair of a slightly different nature. A far-sighted Pashtun, aka Bacha Khan, was moved by that most irrepressible loves of all — love for freedom of the motherland — as he embarked upon course of his historical resistance through promoting education among Pashtun people. Mardan had the honour to have one of the earliest of these schools in Gaddar, marking the enlightenment movement spearheaded by two towering, misty-eyed freedom-lovers, namely Bacha Khan and Haji Saheb Tarangzai. For spreading the message of spiritual emancipation, non-violence, love and enlightenment in those strife-ridden times, the choice of Mardan as the earliest staging grounds was in total sync with the millennia-old enlightenment traditions of this beautiful city.
The magic of Mardan also found expression through the combined genius of John Benton and G.L. Bill, from Imperial Irrigation and Mining Cores. They defied the impressive, arrogant Malakand Pass to bring to the city singing waters of the Swat River through the upper Swat tunnel and canal system.
As the crystal clear waters of Swat River were taken through a labyrinth of smaller canals to every nook and corner of Mardan, towering Shisham trees grew along these waterways. Fatherly and deep, green shadows of these mighty and grandiose trees quickly became a landmark in Mardan, for providing shade and respite to many weary travelers.
The tragic event that happened in Mardan last week came across as an outlier to this thousand-year-old tradition of love, faithfulness and fortitude. This tradition has been featured in folklore through the story of Yousaf Khan who chased the call of his heart against impending and ominous eventualities, and in colonial era literary works through characters like Ash from The Far Pavilion. And to top it all, there is Bacha Khan’s tradition of peace, enlightenment and non-violence in the face of most heinous atrocities.
While the last week’s tragedy in Mardan was disconnected from this tradition, the response it received from the most deeply affected resident of the city was completely in sync with it. Iqbal Jan, father of another misty-eyed dreamer from Mardan, was in complete tandem with history as he dwarfed and decimated adversity by uttering some truly epoch-making words in the most heart-wrenching moments: “We are peaceful people and we believe in peace. We want to spread love and peace in this country — in every house, there is a Mashal of education that we need to protect.”
Indefatigable spirit of Mardan wins, once again.
The writer is an environment and public policy expert