Abbottabad – “To your natural beauty do I bow”
Over 150 years after its foundation by Major James Abbot, Abbottabad remains one of the most picturesque cities in Pakistan’s north
Major James Abbot was dispatched to the mountainous regions of northern India (what is now Pakistan’s north western frontier) in 1853, with the assignment to establish an administrative base for the British Empire, from where the Raj could control the vast, treacherous and beautiful region. After an exhaustive search – mostly on foot – Abbot finally pitched his tent in a lush green valley surrounded by snow-capped peaks at a distance. At 4,120 feet above sea level, although this plain was habitable throughout the year, the valley was hours or even days from the highest villages. There, Major Abbot laid the foundation of Abbottabad and was appointed its first Deputy Commissioner.
Abbottabad, then as now, is the most conveniently located and most accessible full-fledged city in Pakistan’s Northern Areas. Two hours by road from Rawalpindi, it is located on the Karakurram highway on the main transit and supply route to Kaghan, Gilgit, Skardu, Nathiagali, Thandiani, and Mansehra. The same road then meanders onwards to China. There are innumerable, breathtaking spots throughout the region.
Although the city’s population has soared in recent years, it has lost none of its charm. From the Ayub Medical Complex teaching centre to five-star hotel accommodation (well, ok, four star) and well-stocked shops and bookstores, Abbottabad offers all the amenities and comforts of a metropolis – without losing the relaxed cheerfulness of a small town. What a relief that there is no railway station or airport in Abbottabad.
Pakistan International Airlines had started a helicopter service to Abbottabad from Islamabad a few years ago, but it was quickly discontinued. Based in Abbottabad, the Adventure Club of Pakistan organises hiking and climbing trips and even hot air balloon excursions. Liassi mosque is a popular historic landmark with a water spring. The Camel Tree is a cluster of trees on top of a hill that resembles the hump of a camel from the vantage point of the Pakistan Military Academy, on the other side of the valley. The tree is a required part of the map-reading syllabus for every cadet who trains here.
Abbottabad is home to settlers from all across Pakistan, Kashmiris pushed out by Dogra rulers, refugees from Delhi displaced after 1857’s mutiny, and Afghans. A well-established extended family of the Bohra community has also settled in Abbottabad, as has a sizable Christian community. I was surprised to see a Bahai Home in the town. The people are in general very genial (the city boasts one of the lowest crime rates in the country). It has been and remains a home for many well-known, and not so well-known politicians, retired generals and bureaucrats, such as Field Marshal Ayub Khan and his son Gohar Ayub Khan, Air Marshal Asghar Khan, and General Yahya Khan.
The saddest and most alarming aspect of this wonderful city is its environmental degradation. It has been lead by politicians and influential individuals of the region. So much illegal deforestation has occurred in the area that the average temperature has increased by several degrees. Air-conditioners are becoming a necessity, whereas ceiling fans were once a luxury. The landscape bears the painful scars of ruthless deforestation. Though everyone knows who the culprits are, the sacrilege continues.
Abbottabad is city of transience and nostalgia. The air has a fragrance and lure that has drawn many more since Major Abbot who first made his way here. The Burnhall School, Abbottabad Public School, Army Medical Corps centre, Combined Military Hospital, and the Pakistan Military Academy Kakul (made famous by the TV serial “Sunehray Din”) have been training young minds for the latter half of the last century in Abbottabad. Something of the town stays with them throughout their lives, as it did in the case of Major Abbot: “I remember the day when I first came here
And smelt the sweet Abbottabad air
The trees and the ground covered with snow
Gave us indeed a brilliant show
To me the place seemed like a dream
And far ran a lonesome stream
The wind hissed as if welcoming us
The pines swayed creating a lot of fuss
And the tiny cuckoo sang it away
A song very melodious and gay
I adored the place from the first sight
And was happy that my coming here was right
And eight good years here passed very soon
And we leave you perhaps on a sunny noon
Oh! Abbottabad we are leaving you now
To your natural beauty do I bow
Perhaps your winds will never reach my ears
My gift for you is sad tears
I bid you farewell with a heavy heart
Never from my mind will your memories thwart.A”
©Copyright 2002, Friday Times (Pakistan)