On Babur’s Trail: A spot of idyll near war-ravaged Kabul

Ironically, for a place that exudes such tranquillity, Istalif has had a violent past.

Published: May 10, 2015 1:00 am
afghanistan-main Istalif is a small idyllic village perched in the mountains, around 50 km from Kabul (Source: John Zada of Canada, courtesy: Wikimedia)

By Taran N Khan

Kabulis tend to take their leisure seriously, and picnics, in particular, are epic in scale and preparation. So, on most Fridays, which is the weekend in Afghanistan, the road leading north from the capital is likely to be choked with traffic snarls, cars standing bumper-to-bumper, families packed in taxis that have large deghs (pots) of food in the boot, along with a pile of toshaks (mattresses) and a few melons. Some head to the former king’s summer capital at Paghman, others to the man-made Qargha lake to escape the dust and noise. Many head to Istalif, a small idyllic village perched in the mountains around 50 km from Kabul. I first visited the spot (packed in the approved fashion with Afghan friends) in 2006, a time of relative peace. It was spring and the arghawan (Judas) trees that mark the season were in bloom. As we drove through the northern, or “Shumali” plains, their fabled vineyards were touched with a tentative green. Orchards of almonds, apricots and cherries were bursting into riotous blossom behind mud walls, and water ran through reconstructed irrigation ditches. In some villages, people had stripped down tanks and jeeps to recast them as bridges across these brooks, or as doors for their new homes. Istalif lies at the edge of the Koh-e-Daman valley. We took the road that climbed up the incline to the Takht, or Throne of Istalif, to take in the view.

Istalif’s historical associations begin with its very name. In her book An Historical Guide to Kabul, first published in 1965, historian and writer Nancy Dupree wrote, “Some say it was named by the soldiers of Alexander the Great’s army who camped here in the 4th century BC and that the name Istalif is derived from the Greek word for grape.” Babur, who conquered Kabul before going on to establish the Mughal dynasty in India, was a passionate admirer of the city and its environs. Istalif charmed him so much that he created a garden here in the 16th century, and rode over with friends for drinking sessions that lasted several days. “Few villages match Istalif, with vineyards and orchards on either side of its torrent, its waters cold and pure”, he wrote in his memoirs. But he was unhappy with the irregular path followed by the stream and got it altered to a straight line. Babur also described the Takht-e-Istalif, where “large spreading plane trees spread their shade, making pleasant sitting places beneath.” Standing at the same spot centuries later, it was easy to see why he had been so captivated. The valley spread around us, and below us flowed a river. The water rushed with exuberance over boulders, fed by fresh snow melt from the mountains. There had been rain that morning, and while the ground was muddy, the air was clear and cool, the sunlight dappled on the tender green around us.

Ironically, for a place that exudes such tranquillity, Istalif has had a violent past. Its strategic location near Kabul has led to its destruction on several occasions. In 1842, it was destroyed by the British army, in retaliation for its disastrous retreat from the capital. “The British left, the villagers returned, and Istalif rose again,” wrote Dupree. The same pattern repeated itself after the village was on the frontlines of the Taliban’s push towards Kabul in 1996. When they gained control, they forced the residents to leave and razed the buildings. Soon after 2001, the villagers were back, trying to revive a skill embedded in their soil: Istalif’s famous glazed pottery.

We walked into the village market, a street that glinted in shades of turquoise and green. Many of the potters, I read later, had buried their tools before fleeing the Taliban. When they returned, they fired up their kilns again. Besides bowls, the potters also make decorative candlestands, cups, saucers and vases, all of which glow with a beautiful glaze. Accounts of how this technique took root in Istalif vary, but the blue notes of the pottery call to the shades found through neighbouring Uzbekistan and further into central Asia. The revival of Istalif’s bazaar is a testimony to the traditional knowledge preserved by the Afghans, despite decades of war and displacement. The shops were beautifully displayed and the owners happy to chat, sharing information about their work, or just exchanging gossip about the goings-on in Kabul.

At lunchtime, several families headed to the riverside, where there were kabab stalls and space to flop down on their toshaks. But we followed Babur’s example and picnicked under a plane tree, enjoying the stunning view. Behind us, loomed the shell of a large hotel that had been popular with tourists in the 1970s. A short walk from the village, atop a hill, is the shrine of Eshan sahib, which draws large crowds of devotees from among the Friday visitors.

Perhaps, because it is so close to Kabul, there weren’t many options for guesthouses in Istalif. On a subsequent trip with a film crew, we slept in a simple chaikhana (teahouse) on the edge of the village. In the evening, we ate outdoors, our meal lit by a glorious, star-studded sky. But on my first visit, I left for Kabul the same afternoon, enraptured by the beauty of the Afghan landscape, and by a glimpse into its complex history and culture. On the drive back, the boot of the car rattled with the empty deghs, and the bowls I had bought in the bazaar. I still have a few, and sometimes their undimmed glaze flashes in my home in Mumbai, sparking the memory of sunlight on a snow-fed river, seen rushing through a gorge far below.

A Mumbai-based journalist, the writer has been travelling to Kabul since 2006. She has worked closely with Afghan filmmakers and media persons

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