Although I have always been a firm believer in the resilience, perseverance, bravery and commitment of the women of Pakistan, I witnessed all these virtues first-hand early this year, and perhaps a lot more, and that too in women most of whom were easily on the wrong side of sixty, if not seventy. For, members of Floral Arts Society (FAS), Pakistan, and specifically, of its Peshawar chapter, Lotus Club, hosted an ambitious, two-day, action-packed, international standard flower show in Peshawar and played host to members of Karachi and Lahore chapters, and in some cases even to their spouses, amid fears of cancellation of events thanks to coronavirus – which was gradually beginning to spread its tentacles at the time - bureaucratic hurdles, and peer pressure. And what an event it turned out to be!
The most impressive aspect of this two-day event was that FAS’s theme for the year of celebrating heritage and culture with flowers was strictly and aesthetically adhered to. The wider objective of the Club was to promote tourism in Pakistan, as well as floriculture, by encouraging the use of home-grown flowers rather than only importing them as in previous years. Hence, Pakistan Blooms 2020 spread khushbu (perfume) from Lahore to Islamabad mostly with local flowers, and culminated at Khyber where care was taken by the host club to not only use heritage sites for the background of the festival throughout - but also to artfully weave culture into the celebrations.
Around 150 people registered for the Peshawar event from Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, and the UK, and arrangements had been made for the stay of the majority of out-station guests at the historical Peshawar Club, though quite a few also stayed at the houses of friends or family. On day one, all guests were transported to the beautiful, iconic landmark building of Islamia College, its sprawling lawns and flowers in the garden artistically lit up with thematic lights, where the welcome reception and hospitality dinner titled Ittar (essence) had been arranged - courtesy the Ministry of Tourism, KP at the century-old Roose Kepple Hall.
But that was just the beginning of an exciting night that had been planned. Right after dinner, the delegates were taken to the heritage site of Gorkutreein what is known as andrun-e-shehr or walled city, the oldest living city in South Asia. Gorkutree meaning warrior’s grave, dates back to 3 BC, and is a historical site that was originally a Buddhist monastery and later housed a Hindu temple. The site was converted in the 16th century into a caravan serai by the daughter of Emperor Shah Jehan.
After a tour of the site, where guests had the opportunity to visit the historic Hindu temple standing on its grounds, see the display of ancient Mereweather fire engines and visit traditional craft shops, arrangements had been made to transport everyone in Pakistan’s traditional, signature rickshaws to Sethi Haveli, a unique national treasure comprising seven heritage mansions that belonged to the Sethi family, once one of the most powerful mercantile families of the city. With most of the original residents having moved out of the haveli, by and large the houses have been either sold off to be demolished or had drastic renovations done. One of these mansions, that would have met the same fate, had it not been for the Fareeda Nishtar, also the founder of the Peshawar Chapter of Floral Arts Society and the creative spirit and force behind holding the Pakistan Blooms 2020 - was finally bought over by the government and so saved from being destroyed.
The ambience of Sethi Haveli, beginning with thematic lighting of the streets, and display of creative floral arrangements following the theme of Islamic calligraphy, an undeniable part of our heritage, in the arched windows of the heritage mansion left everyone spellbound. Every floral display depicted one of the 99 names of Allah, skilfully incorporated within the exhibit. Not only did the setting and backdrop seem almost fairy-tale like, the small cultural touches like two young hostesses in traditional attire welcoming all the guests with traditional gajras, (fresh flower bracelets), cultural live music - of rabab and mangai - and offerings of dry fruit and masala gur, and excellent traditional kehva made the entire experience an unforgettable one.
Next morning, we all gathered at Peshawar Club, the meeting point for our collective departure complete with police escort. Once again, hats off to the ladies of Lotus Club that they managed to pull off the trip according to schedule in spite of fears of last-minute cancellations by the powers that be, as special permissions had been sought to make this trip possible. With a seasoned guide sitting amidst us who is normally, the trip became even more enjoyable and educational. As we left Peshawar behind he pointed out how after years of unrest in the region, it was a blessing to be able to freely move through these once volatile areas. We entered Jamrud, the starting point of what used to be the tribal area, now known as Khyber District marked by Bab-e-Khyber, the historic gateway for invasions in the subcontinent by civilizations as old as Gandhara, Greek, Bactrian, Scythian, Parthian, Kushan, Hun, Rajput, right up till East India Company, we couldn’t help but feel awed by the fact that we were treading the same path as so many ruthless invaders that had plundered the subcontinent and left their footprints on us for all times to come.
We passed the Jamrud Fort built by the Sikh General Hari Singh Nalwa in 1890, and kept absorbing the rugged, barren and magnificent mountains of Khyber that flanked the road on either side as we drove along. We saw the 34 tunnels made by the British for the Khyber Railways they had set up, all of which stand intact, even today, though the railways are long gone. We saw the sorry state of the tracks running parallel to the Pass, and a few of the 92 bridges that still survive. We passed the impressive Shagai Fort built by the British, half way between Peshawar and Landikotal, and stopped for photographs at the monument opposite it, made to commemorate US Aid that gave funding to make the road.
As we entered Landikotal, we passed Sphola Stupa, a fifth century Buddhist stupa on a hill, which is now barren as the artifacts from it have either been plundered or placed at Peshawar Museum, and a mountain embellished with colourful commemorative tablets of British regiments posted at that station since 1857.
Our next stop was Michni Check Post, where we were the guests of Khyber Rifles, one of the most decorated arms of the Frontier Corps. With a commanding view of the foothills of Hindu Kush mountains from where we were treated to an in-depth history of the area, a visual presentation by the regiment, and also pointed out strategic locations from our vantage point, such as the last check post at Pak-Afghan Border, Torkham, and the infamous dungeon of King Tamerlane.
After a lot of photographs, we left for Khyber Rifles Mess, where arrangements had been made for our lunch. The Mess is like a veritable museum, with photographs of all dignitaries and royalty from all over the world who have visited it, and displays of antique guns, maps and navigation instruments. One of the highlights of the Mess is Lady Diana’s room, where she had stayed, and which to date holds her pictures and memorabilia. The other highlights included a sun dial - a colonial clock which tells time perfectly - occupying a prime spot in the garden, right next to an old tree that is in chains! As the story goes, one day a certain Captain Squid had had a trifle too much to drink, and imagined the tree to be chasing after him, so he asked his guards to arrest it. They dutifully tied chains around it and informed him that it had been arrested, and the chains have remained on the poor tree since that day. Yet another interesting element in the garden is a grey rock that we were told is natural, which has white streaks embedded in it that clearly seem to proclaim the words Mohammed and Allah.
We were also treated to a cultural dance performance with the dancers firing blanks as they moved, swaying their heads as a gesture that their heads could be cut off, but they would never run away, a Chitrali dance which was quite playful, and khattak, inspired by Greek Athena.
After lunch and a tour of the Mess, everyone departed for Peshawar, to relax and get ready for the evening programme, titled Mehek, a fund-raising dinner for TCF organised by Lotus Club at the magnificent Qilla Bala Hisaar - meaning elevated fort in Dari - built by Babar in 1526, the entrance of which was reminiscent of Amer fort in Jaipur. Once a royal winter residence of Pashtun King Taimur Shah Durrani (1773-1793) the imposing red citadel on a high mound is now being used as headquarters for Pakistan’s Frontier Corps. Members of Lotus Club had taken pains to decorate the area creatively with fresh flowers following the theme of Heritage on Wheels, so one could spot flower arrangements on unusual bases such as a vintage car, a truck-art wheel cart, a traditional tonga carriage, and a cannon.
After some highly charged speeches and some cultural Kalasha Chillum dance and music performances, traditional dinner called khwancha rotiwas served, which merits special mention. The dinner comprised trays of food - with rice, roti, vegetables, curry, and barbecued meats - served at tables to seat four, as the quantities of the food items on each tray are sufficient for four people only. A scrumptious meal, ending with kheer and kulfait brought the surreal trip to a befitting end. More power to the women of Pakistan, who are doing so much and so quietly to promote peace, beauty, harmony, heritage, tourism and education in Pakistan!