A Month in Chitral


Algernon Durand (London 1899)

MEHTAR AMAN-UL-MULK was a very remarkable man. For forty years his had been the chief personality on the frontier; even in his father's time he had made his mark. It would be worrisome to attempt to unravel the long story of battle and murder, treachery and intrigue, formed by his life Suffice it to say that he ruled a united Chitral, extending from the borders of Punyal on the one hand to the borders of Kafirstan and Dir on the other, and that the watershed of the Hindu Kush was his northern boundary. He was tributary to Kashmir, and received from that State a subsidy, which had been doubled a few years before our meeting, for his assistance when Gilgit was besieged by the then ruler of Yasin.
Aman-ul-Mulk, Mehtar of Chitral, with some of his many children, in 1890
History books report that Aman-ul-Mulk always had a falcon sitting on his arm. What is that sitting on his left shoulder?

A brief account of this incident will give a good idea of the Mehtar's methods. Yasin was ruled by the Kushwakt family, descended from Shah Kushwakt, the brother of Shah Katur, the founder of the Chitral royal family. The families were of course frequently intermarried, and were closely connected. In the year 1880, Pahlwan Bahadur, the Kushwakt ruler of Yasin, and a nephew of Aman-ul-Mulk, who had had an adventurous and stormy career, took it into his head to invade Punyal and to expel the Dogras from Gilgit. The Mehtar encouraged him in every way, promised him assistance, and urged him to enterprise. Pahlwan started and laid siege to Cherkilla, the chief fort of Punyal. The moment he was well committed to his adventure the Mehtar, who had secretly collected his forces, occupied Yasin. The unfortunate Pahlwan was at once deserted by his people, and threw himself on his uncle's mercy. It was of the usual kind, and he died suddenly.

The Mehtar was steeped to the lips in treachery; his hands were crimson with the blood of his nearest relations; two out of three of his brothers he had murdered; the third was in exile in Kabul; his Kushwakt cousins had equal cause to rue his name. He was continuously plotting to get his refugee relations to return to his country, with small success, for they well knew theirs would be a short shift. But such a character cannot be judged by our standards: in wild Mahomedan states it is always and must always be, a case of kill or be killed amongst the sons of a ruling chief after their father's death. Polygamy, and the pernicious habit of parceling out a kingdom into governorships during a ruler's lifetime among the sons, invariably leads to war; and when one brother falls into the hands of another there can be but one result, and that as much in the interest of the state which is saved from war as in that of the conqueror, for "stone death hath no fellow."

The Mehtar ruled his country with a rod of iron, and none dared gainsay his commands. But his rule was not popular - far from it. His oppression extended in all directions: he sold large quantities of timber yearly to Peshawari merchants, and the whole of it was cut and conveyed to the streams by forced labor - of course unpaid for; he interfered in trade, and levied prohibitive taxes on merchandise passing through his country; he bought the goods of passing merchants, if he wanted them, at his own valuation; he sold his subjects into slavery, and sent presents of boys and girls to the Amir and to the neighboring chiefs. At the same time he had many good points. He was deeply religious according to his lights, yet he was no bigot. His view was that so long as a man was a good subject the ruler had no call to interfere with his religious opinions, and while I was in Chitral he soundly rated his son Murad for trying to enforce orthodoxy among the people. He was a kind and indulgent father, and devoted to his small sons, who used to form a pretty group round him when he came to see me, clustering about him with the fearlessness of affection. In a country where the natural vices were rampant he was unstained. He had a religious horror of them, and attributed his success over the Kushwakt chiefs to their depravity, against which God's wrath had kindled. He was much married, not "cursedly confined" to one wife, or for the matter of that, to some dozens of wives and concubines. Like David, he "scattered his maker's image through the land," and at every village you found a small son or heard of a daughter. He had eighty children.

His bearing was royal, his courtesy simple and perfect, he had naturally the "courtly Spanish grace" of a great heredity noble, the dignity and ease of manner which is the birthright of every gentleman in the East, but which were none the less striking from the fact that the Mehtar had never left his mountain fastness. I had read several descriptions of the Mehtar; my lamented friend; Ney Elias, had put him down as in his second childhood, still full of cunning and intrigue, but unable to follow an idea or keep the thread of a conversation, and had warned me that I should find him hopeless to do business with. I believe that Ney Elias had seen the Mehtar during the fast month, which was naturally very trying for an old man. Moreover, when passing through Chitral, Ney Elias had no official position, and the Mehtar may have thought there was nothing to be gained by being attentive to conversation. Any man more thoroughly competent to conduct affairs I have never met.

The Mehtar's views on the condition of frontier affairs were interesting, and his knowledge of men and matters varied far and wide. A man does not rule a frontier state for forty tears for nothing. He saw that, so far as his dynasty and country were concerned, safety lay in alliance with us, danger in any closer intercourse with Afghanistan. For this reason he was delighted to have an unconquered Kafirstan on his flank as a buffer between him and the "God-given Government." He might occasionally, in retaliation for too numerous murders on the part of the Kafirs, raid their country with the object of getting some slaves, but he had no desire to see it conquered, and he was delighted that the Kafirs had made the road down towards Asmar, and up the Ashreth valley to Lowari Pass, their happy hunting-ground, and murdered stray Pathans. The more dangerous the road was, the more isolated and safe his state. We discussed many questions, to which I cannot refer, with daily increasing interest and amusement on my part. Some of his ideas with all his shrewdness were very quaint; one of his most persistent demands was that, given any agreement with Government, it should be engraved on a sheet of copper. Some ruffian had persuaded him that no treaty would be binding on us if only written on paper.

[ The Making of a Frontier by Algernon Durand, pages 74-79 (London 1899)]

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