Tuesday, 17 April 2018

P for Peshawar

Peshawar, the capital of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan, boasts of a rich history which dates back to 539 BC. Peshawar has seen many rulers and dynasties and has also been patronised by many. Peshawar’s history is well recorded and thanks to the excavations conducted in the area during the British Raj and other times, we also have notable evidence in support.

The founding and etymology of Peshawar

Peshawar was founded as the ancient city of Purushapura, which in Sanskrit means ‘the city of men’. It was founded on the Gandhara plains as a small village settlement in about 539 BC. Its location was near to Pushkalavati, the capital of the Gandhara kingdom. Along with Pushkalavati, Takshashila (Taxila) and Varmayana (Bamyan), Purushapura completed the list of important cities in ancient Gandhara.

The noted Arab historian Al-Masudi noted that by the 10th century AD, the name of the city had come to be known as Parashawar, a name which continued for a few more centuries, till the Mughal Emperor Akbar changed its name to Peshawar.

The Buddhist heritage of Peshawar

In 326 BC when Alexander the Great subdued the kings of the region and conquered the Peshawar valley, the area came under the control of Seleucus I Nicator and was a part of his Seleucid Empire. However, following the battle and subsequent treaty between Chandragupta Maurya and Seleucus, along with a large part of the North-western territories, Peshawar was also ceded to Chandragupta and was included in the Mauryan Empire. It was during the time of Ashoka the Great that the entire Gandhara region was entrenched in Buddhism. From many Buddhist monasteries dotted across Gandhara and its cities (modern day central Afghanistan and north Pakistan), and innumerable stupas, to the rock-cut mammoth statues of the Buddha at Bamyan, the region was sweeping in Buddhist culture.

Another proponent of Buddhism was the Kushana king Kanishka, who ruled over the region and made Peshawar his capital in 128 AD. A devout Buddhist, Kanishka built the grand Kanishka Mahavihara, an expansive monastery in the region, the ruins of which are still seen today. After his death, a massive Kanishka Stupa was built in Peshawar to house Buddhist relics. By 232 AD, the Kushana rule ended in Peshawar and soon after the city was attacked by the armies of the Sassanids under Shapur I. They caused extensive damage to the Buddhist monastery and also destroyed the monumental stupa.  Later during the time of the 400s, when the White Huns took over Peshawar and were ruling from there, the Kanishka Stupa was restored to some extent.

In the words of Chinese traveller Fa Hien who visited Peshawar during this period, the Kanishka stupa was “the highest of all the towers in the terrestrial world.” During the Kushana period, the population of Peshawar was estimated to be 120,000 thus making it the world’s seventh most populated city at that time. However, when Hieuen Tsang visited Peshawar around 630 AD, the city had seen few centuries of conflict among the Huns and other Pashtun tribes thus reducing its population and also its grandeur. Hieuen Tsang wrote in lament on seeing the ruins of the Buddhist monasteries and stupas, “the city and its great Buddhist monuments have decayed to ruin.”

Islamic rule in Peshawar

Peshawar in the 7th century passed on to the hands of the Kabul Hindu Shahi rulers for some time, but as their powers dwindled, different Pashtun tribes took over the city and Peshawar changed hands intermittently between such rulers until early 11th century when Mahmud of Ghazni swept over the city, defeating the Hindu Shahi king Jayapaladeva at the Battle of Peshawar in 1001. For the next few centuries again Peshawar saw it being first ruled over by the Ghaznavids, who were overthrown by Muhammad Ghori in 1179-80; the city suffered attacks and destructions at the hands of the invading Mongols in 1200, after which mostly the Pashtun tribes again took over.

A consolidated rule over Peshawar was effected by the Mughals, with Babur taking the city in 1526 after defeating Daulat Khan Lodhi. Peshawar, in the Lodhi Empire was an important trade route, being situated at the eastern end of the famous Khyber Pass and was the gateway to the routes going to Central Asia. When Babur took over the city and made it his base, he changed the name of the city to Begram. It is important to note that till this time the city was called as Parashawar.

It was during the brief reign of the Afghan leader Sher Shah Suri, who ousted Humayun and took over his kingdom, that the construction of the famous Grand Trunk Road was started, in the 16th century. Peshawar was an important trading centre on the Grand Trunk Road’s western end.

Peshawar under the later Mughals and after

Akbar renamed the city from Begram to Peshawar. The earlier name of Parashawar had been dropped and some historians say that while the new name Peshawar was well aligned with the city’s older names of Purushapura and Parashawar, Akbar’s chosen name Peshawar was derived from the Persian word ‘pish-shehr’ meaning ‘forward city’. For the Mughals Peshawar was indeed a Frontier city.

Shah Jahan gave Peshawar its own set of Shalimar Bagh (gardens), but the same have been ruined and do not exist today. During Aurangzeb’s rule, Peshawar was the winter capital for the Kabul province and the Mughal governor of Kabul, Mohabbat Khan, built the very famous Mohabbat mosque in the city. After Aurangzeb’s death, as the Mughal power dwindled, they found it difficult to contain the tribes from attacking Peshawar. Finally in 1738, Peshawar was wrested from the Mughal Empire by the Persian king Nader Shah during his invasion of India.

For the next hundred years, from 1747 to 1839, Peshawar passed on respectively to first the Durranis from Afghanistan and then later the Sikhs under Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Many battles were fought for territorial supremacy in Peshawar and in the process the city suffered heavy damage and its bustling economy was busted.

Peshawar’s importance in the British Raj era – The Durand Line

Following the second Anglo-Sikh war in 1839, most of the territories which were under the rule of the Sikhs were annexed and Peshawar too came under the British Raj rule. The city saw a period of stability as the British rebuild a lot of infrastructure and restored many buildings which had been lying damaged since the previous wars. Railway connectivity was established to link Peshawar with the rest of British India. However, for the British, Peshawar was of significant importance as it was the closest inward frontier town from the north-western border of India. The British build large garrisons and established cantonments in Peshawar and it was from here that they officially marked out the demarcation line between India and Afghanistan and Persia.

Sir Mortimer Durand, a British diplomat and civil servant, and Abdur Rahman Khan, the Afghan Amir fixed their respective territories of influence and a Border was drawn between (undivided) India and Afghanistan in 1896, which was popularly called the Durand Line. The Durand Line cutting through the areas of the different Afghan-Pashtun tribes, scattered them on either side into the respective countries, causing much unrest and confusion among them. Peshawar was the city where the design and draft of the Durand Line was discussed and drawn by the British. In 1947, after independence, though Pakistan adopted the Durand Line as its western international border, it largely remained unrecognised by Afghanistan.

During the independence struggle, Peshawar was controlled by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a Pashtun activist who fought against the British rule. Ghaffar Khan was a devoted follower of Mahatma Gandhi and was nicknamed ‘Frontier Gandhi’ by his people. He had rejected the proposal of the All India Muslim League for the creation of Pakistan and had opposed the Indian National Congress when they had agreed for the Partition of the country.

The modern era

The British had built a lot of buildings and had developed the city during their reign, much of which still stands today. Post partition, Peshawar became part of Pakistan and was made the capital of its Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The city had been the base for the CIA intelligence during the Afghan-Soviet wars in the 1980s. Like much of Pakistan’s north-west frontier areas, Peshawar had also been severely affected during the Taliban war and continued subsequent violence by the mujahiedeen extremists in the Afghan refugee camps in and around the city. Arrival of large numbers of Afghan refugees into Peshawar has changed the character of the city to a great extent, in the present times.

However chequered the history of Peshawar may have been, the battle-scarred fate of the city continues even today as it stands vulnerable to the terrorist violence by radical and extremist groups operating around its Afghan border areas.


Photo 1: View of the ruins of Kanishka Buddhist Mahavihara, now known as the Takht-i-Bahi in Peshawar valley
Photo credit: Asif Nawaz - Wikimedia Commons

Photo 2: A market street in Qila Bala Hisar, Peshawar city
Photo credit: Pashto Times archives

Connect with me on Twitter: @Sayan74

I am participating in the #BlogchatterA2Z challenge and today’s letter is ‘P’.


  1. There was a time when all of this was one piece of land. Apparently, most of the civilians have been wiped out and what remains is only Islamic and completely agree on the land of men name to the city. As always well described and researched :)

    1. Can't believe that once Peshawar had such Buddhist heritage once.I only know about the Islamic rule of Peshawar. Each time I read your post, am enriched with little more knowledge about History/Mythology. As a History lover, am so happy for that. Thank you, Sayan.

    2. Hi Shweta.. thank you for reading my post and commenting. Yes indeed a lot of life, heritage and culture has been wiped out due to wars and barbaric acts, which is very unfortunate. While those cannot be undone, the least we could do is to preserve what exists and be aware and feel proud of the heritage that once we had.

    3. Hi Sayanti.. thank you for your comment and I am glad that as a lover of history, you are enjoying my posts! My endeavour through this A2Z series has been to bring out the lesser known or forgotten facts of history which are important to our heritage and should be known by all. I am happy that my posts are leaving you enriched :)

  2. Today Peshawar in north-west Pakistan is a hotbed of insurgency and a strategic military entry point into Afghanistan. But more than 1,500 years ago the Gandhara region, which surrounded present-day Peshawar, was an important point along the Silk Road between China and the Mediterranean. Propelled by Alexander the Great's conquest of the Persian Empire, settlers from the West brought classical Greco-Roman influences, while traders from the East brought Buddhism. This unique cross-pollination permeates art from the Gandhara region, which encompassed swaths of north-west Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan between the first century BC and the fifth century AD. These works are an extraordinary example of ancient globalisation. All this shows us a different view of Pakistan. It truly is another perspective.

    1. Thank you Romila for your enriching comment which surely adds value to my post! Thanks for taking time to read and comment.

  3. You have written in-depth about Peshawar, Sayan. I know very little about the city. The way you have detailed it, the history, the rulers and the current state is amazing.


    1. Thank you Rohan for reading my post and commenting. I am happy that you liked it and gained knowledge about Peshawar!

  4. This was as exhaustive as always Sayan. I feel a little more enriched every time I am here dear. Wonder even if Wiki knows this much about Peshawar 😊

    1. Thanks for your comment Roma ! I will take it as a compliment :) Happy that you like reading my historical posts...

  5. Well, the destruction of the Buddhist stupa reminds me of the destruction and devastation of the glorious Nalanda university. It is a pity that conquering armies destroy the most marvelous structure in a city in a fervor of fundamentalism. The ISIS doing the same thing now in several places.

    1. Very true Jai.. the intolerance factor is the most destructive of all and that pervades the invaders when they conquer other lands. As they say, history repeats itself...


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