Garden of Sheela

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
This is my narrative about a visit to the longest railway tunnel in the Hindustan Peninsula.It is called Khojak tunnel. Constructed during the British raj, the tunnel is associated with the romance of Sheela, a hindu dancer who was the lover of the British engineer supervising the construction of this tunnel

Submitted: November 01, 2011

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Submitted: November 01, 2011





Today I am going to tell you about the legend associated with the Hindu dancer Shela and the worlds eighth longest railway tunnel at Khojak. Pakistan has a very long border belt with Afghanistan with two main border posts at Landi Kotal and Chaman. Before reaching the border posts at both places, we have to negotiate  legendary passes known since ages as Khyber and Khojak. Khyber has been the primary route of most of the invaders, traders and travelers approaching from north-west, while Chaman has been used by travelers approaching Qandhar or vice versa. Khyber Pass is situated in the lower Hindu Kush Mountains while Khojak lies in Suleman range. The four hours drive covering 153 kilometers from Quetta to Chaman border on a rickety road is an experience beyond description. The scenery is captivating and, on an open day with clear sky, the views of the Chaman Plain and distant Afghan areas are breathtaking.

On a nice sunny day with some clouds on sky I along with my wife and two daughters made this memorable journey and had luck to have superb panorama from the top of Khojak Pass. Just before the Khojak Pass there is a small dwelling called Sheela Bagh. This place  might have been developed as a base camp for workers building the road and rail track through the pass. At Sheela Bagh there is no garden  and at Chaman, off course, one should not expect a Garden of Eden, as the name describes. Beyond Sheela Bagh, the road rises to the top of the pass and the rail track enters into the tunnel to emerge on the other side after covering a distance of 3.9 kilometers and leads towards the last railway station of Chaman. Both options, to use the surface route and going through the tunnel to enter the vast plains of Chaman, are equally interesting. Khojak Tunnel, 3.9 kilometers in length, is one of the most prized possessions of Pakistan Railway. When opened for traffic in 1891, it was the fourth longest in the world.

The tunnel is straight but has a few rising and falling grades, the highest being reached at the center, which is almost a hump. As the train reaches this spot, an automatic device rings a bell warning the engine driver that he is starting the downgrade. To light the tunnel for the gang men who regularly work there or the occasional inspections and visits, mirrors are used at both ends, which reflect sunlight into it. The employees deployed for this purpose so position the life size mirrors that the entire passage of the straight tunnel is illuminated, which slide out of their slits when they are operated through the special mechanism devised to this end.

The tunnel was literally dug with hands from each end, using picks and shovels. Flags were used for surveying and direction keeping as modern surveying devices had yet to be developed. According to the local legend, the British engineer, who was in-charge of the tunnel project, fell in love with a dancer girl Sheela. Some people say that Sheela was a famous film star or dancer of Indian film industry of that time, if there was a film industry in India at the turn of 19th Century. So the sahib, on a tough assignment in a god forsaken place like this used to enjoy the  liason and warmth of his lover. The tempestous relationship between the two lovers turned this rocky and barren wilderness into a garden of passionate love, hence the name Shela Bagh.

After years of toil, the stage arrived when the digging, proceeding inwards from the two ends, reached a meeting point and only a thin layer of rock remained separating the two. In the best British tradition, the completion of the tunnel had to be celebrated in a grand manner. And what could be grander than inviting the Viceroy of India to inaugurate the tunnel by striking at the thin layer of rock separating the two sides with a pick.

The evening before the grand opening, as the Gora Sahib ( a euphemism for the British masters) repaired to his tent, he was suddenly gripped by the fear that the two ends of the tunnel may not meet in the center. Overtaken by depression, he reached for his gun and shot himself to death. What happened the next morning? When the Viceroy hit the rock with a pick, both the tunnel ends joined perfectly, alas for the poor Brit. At the time of its construction, the people of the region were as savage as the terrain is ( they are even more savage now – ever heard of Taliban?) and they kept on posing every hindrance and obstacle to stop the work. In the most unfavorable circumstances, built more than a hundred years ago, this man made marvel merits praise. 

Back on the road, we made a stop at a vintage point offering the panorama of the vast barren and rugged plains in front of us. The whole view was dominated by gray and light red shade, which was being reflected all around. A TV booster tower marks the highest point of the pass before the road descends down to Chaman. As we resumed driving down, the mountain started loosing  height and, after a sharp descent from the top of the mountain, we reached the town of Chaman, a small place on the border  with Afghanistan. This is the place which keeps haunting the news headlines the world over by the almost routine bombing and exploding of NATO tankers and container trucks carrying petrol , military hardware, and food for the coalition forces fighting the Taliban on the Afghan  side of the Durand Line (the imaginary line marking the international border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Taliban are alive, and kicking!















© Copyright 2019 Saleem Akhtar Malik. All rights reserved.

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