Lieut.-Colonel B. E. M. GURDON

During the summer of 1935 the columns of The Times contained interesting information, furnished by their Simla correspondent, regarding the activities of a German expedition which was then exploring Kafiristan or Nuristan (Land of Enlightenment), as the Afghans apparently call that region since the forcible conversion of the people to Islam by Amir Abdur Rahman Khan.

The correspondent stated that, according to Captain Cobb, formerly Assistant Political Agent in Chitral, little now remains of the pagan beliefs and rites formerly practised except among the small settlements of Bashgal Kafirs, who, in 1895, to avoid religious persecution, fled to the Bumboret, Rumbur, and Urtsun valleys on the Chitral side of the watershed.

During my five years’ service in Chitral as Assistant Political Agent I visited these settlements on several occasions, so I was naturally much interested.

The Simla correspondent also stated that so far as is known a great part of Nuristan had never been explored by a European. This last statement led to Mr. H. O. King's letter in The Times of 18th July 1935, in which he pointed out that Mr. W. W. McNair of the Indian Survey Department had visited Kafiristan in 1883 and that he was awarded the Murchison grant of the Royal Geographical Society, before whom he read a paper on his exploit, on the 10th December 1883.

I also wrote a letter, which was published in The Times dated 11th September, before I had seen Mr. King's letter referred to above, pointing out that their Simla correspondent appeared to be unaware of the protracted visits, lasting nearly a year, paid to the Bashgal valley of Kafiristan in 1889-91 by Surgeon-Major G. S. Robertson (afterwards Sir George Robertson, k.c.s.i.). I also referred to the brief visit, lasting only a few days, to the upper part of the Bashgal valley paid by Colonel (afterwards General Sir William) Lockhart when in command of a mission to examine the Hindu Kush passes in 1885-6.

My omission to refer to McNair's journey in this letter brought me into touch with Mr. H. O. King, who kindly lent me the absorbingly interesting account of McNair's career, which is contained in a privately printed memoir compiled by Mr. J. E. Howard, another close friend of the McNair family. I have seldom quite so much enjoyed reading anything dealing with the lives of the pioneer geographers and explorers of the North-West Frontier; and it occurred to me that, as the Simla correspondent's letter might give the impression that no Europeans, other than those1 accompanying the German expedition, had previously explored Kafiristan, some references to McNair's and Robertson's journeys might suitably be included in the Himalayan Journal. This seemed to me the more important as the explorations by McNair and Robertson were made before the forcible conversion of the Kafirs to Islam.

Accordingly I sent extracts from The Times and from other papers published at the time of McNair's death in 1889 to the Honorary Editor of the Journal, who replied that it would be of very great interest to publish a paper on Kafiristan in the Journal with references to Gardner, McNair, and Robertson, and asked me whether I would undertake to write it.

The foregoing remarks will explain how I have come to write this paper.

I should mention here that Mr. King's reminder about McNair had prompted me to examine once more the Memoirs of Alexander Gardner (Colonel of Artillery in the service of Maharaja Ranjit Singh), which, edited by Major Hugh Pearse, was published by Blackwood & Sons in 1898. It appears from this book that Gardner was a considerably earlier visitor to Kafiristan than even McNair.

The visit of Alexander Gardner.

Gardner, who died at Jammu at the age of ninety-one in 1887, stated that he visited Kafiristan twice between 1826 and 1828, and his veracity was vouched for by such reliable authorities as Sir Richard Temple, Sir Henry Rawlinson, and Mr. Ney Elias.

On p. 156 of the Memoirs it is stated that Gardner made an astonishing journey from Srinagar through Chilas and Bunji to Gilgit, and thence to Chitral. Of this journey Sir Henry Rawlinson wrote in his Monograph on the Oxus: 'Gardner actually traversed the Gilgit valley from the Indus to the snowy mountains and finally crossed over into Chitral, being in fact the first Englishman2 up to the present time (1872), who has ever performed the journey throughout.

'From Chitral Gardner sent his followers and baggage down the Kunar river to Jalalabad, while he himself for the second time entered Kafiristan and travelled along the Kamah river (a tributary of the Bashgal river). He was accompanied by a Kafir priest and was well treated, his only difficulty being to escape from the hospitality of his hosts.'


  1. The letter from Simla stated that Dr. George Morgernstierne of the Norwegian University had recently made a survey of the language and customs of the Red Kafirs which would help to determine the origin and history of the tribe.
  2. Gardner was very proud of his Scottish descent, as may be realized from the fact that when residing in later years at Srinagar as the pensioner of Maharaja Gulab Singh, he clothed himself from head to foot in the tartan of the 79th Highlanders.


Very unfortunately the full diary of this visit to Kafiristan was lent to Sir Alexander Burnes, and was destroyed when that unfortunate officer was murdered at Kabul and his house pillaged. All that remained, by way of record, of this most interesting passage in Gardner's adventurous life were some disconnected notes and allusions. Among the allusions are two references to the fact, related by the Kafirs to Gardner, that two Europeans, who had lived in their country about the year 1770, had, according to one story, died in captivity, and, according to the other, been murdered by the Kafirs, under the supposition that they were evil spirits. These unfortunate Europeans were probably Roman Catholic missionaries.1

Interesting geographical notes were left by Gardner regarding the Chitral (or Kunar) and the Kamah rivers, the accuracy of which was confirmed by the more recent writings of Sir George Robertson.

Space does not permit of any further quotation from Gardner's fascinating memoirs. I think, however, sufficient has been recorded to prove beyond doubt that Gardner actually did visit Kafiristan more than once.

I venture here to commend to all lovers of the history of the early days of our connexion with the Frontier a perusal of the whole book. It is, I think, safe to say that few if any stouter representatives of the British race can have figured on that romantic stage than Alexander Gardner. The amazing variety of his career may be realized when I mention that in the course of his travels he visited the following countries and cities:2 Ireland, Lisbon, Madrid, Cairo, Trebizond, Astrakhan, Herat, Khiva, Afghanistan—where he entered the service of Habibullah Khan, nephew of the famous Amir, Dost Mohammed Khan—Kafiristan, Kunduz, Shighnan, the Pamirs, Yarkand, Srina- gar, Chitral, and, finally, Peshawar, where he ended his travels and entered the service of Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Lahore. I conclude my remarks regarding Gardner with the following quotation from a summary of his career with which Sir Henry Durand (at one time Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab) completed a sketch entitled, 'Life of a soldier of the olden time: an unwritten Page of History'. It runs as follows:


  1. When I was in Chitral I remember a letter addressed, I think, to the 'Apostolic Prefect of Kafiristan' being delivered to me by the Post Office. I never discovered any trace of the addressee.
  2. He was born on the shores of Lake Superior in North America.


Faithful to his standard, whatever it was, obeying without questioning military orders, he presented and presents, perhaps, one of the finest specimens ever known of the soldier of fortune.

I now come to the remarkable journey to Kafiristan made by McNair in 1883, but before describing it, I must make some reference to the record of his services in the Indian Survey Department.

Mr. W. W. McNair's visit to Kafiristan in 1883.

William Watts McNair joined the Department in 1867 when he was only 18 years old, and continued to serve in it until his death in 1889.

In the official proceedings of the Surveyor-General of India for August 1889 a very appreciative notice of his services will be found. After expressing deep regret at his death and describing his services with various parties, mainly on the Frontier and including participation as a surveyor with the Afghan Field Force's actions before Kabul in the winter of 1879-80 and the subsequent defence of Sherpur, the Surveyor-General wrote:

His ability as an observer, his readiness of resource under unusual difficulties, and his power of attaching the frontier people to him personally, have been just as conspicuous throughout this duty as were his energy and success as a geographical topographer. Apart from his departmental career, he has won a lasting name as an explorer by his adventurous journey to Kafiristan in 1883, when on leave. It may be fairly claimed for him that he was the first European officer who set foot in that impracticable country, and he is still the best authority on many of the routes leading to it. His services to geographical science were recognized by the Royal Geographical Society,3 who awarded him the Murchison Grant, and there can be little doubt that a distinguished career was still before him, when he was suddenly cut off in the prime of his life.


  1. The President of the Society was then the first Lord Aberdare.


I now come to my narrative of McNair's journey to Kafiristan, the material for which I have extracted from the very interesting paper read by him at a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society on the 10th December 1883.

The idea of visiting Kafiristan during his period of leave first entered McNair's head when a certain Saiyid, whom Major Holdich, r.e., of the Survey had made over to him for instruction, announced that he thought it possible to enter the Kafir country by accompanying Mians Hussain Shah and Sahib Gul, who were in the habit of visiting Chitral annually through Dir or by the Kunar valley for purposes of trade. These two Mians belonged to the Kaka Khel section of Pathans, all members of which were much respected throughout Afghanistan and also to some extent by the Kafirs, who would not knowingly attack them owing to the memory of an epidemic of cholera which once broke out amongst them after they had returned from murdering a party of Kaka Khels, and which they superstitiously attributed to their influence.

W.W. McNair

W.W. McNair

Sahib Gul W.W. McNair Hussain Shah

Sahib Gul W.W. McNair Hussain Shah

McNair decided to disguise himself as a Mohammedan Hakim or Tabib, and to confine his speech to Urdu, a language which he knew as well as English, and to eschew Pushtu, his foreign intonation of which might lead to his detection, while his knowledge of it would enable him to understand any conversation carried out by Pathans in his presence. Having obtained the consent of the two Mians to the plan, McNair arrived at Nowshera1 on the 9th April 1883, and, to use his own words, by 3 o'clock on the following morning with head shaved, a weak solution of caustic and walnut juice applied to hands and face, and wearing the dress peculiar to the Mians or Kaka Khels, he sallied out as Mir Mohammed or Hakim Sahib, in company with Mian Hussain Shah.

It may not be amiss here to point out the great risks run by McNair in adopting this plan. In the first place he jeopardized his position as a Government servant by disobeying the strict injunctions that no European might cross the frontier without permission. His decision to disregard this risk, however, was, in his case, merely another proof of his devotion to what he deemed his duty, and of his daring character. He expected no reward beyond the satisfaction of knowing that he had furnished a valuable addition to our knowledge of the Frontier. He knew that Sir Charles McGregor, the Quartermaster- General, was most anxious to obtain the information; and he felt that, owing to knowledge of the character and language of the Border tribesmen, he was better able than most to bring his adventure to a satisfactory conclusion.

Colonel Sir Thomas Holdich, in The Indian Borderland, described McNair as possessing the rare faculty of commanding the confidence of natives and of understanding local idiosyncrasies. It might indeed have been said of him as John Kaye (in his History of the Sepoy War) wrote of General Sir John Low, the famous Resident in Oudh:

No man knew the people better. He could see with their eyes and speak with their tongues and read with their understanding.

Here the following extract from the Delhi Gazette, dated the 19th August 1889, is of interest:

On his return McNair was ordered to Simla and officially reprimanded by the Viceroy, Lord Ripon, for disobedience of orders. He was consoled, however, by being told by the same nobleman at a private interview that his pluck was admired, while his fast friend Sir Charles McGregor received him with open arms.


  1. The head-quarters of the Kaka Khel is a village five miles south of Nowshera known as Ziarat, owing to it containing the shrine of the saintly founder of the clan known as the Kaka Sahib.


As to other risks, I may point out that the position on the Frontier was then very different to what it is now. Sir Thomas Holdich wrote (.Indian Borderland):

At that time all this country (i.e. Swat, Bajaur, Chitral, and Kafiristan) was in outer geographical darkness and the journey was one of the most adventurous that any European could well attempt. McNair's intimate knowledge of native character and language carried him through and he returned to submit a most valuable report to Government. Fanaticism was then in the ascendant and perhaps especially so in the neighbourhood of Dir, through which state McNair proposed to travel. The village of Dir was the head-quarters of a famous fanatic, known as Shah Baba or Sheo Baba, who had founded a kind of primitive academy for Musulman theology. His influence was enormous and a word from him, at any time, would have started several hundreds of religious enthusiasts against us.1

Then again, the frontier chiefs were ignorant of our power, and both they and all with vested interests, such, for instance, as Mian Rahat Shah (Kaka Khel), of whom more anon, who held a practical monopoly of the timber trade in Chitral, were likely to be intensely suspicious of the party's intentions and not therefore inclined to view with approval any effort by a European to lift the purdah.

To return to the question of disguise, it is perhaps needless to state that McNair took a plane-table with him. With regard to this I take the following picturesque remarks from the issue of the Delhi Gazette already referred to:

We believe the Hukeem was aided in his researches by a big book supposed to contain medical receipts, but which was in reality a box of surveying instruments, its outside covered with cabalistic signs bearing a family resemblance to a plane-table. The Hukeem was much given to solitary meditation, and generally sought mountain peaks for that purpose. On such occasions the plane-table afforded him invaluable assistance.

On the 13 th April 1883 McNair's party, consisting of forty persons, including muleteers, and fifteen baggage animals,2 were fairly across the boundary. The loads contained cloths of English manufacture, musical boxes, a spare revolver or two with a few rounds of ammunition, salt, glass beads, shells, needles, as well as several phials of medicines.


  1. See Sir George Robertson's Chitral, the Story of a Minor Siege.
  2. McNair carried out the journey at his own expense, which must have been considerable.


McNair's route via the Malakand pass, Ghakdara, where they crossed the Swat river on Jalas, or inflated skins, the Laram pass, Kila Robat, Shahzadgai, Kumbar, and across the Baraul spur (height 8,340 feet) to Dir is now so well known that the description given in his paper need not be repeated.

Two marches short of Dir McNair heard of a report to the effect that his party contained two Europeans in disguise. The origin of this report was traced to Mian Rahat Shah, the Kaka Khel timber trader already referred to, who belonged to a faction hostile to McNair's friends, and it was discovered that he had sent letters to Asmar, Chitral, Swat, and Bajaur urging the recipients to track out the infidels who were accompanying the Miangans and destroy them as they could have gone with no other purpose than to spy out the land. Sheo Baba, the fanatical Mullah, took the matter up, and it was not until Rahmatullah Khan, the Khan of Dir, had contradicted the statement and certified that he had asked McNair's companions to bring an Indian doctor with them that suspicions were temporarily allayed.

McNair put the population of Dir fort and valley as then numbering 6,000 souls, and mentioned the existence of numerous caves at the foot of precipitous spurs which were utilized as dwelling-places by the Baltis, who were in the habit of coming for service as porters between Dir and Chitral.

A halt of four days at Dir was occupied in collecting Balti carriers as the Lowari pass (10,243 feet)4 was not sufficiently clear of snow to admit of the passage of baggage animals. Further, as letters had been received from Asmar by the Miangans stating that the rumours regarding the party were not very favourable, and consequently an immediate journey to the Bashgal valley of Kafiristan might be dangerous, it was decided to proceed in the first place to Chitral.

The journey between Mirga (7,753 feet) and Ashret (5,050 feet), on the Chitral side of the Lowari, although the distance is little more than ten miles, occupied as many hours. McNair described the ascent as being gradual, but the descent as being steeper, and in parts very trying. He mentioned the presence of numerous cairns5 on this portion of the march, marking the burial-places of Mohammedan travellers who had been killed by the Kafir banditti, who were in the habit of crossing the Kunar river for this purpose. Many bodies imperfectly covered and in various stages of decay were still visible. The people of the village of Ashret, who were excused from paying revenue on the understanding that they made themselves responsible for the safe escort of travellers across the Lowari, bore the reputation of being in league with the Kafirs.


  1. According to latest survey the height of the Lowari (or Lawarai) pass is 10,243 feet- McNair's height was 10,450 feet.—Ed.
  2. It was the custom of all good Mussulmans to add at least one stone to the pile marking the last resting-place of a Shahid (Martyr).


The journey from Ashret to Chitral was covered in three days, and McNair referred to the Persian-speaking settlement residing at Madaglasht at the head of the Shishi valley as being reputed to have arrived there from beyond the Hindu Kush via the Dorah pass some 200 years previously.

On the morning following their arrival at Chitral McNair had an interview with Mehtar Aman-ul-Mulk, the father of H.H. Mehtar Shuja-ul-Mulk, the present ruler; before their reception the party sent the Mehtar gifts, which included a Waziri horse, two revolvers, a pair of binoculars, several pieces of chintz and linen, twenty pounds of tea, sugar, salt, and several pairs of Peshawari shoes as well as trinkets for his zenana. The Mehtar appears to have penetrated McNair's disguise, for, after alluding to the rumours he had heard about him, he stated that he was a friend of the British and his country was at their disposal, and that McNair was at liberty to travel wherever he pleased provided none of his followers accompanied him. Later in the day, however, a message was received from the Mehtar to the effect that, as the passes were not yet open, the visit to Kafiristan should be postponed until some of the Kafir headmen should arrive, and that meanwhile McNair might visit the Dorah pass.

McNair adopted this suggestion, and leaving Chitral on the 13th May, spent the following nine days in exploring the Dorah pass and portions of the adjacent valleys.

On his return to Chitral on the 22nd May McNair found that some Kafirs had come in. Among them was one who, a year earlier, had taken in to Kamdesh, in the Bashgal valley, a Pathan Christian evangelist, who had unfortunately given out that he was sent by the Indian Government and that his masters would, if he gave a favourable report of them, come to terms with the Kafirs so as to secure them in future against Mohammedan inroads. McNair's return occurred inopportunely owing to this statement by the evangelist, which he stated was false. The Kafir, however, persisted that McNair had come on behalf of the Government and that the Chief of Chitral had possessed himself of the arms and sums of money intended for the Kafirs. The Kafir wanted McNair to pledge himself to aid his tribe against the Chief of Asmar, and, on McNair refusing, left him in a pet but returned two hours later, saying that he might accompany him as doctor and prescribe for one of his aged relatives.

McNair's paper gives an interesting description of the geography and customs of Kafiristan. Space does not admit of any detailed account of this portion of the paper; I may mention, however, that McNair stated that it was purely due to no blood-feuds existing among themselves that the Kafirs had hitherto succeeded in holding their own in petty warfare with the Mohammedans, by whom they were hemmed in on all sides. He added that the Kafirs were extremely well disposed towards the British.

Once again unaccompanied by his two Kaka Khel friends, McNair left Chitral on the 23rd May and marched via Urghuch and the Rum- bur and Bumboret valleys and thence across the watershed to Lutdeh in the Bashgal valley. The name of the pass1 crossed is not given, but the altitude of the summit must have been considerable, as McNair wrote that after leaving Kakar, the last sign of habitation on the Chitral side, they spent the first part of the night under some rocks beyond which all was interminable snow. They left the rocks at midnight, and after climbing 7,000 feet in seven hours, reached the summit of the pass at sunrise. The morning was clear and McNair was able to make good use of his plane-table. He described the view as one never to be forgotten. From the summit the party was able to toboggan down the slope in a very short time. Owing to bad weather while halting at the Kafir village of Lutdeh (called Bragmatal by the Kafirs) McNair was obliged for the next few days to content himself with examining closely into the manners and customs of the people. While thus employed he received an urgent message from the Mehtar desiring him to return at once to Chitral as unfavourable news had been received. Thinking that his two Kaka Khel friends might have become involved in difficulties, McNair hurried back, only to find that the Chief had sent for him on the paltry excuse that the Khan of Asmar and the Kafirs had begun their annual quarrels. He then discovered that Mian Rahat Shah, that arch-fiend, as he described him, had arrived in Chitral, and as he had quite the ear of the Mehtar, it was evident that any further effort to explore Kafiristan was out of the question. McNair therefore decided to return to India by way of Gilgit. I have already described how Mian Rahat Shah attempted to stop McNair proceeding beyond Dir. Rahat Shah was certainly an arch-intriguer, and when Colonel Algernon Durand, then British Agent in Gilgit, visited Chitral in 1888 he described him as, at the moment, the most important man in Chitral, as Mehtar Aman-ul-Mulk trusted his advice almost implicitly. I had personal experience of Rahat Shah's intrigues in 1895, when I remember that he was a strong supporter of Sher Afzal,2 whose recognition by us as Mehtar he preferred to that of Shuja-ul- Mulk, Mehtar Aman-ul-Mulk's youngest legitimate son, then a minor. He wanted a completely independent Chitral and thought that the presence of British officers might mean interference with his timber trade activities.


  1. Perhaps the Shawal pass (14,521 feet). [See sketch-map on p. 45.—Ed.]
  2. Sher Afzal was Aman-ul-Mulk's brother, and it may be remembered that he led the Chitralis against us in 1895 when we were besieged in Chitral fort.


Travelling as he was, in disguise and without the support of the Government, I think McNair acted wisely in refraining from a further attempt to explore Kafiristan. He was in a false position, and Rahat Shah was quite capable of engineering his murder.

The party left Chitral on the 5th June and marched via Drasan, Mastuj, and the Tui pass to Gilgit and thence to Kashmir, where he was at last able to throw off his disguise. McNair described the ascent to the Tui pass from the Yarkhun valley as easy, but the descent on the Yasin side as extremely difficult owing to the impossibility of avoiding a nasty piece of glacier on which they were unfortunate enough to lose two horses and to have several followers severely frost-bitten about the feet.

McNair continued to serve in the Survey Department until his death from typhoid fever in August 1889.

Writing after his death, his old chief, Colonel (afterwards Sir Thomas) Holdich, contributed a most appreciative notice of McNair's career to the Royal Geographical Society, in which the following words occur:

His energy and determination carried him through the campaign (the Second Afghan War) with more than credit—he was able to illustrate modern methods of field topography in a manner which threw new light on what was then but a tentative and undeveloped system. He was one of the first to prove the full value of the plane-table in such work as this. . . . The hostility of the border people had always been such that it was a matter of considerable risk to approach them, but the temper of the tribes was then rapidly changing with The Times, and McNair rapidly succeeded in establishing himself on a friendly footing with frontier robber chiefs, whose assistance was invaluable in arranging short excursions across the line, by means of which he was able to complete a fairly accurate map of most of the border country. No work that he ever accomplished has been of more value to the Government of India than this unobtrusive mapping. ... At the time of his death he was employed in the Baluchistan Survey party in the completion of a triangulation series which should carry the great Indian system to the Kojak range, and furnish a scientific and highly accurate base for future extension into Afghanistan. This was a duty which severely taxed even his vigorous constitution. It involved incessant labour in examining lofty mountain peaks in order to select suitable sites for stations, and subsequently days and nights of anxious watching during the progress of the observations whilst food and water (when snow was not lying on the ground) were scarce and mists hung round the mountains. No doubt it tried him hard, and when typhoid attacked him at Quetta he seemed unable to make a good fight for his life. He was able, however, to reach Mussoorie, where he died on the 13th of August 1889, leaving a gap in the Department which it will be exceedingly hard to fill.

For myself I should like to add that I deem myself to have been highly privileged in having been given the opportunity of bringing once more to the notice of fellow lovers of the Himalaya and its peoples the career of such a sterling character and so courageous and zealous an officer.

Surgeon-Major G. S. Robertson's visits to Kafiristan, 1889-91.

The visits paid by Surgeon-Major Robertson1 to Kafiristan remain to be dealt with. A very detailed account of his experiences during his long stay in the Bashgal valley and a most interesting description of the physical features of the country and of the character, religion, and customs of the people are given in his book The Kafirs of the Hindu Kush. This, with no less than 658 pages of text and very well illustrated by A. D. McCormick, was published by Laurence & Bullen in 1896.

I cannot do more here than deal with the salient points in each chapter. By all who have served on this frontier the book will certainly repay perusal, and I commend it more particularly to the notice of the Norwegian scientist, Dr. George Morgernstierne, whose studies will be awaited with interest.2

Robertson first visited Kamdesh, the chief village of the Kam Kafirs, in October 1889. This visit was in the nature of a reconnaissance, and lasted only a few days. His plan was to conciliate the people and persuade one or more of the headmen to accompany him to India, where there would be leisure to gain special information for a prolonged visit to the country. Robertson's baggage on this occasion was very light, consisting only of a sleeping-bag, a small box of medicines, and a few cooking utensils, but for even this small amount of impedimenta he found it difficult to obtain porters from the Kafirs. He was accompanied by a number of influential Kafir headmen, who had been on a visit to Chitral, and who had, with encouragement from Mehtar Aman-ul-Mulk, readily agreed to offer him the hospitality of their country. He was very soon to realize the hardships of travel in Kafiristan. The first night of the journey was spent at Urtsun (S. of I. map 38M/11) under a tree with heavy rain falling.3 At this village he was obliged to leave his pony, and he found the ascent to the Patkun pass (8,776 feet) very trying owing to the heat. On the third day, passing the village of Gourdesh en route, he reached Kamdesh with, to use his own words, 'my feet cut to pieces, sleeplessly tired and almost too hungry to eat, for owing to pride of stomach and other causes hardly any food had passed my lips for three days'. He added that 'subsequent experience taught me to be less fastidious about my diet'.


  1. He was made K.C.S.I. in 1895 after the Chitral disturbances.
  2. See Simla's Correspondent's letter to The Times already referred to.
  3. The route is to the south of the area shown on the sketch-map on p. 45.—Ed.


He described Kamdesh as a large village of about 600 houses situated about 2,000 feet above the right bank of the Bashgal river at an elevation of from 6,000 to 7,000 feet, according as it is measured from the lowest houses or those at the top. His stay there lasted three whole days, but all his efforts to induce any influential men to accompany him to India proved fruitless. One man, however, by name Shermalik, whom I well remember, did accompany him after being adopted as his son, which was the only condition on which he could be induced to assent to the proposal.

The following description, in Robertson's own words, of the ceremony of adoption as practised in the Bashgal valley may here be of interest:

A goat was procured, quickly killed, and its kidneys were removed. These were cooked at a fire and cut into small morsels by an officiating Kafir, who then placed Shermalik and me side by side and alternately fed us both with the fragments on the point of a knife. At short intervals we had to turn our heads to one another and go through the motion of kissing with our lips a foot or so apart. But the surprise was in reserve. My coat and shirt were opened and some butter was placed on my left breast, to which Shermalik applied his lips with the greatest energy and earnestness. I jumped as if shot, but the thing was over.

Robertson considered that the objects of his first visit were now fairly well accomplished, and he started for India to equip himself for a prolonged stay in Kafiristan. Having arranged for Shermalik, who refused to accompany him farther, to stay in India for the cold weather and to be taken to Kashmir as soon as the sun began to be uncomfortably hot, Robertson then took short leave to England.

On the 29th July 1890 Robertson again left Srinagar for Gilgit accompanied by Shermalik, three other followers, and five Balti coolies, who agreed to remain with him for a year to carry loads and make themselves generally useful. He was to owe much to the loyalty of these Baltis during the arduous days ahead of him. Their faithfulness and simple devotion filled him with admiration. For several weeks in Kafiristan they were his sole companions, and during that period they carried his loads, cooked his food, did all his work, and made friends wherever they went, while one of them actually qualified as an interpreter. His tribute to their loyal service ends with the remark that he had never had any servants in India so good as these poor Baltis.

On the 17th August Robertson reached Gilgit. Two days before a terrible misfortune befell him at Bunji. In crossing the Indus one of his boats, containing seventeen Astori coolies, was swamped and sunk. All on board were drowned, with the exception of the boatmen, who managed to escape with great difficulty and reach the bank. Most of the articles so carefully selected in England were lost beyond recovery, a great part of his photographic apparatus, all his toys and books, his diaries and journals for three years, besides a large quantity of small valuables. All his money went down also.

Leaving Gilgit on the 24th August, Chitral was reached on the 15th September without further mishap. From Gilgit Robertson's baggage consisted of twenty-seven loads carried by Balti coolies. His plan was to take all these loads to Kamdesh, if it were possible to do so, and then send the porters back at once to their homes in Kashmir. He then intended to try to get a house in Kamdesh in which to store his goods, and for all subsequent journeys to rely upon the five permanent Balti servants with whatever other help was locally obtainable. He had found that this indeed was the only possible plan. The experience of relying on Kafirs to carry his baggage had been instructive, though painful, and was not to be repeated. As it turned out, the five Baltis always had to carry the baggage without any help, except on one or two rare occasions. This compelled Robertson to cut down his travelling outfit to its lowest possible dimensions, and often necessitated leaving his tent behind.

From the 15th to the 21st September Robertson remained at Chitral as the guest of the Mehtar, Aman-ul-Mulk, who treated him with consistent kindness. His original intention of marching straight to Kamdesh with all his baggage by Kila Drosh and the Kalash Kafir village of Urtsun now had to be altered for two reasons. First, there were rumours that Shah Baba,1 the irreconcilable Mullah of Dir, had sworn twelve recent converts on the Koran to waylay and kill Robertson on the road between Urtsun andGourdesh, and Umra Khan, the Khan of Jandol, was said to be cognisant of the plot. Secondly, none of the Kamdesh headmen had come to Chitral to meet Robertson.

As in the case of McNair, Mehtar Aman-ul-Mulk strongly objected to Robertson's proposed stay in Kafiristan and did his utmost to persuade him to relinquish his plan. Robertson, however, was travelling openly with the approval of the Government of India and with the immediate backing of Colonel Durand, the British Agent at Gilgit. He was thus in a stronger position than McNair. Finally, the Mehtar withdrew his objections after stipulating that his son Ghulam Dastgir should accompany Robertson with a strong following and after Robertson had signed a paper exonerating him (the Mehtar) from any mishap which might occur.


  1. The Mullah referred to by McNair.


The Mehtar, according to Robertson, was torn by conflicting counsels. He disliked the proposed journey and thoroughly distrusted its objects. He was suspicious of the British and their feudatory, the Maharaja of Kashmir. He was loth, however, to do anything which might jeopardize the subsidies of money and other presents which he received from both Governments. I should explain here that fear of the power of the Amir of Kabul had originally impelled Aman-ul- Mulk to seek alliance with Kashmir. Robertson thought the Mehtar's final resolve was sufficiently astute for so old a man. The Mehtar first of all tried everything in his power to dissuade Robertson from going to Kafiristan at all, but failing in that attempt, he still trusted in his ability to induce the Kafirs to rob, ill-use, and cast the traveller naked out of their country. This would afford him the opportunity of playing a characteristic manoeuvre. He would receive Robertson with indignation and compassion, while at the same time he would apply to the Government of India for more rifles and more subsidies, nominally to avenge Robertson's wrongs, but actually to conquer for himself the whole of the Bashgal valley, thus effectually preventing the Kafirs from coquetting ever again with British officers. Aman- ul-Mulk was, however, from advanced age beyond carrying out a continuous and persistent line of policy.

It should be remembered here that Umra Khan, the Chief of Jandol, also coveted possession of Nari1 (called Narsat by Chitralis) and cherished a desire to punish the Kafirs for their murderous attacks on his co-religionists in the vicinity of the Lowari pass. He also, therefore, strongly objected to Robertson's journey. The persistent intrigues of both rulers were no doubt the origin of much of the trouble which Robertson experienced during his stay in Kafiristan.

Leaving most of his baggage behind, Robertson started from Chitral on the 22nd September 1890 with only a few coolies and escorted by the Mehtar's son, Ghulam Dastgir, and Kan Mara, the Chief of the Lutdeh Kafirs (i.e. the Katir tribe of Kafirs). Kan Mara had a daughter married to the Mehtar Aman-ul-Mulk, from whom he received consistent support. Robertson crossed the Parpit pass (map 38M/10) into the Kafir valley of PattiCol on the 26th September. Here he managed to dismiss Ghulam Dastgir and his Chitrali following. Robertson described the PattiCol stream as flowing into the Bashgal river on its left bank about four miles from the village of Kamu (38M/7).


  1. The Kafirs claimed grazing-rights in this district.


On the 1 st October Robertson reached Kamdesh for the second time and was well received, the headmen going so far as to declare that they hoped his stay among them would extend over three or four years at least, and adding that if he would only take the daughter of some headman as his wife their satisfaction would be complete for then they would surely know that his real desire was to remain with them. Robertson's reply to the offer of a wife was, he wrote, couched in appropriate terms, and the wife difficulty was got over without offence by his referring to the difference in their respective marriage customs. His stay in Kafiristan lasted until October 1891, a period of slightly over twelve months, during which he made Kamdesh his head-quarters.

Robertson describes Kafiristan in great detail. It lies between lat. 340 30' and 36°, and between long. 70° and 710 30'. Its area is about five thousand square miles. Its boundaries, at the time Robertson was writing, were: Badakhshan on the north; the Lutkho valley of Chitral on the north-east; Chitral proper and Lower Chitral on the south-east; on the south is Afghanistan proper; and on the west the ranges above the Nijrao and Panjsher valleys of Afghanistan.

On the north the Munjan (or Minjan) valley of Badakhshan dips down, so to speak, into the heart of Kafiristan. Robertson visited the village of Peip in Munjan, but his stay there was very brief. He believed that no other explorer had ever traversed the valley.

All the Kafiristan rivers find their way into the Kabul river, either directly to the south, as in the case of the Alingar, or after mingling their waters with those of the Kunar river opposite Arandu (called Arnawai by Pathans) and at Chighar Sarai. The following description of the scenery of the Bashgal valley will give some idea of the country:

Below Lutdeh (or Braganatal as it is called by the Kafirs, Lutdeh being the name given to the village by the Chitralis), the pleasant river pursues its quiet course undisturbed by the riotous streams from the side valleys, and winds past Badamuk, Oulagul, and Purstam, gradually changing its character in its rocky bed, until at Sunra, on the confines of the Katir and Madugal countries, it assumes many of the features of a cataract. It becomes a raging torrent in a dark narrow valley, where it dashes against the huge boulders which obstruct its course, and flings high its spray with deafening uproar. There, as in several other places where the tortured water foams and lashes itself against the rocks on its margin and in its bed, the river is beautiful beyond description. Tree trunks encumber the waterway, jam against the rocks, pile up in picturesque confusion, or hurry round and round in the swirl of many a backwater. It races past Bagalgrom and the great spur on which Kamdesh is built, receiving at the village of Urmir the torrent from the Kungani pass and the drainage of the Nichingul valley. Below Kamu it is joined on its left bank by the Pittigal river, which has its origin near the Manjam pass, by the Gourdesh valley stream, and by many others of all degrees of importance below those particularly named, and ends, as before stated, in the Kunar river at Arandu.1

Robertson also describes the Presun river and its tributaries and mentions that the point of junction with the Kti river is a very sacred place in Kafir imagination, as on the narrow tongue of land which separates the rivers just before they mingle is a rocky ridge where the gods were wont to assemble and on which was a peculiarly sacred stone, said to have been placed there by Imra the Creator.

Speaking generally, Kafiristan consists of an irregular series of main valleys, for the most part deep, narrow, and tortuous, into which a varying number of still deeper, narrower, and more difficult valleys, ravines, and glens pour their torrent waters. The mountain ranges which separate the main valleys from one another are all ‘of considerable altitude, rugged and toilsome'. During winter, therefore, when the hills are under snow, Kafiristan 'is practically converted into a number of isolated communities with no means of intercommunication'.

All the passes leading from Badakhshan appear to be over 15,000 feet in altitude. Robertson explored only the Mandal and the Kamah, both of which were above that height, but were said to be the lowest of all. Kafiristan contains almost every kind of mountain scenery, forests of deodar and pine at altitudes between 5,000 and 8,000 feet, while at the lower elevations the hill-sides are well covered with wild olives and evergreen oaks. Many kinds of fruit- trees, walnuts, mulberries, apricots, grapes, and apples are met with near the villages, while splendid horse-chestnuts and other shady trees afford pleasant resting-places from the sun in the hot months. Numerous wild flowers are met with at different altitudes. The rivers teem with fish, which no Kafir could be persuaded to eat. The people declared that fish live on dirt.

The climate is very hot in summer at all elevations and rigorous in winter. During the winter of 1890-1 at Kamdesh (elevation 6,100 feet)2 there was an excessive amount of snow, but the thermometer never showed a lower temperature than 170 F. below freezing-point. In some of the Kafir valleys the absence of wind was remarkable. The rainfall in Kafiristan is probably greater than in Chitral, but is insufficient for the requirements of the crops, and has to be supplemented by a somewhat elaborate irrigation system.


  1. It would be more correct to say opposite Arandu, which is on the left bank of the Kunar.
  2. The latest S. of I. map gives the altitude of Kamdesh as 8,020 feet, but see p. 36, supra.—Ed.


The Kafirs do not call the Bashgal valley by that name; Bashgal is a Chitrali word, and they have no single designation for their country. They call different parts after the names of the different tribes that inhabit it. Thus the upper part of the Bashgal valley is called Katirgul (Lutdeh in Chitrali or Kamtoz in Pushtu), the middle portion Muman (Madugal in Chitrali), and the lower part Kam (Kamdesh in Chitrali, or Kamoz in Pushtu).

Immense numbers of chikor, the red-legged partridge, as well as pigeons and doves, are to be seen, and large numbers of monal pheasants. Markhor are numerous, and urial, leopards, and bears also found. Robertson saw no ibex and heard of none.

Kafiristan was then divided among certain tribes who differed from one another in language, dress, manners, and customs. Indeed, their one and only common trait was that they were not Mussulmans. All Kafirs are polygamous, and as no man might take a wife from his own clan, from his mother's, or from his father's mother's clan, it may easily be imagined how closely the people were connected with one another. Nevertheless, a clan was always ready to act together as a clan without worrying about marriage ties. Some of the slaves in the country appeared to be descended from an ancient people subjugated by the Kafirs when they first entered the country; others were the descendants of prisoners of war. Slaves were considered impure, and were not permitted to approach the shrines of the gods. They were always liable to be sold and to be given up to another Kafir tribe to be killed in atonement for a murder.

On the arrival of the rest of his baggage from Chitral opposition to Robertson's travelling in Kafiristan increased. However, to show that he intended to carry out his plans he paid a visit to the Dungul valley, in the direction of Bailam, starting with no escort. He was joined later by Shermalik and Utah, the priest of the Kam Kafirs, and he returned from this journey on the 5th November.

The ruthless character of the Kafirs when perpetrating raids is well illustrated by stories told to Robertson by Utah and Shermalik. The former related how he had entered a house at night and killed six people as they slept, while Shermalik recounted how he had entered an Afghan encampment and killed a man, woman, and child. Robertson remarks that their ideas, their history, and their religion are coloured by bloodshed, assassination, and blackmail. Yet for all this hateful side of their character, they were courageous, affectionate in domestic life, and devoted to freedom. 'Some of them have the heads of philosophers and statesmen,' he adds. 'Their features are Aryan and their mental capabilities considerable.' He considered that the then dominant races of Kafiristan, the Katirs, the Kam, and the Wai, were probably descended from an ancient Indian population of Afghanistan, who refused to embrace Islam in the tenth century and fled to these hills for refuge from the victorious Moslems.

The men were lightly built and always in hard training; fat men were unknown. The women were short, light, with muscular limbs. Young girls were often good looking, but their complexion quickly darkened and grew coarse with constant exposure and hard work. Their character was a strange make-up of cupidity, jealousy, courage, and kindness to children and the sick. Yet the intensity of their intertribal hatred was so great that when raiding they spared neither women nor children.

Robertson experienced considerable discomfort during the last days of November from the weather and lack of food. Small-pox also broke out. He himself contracted a serious illness which kept him in bed for nearly three weeks in December, during which time he was robbed by his Kashmiri servant. He therefore decided to remove to a warmer climate. Most men, I think, would have abandoned all intention of remaining in Kafiristan, but Robertson was the most determined and courageous of men. After a short stay at Birkot and Narai, at about 3,000 feet, on the Kunar river, he was back again at Kamdesh on the 23rd January 1891.

Space does not permit me to describe in detail Robertson's journeys. More than once relations with the Kam tribe were strained to breaking-point, and he felt it advisable to move elsewhere, Lutdeh, farther up the Bashgal, and Peip in the Munjan valley. A Hindu hospital subordinate named Gokal Chand had joined him from Chitral, and the surgical and medical work they were able to carry out did much to ease the situation. After a brief visit to Kamdesh in June he was, however, again forced to take refuge in Lutdeh, but he was back again at Kamdesh in September and induced the headmen to assist him to visit the Kungani pass and Presungul.

It was a curious plan [he wrote] to start in this way with the wildest and most turbulent of my opponents as my companions, yet it was the easiest way out of the difficulty, and the only way of avoiding bloodshed. I trusted also in my ability to make the men behave properly as soon as they had once got away from the village; for if you can only prevent Kafirs going off together and holding excited conferences, they are much less difficult to manage than might be supposed.

There was, however, trouble in store for him. Once in the Presun valley the Kam escort objected to him giving money to the Presun villagers in exchange for supplies, and when he announced his intention of visiting the Kamah pass the escort broke into open hostility, arrested his five Balti carriers, and threatened them with death. Robertson was bluntly informed that he was a prisoner and that he would be carried back to Kamdesh tied between two poles. Suffering from fever, sick, and with an inflamed foot, he managed to escape by night, and with the aid of a friendly Presun Kafir and one loyal Kam headman he found a safe hiding-place from which he watched his enemy search for him. Eventually they marched off with his Baltis under the impression that he had escaped towards Lutdeh.

It is amazing to record that after this experience Robertson immediately ascended and explored the Kamah pass, which connects the Presungul and the Munjan valley. Then, after a night's rest, he hurried after his Kam escort in order to secure the safety of his Baltis. He reached Kamdesh on the 14th October 1891 after considerable hardships and delay owing to the state of his foot. He found the men who had behaved so badly had become humble again.

The Kam tribe was now anxious to form an alliance with Umra Khan, the Chief ofjandol.1 The latter insisted that before he and the Kam Kafirs could become friends Robertson must go back to Gilgit. Robertson himself wished to leave as soon as possible, since preparations were going on at Gilgit for the Hunza-Nagir campaign. At his final interview with the headmen in Kamdesh he warned them of the designs of Umra Khan, but no regard was paid to these warnings, and the Kafirs later paid dearly for their incredulity. Robertson left Kamdesh on the 22nd October, parting on good terms with the Kam tribe; he reached Gilgit on the 16th November and was shortly appointed to officiate as British Agent there in place of Colonel Durand, who had been wounded in the attack on Nilt fort. Thus ended a most memorable and courageous chapter of exploration.

I have only summarized the main points of Robertson's remarkable book. There is much more of interest. Religious and social customs, superstitions, and divination, method of government, social and criminal law, festivals, villages, dances, agriculture and industry, irrigation, sports, pastimes, diseases and their cure, every aspect of their mode of life are dealt with in considerable detail by Robertson.

It would be most interesting to know how much of this survives to-day, since the conquest of the country by the Afghans. At least it may be presumed that the Kafirs have had to give up their favourite occupation of murdering Moslems.


  1. At this time Umra Khan had possessed himself of Dir, having driven out Mohammed Sharif Khan, the rightful chief, son of Rahmatullah Khan, the Chief referred to in the portion of this paper relating to McNair.


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