Breli to Balakot. The Story of a Battle and a Dutiful Donkey

I must have passed by this place countless times, and was always intrigued by its name, Khota Qabar or Donkey’s grave. Why such reverence for a dead donkey, I wondered.

Khota Qabar lies on the Karakoram Highway, about 60 miles north of Islamabad and 7 miles short of Abbottabad. It is situated precisely where the road starts climbing into the mountains of Mansehra and beyond, into the picturesque Kaghan valley and the Northern Areas. I always knew it as a place where truck drivers, having driven up all the way from the planes, stopped to let their lorry engines cool down and topped up the radiators with cold water from a nearby stream to ready them for the climb ahead. Because of the presence of trucks, several khoka “hotels” had also sprouted at the spot and did a brisk business.

Khota Qabar is so small a place that you won’t find it on any map of Pakistan. However, to my pleasant surprise, a Google search turned up the following information about the place: latitude 34.09; longitude 73.17; elevation 3,251 feet. I was impressed. With Google, that is.

Like many other things in life, I took the name of this place for granted, and never bothered to enquire how or why it came to be so named. But when I did — only recently — I uncovered a fascinating story behind it, a story of a dedicated man and his mission.

The story begins, of all the places, in Breli, a town in present-day Uttar Pardesh, India and ends in the mountains of Balakot, a town in the far north of Pakistan. It is the story of a man named Syed Ahmed who was born in Breli, in 1786. He grew up to be a deeply religious man and chose, as his life mission, to try to usher in the glorious Islamic past by establishing an Islamic state based on the pattern of the early Caliphate, first in the Indian subcontinent and then possibly across the world. To achieve this, he decided to wage a jihad against the infidels who ruled the subcontinent at the time. He, thus, became one of the earliest, if not the first, native Jihadis of the Indian subcontinent.

This was the time when the Mughal rule in India had virtually ceased to exist, and the Mughal Empire barely stretched beyond the present-day Delhi. The dominant powers of the time were the British Empire, represented by the East India Company, which controlled most of the Northern India. Then there was Marhatta Empire to the south, the Sikh Empire in the northwest and Kashmir while hundreds of minor kings, maharajas and nawabs ruled over various fiefdoms across the land.

Syed Ahmed understood that it was not possible to fight the British. They were better organized, better equipped, and in firm control of most of northern India. Therefore, he decided to emigrate to what was then called North-West Frontier Province or the NWFP, the present day Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) in Pakistan, to start a jihad from there. After beating the Sikhs in KP and Kashmir, he believed, he could then take on the British.

His choice of KP as a launching pad for the jihad was based on the assumptions that it was a predominantly Muslim area bordering another Muslim state, Afghanistan; that its people were unhappy with the Sikh rule and were ready to take up arms against it; and that they had a reputation of being good warriors. Armed with these assumptions, a faith in his mission, and trust in God, Syed Ahmed and his devotees left their homes and families (Syed Sahib left behind his two wives) and embarked on a difficult and circuitous journey to Peshawar via Sindh, Quetta, Kandhar and Kabul. Among his companions was also Shah Ismail, a grandson of Shah Waliullah of Delhi.

After reaching Peshawar, Syed Sahib tried to enter into alliances with the local chiefs and khans to gain their support for his Jihad. He managed to raise an army of mujahideen who engaged in a few skirmishes with the Sikhs and also launched nighttime raids on a few towns, notably Akora Khattak and Hazro. But these skirmishes and raids did not yield any strategic gains.

Most narratives on the subject — at least the ones I have read — even though rich in trivia, are incoherent and confusing. Cutting through the web of confusion, however, one finds that Syed Ahmed Brelvi, moving from place to place for 4–5 years in the Frontier province, turned up at Balakot, sometime in the first quarter of 1831. He was then 46 years old. In the process, he also married a third wife, a young woman from Chitral, named Fatima.

Syed Sahib’s strategy was to defeat the Sikhs at Balakot and then march on to Kashmir next door. His optimism is evident from one of his last letters he wrote to the Nawab of Tonk in India, who, as a gesture of support and sympathy, was hosting Syed Sahib’s two wives as guests on his estate. The letter was dated 25 April 1831 (translation and paraphrasing is mine):

“I am in the mountains of Pakhli (name of the area). The people here have welcomed us with warmth and hospitality and have given us a place to stay. They have also promised to support us in the jihad. For the time being, I am camped in the town of Balakot, which is located alongside the Kunhar River. The army of the kuffars (infidels) is camped not too far from us. Since Balakot is located at a secure place, surrounded by the hills on one side and bounded by the river on the other, God willing, the kuffars will not be able to reach us. Of course, we may choose to advance and enter into a battle at our own initiative, and this we intend to do in the next two or three days. With the help of God, we will be victorious. If we win this battle, and, God willing, we will, then we will occupy all the land alongside the Jehlum River including the Kingdom of Kashmir. Please pray, day and night, for our victory.” Obviously, Syed Sahib seemed to rely upon divine help.

On the enemy side, there was Hari Singh, the governor of Kashmir and NWFP at the time, representing Maharaja Ranjeet Singh, who sat in Lahore. Hari Singh was a clever and ruthless administrator. His forces under the command of Sher Singh lay in wait for the mujahideen, in Muzaffarabad, not too far from Balakot. Some of Sher Singh’s contingents had already moved to occupy the hilltop, known as Mitti Kot, overlooking the town of Balakot.

Syed Sahib expected the Sikhs to come down from their perch at Mitti Kot and attack the mujahideen. (Why would they, one wonders?) He, therefore, had the paddy fields between the town and the hills flooded by channeling the river water into them. He hoped the advancing Sikhs would get mired in the muddy fields, and the Mujahideen would then pick them out like sitting ducks, literally. But the Sikhs had their own plans. They did not move, and waited for the mujahideen to make the first move.

The mujahideen obliged, on May 6, 1831. It was a Friday. A bizarre incident occurred that morning, which precipitated the battle. While the mujahideen were still having breakfast and, at the same time, keeping a wary eye on the movement of the enemy at Mitti Kot hilltop, one of them, Syed Chiragh Ali from Patiala, suddenly expressed a desire to eat kheer (rice pudding). Since kheer was not on the menu that morning, Chiragh Ali proceeded to fetch the necessary wherewithal and set about preparing kheer for himself. (It sounds bizarre reading about it now, but people are known to do strange things in stressful conditions.)

While Chiragh Ali was stirring the pot, and nervously looking at the Sikhs on the hilltop, something came over him “There! I see a beautiful hoor dressed in red”, he shouted, “ she is calling me!” He threw away the ladle with which he was stirring the pot, and declared that he would eat only out of the hands of the hoor. Announcing this, he charged headlong towards the hill. It all happened so suddenly that, before anyone could react, Chiragh Ali was in the middle of the paddy fields, struggling to run in the mud. The Sikhs, who must have been watching the scene from the top of the hill with some amusement, picked him in the sights of their muskets and shot him dead. According to the narrative, Syed Chiragh Ali was the first martyr of the battle of Balakot.

What followed the shooting was total chaos. Syed Sahib, abandoning his earlier battle plan, ordered his men to attack. The mujahideen rushed towards the hill. They, too, got mired in the muddy fields. The Sikhs then made their move.

In a battle that lasted most of the day, amidst war cries of Allah-o-Akbar and Wahe Guruji di Fateh, Syed Ahmed and Shah Ismail were killed along with many of their mujahideen. Depending on the sources one uses, the number of dead mujahideen varied from 300 to 1300. Whatever the numbers, the mujahideen had met their Waterloo at Balakot

Nearly two centuries later, on October 8, 2005, an earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale shook and flattened the town of Balakot. Miraculously, however, it spared the tombs of Syed Ahmed Shaheed and Shah Ismail Shaheed, perhaps a reminder that miracles do happen, but one cannot always rely upon them.

What about Khota Qabar? Why was Khota Qabar so named?

On their way to Balkot, the mujahideen had camped somewhere near the present-day Abbottabad. The Sikhs, in order to choke the mujahideen’s supply lines, posted troops on the hills overlooking the track that led through a gorge to Abbottabad. The mujahideen, sensing the risk of sending convoys through the gorge, cleverly hired the services of a donkey without a handler to carry their supplies. Yes, just one donkey!

Image for post
Illustration by Atiya Nadeem

Even though the donkey has, for some reason, become a metaphor for stupidity in our part of the world, it is not stupid at all. In fact, it has an excellent memory and uses it intelligently. One of the unique traits of the donkey is that once he carries a load to a destination, he memorizes the route and does not need the help of a handler to go back to the same place. Just a light kick in the back sends him trudging quietly to his destination. So, unknown to the Sikhs, this dutiful donkey trudged back and forth in the darkness of night carrying supplies to the mujhideen.

It wasn’t long before the Sikhs found out who the secret courier was. One night, when the donkey was carrying a load through the gorge, they shot him dead. The mujahideen mourned their loss and buried the donkey in a grave. The place came to be called Khota Qabar. The grave may not have survived but the name did. Only a few years ago, someone decided to change the name of the place to Muslimabad, and erected a road sign announcing the new name. However, the people in the area still know the place by its old name — Khota Qabar. And so does Google!

The story first appeared in a blog All Things Pakistan, under a pen name, on May 11, 2009, and partially in The News.


  1. Syed Ahmed Shaheed — Mujahid-e-kabir by Ghulam Rasool Mehr, 1981

2. Roedad-e-Mujahideen-e-Hind by Muhammad Khawas Khan, 1983.

3. The part about Khota Qabar is anecdotal
4. Dr. Sher Bahadur Khan Panni also describes the battle in his book, Tareekh-e-Hazara, in a different and confusing detail, and a gruesome end result.

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