Banihal : Gate way to Kashmir
By : Salman Nizami
Banihal had remained gate way to the valley of Kashmir. Located at the foot of Pir Pantsal ranges, it finds mention in many ancient and medieval writings.
Rajtrangini mentions this place, a very harrow mountain valley, as Visalta. This region in King Uccalas time was an escape route from Kashmir for unwanted or disgruntled elements of the Valley. In Jaysimha or Kashmir’s time (1128-49) a small fort is stated to have existed just below the old Banihal Pass, called by the name of Bansalla literally meaning, a jungle or grove of trees. This castle belonged to Khasa Lord Bhagika, ruler of the old principality of Vishalta, the present Banihal region. He was the son-in-law of Tikka, the Lord of Buddhal. Abu Fazal has derived the appellation of Banihal from Bansala. He also makes a mention of a temple at Banihal, dedicated to the Goddess Durga, where in enquiries, pertaining to coming strife, if any, are made in a curious fashion (probably in an oracle way of ancient Greeks or as practised in Naga shrines of Jammu in the recent past). This is also indicative that Abu-Fazal, King Akbars’ official historian may have passed through this route on his way to or back from Valley of Kashmir.
Pandit Sahib Ram, who in his book ‘‘Tirthas’’ copies Abu-Fazal’s notes, metamorphosis the Sanskrit name of village Banihal from Bhanusita or Bhanusata i.e rocks of the Sun or land of the Sun.
Stein on his commentary on Kalhans’ Rajtrangini describes the place differently. According to him, Visalata or Banihal must be identified with the valley drained by rivulet Bichlari, flowing through the area, a tributary of river Chenab. This hill district situated immediately to the South of Divsar and Shahabad Parganas of Kashmir (District Anantnag) is generally called Banihal after the mountain pass of that name, to which it forms the approach the name Vishalata is probably preserved in that of the river Bichalari. But to me it appears that the word Banihal is derived from Bansala, because of the phonetic change of /s/ to /h/ phone, so common a linguistic phenomenon in local languages and dialects. Banihal lies only few hundred meters north of Adlkut and the Rajtranginis castle of Bansala must have been visible from the top of Banihal Pass clearly.
Because of its geographical position, difficult accessibility of the region, and harder mountainous life style, Banihal like Kishtwar always proved to be a safe escape route, and safe refuge to the revolting Princes, disgruntled chieftains, and conspirator from Kashmir, against the Kings of Kashmir. Rajtrangini has made a mention of many such nobles, Khasas and Damaras. It was not only the Banihal region, but the entire mountainous region on the right bank of river Chenab in Jammu, right from Kishtwar to Reasi districts that proved to be a very safe refuge for those who deserted for one or the other reason. Banihal Pass also having the lowest height (9200’) above see level formed the easier outlet from the valley for the pedestrians in the Pantsal range. Rebel Chieftain from Kashmir, like Dhanchakka, Bhiksachara and Sujji and many others also stayed at Banihal and planned an invasion of the valley.
Today Banihal is the only access to the Kashmir through which national highway No.1, runs, though other connecting roads are in the making.
The mountain regions, highland pockets and mini valleys that are part of Banihal consist of the following areas :-
(a) Pugal : is the mountainous region drained by Pugal stream, a tributary of Bichlari that comes from the eastern mountains of Banihal. The area is rugged and mountainous. The people are hardy. Pugali is the dialect spoken by some 12000 inhabitants. Cattle rearing is main occupation of the people and Maize cultivated on sloppy land is the main stable crop.
(b) Peeristan or Paristan : The area beyond Pogal is called Paristan or Peeristan, which literally means the abode of Fairies or Saintly person of high miraculous powers. The area is rugged and mountainous and very scarcely population. It also includes Neel mountainous region.
(c) Mahu - Mangat : In Banihal there is another mountainous region towards west side, drained by the rivulet of the same name, another tributary of Bichlariz. The area is rugged but full of long grassy slopes that attracted people rearing goat, sheep and cattle in the region, who inhabit it. Maize is the stable food cultivated on sloppy lands. Milk and Ghee is the main produce.
(d) Ramban : The old name of the place was Kamban meaning the place of Kam trees, but when Maharaja Gulab Singh passed through the place around 1819-20, he named it as Ramban. (1) Located at 75.420, Longitude and 33.170 Latitude the place was not of much historical importance, except that it was situated on the traditional mountain route between Jammu and the valley, with most suitable point of crossing of the mighty Chenab river, and with a lowest height of pass on the Pantsal range. Today it is the head quarter of a newly constituted District of the same name, and the site of a 630 Megawatt hydroelectric Project of Baglihar, and an important station on the national highway No.1.
(e) Batote : Some 120 kilometres from Jammu, Batote, a fine hill state, with pine and Deodar forest lies on the above mentioned National highway just below the famous tourist station of Patnitop.