My time in Pakistan began with my arrival to Islamabad. Islamabad is on the Pothwar Plateau in the northern part of state of Punjab. It borders Kashmir to the east and is south of the Himalaya Mountains which form the northern section of Pakistan The capital of Pakistan, it was constructed in the 1960s in the hill region near Rawalpindi so it is at a slightly higher elevation of around 1700 feet. It is built on a grid with parts of the city labeled by this sections of the grid and was planned with each of these sections having its own housing and market areas. So it is known for its spacious avenues and parks. Because of its perceived higher quality of life, it is an expensive place to live by Pakistan standards and so draws middle to higher income people. My driver lived in Rawalpindi, just a 20-minute ride from the US embassy in Islamabad, and he said that everyone wants to live in Islamabad but it is expensive. It is also a much more traditional city than Lahore so I had been warned to dress conservatively.
The Pothwar Plateau is being created by the same forces that continue to build the Himalaya Mountains. Millions of years ago, the Indian tectonic plate moved north and collided with the Asian plate. Between them was a caught another plate under a sea called Tethys. This oceanic plate slide under the Asian plate, melting as it sank and generation a chain of volcanic islands. This small plate with its offshore islands was flipped on its side and trapped between the Indian and Asian plates and of course, the sea disappeared. So this region is one of thrust faults where horizontal planes of older material are thrust above younger material as the plates collide. This has created the mountains where rocks have buckled and crumpled, rising because there is no place else to go.
As I flew south the less than 250 miles from Islamabad to Lahore, I could see the effects of these tectonic forces. Sedimentary rocks, once horizontal, were now vertical, creating geologic features called hogbacks. Other rock structures were folded sideways.
The transition from the plateau area of Pakistan to the Indus Plain was quite dramatic. All of a sudden the land became a flat plain with river channels, straight canals, and square fields. The Indus Plain is an alluvial plain with deposits laid down by the flooding of the Indus River and its four tributaries. In fact, Punjab, the province of this area, means “five waters.” Dams have been built to control flooding and provide irrigation water, making this a fertile agricultural region. Punjab is the most fertile province in Pakistan and is also the home of the majority of the population.
Lahore sits on the east side of the Indus Valley, near the border with India. It is a densely population city of eleven million people. This part of Punjab Province felt the brunt of partition at the time when India and Pakistan were split in 1947. The most famous book on this period of events is Freedom at Midnight by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. The division resulted in thirteen million Punjabi’s moving one direction or another and much violence. It also left Pakistan in a position of needing to define its identity apart from India. I’ve wondered about the parallels between Canada and the United States in terms of identity-formation. Both Canada and Pakistan have defined themselves over and against the United States and India, respectively. I’m anxious to learn about what is uniquely Pakistani.