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Humshehri: Thinking Pakistan's History

Thinking Pakistan's History

KPK Historical Overview

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s history is greatly influenced by its location. As the gateway to the subcontinent, it has a long, turbulent history of invasions by those who sought the riches of India.

Ancient history

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), formerly known as the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP), was formally inaugurated as a province in 1902. KPK was home to the ancient civilization of Gandhara, which lasted from 1000 BC to the 11th century AD and it has a long history of conquests by successive invaders.

KPK Historical
Gandhara under the Kushans
(Asia Society)

The Aryans began their migration into India around 2000 BC. Coming from the west, these semi-nomadic conquerors entered through KPK and initially settled along the Swat, Gomal, Kurram and Kabul Rivers. Over the course of several hundred years more and more Aryans entered the subcontinent and migrated eastwards into modern day India. The Persians conquered Gandhara in the 6th century BC and made it one of the provinces of the Achaemenid Empire. As a conquered nation, Gandhara gave tribute to the Persian kings.

Image 2
Stone relief depicting people of Gandhara offering buffalo and weapons to Persian king

In 327 BC Alexander’s army invaded the Indian subcontinent. While Alexander was busy subduing the hill tribes of Swat and Kunar Valleys, his generals entered through the Khyber Pass. Before making his way south, Alexander resided at Taxila where he met a bold young man by the name of Chandragupta Maurya, who was an exiled prince of Magadha (in present day eastern India). According to some accounts, Chandragupta Maurya decided to forge an empire in Alexander’s footsteps. Though Alexander did not stay long in the subcontinent and died shortly afterwards, his reign had a significant impact. Greek culture influenced the culture of this region for a thousand years after. A prominent example of this is the fusion of Indian and Greek art elements that became known as Gandharan art style. After Alexander’s death his general Seleucus claimed the Indian territories.

Mauryan coin

In 305 BC, Chandragupta Maurya fought Seleucus and emerged triumphant from the power struggle. Chandragupta and his son Bindusara succeeded in bringing most of the Indian subcontinent under the fold of the Mauryan Empire. But it is Ashoka the Great, the third Mauryan Emperor, who is still remembered and honored. After fighting the Kalinga War and seeing the destruction he had caused, Ashoka embraced Buddhism and tried to be a good ruler to his people. Under Ashoka, Buddhism was introduced in Gandhara, which became the hub of Buddhist culture and home of Gandharan Art.

The Mauryan Empire crumbled after the death of Ashoka and soon afterwards the Kushans took over. The Kushans also contributed to the growth of Buddhism in the subcontinent. They ruled over their vast empire from their capital city Peshawar. The decline of the Kushan Dynasty and other brief conquests of KPK made way for the Shahi Dynasty. Hinduism began to take root in the region since most of the later Shahi Kings were Hindus. The Gandharan Civilization was uprooted as Hinduism gradually replaced Buddhism.

KPK embraces Muslim rulers

Even though the Arabs had been in contact with the Pathans since the middle of the 7th century, it was in 1001 AD when Mahmud of Ghazni defeated Jayapala, the last Hindu Shahi King of Gandhara. He then proceeded south to Punjab. His successive campaigns weakened Hindu rule not only in KPK but also in the subcontinent and allowed for the spread of Islam.

A few Pathan tribes opposed the forces of Mahmud of Ghazni in the beginning, but they eventually became his allies, voluntarily embraced Islam and helped him in a number of wars. The Muslims who came to KPK assimilated with the Pathans. The Ghaznavid Empire marked the beginning of a long Muslim rule in the region. It was followed by the Ghaurid Dynasty and the Delhi Sultanate, which consisted of several dynasties.

Under the Mughal Empire

Babar, founder of the Mughal Empire, first entered the subcontinent via the Khyber Pass in 1505 and took Kohat and Bannu before returning to Kabul. His fifth and final march into the continent began in 1525 and a year later he defeated the last Lodhi king before declaring himself the new Emperor of Delhi. Babar united many tribes in KPK, including the Yusufzais, under his banner and led them to many regions in India. He won the hearts of Pathans over a short span of time. A detailed account of the history of KPK can be found in his memoir, Babur-Nama. He paved the way for Mughal rule over this area till the 18th century, with the exception of brief rule under Sher Shah Suri.

After Babar’s death, Humayun succeeded him. But a Pathan named Sher Shah Suri took control of the region from him. Humayun regained the throne fifteen years later and his son Akbar succeeded him. However, Akbar could not conquer all parts of KPK.

Image 4
Khushal Khan Khattak
(Muhammad Tahir Kanay)

The tribes of the Yusufzais and Khattaks were engaged in a century long feud. Khushhal Khan Khattak formed an alliance with the Mughals during the reign of Emperor Shah Jahan. But the Yusufzais were opposed to the Mughal rule in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Shah Jahan appointed Khushhal Khan Khattak the guardian of the king’s highway to Peshawar and confirmed his position as the tribal chief. He even went to the Delhi court and joined them in many campaigns. The Khattaks broke ties with the Mughal Empire during Aurangzeb’s rule due to a conflict with a Mughal governor over toll collection.

In the wake of Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, the empire split into competing kingdoms and Nadir Shah, a Persian ruler, gained control over the province with support from the Pathans. One of his renowned successors, Ahmad Shah Abdali, launched several campaigns from the Peshawar Valley into many places across India. Abdali’s reign (1747 – 1772) was temporarily interrupted when the Marathas invaded in the early 1750s, but he succeeded in regaining control over KPK in 1761. The province remained a part of Afghanistan, which had been established as the first Pathan state by Ahmad Shah Abdali, till its conquest by the Sikhs in 1818.

Sikh rule

Image 5
Fort Bala Hissar, Peshawar
(Junaid Rao)

The Sikhs invaded Khyber Pakthunkhwa in 1818 under the command of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. They first annexed Dera Ismail Khan and then went on to become masters of the entire province. KPK remained under their rule till the British took hold of the region in the middle of the 19th century.

In 1923 the Sikhs took hold of Peshawar, plundered the city and burned the Bala Hissar Fortress. They razed down numerous architectural monuments, including the Mahabat Khan Mosque. Tribes in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were repeatedly assaulted by Sikh armies. This brought the Pathans together to fight against the Sikh. Sayyid Ahmad Shah emerged as the leader of this movement against the Sikhs. He launched many attacks and even managed to snatch Peshawar from the Sikhs for a few months. But unity of the Pathan tribes did not survive for very long and he was defeated in a battle at Balakot.

The Sikhs did make some contributions such as building Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s first planned city known as Haripur. Following Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839, the Sikhs fought amongst themselves. Ultimately, the British East India Company took hold of both the province and the Sikh Durbar, which they called Company Bahadur.

Relationship with British

In 1849, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa came under British rule. The British East India Company led many campaigns into areas controlled by the Pathan tribes and secured their confidence. The early British officers played a pivotal role in winning the hearts of the Pathans. So strong was the relationship between the British and the Pathans that during the Indian Rebellion of 1857 many people in Peshawar and surrounding areas supported the British, while the rest of India was mutinous.

Waziristan, however, proved to be a problematic area for the British, just as it had for the Mughals before them who tried to subjugate it. For almost every campaign they led into these tribes, the British suffered many casualties.

Till the late 19th century there was no formal border between Afghanistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which was then part of British India. In 1893, after two wars, Sir Mortimer Durand and Abdur Rahman Khan, the amir of Afghanistan, agreed upon an international border that came to be known as the Durand Line. It now separates the Pakistani regions of Baluchistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and FATA from Afghanistan.

The governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Lord Curzon, inaugurated the province at Shahi Bagh in 1902, and in 1931 it was elevated to the status of a governor-ruled province. Mirza Ali Khan, a wazir from Waziristan, spearheaded a civil disobedience movement against the British in 1936. The Khilafat and Hijrat movements also took place in the region but were not successful. Another popular freedom movement was launched by Abdul Ghaffar Khan, also known as Bacha Khan, and his brother Dr. Khan Sahib. It was a nonviolent movement and their followers were known as Khudai Khidmatgar or Servants of God. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was granted self-government in 1937.


Bacha Khan
Bacha Khan

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa decided to join Pakistan after independence. Despite boycotting the polls, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who had been against the partition of India, also decided to give his allegiance to Pakistan during the first session of the Pakistan Constituent Assembly. This was an attempt to develop a stronger relationship with Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

Following independence, the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan deteriorated after the Afghans refused to recognize the Durand Line. Afghanistan was also in favor of the Pakhtunistan movement, which proposed the creation of a sovereign state for the Pathans. It did not gain much support from the tribes since a growing number of Pathans were becoming part of the Pakistani government. Political ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan have grown increasingly tense ever since. Events in Afghanistan have often affected Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. During the Afghan-Soviet war many mujahideen went from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to take part in the fight and afterwards millions of refugees took shelter in the province. Many regions in and around the Durand Line have come under the fold of the War on Terror.

Abdul Ghaffar Khan urged the government to give the province a name that reflects the Pathan identity. It had been known as North West Frontier Province (NWFP) since its inauguration by the British. Pashtunistan was one of the proposed names but it did not get political support as this name had become too controversial. Eventually, in 2010 the province was renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Find out more

Books & Articles

Ghaus, Abdul Samad. The Fall of Afghanistan: An Insider’s Account. Washington: Pergamon-Brassey’s International Defense, 1988.

Khattak, Muhammad Aslam Khan, and James W. Spain. A Pathan Odyssey. Karachi: Oxford UP, 2004.

Meyer, William Stevenson. “North-West Frontier Province.” Imperial Gazetteer of India. Vol. 19. Oxford: Clarendon, 1908-1931. 138-221. Digital South Asia Library.

Shāh, Sayed Wiqar Ali. Ethnicity, Islam and Nationalism: Muslim Politics in the North-West Frontier Province, 1937-47. Karachi: Oxford UP, 1999.

Shāh, Sayed Wiqar Ali. North-West Frontier Province: History and Politics. Islamabad: National Institute of Historical & Cultural Research, Centre of Excellence, Quaid-i-Azam U, 2007.

Yunas, S. Fida. Abdul Ghaffar Khan, “Pushtunistan” and Afghanistan. Peshawar: n.p., 2003.


Government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa: History of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa