Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

In Quest of the Arghawan (and the Rhubarb)

Fabrizio Foschini 8 min

Kabul, having been a serious city for some thousands years now, even a capital at different times, and withstood many an invasion – from the Hephtalites to the Hippies, from the Mongols to the Contractors – has a long tradition of urban pleasures. Foremost among them is that of escaping the city’s chaos and noise to some pastoral idyll in the countryside on Fridays. AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini and Gran Hewad fell prey to a very conservative Afghan custom, the fascination for flowers, and rode out of the city in quest of the arghawan.

Relates Gulbadan Begam(*) that in the spring of 1549, King Humayun, planning to go on an expedition against the Uzbeks at Balkh, was suddenly confronted by problems from an unexpected quarter. A deputation of women from his family – wives, sisters, aunts – kept repeating in front of him that, given the season, theriwaj, the rhubarb, would be blossoming, clearly hinting at the fact that they would like him to arrange for a pleasure trip for them instead of selfishly heeding to his military enterprises.
At last he was coaxed into conceding:

‘When I join the army, I shall travel by the Koh Daman, so that you may come out and see the riwaj growing.’

The women then joined the king, already camped outside of Kabul, and got ready to move to the Shomali plateau. The preparations to move a sizeable group of women and servants were however more encumbering than those needed for the army itself.

‘Fakhru-n-nisa mama and Afghani aghacha(**) went on a little ahead. There was a stream in the lower part of the garden which Afghani aghacha could not cross, and she fell off her horse. For this reason there was an hour’s delay. At last we set out with his Majesty. Mah-chuchak Begam (one of Humayun’s wives) not knowing, her horse went up (the hill) a little. His Majesty was very much annoyed about this.’

Humayun did actually have a most effective remedy for his troubles ready at hand, something which he used all through his tormented life, and – some say – would one day have cured once and for all his headaches:

‘Some vexation now showed itself in his blessed countenance and he was pleased to say: “All of you go on, and I will follow when I have taken some opium and got over my annoyance.” He joined us when we had, as he ordered, gone on a little. The look of vexation was entirely laid aside and he came with a happy and beautiful look in his face.’

The royal picnickers then settled down at the skirts of the hills, and engaged in something close to a pyjama party:

‘It was a moonlight night. We talked and told stories, and Mir (fault – name unknown) and Khanish aghacha and the reciter and Saru-sahi and Shaham agha sang softly, softly.’

‘Up to the time of our reaching Laghman(***), neither the royal tents nor the pavilions of the begams had arrived, but the mihr-amez tent(****) had come. We all, his Majesty and all of us, and Ḥamida-banu Begam(*****) sat in that tent till three hours past midnight and then we went to sleep where we were, in company with that altar of truth (Humayun).’

The following days were spent merrily wandering through the blossomed hill-slopes, and the nights chatting and joking, something which the Mughal ladies seem to have found – quite inexplicably – much more exciting than a war against Balkh.

‘Everywhere in the Daman-e koh the riwaj had put up its leaves. We went to the skirts of the hills and when it was evening, we walked about. Tents and pavilions were pitched on the spot and there his Majesty came and stayed. Here too we passed the nights together in sociable talk, and were all in company of that altar of truth.’

In the end, however, the ‘altar of truth’ became pretty upset at this considerable loss of time, and even enjoined the ladies to write letters of excuses to him ‘for the trouble you have given’, before leaving them to join his army on the march at Istalif.

The riwaj, today more commonly called rawash or riwas, is the rhubarb. Easily found in Afghanistan, as it grows preferably in mountainous areas, it was widely used for medicinal and cosmetic purposes. In more recent times, its root, called rawand, has been successfully employed by AAN’s Kate Clark to prepare a delicious crumble, which by the way bears proof to the ancient belief that rhubarb improves people’s appetite.

Rhubarb red flowers must have offered indeed a nice sight on the hill-slopes north of Kabul. However, there is another plant whose blossoms are widely appreciated by modern Kabulis and which is closely connected to Babur’s legacy, the arghawan (Judas’s tree).

You may probably have come across it, with or without flowers, by visiting the tomb of Babur inside the famous garden (or passing the Turkish Embassy or entering the MoFA). In the salvo of information that the Babur Garden’s old, inimitable keeper fires at all visitors in a mix of various languages, Afghans and foreigners alike, the arghawan features in fact prominently:

‘This is the tumb of Zahiruddinmohammadbabur he was born in Ferghana presently Uzbakistan died in Agra Hindustan is buried in Kabul. This is the arghawan tree the arghawan tree grow only in the mountains you cannonly see this one inside the city because Babur’s wish to rest under the arghawan tree(******). Why you speak Dari, you should speak also Pashto, it’s very easy I speak all the languages: Anglisi, Almani, Faransawi, Rusi…’

Leaving the custodian to draw on his palm the boot-shaped Italian peninsula – something he always does with the utmost precision, probably to make up for his lacking proficiency in Italian(*******) – last Friday we decided to get a closer look at some other specimen of arghawan we may have chanced upon.

So we took the road leading to the land of the murchkhorha or ‘chilli-eaters’ as other, less spice-friendly Afghans, sometimes call the people of the Shomali. The chilli peppers of the Shomali are deservedly famous, especially some autochthonous varieties like the shakh-e buzak (goat’s horn) from Shakardara. The inhabitants of the Shomali are also deservedly famous for their taste for chilli, as they cannot start a day without a breakfast of piazbiryan, a concoction of onion sprouts, coriander seeds and dried chilli ground together, to be eaten with bread.

Each of the villages that one crosses along the main road would be worth a story told, but improvements on the road in the last five hundred years did not make up for our lack of tents and pavilions, and the need to reach our objective, enjoy it and come back by the daylight to face another week’s work, force us to leave those stories for other occasions.

We actually headed slightly more to the north of King Humayun’s party, precisely to Gulghundi (Flower-Hill), a spot on the hillsides dominating Charikar (where the demonstration against US soldiers capturing three mullas happened a few days ago during which at least one person was killed). The place is famous for its concentration of arghawan trees – a sparse forest one could say – and is the destination of many visitors around this time of year.

Whole families stop the cars on the side of the already narrow road to take a picture with the lilac flowers and the scenic view of the Shomali plains with the Kohistan and the Salang mountains at its far end. An old man in dervish attire climbs up the hill uttering incomprehensible blessings and curses to people irrespective of their alms. And, of course, myriads of children sway here and there, playing among the bushes and singing the traditional springtime quatrain:

Ghuchi, ghuchi bahar shod,
Fasl-e gol-e anar shod.

Swallow, swallow springtime has come,
The season of the pomegranate blossom has come.

Indeed, several youngsters could be seen paying more than ordinary attention to the birds. But with their 22bore mushkush (‘mouse-killer’, small calibre rifles) they were actually more interested in gunjishk (sparrows) than in the swallows.

As for music, at least, we had some points of advantage on the Mughals, as the Afghan genius had not developed yet the rubab at the time of Humayun, nor had an Afghan genius like Ustad Muhammad Omar created that most beautiful springtime melody (in Rag Nat Bhairav) called Naghma-e Arghawan, the Arghawan Song. Unfortunately, lack of proper exercise rendered the homage paid to the blossoming trees a rather painful enterprise for the would-be rubab player. It was then a colleague’s duty to come to the rescue with a bold rendering of ‘Pa Gulghundi da arghawan jure mele dee, ah ah haa haa’ (In Gulghundi they do picnic under the arghawan, ah ah haa haa). Due homage paid to the flowers, the song moves onto different beauties, inviting to the contemplation of the young ladies. Sign of the times, its author Ustad Gul Zaman, a major and ‘wild’ (mastan) hit during the PDPA time, is now quietly sitting in the jury of Afghan Setara, the young talents TV program.

The old song (click here to listen – or an older version here) – whether intended for this Gulghundi or for another, in Paktia province – has contributed to further popularize this resort already known since the time of Zahir Shah at least.

From the top of the hills Charikar appeared a nice, greenish urban centre. However, radical planning schemes are underway to rationalize its transformation into one of the major commercial hubs of Kabul’s hinterland. The whole bazaar of the old city is scheduled to be transferred to a newly built area, with a planned relocation of an estimated 25,000 persons. You may want to hurry and visit it to buy one of its famous knives before this happens. On the way back, long queues of trucks hint at the closeness of the Salang pass, the strategic gateway for many basic goods, like the Kazakh wheat from which Kabul’s delicious nan is baked.

Returning to Kabul, if you did not have enough of flowers, you can always stop at any spot to buy lala, tulips, from the kids lined up on the main road, ten Afghani a handful. This should tell you what the kids do not mention, that at least these flowers are proudly made in Afghanistan, for Afghans.

(See arghawan trees in blossom on the pic on our homepage.)

(*) Humayun (1508-1556) was the eldest son of Babur, and his successor at the head of the Mughal Empire. He reigned first from 1530 to 1540, when he was forced to flee Hindustan by Sher Shah Suri, but he was able to wrestle Delhi from the latter’s successors in 1555, after a long exile spent between Safavid Persia and the Mughal’s old capital at Kabul. He died accidentally immediately after, but the book of memories commissioned to Humayun’s bright sister, Gulbadan (Flower-body), by his son and successor Akbar renders an inimitable portrayal of his eccentric person and of those eventful years. The Humayun-nama is available online, in the classical translation of Annette Beveridge, at this site.

(**) This was Bibi Mubarika, Babur’s beloved – although childless – Yusufzai wife. She was the one who had fulfilled Babur’s death wish to bring back his remains from Agra to Kabul, even if she could accomplish this only a decade after her husband’s death, being permitted to do so by Sher Shah Suri after the Mughal defeat in 1540. (Further names of women in the text are wives or family relations of Humayun.)

(***) The Koh Daman is nowadays part of Kabul and Parwan provinces. In the past, Laghman (also known as Lamghan then) indicated a broader region, as it is proved by its occasional usage in a plural form: Lamghanat.

(****) Apparently, a special tent designed by Humayun himself, by its name related to the sun, probably intended to work as a sundial for those inside it. Another of Humayun’s tents featured the twelve zodiacal signs.

(*****) The lady, Humayun’s favourite wife and the mother of his son and successor, Jalaluddin Akbar, stemmed from the lineage of Shaykh Ahmad-e Jam Zinda Fil, the ‘Terrible Elephant’ of early Sufism in Khorasan, whose shrine in Torbat-e Jam, around 60 km from the Afghan border at Islam Qalah, is still much revered and a most impressive one to visit.

(******) Actually it is the tomb of Gulbadan’s full-brother Hindal that is surmounted by the majestic arghawan tree, next to Babur’s in the enclosure inside the Bagh-e Babur. Hindal, after an initial rivalry, was steadfastly loyal to his elder half-brother Humayun through their vicissitudes in the ‘40s, and was slain in 1551, still relatively young, while fighting another half-brother, the ever-rebellious Mirza Kamran, near Jalalabad.

(*******) The custodian’s best quote, however, remains his portray of Babur to a group of Afghan visitors: ‘You ought to know that Babur was, at his time, a prophet of peace and international brotherhood. He did not believe in borders.’




Fabrizio Foschini

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