Megan McCormick's Veiled Journeys

Gandhara

by Mr. A_B

A friend on the train

The Lahore Express took me from Delhi to Kabul. Along the way, the train stops at Lahore and Peshawar, passing through the valleys of the Hindukush. The scenery from the train was breathtaking to say the least !

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Lahore valley

The Lahore station was built with a view to the famous Badshahi Mosque of Lahore. I took the chance to take a few pictures of the fantastic structure before continuing on my journey. Along the way I made friends with Amira. I learnt that she was originally from Mexico and is a revert. She moved to India after she had converted to Islam and is now living in Lahore.

She told me only briefly about her lifestyle and it prepared me a bit for what was to come during my stay in Kabul. She was dressed in a burqa that covered everything including the eyes. Only a thin intricate mesh layer allowed her to see through. Out of curiosity, I asked her permission to wear it. I had seen burqa clad women in Delhi and Punyanagri, but this was the first time that I was actually wearing one myself.

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First time in burqa

The cloth was heavy and a bit suffocating, I realized it would take a lot of getting used to. Amira, told me that it was hard for her too at first but she is now very much used to it. She works as a teacher in Lahore, where she lives with her husband. Her in-laws are a more moderate family, which makes them stand out among the more conservative Pathans. They were also less strict about imposing restriction measures such as gags and bindings. Amira did not wear her gag while on the train, however, she is usually gagged when outside otherwise.

We exchanged our contact information before she left at Lahore and promised to keep in touch. The train journey takes 20 hours from Delhi to Kabul. I arrived at Nur Taraki train station in the afternoon, the weather was just as hot as the rest of India, but much much drier, to an extent it reminded me of Jaipur.

First impressions

Nur Taraki is the new railway station in Kabul built only three years ago. It is replete with new modern facilities and a glitzy look, it was quite a contrast with the traditional and conservative society of Gandhara. Now, the thing to remember about Gandhara is, that sharia law is imposed in parts and is not imposed in parts, but in all places, there is a strict rule for observing modesty. Foreigners are not exempt from this, unlike in other parts of the federation. The minimum requirement is that women be veiled and that no part of the skin should show. Implicitly that means the eyes should be covered too.

At the station I didn't see many women, but the ones I did see were veiled either wearing a burqa or veiled in saris in a style similar to Jaipur and Punyanagri. I presumed that they were outsiders, anyone who wasn't wearing a scarf veil wore a burqa. Honestly, I felt a little out of place in the station. I texted my friend Jaspreet Singh about my location at the station and waited for her to receive me. A few minutes later, a woman came to me wearing what looked like a shorter version of the Afghan burqa which didn't flow all the way down to her feet. The fabric around her head and shoulders too seemed different from other burqas with the fabric smugly hugging her face and shoulders. She came up to me and texted me back “Hi ! It's me Jaspreet!”

Under the veil we were both gagged, so texting was the only way we communicated. It still felt weird, but more and more I was getting the hang of it. When I first came to know that I was going to meet a Sikh girl, I didn't picturize her wearing a burqa, so it was a bit of a surprise for me when Jaspreet came to me dressed like that. It was my first taste of what to expect in Gandhara. This land was home to Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. Many different races and many different religions converge here to create a truly unique and syncretic culture.

Getting ready to go out

Jaspreet's family has been in Kabul since the 1880s. They like many Sikhs of the time, came as part of conquering Misls who were encouraged to occupy unoccupied lands and spread agriculture. Within a very short time, the economy of what was once the Durrani empire came to be dominated by Hindus and Sikhs. With the brutal conquest of the Durrani empire by the Marathas, the country came under their rule.

Gradually they pushed for the colonization of the land and altering the demographic of the country. By the early 20th century, what used to be Afghanistan had a sizeable Sikh and Hindu population and its name had been changed to Gandhara. Given this history, the relation between Muslims and non-Muslims were never too cordial, but over the last 50 years things have improved. Gandhara has political and economic autonomy within the territorial limits of the Federation which has paid off over time in making it an economic centre for Central Asian trade.

Before going out to town, I had to prepare myself to fit into the dresscode of the city. There are three areas in Kabul, the old town, the Sikh town, and the new town and each of these areas have different rules. The old town, is largely Muslim and populated by a mix of Pathans and Hazaras, while the Sikh town is almost entirely Sikh with some Hindus. The new town is actually a few miles west of the city limits and its developed as a free trade zone.

Though sharia law isn't imposed in Kabul, municipal rules have imposed modesty laws, similar to Jaipur, so women aren't allowed outside without a companion, not having a companion would invite a fine. This isn't the case with the new town however, where there are a good number of foreign workers from China, Russia and European countries and modesty rules aren't enforced.

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Jaspreet's muzzle gag

I followed Jaspreet's lead in dressing up. First she put on her salwar and kameez, then she put on her gag. Jaspreet showed me her device, it was a soft leather muzzle with a panel over the mouth and a strap that went under the chin. It's not the first time I've seen such a gag, I remember wearing a similar one in Delhi, but this one did not have a big ball inside to fill the mouth, its silencing effect was by restricting the jaw. Jaspreet tells me this is more comfortable to wear for longer periods.

 

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A non-traditional burqa

Once the gag was put, she then took her burqa and draped it over her head. This design was a break from the traditional burqa, even the fabric was different. It was relatively thin and made with synthetic material which made it easier to wear in the heat. After Jaspreet finished dressing up, it was my turn. I decided to keep wearing the sari, which Jaspreet told me was accepted here as well, and wore my burqa over it. Jaspreet gave me a spare of her's to wear which was of the same design.

I didn't have the same gag as she did, but I almost wished I did, I put my old ballgag back on, and Jaspreet added a layer of white tape over it. Though I was used to it, at times the ball did hurt my jaw if I wore it too long. Once that was done, I put on the burqa, it felt very different from the burqa that Amira wore on the train, this was light and almost airy. The mesh layer was also very thin and I could see through more clearly.

With that, we were both ready to tour the city. Our first stop was the Kabul museum in the Sikh town. Jaspreet's father agreed to drive us around.

 

Travelling around Kabul

Kabul is a city of contrasts, the very rich and modern rests right beside the conservative and poor. Jaspreet tells me that inequality is a big problem in Gandhara, Kabul stands out as an oasis of progress while the rest of the countryside is impoverished.

Jaspreet's house is located in the heart of the Sikh town, which grew between the mid-19th century and mid 20th century, till congestion forced urban planners to develop the New Town in 1970. This part of town is a fascinating blend of traditional Sikh, Maratha and colonial English architecture. There was even a Chinatown in these parts.

We arrived at the museum after half an hour driving through the streets and by-lanes of the Sikh town. The museum was built in 1926 under the auspices of governor Duleep Singh and Sheik Amanullah Khan. The museum was designed to house ancient artefacts discovered in the lands of Gandhar and North Western India. It was expanded over time to become the most important museum in Central Asia.

With over 1,500,000 artefacts it remains one of the largest museums devoted to Central Asia and Northern South Asia. The star attraction of the museum was the Kushan section. It consisted of artefacts from the site of Tilya Tepe, which remains one of the largest collections of Indo-Greek art anywhere in the world. I looked in wonder at the fine craftsmanship of these works. The most important artefact is the remains of the grand stupa of Kanishka. It was said that the stupa stood at over 700 ft tall at the time of its construction and covered in gold. All the remains now are parts of the gate called 'Toran' and some of the base.

We moved to the next exhibit featuring the Islamic period of Gandhara's history. This was relatively new opened in the 1970s featuring artefacts from the Turkic and Persian periods. For much of the medieval period of its history, Gandhara was ruled by successive waves of Muslim rulers beginning with the Arabs till the Persians. The artwork of this period was no less wonderful. A partly reconstructed wall from the Minaret of Jam was housed in the museum which was salvaged from the ruins of the tower.

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Kabul museum

We spent the next two hours touring the museum seeing various different artefacts and relics. A section devoted to traditional Gandhari textiles fascinated me, there were different clothes from different periods of history and some modern examples as well. One of the dresses put up was the modern light burqa that me and Jaspreet were wearing. It was placed right beside the more traditional burqa design.

There is a resting area and a park in the museum ground where me and Jaspreet decided to rest for a while. The two of us rested in the enclosed area for women only where I briefly took off my veil. The museum was cooled inside, but it was still quite tiring with the veil on. I took a much needed drink of water after opening the gags, Jaspreet did the same. Jaspreet decided to humor me then, “How does your jaw feel Megan ?” I couldn't help but tell the truth,

“It's a bit sore.”

That's when we decided to exchange our gags. I was already curious about that gag when I first saw it, but now I was actually going to get to wear it. After we refreshed ourselves, I put on the muzzle with Jaspreet's help. I realize I may have strapped it on a bit too tight, the leather straps went over my head and over my cheeks to connect in a ring on the back of my head. The whole thing fit rather snugly on my head. Finally with the strap under my chin I was effectively silenced. Once Jaspreet put her gag on, we put our veils back and went back out.

There was one last section of the museum that she wanted to show me before we ventured to our next stop for the day, the Sikh exhibits. It turns out this was a matter of personal pride for Jaspreet and her father, in the gallery section was a file photo from the early 1900s which showed the Sikh regiment of the Maratha army. The photo was the Sikh regiment after the victorious battle of Basra in World War 1. Jaspreet's father pointed to a tall handsome Sikh man in the picture and explained “That's my grandfather”. It was fascinating seeing this connection to Jaspreet's family, it was something very new and interesting for me as well.

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The Uighur brown veil

The Sikh section was a fitting end to our museum visit, we now made our way to Chinatown where Jaspreet took us to her favourite restaurant. Hotel Kasgar was one of the oldest Chinese restaurants located right at the heart of Kabul's Chinatown, this one was founded by and run by Uighur migrants. Interestingly, all the staff here seemed to be women and they wore the telltale Uighur brown scarf veil.

Many of the Chinese migrants here are from China's Xinjiang province and fled persecution during the Qing dynasty and later under the Communist regime. Kabul is now home to over 12,000 of them. The Chinese food here though, was nothing like the Chinese food of the mainland, the Gandhari Chinese as some call it is actually a blend of spicy Central Asian and Indian flavours with Chinese ingredients. It was really delicious, and I can understand how it is so popular and why Jaspreet would love it so much.

After that very fulfilling lunch, we decided to go to one of Jaspreet's favourite places to relax, Babur's garden, built by the Mughal emperor Babur. The sprawling green space had many visitors who would relax in the shade of the trees and sit by the fountains and flowing water in a hot day. Jaspreet and I sat down under a banyan tree and decided to take off our veils for a minute. In the confines of the park, it was permitted to take off the veil and be ungagged, however any open display of affection is strictly banned.

There were quite a few women roaming around the park in their burqas. Most of them wore the flowing variety but a few wore the tight fitting one that me and Jaspreet wore. At the park, I finally asked her the question that was playing on in my mind from the very moment I came here. “What's the deal with the burqa? Isn't that a Muslim garment? I didn't know non-Muslims wore it ?”

Jaspreet explained to me, that it wasn't just that Muslims wore this garment, it was a garment that was unique to Gandhara. Initially, Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims lived segregated from each other and there was a bit of hostility, but as relations improved Hindus and Sikhs of Gandhara started adopting some customs of the locals, the burqa was one of them, the other was the language of the land.

We left the garden around five in the evening and headed back home. I decided to end the day's travel at this point, tomorrow I planned on seeing many more sights of the city. Jaspreet told me about the Eid Gah Mosque, the Darul Aman palace, and we made plans to visit the new town.

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Darul Aman palace

Next day's travels ;

I got up early the next day, last night we talked about some of the places to go to and made a last minute change. The Ashamai temple was not on my itinerary for the day, but Jaspreet convinced me to go there. The temple is located in the centre of the city at the foothills of the Ashamai hill. It's said that the eternal flame of this temple hasn't gone out in four millenia ! When I learnt about this I just had to see it. This became the first sight of the day for us, the most important temple of Gandhara.

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The path to the Ashamai temple

It took about an hour to get to the temple. Both women and men are allowed in there, but women are required to be at least veiled at the temple. While Jaspreet went in following the long queue up to the temple sanctum, I had to satisfy myself with an outside view of the temple structure. The existing structure on the hill was built in the 19th century by the Maratha governor of the province. The architecture of the temple has all the features of a typical Maratha temple, for a moment I almost felt like I was back in Punyanagri !

At least two thirds of the temple devotees in the queue were women and from the look of it, half weren't even Gandhari. After the visit I talked with Jaspreet to understand this, she told me that the temple wasn't just important for the non-Muslims of Gandhara but is popular among Hindus in Punjab and the rest of North Western India as well.

The overflow of devotion was an amazing sight. It felt like a spiritually enlightening experience to witness the devotees flocking to the temple, the temple itself had a very calming serene feel to it. It is said that the temple is devoted to the goddess of hope. Jaspreet said something to me that really touched me, “As long as the fire of this temple is alive, the soul of Gandhara would live on.”

After that visit to the temple, Jaspreet and I went down to the Darulaman palace. The palace was built first in the 19th century and then expanded in the 1920s under the overlordship of the Maratha governors. It still serves as the seat of the governor of Gandhara. The current governor, Karan Singh, had allowed visitors to enter the premises, but certain sections of the building are off limits. We joined the guided tour which took us through the grand palatial premises. There were collections of art and a fantastic fresco in the great hall, for me these were the two most attractive sights in the palace.

Adjacent to the palace was the stately Eid Gah Mosque and palace gardens. The gardens were planned as a blend of European and Persian styles, blending in the best of Mughal and European garden designs. It was a very romantic setting, I saw Jaspreet walking gracefully along the canals and fountains in her burqa, a light breeze blew making the garment flow a little, she looked beautiful that way. I had to take a picture of her this way, and ended up taking at least a dozen of my veiled friend walking in the garden.

We then went over to the Eid Gah Mosque. The mosque was built in the same style as the Jama Masjid of Delhi, but not quite as grand. It was a stately building which blended with the setting perfectly. It was without a doubt a beautiful structure, but many more fascinating places awaited us.

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Eid Gah Mosque

We would now go to the old town and the fort of Bala Hissar. We made sure our burqas were in placce and checked our gags, keeping in mind that the rules for modesty are more strict here. Jaspreet's father came with us for this leg of the travel as well. It was really great that he was with us, we wouldn't have been able to get around otherwise.

The fort of Bala Hissar is over one thousand and five hundred years old, since then successive rulers have expanded and moulded this fort. In the 19th century the anglo-maratha expeditionary force fought the fierce siege of Kabul and captured this fort. Most of the fort was destroyed by them in the siege but several parts of it remain. The old town was built around this fort and most of the heritage structures of Old Kabul exist in the vicinity of the fort. Within the fort, there was a Gurudwara and temple which was built to mark the victory of the Marathas over the Durrani kings. Both these structures were targets of destruction during the Pathan insurgency. The current structure of the temple is much more recent built in the 1950s.

It was late into the afternoon by the time we finished touring the fort, we went to one of Jaspreet's recommended roadside Dhabas and had kebabs. Gandhara was famous for its cuisine and especially the kebabs, this was my first chance at trying it right from the streets of Kabul. We ate in the car concealed from the outside public, it was for the best, the cool air conditioned interior of the car was far more relieving than the hot outdoors. The kebabs tasted more rich and spicy here than back in India, it was a bit harder on the stomach. Even so, they certainly lived up to their reputation. The last leg of today's journey was going to be in the new town.

It was quite a contrasting experience travelling from old Kabul to the New Town. Old sandstone structures and bazaars would be left behind, and flashy glass malls and high-rise buildings would come up instead.

The foundation stone for the New Town was laid in 1990. Since then it has been developed into Kabul's commercial and financial centre. Most of the trade that goes through between South Asia and Russia passes through this zone. The new Kabul rail and station are located in this part as well as the upcoming new airport. The crowd here was so incredibly different than the rest of the city. Yes, women did veil around here, but there were also several unveiled women walking around, quite a few among them looked European. You could tell the locals from the foreigners in this part of the city. Kabul really is a melting pot of world cultures, that has always been a part of its character since ages and even in this 21st century avatar it lives up to that quality.

Jaspreet took me to her favourite shopping mall, the Star Mall. She said this was her one stop shop for buying clothes and jewellery. I could understand why, a visitor would be spoiled for choice here with shops ranging from everyday needs and groceries to Gucci and Swarovski, all under one massive roof. Jaspreet and I had taken off our gags for a while, over here in the new town being ungagged under the veil was no problem, but we decided to keep the veils on. By now, I was actually getting more used to being veiled than not. While her dad went around seeing around a watch shop, Jaspreet took me to one of the somewhat lesser known stores of the mall.

The shop was down a hallway after a row of clothes shops. This was a speciality store for bondage equipment, Jaspreet always bought her own restriction measures, her father rarely ever got involved in this, finding the task a bit embarrassing. Whatever it be, it let Jaspreet an opportunity to indulge in one of her passions, bondage!

The shop was owned by a Persian, Rustom Amirzadeh, he is quite famous in fetish circles both in Persia and in Gandhara. Jaspreet and he were quite close friends too. The shop featured numerous implements, arm binders, gags and different kinds of tape. The shop also kept an asortment of fetish garments like zentai. Interestingly, he also kept a Persian ruband and chadar.

Earlier I had showed my eagerness to buy the muzzle gag that Jaspreet wore, she remembered my wish which is why she brought me here. Rustom had a wide variety of muzzle gags, some with balls inside and some without, he even had a collection of hoods. Jaspreet had one herself, out of curiosity I tried on the hood. He explained to me, that this was very popular in Iraq and Persia. In Iraq of course, this was mandatory. Something that was relatively cheap in Iraq was expensive in Gandhara, and most people couldn't afford this hood.

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In zentai and armbinder

On Jaspreet's insistence, I tried it out too. It was a bit suffocating but it did its work in completely silencing me. The hood also had a blindfold attached to it. It was a small preview of what to expect when I get to Iraq and Persia. After I had bought the muzzle Jaspreet decided to have some fun, and I tagged along with it. We changed from our clothes to don the zentai suits, Rustom helped me into the armbinder and strapped the muzzle gag on. Jaspreet then put on a chador and ruband over me and lastly a collar and leash around my neck. Once she put on her ruband and chador, we decided to take a walk and go right to the watch store where Jaspreet's father was.

I walked with small steps watching my every move. The arm binder was tight but not too uncomfortable, it did throw me a bit off balance. We walked right by Jaspreet's father, but he didn't notice us at all. Jaspreet went around looking at some of the watches here, while I kept my eye on her father. It was almost scandalous what we were doing, and it was totally thrilling!

I was completely under Jaspreet's control throughout this little escapade, I couldn't speak out because I was gagged, and I couldn't move around, the leash around my neck made sure I'd follow her lead. All the while, no one even knew it was us. After about half an hour, we headed back to the bondage shop. We got off from the costumes, I decided to buy a ruband and chador for myself as well for when I go to Persia.

Later on we did a bit more shopping and had ice cream to end the evening. When we went back, I decided to wear the new muzzle gag instead of the usual ballgag. It was much more comfortable, I think I will use this for the remainder of my trip from now on. Later in the night we prepared our plans for the next day. I will be going to Tehran next and take an evening flight from Kabul.

After we returned home Jaspreet talked about our little trick at the mall and we all shared a hearty laugh. Jaspreet cooked dinner that night and made typical home made Punjabi food. It was simple and tasty, the warmth and hospitality of this family had made me almost regret leaving their company, but I had plans to keep.

On Jaspreet's request I decided to make space for visiting one of Kabul's most famous Sikh gurudwara, the karte parwan gurudwara. The Sikh religion was founded on egalitarian ideals, against caste discrimination and gender discrimination. Women were inducted into the military regiments of the khalsa as well. However, over time Sikh society also embraced more conservative values, the gurudwara was reflective of this change. Women and men sat on different rows during the community kitchen called the 'langar'.

Most of the women entered with their burqas or veils on, but at the kitchen there was no hesitation in unveiling. We participated in the daily rituals and had the community meal, it was a very spiritual experience. I didn't know anyone in Persia earlier, and was planning on visiting with a guided tour, but Jaspreet's friend Rustom had a contact in Tehran. Once I had got her contact I changed my schedule. Being Rustom's contact, Jaspreet told me that she would likely be linked with the fetish scene there. Having gotten a bit of experience in bondage I wouldn't mind getting a bit more of it.

We walked around Babur's garden for the remainder of my time here, when the time came to catch my flight Jaspreet's father dropped me off at the airport. I gave my thanks to them and expressed my gratitude for their hospitality before I left. I was still dressed in the Gandhari burqa and sari just as I was when I started touring this city, but I had put on the muzzle gag instead of the ballgag, this was officially my new favourite gagging device here.

It would be a three and half hour long flight before we arrive in Tehran, and I can't wait to get on this next leg of my adventure.

 

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