History of Quetta or Kwatta’h

Kwatta’h (کوټه) in Pashto means ‘a mound, a heap, a pile of earth, stones, etc’. The town of Afghan district of Shal was called Kwattah from its being situated on a mound. English writers erroneously called the town Quetta. A story is told by Brahuis that that Ahmad Shah Abdali in conferring the district on the mother of Nasir Khan, Bibi Mariam, said “this is your shal,” i.e., your present.” This statement does not have any historical evidence. The historical incidences show that Shal is an ancient name, and the place was known by this name a thousand years ago. Geographers of the Islamic period have mentioned this region, which stretches from Mastang to Seyoon, as Walishtan.  Arab traveler Abu Abdullah Mohammad bin Maqdasi, writing in 898 AD, name the cities of Walishtan as Eishin (Pishin) Asbedja, Mastung, Shal, Sekeera, and Seywa (Siwi or Sibi). He repeats these names in page 297 of his book. Shal is also mentioned in ‘Tarikh-nama-i-Herat (written in 1318 AD) to be a place in Afghanistan in the narration of events of 1250 AD.  According to historian Allama Habibi,” It (Shal) is not a new name and the people of Kandahar, until the present time, call the fruit merchants of Quetta as Shaalkotyan. Kote is an old Pashto word which means a fortress and Shaal Kot means the fortress of Shaal”.

Shal (Quetta) in 16th century

Babur in his memoirs mention Shal and Mastung…. “Shah Beg (Arghun) went towards Shal and Mastung , Muqim towards Zamindawar”. …. (“Baburnama”, p-337, English translation by Annette.S.Beveridge)

Shah Beg Arghun (d. 1522) was expelled from Kandahar in 1517 and he established himself at Shal, and at Sibi (Siwi). From these bases, he conquered Sind in 1520.

Gulbadan-Begum (sister of Emperor Humayun) mentions Shal and Mastung in the biography Humayun-nama ;

“…. The emperor (Humayun) was stupefied and bewildered, and said: ‘What is to be done? where i am to go?’ They all consulted together. Tardi Muhammad Khan and Bairam Khan gave it as their opinion that it was impossible to decide to go anywhere but to the north and Shal-Mastun(g), the frontier of Qandahar. ‘There are many Afghans in those parts’, they said , ‘whom we shall draw over to our side.” (Humayun-nama, English translation by Anetta.S.Beveridge, p-165) 

Mughal badshah Humayaun bestowed the districts of Shal-Mastung on Lawang Khan, the Baloch, but who Lawang Khan was, history does not relate. Between 1556 and 1595, Kandahar and its dependencies remained under the Safavid kings of Persia and in the latter year were again acquired by the Mughals. [Baluchistan District Gazetteer Series: Quetta-Pishin, Page-33]

According to Ain-i-Akbari of Abu Fazal (written around 1590 AD), Shal & Mastung was dependency of Kandahar in later half of sixteenth century.  Shal had mud fort at that time and its lands were assessed at four and half tumans in money, 940 sheep and 780 kharwars in grain. The Kasi Afghans and Baluchs of Shal- Mastung had to furnish 1,000 horse and 1,000 foot.

Quetta in 17th century

In the reign of Shahjehan (1628-1655) Rajo and Zangi, Rind chiefs raided Shal by way of the Bolan. They were defeated by the Kasis after a severe engagement about three miles south of Quetta. Since then the small stream of Zangi Lora was given its name, as the action took place at its source when Zangi, the Rind chief, was killed. (Memoir on Kalat by G.P.Tate as quoted by A.Aziz Luni in ‘Afghans of the frontier passes’ p-228)

Quetta during the reign of Hotaks

During the lifetime of Shah Hussain Ghilzai (Reign 1725-1738) , Mihrab Khan, the Khan of Kalat, had encroached upon the Afghan district of Shal, or Shal Mastung and had possessed himself of its town and of its fort situated on high mound. Shah Hussain, the Ghilzai King of Kandahar, determined to recover it and reduce the rebellious Baluch to submission. Setting out from Kandahar, In the beginning of 1145 H (June or July 1733) , with a force composed of Afghans and Hazarah levies, he first crossed the Kojzakk Kotal and reached Pushang (Pishin) . He first crossed the Khojak Pass and reached Pushang or Pishin. The fort there again put into an efficient state of defense ; and the Ghilzai king left a garrison to hold it, after which he crossed Kotal-i-Gaz into Shal. The Baluchis retired into the fort on Kwatah. They sallied out under their leader Salar Khan; however, he was defeated. After another sally having again been unsuccessful some days after, the Baluchis under cover of night, evacuated the place and made for Mastung and Kalat. Shah Hussain occupied the fort of Shal with 500 Jazailchis and a body of 200 cavalry under Sher Dil Khan Babuzai and then pushed on to Mastung. (“Notes on Afghanistan and part of Baluchistan”, pp-611-612)

Quetta during the reign of Ahmad Shah Durrani

When Ahmad Shah Abdali became king, the valley of Shal formed a part of his dominions and the office of Arbab was conferred upon Muhammad Thalib Kasi. Mahbat Khan Brahui of Kalat killed him when he was at village Katir. News of the occurrence immediately was dispatched to Kandahar, and Ahmad Shah summoned Mahbat Khan to Kandahar to explain how he came to slay the Shah’s representative in Shal.  (Memoir on Kalat by G.P.Tate as quoted by A.Aziz Luni in ‘Afghans of the frontier passes’ p-229)  

Qazi Nur Muhammad Kalhora (a servant of Mir Nasir Khan) in his Jangnama contends that Ahmad Shah Abdali, on return from one of his Indian campaigns, on a written request from Mir Nasir Khan, granted Shal to and also sanction some cash awards for the Brahui Mujahids. Kasis say Shal always remained theirs. Compiler Hatu Ram, also, on page 624 of his Tarikh-i-Baluchistan (1907) quotes a Sanad granted by Ahmad Shah Abdali to Tarin Afghans in which the Shah incidentally acknowledged the fact that Shal valley belongs to Kasi Afghans. This the compiler considers an astonishing statement especially in view of the common impression that Ahmad Shah Abdali bestowed Shal on Naseer Khan Brahui. Hitu Ram therefore, conjectures that it is quite possible that the Shah subsequently restored Shal to Kasis because of his annoyance at the subsequent rebellious conduct of Mir Nasir Khan. Hitu Ram also quotes a document given to Kasis by Nasir Khan I in which the precise outer limits of the Shal valley (owned by Kasis) were defined. This shows that at least Abdali and Nasir Khan both considered the valley of Shal to be a legitimate possession of the Kasi Afghans. (Afghans of the frontier passes by A.Aziz Luni, p-229)

19th century descriptions of Quetta

Description of Quetta by Sir Keith Alexander Jackson who was a captain in the Fourth Light Dragoons in the British army, part of the Anglo-Indian force that set out for Afghanistan from British India in December 1838:

“Kwettah , the capital of the Beloochie province of Shawl, is a small town surrounded by a wall of mud; the houses are built of the same material, and are but few in number, the population being poor and inconsiderable. In the centre, is the citadel, where is the residence of Governor: it is built upon an elevation, overlooking the town, which may be about four hundred yards across. There are four gates in the wall surrounding it, which open on to a very luxuriant part of the valley. The situation of Khettah, from its proximity to the mountains, is grand and striking. It was from this part of the valley , during its occupation by the Bengal column by the army , that the Kakur (Kakar) freebooters carried off about fifty of the commiserate camels ; they were pursued by a party of troops of the 2nd light cavalry , and a company of native infantry, but without a success, as the booty had been driven into the mountains , and no trace of them could be discovered. They afterwards made another sally from their mountain fastness’s, and carried off some camel that were grazing, belonging to the troops. Sir John Keane and Shah Shoojah , on their arrival, shortly afterwards, made Kwettah their headquarters. The gardens surrounding the town are full of English flowers and fruits, and its vicinity abounds in the buttercup and cyanus, and many other varieties of English field vegetation. “

H.G.Raverty in his article “Kwatah (Quetta) and the Afghans”, published in Geographical Magazine, 1877 (p-286), writes.

“A series of letters, signed “T”, have lately appeared in Allen’s Indian Mail, on “Quetta”, so-called, which I have read with some interest, particularly No.IV, ; and, with your permission, I will say a few words on the same subject, which may tend to remove some misunderstanding and correct some errors.

It is not surprising that the writer of the letter in question has found a map of the boundaries of Afghanistan “in which Quetta and the whole valley of the Shahdezee Lora (Shawl) is included in Afghanistan; indeed, Mastoong is also coloured as belonging to the Afghans.” He, doubtless, is aware how the boundaries in Elphinstone’s are coloured. In that map “Quetta” and the “district of Shawl” is included in Afghanistan, together with part of the Dasht-i-Be-Daulat , as far south as Sar-i-Ab; but Mastang is included in Baluchistan. This is not to be wondered at, for more reasons than one. The tract in question is part of Afghanistan and is peopled by Afghan clans of the great tribe of Kakar, while south of Sar-i-Ab, the people are Baluchis.The chief town of the district of Shal is, correctly called Kwatah an Afghan word with the peculiar t (ټ), which sound is obtained by reverting the point of the tongue to the palate and is similar to the Sanskrit ta. The word signifies “a mound”, “a heap”, “a pile of earth, stones, or rocks”, as given in my Afghan dictionary; and anyone who has ever seen the place, or seen a view of it, must have perceived it, at a glance, the appropriateness of the name.

That Shal, or Kwatah, “has been included in Afghanistan” is not to be wondered at. The district, as noticed before, is peopled by Afghans; and the true south-eastern half or portion of the boundary of the Afghan country is clearly defined by a range of mountains somewhat in the shape of a bow, with the apex to the south, stretching from Dajal, near the Indus, in the southern Derah-jat, to Sar-i-Ab. All the people north of it are Afghans: all to the south Baluchis.

Elphinstone says, “Shawl is inhabited by a tribe of Caukers called Cassye (Kasi Kakars) ; but, as it was granted by Ahmed Shauh to Nausser Khaun , the Prince of Beloches, it is no longer to be considered as part of the Afghaun country.” This is not quite correct : the tract in question was only placed temporarily under the control of the Baluch chief by Ahmad Shah , as a vassal and tributary , who acknowledged the suzerainty of the Durrani empire ; and , up to the downfall of the Sadozi monarchs , that vassalage was observed , and a contingent of Baluch troops was furnished to the Durranis , to the number of 7500 horse and camel sawars , in time of war. The Wazir, Fath Khan, Barakzi, was the last who appears to have coerced the Baluchis for rebellion, when he restored Shah Mahmud to the throne, and when the Sadozi fell, and the Barakzi brothers divided their sovereign’s dominions among themselves, the Baluch chiefs seems to have gradually shaken off or weakened the bonds of their Afghan yoke, which the later Barakzis were never after inclined or able to enforce. “


‘Kwettah’, 1839 (c).


Quetta, view looking to the fort with hills in the background ,1880.  From Macnabb collection


Ploughing land, Quetta, c.1910. Old postcard


The Bruce road, Quetta, c.1920
Turkish Bath In Quetta ,1918


Fruit market at Quetta Bazaar in 1900. Photo by Fred Bremner


Brahui family, Quetta, c.1916



Gardens in summer, Quetta, 1920s. Postcard photo.



The High Street in Quetta, with a shop selling ‘American boots’, 1930s. Photo taken by an RAF pilot.





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