Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

A Tale of three Castles

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On February 17, 1519 Babur, who was later to found the Mughal empire, crossed the Sindhu for the first time with his eyes on the rich and fertile lands of the district of Bhera on the east bank of the Jhelum. Two days later, he dismounted on the bank of the Soan River where Langar Khan of the Salt Range Janjuas brought him a message of peace from his uncle Malik Hast (Asad), the chief of the territory that Babur was camping in. The emissary was well received and on the Mughal’s bidding, he galloped off to fetch the Janjua chieftain who arrived with a gift of a horse in mail. And so friendship between a Janjua of the Soan River valley and a Mughal of Ferghana was forged.

The next afternoon (February 20th), Babur tarried beside ‘densely growing corn’ in the vicinity of Kallar Kahar Lake and promptly fell in love with this ‘charming place with good air’. The lake, he writes in his memoir, fed by run-off from the hills and a spring on its western side, was ‘some six miles round’. On its shores he laid out the foundations of the first ever Mughal garden of the subcontinent: the Bagh-e-Safa. Promising to give out more details concerning this garden further on in the memoirs, Babur somehow forgot to return to the subject. Therefore, and also because no trace of any construction remains, it is not known what civil works, if any, were undertaken. The fruit trees along the southwestern shore of the lake still mark Babur’s Bagh-e-Safa, and a rough stone pedestal with a prepared surface even today goes by the name of ‘Takht-e-Babri’ - the Throne of Babur.

With his rear secured by the allegiance of the Janjuas, Babur marched on to take Bhera where he remained until his return to Kallar Kahar on March 13th. Now, the Janjuas had long been sworn enemies of the turbulent Gakkhars of the Potohar Plateau and as Babur reposed in that scenic setting on that bracing March day, the Janjua chieftain approached him with a petition: ‘Hati is the bad man round-about; he it is robs on the roads; he it is brings men to ruin; he ought either to be driven out from these parts, or to be severely punished.’ Ever the battle-ready general, Babur viewed the petition sympathetically and with a guide of the Gujar clan called Saroop provided by Malik Hast, set out to chastise the Gakkhars.

According to Babur’s memoir, the territory around modern Rawalpindi and Islamabad was divided between the Gakkhars Tatar and his nephew Hati; the former in possession of Pharwala with the latter in an unnamed place farther to the north. Some time before Babur’s arrival on the scene, Tatar Khan had aligned himself with Daulat Khan Lodhi, the Pathan governor of Lahore against which Hati had serious reservations. As was the wont of that age, the younger man, finding a suitable occasion, murdered his uncle and broke off relations with the Pathans of Lahore. Thereafter, in order to assert his defiance, he set about harrying the surrounding tribes for plunder and tribute. Varying fortune attended his struggles against the Janjuas of the Salt Range, until he eventually decimated a large body of these Rajput warriors and established himself as paramount power in the Potohar region. This defeat rankled the Janjuas and, upon the arrival on the scene of the superior arms of the Mughals, they made the judicious move of allying themselves with the foreigners in order to garner support against the warlike Gakkhars.

The origin and history of the Gakkhars is one of the abiding enigmas of the Potohar Plateau. According to their own sources they are descendants of Sultan Kaigohar of the Kayanian dynasty of ancient Iran, whose name was supposedly corrupted over the centuries to render the tribal name of Gakkhar. This dynasty came at the close of the heroic age (6th century BC) of ancient Iran and its history passes down to us confounded by veils of myth and legend, nevertheless of the nine Kayanian kings, history does not name one as Kaigohar. This mythical monarch is made out to be the conqueror of Badakhshan and Tibet from where his descendants entered Kashmir. After several generations had ruled there, a rebellion drove them out forcing them to take refuge in Afghanistan. From there they re-entered the subcontinent with the armies of Mahmud Ghaznavi. With his leave, so the legend goes on, they settled in the country between the Sindhu and the Jhelum. However, the Gakkhars claim of having converted to Islam as early as the 8th century, while yet ruling over Kashmir, gives the lie to their tradition, for there was no Muslim dynasty in control of that country during early medieval times.

Mohammed Qasim Ferishta commends the indomitable courage and fighting skills of the Gakkhars when they very nearly routed the Ghaznavid army in 1008. That year, according to the Tarikh-e-Ferishta, the Gakkhars threw in their lot with the vast confederacy of Rajput warriors from all over India gathered under Raja Anandpal of Lahore, in an attempt to repulse once and for all the raiders from the Afghan highlands. In the thick of the battle thirty thousand ‘infidel Gakkhars’ with heads and feet bare, bristling with weapons of every manner, went charging through the Muslim infantry right into the heart of the cavalry. There these doughty warriors set upon man and mount alike and within no time at all had cut down ‘three or four thousand’ of the Muslims. So great was the vigour of the Gakkhar footmen that Mahmud fearing total annihilation of his army withdrew in order to disengage for the day. But then fortune intervened: a flaming naphtha arrow set Anandpal’s howdah alight; the elephant panicked and fled, trampling its own army. This was the sign for general rout.

Without going into the why and wherefore of the obsession of subcontinental Muslims to claim a western (Arab or Iranian) origin from where they arrived duly converted to Islam, it needs only be said that this fixation, born in the reign of Emperor Akbar, has murdered the art of objective historiography in this part of the world. The story of the Gakkhars’ entry into Punjab with the Ghaznavids therefore is pure fiction. Though the eponymous Kayanian monarch Kaigohar never lived, there is certainly the possibility of a minor chieftain, or a soldier of fortune of that name, deserting his country to establish himself in northern Punjab in the remote past. The subsequent glory and the glamour about the person is merely the accretion of the creative passage of time. That having been said, there are no real grounds to doubt the Gakkhar claim of having lived in northern Punjab for a very long time.

Whatever the truth may be about the Gakkhars, that spring morning in the year 1519, it was for their stronghold that Babur marched through the day and the night, pausing only briefly to feed the horses and the army. After a short pre-dawn rest on March 15th, the Mughals rode again until breakfast time. Saroop Gujar would then have reported that they were in the vicinity of the Gakkhar stronghold, for the army was ordered to don their armour. Now they rode with increased pace and presently ‘the blackness of Parhala (sic) showed itself from 2 miles off’. Indeed, even today as one heads out beyond the village of Aliot the lichen blackened walls of Pharwala catch the eye every time one reaches the peak of the folded ridges.

As he approached the fort, Babur deputed his right wing to the east to secure the gateway now called Bagh Wala Gate - after an orchard whose only remnants are a couple of fruit trees. Perhaps Saroop Gujar once again came into play advising this expedient to prevent a Gakkhar sally through the narrow gorge on that side, or to block a possible escape route in the event of the fort being taken. The left wing and the centre Babur sent ‘straight for the fort’ across the trickle of a tributary of the Soan and up the short slope to Hathi (Elephant) Gate. But before giving an account of the action Babur favours us with a brief description of the approach and the fort itself:
Parhala stands amongst ravines. It has two roads; one, by which we came, leads to it from the south-east, goes along the top of ravines and on either hand has hollows worn out by the torrents. A mile from Parhala this road, in four or five places before it reaches the Gate, becomes a one-man road with a ravine falling from its either side; there for more than an arrow’s flight men must ride in single file. The other road comes from the north-west; it gets up to Parhala by the trough of a valley and it also is a one-man road. There is no other road on any side. Parhala though without breast-work or battlement, has no assailable place, its sides shooting perpendicularly down for 7, 8, 10 yards.
The van of the Mughal left wing negotiated the narrow gorge to storm up the rocky slope to the gate. The redoubtable Gakkhars were ready and waiting. There behind the rampart was Hati Gakkhar himself, a man reportedly of towering stature and immense strength. With him were forty men in full armour upon mailed horses and a sizable body of infantry. The clash was brief and the Mughal rout must have been somewhat graceless, for Babur glosses it over. There are no details, no admiration for the audacity of the defenders or of their skill as archers and swordsmen - only the words that they forced their ‘assailants to retire’.

The reserve was called forward and its commander, a certain Dost Beg, made a ‘strong attack’ beating back the Gakkhars. The resistance was once again stout, and surely some hours went by before the Mughals could force entry into Pharwala, for now Babur begrudgingly acknowledges the wide renown of Hati’s courage. As the Mughals stormed into the fort, Hati Gakkhar and his retinue made away by the northern gate now called Bohri Wala Gate (Gate of the Banyan, after the spreading tree). Mughal troopers sped in pursuit, for Babur wanted his adversary alive, but the Gakkhars simply melted into that tortuous, narrow gorge that leads away northwest from Bohri Wala Gate. Meanwhile, Babur rode up to the house of the late Tatar Khan situated inside the fort, and though he does not mention it, he surely would have met the youthful Sarang and Adam Khan, sons of the late chieftain.

Babur spent the next few days exploring along the upper reaches of the Soan River where he was one day approached by Parbat Khan, a kinsman of Hati Gakkhar. The emissary arrived with tribute that included an accoutered horse. This overture of peace was accepted and Babur reciprocated with a dress of honour for Parbat Khan and ‘letters of encouragement for Hati’. A week later (March 24th), while Babur was camped at the junction of the rivers Kabul and Sindhu on his return journey to Kabul, Parbat Khan Gakkhar returned with professions of friendship and the gift of yet another horse from Hati. This time Babur returned the envoy with a sword, a dress of honour and another letter assuring the fugitive chieftain of his friendship. And so peace was made.

Hati did not get to enjoy the fruits of this friendship for long, however. Shortly afterwards he was poisoned by Sarang Khan to avenge the needless murder of his father, Tatar, and when Babur returned to India in December 1525 to lay the foundation of the Mughal empire, Sarang Khan was already established as the Gakkhar chieftain. With his brother Adam he visited the Mughal camp to offer allegiance. They were well received and though Babur may or may not have tarried at Pharwala, it was through Gakkhar territory by the road less travelled that he journeyed en route to Delhi. In his train rode Sarang and Adam who remained for some time in the capital where they were treated generously and returned with confirmation of mastery over the Potohar country.

Five years later, almost to the day, Babur was on his death bed. Within ten years his weak and inept son Humayun had been dispossessed of the kingdom his father had so painstakingly carved out on the Indian subcontinent. The usurper was a Pathan who in his hour of adversity had been showered with favours by Babur: Farid Khan styled Sher Khan or, after he had made himself master of Babur’s empire, Sher Shah of the House of Sur.

To explore the nature of Babur’s relations with the Pathans and his attitude towards them, one must go back to the beginning of the 16th century. Having first made contact with them in 1505, Babur was quick to note that this was an untrustworthy, perfidious lot rendered recalcitrant by harshness and unmanageable by goodness. He thus resorted to a diplomatic policy of conciliation and repression. Employment with the Mughal army was opened to the Pathans; matrimonial alliances were made and if the hand of friendship was rejected Babur took the severest action to subjugate contumacious Pathan chiefs. He discovered, too, the ease with which one tribal leader could be played against the other, and by this stratagem allied with the Dilazaks to defeat the Yusufzais in 1519. Thereafter both the Dilazaks and the Yusufzais were employed against other Pathans.

In 1520, upon advancing as far as Sialkot, Babur found the intramural friction between Ibrahim Lodhi, the Sultan who ruled from Delhi, and Daulat Khan Lodhi, the governor of Lahore, entirely to his advantage. With his eyes on taking Delhi, Babur allied with the elderly Daulat Khan, but even before he could execute whatever plans he had, news that Shah Beg Arghun was advancing to Kandhar forced Babur to withdraw to Afghanistan. Three years later Daulat Khan dispatched his son Dilawar to Kabul with a petition for Babur to deliver India from the tyranny and oppression of Ibrahim Lodhi. Well aware of Pathan faithlessness by now, Babur asked the envoy why, after eating the salt of their kinsman the Lodhi sovereign for so long, was Daulat Khan’s family willing to align itself with him. The cause, rejoined the young emissary, was the despotic Sultan’s inhumanity towards his subjects and assured Babur that the Pathans were ready to do his bidding and that for his return ‘they were on the anxious watch’. In reality, however, the crafty Daulat Khan, realising the Mughal threat to his own power, merely wanted to pit Babur against the Delhi Sultan in the hope of both adversaries suitably weakening themselves to afford Daulat Khan the easy rise to supreme power in the subcontinent. The astute judge of men that he was, Babur knew then that the Pathan, unacquainted with the meaning of loyalty, would each be a tool against his own brother.

If yet more proof of Pathan perfidy was required, it came when, having taken Punjab (January 1524), Babur received advice from Daulat Khan (absent elsewhere) to attack Multan. However, Dilawar intervened and informed Babur that his father’s counsel was based on treachery - the senior Lodhi’s idea was to divide and weaken the Mughal force with a view to attacking and decimating them. Daulat Khan was arrested, but subsequently released whereupon he fled to the hills to await his chance of re-taking Punjab. Meanwhile, Babur was forced by circumstances to return yet again to Kabul and we now learn that his distrust of the loyalty and capability of the Pathans was total, for though he retained the services of Dilawar Khan Lodhi, he left Punjab garrisoned by his own troops under Mughal officers.

Daulat Khan was a powerful foe, however. Before the year 1524 was out he had emerged from hiding to seize his son, displace Alam Khan the governor of Dipalpur, and even disperse the army of Ibrahim Lodhi. Discomfited, Alam Khan hurried to Kabul to beg for Babur’s intervention again. If the throne of Delhi be given him, Alam Khan assured Babur, he would be perfectly happy to let the Mughals control the whole of Punjab. Surely Babur would have looked upon this agriculturally rich province as his stepping stone to Delhi and the rest of India. And so he did not forego the opportunity. The Lodhi was dispatched with a Mughal troop and letters for Mughal officers in Punjab to cooperate with him. Alam Khan never got this cooperation however, yet he rushed headlong into a clash with the Sultan only to be ignominiously routed.

In December 1525, Babur returned to India for the last and final time. But before he could go on to fight the decisive battle on the field of Panipat, he had to dislodge the faithless Daulat Khan from the fort of Malot (or Malkot, in the vicinity of Batala in India). Only weeks earlier, upon receiving intelligence of the Mughal advance, the man who in a show of bravado had strutted about with two swords girt to his waist, sent out his grandson with a petition. Babur does not reveal the essence of this application, only his contempt for the Pathan for he returned the emissary with ‘promise mingled with threat, kindness with menace’. Two days later Daulat Khan sued for peace in person and Babur had him brought into his presence with his swords hanging around his neck in the ultimate sign of disgrace. To compound the indignity, the deceitful Pathan was ordered to kneel as Babur further castigated him.

After the Panipat victory (April 1526), Babur continued to profess friendship with the Pathans purely with the purpose of undermining the great influence they enjoyed in Punjab and Delhi, as well as, to prevent them from joining Rana Sanga. A year later Junaid Barlas, one of Babur’s powerful and trusted officers, presented to him a young energetic Pathan as suitable for service in the Mughal court. His name was Farid Khan of the Suri family who had, some years earlier, succeeded his father in the service of the Nuhani Pathans of Bihar. The man called himself Sher Khan for, it was claimed, he had once killed a tiger in order to save the life of the Nuhani king. Once a favourite of the court of Bihar, this purported tiger killer had been banished from his country by the intrigues of his half brothers and was wandering friendless across the land. The Barlas nobleman having chanced upon him was impressed by the obvious administrative and martial skills of Sher Khan and intervened to re-install him in his ancestral lands. This won him the man’s gratitude. Thereafter Sher Khan quickly worked his way up in favour and eventually requested his mentor to present him in the court at Agra.

At the Mughal court, Babur having marked Sher Khan as ‘a man of sense and spirit’ holding the promise of future greatness, favoured him with the grant of jagirs. To repay this generosity, the Pathan meanwhile conspired with his fellows to expel the Mughals from India. However, in view of Babur’s power and authority these suggestions were only met with utter ridicule. Not long afterwards, fearing that his conspiracies had been reported to Babur, Sher Khan bolted. Back in the safety of Bihar, he deceitfully wrote to Junaid Barlas that his hasty retreat from the Mughal court was not on account of disaffection, but because of the advance of his enemies towards his jagirs, and begged his patron to assure the king of his unflinching loyalty. Perceiving these to be but empty words, the Barlas nobleman conveyed his displeasure to the fickle Pathan. Having thus lost his prospect of favour in the Mughal court, Sher Khan made a volte-face and contrived a reconciliation with Sultan Mohammed Nuhani, the king of Bihar. He was appointed the atalik (tutor and protector) of Jalal Khan, the heir apparent.

Shortly afterwards the Sultan died. The son, still but a child, was crowned as Sultan Jalal ud Din with Sher Khan appointed the Prime Minister, to manage the affairs of Bihar in conjunction with the boy king’s mother Bibi Dudu. Outstanding administrator that he was, Sher Khan handled the affairs of Bihar well, but his energy and boundless ambition soon made his long term plans of gaining total supremacy obvious to the king. Intrigues began against the man. But Sher Khan was nobody’s fool and he played upon the immature mind of the boy king by offering him two choices: either he be permitted to leave the service honourably, or be given absolute power to handle the affairs of State. As he had envisaged, he got the latter.

Thereafter it did not take long for young Jalal ud Din to be completely smothered by the overbearing attitude of his atalik. The boy bolted, landing straight in the lap of the Pathan king of Bengal who himself dreaded the growing power of Sher Khan. A battle ensued in which the genius of Sher Khan prevailed making him the absolute master of Bihar. Meanwhile, in the west, the defeat of Rana Sanga at the hands of Babur indirectly led to the formation of an anti-Mughal confederacy under Sultan Mahmud Lodhi (a brother of the late Sultan Ibrahim of Delhi) that reportedly fielded some one hundred thousand fighting men. Knowing full well that alone he could not expel the Mughals, Sher Khan aligned himself with this new power. Later events show that the astute planner was prepared to tackle only one stumbling block at a time on his way to supreme power in India. The Pathans could be dealt with when the time was ripe, meanwhile, the Pathan confederacy was to be used to eliminate the powerful Mughals. This, Sher Khan knew, was his surest path to ultimate power in India.

In February 1529, as he marched east to quell this uprising, Babur gave the first ever evidence of hurt at the ceaseless fickleness of Sher Khan when he wrote, ‘Sher Khan Sur whom I had favoured last year with the gift of several parganas and had left in charge of this neighbourhood, had joined these [rebellious] Afghans’. The rebellion was quashed and the first thing the cunning Sher Khan did was to tender submission to Babur. Strangely, he was yet again pardoned and installed in his jagir. By the time Babur died in December 1530, Sher Khan had increased his power considerably.

Within six months the milksop Humayun, his mind forever befuddled with opium, provided incentive to the eastern Pathans to rise in revolt under the banner of Mahmud Lodhi. Sher Khan did not hesitate to join in. Humayun marched out to do battle and while the armies camped facing each other, the treacherous Sher Khan sent a secret message to the Mughal Commander-in-Chief. He was, he wrote, still a loyal servant of the House of Babur, and when the engagement began, he would quietly withdraw his forces so that the Lodhi’s defeat became certain. Sher Khan did indeed withdraw and the Lodhis were defeated - entirely to the long term benefit of none other but Sher Khan. Satisfied with his victory Humayun withdrew to Agra. It was only in 1532 when Humayun, disturbed by the rapidly increasing power of Sher Khan, tried to take possession of his jagirs, that he got the first inkling of the Pathan’s ultimate designs. The next few years saw Sher Khan rising from strength to strength, as the inept Humayun increasingly yielded to the fog of opium induced euphoria.

When it was almost too late, Humayun shook himself out of sloth to spend most of 1537 and part of the following year campaigning in the east, where he was largely successful as Sher Khan withdrew towards Bengal. But indolence got the better of the worthless man yet again and while still in Bihar he shut himself away with his wine and opium. The histories are vague about the time Humayun spent in the east, but we do know that in those days of endless revellry all news, no matter how important and pressing, was kept from the king’s ears by his closest aides lest he be distressed. Meanwhile, Sher Khan was assiduously applied to the task of regaining territory that he had ceded in Bihar. Operations were cut short when in the latter half of 1538 news of the revolt of Hindal Mirza, Humayun’s brother, arrived from Agra. The feckless king hurried back and in the vacuum Sher Khan became master of the east with the title of Sher Shah Suri.

Hoping to regain the lost provinces, Humayun again marched east in April 1539. On the intervention of a religious teacher, however, peace was negotiated with certain concessions to Sher Shah. As the Pathan removed some of his troops to Bengal, the imperial camp withdrew its outposts and took an air of general merrymaking for there were few Mughal soldiers prepared to fight under their ineffectual king. In a surprise enveloping move, Sher Shah whose only policy was breach of faith, and the more atrocious the better, brought two wings of his army into the rear of the Mughal camp during the dark of night. As dawn lit the eastern horizon on that humid June day, the imperial army did not even get time to ‘buckle their saddles or to close their cuirasses’ when the tempest broke. The sun had not yet reached its zenith when over twelve thousand Mughal troops lay dead on the battlefield of Chausa. The greater number of these were the finest that the emperor could muster. To compound the ignominy of the humiliating rout, the queen Haji Begum fell into the hands of the Pathan. Humayun fled, in his confusion even managing to fall of his horse in the middle of the Ganga. Nizam Saka, the boatman who rescued the king, later became famous in history for being granted the throne for half a day by Humayun.

A sorry Humayun returned to Agra. There the scant joy in his life came from the reconciliation with his rebellious brothers Kamran and Hindal. This peace, temporary as it was, did not occur because the princes thought unity against a common enemy paramount, but because they saw that in the presence of Sher Shah the removal of Humayun did not necessarily mean the enthronement of one or the other of them. In the months that followed, the lack of cordiality between the brothers showed through clearly as they discussed and rejected the various options to overcome the Pathans. In the beginning of 1540 news arrived that Sher Shah, having cleared Bengal of Mughal troops, was advancing westward at the head of a formidable army. Humayun prepared to take the field, but Kamran Mirza, still professing fidelity, fell seriously ill and decided to withdraw with his army to the better climes of Kabul. Humayun pleaded with him to leave his better officers behind, but the wily Kamran doing just the opposite lured away many of the king’s own men.

In another bid to dislodge the Pathans, Humayun, deserted by Kamran, led an army consumed by disaffection to Kanauj on the banks of the Ganga where Sher Shah’s Pathans waited on the far bank. Thus they lay about for a whole month with the imperial army being slowly dissipated by desertions. Early in May, not yet a full eleven months after the debacle of Chausa, when the Mughals did cross over to give battle, the defeat was foregone. So disgraceful was the rout that the worthy Mirza Haider Dughlat, a cousin of Babur’s, who had taken the field in command of a division, wrote in his Tarikh e Rashidi:
So before the enemy had discharged an arrow, the whole army was scattered and defeated. I had estimated the Chagahatai army as numbering 40,000 men, excluding the camp-followers and workmen. They fled before 10,000 men, and Sher Khan gained a victory, while the Chaghatais were defeated on the battle-field, where not a man, either friend or foe, was wounded. Not a gun was fired and the chariots were useless.
In the ensuing scramble many a man ‘of illustrious name’, too panic stricken to remove his mail, perished in the Ganga. Humayun, who ‘at noon had seventeen thousand artisans in his establishments, was mounted upon a wretched spavined horse, with both his head and feet bare’, just made it across the river with his life. At Agra he found little comfort, for Sher Shah followed close behind. Humayun fled first to Delhi and then Lahore, but weakened by the desertion of his brothers, he turned to Sindh. There he remained two years and a half before eventually seeking asylum with the Safavid king of Iran.

Meanwhile, immediately after dislodging Humayun at Kanauj, Sher Shah Suri embarked upon a brilliant career of conquest and occupation. Advancing across Punjab, he camped at Bhera on the left bank of the Jhelum and sent a command to the Gakkhar brothers Sarang and Adam Khan, who were harrying the Pathans passing through their territory, to submit to his authority. Twenty years earlier these men had aligned themselves with Babur, it was now against their salt to offer allegiance to a man who, having once been favoured by their late friend, was fighting against his son. Sarang Khan replied defiantly with a pair of maces and some quivers containing arrows together with the message that as warriors that was all the tribute they could offer. Gakkhar lore adds a pair of lion cubs to this offering and the taunt: ‘You call yourself “Sher”, so I send you these cubs that you try to imbibe the qualities of these noble creatures. It is doubtful, but you may yet acquire some of their character.’

Sher Shah taking up the challenge advanced to the vicinity of Pharwala, from where he sent out strongly armed troops to reduce the Gakkhars. But these were the sons of men who had very nearly routed the Ghaznavid army five hundred years earlier. Now with great courage they beat back the Pathan attack, even taking many of them to be enslaved. Back in Bhera, Sher Shah held council and proposed making all out war against the Gakkhars, but those of his commanders who were better acquainted with the tenacity of these hillmen, advised against it. To subdue such a people holding out in such difficult terrain, it would be better, they suggested, to possess the country by means of a road guarded by strong permanent garrisons. The king, it was suggested, could then not only successfully bridle the plundering raids of the Gakkhars, but would also have easy access into their country when he willed. Such then was the beginning of a war that was to last fifteen years.

A survey was undertaken for a suitable site on the borders of Gakkhar country and a straight-sided low hill, washed by the Kahan river was selected in the ‘vicinity of Tilla Balnath’. Here, by the side of the road less travelled between Rawalpindi and Jhelum, not 15 kilometres north of the latter, he ordered the construction of a fortress of singular strength that would overawe any aggressor. It was to be called Rohtas, after the stronghold in Bengal that he had acquired only two years earlier - not by force of arms but by inglorious stratagem. Making his general Haibat Khan Niazi guardian of northwest Punjab (administration of the province was given to his favourite, Khowas Khan), Sher Shah appointed his revenue minister, Toder Mal Khatri, as his chief civil engineer for Rohtas. Leaving him a plentiful supply of funds and instructions to complete the construction most expediently, Sher Shah returned to quell a revolt in Bengal.

Work on Rohtas began in 1541. It paid well to labour for the Pathans and the surrounding populace turned out to benefit from the new bounty. As the massive walls of Rohtas began to rise above the muddy waters of the Kahan, Gakkhar chiefs, admirably resolute in their loyalty to the son of Babur, proclaimed that banishment would be the lot of any one of their tribe that assisted in the construction. Then, defying the redoubtable Niazi and his crack troops, they made periodic incursions to drive away all other builders as well, until Toder Mal was hard put to recruit stone masons and labourers. Work came to a standstill. The engineer wrote to apprise his king of the state of affairs, and back came the response: ‘I selected you from among many, to execute this work, thinking you a man of sense and experience. You have been supplied with money. Go on, at any expense, to fulfill my object, and draw on my treasury for the amount, whatever it may be.’

And so, it is said, Todar Mal offered one gold ashrafi for each stone that was laid, raising the cost of Rohtas to a phenomenal three and a half million rupees. But even before the fort could be completed, Sher Shah was cut down in his spectacular rise to total mastery of India. On May 24, 1545, five years almost to the day he had defeated Humayun at Kanauj, Sher Shah was actively commanding operations directly under the walls of the fort of Kalinjer (Rajasthan), when an explosive mining device, rebounding off the fortification, blew up the powder magazine. The warrior king, standing nearby, was fatally burnt. Ordering the accident to be concealed from his troops, lest they lose heart, he continued to guide operations with remarkable self control until, just as the sun was going down, word was brought to him of the fall of Kalinjer. The overly ambitious Farid Khan offered thanks to his Lord and quietly gave up the ghost after he had ruled over India a full five years and two months styled as Sher Shah Suri.

His sons did no better than the sons of Babur. Adil Khan, the eldest, being far away in Ranthambore, the second son, Jalal Khan immediately seized the opportunity and styling himself Sultan Islam Shah (a.k.a. Salim Shah) declared himself king. Subsequently he contrived to seduce his profligate elder brother to abdicate in his favour, a move that resulted in estranging some of the senior most court officials who believed it was the hereditary right of the eldest to rule. A division took place with some of the finest officers of Sher Shah’s court, including the brilliant and highly principled Khowas Khan and the able Haibat Khan Niazi, going over to the irresolute Adil Khan. Battles followed in which Islam Shah prevailed and the defeated Pathans dispersed to various parts of Kashmir and northern Punjab with the Niazis seeking asylum in Pharwala.

In 1548, Islam Shah advanced to Rohtas in order to expedite the building of the stronghold. The determined Gakkhars who had meanwhile never been idle, began their incursions with renewed vigour. Not a day went by without a Gakkhar sortie against Rohtas and not a night when the Pathans could sleep peacefully without fear of a raid. At will did the plucky Gakkhars under the brothers Sarang and Adam Khan assault the Pathans, carrying off many of them, including women and children, to be sold into slavery. Two years of incessant warfare followed. Eventually, wearying of endless strife and uncertainty, Sarang Khan sent his son Kamal to the Pathan king to sue for peace, but against all mores of diplomacy, the emissary was imprisoned.

Few details are known of the battles that followed this perfidy. All that passes down to us is the falling in the field of Sarang Khan and sixteen of his purported twenty two sons. Adam Khan, who took up the banner, sued once again for peace which was granted on the condition that the Pathans in asylum at Pharwala be banished. And so, after years of strife, peace returned to the Potohar.

The empire that the able Sher Shah had carved out in his few short years, was meanwhile falling to pieces under the cruel and oppressive Islam Shah. Discontent was rising amongst the soldiery that was almost two years in arrears of salary. Courtiers and noblemen were outraged by the scandalous dishonouring of those Pathan generals and their families who had espoused the cause of Islam Shah’s elder brother. Far away, under the shadow of the Hindu Kush Mountains, Humayun, aware of the decay of the Suri empire, knew it was time to reclaim his father’s kingdom.

However, he had first to displace his troublesome brother Kamran Mirza from Kabul. The action was swift and decisive. Kamran, routed from his haven, fled eastward to seek assistance from Islam Shah (then encamped at Bin, between Sialkot and Jummu), who received the prince with a marked show of discourtesy, even of contempt. In desperation the Mirza, disguising himself as a woman, set out for the west in the company of a Pathan horse dealer. On the passage through the country of the Gakkhars, Kamran disclosed his identity to Adam Khan. Still unflinchingly loyal to Humayun, whom he considered the rightful heir of Babur’s kingdom, the Gakkhar chieftain placed Kamran under open arrest and sent out a message to Humayun who was then still beyond the Sindhu.

Humayun hurried to Pharwala where his once recalcitrant brother was brought into his presence utterly subdued and repentent. Courtiers suggested capital punishment for the prince’s wrong doings, but at length it was decided to blind Kamran in order to make him ineffectual for public life. One wonders if Humayun would have considered, even fleetingly, Babur’s death bed injunction: ‘Do naught against your brothers, even though they may deserve it.’ And so one warm, humid day in August of the year 1553, as he kept the fast of the month of Ramzan, Kamran Mirza was approached by the executioners led by Humayun’s superintendent of police, Ghulam Ali, the Six Fingered One. The Mirza struggled, and as he opened his mouth to protest, it was stuffed with a handkerchief held ready. Then, he was pinned roughly on the ground and Ghulam Ali pierced his eyes with the lancet, ‘fifty times more or less.’ Surely the last view the unhappy man’s eyes saw were the dark, lichen coated walls of Pharwala snaking over the verdant hills under a sky piled up with storm clouds.

Subsequently Humayun mounted an expedition against the Salt Range Janjuas and, having defeated them, placed Adam Khan Gakkhar in charge of the territory. However, a rebellion within the Mughal army, forced him to return once again to Kabul. Another year and a half was to go by, before the total breakdown of the Suri empire would instill sufficient confidence in Humayun and his followers to make a final bid for the re-conquest of India.

As the Mughal army crossed the Sindhu yet again on the second day of the year 1555, Tatar Khan Kasi, the Pathan governor of Rohtas, fled at the head of his army. Coming by way of Pharwala, Humayun found the magnificent Rohtas fort deserted and quickly took possession. From then on his march to Delhi, which he re-took towards the end of July, was marked by triumph. But he did not live long to enjoy the fruits of his labours. On the twentieth day of January the following year, Humayun tripped as he was coming down from the roof top library in his palace. Mortally hurt he died four days later to make way for the comparatively stable reign of Akbar.

And so Pharwala and Rohtas were confined to the backwaters of history. The former, never again to feature in any major event in the annals of northern Punjab, continued to be the seat of the Potohar Gakkhars who fought out their petty intrigues and family disputes in and around it. The fact that this family continued to remain faithful to the Mughals, displaced the importance of Rohtas as a frontier garrison on the very threshold of a turbulent enemy. The only purpose it ever served thereafter was as camp ground for the Mughals on their seasonal transhumance between sweltering Punjab and the cool climes of Kashmir or Kabul and back again. Almost three centuries were to pass before Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the greatest Punjabi king since Porus who had defied Alexander the Great, was to be reduced to tears within the broad enceinte of Rohtas. The occasion in April 1837 was the arrival of news of the death of his favourite general, Hari Singh Nalwa, in the distant fort of Jamrud at the foot of the Khyber Pass. From then on Rohtas remained no more than an impressive tourist attraction. And a monument of labour wasted.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 21 July 2013 at 00:17, Anonymous محمد ریاض شاہد said...

wonderful , just few days ago while travelling on GT Road i was wondering if could read the complete history of this magnificent fort.Thank you.

At 3 August 2013 at 22:42, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thankyou sir for sharing this wonderful history. Also it has been said by locals that Ghakkars were actually not one tribe but it constituted many tribes of North Punjab including Awans, Rajas, Kayanis, Khokhars etc and these tribes still live there and interestingly these are the same tribes who are majorly represented in Pakistan Army and even in Ranjit Singh Army they accompanied him to conquer Peshawar and still you can find Awans and Kayanis in Peshwar as well.
Potohar region has one of the richest history and we should own our history.

At 7 August 2013 at 12:46, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

I never reflected on whether the Gakkhars could have been a generic term for a composite group. But you do have a very valid point. Needs to be looked into.

At 4 March 2014 at 18:03, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ghakkars became war-like due to pashtun incursions from across the indus. Many ghakkar women and childern were captured in such raids and sold into slavery

At 2 June 2014 at 12:32, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The gakhars have always been a brave, courageous and Martial people.Read about raja (ajmal) mal khan janjua and his janjua and Ghakkar allied armies that brought the sultanates of the time to a standstill and reconquered most of parts that they had lost earlier.The sultanate would always engage these groups diplomatically and focus on CO-RULE alongside them (one of the reasons that the Sialkot fort was re- given to Janjuas was to get assistance from them in defeating the mongols by the Delhi Sultanate).Ghakkars have always been extremely brave and martial people. As for their war against janjua, people forget that for the longest period of time, THEY WERE ALLIES. In fact Hathi khan had broken peace accords between Gakkhar and the Janjua chieftains who treated each other as BROTHERS. They fought more battles alongside each other than between them. As for their fights alongside the mughals AGAINST other tribes predominantly other Turko-mongols contesting the seat at Kabul , Ghakkars and Janjuas helped the Mughals consolidate most of region to the West of Indus right uptil Kabul (read about the battles against Mirza Hakim and recalcitrant tribes) . Ghakkars and Janjuas were the staunchest allies of the Mughals and they served in Battles of Panipat, battle of Khanwa and siege of rana sanga. Sangar khan janjua that Mr. Rashid mentioned got martyred at the siege of Rana Sanga (according to Baburnama). His descendant Malik Darwesh khan Janjua was one of Akbar's most celebrated general and helped to capture mirza hakim. Same is the case for the descendants of early Gakhars who had sided with Babur instead of fighting against him. Their children served in high military positions through the course of Mughal empire. Mughal empire was successful since day one as it won the trust of these and other tribes , not just because of the manpower they provided in Battles of Panipat, Khanwa and Sanga siege but because they treated it as something their own since day one.

p.s: Here's the interesting quote from Baburnama where he describes Sankar khan Janjua passing away at Rana Sanga siege, from the W.M thackston translation (page 377):

"The defenders came out quite foolishly far from the fortress, and the enemy overwhelmed them and put them to flight. Sankar Khan Janjua was killed there"

At 12 July 2014 at 20:42, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"ghakkars became war-like due to pashtun incursions from across the indus. Many ghakkar women and childern were captured in such raids and sold into slavery".

Jealous much? Because why would you make factually incorrect fairy tales otherwise? You're probably jealous because your couldn't muster up as much courage as the Gakhars in their history.

At 28 July 2015 at 10:23, Blogger Baz gul said...

What was Mansab, rank of Darvesh Khan Janjua in Mughal nobility?......never heard of him being a famous general. Kindly mention his mansab, number of sowars under him

At 29 July 2015 at 09:22, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Baz Gul, thee is no mention of any Darvesh Janjua in this story. Where do you get the name? Which Mughal king did he serve?

At 7 August 2015 at 02:59, Blogger Asfand Yar Kiani said...

Kindly if u explain it has been said by which locals? 😀😀

At 7 August 2015 at 03:03, Blogger Asfand Yar Kiani said...

Hahhaha. Why everybody is so much jealous from GAKHARS 😀. Its bcoz they screwed the expeditions of the rebellious sher shah against them?? GAKHARS are a warlike,resiliant and trustworthy clan as history reflects. So plz have a heart people who are jealous from GAKHARS.thanks

At 7 August 2015 at 11:47, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

What are you talking about, Asfand Yar?

At 7 August 2015 at 19:52, Blogger Asfand Yar Kiani said...

Sir actually my comment was on an anonymous in reply to his comment. It was not a comment regarding the article...

At 9 August 2015 at 14:04, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Asfand Yar, History must be looked at logically and intelligently. Without prejudice for self or against the other. This is impossible in Pakistan. By the way, I am neither Gakkhar nor Pakhtun. I can look in from outside and see the real thing.

At 17 December 2015 at 03:18, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am Gakhar from HAZARA and ashamed to learn that Ghakars are Punjabi. I rather call myself a pukhtoon than Punjabi.


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