Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Jehangir on the highroad

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Emperor Jehangir’s life was an endless succession of hunting expeditions all over the empire and those yearly trips at the beginning of each summer to escape to Kashmir from the furnace heat of Lahore and the return journey in September. In between were those tedious interludes of ruling the vast empire of India. On one of those trips in mid-April 1607, Jehangir favoured us, by way of his diary, with an account of his passage through present-day Jhelum district.

Having sojourned briefly in Rohtas and then travelled up to Tilla Jogian, he tells us of his journey thence to a place he calls Bhakra which evidently is Bhakrala on the Grand Trunk Road near Sohawa. It is a right light-hearted and delightful account of a king in vernal rapture.
In the Gakkhar tongue bhakra is a jungle. The jungle was composed of clusters of flowers, white and scentless. I came the whole way from Tilla to Bhakra in the middle of the river-bed, which had running water in it, with oleander flowers of the colour of peach blossoms. In Hindustan this plant is always in full bloom. There was much of it on the banks of this river. The horsemen and men on foot who were with me were told to put bunches of the flowers on their heads, and whoever did not do so had his turban taken off; a wonderful flower-bed was produced.
Now, the river that Jehangir followed was, without doubt, the Kahan that laps the walls of Rohtas. As for the white unscented flowers, there appears to be a minor mistake. The only shrub with white flowers that grows here and blooms in such abundance in April as the emperor saw, is the bhekar (Adhatoda vasica). The normally observant Jehangir probably did not pause to smell the flowers or he would have marvelled at the mildly unpleasant scent the bhekar exudes. He might then have commented on how such a disagreeable odour could draw the vast numbers of honey-bees that mob the plant in flower. The oleander apparently grew in good numbers along the Kahan at that time. Today one finds it occurring only occasionally and that also in the vicinity of habitation.

As Jehangir and his retinue descended from the cool heights of Tilla Jogian, they would have crossed the Kahan not many miles to the south of Rohtas. Consequently, although the king does not mention it, he might have paused at the halting place just across the Kahan River from Rohtas. But then again, he may not have because then (1607) the serai may not have existed. This is just another one of those places that history passed by for no travellers’ or historical account notices it. Consequently, we do not even know what it must have been called when it was first raised. In the absence of a detailed investigation the theories variously assign this mysterious monument to any period from Akbar’s reign right down to the early years of Shah Jehan’s.

Locals call it Rajo Pind and tell you that its other name is Serai Jhando after a certain Mai Jhando also known as Rajo. Interestingly, the Settlement Record of 1880 alters Rajo’s sex and details the man’s family tree right down to the village lumbardar of the year of the settlement. Consequently, it is easy to discover Rajo Arain’s descendents in the village today. The Jhando of legend, it is related, (also an Arain) came from the east country to stake out her claim in this place at some unknown time in the past. All those who live within (owing to growing population now also without) the high walls of what was once a fortified caravanserai* are said to be her descendents. Other than this vague ‘history’ nothing else is known of this not so primordial Eve who gave the village its name. The ‘intellectuals’ among Jhando’s purported descendents believe that their village with its high walls was the jail where Sher Shah Suri incarcerated the intractable Gakkhars.

As one approaches from the Kahan, the lofty gate-house affording entrance to the broad enceinte within fortress-like walls appears very impressive. For the untrained eye, this might indeed be the entrance to a jailhouse, just as the surviving cubicles running along the north wall were prison cells. Forlorn and decrepit, the rooms are all but ruined. The flat-domed roofs of only two cells are still holding out. Long ago, travellers pausing for the night would have rented this accommodation. The travelling merchant William Finch would have slept in one of these rooms on his journey from Lahore to Kabul in 1609 – that is if this serai was then in existence. Although he mentions ‘Loure Rotas’ as one of the stages on his itinerary, it is obvious that ordinary travellers not being permitted inside the fort, Finch would have sought accommodation in the serai across the Kahan that came to be known after Mai Jhando.

It was perhaps below the station of a king to take notice of a caravanserai that Jehangir omitted mentioning it. This omission gives rise to the notion that the serai may not have existed at that time. Although no detailed study has been carried out, the architecture is characteristic of early the Mughal period and it may be that the omission is because the king skirted it by several miles. But as he progressed upstream along the Kahan and before he entered the thickets of bhekar and oleander, he would have paused to refresh himself at the baoli (stepped well) just outside Khukha village. At about six kilometres from Jhando’s caravanserai, this would have been an easy stage meant only for travellers to refresh themselves with a drink of water. No hostelry existed here. Just the well with the broad flight of steps leading down to the level of the water where heat-exhausted travellers could repose in cool darkness. Fitted with a pumping set, the Khukha baoli makes for the water supply of several nearby villages today.

Common lore assigns this well, once again wrongly, to Sher Shah Suri. The charisma of the ablest Pakhtun ruler ever the subcontinent was to know continued to expand even after his passing away. Consequently, it was quickly forgotten that Pakhtun sway did not go far beyond the crenulated walls of Rohtas. There, beyond the Kahan floodplain in the narrow defiles of the Potohar Plateau, the defiant Gakkhars were the masters. As for the archaeologists, they are again uncertain: like the case of the caravanserai of Jhando, this stepped well could have been built any time between 1556 and the 1620s during the reigns of either Akbar or his son Jehangir.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 20 July 2013 at 17:28, Anonymous Haroon Jalil on Twitter said...

[Image] seems like a start of old tunnel or deep well.

At 20 July 2013 at 17:30, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

These are the stairs leading down into a well. These stepped wells or baolis (in Urdu/Punjabi) are wrongly attributed to Sher Shah. They were in use even as far back as the 12th century, possibly earlier. This one is very likely Akbari or Jehangiri.


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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days