Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Hundred Flags

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For a sleepy little village with a population no more than four hundred – and that also tucked away in a remote corner of Punjab, Sojhanda – ‘Hundred Flags,’ is an evocative name. Lying in a bowl smack on the Sindhu River about twenty-five kilometres due west of the town of Attock, the village is surrounded by the dark sanatha (Dodonea viscosa) covered slopes of the Kala Chitta hills on three sides. To the west flows the mighty Sindhu. Though locals have no tradition regarding the name, I imagine it was here in some forgotten age that a renegade chieftain or a freebooter on the run might have staked out a claim, very likely for a brief while. In my imagination I see him marking out his claim with a profusion of flags on the surrounding slopes and giving rise to the name.


What we know for a certainty is that the year 1221 saw a great flurry of activity as Jalal ud Din Khwarazm found refuge in these hills. The epic battle, in which Chengez Khan the Mongol defeated the Khwarazmian, was fought near the village of Nizampur across the river in Nowshera district. There the defeated Muslim king shamefully abandoned his family to the savagery of the Mongols and fled across the river to hide in the gorges of the Kala Chitta waiting for stragglers from the battlefield to join him. Thereafter he took another ancient road that follows the river southward.

The one hundred and forty kilometre stretch of river in Attock district has at least ten ferries that have been in use from times immemorial. Being in the vicinity of the wild and broken Kala Chitta hills that have long been a favourite haunt of fugitive outlaws, these ferries have recently been closed in order to prevent free passage between Punjab and the Frontier Province. While these ferries are barely known outside the district, that of Bagh Nilab features repeatedly in history from the 11th century onwards as an alternate to the crossing at Hund that operates to this day some forty kilometres north of Nilab. From each one of these ferries, there ran a connecting road to the major highways in the Salt Range to the east.

One of the now disused ferries was that of Sojhanda. From remote antiquity trade, culture and religion crossing the river at this point meandered through the narrow gorges of the Kala Chitta to the village of Chhoi (on the Attock-Basal highroad) whence a traveller could head either southeast for Kallar Kahar, the great junction of ancient highways, or east for Taxila. On this little explored ancient route from Sojhanda to Chhoi, I was repeatedly told on two previous visits, lay Rani ka Kot – the Fort of the Rani. And so my ever-smiling and talkative friend Rehmat Khan Khattak of Sojhanda having placed me in the care of the guide Amir Mohammed walked us to the edge of the village to bid us Godspeed as we set out on the long walk to Rani ka Kot.

Past the village of Ghora Mar (another evocative name) we left the tarmac road and struck out in a south-easterly direction. At the hamlet of Gariala we stopped to talk to two elderly men. Yes, this village did indeed lie on an ancient and busy highroad, said one. Beyond the village in the area called Bazaar Kandao there were, until not many years ago, ruins of an ancient bazaar and some houses. That, he said, was where the caravans tarried. We hurried through the village with the grizzled pair in tow but I was warned of disappointment. Recently the ruined foundations, said the man, had all been levelled and building material removed to make room for agriculture.

Stories of buried treasures abounded. One of the patriarchs said he had spent all his life digging because he believed some of the passing caravans would surely have interred their valuables during an attack by roving bandits that infested these hills. All he could show for his labours were some badly worn copper coins, three inexpensive earrings and a few beads. He had found an anvil once. A real hefty piece, he said, somewhat bigger than all modern anvils that he now saw. This he had sold to an iron-monger in Attock. Arrow and spearheads turned up every now and then, all of which were discarded as useless.

The legend I had heard two years ago was related afresh: the ranis of the fort, whose raja’s name is not given, and who seem to come from an unusual ancient feminist world, sent out a plundering expedition against the township of Gariala. The expedition had the express orders of keeping the flag aloft. Any lowering of it would be taken as a sign of defeat by the ranis watching from their hilltop fortress who, rather than face a life of defeat and ignominy, would then fling themselves to their deaths below.

Though the expedition from Rani ka Kot was successful, the commander merely in order to test if the ranis would actually carry out their suicidal pledge lowered the flag. And sure enough the ranis one after the other started to jump off the sheerest part of the fortress. A relay set across the intervening gorges screamed out the beginning of the catastrophe and the prank-pulling commander hastily raised the flag just in time to prevent the remainder from leaping to their deaths as well. Amir Mohammed did not know how the prankster general was punished after his return to base.

Like all such legends this too was made out as the good fight between the Hindu ranis and the Muslim folk of Gariala. Another version, however, talks of just one rani, Kokla by name, who was contemporaneous with Raja Rasalu, the great demon-slaying hero of Punjabi legends known to have lived in the 1st century BCE. In this one, the queen did not jump to her death but had a passionate affair with Rasalu.

Beyond Gariala Amir Mohammed pointed out the ‘five-foot road’ with its berms clearly marked out by dressed stones. That, he said, had been built by the angrez. I knew otherwise. But the collective memory of this area extends only as far as British Raj and everything is attributed to the angrez. He could not imagine that this road had been in use perhaps a millennium before the Vikings first contemplated sailing across the North Sea to the land of the Angles who painted themselves blue to got to war. He said his grandfather had spoken of having worked on the building of this road. This time-frame and the name five-foot road probably mean that some zealous Deputy Commissioner of the Raj ordered improvement of the path.

Through thickly growing sanatha, we marched on going gradually higher and higher. At one point the five-foot road bore off to the left while we took the narrow path to the right. The sanatha was now so thick that it all but obliterated the path and brushed against our faces. About an hour and a half out of Gariala, we made it to the top of a narrow pass and Amir pointed out the hill of the fortress rising sharply in front. If anything, Rani ka Kot perched on the crest of the hill was an eagle’s eyrie of a castle. The final two hundred metres of the slope facing us rose to the crest in a straight wall devoid of vegetation and I could almost see the disconsolate ranis leaping off to their deaths.

The five-foot road passes under the northern flank of the hill of the fortress, while we took the easier route up by the path on the south. Amir Khan said we would come athwart of the fortification wall – or whatever remained of it. This because they built, so he explained, ‘the fortification only where assault was possible.’ There was therefore no fortification above the sheer, hard-to-climb slopes, he said.

Two and a half hours after setting out of Gariala we were on the 1050 metre high hill within the walls of Rani ka Kot. Built by piling up dressed and undressed stones, without the use of mortar, the walls are now less than half a metre high and no more than fifty centimetres wide. But clearly they snaked around the highest flat part of the wind-swept hill enclosing no less than four square kilometres. The views all around were stupendous: to the north and west the sandy banks of the Sindhu could be seen; on all other sides the hills fell away to broken, torrent-scoured land sprinkled with tiny hamlets. An invader, whichever directions he approached from, would have been spotted a full day before he could assault Rani ka Kot.

There are some other foundations as well marking living quarters and the ground is liberally strewn with pottery shards most of which are the neck and lip of the traditional water pitcher. Some of these I inspected in the hope of telltale dating features. But my untrained eye saw none and I opted against taking any of them home to be checked out by archaeologist friends in Lahore – a decision that I was to rue later. My escort said coins were occasionally found on this hill. But sadly the people of Gariala seemed incapable of comprehending the importance of such finds because through indifference the coins were lost again.

Amir asked if the fortress could have been built by the angrez. I told him the angrez was yet a savage when this fortress was guarding the highroad that passed under its northern flank. Clearly that was its main function. I told him too that caravans benighted on these forested slopes would have stopped here for the night. And that the coins they occasionally found were perhaps reminders of those sojourners. Of course Rani ka Kot also doubled as a safe haven for some long-forgotten king who would have repaired to its vantage in the event of impending attack. But certainly it was not a residential fort, as they believed. Clearly the reason was the scarcity of water.

When did all that happen? They had no coins from Rani ka Kot to show. And those found at Gariala were all badly worn. Moreover, no archaeologist has thus far visited this site. Therefore there is no expert opinion. But as the fort lies at heart of an ancient route, I presume it has been there for a very long time. The question of how long can only be answered when the coins and pottery of Rani ka Kot are preserved and passed on to the experts.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,

9 Comments:

At September 29, 2013 at 1:18 PM, Blogger Ayesha Ali said...

Lovely piece sir - as always !

 
At September 29, 2013 at 1:19 PM, Blogger Ayesha Ali said...

Lovely!

 
At September 29, 2013 at 1:35 PM, Anonymous Saima Ashraf said...

Salman would rightly be called Ibn e Batoota of 21st century in the seasons to come. A remarkable narrative of the areas he goes through.

 
At September 30, 2013 at 10:26 AM, Blogger Muhammad Sajid said...

Thank A Lot Sir,
But i Need specific History about Sojhanda & Ghoramar.
If Possible please tell me aobut this.

 
At September 30, 2013 at 10:43 AM, Blogger Muhammad Sajid said...

Dear Sir,
Thank A Lot
Sir if you have specific history of Sojhanda and Ghoramar then Please upload it or tell me any reference .


Regards
Sajid Khan

 
At October 4, 2013 at 8:52 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you Ayesha and Saima. Sajid, do you expect Sojhanda, an insignificant little village, to have a glorious history?

 
At July 15, 2015 at 1:04 AM, Blogger Mureed Khan said...

A good read indeed! Do you have any information about indigenous population of these area of kala chitta?

 
At February 3, 2017 at 1:19 PM, Blogger Tariq Amir said...

As usual extraordinary piece of work. But not a single picture of the Rani ka Kot and no maps, indicating the location. Sir, with a little more input, it could have been a much useful and interesting article.

 
At February 3, 2017 at 8:24 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Tariq Amir Sahib, please get my book Sea Monsters and the Sun God for the full story and images.

 

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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

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