Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

General or a saint

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Khwas Khan, son of a handmaiden and a soldier of some rank, rose to eminence in the court of Sher Shah Suri, the ablest Pathan ever to rule anywhere in India. A man as proficient on the battlefield as he was in peacetime administration, Khwas Khan was highly trusted by the king. And so when it came time to build Sher Shah's grandest monument in Punjab, the fort of Rohtas near Jhelum, Khwas Khan was given the responsibility of the first administrator to oversee construction work. After completion, he governed over the Rohtas garrison as long as Sher Shah lived.

As one enters from the Khwas Khani gateway in the north, there is, just inside the massive timbers of the gate on the right side, a small enclosure. The legend on the wall of the tiny sarcophagus in the enclosed space says 'Hazrat Sakhi Khwas Khan Shah'. An utterly imbecile and vague legend current in the village of Rohtas has it that this generous (sakhi) Syed died in a battle between the Muslims and the Sikhs.

Not even those charlatans who have written hogwash that locally goes by the fancy name of books on Rohtas can tell you when this battle took place. But they recount with quasi-religious pride how the generous Khwas Khan, a resident of Rohtas, asked the Sikh general what he wanted and when told that it was the good man's head that the heathen Sikh coveted the most, immediately chopped it off (himself!) and handed it over. His body then took off and, having done a couple of salutary circles of the fort, flew off in an easterly direction. End of story. At least so far as Rohtas is concerned.

Now, as the rock pigeon flies the town of Lala Musa lies some twenty kilometres southeast of Rohtas. About eight or nine kilometres north of Lala Musa, by the red-tinged banks of the Bhimber River, there is a town called Khwaspur. Just outside the built-up area, there was a large pond where geese and ducks paddled. By this lovely setting there was a simple sarcophagus on a raised brick plinth. Back in 1991, it was rather beat-up and open to the sky. But ten years ago when I returned to Khwaspur, the grave had transformed into a proper shrine with a gaudy green dome. This was the burial of Sakhi Khwas Khan. Sadly, the pond that gave it charm had been filled in.

Local yarn is that many years ago ('even before our grandfathers') as village women filled their pitchers at a nearby well, a headless cadaver came flying through the air and landed where the tomb now stands. Surely this would have been a crash landing for the flying body had already lost its head. Be that as it may, the townspeople quickly decided that this miraculous arrival was surely a much gifted man of god and buried him where he had landed.

Over time, tomb worshippers decided this was the revered Sakhi Syed Khwas Khan Shah. Khwas Khan, a Pathan of humble birth, was a gifted administrator and a man of lofty character who rose to eminence under Sher Shah Suri. When the Suri king died, Khwas Khan objected to the ascension to the throne of Salim Shah aka Islam Shah Suri. He contended that the crown was the right of the elder Adil Shah who was sidelined by subterfuge by the wily Islam Shah. Islam Shah would have none of that and so a battle ensued in which Khwas Khan and his confederates were defeated and forced to fly for their lives.

Years before this battle, Taj Khan Kerani of the state of Sambhal in Kashmir had been favoured by the good Khwas Khan. As Kerani owed his life to the fugitive, and also because both were fellow Pathans, Khwas Khan sought refuge with him. But in the dark of a warm summer night in the year 1545, as Khwas Khan slept, the treacherous Kerani did his guest in and sent the head to Islam Shah who was then encamped near Amritsar. So much for the code of honour! Now, Khwaspur lies on the road coming down from Kashmir via Bhimber and Gujrat to Lahore.

Here, when he was Governor of Rohtas, Khwas Khan had ordered the renovation of an old caravanserai and well of which nothing remains today. Thereafter, the place came to be known by his name. That much is history. And before that I narrated common legends. Here is what never made it to the history books but what must have transpired. After he was dispatched, Khwas Khan's followers took his body to be given a proper burial and on their way paused at the well and inn that bore the man's name. People, ever curious, came around to inquire. Upon hearing it was Khwas Khan, they wanted to see for the last time the face of the good man who had endowed the inn and the well to their village. There was no face to see, they were told. Meanwhile, the body, beginning to rot in the stifling Punjabi heat of high summer, was interred temporarily.

Some years later, Khwas Khan's followers returned to remove his body to be buried in the mausoleum of Sher Shah Suri at Sahsaram. But local Muslims were already begetting sons and wealth by supplication at the grave. The body was removed regardless. And regardless, the locals rebuilt the empty grave and continued to bend their foreheads to the ground before it to reap the boons of belief.
Meanwhile, some ways off on the far bank of the Jhelum River rumour of the headless corpse of Khwas Khan had also reached Rohtas where the good man had been governor. Years, perhaps even a century or two, later when Khwas Khan was all but forgotten, the tale of this man's beheading was remembered and duly embellished with the ornament of the epic battle he had fought. There was also the tenuous memory of his connection with Rohtas. Forever in need of a tomb to genuflect to, the Muslims of Rohtas invented the story of the generous man who gave away his head in the Armageddon between Islam and Sikhism. To the inventors of the story, it did not matter a jot that such an event had never taken place.

Generous he indeed was to have built the inn and well at the village that bears his name to this day. But in their haste to deify the man, the promoters of Khwas Khan's legend disregarded history. It would have been fitting that Khwas Khan, rather than being turned into a demi-god, was remembered for what he was: in battle, an able general; in peace, a charitable administrator.

Odysseus Lahori one year ago: A Tale of three Castles

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:39,


At 20 July 2014 at 16:38, Blogger Waqas Sajjad said...

Salman sb, your articles are always, always a delight to read. You are an inspiration to me.

At 21 July 2014 at 13:58, Blogger Ashfaque Dasti said...

Beheading oneself is also illustrated in verses of Shah Bhitai, as Rai Diyach beheads himself on the tunes of Tambora to Beejal.

At 21 July 2014 at 22:10, Blogger Faisal said...

Always that caustic negativity,marring its brilliance.

At 22 July 2014 at 10:26, Anonymous Mahwish Shaukat said...

Despite who built it ..... There is a very Interesting Myth attached to this fort .... If somebody happen to visit that place, they just need to ask any locals there ... Though its funny but interesting to listen for once at least .

At 24 July 2014 at 10:50, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

I'll have to hear the myth from you sometime, Mahwish.


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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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