Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The Castle of Raja Ambarikha

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To the people of Amb, the hill to the north rising above the straggle of their houses is known as Mehal - The Palace. It is a distinction that comes from the distant, misty past when it was indeed a palace, no less than a thousand years ago. Even today there are extensive signs of ruined habitation in the flat area around the temples. Around the periphery of the hill are parts of the fortification wall and rectangular turrets constructed from large dressed blocks of limestone. One of these, at the northern edge of the built up area, is still called Rani wala Mehal - the Palace of the Queen.

Driving up the winding blacktop road from Quaidabad (Khushab district) to the village of Amb, one sees the spire of the temple rising thick and angular on the rising ground beyond the village. Close to, it sits imposingly on a plinth accessible by a flight of steps. At a height of almost eighteen metres through three storeys, the temple of Amb is the loftiest of all Hindu Shahya edifices in the Salt Range. It is imposing, too, because of the bulky pillars fronting it and giving it a clear Greco-Roman appearance. Made of the same pale gray limestone, the pillars appear to be part of the original building plan. Closer inspection, however, reveals the jagged remnants of a vaulted foyer that once afforded entry to the main chamber.

It is not known when the high vault of the foyer collapsed. But the absence of debris (which was understandably removed to build the houses of the village), even at the time of the first visit by an archeologist in the second decade of the 20th century, points to an early date of damage. Even then it did not take experts long to perceive that with the front gone, the building, greatly destabilised as it was, faced the threat of collapse. And so, in order to steady the towering edifice the two chunky pillars were added.

The remaining three facades are richly adorned in the style of other Salt Range temples. Just above plinth level there is a staggered arrangement of square columns with stylised capitals. Between these are smaller circular columns with similar capitals flanking a large niche with a cinquefoil head. As in all other Salt Range temples, these niches are repetitions of the main temple and were very likely once adorned with images of gods. Above this another band of the same height with slightly smaller but similarly stylised columns and capitals. Above it, rising to the pinnacle, is an intricate and beautiful interwoven profusion of miniature Buddhist stupas and horseshoe patterns.

Some two hundred yards to the west of this impressive building is a smaller temple facing eastward. With its intact vaulted foyer with cinquefoil head and stylised decorations on the facades, this building reflects the complete, undamaged form of the larger temple. The interior, as in the other building, is bare. There is neither an icon nor the pedestal where the icon would once have stood.

On his visit in the 1860s, Alexander Cunningham was informed of the discovery, some years previously, of an inscribed stone slab. The slab, it was said, had been removed to the office of the Deputy Commissioner of Leiah. But even at that early date inquiry failed to turn up the purported tablet. Cunningham was, however, informed that a pundit had deciphered the inscription as saying that the temples and the city were founded by and named after Raja Ambarikha in the 1st century AD.

According to Cunningham Ambarikha, the son of Mandhatari, was an early Surajbansi Rajput hero. On the other hand, James Tod in his Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan, lists one called Ambarisha fortieth in the line of Surajbansi princes. Both these chronologies would place Ambarisha or Ambarikha some fifteen centuries before the Christian era.

The truth is that Amb, like the other Hindu Shahya temples of the Salt Range, was built after the annexation of this part of the country by the great Kashmirian conqueror Durlabhaka Pratapaditya in the 7th century AD. Even then, unfortunately for the chronology given on the purported stone slab, one infallible dating element in the building shows that the temples of Amb were not built until about the end of the 10th century. The cinquefoil arch that repeatedly appears in the niches on the facades as well as on the entrance of the smaller temple - as surely as it would have crowned the now obliterated entrance vault of the larger building - is posterior to the trefoil arch seen at Malot. This element, the natural outcome of experimentation with embellishment and elaboration, followed in the course of development of the earlier trefoil arch and marks all latter Hindu Shahya buildings in the this area.

Local histories and legends do not recall the name of any heroic king that could possibly have been the eponymous founder of Amb about the beginning of the 11th century - the actual date of founding of this temple and fortress complex. Consequently, the crumbling battlements and temples of Amb are simply known today as The Palace by the people of the village these ruins have overseen from the time that the first man came to live in this tiny hamlet.

Excerpted from The Salt Range and the Potohar Plateau - the book is available at at Sang e Meel (042-3722-0100), Lahore

Odysseus Lahori: Pakistan - a free country

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 14 July 2014 at 14:22, Blogger Lahoremassagist said...

Another piece of hidden history and crumbling heritage. Nice sir.

At 14 July 2014 at 15:50, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Nayyar.

At 12 December 2014 at 02:07, Blogger Unknown said...

About a month ago while I was heading towards Kalabagh I decided to take Uchali-Quaidabad Road and passed through Amb Saheef, as the locals call it, and saw these temples/fort. I was very disappointed to see the state in which these historic monuments are: shambles!! Sad state of affairs!! cannot anything be done to save our pre-Islamic heritage, particularity the monuments under discussion?!

At 12 December 2014 at 02:10, Blogger Unknown said...

Also, thanks for such an enlightening piece on the history of this region! I decided to go on a road-trip to Kalabagh from Lahore after getting inspired by one of your article on Salt Range. Thanks again!


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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