Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Sarai Chhimba

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Modern roads all over the world follow alignments that go back thousands of years. Likewise, between Lahore and Multan, National Highway 5 (N-5), follows an ancient line along which humans travelled, certainly as far back as the time when Harappa flourished 6,000 years ago. On this road, so far as I know, there are no notable remains going back any more than 500 years. But surely, lying under the cultivated fields and the foundations of modern housing, there would be some remarkable finds waiting to be uncovered. On this road, one monument dating to the reign of Akbar the Great, is Sarai Chhimba.

Now, in the 16th century, Multan and Lahore were both capitals of important provinces of the Empire. In order to facilitate the frequent traffic of important officials passing between the two cities, the emperor ordered caravanserais at a distance of roughly every 35 km — the length of an easy day’s journey. Sarai Chhimba, lying about 25 km south of Thokar Niaz Beg in south Lahore, was one.

Now, in the Middle Ages, sarais in the subcontinent were usually fortified. Consequently, Rawat (south of Rawalpindi) and Sarai Kharbuza (to the north), are erroneously believed to be fortresses rather than what they really are. Similarly, Rajo Pind across the Kahan River from Rohtas Fort is said to be a jailhouse, according to locals.

If it hadn’t been for the name Sarai Chhimba, this, too, would have been a fortress. The bulky gatehouse of its main entrance facing east, the massive peripheral wall with its vaulted basements and the impressive corner turrets have the very air of an impregnable fortress. The style is clearly reminiscent of the 16th century. The residential rooms for travellers are lined along the walls. The large compound was where their riding and pack animals were tethered.

The east gateway is the only way in or out, the one in the west is used as a house. The broad enceinte, taken over by poorly built houses, is a veritable village. But the worst part is that even the medieval walls themselves are now used as housing: the cavernous vaulted chambers below the perimeter wall are all homes. The residents have extensively damaged the ancient masonry to make new doorways or fit electric lights, fans and what have you.

In effect, Sarai Chhimba is no longer an historical monument. It is just another old building waiting to be vandalised by everyone. The residents of Sarai Chhimba have taken to destroying the edifice. Along the ramparts, there were once eight beautiful mock domelets, only decorative in function. Seeing them, I knew these peculiarly shaped domes had provided the model for the dome of the 18th century Sikh Guru Kotha in Wazirabad.

One resident was in the process of tearing down one of the four remaining domelets in March 2009. Upon inquiry, it turned out that he lived in this part of the sarai and the ‘useless’ thing stood in the way of putting charpoys on the roof! He was not bothered that the building was, by law, a protected monument which could not be altered in any way.

His reaction to my admonitions was not untypical. “All those important people in Islamabad were busy hacking away at the whole country; the sky wouldn’t fall if I pulled down one useless thing on my property.”

I also learned that most of the residents of the sarai are ‘newcomers’ of 1947. That, I suppose, takes away every sense of belonging to the land. First, their ancestors supposedly migrated from Arabia, Persia or Central Asia and then they from somewhere in India. They, therefore, do not belong to this land. So damn the land that is now their home. And with it, everything that belongs to it.

In January 2010, I was again in my ancestral village Uggi (Jalandhar). Our host Bakhshish Singh took us to see ‘Jahangir’. He said it was a fort, but it turned out to be a sarai. The building was under restoration. I noticed that they were using lime mortar, not cement as in Pakistan. Bakhshish was outraged by my suggestion that the fortified sarai be turned into a village as we do in Pakistan!


posted by Salman Rashid @ 08:00,


At 28 August 2014 at 09:34, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

Sir I am really thankful to you for providing some thing for relief daily,since now a days nothing is available on Media except frustration. I every day in the morning waiet for your article rather than NEWS paper

At 29 August 2014 at 10:33, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Athar. I am very glad to be able to provide some relief in these "interesting times".


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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

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