Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Medieval Rohri

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Sukkur Rohri mention in Alexander's Campaign [Video] 

Sometime last year Nadeem emailed from England a photograph. He wanted to know what it was. I wrote back to tell him this was on the banks of the Sindhu River in the fair city of Rohri a group of graves known as Sut Bhen – Seven Sisters. Nadeem wrote back to say he had to see this group of remarkable graves for himself. I also told him that of all the cities in Pakistan, it is Rohri and Rohri alone that still preserved its medieval air.

Two years earlier we had travelled together in Afghanistan and fetched up in Herat. Both having read Robert Byron’s beautiful, beautiful 1920s travel book The Road to Oxiana, our minds were flooded with images of that city. We were not disappointed and we absolutely agreed with Byron when he said Herat was the only city in Asia without an inferiority complex. If I am not wrong, while walking the wide avenues of that magical city or exploring the crumbling hulk of the old fort or the grand mosque so lovingly being restored, I had said to Nadeem that we in the Land of the Sindhu River too had a city to match Herat. It was Rohri. And if Herat is the city to die for, Rohri is even more so.

And so like mad dogs (neither being an Englishman), Nadeem and I took the Karachi Express aka Night Coach to Rohri in the middle of May with the temperature in Lahore touching the forty degree-mark. As we waited on the platform (the train, shame Pakistan Railways, originating in Lahore was two and half hours late), he told me that the army officer husband of a cousin of his was surprised that he wanted to see Rohri. ‘There’s nothing to see in Rohri!’ Nadeem had been told by one uninformed fauji.

We shared our sleeping compartment with two ISI types who denied having anything to do with the army (liars!). And we had good-looking Usman Chauhan, a student of the University of Engineering and Technology at Lahore. And there was the quiet Baloch from Lyari who simply regarded us with a benign smile never joining in the banter. The minute he entered and sat down, Usman began to blab. He had been in the army to study engineering, but he was too bright to remain there and so he decided to quit. Now he was top of the class at UET and there was no one in the world that could solve integral calculus faster than him. As if we had doubted his prowess in algebra, he challenged Nadeem and me to find a man in the world who could better him at calculus.

Within five minutes I had had enough of him. But for Nadeem, everyone is material for he is Nadeem Aslam, the author of two acclaimed novels. Maps for Lost Lovers about honour killing in the British Pakistani was long listed for the Booker Prize and, going by Maps, the forthcoming one, The Wasted Vigil, on Afghanistan (for which we went a-travelling that land), is sure to bag the prize. And so Nadeem stared wide-eyed, as if the man had just sprouted horns.

Then Usman told us how the evil West was prejudiced against us Muslims and was planning to lay us low. I told him we didn’t need any outside help, not in this case at least. To highlight his argument he said his ‘very educated’ grandfather had been denied a job in British India when every other Hindu was getting a job. I told him his grandfather was a good for nothing nalaeq because my own grandfather had served honourably as a civil surgeon and my father was an officer in the North Western Railway while my uncle a doctor in pre-partition India. That well and truly shut the man up.

The Karachi Express once proudly began as a non-stop train between Karachi and Lahore, doing the nearly thirteen hundred-kilometre journey in fourteen hours. But like all things in the country, faster than it completed that journey, it went down the tube of rot. Like all other trains, it now takes nearly thirty hours for this journey. With Usman having shut up, Mohsin (the ISI man-in-denial) said that non-stop pronounced naan staap in Punjabi had a different connotation: the train stopped at every tanoor where they were baking naans. Sure enough, we had barely crossed Lahore cantonment station when we stopped and right outside our window was a naan shop! Thereafter we stopped at every other naan shop until we had gained another hour and a half till we got to Rohri. Gone are the days when trains actually ‘made up’ for lost time; now they only add to the delay.

I was returning to Rohri after eight years. Every time I return somewhere in Pakistan, I have been disappointed. I have seen pristine alpine forests devastated, picturesque cities (like Shikarpur and Bhera) laid low by greedy property sharks and antique-collectors, temples and old baradaris destroyed by treasure-seekers, high altitude camp grounds turned into rubbish dumps and fresh, clear water rivers into sewers. And so as we rode the rickshaw from the Circuit House to downtown Sukkur, I was apprehensive.

But the tower of Mir Masum Shah was as I had left it years ago. The stubby tower built in the last decade of the 16th century, is eighty-four feet tall, has a girth of equal feet at the base and eighty-four steps to lead you to the balcony on top. When I first saw it a quarter century ago, it had the iron cage all around the top which it still retains. At that time word was that heart-broken lovers routinely flung themselves from the balcony to a gruesome death below. At some point, some thoughtful city administrator had the cage installed to preclude such fatal adventures. But even then no one could tell me when this act of compassion had been done.

We walked to the nearby Clock Tower. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the encroachments that all but hid the lower part of this crumbling Raj building had been removed. I sent up a silent prayer for the good man who would have taken the step. Otherwise, nothing had changed and my sprits rose: perhaps Rohri too will still hold its old air.

Over the Lansdowne Bridge it was into Rohri. English language newspaper reporters, pretending to know the language but never having read anything in their lives have some rather picturesque names for this marvellous piece of 1880s railway engineering. It has variously been called Lance Down, Lanus Down and Lands Don. There was once even a spelling that would make my editor blush so I omit that one. Opened in March 1889, it made way for trains from upcountry India to reach Quetta without the hassle of disembarking at Rohri, taking the ferry across the river to Sukkur to entrain again.

It served well and proper for a good seventy-three years when, in 1962, rail traffic was transferred to a new steel arch bridge right next to the old one. Lansdowne then became a road bridge. Five generations have gone by since the Lansdowne Bridge spanned the river and save the informed natives of Sukkur and Rohri, few know that the span crosses two channels with an island in between.

Since the early years of the 13th century, when an earthquake shifted the course of the river from a channel six kilometres east of Rohri to make it flow between the rocky outcroppings of Sukkur and Rohri, the tear drop-shaped Bhukkur had been an island. At the narrow northern end sat the massive walls of Bhukkur fort while the broader south end was a holy site. From the early Middle Ages, they who held the fort of Bhukkur were the undisputed masters of upper Sindh. Many great yarns revolve around this magical place, yarns of intrigue, murder and buried treasures, but I have two favourites and they need be told.

The year was 1222 when the shameless coward Jalaluddin Khwarazm having been routed from the field of battle by Chengez Khan sought to take Sindh. Bhukkur had for some time firmly been in the hands of Nasiruddin Kabacha. Alarmed by word of the impending arrival of Jalaluddin, Kabacha loaded up his treasures in a boat and sought to make off for Thatta in the south. In his frenzy, he somehow upset his boat which went down treasure and all. The maginificient Sindhu, unrestrained by these accursed dams, was a river among rivers; flowing deep and fast, its eddies rarely giving up what they claimed. And so Kabacha’s treasure lies at the murky bottom of the river somewhere near the south end of Bhukkur.

Some years before Charles Napier took Sindh, the British Indian government needed to use the Sindhu River as a conduit for transporting military goods for the First Afghan War. So they signed the well-known Tripartite Treaty with the three ruling families of Sindh. Among other clauses, one stated that the British will not take possession of any fortress on either bank of the Sindhu. The ink had barely dried on the document when the Brits quickly seized Bhukkur. The ruling Talpurs protested. But, said the wily Brits, Bhukkur, being an island, lies on neither bank and therefore is outside the clauses of the treaty!

But today the mud-brick walls of this medieval fortress are barely discernable. And what has been left is fast being neutralised by the army which has taken over this national monument and prevents nosey Indian spies like Nadeem and me from exploring the place. Across the river, the road winds this way and that and then of a sudden there appears the magnificent eight-storeyed Kanhayalal Cottage. Built in 1934, this lavish building would have been the pride and joy of its owners. The lower three floors are constructed from dressed sandstone while the upper part seems to be of brick. Back in 1984, when I first saw it, the lower floors were whitewashed while the upper part was very tastefully painted in a pastel pink.

This time round, the pink had been replaced by a somewhat louder brick-red wash. Yet it took nothing away from Kanhayalal Cottage: it still looked as magnificent as ever. The building seems to have been divided up into several apartment houses with at least the upper part in Muslim hands, yet it has been preserved with much love and care. And this is what I admire the most in the Sindhis: they are proud of their heritage and will make a greater effort than us Punjabis to preserve some of it.

We had planned to check out the Akbari Mosque inside old Rohri, but having seen it ravaged by the ignorance of illiterate ‘conservationists’ back in 2000, I did not have the heart to return to it again. We took in Sut Bhen, instead. The fortunate among us who know the medieval Sindhi tradition of carved sarcophagi called Chaukundi, know too that this art can hardly be bested by any other. The intricate tracery of curvilinear forms, the brilliant three-depth rosettes, the multitude of geometric shapes and the exquisite calligraphy find no match anywhere. And the crowing glory of the art is that it is rendered not on timber but on sandstone. Nadeem was spell-bound; he had not expected anything like this at all.

The ruins of Alor a few kilometres east of Rohri brought back memory of my earlier jaunts there. Then, a quarter of a century earlier, the hills were littered with stone tools crafted by our ancestors more than a hundred thousand years ago. But when I returned in 1988, I was shocked to find teams of men and women sweeping the hills and carting off the gravel to be crushed for cement factories. In that gravel were millions of pre-historic stone tools. Horrified I reported this robbery to the then Secretary Culture of the province. Nothing happened. At least not right then, and if the crime was stopped later, I do not know of it.

In another country, the chert and limestone hills around Sukkur and Rohri would have been declared an open air museum. But here we have destroyed a site where our early ancestors crafted their spear heads and hand axes with blades so sharp that they can even today draw blood.

Faiz Mehal in nearby Khairpur was as immaculate as ever. But the old Punjabi caretaker who said he was from the army (could not name his unit) and was probably an army mess waiter (the mannerism was unmistakable), said we had only three minutes to see the palace. He ushered us into the main audience hall, shoved us in the direction of some black and white photos on a wall, delivered his spiel and shoved us out of the door again. All the while he breathlessly mumbled on about the impending arrival of colonel sahib from the Rangers.

He told us we were free to spend as much time in the garden however, so we tooled about taking photographs. His Highness Mir Ali Murad Talpur, the head of the Khairpur family, is famous for the work he has done to preserve wildlife in Khairpur and we got a taste of it in his garden. Golden-backed woodpeckers, grey shrikes, jungle and common babblers and koels thronged the trees around us. A silent prayer for His Highness was duly sent up, but I also worry if his family will be able to carry on his good work in perpetuity.

When we were eventually leaving the mess waiter offered us tea, more by way of saying something than actually meaning it. Still smarting from the treatment he had given us inside the palace and also because no colonel or even an NCO had turned up, I let the man have it. Though I only said he had not permitted us to savour the beautiful interior of the palace and here he was now offering us tea, but Punjabi being the language it is, the man was skewered through and through on my barb. His face was a very picture. He gawped first at Nadeem, as if expecting him to tell me off, then, when nothing happened, at me. I simply glared back and the man turned about and walked away. Needless to say my behaviour shocked Nadeem.

For someone who had been told Rohri had nothing to offer, Nadeem was by now thoroughly overwhelmed. I instructed him to kindly educate our major friend, but I know Nadeem never will and this responsibility too now devolves upon my shoulders. In due time, the man will be made aware of his utter ignorance about a city that is as beautiful as it is steeped in history.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 1 October 2014 at 21:05, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

Thanks sir, though i been there but not knowing the detail history of all the places

At 2 October 2014 at 17:08, Blogger Lahoremassagist said...

I only knew of Rohri as Railways Junction. Great read.

At 4 July 2015 at 01:53, Blogger Mohammad Ali Mahar said...

Thank you very much, Sir, for the beautiful article. I am originally from Rohri and, therefore, feel highly indebted to you for introducing my beautiful town to the world. However, it looks like you forgot to show Nadeem Saheb Sri Sadhbello, the Hindu holy island between Rohri and Sukkur.


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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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