Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Fort Oblivion, Ramkot

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A solitary shoveller, alarmed by our fast approaching speed-boat, scudded the still blue waters of Mangla Reservoir on strong, fast wings with my gaze tied to its tail. And even as we gained on it, it was clear of the water and winging swiftly away from us in graceful flight. I, the conservationist, could even feel the surge of thebird’s adrenalin extend itself to my body as I marvelled at the sheer beauty and power of its take-off and the elegance of its flight angling off to the right.

We had left the Mangla Water Sports Club a mere ten minutes earlier and the speed-boat had shot us across the blue sheet of the artificial lake to its northern extremity. Here, before they built the dam, the Poonch River coming down from the northeast met with the bigger Jhelum coming straight down from the north. Smack on the confluence of the two waters, the fort of Ramkot sat on a high eminence with the south and southwest sides falling sheer into the Jhelum.

The boatman eased the craft onto the rocky shore and I got off. Then he turned around and roared off in a puff of smoke and I was by myself. Just the way to be when you explore a relatively unknown place, I thought despite the boatman’s earlier warning that it was a rather familiar sort of place and mystery no longer attached itself to Ramkot. Numerous tourists haunted it on a regular basis, he had said. This was mainly because it could only be reached by boat and that made for a picnic for most folks.

I climbed steps cut into the rock and wondered if these were built when the fort was first raised or more recently after the fort was restored from the brink of extinction. Five minutes later I crested a small knoll and was face to face with the north wall of Ramkot. Solid six-sided turrets studding a high, crenellated wall blocked my path and it was almost déjà vu for the architecture was quite like that of the bigger Muzafarabad Fort in Kashmir and the nearby fort of Mangla.

The turret right in front having crenellations wider than the others was clearly a later modification for cannons, and the one in the corner to my left was crowned by an eye-catching canopy. Surely this was to shade the kiladar – Master of the Fort, when he would climb up to enjoy the scenery. Or perhaps the kiladar was a man with a heart who did not wish for his lookouts to burn under the summer sun and provided this unique piece of architecture.

The main entrance, with its new timber door, was around the corner where the canopy rose above the turret.Whoever sited the only entrance to the fort was a smart tactician for it overlooked the sheer drop into the river and anyone approaching it would have to come around the turret with the canopy. Consequently it would be impossible to approach the gateway at full gallop or even to attempt to batter it down with a ram. But there were no machicolations on the rampart above to pour boiling oil or water on the attackers: the builders seemed cock-sure attackers would never attempt to carry Ramkot by storm. That pretty nearly made the fort invincible.

Through a vestibule I entered the enceinte. A water tank with a low brink was in front and in the background a building on a raised plinth. I walked past the turret with the wide crenation, noted its broad ramp and could almost imagine Dogra soldiers heaving a25-pounder up it. A sign by the building in the back told me it was the Darogha’s (kiladar) residence. The steps led onto the courtyard on either side of which were rooms. If the Darogha had to live here with his family, as he surely would have done, there would have been a screen in front of the courtyard to veil the Darogha’s women from the lusting eyes of the common soldiery. The rooms had arched doorways with mock pilasters and worked capitals and bases. Inside, each had a fireplace and the windows looked out to lovely views of the Jhelum River winding between low hills. Lizards scurried over the walls and the rooms were solid with the acrid stench of guano.

Diagonally across from the Darogha’s residence was the higher quarter of the fort. A wide staircase led up to this triangular compound. Here too was a turret with wide crenation and a ramp for cannons. The views from this vantage were even more expansive and I could see far away into the valleys of both the Jhelum and the Poonch rivers.As I made for the entrance again, I noticed the temple on raised ground near the water tank. All that remained of the building was a foundation and some debris, but the Shiva ling was intact.

Only three years ago Ramkot was perched on the brink of the void. Neglected and inaccessible it was steadily falling into pieces with rank vegetation having taken over every inch of it. It was not brought back from the void by the department of archaeology, but by a dentist who hails from Jhelum and now works in Islamabad. Anis ur Rahman, dentist for a living, is a mountain walker and an angler for a life, who became acquainted with Ramkot some years ago on a fishing trip to Mangla Reservoir.With funding from an Islamabad-based NGO, he set about cleaning up Ramkot.Today the people of Mangla and Mirpur have a ‘tourist spot’ they can thank him for.

Dr Saif ur Rahman Dar, the eminent archaeologist, had said this fort, being similar to Muzafarabad Fort was very likely the same period. That would make it early 17th century. The alterations – the ramps, the wide crenellations for cannon and the narrow loopholes for musketry were all from the time when the Dogra Maharaja of Kashmir held Ramkot in the 19th century.

It is strange indeed that three forts were built along the Jhelum river and all of them remained consigned to the dust bin of history. Neither Muzafarabad, nor Ramkot nor too Mangla figurein the annals of Kashmir. While the first of the three is favoured passing reference, the remaining two have remained virtually unknown. No great epoch-making events unfolded within their walls; no intrigues, no conspiracies or dastardly nocturnal assassinations. Not even a tale of the infidel princess besotted with the young and dashing Muslim commander investing her father’sfort secretly turning it over for love. Nothing. Only oblivion

The 1841 Arrow Smith map of Kashmir makes no mention of it, but Frederic Drew casts some light on Ramkot in his authoritative The Jummoo and Kashmir Territories (1875). It was built, he records, by a Gakkhar named Toglu. And what do we have to preserveToglu’s memory? We have, on the highest part of the fort a single nondescript grave which lore attributes to a man of god called Tughlaki Baba. After the Gakkhars ceded the fort to the Dogras of Kashmir, human memory grew more and more concerning the Gakkhar chieftain (who may well have been General Kayani’sancestor). In time, his real name and his worldly exploits were forgotten and because every grave that we worship must necessarily belong to a holy man,temporal Toglu became saintly Tughlaki.

My friend Nawaz Kiani of Jhelum tells me of the ‘Salt Route’ that passed down from the Jhangar Valley of the Salt Range, past Nandna and Rohtas en route to Kashmir. Surely there would havebeen a traffic of salt heading into Kashmir and one look at the map shows that such a Salt Route would definitely have gone up along the Jhelum River. Also history shows that Mirpur, now famous for her sons who live in UK, was once a commercial entrepot. Here affluent Khatri families controlled a brisk trade of food grains, ghi and fruit. The ghi and fruit coming from the highlands fed a market in Punjab and farther away, while food grains from the Punjabi bread-basket went into the hills. Ramkot, therefore, was very likely a garrison to levy toll and protect the passage of trading caravans.

Reason called for such protection for this was country where the turbulent and free-willed Gakkhars roamed. For a short time in the last years of the 16th century an even more unruly and recalcitrant people swept through this country. These were the violent Chaks who, having come down from the north, ruled Kashmir for over a hundred years and all but disappeared in a remarkable diaspora after their defeat at the hands of Mughal forces in 1588.

The story of Ramkot is not over without mention of three transparencies in the possession of Dr Dar. These illustrate a small, very finely worked figurine that Dr Dar says was shown him by an army officer when he first visited Ramkot in 1985. Exploring about the fort the major had come across the statuette and kept it for himself. Dr Dar says the relic is clearly Gandhara and that it was found on the banks of the Jhelum is a remarkable discovery. It shows that Taxila was not the most easterly extremity of Gandhara art. That, he says, is a very significant addition to our knowledge.

But until farther investigation is done and we discover tales of Greek, Kushan and Parthian kings, Ramkot will simply be Fort Oblivion for me.

Related: Ramkot Fort [Urdu]

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 23 January 2015 at 13:05, Anonymous Nadeem Akram said...

Thank you for posting this, it will be on the top of my wish list this year.

At 23 January 2015 at 15:04, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

Sir i visited this fort way back in 1980, however i learned the details through this article. Thanks

At 24 January 2015 at 08:49, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Glad that this is appreciated.

At 24 January 2015 at 14:52, Anonymous Shabnam said...

remember this fort,we visited it it

At 25 January 2015 at 16:28, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Surprising that the fort accessible only from water? It due to security concerns. I have visited the fort many times in early to mid nineties by car, it was connected via a road branching off from the main Mangla-Mirpur Road. (unless we are talking about a second fort on periphery of Mangla reservoir??).
The road continued on over the spillway towards the power house. General public had access only up to the fort (unless you had connections in Wapda or the khakis). This beautiful road (built on the Mangle dyke) became a thorough fare after the bridge connecting Mangla and Mirpur over Jhelum river was destroyed by the wall of water when the spillway gates were opened in September 1992. A few month later the army built a makeshift bridge to get the traffic off the dam itself

The fort's parking lot was usually busy, full of wagons and buses, the area presenting typical sites and sounds of a Pakistani picnic. The road beyond the fort towards the powerhouse and the spillway presented a great view of the massive sheet of water on one side and the lush hills on the other, you could occasionally see WAPDA employees strolling along or sometimes hear the "thump thump thump" of SSG commandoes on the "double march"

At 26 January 2015 at 08:30, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

We did indeed,Shabnam. Thanks to our dear friend Tumble aka Gen Javed Alam Khan.


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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

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