Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The Jail that wasn’t

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My friend Shahid Nadeem is a collector of half-a-century old radio sets and record changers that still work. He has enough for his home in Islamabad to be declared a small radio museum. He is also a source of odd bits of history of his part of the country. His part being the Potohar region in the vicinity of Mandra, he knows much of the history that was overlooked by the rest of the world. And he also has a seemingly endless supply of folklore. One story from this latter realm was about the jail in Hasola, few kilometres from his native village of Dhrugi Rajgan.

The vice-headmaster of the village school had narrated the yarn, he said. As Shahid’s own great-grandmother had spoken of an ancestor’s incarceration in a jail run by the Sikhs, the story made some sense to him. The ancestor Raja Fazal Khan was arrested for not coughing up what the Sikh tax collector thought was the requisite amount and housed in the Hasola jail. Eid came around and Fazal Khan being denied parole to pray in the Dhrugi Rajgan mosque broke out. Climbing the parapet, he leapt out and was lucky to land on a heap of horse dung dumped by the wall of the jail. Through the broken gullies of the surrounding land he sprinted for Dhrugi and arrived just in time, as the congregation was making ready to begin the worship. But even before the ritual was over, a Sikh posse had reclaimed Fazal Khan and re-installed him in their jail. Impressed with his courage in breaking jail, so the story goes, the Sikhs later favoured Raja Fazal Khan with an endowment of land.

According to the headmaster, the building was some two hundred and fifty years old and had been used as a jail by officials of Maharaja Ranjit Singh sent out to control the Rajputs of the Salt Range. This was interesting for this would place the building among some of the oldest surviving edifices.

We took the highroad from Sohawa to Chakwal. At village Mulhal Mughlan we turned right (north) to fetch up in Hasola via Dhodha. En route we picked up Tanvir the bearded headmaster who spoke almost non-stop concerning the great age of the jail. He thought it must be the oldest building in the entire region. Shahid parked his car in the school yard and we walked through the village to the purported jail. Tanvir had been good enough to have the custodian of the key to the otherwise padlocked building handy.

The structure had an elaborate façade with a multi-cusped arch above the main door; similar arches on the ground floor windows and somewhat simpler ones on the upper storey. The ventilators above the windows were still affixed with rotting timbers for the shades that had long since bitten the dust. One look and I said the building was less than a hundred years old. The good headmaster scornfully said something about me not knowing what I was talking about. Why, everyone in the village knew it was more than two hundred years old. Indeed, even the kiln that had produced the bricks was the oldest in ‘all India.’

If that was true, then this building was very likely contemporaneous with the ruins of Moen jo Daro, I thought. To the headmaster I pointed out that the brick used in the construction was the one that was introduced to us by the British sometime about the beginning of the 20thcentury and which is now standard building material. Earlier, the material was the thinner brick that we see in Mughal buildings. I also pointed out that this was clearly a residential building, a pretty elaborate one, and certainly not a prison. That made no sense at all to the good teacher who continued to insist on the antiquity of the ‘jail.’

We passed under the door, through the dusty foyer into a courtyard overgrown with brush and trees. To our right was a row of dilapidated rooms and in front a staircase leading to the upper floor. There the rooms followed the same floor plan as the ground. We did not climb the stairs fearing the instability of the roof.

As we pottered about in the ruined interior Tanvir carried on about the age of the building until I again mentioned the bricks. He attacked my theory saying everyone and even the village dogs knew that the now-defunct kiln was the oldest in India, so how could I be so foolish as to insist on the brick being only about a hundred years old. We bickered a bit and I, losing it, said something about the rot that this man must be teaching his wards. That did not go down well at all and I felt sorry about it.

Meanwhile Shahid picked up a brick and said it had English lettering – a practice followed to this day. Nastily I turned on the headmaster and asked him how he expected us to believe that local brick makers were already acquainted with English long before the Brits arrived in the Punjab. I also pointed out some other architectural feature, like the circular ventilators, that were a British introduction. But in his view I was just being foolish when the great age of the building was common knowledge. The English lettering was a minor issue and anyone could have learned to write a couple of letters of the alphabet, he said.

We gave up and came back on the street.As we stood there, an elderly and rather sprightly gentleman made an appearance. The master hailed him and asked him about the building. He said it was raised in 1918 and there used to be a marble plaque above the main door that gave out the date and the name Jagat Ram of the owner. The plaque was vandalised only recently and everyone in the village had seen it. Everyone,except obviously the teacher. Mr Ram and his wife Bhag, we were told, had five daughters and a son and they all left the village during the partition riots.

The house was locked up after they left.But at some point it was broken open and served as a hostel for the boys of the  school. Time passed and since no one paid any heed to the upkeep of a building that had become theirs without any effort or expense, it began to fall to pieces. It was then vacated, locked up and given over to the elements. The master was somewhat discomfited but now harped on the great antiquity of the kiln that had produced the bricks.

Shahid pointed out a knoll a little distance from the houses we were walking past and said there was a vague tradition that the prison was located on top of it. But he knew there was no indication of any construction on it: there couldn’t be, for the knoll was not large enough for a building to sit on it. It appears that the Sikhs probably only had a sort of paddock to confine their prisoners. Fazal Khan might have jumped from the top of the knoll to the dung heap some six or seven metres below to skedaddle to the mosque.

With the departure of the Sikhs the paddock was either dismantled or simply permitted to rot and eventually forgotten. But the collective memory of the prison lingered. Tales of people’s confinement in it reached even outsiders like schoolmaster Tanvir. With not hing else that could pass for a prison, men with some claim to erudition assigned that identity to Jagat Ram’s home. With that came the assumption that it must pre-date at least the Sikh period and so the age of two hundred and fifty years.

For the learned master it did not matter that the bricks that went in its construction were marked with English lettering. Nor too that the marble plaque above the door, vandalised only shortly before, said the building was raised in 1918.

Odysseus Lahori two years ago: The functions of travel literature?


posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 1 June 2014 at 17:18, Blogger Tariq Amir said...

Very interseting. This is a common problem you face, when you enquire about an old building. I wish you had put more picutres on your blog. I also recently made a blog of the places I have visited. It is

I shall post a few more articles in a week or two.


Tariq Amir
Doha - Qatar

At 1 June 2014 at 20:13, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you. I'll check your blog and comment.

At 6 March 2015 at 10:08, Anonymous Nadeem Akram said...

Interesting read as usual!

At 8 March 2015 at 11:04, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Nadeem.


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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