Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

By the banks of the Bien

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Years ago, when he was still alive, my uncle Dr Habib ur Rahman once told me that he and his cousins used to cycle out from Uggi (our ancestral village in Jalandhar) to the Bien, a small stream. It was only a few kilometres away and they would spend their summer days swimming in its pellucid waters and picnicking on its sandy banks.

On my last visit to Uggi, I asked Bakhshish Singh to take us to the river. Now Bakhshish, in his early thirties, tall and very good-looking is a mona Sikh, while his father, the venerable Saudagar Singh, large-boned and bewhiskered, keeps the tradition of the great Guru Nanak alive. Back in March 2008, my first ever visit across the border, I was introduced to Bakhshish by the good Gurmeet Singh who looks after the Desh Bhagat Hall in Jalandhar (of this at another time). Bakhshish took me home to show me the village of my ancestors. It turned out that this family and I, they Kamboh and I Arain by caste, were kinsfolk from a distant past.

So the last time we were in Uggi, we stayed with them and I asked Bakhshish to see the river where my uncle went swimming as a teenager. Sadly, the story of the Bien is no different from so many such rivers in our part of the subcontinent: it is now a sewer. Gone are the birds that fed by its banks and the fish that swam in its limpid waters, gone too are young picnickers and anglers. The Bien is dead.

While there, Bakhshish said we might as well check out Jehangir. Not far from the banks of the Bien, Jehangir was a fort built by the fourth Mughal king. We parked in village Malhi and there on the far side of the stream were the high walls of the fort spiked with scaffolding. Past the lofty main entrance, we entered a broad compound and I immediately knew this was no fort; it was a caravanserai because we were on the old alignment of the Grand Trunk Road. Stylistically, it seemed to belong to Jehangir’s period.

Adopting an architectural style predating their arrival in the subcontinent, the Mughals favoured the fortified serai. This was handy, for one, such a serai could house a detachment of soldiers for security. As well as that, once it was closed for the night, there was little chance of marauders getting in to plunder.

Arranged along the four cardinal points with the entrance in the east wall and another gateway to the west, the four walls were neatly lined with rooms. Some hundred and ten in all, they served as overnight accommodation for travellers. A small mosque of very fine construction sat in the southwest quadrangle of the compound. The mosque was in good fettle, but the travellers’ rooms had nearly all collapsed at some distant point in time. What I found singularly remarkable was the well-kept garden inside the serai. It was apparent that the Indian Department of Archaeology was wide awake and looking after its historical monuments.

Indeed, we were the only visitors in Jehangir on that particular day. The host of men in the serai were engineers and labourers working on the restoration of the ruined rooms. Those along the north wall, all thirty odd of them, were almost complete and this was a bit of a record because Bakhshish said work had commenced in the spring of 2009 (we were there in December). If this is something to go by, the Indians are actually serious about preserving their built heritage.

This brought a sad thought to my mind. I have seen dozens of historical monuments across the length and breadth of this country ruthlessly being torn down and consigned to oblivion by ordinary people. I have written about them, nothing has ever happened. I have appealed to officers of the concerned department, even director generals of archaeology and nothing has happened. No one seems to care. They all like to be in the seat, getting their salaries and driving around in official cars to do nothing but make laws about prohibiting photography. If there is some lunatic in the provincial or federal departments of archaeology who cares, he is very likely dismissed as a madcap to be ignored.

I say this on good authority. In March 2009, I visited Serai Mughal, less than thirty kilometres south of Lahore along N-5. Dating back to Akbar’s period, this fortified serai is now a village. The travellers’ rooms are incorporated into people’s homes and everyone is demolishing this or that part of the historical serai to add additional rooms to their homes as they see fit.

That is not the only one. Shergarh Fort where the great Mir Chakar Khan Rind took refuge in the 16th century is now a bustling village. The fort of Hyderabad in Sindh is as if it has been attacked by locusts. The list is endless. This steady and anarchic take over of historical monuments by ordinary citizens should have been stopped when it began sixty-two years ago. But because the government was asleep and has remained so in the past six decades, people now know they can get away with bloody murder. If things carry on like this Rohtas will soon be taken over by the village that is steadily expanding within its walls.

One case in point is the ruined city of Pushkalavati outside Charsadda. The excavation has been destroyed by local villagers, and everyone has his own private dig on the huge site. Everyone is busily plundering the three thousand year old mound to sell the statues to eager foreigners. What I had seen in 1994 is now lost forever. Such a manifest case of the ineffectiveness of the government cannot be seen in any country. Not even Sudan, I am certain.

Indeed, the Jehangir period serai of Rajo Pind across the Kahan River from Rohtas has already been taken over. Sadly, one of its two mosques was torn down some years ago to be replaced by a bathroom tile model. The other one is used as a byre. No one who lives within its walls gives a damn about its historical significance. But they are only ignorant rustics who have long been fed only untruths in the name of ideology. The real culprits are the federal Department of Archaeology whose director general needs to be lynched.

Other than the well-known monuments in Pakistan, there is hardly any that has not been taken over. I am not sure if such a thing has been permitted in India as well. If it has happened, it must be as rare as the monument that we managed to preserve in Pakistan. Instead of always looking upon India as an enemy, we should start learning some few things from them.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 21 August 2015 at 03:05, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I have been reading your posts for a long time and like always this article was flawless. What you say is very true and no matter how much you contested and pleaded the authorities to preserve our precious heritage and artefacts, almost everyone turns a blind eye.

It saddens me that the only thing that provides most happiness to Pakistani's and I guess people in general is money and with that comes the eternal greed to want more and more. What these people don't understand is that if they preserve/conserve the sites and open them to the public and charge admission prices they can still do that. Then, the flow of money would be more regular. Of course I would always say that the money earned should go back into conservation. It literally disgusts me to see such Mughal history diminished through the dirty hands of these

Sites all over the world attract millions of tourists each year to view their wonderful past and what we are left with are rubbish dumps and meagre literature cataloguing the sites. It's hard to take a stand against the powerful but more people need to become aware of the issues we are facing-both young and old and while politics has ravaged the country hopefully one day we can use that in our advantage.

At 21 August 2015 at 11:28, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Dear Anonymous, Thank you very much. I hope the same as you and therefore continue to write.

At 19 September 2016 at 09:32, Blogger Tariq Amir said...

I cannot agree more with your assessment about our treatment of our historical heritage. I myself has seen this with my own eyes in Rohtas and Satghara (Mir Chakir Fort). Just a few months ago I went to Tulamba. The ancient town is now just a heap of dust and people are encroaching from all side. The new Tulamba also has a fort, built by Sher Shah Suri. That too is in a very bad condition and being in the centre of the town, is totally encroached upon from inside and outside. I don't understand why are we bent upon destroying our historical places? Have you ever got a chance to discuss this matter with higher authorities of archaeological department etc?

At 19 September 2016 at 14:59, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Tariq Amir, discuss with "higher authorities" who do not care? If they did, they would know what was happening to what they claim to protect.


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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