Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Mianwali monuments

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When folks cannot comprehend an ancient monument, they tell you it has always been there, since the time of their grandparents. That is a measure of a very long time for semi-literate people. And when my friend Kashif Noon called to tell me that he had found a pair of Sikh monuments not very far from Mianwali it did not take me long to get there.

We drove out of town on the highroad that connects Mianwali with Rawalpindi via Talagang, the scenic road that skirts the western edge of the blue spread of Nammal Lake and the dark loom of the Sakesar peak. En route we picked up an elderly local who claimed to be a great master of history. At the hamlet of Bun Hafiz Ji, we turned left (south-eastward) on the road that leads up to Sakesar. Just a few kilometres on Kashif pointed out the two domes atop the low stony ridge running alongside the road to the left. They stood starkly grey against a brilliant blue sky.

‘Not Sikh, certainly not Sikh,’ said I as we went hurrying up the ridge, ‘but early Muslim period buildings.’ This was no off the cuff guess; I had reason to be certain. Ten years ago while researching for my book The Salt Range and the Potohar Plateau I had checked out the unfinished structure at Maira Tharchak in the Salt Range heartland and these buildings were laid out on the exact same plan. The only difference was that both these buildings were topped by domes while the one at Maira was roofless. In that case it was difficult to say if the top had never been completed or had collapsed long years ago. Dr Saifur Rahman Dar, the well-known archaeologist, who had headed an investigative mission to the Salt Range in the early 1990s, had written that, judging from the architecture, the Maira building dated to the early Muslim period, that is, the 11th and 13th centuries. Years after Dr Dar retired from government service, the report, sadly, still languishes unpublished. Such are the ways of the bureaucracy.

So far as I remembered Dr Dar had not mentioned these two structures. Just below the ridge, runs one of the two rivers that feed the Nammal. All around were distant brown hills with the Sakesar peak towering to the east and immediately to the south were millet fields. Kashif’s friend, the historian, told us that the bottom of the ridge had remains of ancient structures and that the whole area was richly strewn with pottery shards. Close proximity to the fresh water river made some sense about this being a habitat.

The two buildings were of different sizes. One was roughly 5.8 metres square with a height of 3.5 metres from the plinth to the base of the dome. Failing to climb up the building we could not measure the dome, but estimated to be about three metres high. Inside, the corner squinches that render the square plan octagonal for the dome to spring up were of the corbelled type. The three walls (saving the side with the door) had mock mihrabs, otherwise the interior was bare.

Each corbelling was reinforced with a timber beam. Timber lugs were also laid in transversely at intervals around the base of the dome. The most interesting feature was that one of the squinch reinforcement beams appeared to be new. It seems that the original beam having been lost (perhaps to vandalism), this one was inserted by some well-meaning person (bless his or her soul) in order to arrest the collapse of the squinch – and with it the rest of the building.

The other building was somewhat the smaller at about 3.25 metres square. The height was just under three metres from the plinth to the base of the dome which was itself correspondingly smaller. But here the top had collapsed and part of the exterior of the dome as well. The corners repeated the same style of corbelled squinches, mock mihrabs and an empty interior. Here, the reinforcement beams were not used, but the transverse lugs were in place. Dr Dar had once pointed out that in the beginning (circa 10th century) Muslim builders were yet uncertain of the strength of the true dome and arch. To their minds the insert of a wooden beam was a reliable reinforcement. As time went by, however, they were quick to learn that this was an unnecessary accessory and was in due course dropped.

Thankfully, the floors in both buildings were yet intact; they had not been upturned by mindless treasure seekers. Though there was no sign of a burial, in my estimation both were funerary buildings. I say this because while a mosque has an entrance in the east wall, it is funerary structures where the entrance is to the south – as in these cases. The fact that there are no graves inside could mean any number of things: that the person (or persons) supposed to be interred were borne away elsewhere after they died or that subsequent to the completion of these structures they no longer held sway in this area.

Kashif’s friend said the buildings were simply known as gumbtaan – Domes. He also insisted that the area below the ridge was once inhabited. I thought that improbable until we descended from the ridge and found the area actually littered with pottery shards. We made a surface collection in the course of which I found a piece of chert. This was a discard that was knocked off a nodule while producing a core tool or blade. Many, many years ago, long before man had learned to make iron blades, chert blades were used for everything from dressing meats to trimming hides to making surgical incisions and what have you. In fact, these blades are known to have been in production no less than a hundred thousand years ago.

Back in Lahore I showed my photos and the collection of pottery shards to Dr Dar. The shards were nothing, he said. I suspected as much because long ago I had learned from none other than Dr Dar himself regarding the kind of shards that are good dating elements: painted pieces, or neck and lip pieces. Of these we had unfortunately found none. But the piece of chert was an interesting item, said he.

It was long believed that the ancient chert works in the hills near Rohri (Sindh) were the only such industry of prehistoric Pakistan that date back to more than a hundred thousand years. The notion was that Rohri exported the blades to places as far afield as Taxila and other urban centres around the country. Some years ago Dr Dar’s research showed that here by the rivers that fed Nammal Lake and around the lake itself thrived an equally active stone tool industry that goes back to the same time as the one at Rohri. The discard that I had picked up was just one of those that would have fallen off the chert nodule that some ancient artisan was working perhaps under the shade of a spreading pipal tree with golden orioles and mynas singing overhead on a balmy day in a rain-soaked August. We have no way of knowing when that would have happened.

In Lahore I rechecked the district gazetteer and under the sub-heading of ‘Other antiquities’ found mention of ‘two sentry-box like buildings.’ These structures ‘midway between Nammal and Sakesar’ (our location) were, according to the book, ‘supposed to be dolmens.’ Though I did not check the early 20th century Archaeological Survey Reports, I knew I would find no mention of these buildings in them. Had they been surveyed, Dr Dar would surely have known of them.

As for the domes, the question is wide open. The parade of early Muslim conquerors into Punjab began with Mahmud, the Ghaznavide robber king, in the ultimate year of the 10th century. Thereafter it continued for well over two hundred years. Here, along this lonely, ancient byway leading into the Salt Range by way of the Soon Valley someone important tarried with an entourage. The stopover was evidently prolonged for the raising of such monuments would have taken a few months in the least. Was the important person ill or wounded in battle and did the entourage fear imminent death? Was he escaping from a defeat in battle or en route to the glory and riches of India? What happened thereafter? Why wasn’t the person eventually buried here? Why was no written record left of this transition?

These and many more are the questions that cannot be answered just yet. We have to wait for the grand masters of archaeology to make their way to the Domes of Mianwali district.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 10 September 2015 at 20:18, Anonymous Shahid said...

Excellent work. Don't you think the first picture somehow evokes an image of Quaid's mausoleum in Karachi? Coincidence or some architectural roots?

At 11 September 2015 at 16:18, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you. Jinnah's tomb basis on early Muslim tomb architecture like this and those in Multan and Uch. Hence the similarity.

At 19 September 2015 at 16:30, Blogger Saleem Khan said...

Good job sir,

At 20 September 2015 at 11:10, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Saleem Khan.

At 26 October 2015 at 00:58, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Id love to see it one day. Do you think it resembles the early ziggurat structure somehow?

At 26 October 2015 at 14:31, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

No. It does ot resemble the ziggurat. It is clearly of the same style as the early Muslim period (1100-1300) buildings of India.

At 19 January 2016 at 01:15, Blogger Arv Singh said...

Salman Sahib, this could be the Samadhi (Tomb) of Raja Jaipal, the King of West Punjab who lost the battle to Gaznavi.

At 21 January 2016 at 12:14, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Arv Singh, I would doubt these as samadhis to Raja Jaipal. They seem to date to about 1200 CE. Or perhaps a little earlier.


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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

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