Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Where Gakkhars ruled

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It could have been a day warm and humid as it was in August 1553 when Kamran Mirza’s eyes last beheld the crenulated walls of Pharwala Fort starkly outlined against a blue Bhadon sky held up by billowing white cumulus. But it was crisply warm as we parked on flat ground above the Soan River running between us and the fort.

Hathi Gate
It had started out with Rehan Afzal and I talking about Pharwala. But then Pharanaz and her husband Naweed joined us too and we resolved to together visit it. Returning to the fort after eighteen years, I had forgotten that I had then entered by Hathi Gate by wading across the river, the same way as Babur had done back in the spring of 1519. There, behind the fortification Babur espied the steely gaze of Hathi Gakkhar, a man of gigantic stature and reportedly superhuman strength that likened him as to an elephant.

Babur had been primed by the Salt Range Janjuas to take Pharwala. Hathi Gakkhar was a bad man, they had petitioned after being subdued by the young Mughal. He created trouble in the country, plundering and killing. He ought to be chastised, so pleaded the Janjua chieftain at Kallar Kahar. And so the Mughal army made it to Pharwala by forced marches only to find the Gakkhars ready for combat.

The first assault was roundly beaten back. In fact, the rout was so graceless that Babur had to gloss it over in his Tuzk. The reserve under the battle-hardened Dost Beg however turned the tide. Hathi Gate was thrown open, the Mughal cavalry charged down the Soan ravine, splashing across its copper-red waters, up the other side and through the open gateway into the wide enceinte of the fort. They barely caught glimpse of the towering Hathi Khan on his charger spiriting away beyond the northern gateway.

Hot pursuit failed to deliver the man into Babur’s hands as Hathi Gakkhar disappeared in the tortuous ravines stretching northward. Some weeks later, the Gakkhar himself sued for peace and was restored to mastery over Pharwala. Babur withdrew to Afghanistan and that did not last very long. In 1525, when the Mughal returned to possess India, the fort was securely in the hands of Sarang Khan Gakkhar who had, meanwhile, done in his cousin Hathi to avenge the murder of Tatar Khan, Sarang’s father.

Sarang and his brother Adam offered allegiance and rode in Babur’s train to Delhi. Time went by, Babur entered his long night and the Mughal Empire devolved to his inept son, Humayun. Within years of this transition, the opium befuddled king was on the run as Sher Shah Suri moved to become master of India. Over the next decade, the only friend the fugitive Humayun had in India were the two Gakkhar brothers who had made peace with his father. The opium befuddled king, Humayun, was on the run as Sher Shah Suri moved to become master of India. Over the next decade, the only friend the fugitive Humayun had in India were the two Gakkhar brothers who had made peace with his father.

Sher Shah with his superior military force came down hard against them. But neither Pharwala was ceded nor the Potohar country between the Jhelum and the Sindhu River. What was sacrificed were the lives of a large number of men of the Gakkhar clan. But Sarang Khan did not break faith that he had pledged to Babur years earlier.

We waded across the Soan and came up against Hathi Gate without fear of Hathi Khan staring us down. In the years since my last visit the fort has much deteriorated. The portions of wall on either side of the gate were gone. In fact, save the gate no fortification remained on this, the south side, of Pharwala.

As we pottered about under the towering edifice examining the sentry’s cubicles, a squall set up driving sand into our faces. Dark clouds rolled in from the northwest and we were sheltering under the gateway from driving rain. But it passed; the sun shone and a beautiful rainbow arched above Hathi Khan’s gate. We moved on deeper into the fort. I wondered where it could have been that Kamran, bound and fettered, was brought before Humayun who had returned to India to reclaim his father’s kingdom nearly a decade after the death of Sher Shah.

Babur’s dying injunction would surely have rung sharp in Humayun’s ears: ‘Do naught against your brothers, even though they may deserve it.’ But he ignored the advice. For the trouble Kamran had caused in the decade of exile, capital punishment was advised. But Humayun ruled in favour of a lesser penalty. The six-fingered Ghulam Ali, superintended of police, brought out the heated lancet and pierced the eyes of Kamran as he kept the fast of Ramzan on that long ago day in August. Thereafter, the hapless prince was packed off with his family for the pilgrimage to Mecca.

General view of Pharwala Fort from the southeast. General view of Pharwala Fort from the southeast. In the late 1990s, there were fewer houses within the fort. Now the southwest part seemed to be crowded with them. As we walked around to Begum Gate, I noticed that the fornication showing in a picture in my book The Salt Range and the Potohar Plateau was gone. As one, Pharanaz and Rehan pointed out that the houses on this side were all constructed of the blocks that had once been part of the fort walls.

Tanvir, the local man who had taken it upon himself to show us around, told me that people were indeed dismantling the fort to build their homes. This is what never fails to happen in Pakistan. Priceless historical monuments that would be protected in any other hick country are left to the vagaries of ignorant people, mindless of their own history.

The little village inside the fort is peopled by the Sarangal and some Adamal Gakkhars — descendents of the brothers Sarang and Adam Khan. But they have no pride in the heritage bequeathed upon them by those two illustrious men. They are dismantling Pharwala Fort block by block to build their homes. And whichever inept department is charged with protection and upkeep of our national heritage sleeps on.

Across the land I have seen our built heritage being destroyed by ordinary folks who think they own it. Or I have seen it being ‘restored’ by blighted officials. This work actually amounts to foolishly rebuilding to a new design. But no one is moved. No one cares.

Looking through Begum Gate of the portion cannibalised for building material by the locals. Looking through Begum Gate of the portion cannibalised for building material by the locals.

We had lost precious time sheltering from the rain and the sun was going down in the west. It was too late to walk to the north side to examine how much of the original wall was left. Having seen the state of affairs on this side, I simply did not have the heart to see how they had destroyed the rest of Pharwala. We turned back to wade across the Soan River to the waiting cars.

Looking through Begum Gate of the portion cannibalised for building material by the locals
PS: On the way one of Rehan’s shoes lost its sole in the river. He bravely soldiered on. But as we were making Hathi Gate again, the other shoe went the same way. Rehan improvised, tying the uppers to his feet. But by the time were across and at the cars, he was ‘walking wounded’ as they would say in the army.

But I’ll say one thing: Rehan Afzal did well.

As for Pharanaz, she wore designer footwear. Which was sensible for walking. But not what one would have wanted to mess up in post-rain mire. Only Naweed and I had the right things on.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 7 September 2016 at 10:18, Anonymous Amal Farhaan said...

I visited the fort a few months back. Wish I had read this article before I did so that I was more aware of its Historical Background.
It is indeed a crying shame of the way these sites are being taken apart , brick by brick. And yes, where the Archaeological babus step in, they ruin it even more. Katas Raj temples, in Chakwal district, being a case in point. Buddhist stupas there, hundreds of years old have been plastered over and white washed!The cement factories and the ever expanding villages are draining the lake there to a muddy pond. It is enough to make one cry.
I fear that in the not so distant future, all that we will know of such sites would be from writings such as yours.

At 7 September 2016 at 14:49, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Amal. The less said of our sarkari babus the better. I hurt every time I see the ruin brought down on our heritage by official stupidity.

At 8 September 2016 at 21:20, Blogger Adnan Ahmed Varaich said...

'crying Shame' is really painful as well. Heart aches, as plundering and ruining process seems to have no end in sight.


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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