The Fort of Rannikot
08 February 2017
Tanvir Ahmad Khan, with whom I share this page, emailed to say that at a dinner with the French ambassador and his wife, the subject of a fort called Rani Khet came up. The fort, it was reported, lay somewhere near Dadu. Other than that no one knew anything about it. The fort of Rannikot (pronounced Runny Coat and not, repeat not, Ranikot or Rani Khet) lies thirty-two kilometres southwest of Sann (the ancestral village of the venerated late G M Syed), eighty kilometres north of Hyderabad in the Lakhi hills of the great Khirthar Range. Between Sann and the fort there stretches a sandy desert that I have seen transformed into farmland over the past thirty years. In the late 1970s, there being no road, one had to either walk (as a friend and I did) or ride a jeep. Today a blacktop road connects Rannikot with the Indus Highway outside Sann.
The walls of the fort become visible from a distance of about four kilometres, snaking over the golden-brown ridges and the first views strike one as being starkly similar to the Great Wall of China. Entry into the fort, if one is on a jeep, is through the dry bed of the Ranni River (whence the name of the fort) or through Sann Gate if on foot. The gateway, on the right bank of the stream, is a classic example of defensive architecture with two staggered turrets that form a dogleg in order to break the gallop of an attacking horseman.
In the dry bed of the river, there sits a stubby pier (years ago, there was a large block of dislodged masonry as well which, I believe, has now been removed) and on either bank can be seen abutments similar to the ones where the ends of a bridge rest. Both abutments and the pier in the middle have a very curious feature: a vertical row of holes. The purpose of these holes I was able to work out only after the massive summer flood of 1985 when the normally dry river flowed for a day or so to a height of five metres.
Bamboo staves or iron rods passed through these holes broke the velocity of the rushing torrent in order to prevent damage to the bridge. And that the usually dry stream could actually flow with devastating effect was amply shown by the large dislodged block of masonry which surely was the other bridge pier in the riverbed. On my last visit in 1999, I was horrified to see that some misguided and ignorant 'conservationist' had furnished the bridge piers with crenels to make them look like turrets. Alas, we shall forever remain encumbered with the good intentions of the ignorant!
If one were to climb the ridges on either side of Sann Gate, one would notice that the fortifications, much like the Great Wall, go snaking and dipping over and around the hills to disappear from view in the distance. Following the river, about three kilometres from Sann Gate, one reaches another fort sitting on a low mound on the left bank of the stream. This is Miri Fort and behind it, on a high brown ridge clashing with the blue sky, is yet another fort. The very eagle's eyrie on the high ridge is named Shergarh.
As at Sann Gate, so too at Miri, does one see the same defensive dogleg together with a slot in the wall to house a large wooden beam that can be drawn out across the entrance and slotted into a similar opening in the opposite wall in order to block entrance. In the broad enceinte of Miri there are, besides a large new-fangled room for tourists built by Mr Syed back in the 1960s, some ruined hulks that date back to the period Miri was built.
To get a proper perspective of Rannikot, one would need to climb the ridge up to Shergarh. Then only does one appreciate that the estimation of its outer fortification wall enclosing some forty-five square kilometres is not exaggerated. Descend again to the valley floor, skirt the tiny Gabol settlement keeping it on your left and follow the Ranni River westward to reach a gate called Mohan. Beyond this gate, there lies an arid five kilometre-wide valley stretching north-south through which runs an ancient roadway: the one that connected Bhambor (Barbaricon of the anonymous writer of Periplus of the Erythrean Sea) with Kandahar (Arachosia).
Retrace your steps back to the Gabol settlement and follow a shepherd's path southward to reach the fortification called Shahper Gate. Though there is no proper gateway like Sann or Mohan, a narrow cleft in the fortification caused by natural decay affords entry and exit on this side. The majestic sweep of the Rannikot fortification is most impressive in this part. As well as that, you will remark on the newness of the structure here.
Now, here is a magnificent monument of gigantic size that very few Pakistanis know of. Indeed, until the late 1970s, other than the people of Sann or some very informed Sindhis, few others had ever heard of Rannikot. Even fewer actually knew where it lay. But the oddest thing about Rannikot is that history mentions it but twice. We first hear of it from Alexander Burnes who journeyed up the Sindhu River in the 1830s. Writing from hearsay because he never left the river to trek the arduous forty kilometres across the desert, he tells us Rannikot was deserted because of a scarcity of water. Burnes has nothing to say about the origin or any other aspect of the fort. Then we hear that Rannikot briefly afforded refuge to Mir Sher Mohammed, head of the Mirpur Khas Talpurs, after his defeat at the hands of Charles Napier in the Battle of Dubbo in April 1843.
Of course Talpur annals also mention Rannikot. They claim that the Talpurs built this fort in the early years of the 19th century at the huge cost of 1.2 million rupees. The Talpurs did many good things for Sindh, but this is manipulation of facts. This family ruled over Sindh for only fifty-nine years (1784-1843), a period simply insufficient for anyone to accomplish such a gigantic building project even if they possessed the finances to pay for it.
What the Talpurs did was that they repaired an already existing fortification, as is amply evident at Shahper to the south side of Rannikot. They also did major restoration work on Miri, perhaps even enlarging it to a considerable extent. What they did build anew was the hilltop castle of Shergarh the citadel of the last defence of Rannikot. There, so they would have thought, they would repair with their families and treasures in the event of attack. Surely Sher Mohammad Talpur too would have spent his brief sojourn up in that remarkable eyrie. After that brief moment in the sun Rannikot receded into anonymity again until the 1950s when the late G. M. Syed began to take interest in this remarkable monument and did much to promote it as a local tourist attraction. Sadly, the government, neither provincial nor federal, ever took notice of this magnificent monument.
This is all that we know of Rannikot for certain. But there are plausible conjectures and there are physical evidences that point to a great age of Rannikot. These we shall blog next.
posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,
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