Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Retracing ancient heritage

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My young friend Ahmad Umair has some business along the Ravi south of Lahore where he frequently travels on roads that are not on the itinerary of most travellers. One day he mentioned a place called Sarai Mughal outside which he had seen a domed building.

A couple of years earlier, I had been to Sarai Chhimba, near Jambar about thirty kilometres southwest of Thokar Niaz Beg and just off N-5. Talking at that time to my guru, the preeminent archaeologist Dr Saifur Rahman Dar, I was reminded that there were once upon a time inns at convenient intervals along all major intercity roads. In those days of travel either on foot or by horse or even bullock cart, a convenient distance for a day’s journey was ten kos or between thirty to forty-five kilometres.

Now, Multan has long been the first city in our part of Punjab since the early Middle Ages. Lahore, in comparison was a minor provincial town. That having been said, the modern darling of Punjab was gradually coming into its own by the 17th century. For the Mughals, both Lahore and Multan were important centres for many reasons, not least of which was revenue collection. And so there existed between the cities a good deal of two-way traffic.

That warranted the string of inns between the two cities.

But Umair was certain that there was no inn. His ramblings in the area had uncovered only the domed building standing forlorn amid a graveyard. And so, with Umair playing guide, we drove off down Multan Road to Balloki village via Bhai Pheru. From the latter we continued south along the road to Halla and at about ten kilometres from Balloki went through the village called Sarai Mughal.

Pausing in the bazaar we made inquiries about the old sarai. Folks looked at us strangely. I was reminded of the time twenty years earlier in Balochistan when I excitedly huffed uphill to check out the Chappar Rift railway and one of the two Pathan youngsters sunning themselves on the slope asked what I was looking for. I said I was looking for the railway and the man said to his friend, “The man’s crazy. He doesn’t know the train hasn’t run in decades here!”

In that same way, I felt, the men thought we sought the sarai to perhaps be put up for the night. There was no sarai, they said.

An older man later informed us that he remembered ruins of a sarai that have now been built over. Other than that he could tell us nothing. But of course, he added, there was the old Mughal tomb just outside the village.

This was the very one that Umair had explored on his travels.

A little outside the village, by a government school, and surrounded by a graveyard there stood the lofty building with its squat dome. Other than the lime plaster eroded from the plinth and in patches from one side, the building was in good fettle. In fact, if the plaster on the dome had not been blackened by age, I could have said it had been laid only a few years earlier. In my layman’s estimation the building dated to the last quarter of the 16th century, that is, the final years of the reign of Akbar the Great.

The interior of the square building had a bare floor: there was no burial. But the walls were ornate with Mughal-style frescoes. Faded, discoloured and chipped, they had also been marred by cow dung patties.

Earlier, Umair and I had scouted around for the entrance to the basement burial chamber outside but had found no trace of it. We concluded that though it had been erected as a funerary monument for some passing nobleman (or someone close to him), the interment had actually not taken place.

A young man, who lived next door and whose family plastered the walls of this historic building with cow dung and also used it to pen the cattle, came around to talk to us. No one, he affirmed, was buried in the building. Nor too had stories been invented about the holy personage who will without doubt one day miraculously be discovered to have been buried within “since the time of the grandfathers”. He will grant wishes and acquire a following and some charlatan will enrich himself with the offerings the tomb will receive.

Talk turned to the disappeared sarai. I have seen in Sarai Chhimba as well as in Rajo Pind (the sarai outside Rohtas Fort) that people have destroyed the old building to use the bricks for their homes. The process continues as ignorant people destroy priceless pieces of our built heritage that successive corrupt governments are simply not interested in preserving.

My mind flew to the Jahangir period caravan-serai near my ancestral village Uggi in Jalandhar district. In 2010, the government of India was wrapping up an extensive restoration project on it. This building was comparable with our own Sarai Chhimba, being of about the same antiquity and equal grandeur.

But here in Pakistan, we permit people to lay waste what heritage we have. Shame on us that we have lost Sarai Mughal.

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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