Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Sarai Chhimba

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If one travels southbound along National Highway 5, one passes by villages their names prefixed by the word ‘sarai’. If these villages do not sit exactly by the highway, they are some ways off. Dr Saifur Rahman Dar, the famous archaeologist, once told me that all these villages are set at the distance one could travel in the course of a day. That is, thirty kilometres give or take a few.

A couple of years ago, I went looking for Sarai Chhimba and found an impressive building from the time of Akbar the Great. But the walled caravanserai had been taken over by local people who are now living in it. The sad part was that every one of these residents was tearing up the place as they saw fit. The worst victim of this historical insensitivity was the destruction of the lovely, bulbous structures on the roof.

Then, my friend Zafar Abbas Naqvi, a police officer and a most remarkable person, took me to Chunian. Outside of town he showed me a Mughal building that now served as home to a farming family. The single room octagon with a domed roof stood alone amid farms. Zafar had believed it was a mausoleum, but there was no sarcophagus inside, nor any trace of the passage leading to the subterranean burial chamber. We came away undecided about the nature of the building.

Now my friend Ahmad Umair told me of a ‘mysterious’ building in a graveyard. It was mysterious because it stood alone just outside the village of Sarai Mughal midway between Bhai Pheru and Balloki.

We drove out on a misty November morning and after braving the potholed farm to market roads of the country, arrived at the graveyard. There amid the tombstones and towering above a couple of houses stood Umair’s mysterious building. I have seen buildings on square plans and octagonal plans. Here was one which was an irregular octagon – something I had not seen before. The four corners had been set back to form a face complete with the decoration of alcoves, the top and bottom ones being arched while in the middle was a square niche. From its architectural style, the building is clearly Akbari and was probably constructed in the 1580s.

The entrance was from the east. Inside, the building was once resplendent with colourful frescoes. Today only vestiges of that artistry remain. If nature has peeled off the plaster, ignorant, foolish man has played his part in equal measure: names scratched into the lime plaster show how utterly in contempt we hold our national heritage.

Once again, there were no graves inside nor too was there any indication of the entrance to the underground burial chamber. The interior had a bit of uneven brick paving. The young man who came around to talk to us had a fancy quasi-religious tale to tell us: this was a flourishing and beautiful city until a holy man cursed it and it went into decline. I did not ask him why it was that all holy men who we so revered were always vicious fiends who only destroyed prosperous cities and turned sweet water bitter. Why is it that in our culture a holy man must always have a malicious streak hiding just beneath a sham exterior of piety waiting to show itself at the drop of a hat?

I thought the story of this evil holy man had something to do with the monument. But it just sort of fizzled out without any connection. The man said that there never had been any graves inside. However, as Umair and I were leaving we met a malang who had taken up abode in the graveyard. He told us of having heard of two graves inside. Could it be that the bit of brick paving inside was the remains of those old graves?

This seems unlikely. We are superstitious people who do not destroy old graves. Since this was not a mausoleum, it could only be a resting place for passing travellers. Remember that the village is called Sarai Mughal. That is, at some point in the past there was a caravanserai here. It would have been very like the sarai at Chhimba but for some curious reason while the latter stands to this day, albeit in a sorry state, the one at Sarai Mughal has returned to dust.

There was no elderly person around to tell us if that long gone sarai was still part of local memory. But the story-telling youngster knew nothing of the sarai. Adjacent to the graveyard is a walled compound housing some government building. I don’t know why, but I have a hunch that the sarai stood at this spot until it was demolished for the new building.

I have seen this happening across the country. It is not only illiterate village louts who go about defacing national heritage; we also have government functionaries who have only contempt for history. I have seen historical buildings razed to build ugly monstrosities. I have also seen men in power utterly unmoved by the destruction of heritage, men who will not move a finger to stop vandalism.

For the time being, the monument of Sarai Mughal is holding its own. Soon some local family will move in to use it either as a byre or a storage room. They will fix a tin door to the façade and make holes in the walls for light fixtures. Then decay will begin. We went lured by the name of Sarai Mughal and we found an Akbari monument. But many years from now following the same lure, will not even find this small domed edifice.

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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