Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The Forgotten Hamlet

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I knew Domeli from my few years in the army back in the 1970s when we did exercises (or as the Americans would say manoeuvres) in that area. I had no real memory of the town itself, located near Jhelum, but I recall seeing ravine deer in the hills not far outside the built up area. That past though is another country, for now we have successfully shot most of our wildlife.

Domeli Railway Station with 102 Down coming through; notice the raised platform on the left from where the signal, hidden behind a knoll, could be checked

Recently my friend Haris Kayani hailing from Domeli phoned to tell me of the several spreading graveyards around his hometown. What could they possibly signify, he had asked. Large graveyards meant either a populous, prosperous town of the past or a staging post where caravans routinely tarried. The latter then pointed to a busy highroad through the area. Haris said I simply had to return to check out the burials of Domeli.

We drove out of Jhelum early to stop first of all at Domeli railway station, which is six kilometres from town and three kilometres off the N-5 (Grand Trunk Road). The station could have been named after any old place! Typical of Potohar railway stations, this one is set on a low plateau amid gullies that would normally be stark and brown, but were covered with verdure in mid August. In its loneliness it conjures up images of times long gone: of horseback surveyors in pith helmets and khaki uniforms, with puttees on their ankles, bent over a plane table and theodolite to plot the course of the steel line.

The facade of the house of Subedar Fateh Roz Khan, built in 1922

I made light of the station’s distance from Domeli and Haris said if they did not have this station, so many travellers bound for dozens of hamlets in the area would have had to walk all the way from Jhelum 32 kilometres to the south-east. The place looked deserted and as I set up my camera, Haris walked up to the open door of the station master’s office.

The master was in, he called. Fearing the man would say photography was prohibited, I quickly took my few shots. As I walked into the office, the young man, obviously untutored in the ways of a paranoid state, said a train was due in a few minutes and I ought to be ready to photograph it.

In around 2005 our railway minister having informed us by television that Afghanistan was no worse off without a railway, implied we could shut down our own. Then he did everything to make that happen. Save a few express trains on two main lines, all other services were closed and Domeli — served only by slow passenger trains even in better times — was a station where trains no longer stopped. But our young master at Domeli railway station was hopeful that glory days would soon return. I could only wish him luck.

Outside, two items caught my attention: a timber-and-steel platform just by the station building and the prescription sign with the place name that sits on either end of every railway station. Since the signal on the down side of the station was hidden behind the knoll, said the master, the platform was climbed to check its position. It fell into disuse when signalling became electronic. I climbed up the rickety ladder just to check if what the master said was right. It was.

The name board had Urdu (misspelled with the hard daal) on top and English below. But from close quarters I saw the old Gurmukhi and Devnagri script, etched into the timber. Since this is no longer the country of the past, these last two were now painted over.

Just outside Domeli, we stopped at the first graveyard. The burials, with keel-shaped topping stones, were the oldest and almost black with age and lichens. Unlike the 11th century burials with simple topping stones I have seen in other parts of the Potohar Plateau, here the topping stone was stylised and, seen end on, had the shape of the spade suit of cards. Though recent graves had the same design, the older ones sat apart because of their lime mortar.

As a child, Haris and his mates played among these graves. He said this was not the only burial site, there being more tombs in Domeli in those days than houses for the living. He pointed out another open area with a few tombstones where there were many more in days past. Gradually, the cemeteries — leaving one or two — were flattened and taken over by housing. The other thing they destroyed were the stone-lined water tanks, said Haris.

He remembered six or seven of them in and around Domeli, always brimming with water in those days of more rains. Mostly square in shape, they were all lined by finely dressed limestone blocks and shaded by immense banyan trees. Just the girth of the trees that Haris mentioned showed that the ponds were several hundred years old. But now only one pond, outside the village, remained. The rest, together with the trees, had fallen victim to ‘development’.

Near the graveyard I spotted a building with the prescription-yellow wash of government rest houses of old. That jogged an old memory: in 1974, I had slept in one of its rooms. We went in to find a gentleman poring over some files. On the wall hung the uniform of a sub-inspector and we paused to chat. The cordial and pleasant man kept office here since the building fell into disuse. And no, said he, the army no longer comes to Domeli on manoeuvres.

We drove into town and parked in an open space in front of a nice-looking house painted pale yellow and green, with a pillared veranda. On top it said ‘Roz Building, 1936’. This was Kayani country and the house was built by Colonel Sir Sher Mohammad Kayani whose son, Tariq Kamal, headed Pakistan Navy in the 1990s.

At Roz Building, we turned right into an alley with a massive vaulted roof above. Beyond was the Domeli main bazaar with all of two stores in business. The rest were shuttered. Much of the business had moved to the new-fangled shopping centre outside town where we had paused when we had entered Domeli.

We went into a side alley and up an incline, past the barred windows of an ordinary-looking house. This was the jailhouse built by the honorary magistrate Raja Mamara Khan. Here — so Haris had it from his elders — they incarcerated local criminals. Above it was the residence of the magistrate with a lovely little lawn and a veranda with a breathtakingly beautiful facade. Crafted from blocks of limestone, it was luxuriously rich with curvilinear forms, bunches of grapes, flowers — even acanthus leaves — and vases. Mamara Khan had money to hire stone masons who knew their craft well. And he had taste to match.

On we went into the alleys and Haris showed me house after padlocked house. So many families, like Haris’ own, had moved away for business or education. Now they returned only for weddings and funerals. But because Haris lived in nearby Jhelum, he had kept in close touch with the old hometown and knew everyone and everything there was to know about Domeli.

We backtracked and, in the alley behind Roz Building, paused at another beautiful but padlocked house. The plaque named its owner: Subedar Sahib Bahadur Raja Fateh Roz Khan. Built in January 1922, the vocabulary of the decoration on the facade was identical to the one we had seen earlier. If magistrate Mamara Khan had kept the name of the stone mason secret, the Subedar Sahib gave it out for all to see: Mistri Fazal Hussain.

The last word on the plaque was ‘Domeli’. Not with the palatal daal of Urdu but the softer one. I had long thought about it and now it was known: the softer ‘do’ (in Urdu) for ‘two’ and ‘mel’ for ‘junction’ is a common word for towns located in hills where two streams unite. We find a dozen or so of domels in areas where Indo-Aryan languages like Punjabi, Hindko, Gujri and Kashmiri are spoken.

Domeli Railway Station with 102 Down coming through; notice the raised platform on the left from where the signal, hidden behind a knoll, could be checked

Raj surveyors and engineers, either making their maps or building the railway, pronounced the name with the palatal d. Their unthinking local assistants, translating the name back into the vernacular, faithfully followed the master to use the palatal daal instead of the soft one. And so quite like Pakpattan — meaning Hallowed Ford on the River — became a meaningless name with the hard double t, Domeli, too, lost its connotation.

Indeed, my U-502 quarter-inch map shows that in its correct pronunciation, the name did mean something. The two streams collectively known as Malal Nala, flowing out of the Nili Hills (commonly known as the Sohawa Hills) north of Domeli, flow one on the east and the other on the west side of Domeli. Just below the hamlet both unite. The first settlers who thought of putting down roots here some centuries ago, called their new home after the junction of the two rivers.

Coming back to Haris’ initial question, why were there so many and such spreading burial sites in and around Domeli? That could only mean that Domeli once lay on an ancient highway. In April 1607, Jehangir, the fourth Mughal, having camped at the hilltop monastery of Tilla Jogian in Jhelum, came down this way en route to Attock. His diary does not mention Domeli, but he does tell us that he marched through lovely glens resplendent with oleander before reaching ‘Bhakra’. This is none other than the hamlet and railway station of Bakrala just six kilometres north-west of Domeli.

The king was travelling by the old Rajpatha or Royal Highway whose ‘kos minars’ — distance markers — and inns Chandragupta Maurya had repaired and for the upkeep of which he had an exclusive department. This was the same road our British masters wrongly attributed to Sher Shah Suri, an error we have blindly followed.

Despite sitting on the most important east-west highway in Punjab, Domeli was somehow missed by Raj gazetteer writers. It does not feature in the several I have checked. Indeed, even the Jhelum district gazetteer of 1904 misses to mention this lovely little hamlet in its ‘Places of Interest’ section.

Domeli’s main bazaar; just a shadow of what it was once

Domeli did not feature in history very likely because it was just a staging post where passing caravans paused briefly. The graveyards contain the bones of the unfortunate travelling merchant, soldier of fortune, eloping lovers or just some carefree and footloose vagrant whose time was up when they fetched up under the walls of the nearby inn. Surely, many years ago, one could have spotted the crumbling remains of the caravanserai first raised on the orders of the great Chandragupta. It may well have stood on the very spot of the Raj rest house — itself now ramshackle — where I had overnighted in 1974. But all that is now irretrievably forgotten.

We only know that not many centuries past, these glens resounded to the tramp of marching feet, the clink of armoury, the lilt of the itinerant merchant’s song. And, in the caravanserai on the hillock overlooking Domeli, the wandering minstrel would have sung to tired wayfarers the ballads of Puran Bhagat and Raja Rasalu.

Also in Dawn

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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

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