The rising sun was reflecting in the car side mirror. I was parked at Babu Sabu exit of the motorway outside Lahore and waiting for Asif who had not taken my punctuality seriously. When he finally arrived, still more asleep than awake, we were already an hour behind schedule.
I had plans for Rohtas Fort since before Christ and it was nothing less than a shame that I, who had travelled as far as Khunjerab Pass and Cholistan Desert in the same year hadn’t been to Rohtas, the historical 16th century citadel less than four hours drive from Lahore. I can only blame my uninspired friends for this delay. Finally, Asif, a young and ambitious doctor cum writer from Abbotabad, fell prey to my praises of Rohtas and we decided to visit it together.
Haveli Maan Singh from Shah Chandwali Gate
It was a sunny December morning. Three hours on the road felt like thirty minutes and we didn’t play any music because Asif was around and he just won’t stop talking. Fortunately, he’s not boring. Well, most of the time that is. We took a break at a picturesque resort on the bank of river Jhelum. The dining area offers an excellent view of the river and its bridges. We had a nice cup of tea, freshened up and left for Rohtas which was just a few kilometers away. Between Jhelum and Dina, a prominent sign on G.T Road guides you to a small country road making its way through beautiful semi hilly landscape of the Potohar region. The road ends at Khwas Khani gate, one of the twelve gates of the great Rohtas Fort. At first glance I was absolutely mesmerized by the imposing gate and fortification. You don’t usually get to drive through a grand fort entrance, so I turned the car back and did it once again just for the pleasure of it. The gate didn’t lead into the fort straight away. It turned left in another high arch. A direct entrance into a fort was against defensive strategies in those days. Almost all gates of Rohtas are designed in this way. Inside the fort, the first thing you come across is a village, the illegal settlement which has existed for long but now strictly contained in a specific zone. The village has basic facilities including a post office. The fort is divided into two areas by a great stone wall. The smaller area was reserved for royalty and the greater for the military. Through the village, the road leads to Shah Chandwali gate which is the only access between two parts of the fort.
Kabuli Gate and flight of stairs coming down to Shahi Baoli
Sher Shah Suri (1486-1545) rose to power in Bengal in the late 1530s. In 1540, he marched on Delhi, the capital of fourteen years old Mughal Empire, drove Emperor Humayun out of India and founded the Sur Empire. Mughal princes were ruling Sind and Kabul and Shah Tahmasp Safavi of Persia offered refuge and help to Humayun. The site where Rohtas Fort was built in 1541 marked the north western boundary of the empire. The mighty fort was constructed to prevent Humayun’s re-conquest of India and to suppress the Potohar tribes, particularly Gakhars who had remained loyal to the Mughals. It was designed as an impregnable stronghold immune to infantry warfare, able to survive a siege for years and spacious enough to hold thousands of soldiers guarding the empire’s frontier. The fort was strategically located on Sher Shah Suri’s grand imperial highway connecting Afghanistan, entire north India and Bengal. Ironically, the short lived rule of Sher Shah Suri and his descendents proved to be not an end but just a brief interruption in three centuries of Mughal Empire. Humayun took Rohtas in 1555 on his way back to India and gave it to Gakhars. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the fort changed hands between subsequent empires ruling the area.
One word to describe Rohtas is grand. The fort is constructed strategically at a higher place around hills. Its boundary is irregularly shaped according to the hills. The structure is gigantic. Great walls which encircle an area of more than a hundred and fifty acres are an average ten to eighteen meters high and several meters thick. There are sixty eight great semi circular bastions and twelve grand gateways in the fort walls. The fort is a masterpiece of stone masonry. A fortification as formidable as this on such a grand scale was enough to strike terror in the hearts of enemies. Perhaps this was the reason that no major battles were fought for Rohtas and it has always changed hands more because of the weakness of its masters than the strength of its conquerors. It is one of the finest examples of military architecture from Islamic world.
A grown tree inside the well of Shahi Baoli
Sheeshi gate hidden behind walls
We entered through Shah Chandwali gate. It opens in the vast grounds of the fort. We started exploring from the walls and bastions which are accessed through terraces and stairs at different levels. There are quarters for soldiers along the walls. There is a fascinating view of surrounding hills and valleys from top of the bastions. Each arch shaped shield on the bastion is the size of a human being. There are frequent gun slots in the walls. I had never seen such grand fortifications before. It felt like legends have come true. We walked on the walls to the Shahi Masjid. It is a simple but imposing monument with similar architectural elements as the rest of the fort. Its façade has three pointed arches. Quranic verses are stone carved all over its facade and interior. The mosque has no domes or minarets. The main building is in its original state but the courtyard is highly renovated. Just beside the Shahi mosque there’s another gate called Kabuli darwaza because of its direction towards Kabul. Towers of the gate are modest in size compared to other gates and add to its beauty. The gate opens up to a vast area covered in thick bushes and wild greenery. There are ruins of a building which was probably used as royal living quarters and a long flight of stairs lead to shahi baoli, the royal stair well. Baoli was a fascinating concept. It was an intricate structure designed to store rain water. Out of three stair wells at Rohtas Fort, shahi baoli was used by the royalty. It is a work of art and served not just as water storage but a royal bath too. Arched corridors descend to the depth of the well. Chambers adjacent to the corridor are designed for taking bath or relaxation. It is a fascinating structure.
To our advantage, we had done no research on the fort so its architectural delights were really fascinating and surprising. Back inside the fort through Kabuli gate we proceeded along the wall and reached Sheeshi gate which looked no different from other gates at this point. We were in for a surprise however. The gate did not open outside the fort but into a strategic trap laid for the attacking enemy. From Sheeshi gate, a narrow corridor between great walls and bastions on both sides leads towards Langar Khani gate which is a trap door. If enemy breaks through the Langar Khani gate, it finds itself trapped in the narrow corridor of death, in the line of fire from bastions which wouldn’t let it reach the Sheeshi gate, real entrance to the fort. This was simply mind-blowing. Architectural and strategic genius of its builders is still astonishing nearly five centuries later. Sheeshi gate got its name from the blue glazed tiles used to decorate its exterior and Langar Khani gate was named for adjacent chambers which served as Langar Khana (area where food is stored, cooked and distributed). We walked through the narrow corridor which is now covered in thick bushes the height of a man, and reached Langar Khani gate. It opens to a beautiful panoramic view of the vast plain and river tributary making its way through fields. We climbed the stairs to the top of Sheeshi gate and I sat quietly for a few moments in the solitary window above its main arch. It offered such a beautiful view of nature, the plains, fields and river and man’s resistance against it, the fort, its walls, bastions and gates. I think I fell in love with Rohtas at this moment.
In Akbar’s time, Raja Maan Singh, one of his greatest courtiers ruled the area. During his governorship, he built a mansion at the highest point of the fort. It is believed that there were several other buildings inside the fort but partially demolished Haveli Maan Singh is perhaps the only surviving structure. A long staircase leads to the crown of the building, a domed chamber punctured with windows in all four walls. The haveli bears sharp resemblance with its contemporary royal monuments at Fatehpur Sikri near Agra. There are remnants of another monument called Rani Mahal next to Haveli Maan Singh.
The trap corridor between Sheeshi and Langar Khani gates
Bari Baoli from surface level
In our blissful ignorance, we thought that we’ve seen everything in Rohtas Fort. So on our way out, Asif got me to take his picture hanging out from a shield on top of Chandwali gate and we were set to leave for Lahore. Just out of curiosity, I thought of taking a look at kilometers of fort walls encircling the greater part of the fort meant for military use. We ventured a little outside Sohail gate right next to Chandwali gate. A romantic country road from this gate leads all the way to Tilla Jogiyan. A sign board indicating bari baoli (the big stairwell) was waiting for me beside the gate. I followed the signs and asked for directions until we reached a point beyond which we had to go on foot. Through the bushes, a path led to an open area. There was a great well deeper and wider than any I had ever seen in Lahore or elsewhere and a grand staircase with its high arches leading to the bottom of it. It was more magical than the strangest setting of Arabian nights. We descended down the never ending staircase. It became very cold and felt like we are deep inside earth’s belly. The staircase finally ended with an arched opening inside the well. I looked at the round patch of blue sky far, far away. It felt very strange and thrilling at the same time that we were standing at the bottom of a well. And I thought this was a glimpse of the magical orient which infatuated European travelers for centuries and continues to do so. I think in my old age, I’ll recall it as one of my most fascinating experiences.
Rohtas Fort was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1997. Incredible strength of its structure and durability of materials used in its construction and decoration have saved the fort from serious deterioration. Still, a small part of its south western fortification has collapsed and there are visible cracks in some other parts. A few commendable steps towards its restoration and preservation have been taken but a lot of maintenance work is still needed. There is an illegal settlement inside the fort which must be moved elsewhere. The fort occupies a vast wasteland. One fine way to highlight the importance of this historical treasure nationally and internationally and to make its vast area productive is to establish a university city within its walls. It will attract a lot of tourism and provide for much needed preservation.
The grand staircase of Bari Baoli
Arched opening into the well at the bottom of Bari Baoli
After the day’s exploration at Rohtas, we really needed a nice meal. Back on G.T Road, we stayed at the legendry Mian Ji Restaurant to relish their scrumptious daal, paratha and achaar which are not made on earth but brought down from the kitchens of heavens. A complete chapter is needed to do justice to the delicacies of Mian Ji. The sun had come down when we left for Lahore. Asif was mostly quiet for the rest of the journey because he had fallen in love with my playlist.
Until I hit the road again…