For whom the bell tolls

The 16th day of April 1853 is special in the Indian history. The day was a public holiday. At 3:30 pm, as the 21 guns roared together, the first train carrying Lady Falkland, wife of Governor of Bombay, along with 400 special invitees, steamed off from Bombay to Thane.

Ever since the engine rolled off the tracks, there have been new dimensions to the distances, relations and emotions. Abaseen Express, Khyber Mail and Calcutta Mail were not just the names of the trains but the experiences of hearts and souls. Now that we live in the days of burnt and non functional trains, I still have few pleasant memories associated with train travels. These memoirs are the dialogues I had with myself while sitting by the windows or standing on the doors as the train moved on. In the era of Cloud and Wi-fi communications, I hope you will like them.


Rohtas Fort near Jhelum – Photo courtesy Creative Commons
Rohtas Fort near Jhelum – Photo courtesy Creative Commons

The train is supposed to move from Dina to Kaloowal and Kala Gojran to reach its destination, Jhelum, but it does not.  Like most of the mythologies still in narration here, a mix of haunted voices, captivates the traveler and paralyses his intentions. There is indeed something magical about the cities that flourish on the hills and by the rivers.

In the dusty record rooms of revenue department, log books mention a reservation, Boorha Jungle, next to Dina. A road departs from this place to a wonderland called Rohtas. The weary bridge on the river Kahan is reminiscent of the cultural amnesia of the nation. Constant deprivation of basic amenities has devoid us of aesthetic curiosity. The sense to curate, preserve and educate on the cultural history is non-existent. Once a part of GT Road, Rohtas lost its clout after British engineers altered the ancient route. The fort also suffered as the road drifted further right.

On an expanse of about five kilometres, it is one of the architectural master-pieces of the sub-continent. Within the confines of invincible walls, a small populace inhabits this place, since the construction started, and marks its time calmly. These few good men have refused to believe that times, like the waters of river Kahan, have changed. They are Punjabi alternative to the abandoned soldiers of Alexander, dwelling in Kailash, who live on the Macedonian promise to return one day.

The tradition of developing two cities with the same name at the extents of the conquered empire was quite in vogue those days and Sher Shah Suri was no exception. To compliment the Rohtas Garh on the far side of his kingdom in Bihar, he developed this sleeping beauty and named it Rohtas.

The story of Humayun’s succession is rather interesting. The young prince fell ill and had little chance to survive. Babar was told about the Indian tradition of offering something substantial to affect a change in divine decision. The nobility at the court thought he would offer Koh-i-Noor but he was a father of another kind. An avid reader of Rumi, he declared that he could not present stones to God and the only thing worth the life of Humayun, was his own. The Padhshah of India is said to have spent all night on the prayer mat and in the morning circled the bed of ailing Humayun. Within hours, the prince started showing signs of improvement and the king fell sick.

The throne had cost Humayun his father but India has always been asking for more. Sher Khan, a vassal of Mughals formerly, took up arms and dared him for a decisive battle. The battle did come at Qannauj where Mughals were badly defeated. With a view to block the Northern route and minimise chances of Humayun’s retreat, he ordered a fort to be constructed. Most of the orders issued by the Suri King took little or no delays in implementation, the fort construction, however, was taking long. The local Gakhars had promised their allegiance to Babar so they refused to facilitate the construction. In a fist of fury, Sher Shah pledged to nail Gakhars for the world to remember. Now that the Gakhars have settled abroad, the fort is still a reminder of Afghan fury.

After the Gakhar’s denial, Sher Shah brought forth the man, we now know as Todal Mal. A Kaisath Khatri by caste, he announced that anyone who brings a brick would be rewarded by a gold coin. After few weeks, people worked all day only to earn a copper penny. What Soori sword could not win, Todar Mal coins secured.  Despite his love for nailing Gakhars, Sher Shah did not live to see the fort completed. Todar Mal, like a good technocrat, had no difficulty in mending fences with Mughals.

In spite of being a trusted governor of Sher Shah, Todar Mal quickly gained acceptance in Mughal court. He ascended to the coveted post of Revenue Minister and subsequently was inducted in Nav Ratan (A council of nine gifted intelligent people that Akbar always kept his side). Todar Mal introduced many reforms in India. He standardised all the measurements, promoted Persian as official language and conditioned the rate of revenue with the produce in each season. His standard system was based on barley corn and was adopted by East India Company. The same was approved by Sir Thomas Munroe and is still practiced in most of the rural India. Though Sher Khan tried his best to block the Mughal entry into India, but the fate of Indian sub-continent has never been an individual decision, alone. A few years later, Sher Shah died and his empire succumbed to rivalries. Humayun marched back to revitalise the house of Mughals. The fort which cost almost a quarter of a billion, welcomed Humayun with Ghakahrs by his side.

Even if it was possible to evade the sensation of Rohtas, reaching Jhelum remains a dream. By rain-washed garrison, moist alleys and the hustling city, a road leads to Darapur, unnoticed. Passing through Sanghoi and Radiyala Hardev, it reaches Tilla Jogian. There are more stories attached to this hill feature than what appears. These narratives are seconded by the historical manuscripts as well as local myths. The teela has been the seat of Budhist monks, the first school of Ayurvedic medicine, the temple of Sun-god and the meditation centre for Kan Phatta Jogis. Ranjha came here to become a Jogi under Guru Gorkahnath and so did the hero of another folk lore, Pooran Bhagat. Guru Nanak Dev sat here for forty days in solitude. Alexander addressed his troops before marching any further. The ruins of balcony constructed by Ranjit Singh in remembrance of Guru Nanak Dev and the temples and baths, built almost a millennium ago, can still be seen.

The famous historian Al-Beiruni also visited this place and lately there was a rest house which now stands abandoned. But this fact sheet is for the historians and archeologist, what satiates the soul is the solace it offers and the spell it casts…on lion-hearts and broken-hearts, alike.

Reaching Jhelum has never been easier. With soldiers and saints en route, either you have to lay your life or pledge one.


The author is a federal government employee.



The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Muhammad Hassan Miraj is a federal government employee.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

More From This Section

PM orders judicial probe into attack on Hamid Mir

The government also announced a reward of Rs10 million for any information leading to the arrest of culprits.

UN officials confirm staff members go missing in Pakistan

Two local employees working for the Unicef were suspected to have been kidnapped from Karachi.

Punjab govt accused of being soft on militants

Senior officials say the govt has been “sleeping over” regular intelligence reports on militants' presence in Punjab.

Slain ANP leader’s house attacked; Police foil terror bid

Unknown gunmen attacked the house of the late Mian Mushtaq late last night and abducted three of his relatives.

Comments are closed.

Comments (41)

August 6, 2012 11:46 am
The fort is great monument but alas, is not being maintained as a national heritage should be.
August 6, 2012 10:06 am
August 6, 2012 10:01 am
Keep em coming, I really enjoy the peacefulness surrounding these writings.
August 6, 2012 12:36 pm
Till seventies whenever we watched Pak TV punjabi dramas, we used to hear Guru Nanak's quotes in their dialogues. Where have all those secular Punjabi musalmans gone? Hats off to this writer who has so beautifully condensed the history of Punjab of over two millenniums in few heart touching paragraphs.
August 6, 2012 1:56 pm
A beautiful piece of writing .. More a piece of art I must say ..
August 6, 2012 1:38 pm
Syed Abrar Najmi
August 6, 2012 1:36 pm
Yes it is very true that it is not being preserved as it should be.
August 7, 2012 5:50 am
Superb!. Co owing the same history is rare in Pakistani media nowadays. Thanks DAWN for providing space for such warm writings.
August 7, 2012 6:44 am
Simply Informative piece written about the history. i am always eager to know about those historical facts and stories about which i am unaware. i am searching several online books to widen my database and got educational books at dekho which helped me alot
August 6, 2012 10:16 am
Beautifully written!!!
August 6, 2012 2:08 pm
In that wilderness Among those rugged hills, Thorny trees and parched riverines You sit atop a hill, Like a majestic queen, Grand and awe inspiring, A royal relic of bygone times. You look forlorn O Rohtas! In those glory days of your grandiose past Lived in your lap Kings, queens, courtiers and troops They gave you company and enlivened your heart Now silence, a majestic silence Shrouds your corridors and ramparts Turning your walls and watch towers Into mute witnesses of history, of events grand or small And leaving you to waste you beauty in the wilderness Or leaving you to become A solitary sentinel of nothingness
Abdus Salam Khan
August 6, 2012 2:28 pm
Let us remember why Al Barouni visited this Tilla; he wanted a hill top from where he could see the horizon. Tilla provided such a paltform. Al Barouni had no difficulty in taking celestial measurements and thus arrived at a remarkably accurate figure for the circumference of the earth.
Iftikhar H. Malik
August 7, 2012 8:58 am
Alexander passed through Kalar Kahar and went further down towards Nandna across the Salt Range. Kattas is one of the oldest Hindu temples in the world and lies closer to Bhaun (Bhawan!}. Pir Kattas has a stream which was believed to have been formed from the tears of Vishnu. Al-Beruni wrote his masterpiece, Kitabul Hind, at Nandana. Suri fought the Ghkhars who were led by Sultan Sarang Khan, who along with his several sons is buried in the Rawat Fort. Other than Rawat, Pharwala has a grand Ghakhar Fort. just above the Soan River when it emerges from the Murree Hills. Two miles from Rawat towards Lahore and a few hundreds meters to the left is the famed Mankiyala Stupa, built by Emperor Ashoka two thousands years ago. Some holy relics were buried here. Master Tara Singh's birth place is a few miles further down the same direction where the road towards Chakwal meets the GT Road. People who live in the village within the Rohtas Fort were/are of Persian origin who were deputed by King Tahmasap with Humayun to help him against Sher Shah Suri. Inside the Fort, you have mosques, a Hindu temple and a bawali (staired well used by Hindus) plus Maan Singh's Haveli. Tilla Jogian was visited by Emperor Akbar to offer his regards to the sadhus living up here. Across the Jhelum is Jalalpur, where Alexander buried his favourite horse after fighting raja Porus. An area rich in history and wonderful past! If you need to read a lovely fiction--90% true in fact--please read What the Body Remembers--a masterpiece by my worthy friend, Shauna Singh Baldwin. Her Naani was from Pari Darwaza, not far from Rohtas and Dina. In Zagreb (Croatia) thanks to Arieb Azhar I met an aritiste three months back whose name is Dina and she spent two months in Dina a few years back. I did write some of the historic stuff in my People and Places which may not be available now but The History of Pakistan (Greenwood Press, 2008) carries some early rich history spread over various epochs. The piece by our author is a very good effort to seek out our rich past which we must share and celebrate given our own plural ethos and identities.
August 6, 2012 3:02 pm
Good to see some one is interested in our joint history. Well written. Thank You.
August 6, 2012 3:13 pm
Superb!! Love this writing style and content and appreciate you sharing your knowledge.
August 6, 2012 3:49 pm
what a piece!
Cyrus Howell
August 6, 2012 4:48 pm
The British invented the blast furnace in 1709 making structural iron bridges possible from foundries, and later steel bridges of which molten iron is a large part.. The steam engine was improved by Watt in 1769 making steam power at sea and on land available in the 19th century. It was not until 1855 when the Bessemer steel furnace (or steel process) was invented that structural steel for tall buildings, and production steel rails and modern locomotive parts were made possible. The earliest steam driven trains were a novelty. In 1853 trains were running but were still a work in progress. It was not until 1888 the Turkish Central Asian Railway was built and in 1895 the Russian Trans Siberian Railway was completed. India, Europe and the United States were ahead of the game. There can never be a good film about India in the 19th century without at least one locomotive in it.
Mohammad Khan
August 6, 2012 7:31 pm
What a facinating history of Punjab and India. In late 1958, I once travelled by train to Rawalpindi and passed through Jhelum and was told a river once flowed through here and that there was a Fort made by Sheer Shah Suri behind the trees on the eastern bank of the river which had dried up now. Anyone coming from Afghanistan will cross the river and the Soldiers in the Fort will see for miles around. Friends will be welcome and facilitated in crossing and enemies will be intercepted.
August 6, 2012 8:13 pm
Love the way you write. Keep up the good work.
August 6, 2012 10:31 pm
Amazed by the story. Compelling and informative.
S. A. M.
August 6, 2012 10:38 pm
It is beautifully written. The writer has narrated his account in such a way that the reader can feel the serenity of the place. It is really amazing to learn that so many important people in the history to visit or pray or meditate in this place.
Farook uz ZAMAN
August 6, 2012 11:42 pm
Superbly delivered from the soul that is divine. Please browse An inspired Mystic Poet-Philosopher Ghazzallist. Magnum opus are 800 page Urdu Ghazals ""Mere Soorat Tera Aaina"" and 6-- page Farsi ghazals. 100 ghazals of her translated into Farsi in Iran considered "waznee" like past Masters. She has also recorded her self-composed Bangla and Udru ghazals.The miracle is that the Mystic cannot read or write Urdu or Farsi but inspired to compose exquisite ghazals.She is now composing in French.Ilhami indeed. If you are interested, i could send you sample Ghazals.
Usman Chaudhry
August 7, 2012 1:16 pm
Well just to add further, Dina and Mangla are famous for Mangla Devi's kind hearted raaj and Mangla Temple and fort are at the banks of beautiful Mangla lake. In the adjacent areas, there is the fort of Ramkot and mausoleum of Shahbudhin Ghauri (in dist Chakwal) and one of the largest salt range: Khewra mines. Two of India's prime ministers Inder Kumar Gujral and M.M Singh roots are from dist Jehlum. Last but not the least the picture on the blog is that of Maan Singh Haveli. Others can add if i have left something.
Satish Sharma
August 7, 2012 3:04 am
well written .. wish to see it some day!
August 7, 2012 3:14 am
Yet another brilliant piece of writing! I had no idea history was readable! You sum it up so beautifully that is sounds intelligible and delightful to everyone! Thank you sir! Keep on writing! P.s The ending lines of you article/stories are always so powerful that it is sometimes enough to just read them. They're contributing a lot to my personal diary.
August 7, 2012 3:19 am
Yet another brilliant piece of writing! I had no idea that history was readable. You sum it all up so beautifully that it sounds delightful and intelligible to everyone. Thank you sir! Keep on writing! P.s The ending lines of you articles/stories are always so very powerful and magical that it is some times enough to just read them. They are contributing a lot to my personal diary.
August 7, 2012 4:19 am
Yes, you are right. The calculation details are now in the internet. It is solid work on geometry-trigonometry.
August 7, 2012 5:07 am
Very beautifully narrated history is secular poetic reality of Indias rich heritage, my hats off to the author, wish both India and Pakistan develop this monument as a heritage for the world easily accessible to students and lovers of history as well as tourists. S. Mann
August 7, 2012 3:45 pm
If we co-ow the same history why not co-ow the same geography once again..just a thought...
August 7, 2012 3:51 pm
Origionating from Sohawa-Jehlum, living near DIna(6 years in Mangla) and visiting Rohtas Fort in my childhood, I never know so much history is attached to this place. Now living in Canada for many years, I thank you and the writer to give us the glimps of our past and of the land which we origionally belong to.
August 7, 2012 4:38 pm
Just beautiful. Very nicely written. I can appreciate this article even more, being lucky that a friend of mine took me to Rohtas.
August 8, 2012 11:03 am
Well, the underline of Todar Mal`s reform was to introduce singular language throughout the court. It had nothing to do with regards to any particular language. I hope that is OK now.
August 7, 2012 6:04 pm
I just hope that the time comes for Indians and Pakistanis to be able to explore their respective heritages across borders.. Not just visiting ancestral villages and graves of elders, but these milestones in our turbulent history which have seen more ups and downs than any comparable civilization.
August 7, 2012 6:20 pm
"Todar Mal introduced many reforms in India. He standardised all the measurements, promoted Persian as official language" But why is promoting Persian in India considered a reform? Otherwise Very good article.
Dr Ravi Mandalam
August 7, 2012 9:24 pm
Superb piece of writing and very informative. I am an Indian settled in Malaysia and follow the news from home on subcontinental newspapers. The only two newspapers that are really and consistently high class for their quality and content, are DAWN from Pakistan and THE HINDU from India. I hope one day, when the border between the two nations is only a check point and not a barrier, I can visit some of these historic spots in Pakistan. There are many relics of the short-lived Sur dynasty in my hometown Delhi such as the Salimgarh fort near the Red Fort, the Purana Qila including its Sher Mandal, Qala-i-Kuhna Masjid and the Sher Shah Gate. Sher Shah Suri himself rests in faraway Sasaram in the state of Bihar.
Shujaat Ayub Khan
August 7, 2012 9:50 pm
Good job .Love your style of writting.Keep up the good work.
August 8, 2012 12:39 am
good one yaar
Azam Raina
August 8, 2012 1:42 am
Good research, you should be invited to an interfaith presentation
August 8, 2012 10:39 am
please read the previous episode of the same series ....its about Dina and Mangla
August 8, 2012 10:40 am
please read the previous episode of the same series ....its about Dina and Mangla
August 8, 2012 10:41 am
Thank You, I am honored and will definitely like to attend one
Explore: Indian elections 2014
Explore: Indian elections 2014
How much do you know about Indian Elections?
How much do you know about Indian Elections?