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Heritage: Holding the fort

June 23, 2013

Built by Sher Shah Suri in the mid-16th century, the Rohtas Fort is an exceptional example of the Muslim military architecture of central and southern Asia. It is a splendid heritage site with no historical building of similar grandeur between Lahore and Peshawar.

Located on a hill near the city of Jhelum, close to the Kahan river, the garrison fort was constructed to block Emperor Humayun’s return to India after Sher Shah had defeated him in the battle of Kanauj. It is about four kilometres in circumference and the first example of the successful amalgamation of Pakhtun and Hindu architecture in the Indian subcontinent. The strength of the fort can be gauged from the height of the outer wall that varies between 10 and 18 metres and has a thickness of 10 and 13 metres making it almost impregnable — though it never really came under assault.

Despite the fort being on Unesco’s World Heritage List, the archaeology department, with its limited resources and capacity, is struggling to maintain and operate the heritage sites that it is entrusted with under the law. The Himalayan Wildlife Foundation (HWF), an organisation working for the preservation of natural and cultural resources in the country, has taken up the task of providing support to the archaeology department in this regard. HWF has, in the past, undertaken projects for the restoration and conservation of portions of the fort, setting up of visitor facilities and a museum as well as improving the quality of life of the small community that lives inside the fort.

The present scheme for the fort’s preservation is funded by USAID and is a one-year project to incorporate adequate capacities, systems and procedures for sustainable management of the site. Activities under way include repair and revamping of the museum building, upgrading of equipment and facilities for landscape management as well as repair and up-grading of the essential visitor infrastructure such as toilets and pathways.

Dr Anis-ur-Rahman, the CEO of HWF, tells us, “Qila Rohtas is a unique military building in the subcontinent as legacies of three religious groups can be seen here. The fort was built by the Muslim emperor Sher Shah Suri, and there is a beautiful mosque with exquisite calligraphy inside the fort. Secondly, the Man Singh Haveli inside the fort was built by the famous Hindu general in emperor Akbar’s court. Moreover, Sikh influence can also be seen inside the fort as two of their very holy structures can be seen here — one a spring attributed to Guru Nanak himself called “Choa Guru Nanak”, and second the birthplace of the wife of the 10th Guru, Gobind Singh, called Janamastan Mata Kaur.

Heritage sites all over the developed world have two distinct functions, one is the conservation and preservation of the built structure with basic facilities for visitors, and second, an adaptive reuse of the buildings to maintain their functionality and utility. “We hope to achieve both these objectives by setting up systems and procedures for protection, operation and maintenance of the fort as well as training the staff of the department of archaeology,” explained Mumtaz Alam, an official of HWF.

According to Unesco, “the World Heritage sites belong to all the people of the world irrespective of the territory in which they are located.” The inclusion of the Rohtas Fort in Unesco’s World Heritage List is proof of the importance of this majestic fort as a historically and culturally important building. Kudos to the HWF for their efforts in preserving and restoring this splendid fortress.