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Umerkot: Lost in history

Updated April 19, 2015

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Umerkot Fort in a state of ruin today
Umerkot Fort in a state of ruin today

There is a hoof mark at the entrance of the Umerkot Fort, an imprint of something that had happened there many years ago. The mark is from the mare of Rana Ratan Singh Sodha, a former ruler of the area, who revolted against the British and was charged with treason and hanged at this very fort in the 1850s.

When the Rana was being taken to the gallows prepared for him atop a new and high platform overlooking the entire city, his mare (perhaps sensing something terrible was about to happen) went berserk at the entrance and banged into the bastion wall. In its frenzy it kicked quite high and one of its hoofs even damaged a bit of the wall. That’s the mark that you still find there today.

According to history, when the British defeated the Talpurs and marched into Sindh in 1843, they appointed a local leader or chieftain by the name of Syed Mohammad Ali to collect revenue for them from the people of Umerkot. He imposed many extra taxes which were seen as unwanted and unfair. That’s when Rana Ratan challenged the British and refused to pay the taxes, becoming an icon for rebellion amongst his people. In 1847, Rana ended up killing the British-appointed Syed Mohammad Ali.


Umerkot, the Gateway to the Tharparkar desert, once played a pivotal role in the history of the subcontinent


After being on the run for about six months he was finally captured. The punishment for disloyalty was death but Rana was pardoned by Queen Victoria after some lobbying by his influential Hindu friends. But Rana rejected the pardon and chose to die as a rebel rather than, as he said, face his people as a coward. He said he had done what he did for his people and was not ashamed of having committed any crime in that cause.

The Sodha family crest above the fort’s main entrance
The Sodha family crest above the fort’s main entrance

Upon the platform in the middle of the fort, Rana Ratan Singh was asked his last wish. Rana only had one. “Untie my hands,” he said. Then Rana raised his hands to his face, fixed his moustache by twirling both its ends and said he was ready. Hung from the gallows until death, his lifeless form could be seen from all over Umerkot, exactly what the British wanted, in order to make an example of him and instill fear in the hearts of the people. Minutes after his death, his mare, which had collapsed after its initial reaction at the fort entrance, died too.

The fort walls were thick enough to carry horse buggies
The fort walls were thick enough to carry horse buggies

The fort, or Umerkot Qila as it is called, was handed over to the government of Pakistan upon Partition. Today it houses a circuit house, a jail and a museum along with a British monument. Kunwar Karni Singh Sodha, the Rana’s seventh generation descendant, pulls up at its gates and looks around. His family crest, depicting a sun, engraved at the top of the entrance is still there.

The steep climb to the platform built by the British in the middle of the fort and the gallows at its centre
The steep climb to the platform built by the British in the middle of the fort and the gallows at its centre

The young heir to the Rana Jagir is well-read on the history of the place and his own family association with it. The fort had belonged to the Sodha family since 1226 when they first conquered it. Slowly, he climbs up the now-crumbling steps to the platform from where his ancestor was hung and surveys his surroundings. “The qila is in ruins now but it has seen better days,” he smiles pointing towards its citadel. “The walls were thick and broad enough for horse carts to ride on.”

The hoof mark of Rana Ratan’s mare above a political poster from recent times
The hoof mark of Rana Ratan’s mare above a political poster from recent times

The museum built by the government inside the fort houses some local jewellery of Tharparkar, pictures of Jain temples along with paintings of the Mughal King Akbar, his father Humayun and mother Hamida Banu. “School history books tell us about the great Moghul King Akbar but fail to mention Umerkot, his birthplace, anywhere. This place played a big role in the survival of the Moghul dynasty, otherwise it would have all ended with Humayun after his defeat at the hands of Sher Shah Suri.

Humayun was escaping to Persia with about one hundred men. By the time he arrived in Umerkot he was down to 20 to 25 men and they were exhausted and sick. The then ruler of Umerkot, Rana Parshad Singh Sodha, gave him refuge. He told his people that Humayun may be a defeated king, but he was a king nevertheless and deserved their respect. It is said that Humayun stayed in Umerkot for seven months, regaining his strength under the protection of the Hindu Rana, until he was able to once again build an army and march on Kabul and Kandahar. While it would still take years before the Mughals regained the throwwwne of Delhi, it was the refuge that Umerkot provided that allowed this dynasty to survive at all. This gives this now-crumbling fort an indelible place in the history of the subcontinent.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, April 19th, 2015

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