Believed to be built in the 11th century by Sultan Kaigohar Gakhar on the ruins of an ancient fort, the Pharwala Fort in Potohar, Pakisan is the most unassailable fort in South Asia. It is well protected by high ridges on one end and deep ravines on the other. While its fortification wall has disappeared from many places, its opulence is visible from the walls and gates on the North Western side.
The fort has long been associated with the fearless clan of Gakhars, who are known for their bravery and fighting skills. The Gakhars have played an important role in setting the course of history in the Potohar region across the centuries, more often routing their opponents. This, however, has resulted in fierce rivalries with neighboring clans, most notably with the Janjuas of the Potohar region. It was on their advice that the great Mughal emperor Babur launched a campaign to conquer the Gakhar stronghold in 1519.
Gakhars, despite their strategic positioning, could not stand the might of Babur’s army and escaped through narrow gorges on the northern side of the fort.
However, an accord was met between Babur and the Gakhar chieftains’ which had lasting consequences over the politics of the region. As it turned out, the Gakhars remained loyal to the Mughals and even supported Humayun in his exile. Shershah, who took over the rest of the Mughal Empire, could never take away Pharwala Fort from the resilient Gakhars and later ordered the construction of the Rohtas Fort to quell Gakhar's resistance.
Whenever I have some time off from work in Islamabad, I visit the historic landmarks scattered across the Potohar landscape. There is so much to do there that it can keep any tourist occupied for several days.
One of the oldest forts in the region, it doesn't attract as many visitors as the more popular and easily accessible Rohta and Rawat forts. But once you visit it and hear the stories narrated by the locals and guides, you realise that all the forts are connected; their ties stained with conflict and blood.
I decide to drive down to the Pharwala Fort in Potohar, which is 40kms away from Rawalpindi. A good friend of mine lent me his car and driver for the purpose, and we set off for the trip together.
A few hours into the journey, I ask the driver, Adil, if he knows of any breakfast places nearby. He promptly suggests a few swanky restaurants on the way but I insist that he take me to a roadside dhaba.
We stop at a rundown dhaba where I ask the cook if I can get anda paratha and chai (egg with flatbread and milk tea). He tells me that he can make me half-fried eggs if I can buy them from the store down the street. I zip down to the store and buy some eggs. I return to the dhaba and hand them over to the cook, who fries them for me.
While gulping down my breakfast, I realise that the cook does not stock eggs because most of the customers who frequent the dhaba cannot afford it. Around me, I see labourers eating greasy parathas and washing it down with hot tea.
Finding our way
As we struggle to find directions to the Pharwala Fort, we ask for help from the locals — some of them advise us against visiting the fort, they tell us that the locals living inside the fort are not welcoming at all. We ignore their advice and continue on upon our journey.
The driver takes the car literally to the end of the road. We find a shepherd there who tells us that we can walk to the fort from hereon, assuring us that it will only take another 15 odd minutes.
Adil tells me that I have to walk alone as he needs to take care of the car. I look at the terrain which is typically Potohar, with boulders lying here and there, and a narrow trail leading through gorges.
I start taking unsure steps forward and after a good 30 minutes I find another shepherd who tells me that I have taken the wrong route.
Perturbed, I ask him for help. He shows me another trail and also speaks to Adil on the phone, telling him about a metal road which can bring the car much closer to the fort. I leave the shepherd there and follow his directions.
The fortress appears in sight after a few minutes. A mighty forlorn gate stands at the end of the tiny trail rising from a gorge. This is the Haathi Gate, I discover later. The walls around the gate are covered with flora.
A winding track takes me through a wild reef to a hillock where some parts of the fortified walls have survived. I climb to the top of the hillock and find parts of the fortification wall dotted across the landscape.
There are no people to be seen anywhere. It looks like a scene from some movie where nature has taken over all signs of civilisation.
I am still struggling to make sense of the fort. I had heard that a gate called Begum Gate, in particular, is in good condition but it is nowhere to be seen.
I spot a Banyan tree in the distance; the overarching shadow has an unusually long silhouette. I climb down the hill and walk towards it. As I reach closer, I notice there is a graveyard under its warm shadow. The roots from the top are hanging down, trying to reach the soil below.
I make my way past them and notice a gate on the northern side. There is a steep drop on the other end and I see a stream below in the ravine. This is perhaps the gate from which the Gakhars fled after they were defeated by Mughal army.
There is a boulder lying under the shadow of banyan tree. In this surreal setting, it appears fit for a king.
I decide to walk back to the car and try to reach Adil on his phone. There is a problem with signals so I decide to walk a little further. I see a child on my way back and he tells me that there are more gates in that direction.
As I walk down the lane, I find myself in a village setting where women are working, and some men are chopping to wood. I smile at them and ask for directions.
They don’t smile back.
One of the men shouts at me and says that I have stepped into his house and that I should have asked before doing so. I look around and find it difficult to distinguish between boundaries. I excuse myself and turn back only to find myself in another courtyard.
The situation is not particularly funny as children start to follow me and women stare from the rooftops.
I try to call Adil again and take brisk steps and suddenly land in an open ground. In the distance, I see a mighty gate, its the Begum Gate.
I try to take my camera out without slowing down, with children and curious gazes still following me but before I point my camera in the gate’s direction, I hear growls and notice four or five gultair dogs rising on their feet in front of the gate.
They are without their leashes and look aggressive, their growls telling me that I'm not welcome here. I panic and start running, followed by them and the children. I run through the mighty gate but stop as I see the gate leading straight to a torrent deep into a ravine.
Luckily by then, the dogs had stopped following me. I see Adil waving on the other side of the gorge and pointing to a way through the torrent. I follow the pathway through the water, making a brief stop in the middle to catch a glimpse of the fort in all its glory.
I settle in the car, exhausted. Adil tells me that he was a little worried as all he could hear on the phone were growling dogs but then he realised that he could hear them otherwise as well so he decided to stay put, expecting me to come out of the gate soon.
As we drive back to civilisation, I try to absorb the experience I have been through. It occurs to me that the people inside the fort are apprehensive of outsiders for a legitimate reason.
They have been living in the most primitive conditions inside the fort.
The fort is not connected to the road and people must be forced to walk for basic facilities such as education, health and clean water. On top of it, they must feel threatened with the possibility of losing their houses.
As the car speeds on the road, I look out of the window to catch the last glimpse of the fort.
—Photos by the author