I lower the car window and stick my head out to feel the pulsating wind. It reeks of ancient legends and genius.
The narrow winding road through hillocks is less travelled and I have not seen any vehicle for some time.
Adil, my driver with whom I had already shared an adventure, while we were finding our way to Pharwala Fort, is getting a little apprehensive.
"Are you sure there is something worth visiting in this direction?" he asks.
"Does it matter if the road remains as scenic?" I reply, my eyes fixed on an old banyan tree in the distance.
Potohar — The land of ancient relics
Soon I arrive in the Potohar region; the first landmark on our agenda is the temple in Malot. We turn left from Kalar Kahar Exchange on the motorway and take the road to Choa Saidan Shah.
The vast plateau has rather sporadic pockets of population, which have possibly helped it retain some of its natural and architectural wonders.
The industrialisation, however, has taken its toll on its resources, with the drop in Katas water levels a well-documented piece of evidence, proving how human greed can destroy our ancestors' legacy.
We almost miss the link road connecting the village of Malot with the main Choa Saidan Shah road, as the signboard is installed on the wrong side of the road.
We see a few people walking by the road and, to be absolutely sure, we halt to confirm the directions.
They ask us for a lift to a factory en-route instead. They tell us that they are recent graduates appearing in an entry test at the factory and are already running late. Local transportation is infrequent in the area so we take them along.
Adil is very happy to find people to talk to. Soon he gets their complete bio-datas. The graduates tell him that they are from Rawalpindi, but are ready to move to the factory if they find a decent job.
We drop them off in front of the cement factory and wish them good luck.
The Temples of Malot
Malot was a walled hamlet back in the day. Raja Mal Khan — a convert prince (son of Janjua King Raja Dhrupet Dev) — was an ambitious ruler who secured neighbouring areas after his succession and made Malot his capital.
He ordered the construction of a fort around the village, which remained at the centre of power for the Janjua dynasty for centuries to come.
But today the only site worth visiting from the heydays of Malot are the temples on top of a hill near the village.
After stopping at multiple places to confirm the route, we finally reach sleepy Malot. The road goes through the heart of the village, with houses on the left and a pond with an old banyan tree standing on the right.
I see a lot of families waiting for public transport. Finally, we spot two towers on the top of a hill, just a few hundred metres out of the village.
The road gets narrower and is surrounded by thorny shrubs. Adil makes a face as they leaves marks on the exterior of his car. I am too excited by the otherworldly scene to notice his protest.
When there is no way further for the car, I take a walk, making my way through the shrubs.
The Malot Temple, along with many others in the area, is heavily influenced by Kashmiri traditions in architecture, and bears striking similarities to iconic temples in Kashmir.
The temple was constructed using red sandstone and still retains its royal look despite the ravages of time and neglect. The striking feature of the facade is its circular pillars, and the height of the arches, which gives visitors standing at ground level a feel of grandeur.
The inside chamber is devoid of any embellishments now but there are signs of a fire lit recently — most probably by some gypsies as the temple does not seem to attract any visitors apart from a wandering herd or two.
The building was last used by Sikhs as a watch tower during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
The emerald pond at Katas has a mystical aura around it, serving as a perfect refuge for hermits seeking salvation.
Over the centuries, it has attracted pagans, Buddhists and Hindus alike, giving way to legends and a host of worshipping places.
According to one popular legend, upon the demise of his beloved Sati, Lord Shiva grieved so much that his tears formed two pools; one in Katas and the other in Pushkara in Ajmer.
Hence, the holy pond is revered by the followers of Shiva, believing it to have healing powers.
On a bright day, I only find a few kids lazing around the mystical pond. The site attracts occasional visitors during regular days but overflows with pilgrims during the Maha Shivratri festival.
They perform their rituals in temples and bathe in the pond, seeking salvation.
The main temple inside the complex is known as Kala Mandir because of the dark lichens which have grown over time. Other temples were added from the 6th to the 11th century.
Much like the temples in Malot, they also follow the precedence set by Kashmiri artisans. Other temples and havelis were added as late as Ranjit Singh’s reign over the region.
But today, they are shadows of their former glory. The place was abandoned after partition; the temples were vandalised, leaving defaced empty rooms.
The weary wrath of time tarnished their once lavish walls. It was only in 80s that pilgrims were allowed to visit the site. The buildings were renovated which continues in bits and pieces even today.
We are driving around Choa Saidan Shah but have little luck in finding our way to Kusak fort. Finally we trust a passerby’s direction and take a winding road through the barren landscape.
We don’t see a settlement for the longest time and Adil suggests that we drive back. I see some people under a banyan tree and ask him to confirm the directions from them.
To his disappointment, they tell us to follow the road for a few more kilometres.
Kusak fort was built by Raja Jodh — the son of Raja Mal Khan — in the 11th century and had standard amenities of a fort, including a palace, ponds, houses and temples.
But it is the peculiar and picturesque location of the fort which makes it a site worth visiting — on top of a standalone rock; and much like the Sigriya fort in Sri Lanka, it towers.
Rising thousands of feet from the ground, it is disjointed from the rest of the hillocks, and is visible from a distance.
The only way up is through a steep incline, making it easier for the inside army to defend it.
The fort was besieged by Firoz Shah Khilji and later by Ranjit Singh, the latter striking massive blows to the Janjua Empire who abandoned it after reaching a truce with Sikhs. The fort is still in the possession of the successors of the then-ruling family.
Kusak village — much like Malot — has a pond, surrounded by old banyan trees. There are houses going all the way to the base of the rock.
I hesitate first, thinking to ask for permission but I don’t see a soul. Adil excuses, saying he has to take care of the car, so I start making my way to the top alone.
Luckily, there are traces of tracks, most probably of shepherds. As I get closer to the top, I can make sense of the fortification wall which appears in decent condition. There is a small opening on one end, and I see two goats looking at me curiously.
There is not much inside the fortification apart from the remains of houses and a pond. I make my way through the shrubs to the top of the fort where the building of possibly a temple still stands firm. The view from the top is breathtaking.
On one end, I can see Kusak Village and beyond, and on the rest of the sides, the vast emptiness. The sporadic greenery, blending together with the red limestone ground, looks surreal.
There is no one around to share my triumphant emotions with — save for the goats.
Rawat fort falls conveniently on the left side of GT road on our way back to Islamabad. The rather small size of Rawat fort suggests that it must have served as a fortified inn before it became a regular fortress. The construction of the fort is attributed to Sultan Masood — the son of Mahmud Ghaznavi.
It was built in the 10th century and has seen many modifications done to its layout and area. The fort came into Gakhar possession sometime during the 15th century and is where Sarang Khan, the then chieftain of Gakhar clan, fought Sher Shah Suri.
He was defeated and killed in the battle along with numerous Gakhars. The mausoleum in the heart of Rawat fort is attributed to him.
Today, the Rawat Fort is surrounded by residential quarters on all sides. A congested living space around it makes it an attractive place for children and elders to hang out.
As I enter the gate, I see children playing cricket in the open area. I walk slowly to the mausoleum and find that it is being renovated. It is perhaps lunch break and I find a lonely worker relaxing in a wheelbarrow.
There is an active mosque on one end of the fort which also seems to be a gathering place for the elderly people of the area.
There are some unidentified graves in the middle of the fort and some people attribute it to Gakhars who were killed in the battle against Sher Shah Suri.
I check my notes; there is still an unattended agenda on them but there’s hardly any sunlight left. Adil is exhausted too and looks at me expectantly, it is perhaps time to return.
I look at the crimson glow left by the setting sun on scattered clouds and hillocks in the distance and realise, I got what I came for.
—Photos by author
*Farooq Soomro is a quintessential Karachi denizen who likes to document life (or the lack of it) in Karachi and elsewhere. He likes to collect vinyl records and books.*