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Derawar Fort: a 9th century human marvel on the verge of collapse

Published Feb 01, 2017 12:19pm

With its landmark architecture symbolizing centuries of grandeur, the Derawar Fort is a standout attraction in the Cholistan desert.

Despite its awe-inspiring allure, however, it seems on the verge of collapse due to the neglect of authorities.

The Derawar Fort was first built in the 9th century under the kingship of Rai Jajja Bhati, a Hindu Rajput from Jaisalmir in India's Rajasthan state.

The fort as it looks from the balcony of the mosque in its courtyard.─ Fazal Khaliq
The fort as it looks from the balcony of the mosque in its courtyard.─ Fazal Khaliq

However, it was the Nawab of Bahawalpur, Sadeq Mohammad Khan I, who captured the fort in 1733 and had it rebuilt to how it looks today.

View of the 9th century Derawar Fort amid Cholistan desert, Bahawalpur.─ Photo by Fazal Khaliq
View of the 9th century Derawar Fort amid Cholistan desert, Bahawalpur.─ Photo by Fazal Khaliq

30-metre-high bastions surround the fort, along with walls that span over 1.5 kilometres. In the scorching summer of the Cholistan desert, the fort's red-bricked facade seems to glow with the heat and is visible for miles.

Altaf Hussain, a watchman and tour guide at the fort, says even the architecture of the fort's dungeons, which could once be accessed through a stairway made of tunneled pathways, has a charm of its own. He also speaks of a long underground railway tunnel that connected the Sadiq Ghar Palace to the fort.

A stairway leads to the underground portion of the fort.─Fazal Khaliq
A stairway leads to the underground portion of the fort.─Fazal Khaliq

"The Derawar fort was also connected to other forts in Cholistan through a network of underground tunnels. On the ground floor, there were offices, a small prison, a gallows, a water pond and residential rooms," he says.

Hussain says that every Thursday, nawab sahib visited the fort and held an open court with his attendants, passing judgement on different cases, including those on capital crimes.

He says three watchmen at the fort were still employed by the Nawab’s family as the fort is still in their possession.

The fallen structures inside the fort.─ Photo by Fazal Khaliq
The fallen structures inside the fort.─ Photo by Fazal Khaliq

The fort attracts a large number of local, national and international tourists in the winters.

"I visited this place recently after ten years and I was shocked to see its dilapidated condition. It had many rooms that are no longer there," says Mohammad Jamil, a visitor from Ahmedpur tehsil.

Interior of the royal room in disrepair.─Fazal Khaliq
Interior of the royal room in disrepair.─Fazal Khaliq

"We used to be able to climb down to the underground section by a stairway, but today that is not possible as the tunneled pathways are blocked," Jamil says, adding that the entire fort would crumble to the ground if authorities continued to neglect it.

Tragically, tourists are also to blame, as they carelessly walk on various structures, eat at the site and throw trash inside the fort.

"I visited the fort when I was a student in the tenth grade. That was almost 12 years ago. At that time, the fort was in a considerably good condition. We walked in the tunnels for a mile and could see a network of tunnels leading to different rooms. But the stairs leading to the top of bastions have now collapsed. The majority of the bastions have developed cracks, with bricks from some falling off," says Abdul Ghafar, a local cultural activist.

Owing to its run-down condition, the entire fort may soon collapse, Ghafar fears.

The intricate facade of the royal room, from where the rulers would look at the view outside, is evident of neglect.─Fazal Khaliq
The intricate facade of the royal room, from where the rulers would look at the view outside, is evident of neglect.─Fazal Khaliq

"There is immediate need for its conservation and preservation. Otherwise, we will lose this important heritage," he laments.

"At least UNESCO and other international organisations should come forward and protect the fort if Punjab government cannot live up to the task," the activist says.

Sahibzada Muhammad Gazain Abbasi, a former MPA from the area, says his family was aware of the deteriorating condition of the fort and that it was willing to collaborate with any organisation — government or non-government — to preserve its history.

"We want it properly preserved and protected as this is now the heritage of the entire country. We are open to anyone to come and talk with us about its preservation, with the government as a mediator," Abbasi says.

A local makes his way through the outermost gate of Derawar Fort amid the Cholistan desert, Bahawalpur.─Fazal Khaliq
A local makes his way through the outermost gate of Derawar Fort amid the Cholistan desert, Bahawalpur.─Fazal Khaliq

"Negotiations are underway with the Chinese and some other organisations for its preservation and we are hopeful that the site will be protected for future generations," the former MPA told Dawn.