Sadiq Gabol, a former caretaker and resident of Rannikot Fort (also known as The Great Wall of Sindh) since 1981, tells me the two-and-a-half centuries-old story of his sword-bearing ancestor, Baagh Ali, and how he bravely defended himself from a ‘chito’ (leopard) in the Lakki Hills of the Kirthar Range where the 35-km long fort is located. Baagh Ali lost an arm in the process but thereafter he became a local legend. “Taking turns to keep a watch out for leopards was part of the daily routine for those who dared the frontier life,” explains Sadiq.
The chitos have long been extinct in this area but for most residents of Rannikot, life continues as it has for centuries.
As we turn west off the Indus Highway in Jamshoro district, away from the town of Sann, the silence grows deafening but the air feels cleaner. It seems as if the clocks have wound backwards, transporting us to a realm frozen in time.
Accessible from Karachi, but in the middle of nowhere, stands a fort that defends nothing. Who built it and why?
“There are about a thousand people currently residing in Rannikot,” estimates Sadiq. According to him, the current residents of Rannikot — Gabol tribesmen — came to the Lakki Hills as part of the Arghun military early in the 16th century. His ancestors first settled in a valley west of the fort, referred to by the locals as ‘Mohan Patt’ (patt meaning ‘plain’ in Sindhi), where they tended livestock.
The lives of the Gabols too are frozen in time. Their settlements have no electricity or gas, no schools and hospitals — the closest facilities are 32 kilometres away in Sann. There is no mobile network or public transport and a single-lane metalled road links the fort to the outside world.
Politically, the locals of this area are loyal to Syed Jalal Mehmood Shah who resides in Sann and is the grandson of G.M. Syed and president of the Sindh United Party. Yet, according to Sadiq, the PPP always come to power because of the feudal allegiances that are part and parcel of waderki siasat [feudal system].
“The government comes up with projects so grand and impractical that they never materialise,” Shah says. “As a result the locals remain deprived of the basics, while bridges, such as the one inside Rannikot, are left incomplete,” he explains.
According to Shah, the fort has tremendous potential for tourism which could bring in some much needed revenue for the locals but the government has done little to promote tourism.
A historical enigma
There has been much conjecture but little certainty about the origins of the fort which is mentioned only twice in historical records — first in the 1830s by Alexander Burnes during his journey up the Indus and then in the 1840s when the defeated Mir Sher Mohammed Talpur took refuge inside it.
“Rannikot appears to be very ancient,” says Salman Rashid, travel writer and fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. “In remote parts that have never been visited by the common tourist, there are signs of several layers of repair and upgrading of the fortification.”
Rashid further adds: “At one spot the ancient and earliest wall of clay and undressed rock rubble was evident. Above it were five layers of stonework each progressively finer than the one below. It predates the usual claimants — the Talpurs — who certainly did some work on Sann Gate and the southern part of the fortification. What is known for certain is that the Talpurs built the citadel of Shergarh, which stands atop Karo Jabbal.”
The call of the wild
The picturesque aesthetic of the Lakki Hills has a darker underbelly. In this part of Sindh, wilderness is only a stone’s throw away. As Rannikot is part of Kirthar National Park, there is a spill-over of wildlife in the region.
“At night we hear the snarls of the gorpat,” says Hatim Gabol, a local, about the honey badger, one of the most feared creatures to roam these parts. “It digs up graves and feasts on freshly buried corpses.” Apparently, Sadiq was almost attacked by one when he dosed off at a ‘bus stop’ for privately run lorries that cart dwellers of Mohan Patt and Rannikot to the Indus Highway at least once a week.
“We also find striped hyenas and Indian wolves [a subspecies of the grey wolf] here,” Hatim tells me. Sadiq later confirms that a few incidents of wild beast attacks have occurred on the western hill known as ‘Opiyai’.
An eagle eye’s view of Rannikot
The steep climb up to Shergarh Fort is one of the more challenging hikes in Rannikot. Hatim and I make our way up a trail frequented by local labourers heading to Shergarh to carry out conservation work funded by the Endowment Fund Trust. A couple of goats and a variety of lizards that occasionally dart across are our companions.
The uppermost watchtower of Shergarh provides a panoramic view of Mohan Patt — the five-kilometre-wide valley to the west occupied largely by Gabols — in comparison to which Rannikot appears quaint and familiar. Towards the east, beyond Sann Gate, lie the Khosa settlements, while Karchat and Thano Bula Khan lie towards the south. Immediately north are uninhabited, barren peaks from where few invaders would dare to scale the ramparts of Shergarh.
Near the northwest boundary of Shergarh, a curiously angled cliff competes with the fort for elevation and majesty. Pointing to a cave, Hatim says, “There are many climbers amongst us, but my uncle climbed all the way up to that cave. As it ran very deep, he couldn’t reach its end.”
Upon descent, the bird’s eye view gives way to detail and the absence of a school becomes a glaring reality. Abdul Qadir, Sadiq’s son and the current caretaker of Rannikot later tells me he worked as a teacher for a community public school but it was later shut down.
On our hike downhill, I ask 22-year-old Hatim who also works as a daily-wage labourer at Shergarh, whether he and his friends ever long for the vibrant environment a city can offer. “It would be nice to live in a city, so we could go to a proper school, live in homes that have electricity and be less isolated from civilisation,” he admits. “But people my age enjoy rearing livestock and farming their land and compete with one another,” Hatim quickly adds.
Rannikot’s natural and man-made fortifications give it an endearing sandbox quality. It has its own spring water and a little forest where a family of wild boars dwell. Each corner of the fort has its own distinct personality which is identified by the nearest hill or entry point.
As we approach the foothills, I realise that Rannikot’s appeal is largely because it has yet been spared the environmental degradation that is a part and parcel of ‘development’ in Pakistan. Tourism in the area must enhance rather than disrupt pastoral lives of the locals and preserve the sanctity and ecological integrity of the area. Whether this is possible in Pakistan, remains to be seen.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, February 5th, 2017