In a word, Rannikot (pronounced ‘Runny Coat’ and not ‘Rani Kot’) is an enigma. And that is because medieval history makes no mention of such a magnificent undertaking. As for the name, that comes from the seasonal Ranni stream flowing through it and not from some rani.
Approaching it from the east via Sann village in Jamshoro district in Sindh, one cannot but remark on the resemblance of its fortification to the Great Wall of China. The ramparts, interspersed with stout turrets, dip and rise with the contours of the Lakki spur of the main Kirthar Mountains. If one were to circumambulate the fortification one would see how the builders incorporated the lay of the hills into the defensive scheme: where the hills are sheer and difficult to scale as in the northwest and northern corner, there are no ramparts. In this area of difficult access, there are only watch towers.
The Ranni stream enters the fort from the west side known as Mohan Gate and exits in the east or from the Sann Gate. The south, where the hills dwindle — the most spectacular part — is known as Shahper Gate. While Mohan and Sann were actually entrances, Shahper was only a small gap caused by natural decay, breaking the magnificence of the longest continuous part of the fortification.
It is strange but intriguing that there is hardly any historical reference to a fortification of this scale
In March 1980, when a friend and I first walked the 32 kilometres from Sann railway station to the fort, there was no road and the area in between was entirely unpopulated. That was when few outsiders knew of Rannikot. In fact, even locals had only a vague idea of the distance from Sann.
In history, the fort is mentioned only by Alexander Burnes who undertook the covert mapping journey up the Sindhu River ostensibly taking a fancy horse carriage and horses as a gift for Maharaja Ranjit Singh. As he lay moored for the night outside Sann village, he heard of a very great fort that was abandoned because of scarcity of water. Another 19th-century document said the fort was ‘seven miles’ from Sann. Neither writer had actually seen Rannikot. The next we hear of Rannikot is when, after the Battle of Dubbo (April 1843), Mir Sher Mohammad Khan Talpur retired here for a short while before eventually coming to terms with the British.
The lack of historical reference to a fortification of this scale is the great intrigue. Especially so as the ancient Barbarikan-Arachosia (Bhambore-Kandahar) highroad passes right under the fort’s western ramparts. Drawn by the mystery, I returned again and again to Rannikot. Over the years, as my reading progressed, I recognised that the fort was a very old construction repeatedly repaired over the centuries. Talpur annals record that it was built by them in the beginning of the 19th century at a cost of 1.2 million rupees. But that cannot be true.
In their 59-year (1784-1843) long reign they simply did not have time to raise such a monumental fortification, complete with two smaller forts within. However, there are ample signs of extensive repair around various parts of the fort that were certainly carried out during that time. Besides, the hilltop fortress of Shergarh — above the central fort of Miri — was definitely built by the Talpurs. At the same time, Miri fort was also strengthened while extensive up-gradation work was done along the south wall.
That Rannikot was first built at a very remote time in the past is clear from two features. First, at places where the dressed limestone facing of the ramparts have fallen off, one can see up to three layers of progressively better rubble masonry over a clay wall. That is, the clay wall was the original fortification. This was repaired and strengthened thrice as the older layer decayed. Five layers of renovation meant an age of several centuries.
Secondly, and even more telling, was the uprooted brickwork lying in the dry bed of the Ranni stream just outside Sann Gate. The large and heavy piece of masonry had been plucked out of the fortification by a flood in the stream. Along its side there was a row of holes. Similar rows of holes can be seen on the buttress on the left bank of the stream and on both sides of a pier sitting in the middle of the streambed.
It took me a couple of years and several visits to figure out what the holes were about. The uprooted masonry was part of the fortification on the right bank and together with the central pier and the buttress on the left bank, was all that remained of an ancient bridge. Iron or bamboo poles passed through the holes and served as breakwaters. Whenever a flood was expected, the staves were installed to break the force of the flow and prevent the bridge from being swept away.
Now, even before the disturbed pattern of rainfall over the past two decades, this part of Sindh rarely had torrential rains. But weather patterns were different and it is believed that about 1,500 years ago, there were more rains — rains enough to warrant the building of a bridge to connect the fortification on both sides of the river. The bridge signifies the great age of Rannikot. It also implies that there was a large garrison or a settlement that would need to cross the river frequently.
In 1980, I met an elderly gentleman (I forget his name) who suggested the fort was built about 2,000 years ago by unknown people as a refuge. Much later I read that in the 1st century BCE, Central Asiatic Scythians migrated to Sindh in such large numbers that the Greeks called this country Indo-Scythia. That was a time when entire tribes were on the move in far away Central Asia; the stronger pushing the weaker out. The influx of the Scythians into Sindh was a result of those distant tussles.
Could it be that the under pressure Scythians first of all came to live by the Ranni stream? Could it be that they built the first earthen fortification as protection from other migrating tribes? Over the years as they settled down, they enlarged it. We do not have answers to that. But I do have in my possession a few coins and an arrowhead that tell a story.
From the area of the central fort Miri, I have three coins minted in the style of Sultan Muzaffar (reigned 1401-1411) of Gujarat. Expert opinion on these coins is that they were minted as copies by rulers who were subservient to Sultan Muzaffar. In the 15th century these were legal tender across Sindh. The other coin is even more remarkable. It is attributed to Abu Saeed Mirza, the grandfather of Babar, the first Mughal king of India. That would date it to the middle years of the 15th century and the mint would be somewhere in modern-day Uzbekistan.
These coins were all found from within the walls of Rannikot, particularly around Miri, the central fort. This means even if the fort did not exist at that time, there was some settlement, possibly a caravanserai, on this hillock to which travellers gravitated. And that trader and tourist traffic was not only local, but adventurers from far off Uzbekistan also came looking along the old Barbarikan-Arachosia highroad.
So much for the history.
My previous visit to Rannikot was in January 1999. I was horrified to see some ‘restoration’ work on the bridge piers at Sann Gate. I do not know which department was culpable of the crime, but they had completely altered the shape of the bridge piers: on the flat top of the piers where the bridge planking would have rested, the mindless restoration had raised crenulations.
Friends who visited thereafter narrated sorry stories of various parts of the fort falling to pieces. In 2017, I heard of some restoration work in progress and I feared the worst. Word was that the Shahper fortification, having suffered extensive decay, was under repair. It was on this side that I had seen four layers of earlier construction and I feared as the bridge had lost its essence, here too, more damage than good will be done.
This past February, Hamid Akhund who now heads the Endowment Fund Trust invited me to Rannikot. The attraction was to see the restoration that I had heard of. At Shahper, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the wall had been rebuilt with lime mortar and from the same stones that had first been set a couple of centuries ago. Only the small gap in the rampart that had wrongly been called a gate was now a proper opening large enough for a truck to pass through.
The intelligent features of this restoration were the use of lime mortar and the old material. But, more importantly, a portion of the wall showing three layers of earlier upgrading work and the clay wall beneath were left uncovered as evidence of prolonged occupation. To prevent undermining by rainwater seeping in, Hamid planned to have it covered with tempered glass or clear unbreakable plastic.
My suggestion that the mindless work done on the bridge needed to be reversed and the crenulations removed was agreed to. As well as that, I suggested the signs spelling the name as Rani Kot (Queen’s Fort) should be corrected. The fort must be known as it has for untold years. I hope the next visitors to Rannikot will know that the fort bears the name of the stream, once perennial now seasonal, that runs through it and not of some nonexistent queen.
The writer is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
he tweets @odysseuslahori
Published in Dawn, EOS, April 15th, 2018