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For whom the bell tolls

The 16th day of April 1853 is special in the Indian history. The day was a public holiday. At 3:30 pm, as the 21 guns roared together, the first train carrying Lady Falkland, wife of Governor of Bombay, along with 400 special invitees, steamed off from Bombay to Thane.

Ever since the engine rolled off the tracks, there have been new dimensions to the distances, relations and emotions. Abaseen Express, Khyber Mail and Calcutta Mail were not just the names of the trains but the experiences of hearts and souls. Now that we live in the days of burnt and non functional trains, I still have few pleasant memories associated with train travels. These memoirs are the dialogues I had with myself while sitting by the windows or standing on the doors as the train moved on. In the era of Cloud and Wi-fi communications, I hope you will like them.


Rohtas Fort near Jhelum – Photo courtesy Creative Commons
Rohtas Fort near Jhelum – Photo courtesy Creative Commons

The train is supposed to move from Dina to Kaloowal and Kala Gojran to reach its destination, Jhelum, but it does not.  Like most of the mythologies still in narration here, a mix of haunted voices, captivates the traveler and paralyses his intentions. There is indeed something magical about the cities that flourish on the hills and by the rivers.

In the dusty record rooms of revenue department, log books mention a reservation, Boorha Jungle, next to Dina. A road departs from this place to a wonderland called Rohtas. The weary bridge on the river Kahan is reminiscent of the cultural amnesia of the nation. Constant deprivation of basic amenities has devoid us of aesthetic curiosity. The sense to curate, preserve and educate on the cultural history is non-existent. Once a part of GT Road, Rohtas lost its clout after British engineers altered the ancient route. The fort also suffered as the road drifted further right.

On an expanse of about five kilometres, it is one of the architectural master-pieces of the sub-continent. Within the confines of invincible walls, a small populace inhabits this place, since the construction started, and marks its time calmly. These few good men have refused to believe that times, like the waters of river Kahan, have changed. They are Punjabi alternative to the abandoned soldiers of Alexander, dwelling in Kailash, who live on the Macedonian promise to return one day.

The tradition of developing two cities with the same name at the extents of the conquered empire was quite in vogue those days and Sher Shah Suri was no exception. To compliment the Rohtas Garh on the far side of his kingdom in Bihar, he developed this sleeping beauty and named it Rohtas.

The story of Humayun’s succession is rather interesting. The young prince fell ill and had little chance to survive. Babar was told about the Indian tradition of offering something substantial to affect a change in divine decision. The nobility at the court thought he would offer Koh-i-Noor but he was a father of another kind. An avid reader of Rumi, he declared that he could not present stones to God and the only thing worth the life of Humayun, was his own. The Padhshah of India is said to have spent all night on the prayer mat and in the morning circled the bed of ailing Humayun. Within hours, the prince started showing signs of improvement and the king fell sick.

The throne had cost Humayun his father but India has always been asking for more. Sher Khan, a vassal of Mughals formerly, took up arms and dared him for a decisive battle. The battle did come at Qannauj where Mughals were badly defeated. With a view to block the Northern route and minimise chances of Humayun’s retreat, he ordered a fort to be constructed. Most of the orders issued by the Suri King took little or no delays in implementation, the fort construction, however, was taking long. The local Gakhars had promised their allegiance to Babar so they refused to facilitate the construction. In a fist of fury, Sher Shah pledged to nail Gakhars for the world to remember. Now that the Gakhars have settled abroad, the fort is still a reminder of Afghan fury.

After the Gakhar’s denial, Sher Shah brought forth the man, we now know as Todal Mal. A Kaisath Khatri by caste, he announced that anyone who brings a brick would be rewarded by a gold coin. After few weeks, people worked all day only to earn a copper penny. What Soori sword could not win, Todar Mal coins secured.  Despite his love for nailing Gakhars, Sher Shah did not live to see the fort completed. Todar Mal, like a good technocrat, had no difficulty in mending fences with Mughals.

In spite of being a trusted governor of Sher Shah, Todar Mal quickly gained acceptance in Mughal court. He ascended to the coveted post of Revenue Minister and subsequently was inducted in Nav Ratan (A council of nine gifted intelligent people that Akbar always kept his side). Todar Mal introduced many reforms in India. He standardised all the measurements, promoted Persian as official language and conditioned the rate of revenue with the produce in each season. His standard system was based on barley corn and was adopted by East India Company. The same was approved by Sir Thomas Munroe and is still practiced in most of the rural India. Though Sher Khan tried his best to block the Mughal entry into India, but the fate of Indian sub-continent has never been an individual decision, alone. A few years later, Sher Shah died and his empire succumbed to rivalries. Humayun marched back to revitalise the house of Mughals. The fort which cost almost a quarter of a billion, welcomed Humayun with Ghakahrs by his side.

Even if it was possible to evade the sensation of Rohtas, reaching Jhelum remains a dream. By rain-washed garrison, moist alleys and the hustling city, a road leads to Darapur, unnoticed. Passing through Sanghoi and Radiyala Hardev, it reaches Tilla Jogian. There are more stories attached to this hill feature than what appears. These narratives are seconded by the historical manuscripts as well as local myths. The teela has been the seat of Budhist monks, the first school of Ayurvedic medicine, the temple of Sun-god and the meditation centre for Kan Phatta Jogis. Ranjha came here to become a Jogi under Guru Gorkahnath and so did the hero of another folk lore, Pooran Bhagat. Guru Nanak Dev sat here for forty days in solitude. Alexander addressed his troops before marching any further. The ruins of balcony constructed by Ranjit Singh in remembrance of Guru Nanak Dev and the temples and baths, built almost a millennium ago, can still be seen.

The famous historian Al-Beiruni also visited this place and lately there was a rest house which now stands abandoned. But this fact sheet is for the historians and archeologist, what satiates the soul is the solace it offers and the spell it casts…on lion-hearts and broken-hearts, alike.

Reaching Jhelum has never been easier. With soldiers and saints en route, either you have to lay your life or pledge one.


The author is a federal government employee.



The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.