From Lahore, traveling down south one has to part ways with the Old GT Road. The extension of national highway N5 from there takes on and following primarily the alignment of the Railway Track that was laid during the times of the British, leads to Khanewal, Multan and the deserted stretch of Bahawalpur-Rahim Yar Khan. People in earlier times traveling south had to do the same in bidding farewell to the GT Road, for, dear reader, the “Jarneli Sarak” was one grand avenue that headed up north, the Uttarpatha. It gave way to various offshoots on its course and it was one of the offshoots that headed south. This post, dear reader, endeavors to take you south on the same offshoot. Jarneli Sadak with all its love and romance had to bid farewell to the waters of Ravi and once it did, at the Lohari Gate of the Walled City, we got blessed with its beloved child, the “Kakkhan Wali Sarak” ککّھاں والی سڑک (literally translated to be the path of dried hay and stalks). This route almost as ancient as GT Road itself ran along the banks of Ravi towards the historical city of Mooltan. Though clueless as to how the route carried that typical title, there are definitive clues of its alignment in the shape of the Caravanserais (the Suri king and his successor Mughals were masters at) built on Kakkhan Wali Sarak, the remains of a handful of which survive to this day.
One of these Caravanserais was in the vicinity of Jhang Road around midway between Shorkot and Kabirwala that goes by the name of Serai Siddhu. Traveling to Kabirwala from Shorkot, a couple of kilometers having crossed Ravi, at the bus stop of Baagar there’s this road headed west almost parallel to River Ravi, down below the southern shores of which resides this erstwhile Serai that now is a moderately sized town housing the Municipality Offices and its own Press Club. My inquiries about the remnants of the old Mughal Serai led me to the Mandir Chowk. There beside an old temple (that was painted lime white) was a hub from where diverged small brick paved streets almost in all directions making me feel as if I was standing at the thresholds of a chowk in the Walled City of Lahore. There were old structures, chaubaras and other signature edifices signifying the town’s antiquity. My chit-chat with street vendors and the passer-byes led me to the clues that the area where the conversations were taking place was in fact part of the Serai that was no longer extant. Bilal, a street vendor offered himself to be my companion and unilaterally decided to call off the business for some time. He was to stay with me for the time I spent that afternoon in that far from home outpost, where I knew no one, hence qualified to be a ‘guest’ of the entire town. I was led to the home of one “Shah Ji” who resided in a house that was part of the complex where the mentioned Serai was reported to exist back in time. The house was a new construction and so were the houses surrounding it making me believe that there was nothing to be discovered. Shah Ji met me with a traditional warmth reserved for the travelling guest (this is a term I love to use in place of ‘foreigner’ or ‘newcomer’ for that matter). As we conversed in the soothing shelter of the shop he operates in the commercial hub of the ‘old city’ of Serai Siddhu, Shah Ji said that instead of taking upon himself to narrate the history of the area, he would rather lead me to the expertise of Master Naseem, a seasoned hand who would have one authentic take on the subject.
A traditional style bethak with the characteristic calm and cool of a summer noon, a reading shelf populated with the literary masterpieces, the huqqah with the associated apparatus and accessories, simple white traditional attire, seasoned white hair as the trademark of wisdom, a dominating personality and a convincing tone; this could have been one ideal setting for a ‘lesson on history’ and surprisingly, dear reader, this in entire exactness presented itself that afternoon in the narrow inner streets of Serai Siddhu. Choudhary Muhammad Naseem from Hoshiarpur, to whom I was referred to for an insight on the history of the area, was a retired headmaster from the local school. He welcomed us (me and Bilal, my local volunteer guide) in his bethak, patiently listened to our intent of being there and then there was that momentary silence where Master Sahib sat partly lost into those distant lands and partly amused as I could see the reflection on that bright face. And when Naseem Hoshiarpuri resumed, he started with logical arguments. Being himself an immigrant from Hoshiarpur at the time of partition, Choudhary Sahib said he was new in a region that reportedly was rich in history. Starting with the historical references and in that carefully procuring two books from his collection, Master Sahib presented me the relevant pages to read. The first one was “Khulasat-ut-Tawareekh” خلاصتہ التّــواریخ by Subhan Rai Batalvi (translation by Dr Nazir Hussain Zaidi). The author, reported to be a courtier from the Shahjehani Court has mentioned Serai Siddhu as a habitat along the banks of River Ravi. The other book was by Noor Muhammad Qureshi Advocate titled “Tu Sahib e Manzil hey ke Bhatka hua Rahi” that mentioned Serai Siddhu at number of places while describing the events of the local uprising against the British as part of the War of Independence in 1857. Master Naseem presented these two as the written evidences of existence of Serai Siddhu in earlier times, and these were the only ones he knew of. Then diverting the classroom proceeds to the folk style of a Dastan-Go, Mr Hoshiarpuri took us to the lore version that basically travels heart to heart from one generation to the next. He mentioned of the two ancient sites Ram Chountra and Lakshman Chountra face to face on the opposite banks of River Ravi in the neighborhood of Serai Siddhu. Legend had it that this area was the place of the exile for the Ramayana characters, Shri Ram, Seeta and Lakshman and it was here Hanuman had joined to help. Hinduism reported to be one of the oldest religion, so is the reported history of this region from those original times, ascertained Master Ji.
The Serai became part of the conversation, as we indulged ourselves into the Serai Siddhu of the Mughal Era. Failing to find a documented evidence of its construction, Master Naseem had to rely on the tale that is told and retold through generations. The mythical version narrates of the event whereby the great Suri king, Sher Shah visited the place that was back then a habitat of Muhanas (the fishermen and boatmen at the same time) and camped beside the magnificent Ravi. The intention was to ride the waves of the river and there came the seasoned Muhana named Siddhu to offer the grand ride on his not so grand boat. As the King enjoyed the ride on what he happened to witness the majestic sunset on the burning waters of Ravi and was so mesmerized by the experience that he offered Siddhu, as was the legendary custom of those days, to seek from the King any object of his desire. Siddhu being a kind hearted person, mentioned to the king the difficulties the travelers used to face while travelling to Mooltan along the banks of Ravi (the same Kakkhan Wali Sarak, dear readers, we came across in the beginning of this post). Siddhu requested Sher Shah to build a Serai at the place and in seeking a favor asked the Serai to be named after him. A majestic boat ride, a generous mood of Shah and the kind hearted yet selfish wish of the innocent Muhana resulted in building of a CaravanSerai that was named Siddhu. Here, dear reader, with a traditional twinkle of the folk wisdom, Mr Hoshiarpuri quoted the saying that has lived for ages in the hearts of the residents and passed onto the safekeeping of generations of Serai Siddhu. A verse in local dialect (Seraiki that is):[lead xclass=”text-center”]ٹکـے لگـّے بادشـاھ دے
تے سِـدّھـُودی سـراں[/lead]
Master Naseem did mention two of the landmarks as the reminiscent of the erstwhile Caravanserai. The first one was a mosque attributed to the Suri King and called Sher Shahi Mosque. While mentioning the second, I could sense the irony in his tone, for it used to be an ages old fresh water well that was filled in to be absorbed to the newly constructed municipality offices. The very institution that could have strived to preserve it as an archaeological asset of their town took initiative and wiped it off the surface altogether. The compound that housed the rooms for the travelers has been lost as the settlers built their houses anew. The ancient houses as part of the old city do exist and I did venture out with Bilal to visit these delights. One that particularly caught the eye was the local post office housed in that old structure that was preserved well. Nestled on to the first floor of an old house was this wooden Chaubara though eroded but kept in one piece was another delight to the sights. The Sher Shahi Masjid was a small mosque with one prayer room and the associated verandah (compound). The arches and the dome resembled to that typical Mughal Architecture the likes of what are discovered in abundance at Lahore. Though no historical reference tells us of Sher Shah Suri’s visit to the place, the Caravanserai as a layman guess is open to be associated with either the Suri King or the successive Mughal Rulers. The mention of the place as a habitat and not a Serai by the courtier of Shah Jehan (as discussed earlier in this post) tells us that the Caravanserai was constructed after the period of Shah Jehan, the Alamgiri Reign being the most educated guess.
Having enjoyed a detailed lesson on the history cum lore, the company of some wonderful folk, and a stroll in the streets, as I was parting myself from Serai Siddhu, I stood there at some distance from the Manidr Chowk and glanced back, back to the dusty streets, where there once stood a Caravanserai with a grand pavilion at the entrance, housing the rooms, rooms that were rented by the people who traveled and did that in the companionship of Ravi, the compass bearing set down south as far as up to Mooltan. And they, dear reader, plied on the route; route that is almost forgotten and whose traces lie along the roads less traveled these days. A Route, the scanty memories of which populate in vague details, the pages of history and the folklore, where its referenced as ‘Kakkan Wali Sarak’.