Decoding a Mughal Caravanserai

!احـمدا… تا گُم نہ گردی ھـوشـیار
کہ ایں جـرس از کاروانِ دیگراست

O Ahmed! till ye lose yourself (to aimless travels) beware!
for those bells are from another caravan…

This beautiful Persian couplet from Sheikh Ahmed e Jam, a 12th century mystic poet, speaks of the two charming phrases, جـرس ‘the travel bells’ and کاروان ‘caravan: the travelers’ convoy’. These two charming terms are as antique as human history. Since the beginning, people have moved across frontiers to discover, explore and survive. Trade, migrations, pilgrimage, expeditions, tourism and much more has always excited mankind. In this fast moving age when the world has become a global village, the distances have shrunk and the concept of travel almost entirely redefined, dear reader, please spare me the blasphemy if I dare say that the true romance of travelling dates back to the early times. The times which were slow and rich, when the time-lapse of the travel itself eclipsed the thoughts of the destination; when true taste of each measure of the distance (paces, pedes, stadia, furlong, mile, koh, kos) was savored. Times when the caravans travelled, they carried the changing colors of the landscape, the varying flavors of the people and told and retold within them fascinating tales of ‘the two’. Times when people traveled in caravans, headed by the caravan leader to whose sole discretion was the choice of the halts at the places providing for boarding and lodging, places which were called caravanserais. Here I must request my readers to allow me the inconvenience of taking them to the old times and spare me the liberty of adopting the style of traditional storytelling. So… my dear readers, once upon a time there were caravanserais, in them the travelers stretched out to shed away the travel fatigue, traded some goods while losing themselves to the swarming traffic of people in the open marketplaces and having done that eventually absorbed, around the steaming samavaars, into that self-forgetting hobby of sipping and gossiping. Once there was… once there wasn’t…

The terms Caravanserai, Khan and Funduk (and others) have been used in connection with the travels related to trade, pilgrimage or tourism. Mentioned as highway inns, urban lodging settlements or makeshift trading centers in travels across and through Middle East, Central Asia, North Africa and Eastern Europe, these terms date back to early 9th century. Though with minor difference in their utility, these get referred to as walled and (in some cases) fortified enclosures providing for boarding and lodging for the travelers and stabling for their draft animals. A caravanserai in essence consists of a grand gateway, an open to sky courtyard and rooms provided on the inner sides of the walled enclosure. The serais were frequented by the marketplace in the open courtyard as a merchandising facility to the travelling traders, a mosque for worship and arrangements for provision of food from outside. These lodgements also included arrangements for drinking water, washing and bathing in the shape of Baolis (stepped wells) and Hamams (bathing facilities). Baolis, dear readers, are the stepped wells frequented on these travel routes and are said to be introduced by the people of Central Asia who brought with them two typical pieces of water apparatus, the other one being the Persian Wheel. The romance of caravanserais, is very much indigenous to the great Indian subcontinent and is an integral part of our cultural heritage. Punjab, historically identified as the gateway to the greater India for the invaders from North has been a region with significant commutings. The iconic Uttarpatha (The Grand North Road) was built in the times of Chandragupta Maurya from as early as 3rd century BCE and it ran from Purushupura (Peshawar) in north-west to the then Capital Ptaluputra in the extreme east. It’s the same route, dear readers, that was further improved upon by Asoka (the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya) and centuries later when significantly administered by the great Suri king came to be known as the Grand Trunk Road (though erroneously) associated with Sher Shah Suri. It’s the same road from Purushupura – Thakshasila – Jhelum and beyond existing in present day Pakistan and India as the G.T. Road, though it’s alignment has seen significant changes over time.  The first reference to caravanserais along this route comes to us from the times of Muhammad bin Tughlaq from early 12th century. Shams Siraj Afeef in Tareekh-e-Firoz Shahi tells us that the serais existed between Delhi and the Tughlaq capital of Daulatabad. Sher Shah Suri contributed with significant improvements through shady trees, wells, caravanserais and the dak chowkis along the route. These serais were built on the state expanse and boarding and lodging to the travelling caravans was provided free of cost. The tradition was followed by his son Islam Shah and further down the line from the Mughals it was Akbar followed by Jehangir and Shah Jehan who added serais, mosques, baolis and kos minars (mileposts) along the length of the Grand Trunk Road. It was Aurangzeb Alamgir who particularly focused on Lahore – Kabul section and built pukhta (made of fired bricks) structures. Alamgir included in the plan of caravanserais, the mosques, bazars, the wells and the hamams (bathing facilities). To get to know the schematics of a caravanserai and to revisit the romance from those days, that afternoon I headed out to Bagh-e-Dilkusha, the gardens of Noor Jehan in Shahdara. Where else to go, dear reader, but the place that hosts the best (naturally) preserved caravanserai in Pakistan, the Akbari Serai.

Though popular by the name of Akbari Serai (yet very few know it by that name as well), this caravanserai adjacent to the Jehangir’s Mausoleum wasn’t built by the Mughal emperor Akbar. It’s commissioning is attributed to the times of Islam Shah Suri, the son of Sher Shah Suri from the mid-16th century. A clue to this reference is found in the typical design of the three domed mosque found at the caravanserai. As put by Dr Safiur Rehman Dar, Akbari serai can be classified as a mausoleum-cum-garden serai by type. Built at (originally known) Dilaamez Gardens which were to later house Jehangir’s mausoleum, the gateways at the caravanserai were built in the times of Shah Jehan (mid-17th century). The design of the serai is oblongish, approximately 265 x 200 yards. It has a vast open to sky courtyard in the center which probably housed the bazar comprising of shops made of makeshift materials running from the northern gate to the southern gate. There’s a continuous row of cells, the khanahas (living quarters) on all four sides of the enclosure walls. The cells oblongish in dimensions are uniform in size, have an entrance with no provision for windows. Each living quarter is provided with a covered verandah in front protecting from sun and rain and served as the source of light and ventilation. On all four corners reside the special rooms, larger than other cells, set in the corner bastions and referred to as Khanaha-e-Padshahi (King’s House or Government House) that used to be reserved for government officials. The King’s House on the corners at Akbari Serai are square in shape and have chambered corners and each room has a set of two small oblong rooms. The continuous row of living quarters is punctuated by the three gateways and a three domed mosque on the western end towards the tomb of Asif Khan, brother of Noor Jehan the wife of emperor Jehangir. The two gateways on northern and southern ends facing each other provided the entrance and exit to the caravanserai. These are double storey structures providing accommodation for the Shiqdar (the caravanserai caretaker) and the Nigahban (the guard in charge).

The real soul of the caravanserais is reflected through the people, the travelers and others who inhabited these. As per the standards in those times the personnel roll of Akbari Serai other than the Shiqdar , Nigahban and a number of Chawkidars, included the Imam (head of prayer congregation) and Muezzin (the caller for the prayer) of the mosque. There used to be a physician on staff roll and there were bakers as permanent settlers within the serai to provide for the food and healthcare requirements. The administrative staff included the room attendants and there were both Muslims and Non-Muslims to attend to the people from all faiths. The facilities provided to the travelers included the hot and cold water together with the Charpai (the bead stead), Khurdani (edibles) and Dana-e-Isp (grain and fodder for draft animals). The facilities were provided free of charge on the expanse of Sarkar (state). Though towards the later Mughal period there were nominal charges introduced. Sir William Foster in his book “Early Travels in India” has mentioned that the western travelers in mid-17th century India were charged around 1-3 pice (pice being 1/64 of a silver rupee) and 3 dams (one silver rupee was divided into 40 copper dams) per day and the price included the food and stabling charges. As mentioned in the research by Dr Saifur Rehman Dar, there was revenue free land attached to the serai to provide for madad-e-ma’ash (the administrative salaries and other expenditures). Though in ruins with half hearted uplifting attempts in progress on site, this caravanserai once had life and served the travelling caravans on the periphery of Lahore. The place where now persists a color of grey and green as a symbol of wear and tear, once had the lively colors of people and the bright shades of stories associated with them.

This was a story from the days when time was a commodity held aplenty with people. Time was what got cherished and shared in abundance. For when people traveled they longed for people and places and when they eventually came across, sitting together and talking to each other wasn’t a sin.  But, then they had their time and we have ours, and time is what passing by, fast and plentiful…

Think, in this batter’d Caravanserai Whose Portals are alternate Night and Day, How Sultan after Sultan with his Pomp Abode his destined Hour, and went his way

Omar Khayyam

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author bio

Imran Saeed

I am a teller of old tales. History, folklore, military, and more. Mostly covering Pakistan, my homeland, but also the Great White North, where I am currently settled.
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Noor Rauf Rathore

I think I should have a stone engraved with the words “Noor was here” and leave it on your blog. It was VERY difficult to wait till I got home to read this (busy day at work). I think I must have been vibrating with the need to read this as soon as I saw it. But the wait was well worth it. I can now say, I was there.

Ankit Bariar

Great keep up the good work

Nadeem Omar

Dear Imran, I was enlightened by your article which contributed to my understanding of a caravanserai here in Islamabad, called Sairay Kharboza. Kindly, share your coordinates with me at so that we could learn more from your wanderings!