Places shrugged off by recorded history

This is Sohail Gate, the finest of gates at Rohtas Fort. If you are at the fort, people will tell you that it’s named after Sohail Bukhari, a saint buried in the gate’s south western bastion. Salman Rashid, on the other hand, with this twinkle of smile in his eyes will say, “Sir! if you happen to be in Rohtas and go see Sohail Gate, nobody will tell you that it’s Zohal Gate. Zohal is Saturn in Arabic. In 1974, I was told by an elderly man in Rohtas that when they were building this part of Rohtas, Saturn was overhead, hence Zohal.”

I was invited to Salman’s house over a cup of tea and it was there the conversation mentioned above took place. Salman has written extensively on the history of Jhelum and surroundings, and that includes Rohtas. In fact through historical evidence and logic, our beloved writer declares Rohtas, a ‘monument of wasted labour’. I had visited Rohtas before that meeting and the snapshot of Sohail Gate with which this post begins was clicked during that outing. Inspired by the tip handed to me over a cup of tea, I revisited my Rohtas clicks during subsequent evenings, sipping tea and savoring the crispy, sweet n sour stories penned by Salman Rahid on the subject, and I discovered something. Historical accounts when coupled with the subtle art of storytelling become addictive, and in that both of these elements add value. Layers of time and antiquity coated on an object when put in the oven of historical narratives produce the beautiful terracotta we call history and identify with as our culture. While dealing with history, dear reader, the popular history is as important as recorded history and the latter as romantic as the former. Documented evidence goes hand in hand with oral wisdom that travels to us generation after generation. Time is fast paced, it stops by a few things while brushing aside others and so do people. We, the people of present tend to the books of history and find accounts covering the events and structures where time and people decided to stop by and write about. Then we come across monuments and happenings overlooked by the books and their written account, and then look for the oral version, minstrels, ballads, and stories, told and retold over time.

What I carried home from that memorable evening with Salman was the romance of storytelling going hand in hand with history. So, my dear reader, in this post about my Rohtas yatra, we shall brush aside the main fort and it’s buildings, and dwell upon a few subsidiary monuments linked with Rohtas but brushed aside by historians. We shall visit these elements carved in stone and reality, yet the stories concerning them, carried from heart to heart and passed from person to person, exist in a virtual realm.

Outside Talaqi Gate

Choa Sahib, Guru Nanak’s Spring

The route back up to Talaqi Gate was through broken ground, almost a vertical incline, and next to impossible. I had to take this hike back to Rohtas Fort as I was out there to visit a monument normally skipped by regular visitors, a Gurudwara linked with the founder Guru of Sikhism, Guru Nanak. Gurudwara Choa Sahib lies outside of Rohtas Fort and I had taken the Sheeshi Gate exit to walk a little over a kilometer to the destination. The Gurudwara exists just opposite Talaqi Gate on the banks of Kahan River. The word Talaqi is linked to Talaq (urdu synonym for divorce) and is taken as a bad omen. The gate is said to carry its name from a curse attached to it. Local lore tells us of one Sabir Suri, who is said to have contracted a severe fever the day he passed through this gate.

Guru Nanak, the first Guru of Sikhs, is said to have traveled extensively, and in one of those journeys taken upstream Punjab, Guru was here, in our area of interest, Jhelum. He is said to have visited and stayed at Tilla Jogian, the hill of jogis. There is a place on Tilla hill, to mark Guru’s penance. Sikh historians associate this udasi (pilgrimage) and stay of Guru Nanak to a hymn recorded in Garanth Sahib, regarding his meeting and conversation with Guru Balnath. So my dear reader, if we take into historical account, the hymn of Ramakali, mahallah pehla , Guru Nanak was here in Tilla Jogian and that would have been sometime around late 15th or early 16th century CE. Popular lore tell us that on his way out from Tilla, along with his companion Bhai Mardana, upon feeling thirst , the Guru noticed the scarcity of water in this barren land, and there beside the seasonal stream of Kahan River, through a miracle, caused a spring to flow out of nowhere. This is the very place outside of Talaqi Gate of Rohtas Fort, dear reader, where now stands Gurudwara Choa Sahib.

The choa (spring) caused to flow by Guru Nanak was there, beside river Kahan even before the Rohtas Fort was built during the reign of Sher Shah Suri. Stories from those times narrate that after the fort got built, attempts, and these were more than one, were made to incorporate this miraculous spring into the fort confines, failing each time. Our choa, thus stayed outside the confines of Rohtas Fort withstanding the onslaught of passing times. Our king of yore, Sher Shah of Sur died in a military campaign in Rajasthan, in the month of May in 1545, and that was even before the completion of Rohtas Fort. With Humayun returning to the Delhi throne, and since the Gakkhars were unwritten Mughal allies, Rohtas Fort lost the very purpose for which it was built, to effectively check Gakkhar outreach to mainland Punjab. With its importance relegated and pages of documented history forgetting this defensive fort, Rothat still existed and so did Guru Nanak’s spring. In the declining days of Mughal Empire, during 1760s, Charat Singh, chief of Sukkarchakia Misl and grandfather of Maharaja Ranjit Singh rose to prominence as he along with an accomplice defeated the retreating forces of Ahmed Shah Abdali and captured area upto Chakwal – Pind Dadan Khan. Rohtas Fort thus came under Sardar Charat Singh in 1767, who built a sarovar (water tank) at Choa Sahib and erected a room for reading of Granth Sahib. The present building of the Gurudwara was built around 1834 during the reign of Ranit Sigh, who is also said to have dedicated a large chunk of land and a handsome annual grant for running the affairs of Choa Sahib. We are told that the Gurudwara was fully functional as late as 1947 until the partition of the Sub-Continent.

At present, Choa Sahib is not a functional Gurudwara and the building is in the state of disrepair. Almost completely demolished arched gateway, a stagnant dysfunctional water tank and a three storey building with a sweeped out interior is what survives. Being outside of the Rohtas confines towards an almost inaccessible approach is the reason not many Rohtas visitors make up to this place. I was the lone visitor that day and this outreach, dear reader, was well worth the effort.

High Road from Khwas Khani Gate

Khukha Baoli

Outside of Khwas-Khani Gate, the main entrance to Rohtas from the side of Dina, lie the remains of the Grand Trunk Road from the times of Suri King, so do they say. Just outside the gate, an auxiliary road takes a westward turn, skirts past the span of seasonal Kahan River and reaches Rajo Pind, where we come across remains of an old structure. Local version of history narrated by village folk will tell you that these are the remains of the jailhouse built by Sher Shah Suri, where the condemned used to be extradited from the fort and kept in confinement. A historical estimate based on the architecture tells us that these are the remains of a caravanserai and puts the date of construction roughly around late Shah Jehan or early Jehangir era and that would be one full century after the Suri king. We, for now, dear reader, will not stop here and head further west to reach Khukha where we come across a baoli, a halting station on the old alignment of Grand Trunk Road.

I had noticed the place on Google satellite imagery, where it was named as ‘Bowli Natain’, just beside the small village named Khukha. On one of the returning trips from Islamabad to Lahore I deviated from the present day Grand Trunk Road, a little short of Dina Police Station, passed under the British era overhead railway bridge and drove due south on Gattar – Dina road towards Domeli. After driving for a little over 5 kms, I came across the old Grand Trunk Road which is now a kacha fair weather track. I parked my car on this road – track junction as I wanted to take a walk on this ancient road. Taking a right turn and walking for a little less than a kilometer, arrived at a shady tree – tube well complex and just there onto a side, dear reader, our baoli existed in all grace.

Equipped with a flight of stairs leading down to the water level, housed in a multiple arched hallway, this baoli was a simple halting station to refresh and replenish the water supply. The water in the existing tank is now stagnant and the baoli itself dysfunctional, but an attached pumping station still uses this ages old underground source of water and supplies it to nearby villages. The present state of obscurity of this pit-stop on the historical route matches its plight on the pages of history. Documented history in its passing seems to have completely ignored it as we don’t exactly know when it was built and who built it. Our merchant traveler from East India Company, William Finch does not mention this halt, though he might have passed by it. Jehangir in his account of retreat from Tilla Jogiyan up north penned in 1607 makes no mention of the amenities ahead of Rohtas Fort, though he is likely to have taken this route while travelling to Gakkhar country. But then, dear reader, it is probable that this baoli never existed in early 17th century. With no documented evidence to support its construction, this ancient transit in the middle of Khukha and Natain villages is likely to have been constructed anytime between the reigns of Mughal Emperor Akbar and Jehangir, and there are reasons for making this educated guess. We know for sure, that Sher Shah of Sur never ventured up ahead of Rohtas Fort into the hostile land of Gakkhars who were strictly pro Mughal, and so is not likely to order any construction on this stretch of Grand Trunk Road. During the subsequent Muhgal period, we also know that much of the construction and upkeep on this Badshahi Sarak took place during the times of Akbar and Jehangir, and that puts a rough estimate on the date of construction of Khukha Baoli. But it’s still an estimate at best, and there’s an equal likelihood of its date of construction being in early to middle Shah Jehani era. Away from the pages of history, this halting station from the days of yore, lies in humble confines off the present day Grand Trunk Road. The baoli still offers its shades to a present day traveler under the scorching sun, but down the flight of stairs the waters are neither shiny nor consumable anymore.

Outside of Rohtas : Back to Dina

The Mystery of Khair Un Nisa

Arched Gateway outside of Rohtas

From Khwas Khani Gate of Rohtas Fort, if we do not turn west, on the existing bearing is the the road back to Dina. Like all day-trips, my trip to Rohtas Fort also concluded towards the evening. As I planned to take on the road heading Dina, under the setting rays of sun, I was destined to bump into this gateway in ruins, with an inviting glimpse of a tomb like structure in the background. Upon crossing the gateway we encounter an old burial ground which confirms that the structure of our interest indeed is a tomb. In the distance, stands an imposing edifice, partly shining under the crimson rays of the setting sun, but mostly blackened owing to merciless forces of time. This structure which we shall be referring to as a tomb henceforth, rests on an elevated platform. The base is square, with prominent pillars protruding out on all four corners. The corners are topped with chatris and the the roof is topped by a large circular dome. The architecture is predominantly Indo-Afghan and matches the architectural styles at Rohtas Fort and in that both the structures are more likely to share the same historical timeline, mid 16th – 17th century CE. Now, Directorate General of Archaeology, Government of Punjab will considerably differ from our estimate. “Tomb of Khair un Nisa, near Rohtas Fort Jehlem” is listed as a protected monument on their website under the historical timeline of Sikh Rule, 18th – 19th century. The website fails to give us any details about the monument or the reason of it’s association with the above said time span and this would leave enthusiasts like us floundering in the dark. This, dear reader, was exactly what I did that evening, flounder round the tomb in the prevailing dark.

The tomb does not bear any inscription to help reveal a clue regarding its identity. A portion of the walls is painted in pale yellow limestone with some religious inscriptions painted in black. This is our signature move; the first small step of religious ornamentation of a historic (or non historic but potentially commercial) edifice towards a giant leap of its full transformation to a full fledged shrine with all associated paraphernalia. This puts into effect cash inflows in the name of donations, small to huge with shares fixed for different stakeholders, and everything starts running hunky dory. Here, at the tomb of Khair un Nisa, the situation was a bit different. There was evidence of half-hearted transformation attempts, but there were no goons in the name of caretakers nor any devotees flocking in to register a pilgrimage. There was a reason behind it, as inside the tomb there is no marked grave or evidence of any interment. No one had tried to install one till the time I visited the place back in winters of 2014. This visit that evening turned out to be a guided tour. I was greeted by a person in traditional malang attire, orange and black, the sort of a person who under usual circumstances would slip you ‘the cigarette’ from his stash in return for cash. The equation with our malang who also turned out to be my tour guide that evening, was different who offered me a cup of tea and asked if he could borrow a smoke.

Our mysterious tomb outside Rohtas does feature in internet searches. Almost every result would bring up a two liner description that is an exact, word to word match. “Outside the Langar Khani Gate of Rohtas Fort is the tomb of a lady called Khair Un Nisa. She was the daughter of the food minister named Qadir Bukhsh. She dies here and was buried in this tomb but she was later moved to Sasaram.” Despite best efforts I was unable to trace the original source of above ‘copy-paste’ version that appears on different websites. Other than giving us a gender and a name, it tells us that the body that once was buried in this tomb has since been moved to Sasaram, why, we have no clue. There are a few issues with above statement. It places the tomb outside of Langar Khani Gate (one of the western gates) of Rohtas Fort, which is not true. Langar Khana would translate to Mess / Dining place and taking the leverage of that it declares that our lady of the tomb was the daughter of Sher Shah’s food minister. Pages of history are quiet on the identity of any Qadir Bakhsh or the Food Minister of Sher Shah Suri, if one existed. Even if the said Qadir Bakhsh was the head of dining affairs at Rohtas, it is very less likely that his daughter, upon her death, would merit an interment under such a grand tomb. Another version of narrated history by locals tells us that the word langar in Langar Khani Gate is not related to food, but it means the ship anchorage (another literal Urdu translation for langar). Langar Khani gate faces the seasonal stream of Kahan, and we are told, that in glory days of the past when it was a river in spate, the ships to cross the Kahan stream used to dock beside this gate that came to be known as Langar Khani Gate.

My tour guide at the tomb that evening had made some nice doodht patti and it was over those delightful sips of tea and cigarettes (I offered to complement the tea serving) that we conversed, and we conversed on multiple topics. I was impressed with my companion’s take on life, the level of knowledge and common sense he possessed and the convincing ways in which he conversed. We toured the tomb together and then sat down for going through the local version of the ‘Tomb Story’ that rests with the locals at Rohtas Fort. The tomb indeed belonged to one Khair un Nisa. She was no daughter of some food minister, but a general in the fighting forces of Sher Shah. She is credited to have fought alongside the great Suri King and was buried outside of Rohtas upon her death. In which battles she featured, what all campaigns included her fighting in the rank and file of Sher Shahi forces, and whether she died of natural causes or war wounds is not clear. It’s usual practice that such ‘insignificantly minute’ details are obscured in local lore. The body was later moved to Sasaram which explains the present day emptiness of the tomb. Again, we don’t know what caused the excavation of body from its present location and where in Sasaram it was re-interred as these useful details too got lost under the distant mist of times. My friend of the evening, who was a narrator of the story did not believe its contents, and knew that in absence of any credible sources it might have been a fabricated outcome of pure imagination. Still, dear reader, it was local lore, and had a romance attached to it. Still, it was a story you enjoy listening to, over a cup of tea and a cigarette, under the setting rays of sun.

Away from the imagination of local lore, what we know for sure is that in Sasaram, Sher Shah Suri lies buried in his magnificent tomb along with his famous 23 (or 24) generals. Could our lady (or the gentleman, if it happened to be a gentleman) be the one moved from Rohtas and reburied with Sher Shah in Sasaram! Think about it, spice it up a bit and another fascinating story shall be born.

For my readers whose quest to seek more is still alive and well, they may like to explore the missing pieces in the puzzle of ‘The Tomb of Khair Un Nisa” here.
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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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Mohammed Najeeb Akbar

There is Sultanpur guesthouse nearby, when it was build and for what purpose?

Asif Naeem

great *