The Rohtas Fort

Recently I happened to visit the magnificient Rohtas Fort, 130 km on the GT road from Islamabad to Lahore. Because of its marvellous strength and solidity, it won’t be wrong if I declare it - the finest specimen of medieval architecture in Pakistan.

Occupying an uneven piece of land, the gigantic fort is founded on steep rocks jutting into the river Ghan. Being protected on the west and north sides by the river and by high hills from east and south, it was never taken by assault and survives intact to the present day.

The fort was built in compliance with the orders of Sher Shah, grand son of Ibrahim Lodhi. He was Afghan of the Sur section of the Lodhi tribe. It derives its name from Rohtasgarh fort in Bihar, which Sher Shah Suri captured from the Raja of Rohtas Hari Krishan Rai. Lying on the old GT road between the North (Afghanistan) and the Plains of Punjab, the fort was constructed for dual purpose: to block Emperor Humayun's return to India and to suppress the local Ghakkar tribes.

Humayun, son and successor of Zahiruddin Babur, had at the hands of Sher Shah suffered devastating defeats in two battles, at Chaunsa and Qanaauj, both on the Ganges. He had to retire to his younger brother Mirza Kamran who held Kabul and Ghazni under his control. However suspecting deception on the part of his brother, he decided to fall back on Persia. The Gakkars tribes were Mughals’ alliance and could pave the way for the Mughal re-entry. When Sher Shah summoned their boss, the Rai Sarang, who depended upon the strength of his country in the Koh e Jud, he dispatched the skin of lions and tigers in reply. This enraged Sher Shah so much that he decided to ravage the Gakkars, saying, that he would drive such an imperishable spike into the breast of the Gakkhars as should remain there till the end of time.

It took 8 years to complete the fort. Sher Shah Suri died before completion of this magnificent structure and it was finished during the reign of Sher Shah’s son and successor Jalal Khan. Ten years after Sher Shah’s death and the end of the Suri dynasty, when Emperor Humayun returned to rule India for another 15 years, the Governor of Rohtas, Tatar Khan Kasi fled. Ironically, Rohtas then became the capital of the Gakhars, the very people it was designed to crush.

This fort is a successful amalgamation of Afghan and Indian architecture. The elements of Hindu architecture are Haveli Man Singh, balconies on Sohail Gate and decorations on Shahi Mosque. The elements of Afghan architecture are use of stone instead of bricks in building wall and its utilitarian construction since it doesn’t have any living quarters and has comparatively less decoration. Most of the fort was built with ashlar stones collected from its surrounding villages.

The fort could hold a force of up to 30,000 men. Due to its location, massive walls, trap gates and Baolis (stepped wells) it could withstand a major siege although it was never besieged. The fortification has 68 bastions (towers) at irregular intervals. The terraces in fort are linked by staircases. The topmost terrace has merlon-shaped battlements. Muskets can be fired from these battlements. The wall had also machicolations. Machicolations are small drains that are built into the walls and are used by the soldiers on the inside to pour molten lead or other hot liquids on soldiers trying to scale the walls.

The fort also resided a mosque called Shahi (Royal) Mosque, the most decorated of the original buildings of the fort. On the wall of the mosque are beautiful round designs in which Islamic verses are written. These verses are surrounded by a Lilly going around the script. The Lilly design was later used by Mughals in Tomb of Jahangir, Tomb of Nur Jehan and the Shah Burj Gate in Lahore Fort.

There are no palaces in the fort except for a structure built by Raja Man Singh called the Haveli of Man Singh. It is built on the highest point of the citadel. Near Haveli Man Singh, there is another one storey structure called Rani Mahal (Queens’s palace). It originally had four rooms used by Raja Man Singh’s widow sister but only one room remains standing today. However, the foundation of the four rooms can still be seen today. The dome like room still standing today is about 20 feet high and beautifully decorated on the inside and outside. The roof of the room is like a flower. The inside of the roof is decorated with flowers, geometrical patterns and fake windows.

Although Rohtas fort was built for purely defence purposes, yet a few of its twelve gates were exceptionally fine examples of the architecture of that period. The Sohail Gate, deriving its name after the Sohail Star which rises on this side of the fort, is in fair condition even today. It houses a rest house, a visitors’ information center and a Museum. Its arches are decorated with beautiful and simple motifs of sunflower which is repeated in all parts of the Qila; Shishi Gate derives its name from the beautiful blue glazed tiles used to decorate its outer arch. These tiles are the earliest examples of this technique which was later refined in Lahore Fort by Mughals; Talaqi Gate derives its name from ‘Talaq’ (divorce). According to a legend, Prince Sabir Suri entered through this gate and had an attack of fever which proved fatal. This was regarded as a bad omen and the gate was shut off; Khwas Khani Gate, named after one of Sher Shah Suri’s greatest general, Khwas Khan, was the original entrance to the fort because outside the gate lies the old GT Road; Shah Chandwali Gate was named after a Saint Shah Chandwali who refused to get his wages for working on this gate. The saint died while still on work and was buried near the gate; Gatali Gate, faces to the village Gatali Ford (ravine) which is called also Patan Gatiali or Gatiyalian, was the important point to cross River Jhelum for the Kashmir Valley; The other gates are Langar Khani Gate; Mori or Kashmiri Gate opening to the north and faces Kashmir; Tulla Mori Gate, Pipalwala Gate, Sar Gate and the Kabuli Gate facing Kabul.

Bushra Naz

Published in Pakistan Times, 9 November 2009

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