October 24, 2016

Climbing the Walls. Rohtas Fort in Pakistan.

When you think of Pakistan, many images come to mind. Cricket, curries, crowded streets, maybe the capture of Osama Bin Laden. Castles tend not to not figure that prominently.

Yet there are some beautiful examples from the time of the Mughal emperors who ruled the Indian sub-continent in the middle ages, with perhaps the best surviving example today being Rohtas Fort in the Punjab.

Located on the Great Trunk Road, the ancient route connecting Kabul with Calcutta and then onto the Silk Road, the fort was built by the Afghan king Sher Shah Suri. Construction began in 1541, and was completed eight years later.

It was built to control and suppress the local tribes who were rebelling against the new king. Sher Shah Suri was killed in battle before the fort was half finished, and it was his son, Islam Sher Suri who oversaw its completion.

Despite falling into disrepair, with groundwater and the occasional earthquake demolishing walls that the local tribes could not have dreamed of destroying, it still rises majestically high above the Potohar plateau.

Approaching the fort from the road I was immediately struck by the sheer size of the well preserved walls. Eighteen metres high, and up to thirteen metres thick in places. Enough to dissuade most attackers.

Recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, the main entrance to Rohtas is through the Khwas Kani Gate, on the main road from Dina. Once inside I found myself, rather unexpectedly, right in the middle of a busy street.

Children and animals were running between the modern buildings, and the shop owners were kindly shouting out to me about their large stocks of Coca Cola and other drinks, at bargain prices and even accepting US dollars.

The fort is a living city, unlike most other historical site that you would visit elsewhere in the world. Despite government efforts to evict the locals, who have been living inside Rohtas for centuries, they still remain and continue with their daily life, attending schools and mosques within the thick walls, and even playing cricket on a small marked out pitch towards one corner.

There is no sterile or stuffy atmosphere here, and the fort is much better for it. This also extends to a complete lack of safety railings or warnings when you clamber up the dilapidated steps to the ramparts, or peer into a dungeon where the ground has given way above it.

Enough to induce apoplexy in a health and safety officer working for the National Trust, but perfectly fine if you take care as you wander around the huge site. With the walls having a  circumference of over 4 km you can easily lose yourself for the day here, as you explore the many gates and buildings that survive.

Only lightly visited by tourists you will never feel crowded. Except perhaps by one of the nice policeman who will follow you around. Being a foreigner, the local police take care in ensuring your safety, allegedly because a foreign ambassador was mugged here and was relieved of his wallet and phone. 

My policeman, Zaheer, became my guide as well as protector, and having worked here for six months was eager to tell me all he knew about the fort, before quickly falling back to the clearly more comfortable subject of discussing the failings of the current Australian cricket team.

I felt perfectly safe, although when I did wander through the Sohali Gate to the south to get a bit of local colour with the obligatory goats and goat herder shot (the lead photograph above, and how the hell does the goat herder keep his clothes so white??) my entourage was getting increasingly uncomfortable. With shouts of "Not safe, not safe" I myself was herded through the ornate gate, and back into the heart of Rohtas, by Zaheer.

Far Flung Tips

* Rohtas Fort is located midway between Rawalpindi and Lahore (approx 120 to 130 km from each) and 10 km from the small village of Dina. Public transport is possible, but without doubt is in the 'very hard' and 'epic travel time' basket. If you are short of time, or like a bit of luxury like me, you can hire a car and driver for the day. I used Zinn tours, (email: zinn.tours@hotmail.com, phone: +92 5122 60957 58) who will provide this for 5,000 Rupees.

* Entrance fee for foreigners is 500 Rupees. Guides can also be hired, at negotiable rates, which is probably better than relying on the somewhat limited guiding skills of your police escort. What is that building Zaheer?, "Umm, they executed prisoners there. No, no wait, that is the palace, or guardhouse. Probably."

* Visit the small museum by the Sohali Gate and see some of the impressive swords that have been recovered during excavations, and get a good understanding of the history behind the forts construction.

* In summer bring water, it can get hot clambering up and down the walls and there is little shelter from the sun. The village inside the fort has shops where you can purchase drinks if you forget to bring them with you.

You Might Also Like