Ponds of Pothwar

Archaeological evidence has a crucial role in our understanding of the past

July 02, 2023
A wall with many tales. Remnant of Shahi Farood Gah at Sar Jalal Khan in Sohawa.


xploring history through archaeological evidence is a scientific approach to understanding the past. Unfortunately, many rich sites from the prehistoric, medieval and early modern periods in Pakistan have never been excavated. Local approaches to archaeological excavations have remained limited, only meeting the requirements of administrative procedures. The result - distorted, identitarian, and sectarian history that we read - is evident. Although history writing is not exclusively dependent on archaeological findings, the physical existence of objects can serve as proof of certain pronouncements about the past.

One such unexcavated site from the early modern period lies on the old route of the Grand Trunk Road. The GT Road, a tapestry of history, has seen several changed to its course over the centuries. On its old route near Karunta village in Sohawa, in Jhelum district, and a neighbouring hamlet, there is rich history that has never been documented or excavated. The writing on an iron board at the site has faded and is no longer legible. Once can still make out, the words Shahi Firodgah (Royal Rest House). Muhammad Artasab, a historian who has translated many Persian texts, seems to be the last resident of the area interested in its history. The surviving walls of the grand structure and the steps of the adjacent pond speak of past glory when caravans and troops might have stopped at the firodgah. The Urdu inscription in nasta’leeque style on the iron board in faded blue paint, states that the Shahi Firodgah was built in 1589-1590. The claim remains unauthenticated. A peepal tree, estimated to be 450-500 years old. Tends to support the claim. The remaining walls of the firodgah, have elements of Mughal era architecture.

Rani Mangho Ni Maseet or Rani Mangho Mosque at Sar Jalal Khan in Sohawa.

The pond, locally known as Sar Jalal Khan, is no longer a place where locals wash their clothes, take baths or bring their cattle. It serves only to give its name to the hamlet. A town may have once existed at the site but the serene countryside and the forest terrain give the impression of having been uninhabited for centuries.

Ponds – known as sar in Sanskrit, talaab in Urdu, and bann or banni in Pothwari – hold significant social and cultural importance in the history of Pothwar for various reasons. These were once gathering places. There are many banns in the region that have dried up. In many cases, the land and in some cases part of the structure has been converted for residential or commercial use. Most of the banns are located close to populated areas.

Some of the ponds have interesting stories to tell about biodiversity, lost wetland plants, migratory and local water birds, family memories, and pre-colonial history.

There is evidence that some of the banns were once home to freshwater turtles, various breeds of geese and fish. Jalal Khan was apparently a local tribal chieftain who built this particular pond. In Pothwar, where hundreds of such ponds are scattered across villages and towns, they are typically referred to using feminine pronouns. In some cases names have survived but not the structures, e.g. Mai Veero Ni Banni in downtown Rawalpindi.

From the early modern period, until the early 20th Century in Pothwar, constructions using red, burnt bricks were associated with social status. Sandstone was the most commonly used construction material for monuments.

The word bann is used to denote a large pond and banni refers to a small pond. The local term for the Indian water lily flower is niloufer, which, in a couplet by Mian Muhammad Baksh, is adopted as a metaphor for worshippers of power.

S raj d as an ’ ya k kujh mili’ nil far n

u u m ’ c ak r Muhammad, abar n y r qamar n

Skilled workers from the US planted many exotic shrubs and plants at the Mangla Dam site, which eventually spread to nearby areas, including the hamlet, over time.

Constructing a pond in the area has always been challenging, requiring significant resource investment. Goat hides were traditionally used for the base. The water source varied from groundwater to rainwater or some nearby stream. In terms of utility, the ponds stood the test of time, remaining significant sites for centuries. To the south of Sar Jalal Khan, there is a row of eucalyptus trees. To the north, palahi trees abound. These provide both cattle fodder and fuel wood and are the most common tree in the Pothwari landscape.

A centuries old peepal tree which is a ‘Witness-Tree’ at Sar Jalal Khan in Sohawa.

In Pothwari oral narratives about Partition, the concept of attachment to the land and indigenous status is expressed through the term jaddi pushti, meaning nativity over several generations. The opposite is baahrla, which also refers to wild boar and can be a term of abuse. Among older residents of the area, who had once lived alongside Hindus and Sikhs, childhood memories include activities such as taari lana or swimming during summer, bathing in chhal-chhoobi (a small bathing stall near a pond) in the early morning, where there was no religious discrimination. Weekdays were designated for women and children at the ponds. Women would carry laundry tied in piles known as pand(s). The memories include taking cows and buffalos to the bann or banni. Some children would fill their trousers with air and jump into the pond. In his essay, Memories of Water, Amitangshu Acharya vividly portrays similar memories in Bengal.

Today, Sar Jalal Khan holds brownish stagnant water. The local administration has been planning to to dig up the pond and clean it. However, no action has resulted. No archaeological survey is planned. The water tunnel, which opens to the north, is an engineering marvel. However, it is currently non-functional and no longer serves the purpose of discharging excess water from the pond.

To the north of the sar, a white-washed mosque stands prominently. This is Rani Manghu Ni Maseet, constructed in the early 18th Century. Over the years, the mosque has lost its original grandeur. It now carries a thick layer of cement plaster.

However, it is a typical Pothwari mosques from the Mughal period. Only a few of those survive today.

Remaining architecture of Shahi Firodgah at Sar Jalal Khan in Sohawa.

Banyan trees on the pond banks are a defining characteristic of ponds built during the Sikh and British periods. Most of these trees are disappearing due to the emergence of housing societies in the areas. Scattered around a circle of one-kilometre diameter, there are remnants of red-baked kiln bricks.

From the early modern period until the early 20th Century, red, burnt bricks were associated with social status. Sandstone was the most commonly used construction material for monuments. The limited use of red, burnt bricks also indicates the limited skill in brick-making and the unsuitability of the local soil for such purposes. The scattered archaeological evidence needs to be put together in order to understand and document the past. Sar Jalal Khan may have been a bustling town until the latter half of the 18th Century.

The hamlet attracts hunters and trappers, but the strict environmental policies of the locals prohibit hunting. The locals are also committed to preserving the trees, a tradition grounded in mystical beliefs. Tasleem Ahmed, a renowned kabaddi commentator and promoter from a nearby village, frequently visits the site and participates in the preservation of the forest and wildlife. However, the historical site has been mostly overlooked by scholars, writers and historians. In recent years, some projects claiming to focus on heritage preservation have been tied to political agendas.

The writer is grateful to Alexander Jabbari, an assistant professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, for sharing his insights on Firodgah. The writer tweets Ammad_Alee