The preservation of Rohtas Fort

January 22, 2023

Without proper attention and effort, the iconic Fort may one day be lost forever

The preservation  of Rohtas Fort


ohtas Fort is a historical garrison built by King Farid Khan (Sher Shah Suri). It can be easily accessed while travelling from Lahore to Islamabad, as it is located only a few kilometres from the Grand Trunk Road off Dinah in Jhelum district. The fort is one of the most majestic historical monuments in Pakistan, representing the Pathan period of architectural styles in the country. Its four-kilometre outer wall is a fine example of successful amalgamation of Pashtun and Hindu architectural styles in the Indian subcontinent. The fortified area is 175 acres. The fort is built on a low rocky hill to the north of Jhelum, on the bend of the Ghan River. It is surrounded by the Pothohar and Kohistan salt lands. On one side is Nullah Kis and on the other the Ghan. On the remaining side there are deep ravines and dense forests.

The grand and imposing Rohtas Fort stands tall on steep cliffs overlooking the Ghan River. The river fortifies its ramparts to the west and north and high hills to the east and south. The main fortification boasts massive walls extending over four kilometres and reinforced with deep moats punctuated by grand gateways. Recently, a bridge has been built over Ghan, providing easy access to the fort. Before this bridge was constructed, passage through Ghan was difficult, and access was often lost during the rainy season.

The Rohtas Fort has 12 main gates, each built in a unique style. These are Sohail Gate, Shah Chandwali Gate, Kabuli Gate, Shishi Gate, Langar Khani Gate, Talaqi Gate, Kashmiri Gate, Khawas Khani Gate, Gatali Gate, Tulla Mori Gate, Pipalwala Gate and Sar Gate. The most notable attractions at the fort include the Sher Shah Suri Museum near Sohail Gate, the Visitor Information Centre also at Sohail Gate, the Bari Bowli (a 134-step stair well), Haveli Man Singh, the Rani Mahal, Phansi Ghat, the Shahi Mosjid, the Shishi Langar Khani Gate, the Shahi Bowli, and the Talaqi Gate. The fort is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The most striking and majestic aspect of Rohtas Fort is its rampart. It has 68 towers, 184 turrets, 6,881 kagars, and 8,556 steps. The turrets not only enhance the beauty of the fort but also had a role in fortifying its defence. The walls are particularly wide. The platforms of eight walls are connected by staircases. The fort was built in three rows and three stories, with the highest constructed in the form of kangaras. The platforms are more than three feet wide and were used by archers and artillery. They vary in height, ranging from 8 feet to 11 feet. These kangaras allowed the pouring of molten lead and boiling water on the enemies. The middle platforms were between four and a half to seven feet wide. The last row of platforms was between six and a half to eight and a half feet wide.

Inside the fort, there is a deep baoli (step well) with a hundred steps leading to the water. If you enter the fort from the Dinah side, you can take a short trip to Tilla Jogian by exiting through the other gate. There is a museum inside the fort.

The fort is currently home to a bustling town, complete with a high school and a post office. Some of the residents have constructed homes using materials from the fort. The sale of land within the walls is strictly prohibited. Currently, the fort stands at a towering 300 feet above the ground. However, much of its structure is in ruins. Several notable features remain, such as the palace of Raja Man Singh and the imposing gallows.

A defining feature of Rohtas Fort is its immense size. It spans over a staggering 4.7-4.8 square kilometres, making it the largest fort in the entire subcontinent in terms of area. An interesting fact about the fort is a rock from the main gate, knocked down by Emperor Humayun, remained on the site until 1991. With assistance from Great Britain, Rs 9.1 million was raised and the rock finally lifted and placed back in its original position. How Sher Shah Suri had managed the construction is a mystery.

The preservation  of Rohtas Fort

Unfortunately, the fort has also been considerably encroached upon by the local community and land developers. The bad practice continues today and there is little effort by any authority to care for and preserve this wonderful heritage site.

King Salim, the son of Sher Shah Suri, invited the population living close by to move inside, thereby creating a settlement that is now known as Rohtas village. The king believed that the population will help protect the fort from the elements. This proved a false hope. Today, the fort, once considered impregnable, stands in ruins.

Rohtas Fort was built for several strategic reasons. The primary motivation was to prevent Emperor Humayun from returning to India. Suri also wanted to control the Potohar tribes, especially Gakkhars, who had allied themselves with Humayun and refused to pledge allegiance to him. The Gakkhars had been providing reinforcements and assistance to the Mughals. The GT Road, now known as N5, passed directly in front of the fort. Over time, it has moved nearly five kilometres away from the original alignment.

After Sher Shah Suri established his rule over the Punjab, he demanded that the rebellious Gakkhar tribe submit to his authority. The Gakkhars responded by sending him arrows and lion cubs as gifts, signifying their fierce, warlike nature and refusal to obey. To protect himself from a potential attack by the Gakkhars, Suri decided to build Rohtas Fort, located 11 kilometres from Jhelum. According to Tarikh Khan Jahanio Makhzan Afghan, he appointed Tudor Mal Khatri to oversee the construction of the fort. However, the Gakkhars were determined to prevent the fort’s construction and swore to each other not to work on its construction. Tudor Mall struggled to find labourers and reported this to Sher Shah Suri. The king then issued a decree allowing exorbitant wages to be paid. This resulted in many people ignoring their oath and joining work. It is said that an audit found that fort had ended up costing its weight in gold.

The fort was built on a site that had once been a vast and dense forest. A mendicant residing in the area is rumoured to have prompted Sher Shah Suri to construct a fort there. The construction was commissioned in 1541 with Tudarmal and Shah Bhau Sultani in charge. It took seven years to complete, with over 300,000 soldiers and labourers, including some religious elders, participating in its construction.

The names of some of the people participating in its construction are etched on the gates and tombs within the fort. Some sources estimate its cost at Rs 3,425,000. Unlike most other forts in the region that were built with bricks, this was built using large rocks.

On his triumphant return, Emperor Humayun ordered its demolition. However, Bairam Khan counselled that the fort be treated as a part of Islamic heritage. He suggested instead that a small portion of it be removed to preserve the glory of Humayun’s reign. The upper right corner of the southern gate was accordingly demolished. (To be rebuilt later.)

The preservation  of Rohtas Fort

While many historic forts have fallen to invaders, Rohtas remained unconquered and impregnable.

I had the opportunity to visit this iconic monument in 2011. I was struck by its impressive architecture. The tombs and other stone structures inside the fort were masterfully built, but I was saddened to learn from local villagers that many had taken stone blocks from the fort to use in building their homes. Unfortunately, the fort has also been considerably encroached upon by the local community and some land developers. Regrettably, the bad practice continues today and there is little effort by any authority to preserve this wonderful heritage site. Without proper attention and conservation efforts by the government of Pakistan, this magnificent fort may one day be lost forever. It is imperative that the government appoints a custodian to oversee the preservation and restoration of this historic fort.

The writer is an educationist and a columnist based in Gujranwala. He has a keen interest in exploring and writing about archaeological and heritage sites in Pakistan

The preservation of Rohtas Fort