Challenging narratives, preserving heritage and inspiring historical curiosity
he narrative that “Islamabad is a newly built planned city carved out of Rawalpindi’s rural area, which developed in the early 1960s,” overlooks historical facts about Rawalpindi and Islamabad. The pre-colonial and colonial historical accounts of the area are significant primary sources but have never been utilised for as authoritative works of history. The fact that no comprehensive history of the city, let alone an authoritative one, exists, created room for falsified and self-constructed stories. Later, these made it easier for some writers to claim and associate any place and architecture with the Gandhara civilisation and Mughal era. As part of exploring such writings and mapping heritage sites, an ancient mosque in Islamabad is frequently recognised as Pakistan’s second oldest surviving mosque.
A 16th-Century caravanserai or inn near Islamabad is an example that challenges the ahistorical narrative about the city. Situated on the left side of the Grand Trunk Road, facing Lahore, one can catch a glimpse of grand architecture nestled in a commercial area. This structure is known as Rawat Inn. It has also been called Shahi Qila Rawat (Rawat Royal Fort) in recent years. The name carries connotations of tribal pride among those who claim descent from Sultan Sarang Khan, the Gakhar chieftain buried here. However, based on its size and architecture, it cannot be accurately referred to as a qila or fort. The locals may have associated it with the Lahore Shahi Qila due to the resemblance of the entrance gate’s arch with that of the Lahore Fort.
Additionally, some architectural features of the defensive walls have led some writers to mistake the site for a fort. Over time, the inn has been repurposed as a community space for offering funeral (janaza) and Eid prayers. In the evening, it serves as a playing field for teenagers. However, access to the inn has now been restricted mainly to tourists, a significant development for its preservation.
The reason why it is called Rawat is an interesting story. It is believed that the area’s original name was the Arabic word, Rabaat, which means caravanserai or inn. Over time, the name got corrupted and transformed into Rawaat. In the Pothwari language, the letter w ’o often replaces the letter baa in pronunciation.
The earliest available photograph of the inn was taken in 1884 when soldiers from the Second Cheshire Regiment camped at the site. This photo reveals the inn in a deserted condition, with overgrown trees on graves and walls punctured to create passages. It can be assumed that during the Khalsa period, the inn had suffered significant damage. The 2015 social media activism was crucial in saving the inn from further deterioration. The photos depicting graves used as wickets in cricket matches sparked tribal activism among the locals, who actively restored and protected the inn.
In recent years, the local Gakhars, with a strong connection to the area’s history, have taken ownership and led efforts to restore and renovate the inn. However, it is unfortunate that these actions have sometimes violated antiquities laws.
It is believed that the area was once called Rabaat, meaning caravanserai or inn.
Naming and attributing graves based solely on oral narratives, without proper examination and research and erroneous interpretations of local histories, have created a sense of private ownership over the inn, legally a protected building.
Today, the inn is transforming. The efforts for conservation and preservation, although not optimal, are commendable. While many cells remain empty, a few are being used by the local mosque as toilets and some serve as resting spaces for the guards. The hexagonal structure, believed to be the tomb of Sultan Sarang Khan, is currently closed off. Recently, an excavation of the tomb revealed signs of seven graves. However, the details of the excavation conducted by the Archaeology Department have not been made public.
The local lore states that after the death of Hathi Khan, Sultan Sarang Khan ascended the throne. During Babar’s reign, the Mughals and Gakhars enjoyed a strong alliance. Hathi Khan had sided with Babar and formed a strategic partnership with the Mughals. The development of these relations and the reasons behind those constitute a lengthy story.
In summary, this was part of Babar’s strategic approach, recognising the area’s strategic importance.
When Humayun was exiled to Iran, he sought assistance from the Gakhars, but his efforts were unsuccessful. Sher Shah Suri’s Rohtas Fort has a history intertwined with Gakhar resistance, which concluded with the death of Sultan Sarang Khan’s sons. The exact number of Sarang Khan’s sons who perished in the war is unclear. Historical records variously put the figure at sixteen, eighteen and twenty-one.
In the early 1990s, travel writer Salman Rashid became captivated by the history and architecture of the inn. He extensively documented his exploration in his book Pothohar Plateau and the Salt Range, which delves into the history of Rawat Inn. “Work on Rohtas began in 1541. It paid well to labour for Suri forces and the surrounding populace turned out to benefit from the new bounty. As the massive walls of Rohtas began to rise above the muddy waters of the Kahaan river, Gakhar chiefs, admirably resolute in their loyalty to the son of Babur, proclaimed that banishment would be the lot of any one of their tribe that assisted the construction. Then, defying the Niazi and his crack troops, they made periodic incursions to drive away all other builders as well, until Toder Mal was hard put to recruit stone masons and labourers. Work came to a standstill. The engineer wrote to apprise his king of the state of affairs. Back came the response, “I selected you from among many, to execute this work, thinking you a man of sense and experience. You have been supplied with money. Go on, at any expense, to fulfil my object, and draw on my treasury for the amount, whatever it may be.”
In terms of appearance, Rawat Fort is not significantly different from the many inns built along the GT Road during medieval India. It consists of a mosque, an open space and living cells for travellers and horses. At one time, the inn was visible from the Mankiala stupa and Soan Bridge. However, locating the inn has become challenging due to the rapid expansion of housing societies.
Today, the inn serves as a recreational and educational destination for school children from Rawalpindi and Islamabad, fostering their interest in history and cultivating curiosity about the past. This represents a significant change not anticipated a few years ago. The physical presence of the inn allows young minds to engage with history through tangible remnants of the past. Many young learners are accustomed to viewing history as a fixed narrative, presented in standardised chronicles often found in Twitter threads and lengthy Facebook posts. Encouraging a critical approach to understanding the past, which shapes our present, is a valuable departure from this approach.
The writer tweets at @Ammad_Alee