Deep within the Soon valley, beyond several small mountain hamlets, lies Amb Sharif; home to the 9th-10th century Amb temples and fort
The story goes something like this: the Raja Akanfar of Soon valley was told by astrologers that his son Raja Saiful would be the last in the line as he’d fall in love with a woman leading to an eventual disaster. To protect the young prince, the Raja took him to Saint Deva at Mount Ganesh, high up in the mountains and left him there to stay with the saint. Years passed, the Raja died and the time arrived for Raja Saiful to return to his kingdom and claim his throne.
Alsara, a nightingale, used to fly around the kingdom and beyond and was fond of figs in the gardens of Amb. One day she saw a beautiful princess in the palace of Amb. She came back and told Raja Saiful about the princess. Long story short, the young Raja and the princess eventually fell in love with each other. The Princess’s father, the Raja of Amb was not happy with the news. One evening, he struck Raja Saiful with his arrow and killed him on the spot ending the love story that was yet to bloom.
There is a small town called Quaidabad on the Sargodha-Mianwali road. From Quaidabad, a metalled road snakes out north towards the Sakesar mountains. Just before the base of the mountains, the road forks out and the right path climbs into the mountains around the Soon valley. The road gives way at certain points to seasonal mountain streams. After passing through several small mountain hamlets, you reach Amb Sharif. Amb Sharif is home to the 9th-10th century Amb temples and fort.
The 1897 Gazetteer of the Shahpur district mentions: “on the hills, a little east of Amb may be seen the remains of a long wall with a gateway, which may have been erected for defensive purposes”. Most of these structures except for the two main temples have long gone. Amb Sharif became Sharif post-independence; the area was known as just Amb in older literature.
Amb temples belong to the Hindushahi dynasty that ruled India from the 6th to the 10th century succeeding the earlier Kushan dynasty. After 500 years in power, the dynasty met its end with the arrival of Mahmud Ghaznavi in the 10th century. It appears that Hindushahi dynasty ruled over a rich kingdom as reflected by the temples and excavations at sites from that era. There is a string of magnificent temples located only in the Salt Range, starting from Tilla Jogian and moving west to Nandana, Katas, Malot, Amb and Mari Indus (Kala Bagh) and even Kafir Kot in Dera Ismail Khan.
An interesting feature of these temples is their location, almost always at a height and on the edge of cliffs, probably for security reasons as such locations not only provided a vantage point but also a natural defence. Add to this, Tulaja – the abandoned ancient city of Soon valley – and our own Macho Picchu, are also situated on top of a cliff.
It takes one around an hour from Quaidabad to reach Amb. The road actually passes through what was once the Amb fort complex, to reach another town down the hill. Such is our ‘love’ of built heritage that we allowed bulldozers in this archaeological site to clear the way for the road. Locals speak of instances of finding coins or clay pots but no systematic record has been maintained. In the words of Alexander Cunningham, a 19th-century explorer, “The Dhoda nullah (steam) flows between Amb and Sakesar and almost isolates the flat-topped hill on which stands the old fort of Amb. The town itself consists of two distinct portions, the upper half, being situated on top of a conical red hill, and the lower half at the foot of the fort in the midst of a wood of green trees with a fine spring of pure water, which alone would have led to the early occupation of this pleasant site in the midst of these salt hills”.
Most of these structures except for the two main temples have long gone. Amb Sharif became Sharif post-independence; the area was known as just Amb in older literature.
There are two main structures still standing at the site. One is around a seventy feet high three-storeyed temple, rich with beautiful Kashmiri style ornamentation, however, with a curved top unlike the typical peaked Kashmiri temples. This is a grand structure with stairs leading to the base of the temple which is magnificently set on a high platform with a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains. The temple consists of three storeys. Stairs go up to the roof of the temple and to the ambulatories in upper storeys with slit windows in the walls. The temple is now supported by a concrete structure on the western side as it was falling apart. The support does not gel with the ancient structure. However, this was probably the only way to save the crumbling temple. Three sides of the temple have vacant spaces in the walls where apparently statues of Hindu gods were placed at some point in history.
A statue depicting a female was shifted from Amb to Lahore Museum in the late 19th century by researcher Alexander Cunningham during his exploratory visit in 1878. Another researcher, Wilson, also reported sculptures excavated from the site in 1888 and shifted to Lahore Museum. Those cannot be traced any longer. Cunningham also mentioned a three-foot inscription stone found at the site and later sent to the Deputy Commissioner’s office, not to be found again. A pundit reportedly deciphered the inscription to conclude that this was a temple belonging to Raja Ambrikha from 100 AD. Unfortunately for the pundit, it has now been conclusively shown that the Amb temples were constructed around the 10th century.
There is another, smaller temple about fifty metres away from the main temple at the edge of the cliff. This temple has two vestibules. Apparently these were prayer chambers for Hindu jogis. Imagine jogis travelling to this temple in the middle of the mountains over a thousand years ago, from far-flung places. The walls of this temple have interesting carvings and should be a topic of research for archaeologists. Cunningham reported two of these smaller temples in 1878.
However, when Daya Ram Sahni, a tycoon, moved to conserve these temples in 1922, only one of those was surviving. The smaller temple dates back to late 9th century and the main temple to the 10th century. I saw people climbing up to the roof of the main temple to take photographs, essentially risking both their lives and damaging the already crumbling monument.
The whole complex is surrounded by a moat and walls which makes it probable that it was established as a fort. However, unless properly preserved, these remnants would be soon gone. There are historical references to Amb temples surrounded by fig gardens and natural water streams and even now the whole landscape is lush green due to rains and perennial water channels.
Besides the Quaidabad route, one can also reach Amb temples from Sakesar. There is a road connecting Namal lake to Sakesar and continuing onwards to Quaidabad circumventing Sakesar top, known as Quaidabad Sakesar Road. It takes one around an hour to drive from Sakesar top to Dhoda nullah at the base of Sakesar Mountains on this road.
The road is shabby and while cars can make it, it is advisable to use an SUV. On the way, one passes some really beautiful villages with terraced farms and an abandoned Dak Bungalow. After crossing the bridge on the seasonal Dhoda nullah, one joins the road from Quaidabad.
There is a third route as well: it connects Amb to Uchhali lake side of Sakesar hills. But the trek from Amb to Uchhali is not for cars; even the SUVs need a high clearance. This is a very challenging jeep trek with parts of the trek actually passing through seasonal mountain streams with boulders strewn all around and one wrong can disable a vehicle.
Amb temples are part of our ancient heritage and both people and the government have a responsibility towards preserving this gem in the middle of lush green rolling mountains. The site should be protected and an archaeological research project as well as tourism promotion undertaken.