I was experiencing déjà vu. Had I been there before? It felt oddly familiar. The musty air and the satisfying grains of dust swirling in the sunlight that filtered through the massive arches instilled a strong sense of aging: this place was nearly 500 years old and to my surprise, I remembered it.
Before I go astray and you think I am about to proclaim myself to be the spirit of a fallen king. Rohtas Fort is one of the most popular tourist destinations in South Asia and I had been here as a young child. The foggy memories were from that trip.
Located near one of the oldest cities in the region, Jhelum, Rohtas fort is approximately a two-hour drive from Islamabad. My best friend had texted to tell me that he was going to Qila Rohtas for a photo shoot; I jumped at the opportunity and tagged along like a shameless free-loader. I have no regrets, I promise.
As we drove down the grand trunk road a mist followed the horizon as the sun crawled its way up to sprinkle light on the endless shrubs. The last of the fall leaves were fading, with empty crowns of trees, interspersed with a few pops of a rusty orange color.
Sher Shah Suri, the Pashtun king who took over the Mughal Empire after defeating the Mughal king Humayun, had commissioned the fort in 1541. He also refurbished the grand trunk road that runs through Punjab and connects to the fort. Since he built the fort to repel the advances of the rebellious Potohar tribes and Humayun’s forces, it probably wasn’t such a great strategy to give them a road for easy access!
Historians cite that Sher Shah Suri, was the most efficient administrator the subcontinent had ever seen. Perhaps his popularity as king was what set Punjabi tribes against him and rendered them loyal to Humayun, who was exiled to Persia. The Rohtas Fort stands in testimony to Sher Shah’s excellent organizational capabilities.
The fort had its own internal water supply – baolis – with stepped wells that made the fort completely self-sufficient in supplying its garrison with water. They exist to this day. Rohtas Fort is the only structure in the region that stands tall and preserved for the most part, despite being battle worn.
The entrance itself is breathtaking. We walked in through the Sohail gate which is one of 12 gates into the fort. The boundary walls are 4 kilometers in circumference and the fort’s 533-meter long fortification walls gives it a sense of formidable might.
The gate has some of the best masonry work of the Sur Empire, whilst its balconies show Hindu influence in the architecture. My friend started setting up his equipment for the shoot. That was my cue: I was free to roam around.
I started walking around, trying to take it all in; the still imposing architecture, the morning sun illuminating every corner of the massive fort, the sound of the fallen leaves crackling under my feet and the sound of footsteps echoing off the stone walls.
The visual was warm and the air was chilly. The run-down walls throughout the 12 acres told tales of a glorious past; I could almost hear the royalty and their peasants. Today a living village exists within the fort’s boundaries. So, it is not difficult to imagine the hustle and bustle of the place.
The thing about castles is that they have history encapsulated within them after the occupants have died. The tale of Mumtaz in the Taj Mahal, Shiva’s tears in the Katas Raj temple and the fables of Sohni Mahiwal near the Chenab shore breathe a certain truth. The museum inside the fort still contains old swords, coins and some Quran’s retained from the past. Rohtas Fort is still powerfully magnificent and history stares you in the face. Standing in the middle of its corridors you can hear the swords clinking and the sounds of the hooves of battle horses of Nadir Shah’s army from Persia or the Afghans as they competed with the Mughals for territory.
A Silent prayer can still be made in the beautiful Shahi mosque – situated near the Kabuli Gate – for every soul that had died defending a purpose in that place. For every hand that had built that marvelous structure and for the voices that had once echoed in the stone arches.