The mystery of Pattan Minara

Published: May 19, 2013

A British political agent went digging for gold here but death awaited his men. PHOTO AMINA KHAN

Nearly a century and a half ago, a political agent of the former state of Bahawalpur called Colonel Minchin is said to have set out to explore the ruins of Pattan Minara. This structure is believed to be a 5,000-year-old Buddhist monastery of which only a single burnt sienna column remains about  eight kilometres from Rahim Yar Khan.

Col Minchin was drawn to the mysterious site because he had heard that treasure was buried in tunnels that were part of the remains. Oddly though, even the records of his adventure are as fuzzy as the legend of Pattan Minara. In several places on the internet it says he went for the dig in 1870. But according to peerage records he was born in 1862, making him just eight years old at the time.

The dig apparently ended in disaster. Minchin and his team “came upon some putrid semi-liquid matter over which swarmed flies of a large size and peculiar colour,” according to Salman Rashid, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. His coolies were stung and died on the spot. Minchin abandoned his search.

Very little is known about the minara, but the general consensus is that it was built during the Hakrra valley civilization of the Mauryan period (250 BC). According to Rashid, in the absence of any scientific investigation, it is only the Gazetteer of Bahawalpur State (1904) that is the teller of tales of Pattan Minara. The travel writer extensively describes the structure, which has a single doorway facing west. There appears to be no way to reach the top floor, leading to the assumption that a ladder was used. At some point in time, the minara is said to have been used as a watch tower.

The minara is named after Pattan Pur which is said to have once been a lush city nestled on the bank of the River Ghagra, an offshoot of the River Indus. Pattan Minara thus means ‘Tower on the Ford’.

Fazal Qureshi of Dawn writes that Alexander the Great passed through the area during his military expedition to India. As was his practice, Alexander set up a cantonment here under a Greek governor. A university complex was even set up here. But with time, as the River Indus changed course and River Ghagra dried up, the place lost its importance. This slice of history surfaces in folklore, according to research carried out at Bahawalpur University. The legend was that the river god fell in love with a damsel who was already betrothed. In vengeance, the rivers rose up in fury and drowned the entire city.

By the beginning of the 18th century, Pattan Minara’s surrounding structures were so dilapidated that a chieftain ordered for them to be demolished. It was during this that a brick inscribed with Sanskrit was discovered. It said that the monastery was founded during the time of Alexander, the Macedonian conqueror. The Gazetteer does not record what became of the brick.

Today, in an ironic twist of fate, it appears that another form of putrid, semi-liquid matter is back at the minara — though fortunately this time it is unlikely to kill anyone.
A major sewage scheme, undertaken by the government, is destroying Pattan Minara even though it is an officially declared heritage site. Informal housing is creeping up in the surrounding area and the construction industry is excavating for reti-bajri or sand around the ruins.

For whatever it is worth, however, people from the area are willing to try and save this site by pledging to bring back coins they found. Perhaps, after all, someone discovered the treasure that Minchin set out to find.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, May 19th, 2013.

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