“There it stands, sprawling across low rocky hills a few miles north of Jhelum, its great ramparts growing from the cliff like a Wall of China, looking across a sandy stream-bed to the low hills of the Salt Range and, beyond them, to the snows of the Pir Panjal.“As you approach the fort, the crenellations look like ominous rows of helmeted warriors watching you with disapproval — it is an awe-inspiring sight.”
— Sir Olaf Caroe, The Pathans, 1958.
Rohtas Fort is one of the finest specimens of pre-Mughal military architecture. It is probably one of the only surviving early Muslim structure in Pakistan. Built on top of a steep cliff on the right bank of the River Kahan, Rohtas once commanded the medieval trade route of the Shahi road or Shah Rah-e-Azam (now known as Grand Trunk Road or, simply as, the GT Road).
The foundation of the fort was laid in 1541 by Sher Shah Suri, who is labelled as “the most illustrious Afghan in history” by Sir Olaf Caroe. Sher Shah named Rohtas after the older hill fortress of Rohtasgarh in Bihar (now in India) that had been captured by him three years earlier.
Ironically, Rohtas was never used for the purpose for which it was built. Sher Shah died in 1545, his reign lasting barely six years. His death quickly led to the fall of his empire and only ten years later a triumphant Humayun returned to his throne. Tatar Khan Khasi, the then governor of Rohtas, fled without a battle. In the years to come, Rohtas lost its importance as the frontier garrison especially when Humayun’s son Akbar built his great fort in Attock in the 1580s.
Under the Mughals, Rohtas was left largely to itself. The Mughal emperors Akbar and his son Jehangir are known to have briefly stayed at Rohtas en route to Kashmir. The Persian invader Nadir Shah and the Afghan ruler Ahmed Shah Abdali also camped here during their campaigns in the Punjab. Rohtas was also occasionally used for administrative purposes by the Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh and during the British period but little attention was paid to its historical value and its preservation.
The fort is now a national protected monument and a Unesco world heritage site. Few of the original buildings erected in the inner citadel survive today. Amongst these perhaps the most enigmatic building is Haveli Man Singh. This domed tower is named after one of Akbar’s greatest generals and is the only surviving example of Hindu architecture within the fort.
A fading Urdu sign board titled “The story of Rohtas in its own words” welcomes and bids farewell to the visitors of Rohtas. It reads:
“I have been the abode of Muslim kings. Sher Shah Suri made me immortal by constructing a magnificent and inconceivable fortress around me. I was the center of his military might. My eternal fame is a proud part of History. In those days I had abundance or wealth and riches. Those were the days of my prosperity.
“Centuries have since passed. The era of atomic power then came. Science has given man the power to eradicate entire humanity from the face of this earth in a single instance. Now my once indubitable significance and grandeur means nothing. And the magnificence of this fort collapsed and crushed in pieces.”
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, September 18th, 2011.