A lonesome, ancient fort stands somewhere in the middle of the sea, close to the historical port city of Bhambhore in Sindh, and straddled by a dwindling forest of mangroves.
A few years back, our troupe of single and wildly adventurous friends Uzair, Raheel and myself set out to discover this maritime wonder in the most precarious of circumstances. My hunch was that Bhambhore could not have been saved from the enemy’s onslaught without an additional bastion somewhere along the coast. I spoke to some locals to discover that, indeed, there was a fort close to the city. And so a friendly fisherman offered to take us there on a trip that turned out to be an unforgettable experience.
All pumped up, we had arrived by the boat promptly and were set to leave when a sudden burst of rain made the friendly boatman very apprehensive of going out into the sea. He was afraid that the rain could put his boat, and consequently his livelihood, at risk. But we were adamant about going, for we simply could not return to Karachi without an adventure, and finally coaxed him and his three helpers into sailing.
The Indus Delta is a natural wonder. But sadly, as with many of nature’s endowments, the environment of the delta has been wrecked by human apathy and greed. Industries dispose of their toxic waste into the seas, resulting in a lack of freshwater flow to the mangroves, so these sea forests have now shrunk alarmingly in size and no longer provide effective protection against flooding. Additionally, intense illegal logging and fishing have also devastated both the mangroves and the fish that shelter here. Still, the Indus delta remains the fifth largest delta system in the world, and boasts of the seventh largest mangrove forest system.
But we weren’t here for the statistics. We wanted to see the fort because we weren’t sure if its existence was mere folklore or if indeed was some truth to the locals’ assertion. But as I have found through experience, local knowledge must be trusted, as it often comes in handy.
So here we were, singing nonchalantly as rain splashed on our heads and my camera, and with not a care in the world for the risks our little adventure carried. Someone on the boat reminded us that we were short of food and I calculated that we only had Rs3,500 among the seven of us, which was just too little to buy everything for everyone. This meant that we would be starving at sea if something went terribly wrong. On top of it all, our hora, as the boat is called by the local Sindhis, was making a lot of dubious noises. But the mangroves looked fantastic and the entire delta, save for a lone bird, looked as bare as a Balochistan desert. I fell in love with the sight.
After three hours of ‘zung zung’ noises by our hora, someone gestured over my right shoulder. I could barely make out some red bricks in the distance, but I knew this was it. Who was crazy enough to build a fort here, in the middle of nowhere, where the only sign of life is in the underwater world or in the skies where migratory birds fly? Right then, as if on cue, the rain stopped and the dark menacing clouds began to part. It was the perfect opportunity to whip out my oldie Nikon N5 and take pictures!
Jhaki Bander, as the fort is known locally, is a square structure that spreads over an area of 105,000 square feet, according to the Google Maps measure tool. The satellite shot clearly shows the outer boundary of the fort, but nothing else remains. My guess is that much has not been lost to time, but instead lies hidden under dense vegetation.
As we walked towards the fort, shards of glass and hardened mud crunched beneath our feet. Somewhere underneath all this must lie some precious ancient coins, I thought, carried away in my excitement. The chances of that were low though, as this site (and others in the Indus Delta area) had been excavated by the renowned archaeologist Kaleem Lashari in 1992-93. Lashari reportedly placed the fort 13 kilometres northeast from Bhambhore and also mentioned a mosque just outside the fort walls. Indeed, my fisherman friend had pointed out to me a pile of bricks that were supposed to be remnants of that very mosque. Under the high tides of the monsoon, the mound of bricks remained largely submerged, barely appearing over the surface of the sea. I was told to come back during winter to take a better look.
Lashari measured the mosque as 25,000 square feet in covered area, while its bricks measured 13x9x2 inches in size. Another smaller mosque is situated about half a kilometre away; its paved floor is only visible between the months of November and March.
Too engrossed in our own amateur archeology, we barely noticed our boatman frantically waving his hands to grab our attention. Our boat had stalled, and we really should have been scampering for help. But instead, we weren’t even interested in returning the boatman’s frantic calls with as much as a glance. But it had started getting dark and, after my exploration of the site, I decided to return to the boat.
To be honest, I wasn’t in the least shocked that our boat had stalled. It didn’t even bother me that there was no one around except for the bored illegal Bengali fishermen who would much rather stay away from us lest we turn them in to the Pakistani authorities. We also knew that we could be starving till help arrived and my friend Raheel’s mobile phone couldn’t catch any signals. Even our supply of chai had finished. The only edible thing with us was a lone apple that we happily shared among the three of us. Meanwhile, the boatman and his helpers looked at us as if we had murdered their only son and were now eating the apple to celebrate our crime!
That evening it began to pour again. It came down so hard that we didn’t notice the peculiar sounds coming from the sea. I asked my increasingly miserable fisherman friend what it was and he pointed towards what I realised was an entire school of Indus dolphins! Sadly, my camera was too wet by now and, in fact, we all were so drenched and hungry that it was hard to enjoy the wonderful spectacle. As night crept in, our initial indifference to the risks we had taken turned to fear.
The next morning, I opened my eyes to a bright blue sky. We found out, much to our relief, that a fisherman had somehow contacted someone in Bhambhore, and we were served a cold but scrumptious jheenga biryani and chai for breakfast. It felt like the best thing in the world: to be surrounded by beautiful mangroves, very near to your historical discovery and having jheenga biryani to fill your starving stomach.
After wiping our plates and hands clean, we left for home. But since then, I think I have returned to Jhaki Bander four times, taking along a different set of friends each time. While the trips have been enjoyable enough for me to always return, nothing beats our experience on the day when we were marooned on the mysterious Jhaki Bander.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, October 14th, 2012.