You hear someone say Lal Qilla and odds are you’ll think of India. If you live in Karachi, you may even think about that buffet place on Shahrah-e-Faisal. One place you certainly won’t think about is Azad Jammu and Kashmir. Hence, you can excuse my emphatic (and ignorant) response to my secretary when he mentioned a Red Fort in Muzaffarabad.
“A Red Fort in Muzaffarabad? Are you kidding?” I said.
You see, when he mentioned the Red Fort, I immediately presumed he was referring to the Mughal monument in the Indian city of New Delhi.
I was mistaken. As he delved into details and tales of this historically significant yet incredibly derelict site, my ignorance transformed into interest and he managed to convince me enough to see — and then write — about this ruined monument to Kashmir’s past.
As it turns out, there is a Red Fort in Muzaffarabad and it is in dire need of attention after most of its relics were stolen and a large portion of it was destroyed during the 2005 earthquake. Despite being a frequent visitor to AJK, I had never even heard of this fort. An omission I intended to rectify.
A few weeks back, my family and I got a chance to visit the area to see the development projects initiated by the government with the aid of various donor countries for the rehabilitation of those who suffered during the tragic earthquake.
After a three-hour drive from Islamabad, we reached the capital of AJK. I braced myself for the worst, as memories of the devastation this city had suffered in 2005 came flooding back. The last time I had visited this city, houses and markets alike had been razed to the ground and thousands of people lay either dead or injured. What was once an awe-inspiring sight — a city of breathtaking beauty –had been transformed into a graveyard that day. As I looked upon at the vast expanse of misery and tears, where the green of the grass was stained by the red of blood, it seemed the beautiful city would never live again.
This time, however, I was greeted by an encouraging scene; development was underway and the government was working on improving the infrastructure for the people. Maybe, I was wrong. Maybe, the sensation of foreboding I had felt was misplaced. Maybe, the city could be whole again.
A peephole into the past
After a brief stay at the lavish and picturesque Pearl Continental Hotel, my family and I reached our destination: the Red Fort of AJK.
The fort — or what remains of it — is a 15-minute drive from the hotel and gets the red in its name from its crimson hues. It is called the Rutta Qila, which translates to Red Fort in English.
Historians say the fort was built after the Chak rulers of Kashmir realised there was a potential threat to their city from the expansionist Mughals. The fort was thus built to serve as a raised defensive post that could be a staging ground for counter-offensives.
A strategically important location was chosen for building the fort: a large rock which is surrounded by a U-shaped curve carved by the River Neelum which flows on its eastern, northern and western sides.
Initiated in 1559 during the reign of the Chak Dynasty, the fort was built to develop a second line of defense while at the same time providing cover to the Fateh Garh Fort in Dub Gali Pass, west of what is now the city of Muzaffarabad.
The Red Fort had three levels, with the main gate on the eastern side of the upper level. The lower level of the fort once had stairs descending all the way down to the river, with the two levels connected to one another through a now-destroyed middle level.
But all of the rulers’ precautions could hold off the Mughal advance, and Kashmir was annexed in 1587 or so. When Emperor Akbar visited his newly-won domain, he chose this route to return to the Mughal capital as it was the easiest one. When he reached Chakrs Bahak (now, Muzaffarabad), he stayed there for a week and a royal travel lodge was built for future visits.
The fort then lost its strategic importance and was forgotten until 1646 when Sultan Muzaffar Khan of the Bomba Dynasty — the founder of Muzaffarabad — repaired and completed the fort, using it as a military base.
In 1846, Maharaja Gulab Singh of the Dogra Dynasty began repairs and an extension on the fort once again, and his successor Maharaja Ranbeer Singh completed it, giving it the form it had before it became a ruin. The fort was then used by the military till 1926, after which a new cantonment was built, leaving the red fort abandoned once again.
Even the materials used in this structure, during its building and multiple repairs, tell their own tales. Ranging from rounded stones, rubble, red brick masonry and lime and clay, these materials speak of architectural development through the ages. And despite the massive damage to it after the quake, the fort still stands with all its inherent glory, grandeur and history.
Its state, however, paints a gloomy picture of neglect. It seems the fort — with its entrances and exits badly damaged — has become a shelter for dogs and other animals.
Although the government has apparently employed staff for facilitating tourism and protecting the fort, none were to be seen when I visited. The main office, according to the gatekeeper, has been shifted to the city. “No one comes here, sir”, he said when asked about the tourism staff.
People were lounging in a cabin which was supposed to be the main office of the tourism development and archaeology department of AJK. A quick conversation with them revealed that the office was being used as a room for resting since a very long time.
I also learned that a large chunk of land, which was once a part of the fort, is now held illegally by an influential person who holds a big post in the political set of AJK. Talking to these people, I began realising why I had never heard of the fort. After all, any inadvertent visitors to this place will only see the fruits of our own negligence.
I spoke to a tourism official after someone told me that even articles belonging to the long-gone eras are missing from the office. He denied all such reports and said everything was with them, in safe custody and under proper inventory. Not a single item is missing, he reassured me.
The official gave his own side of the story. He claimed that he had not gotten a single penny for upgrading and securing the fort despite repeated requests to the government and other national and international funding organizations. Lack of funding hampers repair and preservation of historical buildings in the AJK, the official said. He also told me that the land surrounding the fort was under litigation and the question of its ownership was now in the hands of the court.
Is the fort, which bears testament to the rise and fall of many a Kashmiri kingdom, doomed to just be another casualty of the catastrophe that ruined families and scarred generations? Certainly any passerby will only associate it with the earthquake and not the many eras of history that it is a testament to — the history of Kashmir itself.
Truly, any plan of rebuilding Muzaffarabad would have to include repairing the fort, or else centuries’ worth of history will stand solely as a reminder to a disaster that is just a few years old. Without restoring the fort to its former glory, the city of Muzaffarabad will never be whole again.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, January 13th, 2013.
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