February 22, 2012

Rannikot - In the Middle of Nowhere


Flying from Jacobabad to Karachi many years ago, I had spotted a rather puzzling wall-like structure which seemed to snake over and around the stark Lakhi Hills, which form the south-eastern frontier of the Kirthar Range. Confounded by the unusual feature which is not shown on most ordinary maps, I later learnt that it was known by the name of Rannikot (incorrectly spelt as Ranikot). Unfortunately, whatever remains of its history has been thoroughly warped by fiction, the tallest tale being that it is the world’s largest fort! Other than the Talpurs’ historical records making mention of the construction as their handiwork, no earlier account is available to contest it. The annals of Rannikot thus seem to end up in knots.

With a weekend to spare in Karachi recently, I got a chance to untangle whatever little I could about the enduring inscrutability of Rannikot. It didn’t take much to convince my friend Nauman Farrukh, that he needed a break from the humdrum never-ending work. We set course at eight in the morning and took the Super Highway, which is in first class condition all the way north to Sehwan. Reaching the small town of Sann after a three-hour drive, we turned south-west on to a narrow road, leaving the green flood plain of the Indus behind us. The utterly desolate terrain was occasionally cheered up the odd lark chirruping in the scrub. As we travelled ahead, barren hills started to loom in front of us and it was easy to see what a formidable barrier they could be, especially in the scorching summer heat. Small groups of shanty reed huts could be seen not too far from the road. Other than an odd village scrounger begging by the roadside, there was hardly a soul in sight. After a drive of about 25 kilometres, we sighted the wall undulating over the hills; shortly thereafter, we came upon the bastions of the eastern entrance known as the Sann Gate. The wall, viewed from this point, resembles some portions of the Great Wall of China, though any attempt at reading too much into this commonplace description would be utterly superfluous, as we shall see.

A milestone by the roadside near the gateway marks Rannikot, while the small Miri Fort lies a further five kilometres ahead. It would be worthwhile clarifying that Rannikot is not a fort as is usually understood and, simply denotes the outer fortification wall that has numerous circular bastions serving as watchtowers. The wall is not a continuous structure and is, in fact, constructed in several segments ranging from one as small as 39 metres to the longest one which is 3.8 km, all adding up to 8.2 km in length. The wall largely plugs gaps in the hills where the terrain is passable by intruders, mostly towards the south. The wall cleverly aligns with the crests of the hills and forms a continuous barrier, which is, in most part natural and much less man-made. Put together, this barrier has been incorrectly termed as a single wall with a length claimed to be anywhere from 26-36 km. Unfortunately, UNESCO’s World Heritage Site Listing, which gives it a tentative status, gullibly takes up the Pakistani claim. The three-metre wide wall is clearly visible (as well as measurable) in Google® earth satellite pictures. There is no doubt that overly keen enthusiasts have blatantly distorted facts about its length.

Passing through the bastions of the gateway, we crossed the dry ranni (a local word for hill torrent) which meanders across the Rannikot fortification. In the rainy season, the stream starts as a torrent in the northern reaches of Lakhi Hills and after swinging east, discharges in the Indus near Sann. We had to make a short detour over the rough and stony terrain, as a bridge is being constructed over the stream which is known to swell enormously during flash floods. By the wayside, we spotted a small shack which doubled up as a make-shift petrol pump and a tea stall for odd travellers like us. The friendly owner, Ali Sher Rustamani, assigned a ten-year old tour guide by the name of Bilawal, who was said to be well versed with the area. After a short drive, we had to ford the gushing stream twice again, as that portion is abundantly fed by a natural spring. Luckily, the car’s silencer stayed clear of the water bed, though it’s rattling gave us a brief scare, what with no mobile phone coverage to call for help. Authorities seem to be paying some attention to the prospects of tourism, as indicated by another bridge which is under construction over this section.

As we drove on towards Miri Fort, our little guide Bilawal told us that he knew all the hills and vales because he herded his father’s cattle and goats in the fort’s environs. A happy little soul, Bilawal’s only dread was the charakh (striped hyena), a pack of which of which had recently devoured his favourite calf. Reaching the fort, we entered through a looping vestibule into a large bell-shaped courtyard, a little less in size than a football field. Two dozen dilapidated cubicles and halls made up what might have been the armoury and other accommodation of the garrison personnel, who once manned this outpost. Four corner bastions and one at the entrance, served as watchtowers as well as platforms for artillery pieces. Other than a floral stone carving on the entrance arch, the fort is absolutely utilitarian and there is no evidence of any imperial splendour. Crude renovation attempts on the structure are amply evident. Climbing up a stairway to the top of the fort’s thick walls, we got an excellent view of the surroundings. A lush green patch abutting the stream marked a Gabol village, which seems to have done well in small-time farming. Looking north, we could see the outline of another small fort about 1.5 km away, on the crest of a hill range further beyond. It seemed like a perfect retreat, though reaching it would be a tough call for all but the stoutest of men. Shergarh (or Shergah) Fort had been aptly named, I thought.

Several sources attribute the construction of Rannikot to the Talpurs of Sindh (ruled 1783-1843). The earliest is a composition by the Talpur court poet, Ghulam Ali Ma’il, in which he eulogises the achievement of his patron, Mir Karam Ali Khan Talpur. He states that work started in 1815 and was completed five years later. The extant family records of the wazir and project overseer, Nawab Wali Mohammad Khan Laghari, also attribute the planning and construction of the fort to the Talpurs. In his historical Sindhi narrative, Fatehnamo (1907), Mir Hasan Ali Khan records some details, including the cost of the fort’s construction viz, Rupees 17 lacs, that was borne by the Talpur treasury.

From earliest antiquity till the start of the 19th century, there is no mention of Rannikot in any writing, whatsoever. One of Emperor Akbar’s historians, Mir Masum, who accompanied the Mughal military commander Khan-i-Khanan during the conquest of Sindh in 1590/91 AD, does not record any fort in the area, despite the invading army having tarried at nearby Sann for several months during the monsoon season. Similarly, Rannikot finds no mention in the historical records of the Kalhora rulers of Sindh who held power for over eight decades before the Talpurs.

Talpur Mirs were known to have built as many as twenty forts and strongholds on the frontiers of Sindh, ranging from the coast to the desert. Rannikot was one of their special mountain redoubts, and for good reason. Not having forgotten the fate of one of the Kalhora predecessors, Mian Noor Muhammad Kalhoro, who was humiliatingly vanquished by the Persian Nadir Shah at the defenceless fort of Umarkot, the Talpurs took heed and started preparing for such an eventuality. The Talpur family hunting grounds at present-day Rannikot, which still abound with the graceful Sindh Ibex (Capra aegagrus blythi), were chosen as the ultimate hide-out for a fight back, just in case.

Sixty years of Talpur rule in Sindh ended in 1843, after British guile and General Charles Napier’s “rascality” – to quote his own words – resulted in a rout at Doaba (Dubbo) near Hyderabad. The last ruling Talpur Mirs of Hyderabad and Khairpur were deposed and packed off to Calcutta, without either one getting a chance to repair to Rannikot. The brave ruler of Mirpurkhas, Mir Sher Mohammad Talpur resisted, but his forces were defeated by the relentless John Jacob of Jacobabad fame. Sher managed to escape but had to wander as a fugitive for over a decade. He did find refuge in Shergarh Fort for a short while, but had to move on for fear of being pursued. Eventually, he had to make peace with the British as their wretched pensioner.

Having to get back to Karachi in time to catch a late evening flight to Lahore, I had to wind up the short tour. We stopped by at Ali Sher’s shack and handed over Bilawal to him. Over a cup of instant tea made on firewood, Ali Sher explained that tourism was picking up in bits, despite there being no electricity, running water, gas or even a dispensary in the area. He was at pains to assure us that the place was absolutely safe, especially with Baluch tribes in the vicinity. “Your womenfolk will be treated as our brothers,” he assured us chivalrously. Not sure of having heard him correctly, we wondered if it was a linguistic gender error and asked him what he meant. Ali Sher outdid himself in chauvinism when he explained that, “we want to treat them as worthy, which is only possible if they are given the status of men!”

As we left after a most useful trip, I wondered how the fortification still harks back to a last stand that was not to be. The Irish travel writer, Isobel Shaw, got it so right in her succinct observation about Rannikot, “… in the middle of nowhere, defending against nothing.”

© KAISER TUFAIL. This is an open-access article published under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

This article was published in the daily newspaper The News International on 4 March 2012.

6 comments:

  1. ur writings r always interesting its a while now that i have been reading things 4rm ur side just continue the gr8 work !!!!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Sir....I come to know of your this aspect too late and just by the chance....The article is quite interesting and informative.Despite the fact that I born and spent my life in Sindh,I fail to visit Rannikot...but its never too late. Sir...I served under your command in No.8 sqn.....certainly its very hard to remember it now...I am was Cpl/Tech at that time.... Ex-C/T Khawar Iqbal. May Allah bless you...

    ReplyDelete
  3. Kaiser sb, thank you for linking me to this blog post. Reading this creates intrigue
    I enjoyed reading this and I'm thinking next time a cup of tea and some khatai must be my company. I wouldnt have known that the 26-28 km length of the wall was an overestimation. Also, the price of the fort back then at 17 lakh. Wow!!! I wonder why was this location chosen for a fort this big. Such a desolate place. And yes, even the thought of walking across this dry and deserted place in the heat of the summer makes me cringe! Would it be safe to say that majority of the forts were built from the 18th to 19th century?

    ReplyDelete
  4. Kaiser, I am impressed by your ability to travel to such far off places in the little time available to you on your short visits to Karachi. I have been wanting to visit Rannikot for many years now but have been unable to do so on one pretext or another. This is yet another excellent article - very absorbing and informative. Thanks for demolishing the myth of the fort with the world's longest perimeter.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Dear Mr. Tufail.
    First of all, I would like to thank you for taking the time to read my message. I’m a Spanish writer now living in Chile.
    I’am writing you after reading this article in your blog, which I found very much interesting.
    I´m finishing a poetry book which main issue is walls and frontier barriers.
    In the book, through my text, I go along introducing notes about several of the walls and border barriers that have been built by man through history. In these notes, besides couple objective facts of each wall such as location, construction date and length, my idea is to mention each wall or barrier through a poetic or literary reference. Whenever literary or poetic reference doesn't exist or is unknown, I`m using historical sources such as annals or chronicles.
    One of the walls I`m having problems to get to this literary reference is the Ranikot Fort (or Rani-ka Kot, Great Wall of Sindh) in Pakistan.
    All the articles I`ve been reading about Ranikot included yours, mention poet’s Ghulam Ali Ma'il. reference to the fort, but I couldn´t been able to find the text or poem in which he makes such reference to Ranikot. Though this poet is supposed to be a relatively known writer, (in Sisir Kumar Das’ book is said about the poet: "Ghulam Ali 'Mail' (b. 1768), a celebrated poet of Sind who was also famous for his Persian qasida. He had a diwan consisting of about 224 poems”), unfortunately I didn’t get to find any translation of his work.
    I found another reference to Ranikot in 'A gazetteer of the Province of Sindh' (1876), but I would really prefer to mention the fort in my book with the reference of the local poet rather than with the economic chronicle of the British researcher.
    I would really appreciate it and I would be very grateful if you could give me any clue or help to find a translation of the text, poetic excerpt or chronicle reference in which poet Ma’il references the fort.
    Thank you in advance for your time, help and comprehension.
    Kind regards.
    Silvia Veloso
    veloso.rs@gmail.com

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Silvia Veloso

      I read your message with interest. Thank you for your appreciation.

      Firstly, a bit about the name of the fort, ie Rannikot. 'Ranni' in Sindhi language means a hill torrent or a small river that comes down from the hills or mountains. The word 'Kot' means a fort in Hindi language. So the meaning of Rannikot is: 'the fort near the hill torrent'. The word Ranni and its derivative Rann is used as a geographical term describing various flowing water channels (eg, Rann of Kutch, in SE Pakistan and Indian Gujarat).

      It is usually spelt incorrectly as Rani, which means a princess in Hindi and Urdu languages. By this translation, it would mean Princess Fort, which is incorrect.

      Now about the short composition by the poet Ghulam Ali Ma'il. He was the court poet to the Talpur ruler of Sindh, Mir Karam Ali Talpur who ruled from 1812 to 1828 AD. The poet Mail died in 1835.

      The court poets of that era would compose a few verses to praise any achievement of the ruler. Ghulam Ali Ma'il had this to say about the fort:

      First Composition:

      " The fort was built on a high ridge of a mountain, with a circular foundation and vast environment (surroundings). It is an all stone construction, built on stone (foundation). It is a grand fort, the like of which is neither in Rome nor Russia. It is called Aliabad. The construction work started in 1230 AH (1815 AD)."

      Second Composition:

      "It is named Ali-abad. It is high as the sky, and as vast as the earth. It is perfect in construction, and towering in height. Its year of completion is 1234 AH (1819 AD). Thus it took 5 years 1230 to 1234 AH (1815-1819AD) to complete the fort."

      The fort was named Ali-abad meaning, "Established by Ali" (the name of the ruler was Mir Karam Ali Talpur. Abad means 'establish' in Urdu and Sindhi.

      The composition by Ghulam Ali Ma'il has been taken from Appendix 2 of a book titled 'Talpur Rule in Sindh,' written by Parveen Talpur, and published by Ferozsons (Pvt) Ltd, Pakistan in 2002. ISBN 969 0 01757 8.

      Delete