18 August, 2013

Mystery Fort in the Indus Delta

A couple of years ago, while observing satellite pictures of the Indus Delta, I spotted a tiny reddish speck on one of the islands. Zooming in, I noticed that it looked like the remains of a square fort-like structure. Its location on a marshy mangrove island confounded me no end, and megabytes of Googling could not help me come up with an answer. I consulted my friend Adil Mulki, who is basically a banker but with a flair for excellent research on anything of historical interest.  He knew of the island and the remains of a fort on it, but was equally unsure about its origins, so we decided that on the next opportunity we should explore the place together.
That opportunity came last February, when I was visiting Karachi. Adil had done some meticulous planning for the trip, attending to each and every detail, including coordination with the boatman, and arranging for a load of fruit, snacks and plenty of bottled water. He had also roped in his friend Sharjeel Ahmed for bigger company. Our initial destination was Bhanbore, to which we set off in Adil’s car early at 5 o’clock in the morning; after a little over an hour we reached Bhanbore via the National Highway. The car was parked in a shed near the small jetty, and we promptly transferred the eatables in the boat that was waiting for us by the banks of a muddy creek. The diesel engine puttered to a noisy start and continued to rattle our ear drums till we got back in the evening. No luxury yacht, our boat reeked of dried fish and diesel fumes, and was dirty as a gutter but we couldn’t complain.  After all, one couldn’t expect much from the crew of the boat, themselves wretched souls like many others plying the Indus Delta. 

We were headed to Jhaki Bandar which is, supposedly, a port of sorts on the island and a mere 20-km as the tern flies from Bhanbore.  Meandering around the creeks, however, it is 35-km away. The Indus Delta is a placid network of waterways, thick with silt picked up by Indus River during its traverse of 3,180-kms, starting from its source at Senge Khabab in western Tibet.  In the delta, this silt forms mangroves swamps with a rich aquatic bird life.  Curious-looking darters and cormorants perched on mangrove branches could be seen drying their outspread wings, absolutely motionless almost like cardboard cutaways.  Except for the boat’s outboard motor, nothing seems to have changed since ages and the scene around us could well be harking back to several millennia.
It took us three-and-a-half hours to get to Jhaki Bandar, and it was a while before we reoriented ourselves. The ruins of the fort stood out as a low red wall from a distance. A fishing boat was docked nearby and there was no sign of a port or any other structure, for that matter.  Jhaki Bandar, we concluded was just a way station where the fishermen stopped to refuel from their jerry cans, or stopped to cook some sea food for lunch.
The boat was stopped short of the muddy beach with barge poles, and we all got off with our trousers rolled up to the knees, trudging a few yards in what was water, then sludge and finally soggy land. It was decided to first take a walking tour of the fort walls, utterly ruined as they were.
At their base the baked brick walls are about one metre thick, and the height of what remains of the walls is about two metres at most. The bricks were quite unusual, being about the size and thickness of an average paperback novel, similar to Mughal bricks but somewhat larger.
The square fort has sides roughly 100 metres in length, with four corner bastions and another eight in pairs on each wall. The south-eastern quarter of the fort indicates the remains of what may have been several rooms. The fort opens to the East and is located at the tip of a triangle whose base is formed by a line joining the towns of Gharo and Mirpur Sakro, about 22-km away at the perpendicular.
The area between the Eastern wall and the beach is littered with thousands of potsherds. The designs painted on the terra-cotta pottery include zigzag patterns, six-spoked circles, inter-locking S-shaped motifs and chevrons. Some of the designs were etched instead of being painted. Many glazed pottery pieces with blue painted patterns on a white background could be also be seen. No human or animal motifs were visible on the potsherds. Intriguingly, more than one object could be interpreted as a lingam. Many perforated pottery pieces, similar to the colanders seen at Harappan sites, were also visible in the debris.
Potsherds were the major debris seen at the site. An exception was a round metallic object which looked like a punch-marked coin. The boatman assured us that it was indeed a coin and he had picked up many which were lying at his home.
Having to leave before the low tide set in – with the risk of the boat getting stranded in sludge – we shuffled back to our vessel before mid-day. It was also time for a meal of shrimps that was to be cooked on board for Adil and Sharjeel (me having a dull palate for crustaceans).
For what purpose was the fort built, by whom and when? Neither of those questions elicits a definite answer from any known write-up, except for a brief mention of the “fort of Bandel at the entrance of the river (Indus)” in History and Discovery by Portuguese in the New World by P J Fran├žois Lafitau. 
As it happened, in 1555, a locally deployed Portuguese fleet of 28 vessels with 700 marines on board, sailed towards Thatta. It was to provide relief to Mirza Isa Tarkhan, the ruler of Lower Sindh who had requested help in his impending showdown with Sultan Mahmud, the ruler of Upper Sindh. In the event, fighting was averted after some sort of a compromise between the two Sindhi rulers, but Pedro Barreto Rolim, the Commander of the Portuguese Fleet insisted that he be remunerated in full, as agreed earlier. The Thatta chief was apparently adamant that the Portuguese were entitled to the cost of the journey only, as no fighting had taken place. Whatever may have incensed Pedro, the fate of Thatta was sealed. In eight days of wanton slaughter, eight thousand locals were killed and the town was put to ashes, in what was the first ever maritime attack on a location in Sindh. “The fort at Bandel made some resistance, but being taken was demolished,” continues the passage in Lafitau’s book. (Bandel apparently implies erstwhile Lahari Bandar, it being a mistake for Bandar.)
This brief account at least confirms that the concept of coastal forts in Sindh was in vogue some time before 1555. It is possible that in the wake of the sack of Thatta, a lesson had been learnt, and more forts at the mouths of Indus Delta estuaries had been built for defensive purposes. Quite similar in purpose to the modern day Coast Guards outposts, these forts may also have served the purpose of customs offices to extract duties on goods being brought into Sindh coastal waters. After all, much needed revenues had to be shared with the Sultans of Delhi and later the Mughals, under whose suzerainty and patronage the rulers of Sindh held power till the independent Kalhora rule started in 1701.
Four such forts have been mentioned by the Sindhi scholar Dr N A Baloch, viz Manhora (Karachi), Ratokot (Gharo Creek), Vikkur (near Jati) and Kotri (off Kori Creek), all attributed to the Talpurs, though the source of this information has not been quoted. The fort at Jhaki Bandar has intriguingly been missed out by Baloch, but it has to be granted that the modern day locations of forts may not correspond with the names that have been recorded by historians. This is because of relocation of the ports due to silting, which has been the bane of the Indus Delta since eons. The matter is also complicated by the fact that the forts being of red brick, are commonly known as red fort or rato kot in Sindhi, while the actual name of only one is Ratokot. If you can’t tell one from another, the blame is not yours.
There has been some mention of the fort at Jhaki Bandar as being a forward stronghold for the defence of the ancient town of Bhanbore. Suffice to say that the former is of baked bricks while the latter is constructed of quarried stone, and both are widely apart in shape and the design of ramparts.  To us it seemed that there was no connection between the two and couldn’t have been contemporaneous by any stretch of imagination.  The boatman, however, suggested that it was Raja Dahir who was the mastermind behind the fort at Jhaki Bandar. We won’t be surprised – in a sign of the times – if we next hear of it as being Muhammad bin Qasim’s handiwork!     
With heavy tans, parched lips and muddied legs, we disembarked from the boat, paid off the boatman and drove off to nearby Bhanbore. After guzzling some much needed beverages, we did a quick survey of the site and also visited the small museum. We got back to Karachi after a full twelve hours, though the tiredness vanished as Sharjeel regaled us with some amusing stories.
During our short trip to Jhaki Bandar, we may not have been able to come up with any definite answers; yet having studied the issue a little more since then, it can be surmised that these coastal forts belonged to the 16th-18th centuries CE. They served the dual purpose of guarding the entrance to the creeks, and housing customs offices at the rudimentary ports of the Indus Delta.
Further research could be centred on study of potsherds to determine the cultural affiliations of the people who used them, along with a study of the coins to help confirm the era. Only then would the mystery of the fort in the Indus Delta be unravelled satisfactorily.

© 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 18 Aug, 2013 under the title Mysterious Speck in the Indus Delta.