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The Forts of Potohar Region

Updated: May 9, 2023

Ketas Raj Temple Complex, Chakwal

The rugged hills of the Potohar Plateau are home to many historic forts that have played an important role in the region's history. These forts were built by various rulers and empires over the centuries and were used for various purposes, including military defence, civil administration, and residential quarters. The forts of the Potohar Plateau are architectural marvels, with their unique design and construction showcasing the skill and ingenuity of their builders. Despite various challenges, such as neglect and weathering, many of these forts have stood the test of time and remain an important part of Pakistan's cultural heritage.

The forts of Potohar serve as a reminder of the history and culture of this unique region and the people who have called it home. It is essential to recognise these structures' significance and take steps to preserve and protect them for future generations to appreciate and enjoy.

Jhelum Fort, Jhelum

Jhelum was an important ferrying point on the grand trunk road. Consequently, the Sikh empire constructed a small fortress here, later used by mutineers during the War of 1857. The fort was square and probably once surrounded by a moat and was one of the only two bastion fortresses. European powers introduced bastion forts to the subcontinent, which were more suitable for warfare based on artillery battles.

It is currently used by the Railways for storage purposes.

Rohtas Fort, Jhelum

In 1541 Sher Shah Suri defeated the Mughals and forced Emperor Humayun to flee into Safavid Persia. The Suris built it to suppress the local pro-Mughal Gakhar clan and to secure the grand trunk road, which they feared would be the route of a potential Mughal invasion. Raja Todar Mal carried out construction at a considerable expense since the locals had to be well-compensated for their work on the fort in defiance of the Gakhars. However, the fortresses saw little use since the Suri empire weakened, and the Mughals regained control of their empire by 1555. By then, the Rohtas Fort was too far from the frontiers to serve any purpose and lost its importance.

A spectacular piece of military engineering, the fort consisted of two adjacent walled compounds with over 5 kilometres of walls and 12 gates. River Kahaan bordered the fort to the northwest and smaller streams on the other side. These features made it extremely well-defended. The fort's inner compound was the citadel, which included two palaces and an ornately built mosque.

There are other historic buildings near the fort, namely, Khair-un-Nisa’s tomb and Gurudwara Choa Sahib. Currently, the fort is a UNESCO world heritage site.

Rawat Fort, Rawalpindi

Constructed as a fortified serai on the grand trunk road by the Delhi Sultanate, the Rawat Fort was one of the centres of the Gakhar clan. Like most serais, the fort was square, with rooms built into the walls for travellers. In 1546 the fort saw a battle between the Mughal-allied Gakhars and the Suri Empire in which the Gakhars were defeated and temporarily suppressed. The fort contains a mausoleum and many smaller graves of soldiers who lost their lives at this battle, including the then-chief of the clan, Sultan Sarang Khan, and his sons.

Sangni Fort, Rawalpindi

A small Sikh-era fort constructed for administration purposes in the rugged hills of the Potohar. It is surrounded by steep crags on three sides, making it well-defended. It is surprisingly in near-perfect condition. Today the fort houses the shrine to a local saint whose stories are associated with the fortress.

Pharwala Fort, Rawalpindi

Gakhar chief Kaigohar built Pharwala fort in the 11th Century and was the centre of Gakhar power for the next 800 years until the Sikhs conquered it in 1818. The Pharwala Fort is famously mentioned in Mughal Emperor Babur’s memoirs when he laid siege to the fort in 1519 to defeat Hathi Khan, the usurper leader of the Gakhar clan.

The Soan River borders the fort to the west, smaller streams to the east and south, and a mountain ridge to the north. Historical records suggest that it once had palaces that housed the Gakhar elite. Even today, the areas around the fort are dotted with small tombs, mosques, and gardens from when this fort was the capital of the Gakhars.

Kusak Fort, Jhelum

Constructed in the 11th Century by the chief of the Janjua Rajput clan, Raja Jodh, and served as the centre of the clan for centuries before it was destroyed and abandoned following six months of siege by the Sikhs in 1810. The fort was perched on a steep hill looking over the Kahoon Valley. The fort contains many tanks to store water during sieges and a Hindu temple.

Malot Fort, Chakwal

It was attributed to the father of Raja Jodh, Raja Mal Dev of the Janjuas, who is said to have built it in the 10th Century. The fort often became an important stopping point for armies crossing the salt range from central Asia to India. It is famously mentioned by Emperor Babur, who laid siege to it when Daulat Khan Lodhi, a previous Mughal ally, took refuge at the fort. There are few remains of the fort today except for the ruins of a large Hindu temple, which is architecturally similar to other late Hindu Shahi temples of the region.

Sikh Forts at Katas, Chakwal

Katas Raj temple complex consists of several closely built sites, including Ashoka-era Buddhist stupas, Hindu Shahi temples, and Sikh gurdwaras. The site had long been a major Hindu pilgrimage site, one of the holiest in Punjab, due to a legend associating a pond with the teardrops of the Hindu god Shiva.

The famous Sikh general and governor of Hazara and Kashmir, Hari Singh Nalwa, built a fort and a haveli (mansion) in the early 1800s. This fort was not only a centre of administration and a royal residence, as the Sikh emperor Ranjit Singh often visited Katas to celebrate the Vaisakhi festival. A small square fortress is next to the Sikh-era haveli and additional fortifications and walls with loopholes.

Nandana Fort, Chakwal

The construction of this hilltop fortress of the salt range is attributed to Anandapala, one of the last rulers of the Hindu Shahi dynasty in the 10th Century, who used this as the new capital. However, the Hindu Shahis were defeated by Mahmud of Ghazni in 1006 and again in 1014, when Nandana was sacked. Consequently, the Ghaznvi courtier and polymath al-Beruni studied there and measured the earth's circumference.

Today only the Hindu Shahi temple and some of the bastions of the fortresses’ walls survive, although the government has plans for restoration work.

Samarkand Fort, Chakwal

Almost nothing remains of this fortress from the salt range. However, evidence suggests it was used during the Delhi Sultanate period, although the fort could have been much older.

Daloor Fort, Chakwal

Located over the town of Choa Saidan Shah is the small Daloor fort. Only a few of its walls remain, and almost nothing is known about its history. It was likely used to control Choa trade routes passing through Choa Saidan Shah, built at three valleys' intersections.

Dhangali Fort, Rawalpindi

Another centre of Gakhar power is located at the banks of a stream near the gorges on the western bank of the river Jhelum. The fort consists of over 1.5 kilometres of walls with many mosques, tombs, and palaces within the premises, a testament to the great settlement it once would have been. This settlement peaked under the rule of Rani Manghu, a Janjua lady and contemporary of Emperor Aurangzeb, who carried out many of the constructions at the location. However, during the tumult of the 18th Century, the fort was laid waste by forces of the Bhangi misl. The fort is currently in ruins.

Bhaun Fort, Chakwal

A small Sikh-era fort was built for administration in Bhaun in Chakwal.

Attock Fort, Attock

Mughal Emperor Akbar constructed the fort in 1583 on two hills on the eastern bank of the Indus on the grand trunk road. The fort had four gates and two adjacent walled compounds. This point was a strategic river crossing; whoever controlled the fort for the next 300 years could invade to the east or the west. The Afghans captured it, the Marathas, the Sikhs, and the British built a bridge there. The surrounding area of the fort is dotted with Mughal-era monuments, including tombs and a serai. The military currently uses the fort.


Contribution by: M. Saad Asad

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