At the Mankiala Stupa, the grass grows wildly between the cracks in the ancient bricks and a palpable air of neglect hits you immediately. This ancient burial ground is enclosed by a steel railing, but that is not a deterrent for the local goats and cows that wander in with their owners. A haphazard line-up of village shops face the stupa where the locals sip their tea brewed in iconic green enamel teapots, they sell atta and vegetables, and defer the care of this site to distant officialdom that rarely shows up. Little boys from the village run around the tourists as they walk around the site, excitedly answering questions. “What do you know about this place,” we ask. “It belonged to a Hindu king,” says one. The others look rather blank.
Just over 30 kilometres from Islamabad, driving south towards Lahore on the Grand Trunk Road, the Mankiala Stupa is situated near Rawat, in the midst of the Potohar valleys, and is a massive reminder of ancient civilisations that flourished here; the emperors, pacifists, warriors and saints that came and went from this region for centuries. There are multiple historical narratives about the provenance of this site, and one version says that the stupa dates back to King Ashoka—the grandson of Chandra Gupta Mauria—who converted to Buddhism after the Kalinga war in 261 BC, after which he established a more benevolent reign all across India. Inspired by Buddhism, Ashoka chose to practice ‘dharma,’ actively preaching humanity and the virtues of compassion, truthfulness, mercifulness, non-violence and good behaviour towards others. Some claim the stupa is of the Gandhara era, and legend has it, that it is here Buddha sacrificed parts of his body to hungry tiger cubs. Centuries later, the Scotsman Mountstuart Elphinstone, who wrote extensively on the history of India, came upon the stupa in 1808, while on his way to Afghanistan after being appointed the first British envoy to the court of Kabul. Later, the Italian Jean-Baptiste Ventura, in the service of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, found the relics in the stupa in 1830 and took them to Europe.
Mankiala Stupa dates back to King Ashoka
“This land of Potohar is a golden sparrow, its versatile climate and fertile land is gold,” said an unknown commander of the East India Company. Close your eyes and you can imagine the gold, but now the hills and plains that stretch for miles are testament to the mind-blowingly horrendous population explosion of today, evident in the mass of humanity, traffic and housing all around. As we sped down the Grand Trunk Road aboard the iconic Disco Laari and branched off on to single lane side roads to access the valleys, I could imagine what the undulating Potohar Plateau must have been like a couple of hundred years ago. Only a couple of hundred … surely that is an understatement, for Salman Rashid’s book The Salt Range and the Potohar Plateau tells us otherwise; “There is no doubt that the record of human occupation of this region stretches from the present far into the misty past – to an age whose only record is stone tools and fossilised remains.”
The second part of the trip took us further on up the GT Road, exiting deeper into the Potohar valleys, on towards the district/village of Kallar Syedan, which is by no means small one. At the village, our colourful, but extremely hot bus stopped at the village periphery, to let us out to walk the winding inner streets towards the Sikh landlord’s mansion on our itinerary. Despite the fact that it was mid-September, that Sunday afternoon felt like a broiling day in June, when and all the bottled water in the world could not make up for the lack of air-conditioning in the bus. While I’m all for the immersive experience (in principle) … in reality, it’s a tough one! “Cute desi bus, with truck art,” warm fuzzy feelings can be short-lived.
“It belonged to a Hindu king”
Baba Khem Singh Bedi’s Haveli is located deep into the village behind a recently built government boys school which was made somewhere in the 90s. After a walk inside the village—no longer on mud paths, but on updated, paved concrete ones, flanked by newly constructed or renovated homes, comparable to city standards—you arrive at the school compound, where the Khem Singh Haveli stands majestically. A large mansion, it must have commanded stunning 360 degree views of the entire district. Built by Baba Khem Singh Bedi at the end of the 19th century, the haveli functioned as a school after Partition, and this misuse led to the pitiful dilapidation one can see today.
Born in 1832, in the Kallar Syedan district, Khem Singh Bedi is said to be a direct descendant of the founder of Sikh religion, Baba Nanak Dev. He was also a proponent of Singh Sabha Movement, a reformist movement of the Sikh religion. During the mutiny of 1857, Khem Singh assisted the British Raj in suppressing a rebellion in Gugera, a town near Okara district. In recognition of his services, the British appointed him as a magistrate in the 1870s and in later years he was also nominated to the Viceroy’s Legislative Council. The villagers’ version of Khem Singh Bedi’s life differs from what history details, and according to them, Khem Singh was a poor man from the area, but when he became a benefactor of a local saint, Sain Hota or Baba Nanga, and tended to him in his old age, the saint blessed him with riches. They call his haveli ‘Babay Da Mehal’ (the old man’s palace) and it is a grand mansion indeed. Floor to ceiling frescoes adorn the walls of the huge inner courtyard and beautiful carved doors, windows and jharokas are still intact, though in bad condition.
The haveli functioned as a school after Partition
The haveli, like the stupa, is in ruins and there really isn’t much that has been done about that lately. It’s derelict, untended condition, shorn of the relics associated with it, is symptomatic of a deeper malaise, of relic hunters and an illegal antiquities trade. Breaks your heart, but that’s another long, arduous story, most of which must have made you cry over the years when you heard about antiquities smuggled to the West. The fascist graffiti on the walls of the haveli also do not make you feel better, as you read must-do edicts cleverly placed on every single empty wall space, probably by the local mosque adherents—“Allah Ta’alah say daro; dunya aakhirat ki khaitee hai,”are but just a few. Historical memory has also been cleverly subverted: Thank you General Zia ul Haq and your cohorts. A little girl from the village, all dressed up in a blue lehenga to meet the visitors from out of town, personified that ignorance. “Do you know who this house belonged to,” I asked her. “The Quaid-e-Azam,” she said innocently.
The Rawat Fort, diagonally opposite the turn to the Mankiala Stupa, was our final stop as we turned back on the GT Road to return to Islamabad. The traffic was horrendous, so the complete bus load decided to embark and walk across the pedestrian bridge to the other side of the road, to make their through the bazar flanking the main road—as the smell of fruit, freshly shorn chickens and deep-fried samosas infiltrated everyone’s senses—to take a turn into the fort entrance. A heart-breaking sight greeted the group—only untended ruins in sight. No evidence at all that there was anybody responsible for the ancient remains of the fort—no entrance tickets, no guards, local families flocking into the grounds, litter on the paths, goats walking over graves. Who knows what the main tomb may have been adorned with; mosaic, marble, frescoes? There is nothing there now.
“This land of Potohar is a golden sparrow”
It is here Buddha sacrificed parts of his body to hungry tiger cubs
In the mid-16th century, this region was a battleground between the Sultan Sarang, the chief of the local Gakhar tribe and the Afghan Sher Shah Suri and his forces—a minor battleground, but much like the Wild West, which is what this area resembled when Sher Shah Suri made his triumphant forays into India. In 1546, Sarang was killed in battle with Sher Shah Suri’s army, as were his sixteen sons, who are also buried at the Rawat Fort with him. Some historians are of the view that the fort structure resembles a serai, a place where travellers took rest. And that is what the sagacious Sher Shah Suri had done in the region, where he cleared the Punjab of his enemies; built serais and forts, especially the Rohtas Fort as a check for any hostile designs from the North; built the outstanding Grand Trunk Road; and created an administrative structure, of which his rival Mughals benefitted greatly after his death.
Back to the present time and a reality check: There really are no statesmen like Sher Shah Suri to create just administrative structures and reforms. After the passage of the 18th amendment in 2010, the sectors of national heritage and archaeology were devolved to the provinces, so the federal government’s ambit is restricted to some areas around the Capital territory. Speaking to the Department of Archaeology and Museums after this trip, which comes under the Ministry of National Heritage and Integration—a new entity established post-18th amendment devolution—the officials passed the responsibility of the Mankiala Stupa and Rawat Fort to the Punjab Government’s Department of Youth Affairs, Sports, Archaeology and Tourism. After getting them on the line, one only got some vague answers. Other sources tell me, that for years the Khem Singh Bedi HaveIi was managed by the Evacuee Trust and then the Punjab Department of Education. It is unfortunate that I don’t see both these federal and provincial departments responding to a long letter composed by me, on behalf of concerned citizens, reporting the pitiable condition of these three sites following the Disco Laari tour.
Disco Laari is a brainchild of the Desi Tour Project and organized by the Keys Foundation in Islamabad. These independent initiatives must be credited for reviving our interest in the hundreds of heritage sites in this area, and bringing their status into the limelight. More tours planned for the coming months should increase the interest.
Photography: Iftikhar Ali, Rana Shahid & Amna R. Ali