For centuries, Pothohar has been a vital corridor into India proper. It has been a passage for imperial armies, cavalry raiders, traders and travelers. Remnants from those times, physical records of what this land went through, still exist in the form of forts, Baolis (step wells) and Sarais (Inns) which are testaments to heroes and tyrants of the violent past. But they are now fading fast. There was a time when dozens of sarais were operational in Pothohar, but now few of these exist.
Sarai Pakka Khanpur and Sarai Kharbuza (Melon Inn) are among them. Once upon a time, in these walled, arched buildings, travelers, traders, pilgrims and scholars sought shelter and protection from thugs, robbers and inclement weather. Today, they are in a dilapidated condition.
With the passage of time, as trade routes shifted, it led to the abandonment of functioning sarais and some of these structures transformed into enclosed villages.
The sarai today is a far cry from what William Finch, an English merchant, saw in 1611
Sarai Pakka Khanpur, Gujjar Khan
Gujar Khan, also called the ‘heart of Pothohar’, is alive with the colours and traditions of the Potohar Plateau. The rich history and heritage of the Potohar region always fascinated me, and I have sought to explore it as best as I can. One of my best friends, the broadcaster Syed Aal-e-Imran, told me about this sarai and so I set out to visit it.
I found this place to be like a factory of dung-cakes, known as soo’rian in the Pothohari language – plastered on the walls of sarai, their smell evoking typical village life in our part of the world. Nestled in fields, Sarai Pakka Khanpur is nearly twelve kilometres from the main city of Gujjar Khan, historically along a major route from Lahore to Kabul.
There is no exact date of construction for this sarai. It is believed that the sarai was built by Sher Shah Suri , although the structure does not resemble other surviving constructions from the Suri period. Some suggest it was built in the early 1600s.
Today only one gate of the sarai, on its northern side, survives. The sarai today is a far cry from what William Finch, an English merchant who visited this place in around 1611, would have seen. Finch crossed the Potohar region on his way to Kabul, and stayed at this sarai.
Pakka Khanpur is also the name of the nearby village. Back at one time, this place was a significant centre of regional trade. It was destroyed at least twice by the Afghans. Mughal Padishah Jehangir also visited this sarai and mentioned in his memoirs, the Tuzuk-e-Jehangiri.
This sarai is mentioned in Hari Ram Gupta’s history of the Sikhs. In December 1796, when Shah Zaman Durrani marched towards Lahore from Sarai Pakka Khanpur, he addressed a letter to Ranjit Singh after skirmishes with the Sikhs.
To me, the sarai is a typical example of Mughal-era architecture. There were two mosques in the courtyard. One is now in a ruined state, while the other is in the process of being rebuilt. The sarai was served by a well there were cells on the corners for travelers to stay in.
There is also the shrine of a saint on the northern corner of the sarai, though it is difficult to ascertain who is buried there.
Zahoor Ahmed , a resident of Pakka Khanpur village, tells me: “This sarai was built in the time of Sher Shah Suri. My grandfather migrated here from Jammu in 1948. today nearly 30 families are living in Pakka Khanpur village – most of them are Kashimiri.”
He said that before Partition this sarai was in the possession of a wealthy Sikh family. After Partition in 1947, it was allocated to migrant families coming into the region.
Sarai Kharbooza, Islamabad?
Somewhat lesser known is the Sarai Kharbuza (Melon inn) , which is on outskirts of Islamabad city.
How the sarai got its name makes for an interesting story. Many think that Mughal Emperor Jahangir named it as such, while others believe the name came from its melon-shaped domes (which have not survived, apparently).
In 1607, when Jehangir visited this place, he records in Tuzuk-e-Jehangiri , “The Gakhars in earlier times had built a dome here and taken tolls from travelers. As the dome was shaped like a melon it became known by that name.”
The dome vanished over time. Only a mosque still stands and preserves the old architecture with small minarets and a dome plastered with cement.
Locals believe that this sarai was built by Sher Shah Suri. Most of the residents of Sarai Kharbooza village are Khattar Awans who settled here during the Sikh rule.
The surviving cells/living-quarters are being demolished and their bricks used for construction elsewhere.
Izzah Khan, who heads the Islamabad-based NGO known as the ‘Centre for Culture and Development’ (C2D) says, “This site was protected under the Special Premises Act. But later on it fell within the radius of the federal capital and was no longer under the control of the Department of Archaeology in Punjab.. This confusion caused the neglect of this site. Clause 10 of the Punjab Special Premises Ordinance 1985 states that ‘if the government apprehends that a special premises is in danger of being destroyed, injured or allowed to call into decay, it may acquire it or a part thereof under the Land Acquisition Act, 1894’”
Sadly no serious efforts have been made for the restoration or conservation of these sarais. One day, I fear, all we will have left of them will be photos.