Zeenath Jahan

Frequently, while driving past ruins in various states of disrepair I wonder why, when and by whom they were built. Behind the impervious facade, these broken down walls must conceal so many stories. Stories of love, life and laughter; or sorrow, jealousy and intrigue; stories that may make historians rewrite history. Yet, they are all buried beneath the silent rubble.

In spite of my lively curiosity, I have never simply stopped the car and got down to investigate any ruins. The BEGUM-KI-SERAI is one such ruin. It lies upstream from the Attock Fort's Water Gates, looming above the Punjab end of the Attock Bridge. There does not appear to be a consensus about the exact date of this caravan serai's construction. Some authorities attribute it to Emperor Jahangir's Queen Noorjahan,others to a wife of the Emperor Akbar. Each time I pass it at the start of my journey, I decide to visit it on the way back. On my return it is either too late, or I am too tired. I never stopped at the BEGUM-KI-SERAI until quite recently.

One day, when I finally did turn into the dirt road leading to the ruins, an armed sentry barred my way. He wanted to know my business. I understood then why people often use the steps that lead directly up to the ruins from the main road. The soldier, unimpressed by my explanations, wanted to check my I.D. card. By now I was beginning to feel guilty for any numberof things I had not done. Thankfully, the gun-toting young man allowed me to pass when I was on the verge of confessing to them all. I had finally convinced him that my three-year-old grandson and I were up to nothing more violent than a peek at the ruins.

Following the winding path, we came upon the main entrance to the Serai. An old British cemetery lay to the right of it. A large watch tower with the POWINDAH insignia emblazoned on it stood right in front. I had no way of knowing whether the tower came first or the POWINDAHs.

On either side of the main gate, there are the remains of what might have been guard houses. The main courtyard of the Serai is three hundred and thirty-one (331) feet square, with a raised, three-arched building in the middle. The remains of at least sixty rooms stand all around the Serai's perimeter. Although the Mughals understood everything about plumbing, they seem to have preferred using their expertise for their magnificent gardens rather than the commonplace bathroom. There is no way of knowing whether any of the rooms functioned as a bathroom or a toilet.

The corner rooms of the serai are large, airy and bright. They connect to smaller rooms on either side and to the polygonal stone towers that once must have stood on all four corners of the Serai. These turreted tower rooms are the only ones with windows, and I could almost see diaphanous curtains streaming in the fresh river breeze.

All told, the roofs of 50 rooms are still intact, and judging from the soot on some of them, they were used not very long ago. The vestiges of about ten rooms are visible, while there are only empty spaces where other rooms may have stood. These tiny rooms, with their low doorways must have put up the traders who visited the Fortress to show their wares to the ladies of the Court; or to put up the travellers who stopped over, enroute to Central Asia and the silk route further ahead.

Steep, slate-covered staircases stand at three corners of the Serai. Leading from the main courtyard, they are still usable. Climbing to the roof, I was rewarded by a clear view of the River Indus and of Khairabad, lying on its opposite bank. A fourth staircase connects a large inner, central room to the roof. As this room is connected to the rooms on either side as well as the tower room at the back, I dubbed the suite `The Presidential suite' of the Serai. There were other large rooms at each corner, but I did not find another private staircase; neither did any of the others have torch brackets on its outer walls.

I did not use the Presidential suite's private staircase. The steep stairs leading into the dark maw of the ruins made me think of all the `creepy-crawlies' that may be lying in wait.

The building in the middle of the Serai stands on a high platform with low, dome-covered long inner halls. Of the three, arched openings in the front and back, the central openings are larger than the others. This building is often described as a mosque, because it follows the usual plan of a mosque. Other scholars believe it is a baradari, since it has no `mehrab' on the western side. It is possible that a mehrab did exist at some time in the past, but there is no sign of it any more.

One school of thought believes that the Serai was originally built around this raised central building, which predates the Begum-ki-Serai. According to Dr.A.H. Dani, although an inscription gives its date as A.D.1601 (A.H.1010), it is not proof enough to say that it predates the Serai.

A notice at the entrance of the Serai sternly warns against defacing the ruins. Yet, etchings from visitors cover every scrap of plaster that clings to the walls. People in search of immortality have scribbled their names on the walls, proclaiming their existence to an uncaring world. Verses of many frustrated muses are scratched in the walls, in search of an approving audience.

Almost tempted to add my name to the litany of visitors, I looked around and realized the futility of it all. The river breeze in my hair and the warmth of the spring sunshine on my face were proof enough of my existence. I did not care who knew it.

Mail Zeejah

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