When water at Tarbela recedes, Bharukot Fort emerges to reveal an eventful history spanning centuries

Published by Jahandad Khan in Dawn

The waters of the world’s largest earthfill dam recede each winter, leaving behind a rich tapestry of historical forts, battlefields, shrines and villages that tug at the curiosity of wanderers like myself.

Prior to the damming of the Indus at Tarbela in the 1970s, the now largely submerged Trans-Indus region of Tanawal in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, had for centuries served as a strategic corridor for caravans and armies travelling between Kabul and Kashmir.

This transformed the rocky hills of Tanawal into a stage where the ambitions of machiavellian Nawabs, Khans, Rajas and Pirs played out in a fascinating game of premodern realpolitik.

The Tarbela dam inflicted enormous damage on the social and cultural ecosystem of the people of Tanawal. All photos by the author.

As my family was one of thousands displaced by the construction of the Tarbela dam, I was eager to catch a glimpse of the lands where my ancestors once lived.

I had read across different history books about Bharukot, an impressive little fort that once stood in Tanawal, and was occupied by different dynasties during the turbulent centuries between Babur’s invasion and British rule.

50 years prior to the construction of the Attock Fort in 1583, it was at Bharukot that the Yusufzai chiefs, Malik Ahmad and Gajju Khan, came to a monetary settlement with Sultan Ghiyasuddin of Pakhli Sarkar, who was a local ally of the Mughals.

Today, the ghost fort of Bharukot remains submerged under water most of the year, revealing itself only when waters reach dead level in late winter.

Therefore, I was ecstatic when I received a call from a Haripur-based friend last month, informing me that it’s a good time to visit what are now known as the Bharukot islands.

The last remnants of a community that was displaced by the Tarbela Dam

As we drove towards the Tarbela dam, I felt uncertain about what to expect once we reached the site of the fort.

It seemed pretty unlikely whatever remained of the fort could have endured the wear and tear of being underwater for 10 months each year, since the Tarbela dam’s waters first inundated the region in 1974.

I grew up with my elders narrating heart-wrenching scenes from that year, with communities across Tanawal refusing to leave their villages until the dammed waters of the Indus entered their orchards and homes.

According to historian Hari Ram Gupta, the Tanawal region’s orchards garnered such fame and repute that in 1836, Ranjit Singh, leader of the Sikh Empire in the early 19th century, ordered his commander-in-chief, General Hari Singh Nalwa, to go deep behind enemy lines at great personal risk to procure mangoes from there.

For the first few weeks after its completion, the Tarbela dam’s surface was seen littered with thousands of mangoes as well as personal belongings left behind by people in what had been their homes, streets and neighbourhoods for generations.

‘A watercolour Rock Aornos from Huzara’ by James Abbott shows one of the 22 mud forts situated along the Indus in the Tanawal region of Hazara, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

When we reached the outskirts of Haripur, I was surprised to see the Tarbela’s water line several kilometres from where it is when the dam is at peak capacity during the summer.

The colourful wooden boats at Tarbela Lake are still operated by Mohanas, the ancient boat-people of the Indus. The Mohanas of the Upper Indus are far fewer in numbers than their brethren in Sindh.

I found it heartwarming to hear my father converse with a Mohana boatman, Gul Muhammad Khan, in the Tanawal dialect of Hindko. It turned out that prior to the construction of the dam, our families lived in the same town, Amb-Darband.

We were told by the boatmen that Bharukot now exists as two islands in the lake. The bigger of these islands is where the former village of Bharukot was located; remains of Bharukot Fort are situated on the smaller island.

The site of the former fort of Bharukot stands out in the middle of the Tarbela Lake as a small island

Gul, the Mohana boatman, casually asked us to sit on opposite ends of his fishing boat so it doesn’t capsize. As the small fishing boat purred through the placid waters of the Tarbela, I tried not to miss out on the breathtaking views of the surrounding areas.

To our east was the intimidating Mount Gandgarh where, according to local myths, Raja Rasalu imprisoned Baggarbath the giant, in a cave after defeating his army.

Also to our east in the Tanawal hills was Kokal, a village named after Raja Rasalu’s wife, Rani Kokalan. The rich layers of history in this region never cease to amaze me!

Bharukot had gradually risen above the water as a pile of rocks and rubble. Gul docked the boat at a convenient spot near the island, helping us climb off the boat and up the rocks.

Unfortunately, years of heavy siltation have made it impossible to locate remnants of the structure of the fort that stood here for more than 300 years.

A view of Mount Gandgarh from Bharukot island. According to local folktales, this is where Raja Rasala defeated an army of giants.
Our fishing boat docked at Bharukot island.

At the summit of the small island, I saw a piece of flat land where the higher levels of the fort were situated. Fragments of broken pottery were evidence of its previous human occupation.

There were also visible signs of excavation on the island, indicating that the fort’s site was visited by treasure hunters in the recent past.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear Gul’s narration of how his elders stormed Bharukot Fort ‘hundreds of years ago,’ taking Ranjit Singh’s men by surprise.

For centuries, local communities have relied on oral traditions to understand their place in history.

He also mentioned that the old fort was surrounded by cliffs on two sides, making it difficult for incoming forces to scale its walls.

The fort of Bharukot stood here for more than 300 years.

In 1838, the chief of Tanawal, Painda Khan Tanoli, described by Edward Conolly as “a sort of wild man, at war with all around him” and by Hari Ram Gupta as “cunning as a fox and ferocious as a tiger,” who would “cross the Indus on inflated skins” to attack Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s men.

Painda Khan Tanoli responded to the Maharaja’s peace offer, to accept a jageerin return for bending the knee, by launching a surprise ambush on Bharukot Fort. He walked away with Rs4,000.

This infuriated the Maharaja, who “had a mind to exterminate completely the evil-minded Painda Khan” for his insolence. Ranjit Singh expired in the summer of 1839, before he could execute a military campaign in the region.

10 years later, Bharukot would become associated with a short-lived alliance between the Sikhs and Afghans.

In February 1849, an Afghan lashkar sent by Dost Muhammad Khan of Kabul to aid the Sikhs against the British was camped out at Bharukot when news of the Sikh defeat in Gujrat reached them. The lashkar hastily retreated to Kabul on hearing this news.

The fort would be demolished two months later by Captain James Abbott, the first British administrator of the Hazara region. According to Abbott’s diary, he destroyed the fort and reduced it to a ‘garrison’ of 15 men on May 8, 1849.

We said goodbye to the fort to check out the adjacent island that was formerly the village of Bharukot. The island is also home to a shrine that stays underwater most of the year.

Bharukot’s graveyard remains under water for nine months at a time

Although it wasn’t clear whose shrine it was, my father offered a quiet prayer there in remembrance of all the forgotten people who lived and died in Bharukot.

While on the island, I was distracted by the sight of what appeared to be a small tent village. It turned out to be a community of Sindhi Mohanas.

Heavy pollution and the excessive damming of the Indus has choked the life out of the river, forcing the Sindhi Mohanas to relocate upstream in search of healthier fishing and living prospects.

I was amused to see our local Mohana from the Upper Indus converse with Sindhi Mohana boys in broken Urdu.

Gul Muhammad Khan, a Mohana from the Upper Indus, talking to Sindhi Mohana boys.

As we returned to Islamabad, I thought about all the different dynasties who had tried to hold on to Bharukot Fort over the centuries.

When I thought of the Mohanas currently fighting for survival on the island, it occurred to me that the final battle of Bharukot is that of the Indus itself, as it breathes its last breath in the face of climate change, pollution and infrastructure development to secure a future for Pakistan’s energy-starved megacities.

As my troubled mind yearned for a return to simpler times, I reflected on the words of the Guru Granth Sahib:

“The thirst of only a few rare ones is quenched,
People may accumulate hundreds of thousands, millions, tens of millions, and yet the mind is not restrained.
They only yearn for more and more.”

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