Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The Search For Hathi Khan

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"Hati is the bad man round-about; he it is robs on the roads; he it is brings them to ruin; he ought either to be driven out from these parts, or to be severely punished.” So said Malik Asad, the leader of the Salt Range Janjuas, to Babur after peace had been made between the two.

The dam abutment which once ran right across the Chanel seen in the center of the image 

The year was 1519. Hati (sic) was Hathi Khan Gakkhar, ensconced in the hill fortress of Pharwala outside modern Islamabad. From there he made sorties to harry the surrounding country.

Babur had returned to India, won battles and was enjoying the beauty of Kallar Kahar — where he laid out a lakeside garden — when the Janjua chieftain petitioned him against the Gakkhar. Babur learned that Hathi had, only shortly — earlier treacherously poisoned his cousin Tatar Khan — to assume the mantle of leadership. Besides that, Hathi had arrested the dead chief’s sons Sarang and Adam.

Only days after the petition, the Mughal army, having made a forced march, fought a hard battle under the age-darkened walls of Pharwala Fort. After an initial repulse, the Mughals were able to take the bastion just as Hathi, reputed to be of tall stature and possessing the prodigal strength of an elephant (hence the name), escaped with his family and retinue from the northern gate.

A week later, Hathi sued for peace through his representative Parbat Gakkhar and was duly acknowledged by Babur. Nevertheless, Babur had already installed Sarang Khan as the Gakkhar chief at Pharwala. And when Babur marched to Delhi, the brothers Sarang and Adam Khan, having sworn allegiance to the Mughal, were in his train.

I have long admired Sarang Khan as a man of lofty character. And so has my friend Rehan Afzal. Our reason is the same: the man’s unshakable faithfulness. With the passing of Babur, the inept, perpetually intoxicated Humayun soon lost the kingdom to the wily and much more capable Sher Shah Suri.

The Pakhtun king offered terms to the Gakkhars. But they had once eaten the salt of the Mughal and now it did not become these fierce warriors to fall in with the man who, having been favoured by Babur, had now risen against his son. True to their pledge of loyalty, the Gakkhar brothers rebuffed the Pakhtun’s overture.

Battles ensued and the inevitable came to pass: the superior Pakhtun forces prevailed over the much smaller Gakkhar army. Sarang Khan and 16 of his sons gave up their lives in the battle. In 1555, when Sher Shah had been dead for 10 years and his kingdom in disarray under an incompetent son, Humayun mustered the courage to return to India. Adam Khan Gakkhar was at hand as the Mughal rode the ferry of Bagh Nilab across the eddies of the Sindhu River.

But all that is preamble. My friends Rehan and Ammad Ali had offered to show me the tomb of Hathi Gakkhar in Dhan Gali. There were, I was told, a couple of other monuments also connected to him. Now, from my readings of various sources, I knew of this place and vaguely knew that it had something to do with Hathi. But I had no idea where he was buried.

And so we drove out of Islamabad, through Kallar Syedan on the road southeast where, Ammad told us, the remnants of an old dam still sat in an obscure little stream in the heart of the country said to have been the haunt of old Hathi Khan. The dam, all but washed away, was now just two solid looking piers on either bank of the narrow stream, its rubble masonry securely set in lime mortar.

In remote parts of the Kirthar Mountains in Sindh and Balochistan I have seen ancient dams. But there the construction usually is of dressed blocks of stone and they are believed to date back to about the second or third century CE. The rubble masonry of our Potohar dam was a common construction method more than 2,000 years ago and thus rather tantalising. However, 2,000 years ago, the cement was not lime mortar and so I tentatively dated the edifice to anywhere between 500 to 1,000 years old.

We drove on to the Dhan Gali Bridge on Jhelum River that I, the unpatriotic agent of enemy forces, had vowed to photograph. But from where we viewed it we could see no ‘Photography Strictly Prohibited’ sign. There being no joy in not breaking security parameters, I declined to waste my camera’s digital space on an uninteresting looking bridge.

We drove back to village Dhan Gali for Ammad had been carrying on about Hathi Kothi, that fabled building where either Hathi Gakkhar or someone else stabled war elephants. As it sometimes happens, this fable too was way more glorious than the edifice itself. Either that or about 500 years ago there lived on the Potohar Plateau elephants about the size of horses!

No elephants, but Hathi Gakkhar, when he was on the run from his nephew Sarang, may have temporarily lived in the house that is now grafted with newer construction. Ammad’s information had it that not far away was Rani Mungo da Mahal — the Palace of Rani Mungo, reputedly Hathi Gakkhar’s wife.

There it stood, in the fields, its domed glory encroached upon and subdued by wild grasses and a couple of trees. Made of rubble masonry reinforced by lime mortar, the building’s arches were strengthened by baked bricks. On its facades it had panels with simple arches; similar panels inside had arches topped with a stylish floral motif. Corner squinches in the interior corners slid the square plan into the octagonal whence sprang the round drum of the squat dome.

The humble mosque of Dhan Gali aka Palace of Rani Mungo

The palace with its door on the east and the clear mehrab in the west wall was, in fact, a mosque. It is very likely that in the last few years of his life, Hathi Gakkhar built himself a home and a mosque in this remote corner of the Potohar Plateau bordering the Kashmir lowlands. Long after he was gone, the edifice he left behind continued to be called after him: Hathi Kothi.

Just outside the mosque was a simple burial. A man about my age had joined the three of us and I jokingly suggested the burial be moved within the structure.

“Then you can begin a brand new business here,” said I.

“Don’t need it. My business is thriving over there,” the man, not without a sharp sense of the ridiculous, spoke dismissively, casually waving a hand in the direction of the grave about a hundred metres away.

That was Daud Shah Haqqani, a seemingly flourishing tomb of any old body who died at some indeterminate time and was buried here. But surely this, too, was like every other obscure sepulchre that over time takes the garb of a most revered holy man. And, like all other such holy men, Daud Shah too causes miracles to occur in the lives of ordinary people. When he fails to do that, he does something even more gratifying: every Thursday and then once a year, the festival at his burial makes for a pleasurable break from humdrum life in the outback of the Potohar for man, woman and child.

We had seen much, but the tomb of Hathi Khan was yet a long way off. Under direction from Ammad we set off in a north-westerly direction to village Bhalakhar, which sounds like the Punjabi word for forgetful. Inquiries with locals pointed us further out of the village to the north, where a cowherd pointed to a clump of peepal trees, saying that Gakkhar was buried under them.

Across a shallow stream we walked and climbed up the small incline into a forest of trees and undergrowth. To one side sat a brick and cement burial with a newish marble headstone. As the three of us poked about, we found among the dense undergrowth a ruinous keel-shaped topping piece of a grave. It was crudely plastered with lime mortar.

We exulted. It could not be any less than 500 years old. We had found the obscure burial of Hathi Khan Gakkhar! Our exploration for the day was done and like Eliot we were ready to arrive where we started.

A day after this excursion, Rehan forwarded an image of a well-kept marble grave with the tablet declaring it to be the burial of Ahmad Khan aka Hathi Khan. It lay just outside Kallar Syedan.

Rehan also told me that his research revealed that Mungo was not Hathi’s but his nephew Sarang’s wife. Meanwhile, Hathi’s wife was called Kumro, after whom the ruinous mosque outside Pharwala Fort is remembered. And the mosque: a squat brooding three-domed structure whose lichen-darkened limestone raises goosebumps every time I see it. It seems to come from the set of a movie that tells stories of unknowable mysteries. One aspect of the mystery is how the name of Mungo came to be transplanted onto the mosque a long ways off and built by the man her husband later murdered.

History shows that to avenge the murder of his father Tatar Khan by Hathi, Sarang had poisoned the latter. Rehan’s research gives the date for this event as 1524. However, the marble grave outside Kallar Syedan puts the transition at 1532.

That would not add up. From history, we know that Sarang had burned with unforgiving rage and a desire for revenge. As the undisputed master of Potohar under Babur, he would have sought to satisfy this urge at the earliest rather than later. The date Rehan assigns to Hathi’s death seems plausible. As well as that, Sarang would never have permitted his foe’s burial near a major village. He would have banished it afar.

I strongly suspect the tomb we saw outside Bhalakhar hidden among the tall pipal trees may well be that of Hathi Khan Gakkhar who died in ignominy.

Also in Dawn

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 10:48 AM,

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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand


Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days