The Sarai Excursion
Before beginning, I want you to do a small exercise. Read this word PUNJAB, take a minute and now tell me what you can visualize. Let me guess what you probably guessed- paranthas with extra makhan, chicken tikka, Patiala peg, bhangra, sarson de khet, gurudwaras and what – Sardars with overdressed women, of course. That’s how bollywood portrays Punjab as colourful, vibrant and foody. However through this article I will take you through a different Punjab, a Punjab of historical and archaeological brilliance.
Now let us take a sneak peek into the pages of history. It was the first half of the sixteenth century and the vast empire of erstwhile India was caught up in midst of the political tussle between Mughals and Afghans with Afghans finally winning over under the capable leadership of Sher Shah Suri. The emperor was however concerned about the administration of the diverse land of Hindustan. So with his grand administrative skills, he came up with a grand idea to build the Grand Trunk road running all the way from Chittagong in the east to Kabul in the west. In all its grandeur, the road was called Sadak-e-Azam or Badshahi Sadak. Oh wait! Before going forth, let’s again take a huge leap backward. The human civilizations are a rare phenomenon but the smart chaps in the Southeast back then showed some extraordinary inclinations and thus formed what is the most astonishing architectural masterpiece till date – Harappa and Mohenjodaro. And as the historians suggest the people then were very conscious about trade and commerce. Naturally the first question comes of infrastructure and thus roads. These people developed common paths to move between various settlements, which we use today as National Highway-1 or GT road.
Now let’s take another leap, forward this time. It was around 3rd century BC and the might of Mauryan Empire was at its peak. To facilitate a healthy exchange of trade and knowledge, a road was built from Patliputra (now Patna) to the centre of learning Taxila which was later extended up to Balkh in Khurasan (now in Afghanistan). This road was used by every traveler to enter Hind (as it was then called). This very route paved the way for the Muslim invaders like Ghori and Ghazni. In the ancient texts, the road is referred to as Uttarpath. Now let’s come back to Sher Shah Suri’s era. Our royal tiger decided to restore this ancient road by deployment of enormous labour. When the angrez came, they maintained the road and named it Grand Trunk and Long Walk. Rudyard Kipling called it “such a river of life as nowhere else exists in the world”. Today this road connects capitals of four countries and runs around a distance of 2500 kilometers.
Okay seriously, who can travel across this enormous distance, in the kind of climate this region has, at a stretch? Of course there was a need to build rest houses. His highness already got this and thus Caravan Serais were constructed at regular distances. Apart from amazingly beautiful architecture, these Serais had a mosque, rooms for travellers, area reserved for animals, well and lot more to offer to travellers than they can ask for while travelling for thousands of kilometers, truly a safe haven in its literal sense. While this problem was solved, another question popped up. How would one know that how much distance has been covered? So, the next requirement that needed to be fulfilled was that of milestones! Our wise Sultan too had this thought in his mind and so he built us ‘Kos Minars’ at each ‘Kos’ (ancient measuring unit with 1 Kos approximately equal to 1.8 Km). Today it is difficult to locate these structures as they are lost in the civilization due to the ignorance and negligence of government archaeology departments.
Now the purpose of narrating this entire story was to give you an understanding about “Serais” built along the GT road. Landing finally to 2015, it’s been more than a year in Punjab and we are often disillusioned with the exaggerated idea of Punjabiyat. One day I with my friends discovered a fort near Ludhiana while hanging out and being a history enthusiast, I couldn’t neglect it. So on one fine Sunday morning, I with some of my friends set out on a journey to explore the archaeological treasure of Punjab. Travelling from the midst of golden fields, we were going to a place which probably isn’t even on the Google maps but then this is what excursions are all about. It was difficult to reach the destination because we were complete stranger to the roads, culture and most importantly the language. So relying on the bus conductor’s wisdom and the little information Google gave us, we traveled from Patiala to Bhadson and from Bhadson to Doraha. Now we were in the main town and we finally decided to walk through the flyover to find out our destination which we had vague idea about. When we finally succeeded in spotting that fort-like structure, our joy was boundless. We reached the fort merely in fifteen minutes. The neighborhood was heavily crowded and there was a Gurudwara nearby. There was also a huge gateway which was under renovation and once we entered the compound, we were awed by the sheer brilliance of the structure. Yeah, you need to make a register entry near the entrance and no DSLRs allowed (and gladly we didn’t have one). As pointed out above, the campus has a large number of rooms, a mosque, a well and many demolished structures. One of them was built underground too but sadly there is no archaeological marking of anything. Under a dome, we created a little niche for ourselves where we gossiped, laughed and clicked pictures. From above, one can also cherish the lush green fields of Punjab while the kirtan at Gurudwara gives you a background score. There was something grand about the structure, definitely very attractive. The parts of the structure are still intact and the monument is being conserved by the Punjab archaeology department. However it’s only silence that echoes there now and the elegance of the Afghan-Mughal era is lost in the modern frenzy.
Now comes the dramatic turn in the journey. While we were heading back, I initiated a conversation with the guard there who was not sure about who built the Sarai- Sher Shah Suri or Humayun or Jahangir. I asked the last question, “Rang De Basanti was shot here?” And he told us that it was shot at another Sarai which was further 12 km from that place. And it was then that the reality dawned upon us that we had come to Mughal Saran instead of Sarai Lashkari Khan. Now what? Being ardent explorers, we decided to find Sarai Lashkari Khan. We hired an auto that took us to our actual destination. After walking for 15 minutes through the farms, we reached Sarai Lashkari Khan. This too has a gurudwara nearby which was the real cause of confusion.
While we roamed across the fort, which is now famously known as RDB Fort, we imagined different scenes of Rang De Basanti. This fort is said to be built by Jahangir in the name of his daughter. Some information about it can be found in the gazette of Punjab. However de facto, the structure now is close to demolition and lacks the grandeur that Mughal Sarai portrays. It satisfied all other essentials of a Sarai but mosque was lacking, maybe it was knocked down due to some calamity. Now to restore the Sarai is a big challenge for the government if one probes its serious condition. Punjab Archaeology department has formulated a five year plan for the same. I hope that it is enforced with true sincerity and honesty. To all the enthusiasts who are planning to visit the place, I would request you to take the safety measures as it is not the safest place due to its seclusion from the town. After spending some time at the Sarai, we as travel buffs with the feeling of wander-lust went back with a promise to return again so that the orphaned rooms are filled with laughter at least for few hours.
The concept behind the journey to Sarais is kind of interesting because these “Sarais” used to work for the rest houses or Motels in that era. So a bend in road was now the end of the road. Also the ruins of the vast empires are symbolic of so many things, however the most important lesson to take home is that don’t be arrogant about anything because nothing simply remains. The world is in a process of destroying and renewing itself. The grandeur of yesterday, today is just an empty echo till the myriad opportunities of present civilization paints it with its own color, thus being symbolic of the immortality of art and humanity.
About the Author
Belonging to the city of stones, Gwalior; Shraddha has a keen interest in the archaeological heritage of India. The lost charm of the city motivated her to set on a journey to explore the glamour of the cities which got dissolved in the disillusioned idea of development. She has experienced the echoing silence in the lap of Himalayas and the sound of the waves in the Indian Ocean. Sitting in the demolished vestiges of the palaces of Emperors, she pens down the stories that were destined to remain incomplete.
With a fierce passion for poetry and politics, she strongly believes that words have the power to crumble empires. Raising voice in the times of moral crisis is the only testimony of life is another cherished faith which she sincerely practices. And thus she has never feared to express an unequivocal opinion even whenever the need has arisen. Another aspect of cultural heritage which she has immense respect for is music. From thumri to ghazals to qawwalis, she has made it a point to be an audience to the vanishing legacy that we possess.
She is pursuing law from Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Punjab and looks forward to a future in exploring “Shahar” and “Avaam” all over India. Also she loves writing, poetry, cooking, music, reading and that’s it.