From very ancient times, this land was traversed by roads, roads and roads. There were arterial highways like the Rajapatha that connected Bengal with the Afghan highlands. We hear of it from the chronicles of the 4th century BCE and know that this was the very road that we eventually came to know as the Grand Trunk Road. There were others that stretched between important cities.
One such was the highway connecting Lahore and Multan that we today call National Highway 5 (N-5). Though this highroad had existed ever since time began, in the Middle Ages its importance grew when the peaceful years of the Mughal Empire spurred all-round growth. While Lahore in the north became a much favoured city as an alternate Mughal capital, Multan once again thrived as a rich centre of trade and commerce. It was one of the richer subas (provinces) of the empire during the reign of the third Mughal king, Akbar the Great.
To facilitate the passage of trade and travel, the old road connecting Multan and Lahore received a good deal of attention. Among other road furniture, new caravanserais were built where existing ones were falling to pieces. Now, distance between serais was dictated by the day’s travel which in those times was between twenty-five to thirty kilometres. Thus leaving the walled city of Lahore the first serai on Multan Road was at Hanjarwal. A victim of unplanned growth, this serai has long since disappeared.
Lost from view, overgrown with the ugly warts of unplanned rural architecture, Serai Chhimba sits amid blocks of agricultural land some thirty kilometres south of Hanjarwal. Lying a kilometre west of N-5, Serai Chhimba marks the alignment of the old road from the Middle Ages.
We know of Begum ki Serai adjacent to Attock Fort; Serai Kharbuza, midway between Taxila and Rawalpindi; Rewat, east of Rawalpindi and Rajo Pind just outside Rohtas Fort that are all believed to be fortresses. In truth, these are serais, fortified so that they could be locked up for the night to hold robbers at bay. Indeed, this was no deviation, but standard serai architecture all across Central Asia, Iran and the Indian subcontinent.
So too was Serai Chhimba built like a fort with massive walls and two gateways, one each in the direction of the rising and setting sun. In the interior, along the perimeter walls, was a series of sunken rooms with domed ceilings and thick walls to keep out the heat and cold. These were the residential rooms for passing travellers while their pack and riding animals were tethered in the broad enceinte.
The gatehouses on both sides are massive and have bulky arched openings which, going by their style, are clearly Akbari. While the western gatehouse is now occupied and turned into a residence, the one in the east serves as the only way in and out. Until a few years ago the timber leaves of the gatehouse were still in situ, but with the rise in street level, they became unserviceable and one day disappeared. Local gossip has it that the expensive teak was appropriated and sold by the keeper of the spurious shrine inside the serai. So much for those who pretend to be descendents of a worldly man turned holy post mortem by the accretion of yarns.
While the gatehouses mark east and west, the other two cardinal points are scored by massive vaulted structures. These and the gatehouses are each topped by two square towers rising to ribbed domes starkly reminiscent of Samarqand and Herat. None of them retains any of the coloured tiles that may have once adorned them. To emphasise its defensive strength, each corner of the serai has an octagonal turret.
The compound where travellers once tethered their animals is now choc-a-bloc with haphazardly placed houses bisected by streets. Houses along the perimeter wall incorporate the sunken rooms of the serai into their design: as bedrooms these are cool in summer and warm in winter. Everywhere there are signs of disturbance to the original structure of the serai in order to add rooms.
Only a few days before my visit in mid-February, the owner of the house adjacent to the east gate had pulled down one of the two domed towers in order to add a room on his roof. The debris of ancient Mughal bricks and lime mortar had still not been removed. It was his home and he felt he could do whatever he pleased with it – the historic monument be damned. Indeed, the two similar structures on the south wall had gaping holes: used as rooftop kitchens, the openings in the roofs served as chimneys. In the north wall only one of these towers remains. Inmates do not know what became of its companion but they have broken a large opening in it and use it as storage for cow dung patties. Its exterior serves as the post where the patties are dried.
Sometime after the advent of train and motor transport Serai Chhimba fell out of use as a way station. During the Raj when people were more than aware of the presence of the government, this historical inn would not have been appropriated for private residence. With independence two things happened. First, in the hands of incompetent politicians, the new state of Pakistan began to cede authority from the very first day. Secondly, in the absence of any settlement policy, the huge influx of refugees pouring in from across the newly-drawn border took over whatever they found handy.
Serai Chhimba, built about 1580 and therefore a protected historical monument, fell victim to this takeover riot. For some years after partition, it may have retained its serai atmosphere, but galloping population growth quickly smothered it with ugly and unplanned housing. For these refugees from Karnal and Rohtak, this is apparently still not home. They have no feeling for the land, its culture and its history. It is something to be appropriated and destroyed. Sadly, this is no aberration; this is the norm in this blighted land.
Looking at the whole lot of Pakistani people, this utter disregard for our own heritage is our only unifying national trait. Surely this must be the only country in the entire world where a citizen can destroy any historical building without fear of persecution. We see it happening in cities like Lahore, Bhera, Shikarpur, you name it. It is happening in Serai Chhimba as it happened at Hanjarwal where no more than part of the serai gateway now stands. Only some miles away to the east of Serai Chhimba, Dera Chaubara, another 16th century monument and exquisitely beautiful too, has been laid waste by treasure hunters (Herald April 2003). This same breed of ignorant philistine is destroying the hilltop monastery of Tilla Jogian in Jhelum district. This list is endless.
In another country where the writ of the state exists, such wanton destruction of the national heritage would cause uproar. Heads would roll, especially of those entrusted with the upkeep of national monuments. But in Pakistan we let things be. In another few decades, monuments that should have drawn ordinary tourists and students of history and medieval architecture to this land will be no more than heaps of rubble. And not because of age and natural causes, but because of our national indifference for our own heritage.