Islamabad, Asharq Al-Awsat—On the edge of the Cholistan desert in southern Pakistan lies Derawar Fort, an 18th century fortress. Although it has been described an architectural marvel, it is currently deteriorating after long neglect.
Historically, the desert fort served as a first line of defense from foreign invaders, protecting settlements, trade routes and cities. More recently, the fort has served as a recreational site for visitors from all over the world. All this is rapidly changing, as the fort and its surroundings crumble.
Situated 30 miles due south of Ahmadpur East—where the Nawab of Bahawlpur’s government was located—the fort towers over the surrounding desert terrain. According to Punjab archaeological officials, there has been a fort at the site in Derawar for at least 5,000 years. Such forts would primarily have protected the ancient trade route from central Asia to the Indian subcontinent.
The current fort was built in 1733 after the site was captured from Raja Rawal Singh of Jaisalmar by the Abassi family. After having taken Derawar, the Abbasi family laid the foundations for the Bahawalpur state. At that time, they did not know that the land was in fact the resting place of an ancient civilisation.
“The whole area around Derawar was once well watered by the Ghaggar-Hakra River,” Dr. Nasrullah Khan Nasir told Asharq Al-Awsat. “Along the 300 miles of the dry river bed are over 400 archaeological sites, most of which date back to the Indus Civilization.”
Thirty-nine enormous buttresses encompass the exterior wall. Inside the fort, a parade ground is home to two cannons. Experts say that the ruling Nawab’s family vacated the buildings inside the fort, which are now derelict, in 1920.
Bricks that were used in the construction of the fort now lie at the base of its outer walls, which are dilapidated and full of cracks, and it appears that locals have attempted to salvage building materials from the walls.
Upon entering from the Shahid Gate, which faces the Cholistan desert, one arrives at the courtyard of the fort. The inner courtyard—as is the case with most sub-continental forts—was built on top of a maze of underground cellars and dungeons.
All that remains are the Nawab’s quarters (a long corridor with rooms off each side), the women’s area behind a locked door, a high wall and some military barracks. Some of the bastions are now nothing more than heaps of dry mud.
“Presently, the exterior of the fort’s wall is being badly affected by salt, and is falling down in various locations. The salt-affected brick should be demolished, and underpinning work should be carried out with special-sized bricks,” said a senior official from the Punjab archaeology department.
In May 2010, the chief minister of Punjab province, Shahbaz Sharif, visited the site. He requested that the Cholistan Development Authority undertake archaeological conservation. It is possible that the Punjab government envisioned a recreational facility in the desert, since authorities have previously showed such an interest. The Cholistan Desert Jeep Rally, for example, was initiated by the Tourism Development Corporation of Punjab, and subsequently run by the Government of Punjab.
Umar Abbasi, grandson of the last Bahalwalpur State leader, said: “I came across Zulifiqar Khoso [a close confident of Nawaz Sharif] two years ago, during the Cholistan Jeep rally, and he promised me that he would convince the Punjab government to allocate funds for Derawar Fort. I told him to do something fast, or the fort would be a heap of mud in the next two to three years.”
Nonetheless, five months later, in October 2010, the Punjab Department of Archaeology presented a detailed plan for the restoration of Derawar fort. The necessary bureaucratic work was completed, and the team presented a finalized plan to the chief minister. The estimated cost was roughly USD 3,856,000, with the simple aim of preventing structural collapse.
Muhammad Sajjad, an engineer from the Punjab archaeology department, said that the “archaeology department has made a proposal of PKR 380 million, which includes recommendations for basic work such as underpinning the outer walls…. However, we need much more than this amount to restore the fort completely.”
Although administrative paperwork was quickly completed by the archaeology department, no funds were allocated in this fiscal year and the restoration project was unable to get underway. The department recommended hiring local experts to carry out an archaeological profile of the fort as a prerequisite for undertaking restoration work. However, this would also require funds that are as yet unavailable to the department.
Thus, this archaeological marvel has been left to deteriorate at the edge of a desert without a single caretaker—though it is technically still under the legal ownership of the descendants of the Nawab of Bahawalpur.
A lack of funds and government indifference are not the only factors preventing the fort being restored to its past splendour. Familial disputes between members of Abbasi family are another obstacle. While they argue over who should take possession of all or part of the fort, they unanimously oppose the idea of returning ownership to army so that restoration work can commence.
During the 1965 war, the military briefly held custody of Derawar Fort, and introduced some structural changes.
“The fort entrance is on the eastern side, and is now being defended by a huge tower with gun emplacements added during the 1965 war against India. At this time, many of the buildings inside the fort were removed to make room for training and parade ground,” reads the information provided by the Punjab archaeology department.
Archaeological projects, according to the 18th amendment, are to be handled provincially. The Abassi family, however, claim that they have not been approached by any provincial or governmental bodies regarding permission for undertaking restoration projects on the fort. Likewise, they said that no private organizations have approached them, or showed any interest in restoration.
These factors have led to the fort’s current demise. Up until 1960, a canal provided Derawar with water, but due to new international agreements, water from the Sutlej River was diverted to India. The town below the walls of the fort was abandoned.
Nonetheless, local interest in the fort has not subsided. People come from the surrounding area to see the inside of Derawar Fort. They arrive in large numbers and, if the main gate is locked, sometimes use destructive methods of entrance in order to gain access, since there is nobody guarding the site.