HISTORICAL AND ARCHITECTURAL PERSPECTIVE by Subhash Parihar (Photographs by the author)
Phillaur Fort which now houses the [East] Punjab Police Academy was erected by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who ruled from 1799 to 1839. As is well-known, the Maharaja had signed a treaty with the British in 1809 according to which the river Satluj was agreed upon to be the boundary between the territories of the two. Ludhiana being the last British post to the south of the Satluj, it was natural for Ranjit Singh to erect a strong fort at Phillaur, on the opposite bank of the river.
The site Ranjit Singh selected for the fort was not a vacant piece of land but here stood a Mughal caravan sarai. The sarai had recently been taken possession of by his diwan Mohkam Chand, from Megh Singh (successor of Tara Singh Ghaiba of Dallevalia confederacy). The Maharaja hired an Italian architect to convert the sarai into a fort by adding a fausse-braye (an advanced parapet before the main rampart, leaving a space, or chemin des rondes, between it and the rampart) ditch and bastions.
After defeat in the first Anglo-Sikh War, in 1846, the Sikh garrison was withdrawn from the fort, which now came under the control of the British. After the mutiny of 1857, it was made an important artillery arsenal and magazine which was, later in 1863, withdrawn. In 1891, the fort was handed over to the Police Department which converted it into the Police Training School (opened 1st January 1892), the purpose it is still serving.
Only this much detail of the fort complex is on record. But the history and architectural analysis of the original caravan sarai before its conversion into the fort is even more interesting. What was a Mughal caravan sarai?
Prior to the introduction of the modern automobiles, people used oxen, bullock-carts, camels, horses, or other such means for transportation. By any of these means not much distance could be covered in a day. Cities and towns were very widely spaced. Added to it was the constant menace of marauders. Both these factors compelled people to travel in large groups called caravans. After the daylong tiring journey some secure sites were indispensable for night stay and where they could be sure of food and water for themselves and their animals. Caravan sarais built at intervals of a day’s journey (about 8 kos or 32 kilometres) fulfilled the need. The Portuguese Missionary Fray Sebastian Manrique who passed through Punjab in 1641, poetically describes the Mughal sarais as “the refuge and shelter for travellers, weary and exhausted, travelling heated by ague or by the heat which the titanic and glowing Planet [the Sun] causes.”
The Mughal Agra-Lahore Highway entered the present Punjab near Shambhu. Then passing through Rajpura, Sarai Banjara, Sirhind, Khanna, Sarai Lashkar Khan, Doraha, Ludhiana, it reached Phillaur. From here the highway proceeded to Lahore via Nurmahal, Nakodar, Mahlian Kalan, Sultanpur Lodhi, Fatehabad, Naurangabad, Sarai Amanat Khan and Sarai Khan-i Khanan. Phillaur was situated at a point where its distance from Lahore was half of its distance from Delhi.
Almost complete specimens of Mughal caravan sarais still survive at Shambhu, Rajpura, Sarai Lashkar Khan and Mahlian Kalan. Sarais have partially survived at Doraha, Nurmahal, Sultanpur Lodhi, Fatehabad and Sarai Amanat Khan. Only gateways and some original rooms are extant of the sarai at Phillaur.
Architecturally, most of the extant sarais along the route follow more or less the same plan. These are invariably square or rectangular structures enclosed with high battlemented curtain wall. Each corner of the enclosure is strengthened with a bastion, usually octagonal in shape, making them resemble forts so closely that local inhabitants still think them to be forts and call them so. Even some European travellers too mistook these sarais for forts.
The access to each sarai, but for the one at Sultanpur Lodhi which has only one gateway, is provided through two splendid gateways, wide enough to permit large or heavily laden beasts such as camel to enter, set in opposite sides. These portals are so large as to accommodate a large number of rooms of various shapes, arranged in one, two or three storeys. A resident staff of caretakers and guards might have been permanently housed in these rooms of the gateways. Fortunately both of the gateways of the original sarai at Phillaur are still extant.
Each gateway, named as Delhi Gate or Lahori Gate after its orientation towards one of the two great Mughal cities, is a majestic structure 13.35m broad and almost equally deep. Each structure is projected 4.7m beyond the enclosing wall. A 3.7m broad high archway provides entrance, flanked on either side by triple openings. At the front parapet of each gateway is planted a baradari-like domed-structure, shaded with wide eaves. The monotony of the facade and side walls of each gateway is relieved with shallow sunken panels arranged in parallel rows. A frieze of design formed with interlocking floral motif marks the parapet of each structure.
Now both of the gateways are painted in red and white. But during my visit to the sarai in April 1980 I had seen beautiful painted designs on the soffits of the larger archways of the gateways. This painted decoration may not have been Mughal but it certainly dated at least from the period of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
The brickwork of the gateways is exceptionally fine. Some red sandstone has also been used in the structures.
The central courtyard of a Mughal sarai is always open to the sky and along the inside walls of the enclosure are ranged single-storeyed small rooms to accommodate travellers. But the exact number of the rooms in the Phillaur sarai can not be known as much has been built over.
The middle portion of the two sides of a sarai, not having gateways, is emphasized with a large block of rooms, to complete the four-ivan plan, a Persian form developed during the Seljuq period (11th-12th centuries). It appears that these central rooms in the Phillaur sarai were two-storeyed. In each corner of a sarai was also a larger set of rooms. These larger suites were meant, probably, for the travellers of rank.
Every sarai was provided with a mosque for public prayers. But no mosque is extant in the Phillaur sarai. The construction of the mosque in this sarai might have created some structural problems. The reason being that the back wall of a mosque in India always faced to the west, the direction of the Mecca and if a mosque was to be built in the sarai at Phillaur it had to be set at a diagonal angle in the courtyard which would have appeared quite odd. The accommodation of a tomb in the eastern corner of the sarai is seen only in this complex. It must date from quite a later period and the story associated with it is totally a flight of fancy. Similar stories are associated with a number of medieval monuments.
Often a splendid hammam, still surviving in the sarais at Doraha and Nurmahal, also formed a part of a Mughal sarai. But the hammam in Phillaur sarai was built in the eastern corner as judged from a hole in the domical ceiling of a room in this corner.
Originally, one or more wells must have been there in the courtyard of the sarai to supply drinking water to the lodgers.
A brief description of the working of the Mughal sarais will also not be out of place here a clear picture which is provided by various European travellers in medieval India.
A British Officer George Forster records about the turn of the eighteenth century that the permanent attendants of a sarai “approach the traveller on his entrance, and in alluring language describe to him the various excellencies of their several lodgings.” A traveller who wanted to stay in a sarai was allotted a room. When he had taken up his lodging, no other could dispossess him. The other travellers, who could not get rooms, most probably, pitched their tents in the courtyard of a sarai. During his journey along the Agra-Lahore route, Manrique could not find room to stop owing to the great stream of passengers of all sorts and conditions who were at that time following those roads, owing to the presence of the Mughal court at Lahore. On the other hand, Thomas Roe, the Ambassador of the British King James I to the court of Jahangir (1605-1627) was given four rooms for himself and his companions in a sarai at Burhanpur. These sarais during heavy rush must have resembled “large barns”, as recorded by the French Physician Francois Bernier (lived in India during 1656-68), where hundreds of human beings were seen “mingled with their horses, mules and camels.”
Each traveller was provided with a cot but he had to carry his own bedding. Provisions like flour, rice, butter, and vegetables could be bought inside the sarai or in its neighbourhood. Forster records that “the necessary sum is delivered into the hands generally of a girl, who procures the materials… .” But there were servants in each sarai who could prepare food for small payment. They were called Bhatiyaras. Sweepers cleaned the rooms. Manrique considers the attendants in a sarai very obliging and better than European stablemen and innkeepers. Forster was pleased to see that the woman keeper of the sarai at Shahzadpur provided him a supper even at the risk of not being paid.
“At six o’clock in the morning, before opening the gates, the watchman gives three warnings to the travellers, crying in a loud voice that everyone must look after his own things. After these warnings, if anyone suspects that any of his property is missing, the doors are not opened until the lost thing is found.” Still thieves sometimes broke into a sarai. The anecdotes of impostors and cheats who defrauded the lodgers in sarais form the theme of many a folk tales.
In the sarais, Finch mentions neat lodgings “with doores, lockes, and keys to each”. Manucci writes that the individual rooms of a sarai were not provided with doors whereas Manrique’s account confirms the existence of doors of rooms. Perhaps, in some cases the rooms were provided with doors whereas in some others it was not so.
Bernier although critical of the Indian sarais was so impressed by the Begum Sarai at Delhi that he wrote: “If in Paris we had a score of similar structures, distributed in different parts of the city, strangers on their first arrival would be less embarrassed than at present to find a safe and reasonable lodging. They might remain in them for a few days until they had seen their acquaintance, and looked out at leisure for more convenient apartments.”
Date of erection of the Sarai at Phillaur
British traveller David Ross writes that the sarai at Phillaur “was built by Shah Jehan, who selected a site then covered with ruins and mounds of brick, which supplied material for the sarai.” William Finch of the East India Company who passed through the town in January 1611, mentions a sarai at Phillaur. But the architectural style of the gateways indicates its erection during the reign of Shah Jahan (1628-58). “Ruins and mounds of brick” mentioned by David Ross may been the remains of the sarai seen by William Finch.
Phillaur is the last station on the National Highway-1 marking the old Mughal Highway. From here, the old Highway proceeded towards Lahore through Nurmahal and Nakodar. But the present NH-1 leads to Amritsar via Jalandhar.
The author Subhash Parihar PhD