Fort Derawar (Cholistan) – by Ijaz Baloch

To the southeast of Dera Nawab, on the edge of the Cholistan Desert, make an exciting day’s outing from either Ahmadpur East or Bahawalpur. The massive fort towers over the surrounding semi-desert and is visible from miles around. The huge walls, supported by enormous round buttresses, stand 40 meters (130 feet) high and are 1.5 kilometers (a mile) in circumference.

The drive, for four-wheel drive vehicles only, take from one to two hours from Ahmadpur East, depending on the state of the road and the route your guide has chosen for you. The last 25 kilometers (15miles) are across desert.

There has been a fort at Derawar for at least 5,000 years, part of a long chain that protected the ancient trade rout from central Asia to the Indian subcontinent. The fort was captured by the Abassi family from Raja Rawal Singh of Jaisalmar in 1733, at which time the present fort was built. The whole area around Derawar was once well watered by the Ghaggar River (now called the Hakra in Pakistan, and known in ancient Vedic times as the Sarasvati). Along the 500 kilometers (300miles) of the dry river bed are over 400 archaeological sites, most dating back to the Indus Civilization. In 18th century 12,000 people lived in the town below the fort walls. Until 1960 Derawar was watered by a canal, but later, under the new international agreement, water from the Sutlej River was diverted to India and Derawar was abandoned. The old canal is being cleaned and new canals dug to re-irrigate the area; soon irrigated farmland will once again surround Derawar, and a paved road will connect it to Ahmadpur East.

The fort is more impressive from outside than in. start your tour with a drive or camel ride round the outside of the walls, which are supported by 40 enormous buttresses, ten on each side. Outside the northeast corner are a well and two water tanks where Rohilas (Nomads) come from miles around to water their camels and fill their goatskin water bags. The fort entrance is on the east and is know defending by a huge tower with gun emplacements added during the 1965 war with India. At this time many of the buildings inside the fort were removed to make room for training and parade ground. In the center of the parade ground stand two cannons and a selection of iron cannon balls and stone sling shots. The remaining buildings, all 19th century, were vacated by the nawab’s family in 1920 and are now derelict. All that remains are the nawab’s quarters, a long corridor with rooms off each side; the ladies’ section, behind a locked door and high wall; and some soldiers’ barracks. As in most sub continental forts, the courtyard inside the walls is built on top of a maze of underground cellars and dungeons. At one end of the parade ground, stairs and a trolley on rails lead down to the vaulted cellars, and if you look over the parapet on the south wall you can see the air holes leading to the dungeons.

The most pleasant place in the fort a painted pavilion on top of the northeast tower and surmounted by a flagpole. This is the best place for a picnic, as it is comfortable. Shaded and cool, and looks over the two big water tanks outside and is painted red, blue, yellow and green.

The white marble mosque in front of the fort was built in 1849 for the nawab’s personal holy man, Pir Ghulam Farid, whose name appeared as if by magic (and possibly with the help of few drops of acid) the marble and blue tiled tombs of the nawabs and their families lie a few hundred meters (yards) to the east of the fort. Tourists are not allowed inside the compound, but there is a good view over the wall of the beautifully decorated oblong tomb of the nawabs and eight domed tombs of other family members and wives, including the elegantly domed marble tomb of the last nawab’s English wife.


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