Forts in Chitral: The manifestation of our culture

Chitral has a unique language, dress code, literature and architecture. We have tried a bit to collect some information regarding the architecture, specially the forts that were built during the times when Chitral was a separate state. The forts may still have significance since they have preserved the history of this land and are witness to days that have shaped the current Chitral.

There are many forts in Chitral that still stand tall. While not as massive or significant as their counterparts in other parts of Pakistan, forts in Chitral have a rich history but today are mere remains of their glorious and many would argue a controversial past. While some of them have been abandoned and some inhabited by families of the past rulers and not may be in purely the same condition as they were in the past, others have been turned into offices used by different organizations. In this article, I’m listing some forts in Chitral which may not offer much adventure but are still worth a visit because they were and are a rich part of Chitrals’s history. 

Mastuj Fort 

It is perhaps the most important fort between Gilgit and Chitral. The site is of significance, on an old trade route to China, and there has been a fort there since perhaps the 10th or 11th century. The fort that was there in 1895 had been built in 1780 and rebuilt in 1830 after a big earthquake. The fort was rebuilt in 1920-23 and it is that structure that the visitor sees today; a square fort with four comer-towers. The buildings within the fort have nearly all gone but in the area inside the main gate are raised platforms on either side of the covered passageway, on which retainers sat and the hawks were kept. This was typical efforts in Chitral. 

Drasan Fort 

The Drasan Fort is not on the main route that goes from Chitral town towards Boroghol Pass but is some miles up the Turkhow river valley near Booni. It was known to be one of the chief forts of Chitral state and both to eliminate a potential problem on the edge of their line of advance and to avoid forces on the direct route, it was strategically constructed. Initially built by Muhtaram Shah Second during his ruling period 1788-1838 AD, the fort is witness to attacks of many rulers, including the British forces, who perhaps invaded it without fighting. The fort was rebuilt at the beginning of the 1930s. Drasan fort has suffered both from rain and earthquake. Unfortunately, it is gradually falling down. While there is abundant information available regarding the forts that lie on the road from Mastuj to Chitral, those that were constructed in far-flung areas are seldom found in books. They include Krooi Soon Fort, Palmati Fort, Gumbad Fort, Noghore Zome Fort, Muzhgole Fort and Khurasan Fort. As quoted by a British writer, in 1895 there were no other notable forts on the road from Mastuj to Chitral. However, beside the polo ground at Reshun the visitor today can still see the group of houses that Lts Edwardes and Fowler turned into a temporary fort, when they were trapped there for a few days in 1895, but there are no clear signs of the structure of that fort. 

Chitral Fort

Near the Shahi Mosque of Chitral, on the right bank of the river, is the majestic Chitral Fort, which has been witnessing the glories and the ruins of the history for centuries. Visiting the fort may give you a glimpse into chronicle of this area, the whisper of the golden days. It is also a unique and wonderful built heritage that leaves art lovers and architects dizzy given the time and clime it was constructed. The fort may not be in its original form as it was first constructed as the walls were once plastered but its loss reveals the sturdy stone and wood structure beneath. The fort’s water supply lies outside the walls which was the reason the besieged British soldiers, here in 1895 had to face considerable problems. 

The Royal Fort Chitral has a rich past. Among some major invasions of the fort are the adventures of invaders from across Lowari Pass, to the south. In 1895, when there was a coup costing the life of the Mehtar Nizam ul Mulk, and his half brother Amir ul Mulk seizing the Chitral fort, Amir ul Mulk’s sister was married to Umra Khan, A local Chief of Dir & Bajaur. Umra Khan had come across the 3200m Lowari pass and siezed the Drosh Fort. Also, Umra Khan assisted Sher Afzal (who claimed to be the Mehtar), who during his conquests after Bajaur and Dir made an excursion to Chitral and held the Chitral fort under siege from 3rd March till 19th April 1895. British Political Agent at Gilgit, Major George Robertson was sent to Chitral by the government, with 400 escorts, to report about the situation. British Garrison at Chitral Fort held out until the approach of a small force under Colonel Kelly, which caused the invaders to withdraw as a result Umra Khan fled to Afghanistan and Sher Afzal was imprisoned. When we start from Chitral towards the extreme south, the Lowari Pass, there are many forts that can still be witnessed in the original shape. Umra Khan, a known name in the history of Chitral, who advanced to Chitral from the south of Lowari Pass had constructed forts in many villages, including Drosh. The fort at Drosh, the most important town in lower Chitral, was of crucial influence in the early stages of the crisis. It was a strong fort for the area, with six towers, and stood on a cliff above the Chitral River. As stated by a British writer, shortly after Umra Khan crossed the Lowari pass in January 1895, he laid siege to the fort. Its commander turned out to be a supporter of Sher Afzal, a claimant to the throne of Chitral who was allied to Umra Khan. The fort was surrendered without a fight, the enemy gaining an arsenal of 200 rifles in the process.

When the siege at Chitral was over in late April, officers passing Drosh were astonished to find that Umra Khan had almost completed the construction of a second fort at Drosh, less than 200 m away from the old fort. A photograph taken at the time shows the two forts, the nearer one built by Umra Khan having wider tops to its towers, in the style of south of the Lowari. During the summer of 1895, the old fort was developed by the British as a commissariat base for the forces in Chitral. In order to build storage within the fort, Umra Khan’s new fort was pulled down, so that its timbers could be reused. Low’s Sappers and Miners also built a new covered way to the river for the old fort. By the time that they made Ii plan of Drosh in late summer, Umra Khan’s fort was shown as ruins. Today, the base of the old fort is the site of a school and this is sometimes mistakenly caned Umra Khan’s fort, for there is no trace of the remains of the fort that he actually built. To the fact that Umra Khan could build such a fort in three months says a lot for the timber and stone method of construction; it was quick and could readily reuse materials from other buildings. Timbers last well in the dry atmosphere of Chitral and many forts in the area were rebuilt in the first half of this century. They are just as interesting as older structures, for they represent a long tradition. 

Naghar Fort

The first fort north of the Lowari pass at Naghar played no part in the 1895 operation, although the restored fort is very welcoming to the visitors today. Nagar Fort, at Nagar is situated near Chitral Valley, on the way from Chitral to Lowari. It was built on the orders of the then Mehtar of Chitral, Shuja ul Mulk, originally constructed as a winter resort for the Mehtar, since it is in an area that is relatively warmer than other parts of Chitral. 

Standing on a ridge, surrounded by water from three sides, it is accessible through a suspension bridge. The Fort has an Outer Gate, houses an Outer Court, Inner Gate and an Inner Courtyard. There are a number of Gardens that are looked after with keen interest. The fort looks beautiful when you view it from the road passing by. A majestic view of the surrounding mountains from the Nagar Fort is truly appreciable. It was a bit to integrate information regarding Chitral and I hope this is useful as it gives an insight into the existing rich heritage we still have and that we may help preserve and renovate in a bit to attract tourism to the area and enhance affinity among people, to our culture and heritage. It may help us better respect ourselves, being Chitralis, being a complete people with a history, literature, culture and heritage.

And it may help re-discover and reiterate the Chitrali values of tolerance, peace and respect to the humanity. Moreover, we know that culture is the basis of all social identity and development, and cultural heritage is the endowment that each generation receives and passes on. That is why protecting and managing cultural heritage assets and educating the local communities about it serves to strengthen our identity. Greater attention to cultural heritage may help us trace the way to our roots and learn a thing or two from our history. Cultural heritage is a treasure without which we will lose our main source of self-expression and in the end our self-realization. Furthermore, cultural heritage including these forts, gives us a sense of unity and belonging as Chitralis. It helps our children understand their parents and grandparents better. It may help introduce us to people with the same mind-set or values. It reminds us we are home. It may help us pretend we are home, when we aren’t. A very important aspect of these heritage sites is the tourism factor associated with them.

There is an interesting survey that shows heritage matters to tourists. And an overwhelming 57% of respondents from 20 countries agreed that history and culture are strong influences on their choice of holiday destination (only 15% disagreed), so it is clear that destinations excelling in this area are likely to be high on travelers’ consideration lists. 

 

(The writer recently graduated from the Aga Khan University Institute for Educational Development, Karachi).

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