Salman Rashid muses on the ancient site of Rannikot in Sindh and prefers that it is”enigmatic, inscrutable, inviting”

One thing is certain about Rannikot: it is ancient. The most tangible proof of its great age is the remains of the bridge at Sann Gate. A bridge is necessary on a flowing river, but this part of Sindh is arid, its rivers flowing only during the largely unpredictable rains. This has been the case for most of its recorded history, but there was a time when Sindh had a much wetter climate and when all its mountain streams flowed. As an aside, Moen jo Daro and other prehistoric sites were all built of kiln-baked bricks, that is, there was sufficient timber to fire those kilns to bake virtually hundreds of millions of bricks. And timber comes from forests which thrive in a wet climate.

This comparatively wetter climate persisted until about the beginning of our era. Then the Ranni River was a perennial stream turning into a goodly torrent with the coming of the seasonal rains. That is when the bridge at Sann Gate was first built to connect the battlements on either bank of the river. Even earlier, however, there would have been a fortress in this area, perhaps near present day Mohan Gate, to oversee the passing of trading caravans between Bhambor and Kandahar along the ancient route that lies just outside the western walls of Rannikot. And it was this ancient fortification that was enlarged several fold to create the Rannikot of today.

Walk along the fortifications and you will not miss the innumerable signs of successive improvement, restoration and addition to the walls. Years ago I stumbled upon a badly damaged section between the Shahper (south) and Mohan (west) Gates that showed five different stages of evolution. The innermost, and surely the earliest, was a low mud wall which had at some point been reinforced with rubble masonry. Grafted upon that was a coating of crudely dressed stone which in turn was strengthened by somewhat more refined dressed stone, and on top was the stone and lime mortar masonry that we see at most other places in Rannikot.

In its long and chequered history, Sindh saw the parade of so many different peoples who came to possess it. It was from 80 BCE until 282 CE that the country changed hands from Scythian to Parthian (CE 46-78) to Kushan (78-282) until the Persian Sassanians gained control over it for the next two hundred years. It was sometime during the earlier part of these five hundred years that Rannikot would first have been enlarged from a small garrison to a larger fort. This is pure conjecture, but the fact is that the Central Asiatic Scythians, Parthians and Kushans during their respective stints in Sindh were all under pressure from greater powers in their own endeavours to relocate.

And so while they ruled over the country, it was one of these nations that initiated work on a huge fortified city of refuge. Quite possibly one nation started it and its successors continued the project. That was when the Ranni River flowed, necessitating the bridge and even after the climate turned arid, those who undertook to revamp the defences of Rannikot faithfully retained the now useless bridge. When the Talpurs restored the fort in the early years of the 19th century, even they remained true to the ancient plan and not only rebuilt the bridge but also the holes for the breakwater rods.

Basing his theory on the works of Arab (Ibn Haukal) and Persian (Istakhri) geographers, the noted Sindhi journalist and historian Badar Abro postulates that Rannikot is not absent from historical works, but that it was known in the past as Nerunkot, which most other historians believe is Hyderabad. Indeed if one were to examine the works of the two geographers, one would be hard put to decide whether the description of the passage from Debal (Bhambor) or from Mansura (whose ruins lie near Shahdadpur, Sanghar district) to Nerunkot points to a journey from either of those places to Hyderabad or to Rannikot. This being so because the distances from Debal or Mansura to either Hyderabad or Rannikot are almost exactly equal.

Now, Hyderabad or Nerun lies smack on the banks of the Sindhu, but the Chachnama, a history of the Arab conquest of Sindh, confounds the issue when it tells us that as Mohammad bin Qasim brought his army against the walls of Nerunkot, he was faced with an acute shortage of water. Bin Qasim led a special prayer for rain and it came pouring down to fill the water tanks of Nerun. This statement makes two things evident: that the citadel of Nerun lay within the city and that though the Arabs had taken the city, the fort of Nerun held out for some time longer. It is moreover a curious reference to a shortage of water in a city that stood on the banks of a river as mighty as the Sindhu!

I would tend to overlook the hypothesis Nerun being Rannikot for one reason: Nerunkot was a large and thriving town with a strong citadel. Like all medieval towns, the city spread around the central citadel, a fact that is quite clearly supported by the Chachnama. In the case of Rannikot with its nearly fifty square kilometre-wide enceinte, it would appear that the town, if there ever was one, would have been within and not outside the fortifications which goes against the Chachnama statement. Also, in my over two dozen visits, I have never found signs of a large ruined city in Rannikot.

Sadiq Gabol, my dear friend who heads the tiny village inside Rannikot, gifted me some coins twenty years ago. There are four issues very similar to the mint of the 15th century Sultan Muzaffar of Gujarat and there is one of Abu Said Mirza, Babur’s grandfather. According to Sadiq he had found all these coins in or about Miri fort. To me this would mean that because it sits on a high mound commanding the Ranni valley, Miri had been a central seat long before the Talpurs came around to renovate and enlarge it in the 19th century. And that these coins were found here would show that traders, commanders, ordinary tourists all tarried very likely in a fortified caravanserai where Miri now stands.

But it is Abu Said Mirza’s issue that intrigues most of all. About the middle of the 15th century, Rannikot was drawing not only local travellers, but those coming from far off Ferghana across the mountains of Afghanistan. Could it be that even then the fame of this fabulous monument was drawing tourists from distant lands?

I have no definite answer to the eternal riddle of Rannikot; I only know that it is very ancient. Its mystery tantalises me and draws me back again and again. And as far as I am concerned I do not care if we never find out who built Rannikot, when and for what purpose. To tell you the truth, I prefer it the way it is: enigmatic, inscrutable, inviting.

Salman Rashid is a travel writer and knows Pakistan like the back of his hand. He can be reached at odysseus@beaconet.net