Derawar Fort: What Remains from a Once Thriving Desert Civilization?

Derawar Fort: What Remains from a Once Thriving Desert Civilization?

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Derawar Fort is a stronghold located in what is today Bahawalpur, in the Pakistani province of Punjab. The fort traces its history back to the 9th century AD, though it may be added that it only gained its present look several centuries later, during the 18th century. 

Protecting Travelers

The Derawar Fort is one of the fortresses located in the Cholistan Desert (known locally as Rohi), which adjoins the western part of the Thar Desert. Archaeological evidence suggests that this desert was once irrigated by the Hakra River, the bed of which can still be seen in the desert landscape. Settlements, including those of the Indus Valley Civilization, once thrived in the region. Around 600 BC, however, the river changed its course, and then vanished underground, hence turning the landscape into an arid desert not suitable for human habitation.  

The Cholistan Desert.

The Cholistan Desert. ( Public Domain )

Whilst the area no longer supported human settlement, it eventually became part of the trade route that connected Central Asia to the Indian subcontinent, as well as part of the pilgrimage route between the Islamic holy city of Mecca and India. Therefore, fortresses such as Derawar Fort were established in the Cholistan Desert in order to provide protection to merchants and pilgrims travelling on that route, and to serve as watering points for these travelers.

The Fort’s History

Apart from Derawar Fort, other strongholds in this network of forts that cuts across the Cholistan Desert include the Marotgarh Fort, the Khangarh Fort, and the Islamgarh Fort. Some of these structures are still standing today, though others have fallen into ruins. Derawar Fort has been considered to be the best surviving example in this group of desert forts.

Derawar Fort.

Derawar Fort. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Derawar Fort was apparently built during the 9th century AD by Rai Jajja Bhatti, a Rajput ruler of the Bhatti clan. However, another source states that the fort was built by Rawal Deoraj, a Bhatti Rajput from Jaisalmir, who conquered the area during the 800s AD. As a tribute to himself, the Rajput ruler had several structures, including Derawar Fort, be built. The fort’s name is said to have initially been Dera Rawal, in honor of the victorious king. As time passed, the name of the fort changed to Dera Rawar, and then finally to its modern name of Derawar.

The Derawar Fort built by a Hindu dynasty of Bhatti Rajputs.

The Derawar Fort built by a Hindu dynasty of Bhatti Rajputs. ( Public Domain )

Abode of the Bahawalpur Rulers

Regardless, Derawar Fort remained in the hands of the Bhatti Rajputs until the 18th century, when it fell into the hands of the Abbasis, a tribe claiming descent from the Abbasid caliphs. In 1733, the fort was captured by Amir Sadeq Mohammad Khan I, the founder of the princely state of Bahawalpur. Although the Abbasis lost the fort in 1747, it was recaptured in 1804.

The fort remained as the desert abode of the Bahawalpur rulers (who later adopted the title Nawab) until the 1970s. The fort is still in the possession of that family, and visitors planning to enter the fort would need to obtain a special permission from the Amir (the title adopted following the abolition of the title of Nawab) of Bahawalpur to do so.

Derawar Fort in the night.

Derawar Fort in the night. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

It was the first Abbasi ruler of Bahawalpur who gave Derawar Fort its current look. After capturing this stronghold from the Rajputs, Amir Sadeq Mohammad Khan I had it rebuilt. This new fort was constructed of clay bricks, with a circuit of walls spanning 1.5 km (0.93 miles), and rising to a height of 30 m (98.43 ft.)

Each of the circuit’s fours sides has 10 circular bastions, all decorated with intricate patterns cut into the brick. These walls and bastions are visible from a distance, and provide the fort an imposing presence in the desert landscape. The interior of Derawar Fort, however, is less spectacular today, as the structure has been neglected, and left to deteriorate. Moreover, there is a risk that the monument will fall into ruins, if conservation and preservation work is not carried out in the near future.

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