LONG BEFORE the Pathan general, Sher Shah Suri, built inns and mail stations along what has come to be known as the Grand Trunk Road, there was a network of highways criss-crossing the fertile Punjab plain and connecting it with regions beyond. One such was the road that crossed the Jhelum river near today´s village of Rasul, entering the Salt Range through the Nandna Pass, and heading west across the Indus at Kalabagh before reaching Bannu, on its way to the markets of Kandahar. The Salt Range is so called because fine quality salt has been mined here since classical times.
This road has seen its share of historical events. Alexander passed this way, and so did Hiuen Tsang, the Chinese traveller who visited India in the 7th century. Late in the 12th century, the doughty Khokhar Rajputs of the Salt Range revolted against the rule of Ghur, and the Ghorids had to struggle hard to keep this connection open. Babur took control of the area on his way to India, and later, Sher Shah Suri gave up claim to this road since he could not subdue the ferocious Gakkhars.
Perhaps the region´s halcyon days were when it was under Kashmiri rule. King Lalitaditya Muktapida of the Karkota dynasty, who ruled Kashmir from AD 624 to 660, brought a large part of Punjab, including the Salt Range, Taxila and Hazara, under his control. Lalitaditya was not only a conqueror. He was a builder who initiated the era of devotional architecture in the Salt Range. The next two hundred years saw a series of fortified temples come up on the high road to Kandahar.
These buildings, which came to be known as Shahiya temples after a subsequent dynasty, saw religious activity for the next four centuries. However, with the advent of Islam, they suffered in varying degrees from the iconoclastic fervour that swept the Subcontinent. There are no pilgrims to these temple ruins today, only the odd visitor with an interest in history and archaeology, for whom these edifices of the Salt Range are deserted reminders of a glorious past.
Nandna. Perched on the eastern-most escarpment of the Salt Range on the Nandna Pass, the fortified temple of Nandna has long overseen the passage of caravans and armies. When Mahmud, the raider king of Ghazni, arrived in AD 1013 to lay siege on the fortress, the Raja of Lahore, Anandapal of the Shahiya dynasty, fled to Kashmir. The fort was taken easily enough and, though the defenders were spared, the invader took away everything of value.
Nandna appears to have been an important centre of learning, and attracted persons like Abu Rehan Al Beruni, who came from Ghazni to learn Sanskrit and Indian sciences. It was here, in 1017, that Al Beruni worked out the greatest wonder of his age, a calculation of the circumference of the globe, the most accurate measurement of medieval times.
There is no mention of Nandna in the history books after 1221, when it witnessed fierce fighting between the fugitive Shah of Khwarazm and the Mongol invader Chinghis Khan. Moghul emperor Jehangir´s memoir does refer to deer hunts in the district of Gurhgaj Nandna, but that is all.
Today, the temple edifice is a roofless hulk with only two walls standing intact. This gives little indication of the architectural style except that the doorway faced west. Below the ruin, on the northern and western flanks of the hill, the ancient fortification is still visible as a rough stone wall interspersed with massive semi-circular battlements. All around the wall and in the flat area below the fort can be seen the remains of the old settlement.
Malot. The most beautiful of the Salt Range temple ruins are surely those of Malot. Made of deep red sandstone, the building stands on a hill to the southwest of the village of that name. The temple comes alive every morning as the red sandstone facade is set aflame by the slanting rays of the sun, a time when the lingam in the inner sanctum would have seen light.
The most remarkable feature of the Malot temple is its Grecian character, seen in its two fluted columns and the Doric capitals of the main entrance which held up an arch that caved in long ago. The roof is crowned with an ugly wart, a lookout built by the Sikhs after they overran the region in 1810. Originally, the building rose beautifully in an ornate red spire or sikhara, evidence of which can be seen on the three facades that replicate the complete building in miniature.
Malot must have been built early in the 9th century AD, when the rule of the Kashmiri kings had brought peace and prosperity. That was also the time when most of the Greek buildings of Taxila were still standing, providing inspiration to local stone masons to incorporate Western designs into their work.
Sassi da Kallara. Standing on a low hill in the southwest corner of Chakwal district, this is the least accessible of the Shahiya temples. But Sassi da Kallara, or Kallar, as it is also known, is unique because built of burnt bricks while all the others are stone structures.
Standing on the edge of a clay hill, the temple is seriously threatened by erosion, and, in fact, a porch has already been destroyed. The exterior of the temple is richly decorated with large rosettes, sunflowers and geometrical designs. Carved with great precision, these decorations are fine examples of the art of producing cut bricks of more than a millennium ago.
Amb. Lying almost 80 km south of Kallar and accessible by road from Quaidabad, are two temples known as mahah by the inhabitants of the nearby Amb village. The temples are walled in by massive fortifications, and the larger of the two is a more refined version of Nandna. There are some bulky Romanesque columns which, on closer inspection, reveal that they are the result of some well-meaning British era conservation work, an effort to shore up part of a collapsed porch. The outside walls of the temple are richly decorated with mock columns, arches and designs of the amalaka fruit, but the inside is empty. Historians believe that the two temples of Amb are more recent than the other Shahiya temples, but nevertheless at least a thousand years old.
Maniot. The two temples of Maniot got their name from Manikot —Fort of Jewels. According to the Mianwali District Gazetteer, the name recalls an earlier time when quantities of “Kalabagh Diamonds” could be found on this hill. Of the two buildings—both facing east—the larger one leans heavily to one side and could collapse soon. Both buildings are constructed of the same calciferous limestone as the Nandna temple, and carry the same decorations.
Bilot and Tilot. Tilot of Kafirkot, named after a long-forgotten king named Raja Til, includes the remains of a settlement which sits on a table-top hill on the west bank of the Indus, just west of the Chashma Barrage. Here are the ruins of three temples and the remains of a double-storeyed dwelling. Encircling the hill is a battlement with a series of massive semicircular stone towers constructed of large, dressed blocks of limestone.
Bilot, said to be named after Bil, a brother of Til, lies 35 kilometres downstream. This collection of nine magnificent buildings of various sizes and shapes is amost impressive collection of stone temples. There are stubby, flat-roofed temples, temples with spires intact, arched doorways, and doorways with lintels. The workmanship in the decorations, consisting of rosettes, amalaka fruit, horseshoe and geometrical patterns, and mock pillars, are noteworthy for their refinement.
The grandeur of these temples indicate that their benefactors must have been extremely wealthy, but, surprisingly, the names of Til and Bil do not figure in history books.
The only evidence that they ever existed is the names given these forts and temples, and the vague legends that seem to make them contemporaries of Mahmud of Ghazni.
The devotees of Shiva and Vishnu are gone from the hills and gullies of the Salt Range, responding to remote and more recent pressures of history. However, the stones and bricks of the Shahiya temples remain, tantalising the odd visitor with visions of sublime, event-filled eras long past.
~ S. Rashid is a Lahore-based traveller and writer.