Islamabad’s Crumbling Heritage

Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro

Islamabad’s Crumbling Heritage
Islamabad is an extremely new city and its history doesn’t stretch beyond 60 years. Yet, it would be wrong to say that the area where the Pakistani capital is located doesn’t have a past. The outskirts of Islamabad are dotted with historical monuments. The villages and Sectors, G, D and E of the city have remnants dating back to prehistory.

Today, a majority of the monuments are being devoured by rapid mushrooming of housing schemes in Islamabad.

Many sites were destroyed and yet a quite few have been preserved. One such site is located in D-12/3 adjacent to the green belt. This site is locally called the Chillagah of Mehbi Shah. This site is located in Siri Saral village. It is possible that siri is the phonetic variation of the Sanskrit word shri. Before the 1947 Partition, the village was predominately inhabited by Hindus and Sikhs. There were six mohallahs in Siri Saral including Rera, Sumbal, Lamyan Dan, Dhok Parri, Saral and Dher Shah.

There is also the walled enclosure of saint Mehbi Shah who meditated here for some time before setting out for Azad Jammu and Kashmir. This chillagah or bethak of a saint is still greatly venerated by the local population, who visit it on a number of occasions.

Vandalized top of Stupa remains in G-12

Under a monumental banyan tree here lie ancient cup-marks. There are two types of cup-marks. First, they are engraved/pounded on the rock in two horizontal rows, flanked by one on either side of the row. This is a game board. There are two such game boards, recent and ancient. Locally this game is called sat- or ath-kutar meaning “seven-” or “eight holes”. Two players play the game. But it is not played anymore in this village or any other of Pothohar.

Apart from these cup-marks or game boards, there are three large potholes which were apparently used by the people for grinding spices. These potholes, which are a type of cup-mark, are locally called langri. There are several langris in D-12, G-10/1, G- 13/4, Rumli near Quaid-i-Azam University, Bagh Joghian, Sain, Phulgran, Bobri, Gumbat and Peja villages.

It is feared that these cultural spaces will be destroyed by the rapid development in the area.

One of the sites became prey to the development of such housing scheme.  This site was demolished by Federation housing scheme. It was located in Baradari village overlooking a pond. Many pre-Mughal monuments were also destroyed when the Sector D-12 was developed.

View of cup-marks or game board near the shrine of Mehbi Shah in D-12

It is also feared that the Gurdwara near  Kuri town will become a victim of development – as many of the housing schemes are approaching the gurdwara area. This gurdwara is believed to have been built during the Sikh period. It is octagonal in shape and it is built on an octagonal platform. This octagonal plinth imparts an imposing look to the structure, which is decorated with foliated pillars. There are eleven stairs on the eastern side that lead to the main chamber. There are arched entrances from four directions.
Many pre-Mughal monuments were destroyed when Sector D-12 was developed

A Mughal period caravanserai (roadside inn) which is located 4 km off the G.T Road, will also be victim  so-called development in Islamabad.

The Sarai is popularly believed to have been built by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, but archaeological evidence suggests that it was most likely constructed by the Gakhar tribe, who were the lords of this area during the Mughal time. The Mughals later made extensions in this Sarai Kharbuza.

Cells or rooms inside the Sarai Kharbuza

The sarai’s architecture resembles the fortress at Dangali in Kallar Syedan, which was built by Mai Mangho. Dangali served as the third capital of the Gakhars when they ruled much of the present Pothohar area. The first capital of the Gakhars was Pharwala which is believed to have been founded by Hathi Khan Gakhar, who was a cultural hero of the tribe. It was he who gave tough resistance to Babur when the latter attacked Pharwala. It is believed that he died fighting the army of Babur.  The second capital of the Gakhars was Rawat, which is believed to have been founded by Sultan Sarang Khan Gakhar.

The basic structure of Sarai Kharbuza is based on a square, with four octagonal bastions on each side. The sarai is made out of stone boulders and burnt bricks. The boulders are melon-shaped, thus giving the structure the name Sarai Kharbuza. Back when it was functional, the sarai had two gates, between which there was a bazaar.

The living quarters still retain some of their original decorations and colours, especially the beautifully embellished panels on the alcoves.

Closer view of Gurdwara at Kuri

There sarai also has a three-domed mosque right at its centre, and was recently repaired by the locals. Some extensions were also made to it. Like the living quarters, the mosque also maintains its originality, with frescoes and splendid ornamentation on the ceilings and the mihrab. The mosque is similar in design to the one believed to be built by Akbar in Kuri, right on the outskirts of Islamabad.

The sarai has not been taken care of by the concerned authorities. Today, it is used as living quarters by many families belonging to Khattar, Awan and Arain castes. The encroachment has resulted in severe deterioration of the sarai in some places. Some of the old rooms have either been razed or turned into cattle pens. It is pity that most of the cultural heritage of City has been left to the mercy of nature and man – who have equally contributed to its destruction and decay.
The Buddhist caves of Shah Allah Ditta have been encroached upon and illegally occupied by the elites to build restaurants. Likewise, a rock shelter in G-13/4, the surface of which contains petroglyphs, has also been partially damaged during road construction

The Sarai Kharbuza is just one of many caravanserais along the G.T. Road. All these sites need not only to be preserved for their historical value, but should be promoted as tourist sites so that the cultural heritage of the area is highlighted.

View of Buddhist stupa or mound at Meharbad, G-12

The remains of a Buddhist site in Sector G-12 of Islamabad may also become a victim of development. There is a 10-feet-high mound which it is possible might have been a stupa. These Buddhist remains lie on the ancient route that leads to Taxila. There are many other remains on that ancient route but unfortunately most have become the victims of development activities. This Buddhist site is also vandalized. Treasure hunters have dug out the top and sides of the stupa in the hope of finding treasures. At present the Buddhist remains of Meharabad Stupa in G-12 lie in the middle of agricultural fields. Much of the area has been brought under cultivation. Potsherds are scattered not only on the mound but also on the cultivated land. Some pieces of cooking pots are also found on the surface. The sides and top of the stupa have been vandalized and the masonry of the stupa is thus exposed: suggesting that it was constructed by filling rubble and was plastered on the outside.

The Buddhist caves of Shah Allah Ditta have also been encroached and illegally occupied by the elites to build restaurants. Likewise, a rock shelter in G-13/4, the surface of which contains petroglyphs, has also been partially damaged during  road construction. It is feared that the Sarai Kharbuza will also face the same fate if we cannot control the expanding power of real estate managers of Islamabad. Moreover, the city administration should also promote these sites as potential tourist destinations for both international as well as domestic tourists who are not quite familiar with the cultural heritage of Islamabad.

The author is an anthropologist. He may be contacted at

The author is an anthropologist. He tweets at: @Kalhorozulfiqar