By Tahir Imran Khan
Channan Pir was the saint of desert. His place of burial has been marked in a small village named after him as Channan Pir. There is an annual festival at Channan Pir when people from different distant places comes to the place. The place becomes bustling and colourful in these days, especially now after being connect by metalled road. The festival starts from the last Thursday of February (Hindu month of Chaitra) and lasts for seven consecutive Thursdays.
Cholistan, one a fertile and cultivated land fed by Hakra River (also known as Ghaghra) supported a civilization. After the drying up of this river this area turned into a vast arid zone with two main portions i.e. Lesser & Greater Cholistan.
The are has experienced a succession of climatic changes over the last 500,000 years with a deep layer of red soil below the present sand surface suggesting a moist and green environment during upper and middle Paleolithic periods.
Over 400 archaeological sites have been uncovered along the dried up bed of the Hakra River. In addition to evidence of numerous stone age settlements at the lower levels, a series of desert forts have been built to guard the trade route across Cholistan, the best preserved of which is Derawar Fort.
The name Cholistan is derived from Urdu workd, Chalna, means to walk, although it is not clear whether this refers to the shifting of sand dunes or the semi nomadic people who roam in search of water and pastures/oasis.
The annual rainfall is average 5 inches a year so there is a very little cultivation. The underground water is brackish. People of the desert dig wells in the troughs between sand hill and use camels to draw the water up in thick leather buckets. In the rainy season, they dig artificial ponds called Toba (s) and when these dry up they move on to find other watering holes.
Villagers of the desert live in mud huts, square in shape, and well ventilated with geometrically lined holes cut through the walls. The nomads live in high round huts, which are built on the highest sand hills out of straw and grass. These Aryan origin people are tall and handsome with sharp features. They live by raising cattle, sheep and breeding camels. Their women wear long gathered skirts, brightly coloured, and move gracefully as they perform their daily chores. The nomad's move form village to village where they get water from underground khus (wells), herding their livestock. The principal desert tribes are Chachar, the Mehr, the Larr, the Paryar, the Channar, the Chandni and the Bohar. The people are extremely friendly and hospitalbe.
Derawar Fort is one of the most impressive monuments of our heritage. The present building is built by Abbassi family in 1733 but it was there from centuries. Its walls are 30m high and there are 40 bastions, 10 on each side. A huge defensive tower at the main entrance to the East was added in 1965.
How old is Derawar actually, no one precisely knows. The huge fort stands on top of a ruined city of the mature Harrappan civilization that spans a period between 2500 to 1500 BC. The Hakra River, which once flowed close by dried up some 3500 years back draining life out of a mighty civilization. In the 9th Century AD to be exact, the site attracted the Bhatti Rajputs of Jaisalmir and Bikanir who built here a huge mud fort. Raja Rawal Deoraj gave the place his name, as Dera Rawal. With the passage of time, the name changed to Dera Rawar and finally to Derawar as to today. According to some, Derawar is actually another form of the word Derawar i.e. Dravidians - the original inhabitants of the Indus Valley Civilization.
It is constructed from gypsum blocks and is two walls thick. The fort was taken over by a family of rulers from Bahawalpur who restored the fort extensively using bricks transported from Uch some 65kms away. The bricks were carried to Derawar in a peculiar way a human chain of men was set up all the way from Uch to Derawar and the bricks passed from hand to hand so as to form a human conveyor belt.
The buildings inside the fort are, Harem, subedar's quarters, arsenal and a mosque. An interesting building is the multi-roomed subterranean summer rest house of Nawabs called Sard Khana. The iron rail to take Nawab's carriage is still intact. There are also remains of a watchtower, a prison, the granary, a guard house and some 100 new inaccessible tunnels - the rumoured subterranean chambers with buried treasures of the former rulers. The once gaily painted rest house or baradari on top of the north-eastern bastion still flies high the flag of the once ruling family of the former Bahawalpur State as a symbol of their authority over the area.
Close to the fort is the royal cemetery with marble and glazed tile work on graves. The graves of the rulers themselves, save the first, are however under one roof. It is beautifully decorated hall embellished with fresco paintings on the walls, mirror work on the ceiling and carved marble cenotaphs. Over some of the graves hang costly chandeliers. Outside the main hall, pure white marble tomb of a Christian European wife of a former rulers of special interest. As a family place, it is also closed for visitors.
The most impressive building surviving outside the fort is Jama Masjid of pure white marble brought over a distance of undreds of miles away. This was built by Nawab Sadiq in 1848, after starting construction in 1842. Later Khawaja Ghulam Farid, the famous Sufi saint, occupied this mosque. There is a legend that his name has been imprinted by a miracle on the main doorstep (though it may be written by dropping an acid on the stone slab, as it is not painted nor chiselled). His tomb is in Mithankot.
Khawaja Fareed (1845-1901) was much attached to Thar Desert where he spent years and married a girl from nomad tribe. He also nentions frequently about the beauty of this area and of the local people. He also refers the romantic story of Sassi & Punnon in his poems.
500m NW of the fort are graves of four companions of Hazrat Muhammad (peace be upon him). Detail are not known.
Dera Nawab Sahib is at a distance of 45 kms from here. There is a fine building Sadiq Garh Palace in Dera Nawab Sahib.