The Cholistan desert, or Rohi, is the western part of the Thar desert of the sub-continent which lies in modern Pakistan. There is archaeological evidence that this area was once watered by the Hakra river and was home to an Indus Valley culture based on agriculture. This river, the bed of which can be seen clearly etched into the desert landscape, supported settlements from ca. 4000 BC until around 600 B.C. when the river changed its flow and subsequently vanished underground. Since then the Cholistan area has been a stark and inhospitable desert environment at the edge of empires.
The medieval forts of the Cholistan desert landscape are a group of up to a dozen structures, some standing and some deteriorated. Derawar fort is the best surviving example of this series of historic forts, some dating from pre-Mughal times, but all restored and expanded from the 16th to 18th century by powerful local clans. Other forts include (roughly from north to south) Meergarh, Jaangarh, Marotgarh, Maujgarh, Dingarh, Khangarh, Khairgarh, Bijnotgarh and Islamgarh.These structures form a network across the desert landscape. They served to protect and enable the desert caravan routes; mercantile routes from central Asia to the heartland of the sub-continent and pilgrimage routes between Mecca and India.
Derawar fort was built in the 9th c. by Rai Jajja Bhatti. a Rajput ruler of Bhatti clan. The fort was taken over by the Nawab of Bahawalpur, Sadeq Mohammad Khan I, in 1733 They in turn lost control of the fort in 1747 but took the stronghold back in 1804 and it remained as the desert abode of the Nawabs of Bahawalpur until the 1970s. The fort survived intact due to this constant occupation where many of the others built as part of the medieval desert defence have perished.
The fort is a massive and visually stunning square structure built of clay bricks. The walls have a length of 1500 meters and stand up to thirty meters high. There are forty circular bastions, ten on each side, which stand 30 m high and are visible across the desert for many miles. Each is decorated with intricate patterns in cut brick work. There are remains of structures inside the fort, may richly decorated with tile and fresco work; the Moti or Pearl Mosque stands nearby and the cemetery of the Nawabs of Bahawalpur filled with ornate and elaborate graves.
Derawar and the other forts illustrate the variety of the forms found from square brick structures with circular corner bastions, to square walls completely faced with semi-circular towers, to rectangular and even hexagonal shaped enclosures with angle bastions and square enclosures within an outer wall with multiple bastions. All of these varied forms date from the 16th to late 18th centuries, although many are renovations of previous buildings from as early as the 9th c. Despite this variation in form, all these forts are clustered within an area of only. 250 km N-S and 100 km E-W to the east of the historic cities of Bahawalpur and Yazman.
The explanation for this group of fortifications across the flat sands of the Rohi is presumed to be access to water, protection and control of these important water resources and their relationship to the caravan routes across the desert. Derawar, for example, is located at a critical point in the desert where it is possible to access deep water deposits which are all that remains of the ancient Hakra River. As a result, for many centuries Derawar has been an essential stopping and watering point for all caravans entering the great desert on route to trading entrepots to the east.
Justification of Outstanding Universal Value
The medieval forts of the Cholistan desert form a remarkable and dense concentration of defensive structures in a relatively small area and an inhospitable landscape of sand and stone. Although the precise extent and nature of this network is still being explored, it is clear that it is intimately linked to the routes that were crossed for centuries by desert caravans. This region formed what the ICOMOS thematic study of the Silk Roads (Williams 2014) refers to as a “corridor of movement and impact”.
The forts of the Cholistan desert can be categorized as Category 1 Infrastructure according to the thematic study; “facilitating trade and transportation” and functioning as both forts and way-stations.
The ICOMOS thematic study (Williams 2014) points out that “a fundamental issue has always been access to water” (p. 15.) Derawar Fort and the group of medieval forts of Cholistan are an outstanding representation of the role of water in the play of power in the vast desert region. They bear testimony to the many conflicting princely clans seeking control over water and the taxes and privileges of power associated with control of the lucrative trade and pilgrimage routes which crossed here from Central Asia to northern India.
This small but potentially data-rich part of the desert network meets the priority for nomination put forward by the Silk Roads study as the need to capture the desert routes and the broadly eastwest cub-continent routes of Afghanistan-Pakistan-India. “These types of sites reflect specific regional political and social responses to the organisation and infrastructure of the routes, and as such are an important component of capturing the complexity and diversity of the Silk Roads.”
Criterion (iii): Derawar and the other forts of the Cholistan desert are a unique utilitarian response to the challenges of enabling movement of people and goods across a hostile environment. They form a valuable example of “infrastructure” designed to meet these environmental challenges in the context of changing and often conflict-ridden local circumstances. As such, they bear exceptional testimony to a vanished cultural tradition in this transition zone between Central and South Asia and a valuable component of the complexity and diversity of the Silk Roads.
Criterion (v): The Forts of Cholistan are an outstanding example of human interaction with a harsh desert environment and the resulting efforts to control, safeguard and benefit from scarce water resources which were essential to caravan movement through this corridor.
Statements of authenticity and/or integrity
The desert forts vary in their condition and state of preservation; some such as Marotgarh have deteriorated while other such as Derawar, Bijnotgarh and Meergarh are in better condition. They all, however, share a high degree of authenticity of materials, design and craftsmanship and retain attributes that reflect the changes in ownership over time.
The Operational Guidelines (137) state that serial nominations should not just be a catalogue of sites, but should be an ensemble of sites with specific cultural, social or functional links over time, in which each site contributes substantially to the Outstanding Universal Value of the serial property as a whole. Each of the forts of Cholistan shares a cultural and historical context and a special relationship with the desert landscape Together they display all the variables of the proposed OUV for the property and convey its significance. There are no adverse effects of development however neglect is an issue at several of the forts.
Comparison with other similar properties
The Hill Forts of Rajasthan, India were inscribed on the World Heritage list in 2013 as a serial site of six majestic forts that “bears testimony to the power of the Rajput princely states that flourished in the region from the 8th to 18th centuries”. Although these forts are located on the other side of the same desert as Derawar and the other Cholistan forts, they represent an entirely different tradition of “forts”. The Rajasthan properties very large and elaborate, enclosing urban centres and palaces with associated courtly culture and arts. It is this interchange of princely Rajput ideologies and patronage in the arts which form their OUV.
Another World Heritage site based on a trade route is the Incense Route – Desert Cities in the Negev, Israel (2005). This property comprises four Nabatean towns with associated fortresses and agricultural landscapes which provide a very complete picture of the Nabatean desert civilisation strung along a trade route.
These properties are both in stark contrast to the Cholistan forts which are structurally impressive but not ornate or extravagant, nor do they have urban development within their walls or nearby. Also lacking are the courtly associations and agricultural landscapes; instead their values lie in their bold functionality related to maintaining the desert caravan routes.
More meaningful comparison can be found in the group of isolated 19th c. forts built by the American Army in Texas to protect the western frontier, or the Roman fortifications in the Eastern Desert of Egypt designed to protect the caravan trade from the Red Sea to the Nile.
The thematic study on Silk Roads found that in 2014 there were 221 relevant sites on Tentative Lists reflecting a broad range of site types and landscapes, but with a strong emphasis on the “outcomes” of the Silk Roads, and far less on the “infrastructure” associated with ancient trade routes. This is a gap which the Desert Forts of Cholistan will help to fill.
No comparable property can be found which matches the attributes of the Desert Forts of Cholistan. This is a group of utilitarian and yet varied fortifications closely spaced across a relatively small area of desert, all either built or renovated over a period of a few centuries to protect water sources and the caravan trade in an area of South Asia which has not yet been adequately explored or documented as an important link in the vast network of the Silk Roads.