THE Salt Range in northern Punjab is a sort of natural barrier between northern and central Punjab. Although more people know about Salt Range because of its salt mines at Khewra and Kalabagh, Salt Range has much more historic significance as is evident from a string of centuries old Hindu temples, forts and monasteries spread from East to West. More famous among these are Tilla Jogian, Nandana, Ketas, Malot, Amb and Kafirkot temples in Dera Ismail Khan.
There is a lot common among these temples apart from typical Hindu architecture. Almost all of these temples have a very difficult access along tortuous mountain terrains. Probably this difficult access has something to do with the concept of ‘Tapasia’ that need a certain degree of sacrifice and humility from the followers of the religion. Most of the temples are located at the top of cliffs and give splendid panoramic views of surroundings especially Malot and Nandana Fort.
While Ketas and Tilla Jogian are relatively well known archeological sites, Nandana Fort is relatively less known to an average citizen. To reach Nandana one has to exit from the interchange at Lilla on the motorway and travel east for about twenty minutes till a T-junction guides you to Khewra Salt Mines and Ketas to the left and Pind Dadan Khan town to the right. Take the right road towards Pind Dadan Khan and after travelling for about twenty minutes on Pind Dadan Khan-Jhelum Road, one reaches the small village of Dhariala. Throughout this journey the Salt Range is towards north and river Jhelum is towards south. At Dhariala, turn northwards towards Gharibwal cement factory at the foothills of the Salt Range but after travelling for a few kilometres, take the right branch road going straight to Bagahanwala village a typical staircase settlement at the foothills of the Salt Range.
The village of Baghanwala is a typical Punjabi village surrounded by green fields and orchards owing to some three fresh water streams that originate in the foothills and join together to form a larger stream which is the lifeline of this small village. There is a ‘Shahi Darwaza’ or King’s gate which is attributed to Mughal kings who frequently came to this area for hunting and expeditions. The place finds its mention in the memoirs of Emperor Jehangir. Today one finds the Mughal monument desolate and not well looked after. Interestingly there is an electricity meter installed right on the face of the monument which clearly shows the importance we give to such monuments.
One can see the historical fort of Nandana on top of the hill behind Baghanwala. The fort is placed on top of almost vertical cliffs which may give an impression of a very difficult access and the experience supports this initial impression. One has to cross the narrow alleys of the village to get to the trek leading to the fort. The rule is to follow the stream through the village. Once the village is crossed, the surroundings become greener and are very pleasant. There are a number of water mills along the stream. It is advisable to hire a local as a guide as it may become difficult to find the trek leading to the fort.
The best time to climb the hill is during winter or spring season. It takes almost one hour to reach the top. The trek is not very difficult but one must carry enough drinkable water with him as once the ascent on the hill starts the stream is left behind. All through the trek, the surrounding views are beautiful although once you reach the top, the view of the plains of Punjab with river Jhelum cutting through is quite a treat. The whole hill is full of ancient walls and sort of remains of buildings that prove that at some time in history, Nandana must have been a flourishing town.
At the top, all that remains of Nandana Fort is a tall temple like building and another huge wall with a hole or a door in the middle. Both of these structures are in a dilapidated condition without any visible effort of protection or restoration. However, some of our enthusiastic religious fellow men have constructed a mosque beside the temple probably in some sort of reaction to the Hindu or kafir presence in the area. Unfortunately the mosque is also in ruins as it has always been easy to build a mosque than to bring followers to the place.
It is said that Alexander the Great crossed the Salt Range at this point before descending to the plains of Punjab for his famous battle with Raja of Porus at Chillianwala. Nandana Fort was built by Raja Ananadpal of Hindushahi dynasty after the Hindushahis were defeated by Mehmud Ghaznavi at Hund near Attock. However, Mehmud Ghaznavi later followed the Hindushahi rulers and after defeating them in a battle stormed Nandana in 1014. The Hindushahis were finally overcome in 1026 and were converted to Islam. In the thirteenth century, Nandana was held by Jalal-uddin Khwarism, however, when Jalaluddin fell foul of Chengiz Khan, a Mongol force was sent by Chengiz Khan which devastated Nandana before ransacking other parts of Punjab. It is also said that Al-Beruni, the famous astronomer, mathematician and scientist who accompanied Mehmud Ghaznavi during his expedition to this area, calculated the circumference of Earth from this place, although the same is said about Ketas temples.
While returning from Baghanwala, one can take an alternative route to the East from Dhariala towards Jalalpur Sharif. At Jalalpur Sharif, one can visit the shrine of the famous saint and in addition can cruise on Chimkon Valley Road towards Salt Range. Just on the road is the camping site of the forces of Alexander the Great now marked by an Alexander Research Institute in the making. The project is being supervised by renowned historian Ahmed Hasan Dani in collaboration with the Greek government. However, presently the entry into the place is restricted. Just beside the research institute is the model of Ghauri missile inaugurated by the once famous Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, dedicated to the people of Jalalpur Sharif.
Back on the main Jalapur Sharif-Rasul road, one should cross Jhelum River at Rasul. After having the taste of delicious fresh ‘Sanghara’ fish, one should continue to Chillianwala. At Chillianwala, a stopover at the British cemetery marked by a cross and an obelisk is must. The memory was erected in memory of the British soldiers who lost their lives at Battle of Chillianwala in 1849. From Chillianwala it takes about thirty minutes to reach Kharian on the main Grand Trunk road for onward journey to Lahore or Islamabad.