Vishnu Temple of the Hindu Shahi in the Pakistani region

By: Wali Khalil.

There is a 1500 years old Nandna Fort and Vishnu temple, at Baghanwala, Pind Dadan khan Pakistan. The word Nandna means ‘Lord Vishnu’s garden’, in Sanskrit. Nandna Fort and temple always had a beautiful fruit garden at its foothill. This is because of the perennial stream of fresh water that originates from the foothills of Salt Range.

Akbar the Mughal (1581) and Jahangir (1605-27) mentioned ‘Nandana’ in their travelogues, as a place of hunting and relaxing. Foundation stone of Nandana fort was laid in the 8th century by Hindu Kashmiri rulers, to consolidate their empire and prevent devastating raids by invaders from the East like Mihira Gulla, the Hun. No wonder Muslim Eastern invaders’ still haunt the psyche of modern day India.

nandna fort

Nandana Fort was perched by its builders on top of a natural 1500 feet high mountain that overlooks a cut in the salt range. This cut was the ancient road to Indian plains from Taxila.  In those days, any raider that managed to breach Nandna fort, had a free run across Indian plains.  Muslim Mahmoud of Ghazni took over in 1013 but Nandna fort lasted till 14th century when the last battle between Khwarizmis’ and Chormaqan, the Mongol was reported.

This is the Google maps route of Baghanwala Jhelum, near Pind Dadan Khan. Nandana Fort and Temple is a short 30 minutes hike from Baghanwala.

The most famous account of Nandna Fort and Vishnu temple is firstly, the fight of Alexander of Macedon with Raja Porus at the banks of Jhelum River (Hydaspus). Alexander’s army passed right under Nandna Fort in 326 BC, while camping at Busephalia (Jalal pur) at the Eastern most tip of Salt Range, to face Raja Porus camped at Mong, at the opposite end.

The second account of Nandna fort is of Mahmoud of Ghazni (971-1030AD), who, after defeating Hindu Shahi Rajput king Jayapala at Bhera (1001), marched on to defeat Niddar Bhim (1013 AD) at Nandna. Niddar Bhim (Dauntless Bhim) was a General appointed by Anandapala, son of Jayapala (who had died by then). Anandapala, seeing overwhelming odds, evacuated to Kashmir, by the time. Mahmoud of Ghazni had to forgo huge loot, that he had amassed from the Somnath Temple raid, to wrestle control of Nandna Fort. Mahmoud of Ghazni appointed a Muslim Governor for the first time after this battle. It is told that the central Asian foot soldiers of Mahmoud’s army ‘came down like torrents of water ‘upon the Nandna fort, which was indefensible due to higher mountains all around it. Mahmoud’s son had to forgo his ‘alcohol’ to lighten his load for the fight. Salman Rashid Sahib’s account of this affair is even more interesting.

nandna fort

The third account is when Rayhan Al Biruni (973-1050AD), the Muslim researcher, stayed at Nandna somewhere around 1017 AD, for a while, to reconfirm the radius of the earth as measured by the Greek using Astrolabe technique. It is said, Al Biruni’s aligned his scale with a protruding hill, just south of Nandna fort, which is still there. Al Biruni’s readings were off by less than 200 miles.

nandna fort

There was once a sprawling city, a hunting ground, vast gardens and a Vishnu temple at the Nandna site. Hindu Janjuas’ or Rajputs’ had several forts built at perches on the salt range to protect their Kashmiri Kingdom. Salt Range on those days was called Balnath. Nandna is in the same league as Malot, Katas Raj, Amb Sharif forts and the temples therein. Nandna lost its prestige when finally Sher Shah Suri in 1538 renovated the Northern route to Lahore, effectively bypassing Nandna and the salt range.

Near Baghanwala Village is the grave of some revered saint thought to be Haam, the son of Prophet Noah (Nooh). There were not many tombs to see when I got there; I was told the grave robbers had looted them already. The only thing I saw was the incarceration place of the old fort and a mosque said to be built by the Muslim general of Mahmoud of Ghazni. You can make out the outer perimeter of the Nandna Fort just by looking at the scratched stone base. It was said to have been breached by ‘mining and other techniques’.

The most interesting thing I witnessed, that no one else has reported, is Chinese sort of writings etched into stone. I wish someone could decipher it for me. I could be ancient Sanskrit, for all I know.

nandna fort

Then there is a 15 foot solid rock with a cavity hollowed in the middle. I couldn’t make out what that was for. Locals say it was a religious offering place.

nandna fort

The site from where the perennial stream originates is a tight crevasse where sunlight barely reaches the ground. This place is a heaven for local people who want respite from the burning heat of the Salt Range Plains further ahead. I personally loved the peacefulness and safety of watching fish inside stream of fresh water, in the center of tall mountains all around.

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nandna fort

The most interesting legend about Nandna Fort is set around 17th century. It is said that the local Rajput ruler at that time challenged his subjects to cross over a ravine on a tight rope while danced Kathak. The person that does manage to pull this off would be given half of his wealth. Lo and behold, an ambitious Kathak dancer tip toed across and won her wealth. The Rajput ruler upped the bet by offering his complete wealth if the female Kathak dancer manages to walk back too. As expected the Machiavellian ruler cut the dancer’s rope from under her feet while she was up there. Rulers are trained in the dark arts of deception — poor Kathak dancer.

The present day Nandna is called Baghanwala (place of gardens). The old Janjua clan is nowhere to be seen. Zulfiqar Bhutto’s land reforms claimed their hereditary land for the peasants — for once someone had the courage to challenge the powerful — for the betterment of the weak.

nandna fort

You’d have to turn drive all the way to Lillah Interchange on Motorway, exit towards Pind Dadan Khan, drive on to Darya Jalap and turn left from the Garibwaal Cement Factory chowk. It’s just a 10 minutes driver from this chowk to Baghanwala village. From Baghanwala you’d have to hike for 30 minutes to the top of Nandna Fort and temple. It takes 3 hours to drive Baghanwala on the motorway. It gets pretty hot in the summers while going up, but you can always chill on the return journey from the natural springs down below.

The ancient horse and carriage track is still intact at some places and rock and masonry strewn about. I personally loved the view from the top of Nandna fort of Jhelum River to the south and Salt Range to the North.

nandna fort

 Like all Forts, there is a rain water harvesting pond in the center of the fort. It is said there was a mini town inside the fort where the royal family and privileged Hindu residents lived. I could make out anything from the destroyed Vishnu temple, but it did resemble the remains of Amb temple in Sakesar. I was wishing no bat jumps on me from the belfry of the temple — especially with the Corona Virus scare.

nandna fort

The once mighty outpost was now in ruins, and so was the fruit garden. The local population had moved on.

nandna fort

We drove to a hotel on the Khewra road and had lunch with mutton Karahi, tandoor waali roti, and anday waali daal. It was evening time and I swear I haven’t seen the sun so bright, flooding Jhelum plains with its orange light. I came home thinking I should’ve taken up archeology and history as a career and spared my employers lot of annoyance.

I wish someone would excavate and log this untapped tourism and heritage goldmine.

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