The Cholistan Desert And Ancient Civilisations

Derawar Fort is the best surviving example of the forts which used to guard desert caravan routes.
Derawar Fort is the best surviving example of the forts which used to guard desert caravan routes.
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The Cholistan desert, also known as Rohi, is a stark stretch of land that was home to a once-thriving civilization. Situated in modern-day Pakistan, this arid expanse was once the western part of the vast Thar desert, nourished by the life-giving waters of the Hakra river. The name is derived from the Turkic word chol, meaning “sands,” and istan, a Persian suffix meaning “land of.” Cholistan covers an area of 25,800 km2 (10,000 sq mi) in the Bahawalpur, Bahawalnagar, and Rahim Yar Khan districts of southern Punjab. The desert stretches about 480 kilometres in length, with a width varying between 32 and 192 kilometres.
Cholistan is divided into the Greater Cholistan and Lesser Cholistan, which are roughly divided by the dry bed of Hakra river. Greater Cholistan is a mostly sandy area in the south and west part of the desert up to the border with India, and covers an area of 13,600 km2 (5,300 sq mi). Sand dunes in this area reach over 100 meters in height and the soil is highly saline. Lesser Cholistan is an arid and slightly less sandy region approximately 12,370 km2 (4,780 sq mi) in area, which extends north and east from the old Hakra river bed, historically up to the banks of another river, the Sutlej.

An Agricultural Oasis

Archaeological evidence shows remnants of a bygone era when this desert was actually a fertile oasis sustained by the Hakra river from 4000 BCE to 600 BCE. It was home to parts of the Indus Valley Civilisation (2600 BCE to 1800 BCE) that flourished here and used the river’s water for agriculture.
Since 1970s, over 400 Harappan (Indus Valley) sites have been listed in Cholistan. The high density of settlements in Cholistan suggest it may have been one of the most productive regions of the Indus Valley Civilization. After the Harappan period, Cholistan was part of the bronze age Cemetary H Culture (1900 to 1300 BCE) and the Painted Grey Ware Culture (1300 BCE to 500 BCE).

The Vanishing River

Around 600 BCE the Hakra river changed its course and disappeared underground. This had a drastic impact on the verdant landscape. The area became dry and the desert encroached farther and farther. Since then, the Cholistan area has transformed into a stark and inhospitable desert environment at the edge of South Asian empires. The dry bed of the Hakra river still runs through the area.

Fortified Remnants of Bygone Eras

Cholistan desert became a centre for caravan trade, which resulted in the construction of a dense network of forts in the medieval period – of which the Derawar Fort is the best-preserved example. Other large forts in Cholistan include Meergarh, Jaangarh, Marotgarh, Maujgarh, Dingarh, Khangarh, Khairgarh, Bijnotgarh and Islamgarh – with the suffix “garh” denoting “fort.”
All of these forts are part of the Tentative List of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and run roughly parallel to the Indus and Sutlej rivers 40 miles to the south. Smaller forts in the area include Bara, Bhagla, Duheinwala, Falji, Kandera, Liara, Murid, Machki, Nawankot, and Phulra forts. This group of forts, some standing tall and others deteriorated by the relentless passage of time, offer a glimpse into the region’s rich history.

The Majestic Derawar Fort

Among these fortified structures, the Derawar fort stands as the crown jewel, a masterpiece of architectural prowess. This massive square structure, built with clay bricks in the 9th century CE, is a visual spectacle that commands awe and admiration. Its walls stretch for an impressive 1500 meters and soar up to thirty meters high.
Derawar Fort is the best surviving example of the forts which used to guard desert caravan routes.

Derawar Fort is the best surviving example of the forts which used to guard desert caravan routes.


Derawar Fort is the best surviving example of the forts which used to guard desert caravan routes.

Derawar Fort is the best surviving example of the forts which used to guard desert caravan routes.

People of Cholistan

Nomadic people still live in lower Cholistan and practice livestock farming, specifically camels. Their nomadic lifestyle means that their entire wealth is in the livestock. And because they were isolated in this remote region, they crafted their own products for use.

Semipermanent Cholistani huts, known locally as Gopa

Semipermanent Cholistani huts, known locally as Gopa


Camel grazers in Cholistan

Camel grazers in Cholistan


A mother and child in a typical household in the Cholistan Desert

A mother and child in a typical household in the Cholistan Desert

 

A very special type of carpet wool is produced on Cholistan, from which the locals weave carpets, rugs and other items. Initially created for their own use, these products are now famous in many other areas. Cotton textiles are also made by the locals and are a speciality of the region.

 

Cholistani textiles

People of Cholistan and Cholistani textiles

 

The Cholistan desert, with its ancient ruins and fortified remnants, serves as a captivating window into the past, inviting explorers and historians alike to unravel the mysteries of the civilizations that once thrived in this now-arid landscape.

I am a Chartered Environmentalist from the Royal Society for the Environment, UK and co-owner of DoLocal Digital Marketing Agency Ltd, with a Master of Environmental Management from Yale University, an MBA in Finance, and a Bachelor of Science in Physics and Mathematics. I am passionate about science, history and environment and love to create content on these topics.