The Endowment Fund Trust (EFT) for Preservation of Heritage of Sindh province with the help of various conservationists has taken on the restoration of the historical Ranikot Fort.
Situated in Jamshoro district, some 90km from Hyderabad, Ranikot, also known as the ‘Great Wall of Sindh’, is believed to be the world’s largest fort.
The structure comprises an outer wall that is 32km in circumference and includes 8.75km of man-made fortification walls strengthened with 40 circular and seven rectangular bastions. The rest of the wall is 23.25km of lofty peaks in the Kirthar mountain range.
During a visit by conservationists, researchers and NED university students to Ranikot arranged by the EFT on Saturday, Badar Abro, a writer and researcher, who has studied the length and breadth of the fort for which he also spent a considerable time there, explained: “All the points in the hills from where people could enter the area have been closed by the fortress, the rest is already closed by the rocky hills.”
On average the walls are 25 feet in height with a thickness of 12.5ft at the base and 11ft at the top. And the merlons are another six feet in height and four feet thick.
The five entrances to Ranikot are the Saan Gate in the eastern wall, Amri Gate in the north, Mohan Gate in the west, Shah Pir in the south and Thori Dhoro in the southeast.
Inside the fortress lie two structures also in the shape of fortresses though much smaller in size. Providing a view of the valley below, the lower one is called Mirikot and the upper one Sher Garh.
Approaching Mirikot along a gravel road stones picked up by tires hit the floorboards of the vehicles as the first sight of the great fortress wall appears before you and you are suddenly reminded of pictures of the Great Wall of China.
Meanwhile, Sher Garh can only be accessed by the very brave as it is a very steep climb up the hillock. “Those who have attempted it say that they understood how it got its name as climbing it is something only lions or the lionhearted would dare do,” said Saleem Lashari, a conservationist.
Who built Ranikot and why is still unknown. Some attribute it to the Arabs while others believe it was built by the Greeks. It is said that the fort was later discovered by the Talpurs who then renovated it.
According to experts in the material on Ranikot, prepared and distributed by the EFT, the walls are described to be originally built of coursed rubble with mud covered by lime plaster on either side.
“A three-inch thick layer of lime concrete on top is lined with about a two-inch thick coursed rubble masonry in lime mortar. The lining work was originally done by the Talpurs for increasing the mass and strength of the wall and also protecting it from the rain.
But the cladding work was done without removing the lime plaster from the fortifications and without developing its bond with the original construction.”
Over the years the barracks of Mirikot lost their thatched roofs while the fort walls’ poorly bonded coating could not protect it from erosion and cracks due to rain and moisture.
Ranikot since 1993 has been on the list of tentative Unesco World Heritage Sites. The culture department of the government of Sindh had also launched a restoration project at Ranikot during the 1990s, which was then abandoned after strong criticism from various quarters.
The EFT started the Ranikot project in Jan-Feb 2014 by first safeguarding the collapsed structures.
“I’m grateful to chief minister of Sindh Syed Qaim Ali Shah for giving his nod to the EFT whose trustees, Hameed Akhund and Hameed Haroon, constantly keep us motivated.
“When we started work for the preservation and restoration of historical sites some four to five years back, we didn’t think we would be working on such big projects. It is still the beginning but we hope to turn the world’s spotlight on these places,” said Jahangir Siddiqui, who is managing the restoration of Ranikot.
MNA Dr Nafisa Shah, also present at the site, said she wanted Ranikot to be on the World Heritage Sites list. “The Rohtas Fort is already on Unesco’s list but Ranikot, which is much bigger and magnificent, is still only on its tentative list,” she said.
The EFT engineers have installed a 1,600-foot-long water pipeline to supply water to the site, which was not available at such a height earlier. A special water pump made in Lahore is also now in place and water for construction work is stored in the underground water tanks.
A four-kilometre-long road is also being maintained for transporting material and labour during the restoration.
The inner skin of the fortification wall of Mirikot was badly damaged and was to be restored as a priority. Its eroded top has been removed and the cracks filled with lime grouting with another two layers of three-inch lime and concrete coating applied to make it waterproof.
The roof of the barracks at Mirikot has also been reconstructed and wooden bridges put in the fort wall to connect the walkways. Some of the walls have cement finishing that hides the limestone and seems rather ghastly and out of place.
EFT trustee Hameed Akhund explained: “Well, that was before government funding and all us trustees were contributing in whatever way we could do. We had to do something to salvage the portions of the wall that was about to collapse if we hadn’t stepped in then.”
Meanwhile, Mohan Lal, technical person with the EFT, shared the ingredients of the material being used to repair the walls.
“We are using a concoction of gum, gur and methi [fenugreek] powder mixed with lime stone. Originally the plaster on the walls was all lime with no bonding of the skin with the stone and rubble bringing on cracks.
“You see,” he said. “Masonry structures breathe. There is a vacuum in the pores at night when the air is cool and during the day those pores open up to let the heat escape. If you cover it all with cement, you seal the pores and the surface bursts open to appear as cracks.”
The old cement, it was observed at this point, is itself loosening and shedding and as that happens the new material is being used to fill the cracks and strengthen the walls.
According to Hameed Akhund, in the past eight to 10 months, the EFT had spent over Rs2mn on priority repairs.
“Working with our survey teams, technical experts and engineers, we would now work out a complete restoration plan for Ranikot to be carried out in phases,” he said.