Cholistan (Rohi)


The Indus Valley in Pakistan, spanning along the River Indus, from the fertile plains of Punjab to the lower course of Sindh along, was the first cradle of civilization in the subcontinent, emerging in 2000 years BC. The basin is divided from that of the Ganges by a desert known as Cholistan in Bahawalpur Division, and Thar in Sindh. It is a part of great desert called Marusthali or Region of Death.

Cholistan is spread over 10,000 square miles, occupying about two third's area of present Bahawalpur Division. Administratively, it is divided between the three districts of Bahawalpur Division: Bahawalpur, Bahawalnagar, and Rahim Yar Khan. On its northern and western sides flows the River Satluj, the desert region of Rajisthan lies on its east and south, and its southwestern boundary is formed by the desert region of the Province of Sindh.

Cholistan is called Rohi in the local dialect. The word has a Turkish origin, Chol meaning a ' desert'. But Cholistan has not always been a desert. It is separated from the central tract of Bahawalpur Division by a depression called Hakra, which at one time carried the waters of a large river, which flowed all around its length and breadth. Thus the area was fertile, well cultivated, and well populated till the early twentieth century, when with the changes in the courses of the river Satluj and Sindh took place and turned it into a sandy barren land.


The Indus Valley Civilization:

The history of Cholistan starts from the history of Indus Valley civilization, which prospered from about 2500 BC to 1500 BC around the Indus River. No one is sure about the people who formed Indus civilization. It is believed that they were Aryans, but there is also some evidence of the presence of the Proto-Australoids or some of the wild hill tribes of the sub continent in this area. However according to the latest analysis no less than six racial elements have contributed to build up the population of the sub continent. The modern South India is usually a blend of Mediterranean and Proto-Australoids, the two chief ethnic factors in the Harrappa culture. The Harrappa religion, language, and culture suggest that the Harrappa folks were Dravidian. The fine sculptures, human figures engraved on the numerous seals found at Harrappa and Moenjo Daro also determine the various racial factors, but still the identification of the people of the Indus civilization and the nature of that society will always remain a secret. The reason may be that the area being on the riverside has always been dwelled by nomads, the people who had never known a city.

The Aryans:

The Aryans cannot be declared as the sole executioners of the Indus civilization. Moenjo Daro provides the evidence of trouble and decay over several centuries before 1500 BC. The date now roughly agrees to the first Aryan immigrations through the passes of Hindu Kush. These Aryans were prominent and boastful inhabitants of the Subcontinent. They are supposed to be the destroyers of the fortified brick-built towns of the Indus Valley urbanities. Still the Aryan invasion of India was not a single concentrated action but it spans over centuries, and involved perhaps many tribes speaking different languages and belonging to different races. So there is a little knowledge of Aryans, just as of the Indus civilization. The basic knowledge about Aryans comes through their legends, hymns, rituals, folklore, and charms. Their second invasion pushed across the Jamuna River about 1000 BC.

The decline of Harrapa:

It is supposed that the Harrapans of the Indus valley came to a decline in about seventeenth century BC before the Aryans appeared on the scene. It is also not sure if the Aryans were actually responsible for the demise of Indus culture. The fact is the fall in the Indus state was followed by a dark period of about one thousand years, and there is a little knowledge about it. It appears that the Aryans did not stay in the Indus Valley for along time because they were nomads.

The Jats and Meds:

According to Sanskrit legends, the original inhabitants of the Indus region wereJats and Meds. The present population of Cholistan contains the clans of Jats Rajputs and Balochis. The largest clan among these is Jats, and the area is considered to be their birthplace. The ancestors of Jats and Rajputs entered the area in different periods of history.

The Arains:

Cholistan is the cradle of another important clan called Arain. They claim to be the descendants of Aryans. Amongst the old races, they were the first to accept Islam through the influence of Sufis of Uch, which was the first center for the propagation of Islam in the subcontinent.

The Arrival of Islam:

The Indus valley gained its Islamic character when the Arabs established their own dynasties, and Saiyyed families came to exercise authority over upper and lower Sindh. Among the early noble saints here were Saif ud Din, Jalal-ud-Din Bukhari, and Muhammad Ghaus. Later the region saw the arrival of Mohammad Bin Qasim and Mahmood of Ghazni.

The Abbasid Rule:

The year 1726 was the turning point in the history of Cholistan, when Amir Sadiq Muhammad Abbasi laid the foundation of Bahawalpur State. He was the descendant of Abbasi Caliphs of Baghdad. After the dismissal of their magnificent Caliphate in Baghdad from Mongol Invasion, they joined the Mumelukes in Egypt, where they enjoyed a very significant influence. In 1370 AD Amir Sultan Ahmed II, emigrated to Sindh and conquered a considerable territory.

The Abbasid ruling clan of Bahawalpur became a very powerful local tribe. They were great warriors, and were the foundation of the army of Ex Bahawalpur State. They used to fight their enemies single handedly. They snatched the areas from the Rajputs. They encouraged many Balochi clans like Khosas, Rinds, Derajats, and Jatois from Sindh to move and settle here. Other tribes who came to Sindh were Machies, Samas, and Chachars. During Ranjeet Singh's rule of Punjab many Pathan families of Punjab also came to settle in Cholistan in order to save their honor from Sikhs. They included the Saddozais, Khakwanai, Ghoris, Popalzais, and Babars. In addition many Syed and Quershi families also sought refuge in Bahawalpur for the same reason.

The present dwellers:

The current major clans Cholistan include Jats Rajputs and Balochis. Their sub-clans include Chatta, Cheema, Warraich, Janjua, Rathore, Bhatti, Leghari, Lashari, and Dashti. Though these clans are unique because of their historical past and maintenance of their tribal traditions.


The rich tradition of the art of architecture in Cholistan got its inspiration from Uch, which before the arrival of Islam was a flourishing beautiful city, and afterwards it became a great seat of Muslim learning when it was selected as the capital of Sindh. It started with mosques and tomb mosques when mosques were used not only for the religious purpose, but also for social and political activities.

The ordinary Cholistani used to live in a Kacha house known as gopa or jhok that had roof covered with thatch of grass. But the Cholistani people's art of construction is projected through their fort building. These forts were first built in a line by the Rajput rulers in the Hakra depression as a defense against intruders. As these forts were merely used as check posts, these were made with mud having iron gateways, and did not have any worthwhile architectural designs or motifs attached to them.

During Abbasid rule the Cholistani cities and towns were virtually littered with forts royal palaces, villas, havelis, gateways, gardens, fortifications and city walls. The main feature of the palaces their airy rooms, open courtyards, and roof terraces. And the main feature of all Cholistani forts was their mosques, and the Mughal style of architecture was introduced in all buildings as well as in mosques.

It was a need of time to build some cool and cozy spot amidst usually hot and dusty surroundings. The royal palaces at Bahawalpur like Noor Mahal, Gulzar Mahal and Daulat Khana specially served as recreational centers. They were surrounded by long rows of gardens with running brooks and lush green lawns.

Noor Mahal Palace

Noor Mahal Palace is a beautiful blend of Gothic and Mughal architecture. Built in red brinks with lime mortar, it is a feat of engineering skill.

Jamia Mosque Bahawalpur

Jamia Mosque Bahawalpur is a large mosque. Its building started over a hundred years ago by Amir Sadiq, but is still incomplete. On its completion, it would be able to accommodate 20,000 people for prayers, and in size it would rival the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad and Shahi mosque Lahore. The building has about 21 domes; each about 16 feet in diameter, supported by pillars. Its main praying hall is quite spacious and courtyard quite vast.

The Ghazi Mosque

The Ghazi mosque at Bhung village is a picture of craftsmanship of local artisans. The mosque has three marble domes, a picturesque verandah and a colorful main hall with a very beautiful golden dome. With the use of white and green marble, mirror work, and stained glass, that reflects light and creates beautiful images even at low light of nights. Its decoration includes Quranic inscriptions in golden colors, Islamic decorative motifs, and pencil-shaped small minarets. The mosque is thus a rare combination of Central Asian, Mughal, Iranian, and Saracen architecture. This is the mosque, received the Agha Khan award for the year 1986 for its uniqueness and diversity in style, and can be considered to be a jewel in the desert.

Public Buildings

Architecturally, even the public institutes and government offices in Bahawalpur are capped with white or off white domes supported by arches, all together weaving an atmosphere of the Arabian nights against a background of wide open spaces, sand dunes, and palm trees. No other town in Pakistan contains such oriental and Muslim touch of architecture.

A Historian's Account

A historian's very true statement reasons the past and present condition of Cholistan: "Muslim have a knack of creating wonders even in deserts, treeless mountains, and the unrelieved monotony of infinite vistas. Environmental factors, however dull and monotonous they be have never hindered their creative abilities right from the Atlantic to the sea of China".

Cholistan may be considered a rural area, but it is richer in history, tradition, culture, and arts and craft compared with well developed urban areas of Pakistan. 


Cholistan is a composed of dry, wet, and green area. Its southern area is called Greater Cholistan, where Tibbas rise to as much as several hundred feet. The northwestern portion called Lesser Cholistan is a loamy soil with abundance of vegetation. In the dry season the vegetation decreases but even a few drops of rains in the rainy season brings back the vegetation on which the desert dwellers' livelihood depends.

The economy of Cholistan depends on rain though on the whole it can be considered as a rainless tract. Rain falls mostly in summer, but is scanty and irregular, not exceeding six inches annually. Sometimes there is no rainfall for years, but only an inch of rain can bring miraculous transformation and turn the exhausted dry land into fresh and green pastures.

In Greater Cholistan people store water in natural depressions or man-made ponds called Tobas. When the water in the Tobas is exhausted, people shift to their semi-permanent settlements in Lesser Cholistan where wells are available for water. These wells are the centers of great hustle and bustle, for people here are found gossiping while drinking or attaining water for themselves and their animals in a systematic way. Within months the wells gets dry, and the people have to move near canals and rivers till it rains and fills the Tobas and the wells again. The riverine areas not only avert the curse of famine, but also provide fodder to the cattle.

The areas in Lesser Cholistan are now irrigated by canals, and have got a refreshingly green wooded appearance. The vast system of irrigation canals originating in the Satluj River is responsible for magical transformation in the area, turning the rough sandy wastes, with scanty growth of dull desert plants into a vigorous green land that is well cultivated. 



Local Festivals

Various fairs and festivals are common in the Indus Valley. The Aryans were fond of beauty and soma- intoxicating liquors. The sages of Vedas expressed delight in the charm of female beauty. However certain festivals gradually became part of their religion as they settled in the sub continent. The story of Ramayana is enacted in the form of a drama festival called Rama Lilla. The festival culminates with the burning of effigies of the wicked Ravana and his associates. But in Aryan society such festivals were limited and their purpose was to teach people the values of conjugal fidelity, brotherly love, and obedience to paternal authority. However in Indo-Scythian society fairs, festivals, and melas were a permanent feature of the social life. These fairs and festivals were not held for the sake of pleasure alone, but their venues also served as places where city dwellers, farmers and nomads would meet once or twice a year to exchange their wares and good directly or through the intermediary of bazaar dealers. In the desert areas of Pakistan the utility of such fairs cannot be denied that are parts of valley's social structure now. But what makes Cholistan most conspicuous in this respect is that here the greatest Mela of the Indus Valley is celebrated in the best Indo-Scythian tradition. It is held every year in March in the desert settlement of Channar Pir.

The Local Dialect

The language of Cholistan also reflects a number of features of its historical and geographical background. The local dialect was believed to be spoken by a rough, rude, and warlike people who liked to disobey every law and rule of grammar imposed by the so called super-cultured class of the Brahmans and their purified and gifted Sanskrit, which was the language of Indian Hindus.

The Saraiki language is an Indo-Aryan speech, and is spoken in Cholistan as well as in a large part of central Pakistan. It is no more a neglected language, once attributed to the camel-driving Jats and semi-nude Baloch tribes. It has always been as orthodox and conservative as the people who speak it. Even today the likes, dislikes, attitudes, and values of the people are the same as their forefather centuries back. Khwaja Ghulam Farid was a Sufi poet, who through his mystical writings and poetry not only developed the language a lot, but also gave it a boost. The language suffered a great loss when the Saraiki-speaking Hindus migrated to India during the Partition, and were replaced by the Muslim refugees from there. However, the majority of them lived in the cities and a very few in the Greater Cholistan. During the Partition, they moved to the safety of the neighboring Hindu states of Bikaner and Jaisalmar.

Arts and Crafts

In harsh and barren land where rain is more of a dream than reality, Cholistanis rely mainly on their livestock of sheep, goats, and camel. However in cold nights of winter they huddle indoor and engage themselves in various arts and crafts such as textiles, weaving, leatherwork, and pottery.

Local Crafts

As mentioned above, the Indus Valley has always been occupied by the wandering nomadic tribes, who are fond of isolated areas, as such areas allow them to lead life free of foreign intrusion, enabling them to establish their own individual and unique cultures. Cholistan till the era of Mughal rule had also been isolated from outside influence. During the rule of Mughal Emperor Akbar, it became a proper productive unit. The entire area was ruled by a host of kings who securely guarded their frontiers, and their mutual competition helped promoting the development of arts and crafts. Each raja in his domain wanted to prove to the other rajas that his own artisans were the best. Because of this, not only the various crafts underwent a simultaneous and parallel development, but their designs, motifs, colors and textures also influenced the others. The rulers were the great patrons of art. Mesons, stone carvers, artisans, artists, and designers started rebuilding the old cities and new sites, and with that flourished new courts, paintings, weaving, and pottery. The fields of architecture, sculpture, terra cotta, and pottery developed greatly in this phase.


The backbone of Cholistan economy is cattle breeding. It has the major importance for satisfying the area's major needs for cottage industry as well as milk meat and fat. Because of the nomadic way of life the main wealth of the people are their cattle that are bred for sale, milked or shorn for their wool. Moreover, isolated as they were, they had to depend upon themselves for all their needs like food, clothing, and all the items of daily use. So all their crafts initially stemmed from necessity but later on they started exporting their goods to the other places as well.

Cotton and Woolen Products

Cholistan produces very superior type of carpet wool as compared to that produced in other parts of Pakistan. From this wool they knit beautiful carpets, rugs and other woolen items. This includes blankets, which is also a local necessity for the desert is not just a land of dust and heat, but winter nights here are very cold, usually below freezing points. Khes and pattu are also manufactured with wool or cotton. Khes is a form of blanket with a field of black white and pattu has a white ground base. Cholistanis now sell the wool for it brings maximum profit.


It may be mentioned that cotton textiles have always been a hallmark of craft of Indus valley civilization. Various kinds of khaddar-cloth are made for local consumption, and fine khaddar bedclothes and coarse lungies are woven here. A beautiful cloth called Sufi is also woven of silk and cotton, or with cotton wrap and silk wool. Gargas are made with numerous patterns and color, having complicated embroidery, mirror, and patchwork. Ajrak is another specialty of Cholistan. It is a special and delicate printing technique on both sides of the cloth in indigo blue and red patterns covering the base cloth. Cotton turbans and shawls are also made here. Chunri is another form of dopattas, having innumerable colors and patterns like dots, squares, and circles on it.

Camel Products

Camels are highly valued by the desert dwellers. Camels are not only useful for transportation and loading purposes, but its skin and wool are also quite worthwhile. Camel wool is spun and woven into beautiful woolen blankets known as falsies and into stylish and durable rugs. The camel's leather is also utilized in making kuppies, goblets, and expensive lampshades.


Leatherwork is another important local cottage industry due to the large number of livestock here. Other than the products mentioned above, Khusa (shoes) is a specialty of this area. Cholistani khusas are very famous for the quality of workmanship, variety, and richness of designs especially when stitched and embroidered with golden or brightly colored threads.


The Cholistanis are fond of jewellery and have a craze for gold. The chief ornaments made and worn by them are Nath-nose gay, Katmala-necklace Kangan-bracelet, Pazeb- anklets, and Chandanhar etc., Gold and silver bangles are also made and worn with pride. The locals are experts in enamel works, and it is done on buttons of all sorts, earrings, bangles, and rings etc.

Love for Colors

The great desert though considered to be colorless and drab, is not wholly devoid of color. Its green portion plays the role of "color belt" especially after rains when vegetation growth is at its peak. Adding to that the locals always wear brightly colored clothes mostly consisting of brilliant reds, blazing oranges shocking pinks, and startling yellows and greens. Even the cloth trappings of their bullocks and camels are richly colored and highly textured.

Terra Cotta

The Indus Civilization was the earliest center of ceramics, and thus the pottery of Cholistan has no parallel in beauty, delicacy, and perfection. This is due to the fact that the local soil is very fine, thus most suitable for making pottery. The fineness of the earth can be observed on the Kacha houses which are actually plastered with mud but look like white cemented. The chief Cholistani ceramic articles are their surahies, piyalas, and glasses, remarkable for their lightness and fine finishing.

In the early times only the art of pottery and terracotta developed, but from the seventh century onwards, a large number of temples and images were also built on account of the intensified religious passions and the accumulation of wealth in cities. The building activity reached to such an extent that some cities actually became city temples. In fact the area particularly came to be known for its forts, villas, palaces, havelis, gateways, fortifications, and city walls.

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