A serai is more properly called a karwansarai. It is a place of rest on the road of a long journey. Such serais were built in many parts of Northern India for the use of kings and their royal entourages. The architecture is quite simple. A serai would consists of a large open space enclosed within high walls lined with rooms. Entrance gates would be fortified. Corner towers or bastions might project out. Wells, mosques and other such structures might be built within the serai. Animals would be tied and caravans parked within the courtyard while people retired to the rooms. Soldiers would patrol from the domeless roofs over the rooms.
The first serai I had ever seen was the one at Mandu, Madhya Pradesh. Since Nurmahal is on the way to Ludianana, I think it makes a nice addition to my journey across Punjab. It is said that this is one of the many such serais constructed by Sher Shah Sur along the Grand Trunk Road that he built. He was a great builder and his legacy lives on in the form of restored ruins.
‘Do you know about the mori?’ asks a man from Jalandhar. He is visiting some relatives nearby. He has passed this way many times and today his curiosity got the better of his laziness. He has made a stop at Nurmahal to visit this place.
‘What is a mori?’ I ask back.
‘Not sure. There is a song which talks about “Nurmahal-ki-mori”. They say light falls inside a dome through a slit at a specific time; or something like that.’
We walk around together searching for some answers. We meet some workers engaged for an ongoing restoration work. They are not actually working at the moment. They are napping in one of the rooms. They are from Bihar. They have been here only a couple of weeks. They have no knowledge of any mori.
We finally find the caretaker of the place, Yogesh. He is originally from Uttar Pradesh but works here for a good salary of Rs. 13,000 a month. We sit in the cool room, a room originally built for 16th century travellers. Yogesh offers us some water and then a glass of mausambi juice. It is refreshing.
‘I have been suffering from typhoid the last six months. Recovery has been slow,’ he shares with us. ‘I am spending a lot on medicines.’
‘How long has this work been going on here?’ I ask about the restoration work.
‘Many years. For the last year and half work has not progressed. Some work has just started. We’ll have to see what happens in the new financial year.’
How efficient is government work! It will take years for them to get this restored. Sher Shah Sur might have built this in a few months. This is progress.
Yogesh takes us around the monument. Eastern side has been fully restored. The arches are neatly patched up. Ceilings and walls in the rooms have been chemically cleaned and preservative has been applied. Every room is preceded by an arched entrance porch. Small niches break the monotony of the walls. They might have been used as storage spaces or to keep night lamps. The perspective of these repetitive arches is simple and pleasing to the eye.
Within the courtyard is a mosque. No restoration has begun on this old structure. There is a well in front of the mosque. It was probably used for ritual washing before entering the mosque. Near the mosque is another structure, dangerously crumbling. It might have been a bath.
‘Looks like the northern side is gone,’ I tell Yogesh. The rooms and their porches are gone. The village has taken over.
‘There is case in court against these people. They have encroached on government land,’ he explains. It will be difficult evict the villagers. This is a ruin from the 16th century that has been neglected and left to decay for long. Villagers can’t be blamed for using abandoned land. It is only in recent times there has been interest in preserving historic monuments.
‘In fact, this whole place was occupied previously. There was a school inside and government offices as well. ASI has managed to get rid of all of them,’ continues Yogesh.
‘Have you heard of the mori?’ asks Manjit Singh of Jalandhar.
‘That’s the gateway by which you entered,’ points Yogesh.
So the mystery of the mori is easily answered. We take leave of Yogesh. Manjit offers me a ride to Jalandhar but I am going to skip that city. My next destination is Ludhiana.
As for the mori or the gateway, it is clearly an impressive structure, the first to make an impact on a narrow street busy with modern day bustling. No one pays any attention to it. They perhaps see it every day. To them it is like any other building in town; but this gateway is our link to the past. It stands with its majestic arch, little balconies, minarets, alcoves and many fine decorative details. I stand admiring it for some minutes. I imagine elephants, horses, caravans and soldiers entering it in train as twilight colours the gateway golden.