Serais in India have been in existence since the time of Sher Shah Suri but this one at Doraha is from Jehangir’s Period. The serai is not visible from the highway and all you see from the approach road is a modern gurudwara. I walk to the gurudwara confident that this is going to lead me to the serai. It does. The serai is right next to it across a small patch of open field.
Since I am early and the place is not yet open for visitors, I take to walking around it. People here refer to this monument as qila or fort. Why not? With high walls, crenellations, gateways and towers they look very much like forts. In some parts the wall is quite short since it stands on a high grassy embankment. Villagers have taken to drying out cakes of cowdung on this embankment. Thankfully they are careful not to slap these cakes on to the fort walls.
I walk through the neighbouring lush fields even as one farmer is busy this morning tending to his crop. The fields stretch for acres in all directions. Besides fields of wheat turning half-golden, there are farms of red roses, white irises and orange marigolds. Cabbages are growing in another field. Trees line a pond in the middle. There is still a little bit of mist on the pond’s surface.
A man in an orange turban, a singlet and boxers makes his way across a field. Slung across his chest is a kirpan. Over his shoulder he balances a shovel. He smiles at me to the sound of birds chirping away in the background. A little later I pass a village pump. Water is being pumped out to the fields. Two village boys use the chance for a morning bath. When they are done, they pose for my camera. The walls of the serai are in the background.
The serai has opened by now for visitors and I am the first one to go in. In fact, I am the only one. The most impressive thing here are the gateways. The main one has a high central arch, flanked by overhanging arched porticos on multiple levels. The gateway is framed with two octogonal towers standing on five levels and finally topped with a dome. The brick work is covered with glazed tiles in various colours. These are quite like the ones at Agra’s Chini ka Rauza or Nakodar’s twin tombs. I suspect there is a passageway on the inside connecting the two towers across the top section of the central arch.
Inside there is small mosque with three domes. There is well next to the mosque. The western part of the serai is completely gone. Other rooms and their entrance porches are various states of ruin. I climb up to the terrace running along the length of the crenellations. One can use this to walk all around the walls of the serai, at least had it been better preserved. Possibly serai guards used to do this in Mughal times. Some parts of the terrace show circular openings into the rooms below. Possibly these openings were originally domed. A rough lawn fills the courtyard. Rose plants are flowering at many places.
‘You are maintaining this place well,’ I comment to the caretaker of the place. His name is Tribuvan.
‘Two years ago it used to be much better,’ he says with some regret. ‘These days we are not getting funds for maintenance. You see the pump there?’
Tribuvan continues as I nod at the old pump, ‘It’s broken. No money to fix it. Can’t water the lawns and plants regularly these days.’
He invites me into the one of the serai rooms. There is a cot, a chair, some open shelves on the brick walls and lots of pots and pans. He gets busy to make me a cup of tea. Among the poor of India, hospitality is always great. Since there is only one electric point, he disconnects the TV and switches on an electric stove.
‘How long have you been here?’ I ask. The security guard of the serai joins us but declines to have a cup of tea.
‘Twenty years. I go home every few months. I am from U.P.’
The kettle comes to boil and lets out a whistle. Tea is prepared and offered. It is sweet and creamy. If there is one thing to remember about my visit to Doraha, it will be this moment of typical Indian hospitality. Many people in India still believe in the old saying, ‘Athithi devo bhava (Guest is to be treated as God).’