The flight into Karachi from Lahore, the city of my birth, is five hours late. Not bad for an airline teetering on the edge, no different from the many institutions and organisations in the country careening over with mismanagement, eaten hollow with corruption.
I get three hours of sleep, and then begin another journey, from metropolis to the hinterland, from an imaginary future to an imagined past. At seven in the morning the roads in this megacity are relatively quiet, until we approach the behemoth emerging from the bowels of the earth, an unfinished megaproject started by a previous government and halted by the current one. At Malir the traffic shuts down, buses, cycles, donkey carts, massive land cruisers vying for space at the edge of the road where construction material lies piled up, mountains of mangled steel and broken concrete pillars, much like what Baghdad must have looked like after the bombing during the infamous Gulf Wars lead by Father and Son Bush.
We are headed towards Thatta where a consultative meeting is to be held among experts engaged by the Heritage Foundation to assist with the conservation and restoration of one of the most significant edifices in the largest Muslim necropolis in the world. The tombs of Sultan Ibrahim and Amir Sultan Mohammad date back to the 16th century and form a part of the Tarkhan era monuments in this vast site spread over 12 km, enclosing 75 identified structures, over 400 platforms, and thousands of graves dating back to the earliest rule of the Samma dynasty from the 14-16th centuries, to the short-lived Arghun dynasty established by Shah Beg Arghun, a descendant of Changez Khan who vanquished the last Samma ruler, Jan Feroz. The Tarkhan dynasty, established by Mirza Isa Khan Tarkhan, lasted until the end of the 16th century when Emperor Akbar’s commander, Abdur Rahim Khan Khanan, established the supremacy of the Mughal governors.
Reflections from one of the largest necropolises in the world, where kings, queens, governors, saints, scholars and philosophers from the 14th century to the 18th century, lie beneath the earth
In this sheher-i-khamoshan, the City of Silence, exquisite beauty has been carved out of stone, embellishing the elegant chattris, regal pavilions and enormous enclosures protecting those buried within. The monuments are testimony to the eclectic mix of diverse religious beliefs, embroidered and embodied in motifs and imagery drawn from both Muslim and non-Muslim cultures, an amalgam of histories and ways of life which converged to produce incredible heritage, worthy of the most arduous efforts to conserve.
I stand outside the tomb of Sultan Ibrahim, awe-struck despite having visited several times, and I wonder at the significance of the lotus embedded within a half-moon shaped stone, placed at the bottom of the entrance into the sepulcher entombing three adults and a child. Clearly this motif was reminiscent of an early tradition, seen on Hindu edifices, something I had observed even as a child visiting temples in Delhi, Jaipur, Mumbai and Chennai.
A similar flower-shaped motif can be seen carved into red stand-stone in the Badshahi mosque, but I am told that the latter is a sunflower, a symbol associated with Muslim monuments. I wonder then at the difference between a lotus and a sunflower, the petals of both fragile, the centre bearing the seeds of the future, waiting to fall on fertile soil.
The earth in Makli is almost barren now, thorny bushes covering the ground tentatively, torn packets of paan masala impaled on treacherous thorns. A dog I would often encounter, a female with a broken leg and a gentle disposition, starving, injured, yet trusting, is missing today — I had intended to take her with me and deliver her into the care of the Ayesha Chundrigar Foundation. Instead I find a starving puppy, and I remember that the last time I had seen the female; she seemed to have been nursing her young. I picked up the puppy who immediately begun nuzzling me for nourishment, and I knew I could not abandon it. With permission from my gracious hosts I put the pup in the back of the vehicle as the day ended, and we headed home towards the chaos of the city.
For a long while I considered the future of Makli and its incredible monuments, a history informed by an overriding spirit of acceptance of all faiths and creeds. The site embodies a culture of forebearance among people belonging to different belief systems, and its architectural characteristics present an eclectic mix of Muslim and Hindu traditions. As we sped away from Makli, I wondered if this space too, a site of spirituality and ethereal beauty, would face the wrath of the forces which had recently destroyed the ancient city of Nimrud in Iraq, bulldozing the library of Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria (668-627BC), with its 22,000 cuneiform tablets. The monuments of Mosul had been preserved through 14 centuries of Islam in Iraq, but no longer.
This was a crime that must be seen as part of the trajectory of cultural destruction since the invasion of sovereign countries by the US and its allies in 2003. Such destruction aims to erase memory and, above all, collective identity. This is what happens when Aurangzeb triumphs over Darah Shikoh, when narrow fundamentalism vanquishes the breadth and depth of Sufism. Darah Shikoh’s pantheistic sensibilities preached that the knowledge of God was not the exclusive preserve of any one religion, nor of the saints and other chosen people, but of the ordinary person; the Sufi Prince believed that peace lay in tawhid, the unity of God.
I held the orphaned pup close to my heart and listened to its gentle breathing, calm and safe in my embrace. As the full moon rose over Makli that evening, I said a prayer in my heart for the future of this magnificent spiritual sanctuary, for the future of my blighted, beloved homeland, for a peace which seems to elude us, but which lies embedded in the soft sandstone of the many resting places held in trust on Makli Hill.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, March 15th, 2015