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Finding beauty and happiness in 'barren' Sukkur

Interior Sindh is believed to be barren and isolated,but the area retains traces of the British era and Indus river.
Updated 05 Jun, 2015 02:25pm

The sun is about to set as we enter Sukkur. I am with an interesting trio; a novelist, another hunter and a CSS officer who prefers to introduce himself as the Minister for Sound and Music. We decide to stop here on our way to Lahore from Karachi.

I insist that we spare a day for sightseeing in the city where I spent most of my childhood. My acquaintances are not too thrilled — many assume Interior Sindh to be barren and boring. It is far from that.

Sindh takes its name from ‘Sindhu’, the Sanskrit word for ocean and a rather apt name for the gigantic river which traverses through its heart and fuels greenery and prosperity.

The construction of barrages, especially the one at Sukkur, has amplified the river's impact on the livelihood of Sindhis by manifolds.

The influence of the British regime can be felt strongly in Sukkur. The city prospered under the British rule, taking glory away from historical towns of Larkana and Shikarpur.

The construction of Sukkur Barrage and the railroad network firmly establishes Sukkur’s position as the hub of commerce and bureaucracy in upper Sindh.

Sukkur Barrage and Lab-e-Mehran

Sukkur Barrage is nothing short of an engineering marvel. The 5,000 feet long barrage was completed in 1932, irrigating more than 10 million acres through its seven canals.

The construction of the Sukkur Barrage acclaimed a new era of prosperity in Sindh after which, a number of Punjabi, Balochi and Pathan migrants settled in interior Sindh.

Unlike Karachi, all ethnicities blend in a manner that makes it difficult to tell them apart. They speak the same dialect and lead a lifestyle that is native to the area.

So much so, that the clan of Pathans in the interior are known as Sindhi Pathans.

Lab-e-Mehran, the park with a walkway along the left bank of the river is a famous getaway for the citizens of Sukkur. On a regular day, one is likely to find families gather around food stalls or enjoy a boat ride.

We settle at a British era guesthouse in an irrigation colony. Recent renovation has left the rooms gaudy and soulless.

The framed picture on the wall depicts a waterfall somewhere in the North of Pakistan. The windows are draped with thick dark curtains. The frequent breakdown of electricity has forced the municipality to limit electricity usage in public spaces.

Lab-e-Mehran - View from the left bank of river
Lab-e-Mehran - View from the left bank of river
Lab-e-Mehran - Waiting for visitors.
Lab-e-Mehran - Waiting for visitors.

Masoom Shah Po Minaro

As we gather in the dining room the next morning, a variety of omelettes are served to us for breakfast. Our first destination is Masoom Shah Jo Minaro, which once served as a watch tower under the reign of Masoom Shah who was appointed as the governor by the Mughal Emperor Akbar.

We drive through crowded lanes around Neem Ki Chari, the central bazaar in the heart of the city.

We park our car and enter the boundary wall through a narrow opening that is seemingly lost between the busy shops.

A number of families are relaxing around the compound that consist of a baradary and a graveyard alongside the original tower.

I am told that Masoom Shah commissioned the tower in 1582, but that he passed away during the construction and was buried under the shadow of an incomplete tower.

Masoon Shah jo Minaro - Climbing the top
Masoon Shah jo Minaro - Climbing the top
Masoon Shah jo Minaro - Here lies Masoon shah
Masoon Shah jo Minaro - Here lies Masoon shah
Masoon Shah jo Minaro - The inscriptions inside the *baradary*
Masoon Shah jo Minaro - The inscriptions inside the *baradary*
Masoon Shah jo Minaro - View of baradary and graveyard from the top
Masoon Shah jo Minaro - View of baradary and graveyard from the top
Masoom Shah jo Minaro - where Masoom Shah is burried
Masoom Shah jo Minaro - where Masoom Shah is burried

His son ensured the completion of the tower in 1607. The caretaker tells us the tower is 84 feet high and has 84 steps. We hand over our shoes to him and wait our turn to climb the ascent.

After waiting for some time, we finally enter the tower through the narrow gate. The circular staircase is narrow and steep.

There is no electricity inside and the only sources of light are tiny windows. People are climbing down at the same time and one has to make way for them.

Once we reach the top we further fight for space with a crowd of women and children. The women are sitting inside the small canopy at the top and the children are dangling from the iron cage installed along the viewing deck.

The view from the top is breathtaking. You can see most of Sukkur from here; Jamia Mosque, Sukkur Barrage and the river, clock tower, Adam Shah ji takri( The hill of Adam Shah) and the frenzied expansion of the city. I have known this city for ages and its current landscape looks unfamiliar to me.

Masoom Shah jo Minaro
Masoom Shah jo Minaro
Masoon Shah jo Minaro - Sukkur Ghanta ghar
Masoon Shah jo Minaro - Sukkur Ghanta ghar
Masoon Shah jo Minaro - Children swinging.
Masoon Shah jo Minaro - Children swinging.
Masoon Shah jo Minaro - Intricate work inside *baradary*
Masoon Shah jo Minaro - Intricate work inside *baradary*

After sight-seeing and taking photos, we climb down and head towards our car. Our host’s guard insists that we buy a souvenir from a nearby shop. He takes the novelist to a shop, which is quite similar to the shops at Sunday Baazar in Karachi.

People in the shop look curiously at our group. The shopkeeper asks me if the sahib with me is a minister.

At first I do not understand but soon realise that he is asking about the CSS guy who is dressed in white shalwar kameez, ajrak and golden Ray-Bans.

I chuckle and tell the shopkeeper that he is the Minister for Sound and Music. He asks me if the Minister sahib has brought me along to take his pictures. The hunter hears this and laughs hysterically.

Sadhu Belo

The Indus water looks so calm and serene. People tell me that the water has been steady for a while now though during the time of the 2010 floods, Sukkur was on high alert and water levels were monitored every morning.

The city has encroached upon the left bank of the river. We are here to take a ride to Sadhu Belo, an 18th century temple on an island off the Indus River.

According to a legend, a Sadhu by the name of Baba Ban Khundi, settled in this island in 1823 to preach Hinduism. Mir Sohrab Khan, the then ruler of the area, gifted the island to him as the Sadhu won his heart with his wisdom.

A boat waits for us while we seat ourselves. A Hindu pilgrim, accompanied by a woman and a child, sit next to us. He tells me that he visits the shrine regularly and has brought his wife and his granddaughter along today.

Sadho Belo - View from the boat
Sadho Belo - View from the boat
Sadho Belo - Waiting for the boatman
Sadho Belo - Waiting for the boatman
Sadho Belo - Walking leisurely across the buildings
Sadho Belo - Walking leisurely across the buildings

On one end I can see Sukkur Barrage and on the other, I can see Lansdowne Bridge, which connects Rohri with Sukkur.

On a lucky day you can even get a glimpse of an endangered blind dolphin in the murky waters.

A priest at the shrine greets us. I am instantly awestruck by the intricate marble work on the façade of the compound.

On one side of the entrance I notice a couple of tableaux, which remind the visitors of the consequences of their choices.

Sadho Belo - Tableaux depicting a scene from hell
Sadho Belo - Tableaux depicting a scene from hell
Sadho Belo - The view of residential quarters and offices
Sadho Belo - The view of residential quarters and offices
Sadho Belo - Various sculptures were carved out in pillars and plinths
Sadho Belo - Various sculptures were carved out in pillars and plinths

One depicts a scene of naked sinners being tortured gruesomely while the other depicts righteous queuing in front of the gate of heaven.

I have never seen such graphic details before this at Hindu shrines in interior Sindh.

We walk past the entrance, there are beautiful balconies on each side of the alley, that make me feel like I am in Rajasthan.

The priest then takes us inside a compound where Shivling is kept on a marble floor. The intricate handcrafts on the walls and the roof are dazzling, but there is not much light for me to take a perfect shot.

I step out and look for the carvings done on pillars, as the marble glows in the shining sun.

The priest notices that we have a novelist amongst us and so decides to take us to the library on one end of the island.

There are many rooms around the compound. They tell me that it is used for housing pilgrims, who flock in thousands around the days of the festival at the shrine.

The caretaker then opens the library gate to let us in; the room has plenty of windows but they are all shut.

Sadho Belo - Doors to the hostel
Sadho Belo - Doors to the hostel
Sado Belo - Residential Quarters
Sado Belo - Residential Quarters
Sadho Belo - The view of library from outside
Sadho Belo - The view of library from outside
Sadho Belo - The library from inside
Sadho Belo - The library from inside

He starts looking for a light switch and turns it on and we find ourselves in the middle of a well-stocked library which reminds us of ancient times.

It mainly contains books on Hindu mythology in various languages.

The novelist opens the visitor book and starts flipping through the pages. The first page is signed by Zia ul Haq, an unlikely visitor, we think to ourselves. Later in the book, much to our surprise we find Vikram Seth’s entry. He has been here recently!

Sadho Belo - Rajhistani Jharokas
Sadho Belo - Rajhistani Jharokas
Sadho Belo - Rajhistani Jharokas
Sadho Belo - Rajhistani Jharokas
Greeted by the priest at the entrance
Greeted by the priest at the entrance

After the novelist has his time with the books, we step outside and take al leisure walk around the bank of river.

The island is dotted with Neem, Acacia, Peepal and other local trees, which I am unable to identify.

The setting is picture perfect for a postcard shot - peaceful and serene - like one of those where you would like to lie down and spend the whole evening without caring about anything else.

We quickly take a tour of various small temples on the island, which belong to Hanuman, Ganesh and others.

Sadho Belo - The Priest explaining the significance of Sadho Belo
Sadho Belo - The Priest explaining the significance of Sadho Belo
Sadho Belo - Inside the temple
Sadho Belo - Inside the temple
Sadho Belo - Krishna
Sadho Belo - Krishna
Sadho Belo - Waving farewell to the priest
Sadho Belo - Waving farewell to the priest
Sadho Belo - Waving the hindu priest goodbye
Sadho Belo - Waving the hindu priest goodbye

Lansdowne Bridge

Lansdowne bridge
Lansdowne bridge
Abode of Seven - Backdrop of Lansdowne bridge
Abode of Seven - Backdrop of Lansdowne bridge
Abode of Seven - View of Lansdowne bridge from the river bank
Abode of Seven - View of Lansdowne bridge from the river bank

From the boat, I see a graveyard on the right bank of the river. The boatman tells me that this place is known as Satyun-jo-Astaan: The Abode of Seven.

After reaching the halt we decide to get here and discover the history the place beholds. We drove through Lansdowne Bridge which was constructed in 1889 and named after Lord Lansdowne, Viceroy of India. Below we can see the shrine of Zindapir.

There are all sort of legends associated with the bridge. Some say that the British engineers who designed it were not sure of its stability so the first train that crossed the bridge was full of prisoners waiting for capital punishment. The train crossed the bridge successfully and the British Sarkar let go of the punishment for all the prisoners on board.

And of course some people tell stories of its survival during 1965 war when the bridge was a prime target of Indian bombardiers.

According to them, Zindapir stood on top of the bridge and directed bombs into water. And then again someone speculated that there lied a hidden key somewhere that could be used to split the bridge into two halves.

Abode of Seven

We continue driving towards the shrine and park our car under a Neem tree in front of the brick facade.

A staircase takes us to the shrine entrance. There we meet the caretaker, a middle aged man who tells us that centuries ago this place was immortalised in folklore when seven pious women made this place their eternal abode.

According to a legend they were followed by a prince who wanted to abduct them. They reached this place and finding no refuge prayed to the lord for protection. Miraculously, the land ripped apart and swallowed them inside.

“What about the maharaja?” The minister of sound and music inquires.

“What about him?” The caretaker was not expecting such a question.

“Why did not earth swallow him instead?” The minister of sound and music inquires further.

The caretaker does not know the answer. He shows us the entrance to the compound where symbolic graves still exist.

Only women are allowed inside. It is a popular shrine amongst women who believe that a visit to the abode can cure their sufferings.

We walk further to the top of mound. There is a graveyard at the top overlooking the Indus River.

The graves are made of yellow stone with beautiful carvings. The caretaker tells me that the one of the graves belong to, the then governor of Bakhar, Mir Abul Qasim.

There stands a decaying wall on one end which possibly serves as the boundary wall.

There is a beautiful arch which probably lead to a viewing deck back in the day. Blue tiles are used to decorate the arch and the wall.

Abode of Seven - A boatman arrives  at rivers bank
Abode of Seven - A boatman arrives at rivers bank
Abode of Seven - Caretaker telling us the legend
Abode of Seven - Caretaker telling us the legend
Abode of Seven - In the shadow of sun
Abode of Seven - In the shadow of sun
Abode of Seven - climbing the staircase
Abode of Seven - climbing the staircase
Abode of Seven - Tile work on the facade
Abode of Seven - Tile work on the facade
Abode of Seven - Tomb stones
Abode of Seven - Tomb stones
Abode of Seven - Carvings and calligraphy on the tombs
Abode of Seven - Carvings and calligraphy on the tombs

Farewell note

We drive to the highway to continue our journey towards Lahore. I remember a friend telling me to visit these places with an open mind, or else the people and the buildings and even the skies and the landscapes will seem imperfect.

I must admit; Sukkur fills me with immense happiness.