Sindh is not exactly the place that comes to mind when you think about taking a short trip within the country.
The province has been conquered and ruled by many emperors including those from the glorious Indus Valley civilisation, the Arabs and more recently the Kalhoras and Talpurs. Sindh is a goldmine for explorers and for those interested in history.
I set out to explore the 140 kilometre long historical and heritage belt in lower Sindh — all the way from Karachi to Keenjhar Lake and was amazed to see how geographically diverse and unique each site was.
From the elaborately embellished royal tombs to the mystical Sufi shrines and glorious sites depicting Sindhi folklore, this short strip of land is packed with breathtaking sites.
I started my journey early on a Sunday morning. Traffic on the usually busy National Highway was sparse. Occasionally, I was overtaken by a colourful truck, adorned with art. The further inland I drove, the scantier and more scattered the population became. The landscape was quickly replaced by the more rural and rustic beauty of interior Sindh.
Also read: The invisible partition of Sindh
After driving for roughly an hour, I arrived at the first site on my historical expedition — the Chaukandi tombs. They are an astonishing collection of elaborately carved sandstone tombs belonging to the Jokhio and Baloch tribes dating back to the 13th-16th centuries. The tombs stretch for over 2.5 - 3 kilometres.
The tombs closest to the entrance were relatively better maintained and preserved than the more far off ones that were dilapidated and lying in a state of decay.
These were embellished with intricate designs and motifs. A guide I met on the site told me that tombs belonging to women were decorated with jewels and foliate designs, while those of men were embellished with swords and horses — symbols of war and power. It was interesting to know that the tombs have been on the tentative list for Unesco world heritage status since 1993.
Located a short drive away from the Chaunkandi tombs is the ancient port city of Bhambore. According to archaeologists and historians, its origins date back to first century BC. Archaeological records reveal remnants of its three distinct periods: Parthian, Buddhist – Hindu and finally, Muslim. It is believed that Bhambore is also the site of the ancient port of Debal, where the Arab general Mohammed Bin Qasim landed in 711 AD.
In its heyday, Bhambore was a thriving and bustling port to which traders came from afar. Unfortunately, due to excessive water-logging and silt deposition on the banks of River Indus, Bhambore soon lost its utility as a port, with ruin eventually becoming the fate of this once mighty city.
Present-day Bhambore is home to a forlorn museum that houses a sparse collection of items excavated from nearby areas and from the massive archaeological site itself. It feels surreal to walk up to the edge of the ancient city and see the Indus far across the horizon and wonder what the city must have been like at its zenith.
I started my journey on the highway towards the ancient town of Thatta, which was the capital of Sindh for many years. The 16th and 17th centuries saw the city rise to great heights, becoming home to a busy port as well as a celebrated centre of learning, with over 400 institutes.
Like Bhambore, much of Thatta’s fortunes depended on the Indus. It wasn’t until the river changed course that the great city started to decline. Apart from a few heritage sites, there are barely any visible signs left of the former glory days of this once thriving and bustling city.
The most renowned and well-known of these sites is the stunning Jamia Masjid of Thatta (also called Shahjahan Masjid). It was a gift of gratitude from Shahjahan to the great people of Sindh for their hospitality and kindness in giving him refuge when he was sent into exile by his irate father and then Mughal Emperor Jehangir.
The interior of the mosque is nothing short of grandiose. Its walls are covered with intricate geometrical patterns and Islamic calligraphy. Blue glazed Hala tiles adorn most of the interior of this remarkable structure.
The mosque was built with due attention to acoustics, and has 93 domes and more than 30 arches that generate a remarkable echo. Hence a prayer at the mimbar can be heard all around the mosque. I guess it is fair to say that the Shahjahan Mosque of Thatta is the finest Mughal structure in all of Sindh.
My next stop was the necropolis of Makli Hill, which is the only full fledged official Unesco world heritage site in lower Sindh — it has been on the list since 1981. The area is said to have over a million tombs.
Architecturally, the monuments at Makli fall into three distinct periods — the earliest of them belongs to the Sammas, the second period to the Turkhan and Arghun rulers and the last to the Mughals.
To say that the necropolis is a massive cemetery is an understatement. There are tombs literally as far as the eye can see. Like Chaukandi, the much larger tombs located closer to the entrance are better maintained than the ones that are placed far off.
At Makli, I saw the tombs of two former rulers of the area, Jam Nizamuddin and Mirza Isa Turkhan II. Embellished with elaborate and intricate designs, the tombs were stunning structures.
I decided to conclude my journey at the legendary Keenjhar Lake (also called Kalri Lake), located a short drive away from Makli. It is one of the largest freshwater lakes in Pakistan.
It is also the site of one of Sindh’s most besotted and beloved folk tales “Noori Jam Tamachi” — which tells the story of the ancient Samma King of Thatta known as Jam Tamachi, who falls in love with a beautiful fishermaid named Noori.
After much persuasion, Noori eventually succumbs to the king’s charms and becomes his queen. Shortly afterwards, Jam Tamachi dies of the plague and is buried among other royals at Makli Hill.
According to historians, Noori who died much later, is buried right next to him. But the fishermen of Keenjhar believe that Noori came back to her poor lakeside home after the king passed away and is buried on an island in the middle of the lake. The island can be visited via a speed boat, many of which can be seen lined up on the lake shore.
At the end of my foray into this magnificent part of Sindh — I realised that this area has great potential for large scale commercial tourism. It possesses all the necessary elements — nature, history and stunning architecture — needed to attract tourists.
But what broke my heart was the neglected state of the monuments. Apart from a very few well-maintained heritage sites, most of these have been left to the mercy of the elements. Also, other than a mediocre and rather austere resort on the banks of the Keenjhar Lake, basic tourist infrastructure was nonexistent.
If adequate measures are not taken in time, these heritage sites will soon become a legend of the past — confined only within history books and museums.
— All photos by author.