THE landscape holds the past captive. A display of lives cut short, of tragedies in progress. Down long paths with ancient crevices and split-levelled stairwells and locked old doors wrapped around stone structures and mosaic courtyards is the strip of Silawat Mohalla or Para in Hyderabad.

A dying sun casts sepia shadows on rock facades like an aged photograph. The area has the pull of a solemn memory, a firefly of times departed.

Silawats are Marwaris from Rajasthan and the name means stone masons, or sangtarash. Over two centuries ago, the community spread from Rajasthan to different parts of India or migrated to Karachi and Hyderabad. This particular neighbourhood, according to senior residents, began close to 350 years ago and currently has nearly 400 homes with 5,000 inhabitants.

“All the old work on yellow stone in Sindh has been done by Silawats — Makli, the high court, the old assembly, gravestones. But our new generation has to keep up with the times. They run private businesses and are doctors, engineers, lawyers or in government service,” explains Muneer Sarwar Silawat, who has a Master’s degree in philosophy and is an employee of Hesco, Hyderabad’s electric supply utility.

The splendour has been erased by time and apathy so that only a few decaying buildings speak of a golden epoch — a 200-year-old temple survives in finely worked stone; a sprawling Ismaili jamaatkhana, which was built in yellow and pink stone, was reconstructed in the 1970s in white with touches of gold paint; a large apartment block, and Pir Pagaro’s crumbling, but still exquisite edifice stands in the centre.

Muneer reminisces that the pir, grandfather of the current pir, Sibghatullah Rashdi, who was hanged for his struggle against British rule, used to appear on its semi-circular balcony to wave to the multitudes desperate to catch a monthly glimpse of him.

“The building belonged to his khalifa, Abdul Latif Dino, also his zaamin in the case and president of the Silawat Committee in Karachi, Hyderabad and Sukkur. Five families now live in a section and pay rent to Dino’s descendants,” he says.

He then takes us into the dark solid rock interior, etched with niches, intricate grilles, a winding stone staircase, fine cornices, carved ventilators, sturdy doors with classic sunburst patterns, and the late pir’s bedroom above. “Look at the ceiling. The elaborate design is still visible. This was done in pure gold in his honour,” says a gleeful Muneer.

The tenants reside on the ground floor where arches form parallel corridors. Silawat Mohalla’s charm seeps far deeper than the fading architecture. Its denizens still live by Jaisalmeri customs; wedding celebrations span a week during which the entire community is fed by the families of the bride and groom; the more well-heeled distribute a traditional array of Rajasthani sweets and the feast comprises Rajasthani shahi lentils and rice with an elaborate dessert called lapsi.

Breakfast comprises the mandatory Jaisalmer-style lentils; summer sustenance is Rajasthani khichri and karhi, whereas winter food is richer with fish dishes and sugarcane-infused bread prepared in clarified butter.

Their social codes are not just refreshing, they are almost mythical. “We are a secular community. Whether it’s a worship place or another faith, we have been raised to respect each aspect of humanity. After the Babri mosque demolition, an enraged mob came to torch this temple and we stood united which turned them away,” narrates Muneer. “In our history, you will not find any incident of interfaith disharmony.”

As charpoys are laid out in the street and ladies pour out of their homes to gather outside their entrances, the Marwari tradition of emancipation is unmistakable. The darkness deepens, the street belongs to its women. “We don’t marry outside our community and there is complete freedom. Our ceremonies don’t subscribe to segregation, our women roam free, are educated, encouraged to work and most become teachers,” says Muneer.

“This is why you will not witness divorces or discord because oppression cannot exist here.” His words hold an ocean. As strains of music, bangles, chatter and giggles crystallise in the air, the locality takes a matriarchal turn.

Hina testifies that woman power has been instilled by their ancestors and that they participate in activism and social work with liberty.

“We conduct free eye camps, medical camps and run the Silawat Roshan School where the poor learn free of charge,” she smiles.

Ruins are not without lessons — nests of history must never be judged by their wrecked facades.

The writer is a journalist and author

Twitter: @ReemaAbbasi

Published in Dawn, January 17th, 2016

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