The breathtaking ruins of Mohenjo-Daro have an ancient tale to tell

I thumped my feet on the ground to confirm this ancient land was actually real — 11 years later, I did the same thing.
Published February 23, 2017

Mohenjo-Daro is one of the oldest settlements in the Indus Valley Civilisation. It is believed to have been built 5,000 years ago in an area which today is in the Sindh province of Pakistan. Most historians suggest that Mohenjo-Daro was abandoned some 3,000 years ago. It remained buried underneath thousands of years of dust, sand and stone until it was rediscovered in 1920 by archaeologists.

Subsequent studies of the site exhibit that Mohenjo-Daro was a sophisticated settlement of traders, fishermen and farmers. It had a written language (which is yet to be deciphered) and complex religious cults. The site is located west of the mighty Indus River in Sindh’s present-day Larkana District. Mohenjo-Daro was one of the largest cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation which spanned much of what today is Pakistan.

An artist’s rendition of what Mohenjo-Daro might have looked like during its peak. — Photo credit: AnnoyzView
An artist’s rendition of what Mohenjo-Daro might have looked like during its peak. — Photo credit: AnnoyzView

In the 1960s, archaeologists who took part in some of the last major excavation works on the site claimed that Mohenjo-Daro as a city declined due to invasions of warrior-nomads of Central Asia (the Aryans) who subdued the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation.

However, many later-day archaeologists and historians now believe that cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation such as Mohenjo-Daro had begun to decline and started to be abandoned due to a change in course by river Indus and the impact of climate change in the area which curtailed rainfall during the monsoon seasons.

I first visited the ruins of Mohenjo-Daro in 1974. I was just eight years old and a class three student at a school in Karachi. My visit was part of a ‘class away day', during which students from grades three and four from my school were flown on a PIA flight to Mohenjo-Daro in the morning, and then flown back to Karachi in the evening.

PIA used to operate regular flights to Mohenjo-Daro (mainly from Karachi) and for which a special (albeit tiny) airport had been constructed near the site. The site was hugely popular with historians, archaeologists and tourists who in those days used to visit Pakistan in large numbers.

A 1973 tourist brochure.
A 1973 tourist brochure.

I don’t remember much about the visit, but I do recall strolling with classmates and teachers on a sprawling site, surrounded by men and women, most of whom were quite clearly not Pakistani. I also remember constantly sensing the ground beneath my feet to physically feel the story of an ancient land which we had begun to be told about at school.

I had believed that the tale of this ancient land being taught to us in class was just another fairytale; but there I was, standing in the middle of this story, often thumbing my feet on its rough ground, now believing that what one can physically feel is the truth; and that which one can’t, is a fairytale. Or something of the sort.

The second time I visited Mohenjo-Daro was 11 years later, in 1986. By now I was a grade 12 student at a state-owned college in Karachi. Between 1984 and 1986, I often travelled deep inside the Sindh province, mainly for political reasons.

I was a member of a progressive student outfit, and since in the 1980s the interior of Sindh had become a hotbed of agitation against the Ziaul Haq dictatorship, members of the student outfit I was a part of frequently travelled to various cities and towns in central and northern Sindh.

In November 1986, I accompanied four other members of the student outfit on a trip to the ancient city of Sehwan Sharif in Sindh’s Jamshoro District. Our plan was to join anti-Zia protests being planned by some small far-left groups. We travelled by bus to Hyderabad (some 100 miles from Karachi) and from there we were to take another bus which would have taken us directly to Sehwan Sharif.

Sehwan is best known for its beautiful shrine of Sufi saint, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. The protests were being planned around the shrine during the colourful and boisterous annual festivities.

The beautiful Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine in Sehwan Sharif. — Photo credit: Shahid Ali
The beautiful Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine in Sehwan Sharif. — Photo credit: Shahid Ali

In Hyderabad, some of our friends in that city warned us that the Zia regime had sent ‘hundreds of plain-clothed policemen’ to Sehwan who were to begin arresting possible agitators a day or two before the protests. We were advised to stay put until the rumours were confirmed or refuted.

Instead of staying in Hyderabad, we decided to travel to the diminutive city of Larkana and stay with an acquaintance there. We reached Larkana by bus but couldn’t locate him. One of his brothers told us that he may have been arrested in a nearby village where he had gone a few days before our arrival.

We ended up staying the night at a cheap, rundown hotel (Hotel Chaand), sharing a room which had just one rickety charpoy but lots of bedbugs! So we decided to sleep on the cold floor. What helped us sleep better (or at all), were neat swigs from a bottle of the very strong and entirely unsmooth whisky that we had bought for Rs60 from an employee of the so-called hotel.

Larkana in the 1980s. — Photo credit: James West
Larkana in the 1980s. — Photo credit: James West

The next morning one of the guys, Rehan (aka Roosi Sundi or Russian insect, because he was always claiming to be ‘more surkh' [red] than any of us) rented a motorbike (Honda 50) from a motorbike-rental-cum-tier-shop. The plan was to ride into the village where our Larkana buddy was supposedly arrested from. I accompanied Roosi. We failed to locate the village and on our way back to Larkana, I saw a board that read "Mohenjo-Daro 20 KM."

The road leading to Mohenjo-Daro. — Photo credit: Saffy H
The road leading to Mohenjo-Daro. — Photo credit: Saffy H

So, now, instead of Larkana we were riding towards Mohenjo-Daro. We reached the site late afternoon. I was stunned. It was breathtaking. Vast, and very still. As we made our way towards the ruins, I somehow remembered the spot where I had stood and thumped my feet on the ground 11 years ago.

There was hardly anybody there. There were just two gentlemen in the distance standing on a heap of ancient bricks. They were intensely studying what looked like a large map. I think one of them was Japanese. Or he might have been Chinese, I am not sure. Nearer to where we were, was a man sitting on a crumbling wall. He was smoking a cigarette and looking straight ahead in what seemed like a rather vacant gaze.

As I made my way to the spot where I had stood as an eight-year-old schoolboy, Roosi began walking towards the two men who were about 100 metres ahead of us. I stood on that spot again and began to gently thump it with my feet. This made me smile and chuckle. This was when I heard a voice (in Urdu) from behind where I stood: "Sain, are you trying to look for oil?"

I turned and saw the gazing man now gazing at me. I smiled at him and took out my pack of cigarettes (Gold Flake) and lit one. I then began to walk towards the crumbling old wall on which the man was sitting.

"Asalam o alaikum" I greeted him, shaking his hand. He must have been in his 60s, but his moustache was jet-black, most probably dyed. His head was covered by a grey turban and he was wearing a rose-coloured traditional Sindhi shalwar-kameez.

He responded to my greeting with a slight nod of his head as closely studied me. My longish, unruly hair blowing left to right, my four-day-old stubble, my dark glasses, my fading Lou Reed T-shirt, my dusty blue jeans and my beige Peshawari chappals.

"Are you from Karachi?" he asked in his heavily-accented Urdu.

"Yes," I responded. "Is it that obvious?" I chuckled.

He remained poker-faced and then began to gaze into the distance once again, as he lit himself another cigarette (King Stork, or 'Bagla Brand’ as it used to be known in these parts, a filter-less blast of unadulterated tobacco smoke).

"Are you from around here?" I asked.

He slowly turned his head towards me: "I used to be a guide here …" he said. "Nowadays there are more guides here than visitors," he added, expressionless.

I nodded my head: "Yes, looks that way. I first came here as a child in 1974. Were you a guide in those days?"

He just softly shrugged his shoulders: "My memory is not very good these days. My father was a guide here as well. Many people used to visit this place."

"Are you still a guide here?" I asked.

He finally managed to crack half a smile: "I can be if you want me to."

I smiled back: "I don’t have much money," I had said in a rather apologetic tone.

This made him laugh. Actually laugh: "Hahahaha … Sain, who asked for money? This is our motherland."

I nodded in agreement.

Watching me nod, he asked: "What did you understand?" The pokerface was back.

"Pakistan?" I almost whispered.

He began to laugh again: "Hahahaha … no, Sain, not Pakistan, but birthplace of Pakistan. Birthplace of India too. All this," he replied, gesturing with a jerk of his head and eyes towards me to look at the ruins around us. "Land of Sindhu."

"River Indus …" I said.

"Yes," he agreed (finally). "Sindhu gave birth to this place (Mohenjo-Daro), which gave birth to India and then Pakistan. What did you understand, Sain?"

"What about the Arabs?" I just had to ask this.

He was slightly taken aback. "Qasim?" He enquired.

"Yes." I said. "Bin Qasim."

"He was our guest," he said, matter-of-factly.

"But he invaded Sindh (in the 8th century) and defeated its ruler," I informed.

He gazed towards me again, but this time with more intent. He then shared a rather remarkable little tale. He said back in 1979 when one of his younger brothers travelled to Oman as an electrician, he was once badly insulted by his Arab employer. He said his brother told his Arab boss off by saying that he (the brother) came from the land of Sindhu which had taught the Arabs many things that they did not know.

"So what did his Arab boss say?" I asked.

"His boss actually began to respect him! He started to call him ancient Pakistani!" he laughed.

"Wasn’t your brother insulted?" I probed.

The man stared at me with a most unconcealed what-the-heck expression: "Sain, why would he be insulted? The ancestors of you and I were all from here. We are ancient people. What did you understand, Sain?"

I nodded and offered him a cigarette from my pack. He took one and I lighted it for him: "Where have all the visitors gone?" I asked.

He took an intense drag from the cigarette. Then exhaled as intensely. "Good," he said, praising the cigarette.

"Gold Flake," I said.

He nodded and then began to gaze at the sun which was about to set behind the ruins.

— Photo credit: Tanvir Jogi
— Photo credit: Tanvir Jogi

"You know what my brother began to call his boss?" he asked. "Camel driver!"

I laughed: "Really? And the boss did not mind?"

"I don’t know. I haven’t seen my brother for the past three years," he said, now gazing at the sunset.

"Why?" I enquired.

"He called his wife and children to Oman and then never came back. He thought this was not a suitable place anymore for his children."

"How come?" I asked.

He shrugged his shoulders: "Only Allah knows. But he began to look at us as if we were from some other land. He also stopped coming here (Mohenjo-Daro), even though he once used to love this place. So he went, and so did the visitors. Maybe they (the visitors) too began to see this place as some other land."

"Strange," I chuckled.

"Your friend is a Sindhi?" he asked, watching Roosi walking towards us.

"Yes," I said. "He is from Khairpur, but studies with me at a college in Karachi."

Addressing the approaching Roosi, he loudly asked him (in Sindhi): "Sain, what did you learn?"

"I learned that there is not a single cigarette shop here!" replied Roosi, equally loudly.

I laughed out loud. So did Roosi. But the man remained serious: "It’s not good to smoke at the burial site of one’s ancestors," he said to Roosi, who was now with us.

"But you were smoking," I immediately reminded him.

He smiled: "Like my brother, I too have lost the respect of our ancestors." Then addressing both Roosi and me, he added: "But you two are still young. You should not lose what we have lost."

And then it happened. In a blink of an eye, Roosi swooped down and touched the man’s feet: "Bhali Sain (sure, sir)," he said in Sindhi and then softly reminded me it was getting late. We bid farewell to the man whose name I never got to know, nor asked. We were soon riding back to Larkana. Silently.

From that day onward, till I last met him sometime in the early 1990s, I never saw Roosi smoke a cigarette again. He quit. Just like that.