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The tomb of Mirza Essa Tur Khan
The tomb of Mirza Essa Tur Khan

Witnessing its present-day maze of narrow lanes and decaying houses, one can hardly imagine that Thatta was once the seat of learning and culture, a flourishing centre of commerce and industry and a cosmopolitan city sustaining hundreds of thousands of people.

Thatta is located 100 kilometres east of Karachi near Lake Keenjhar. Two miles nearer to Karachi, on a long ridge forming the western escarpment of the dry riverbeds, lies the extensive necropolis of Makli — the centuries-old burial ground of Thatta.

The Makli site consequently contains numerous tombs of historical and cultural significance in contrasting architectural styles.

The earliest burials on Makli Hills date back to the 14th century, when there were two sizeable habitations of some significance adjoining the Makli Hills: Samuee (the village of the Samma community) on the far northern tip and Thatta adjoining the southern tail end.

The Sammas (who ruled from 1351-1520) used to bury their dead there. That early Samma graveyard later became the official burial site of the Samma rulers till the demise of Jam Nizamuddin Nanda in 1509 CE.

As mentioned in Makli Nama (c. 1760) by Mir Ali Sher Qani Thattavi, Makli had spread southward accommodating all the burials through the subsequent eras of the Arghuns, Tarkhans, Mughals, and the post Mughal period.

Situated at the edge of the 6.5km-long plateau of Makli Hill, the necropolis of Makli is one of the world’s largest ‘graveyard’ cities and is at least 700 years old. In Makli Hill, one can find almost 125,000 tombs and graves covering an approximate area of 10km in radius.

According to historians Annemarie Schimmel and Charles Hughes Cousens, Makli was established as a holy place for worship and burial by the famous Sufi saint Shaikh Hammad Jamali (1366-1375), and his royal devotee Jam Tamachi (1388-1392) of the Samma dynasty.

Some other legendary persons buried at Makli are the saint Shaikh Isa Langoti (d.1428) and Pir Murad Shirazi (d.1488).

A 700-year-old necropolis rich in historical and cultural significance stands in need of preservation

The physical and historical geography of these monuments is remarkable. Its charm and beauty is evident along with its historical significance — historian Thattavi points out how shrines of Pir Aasat and Shah Piryan, Chashma Naran Serv Bharasar, Ma’abad Kalkan, Khir Sir Talab, Jalwagah-i-Imamin, Ard-i-Pak Mualla, Sehse Lang Talab, Meeka, Khund Sir Kunwan, Aghoor Talab are located there, as well as religiously important caves and temples of the Hindus.

The epigraphs installed at the monuments provide biographical details of the renowned saints of Sindh who are buried there and who devoted their lives to spreading the message of love and humanity. They also played a vital role in the sociopolitical milieu of the era.

One of the many pavilions found in Makli
One of the many pavilions found in Makli

The tombs and gravestones spread over the cemetery mark the social and political history of Sindh. Many have been built using local sandstone; others are plastered brick buildings.

Running from south to north, there are three main groups of monuments, arranged in inverse historical sequence.

The first group includes the monuments of the Mughal period (1592-1737). The tombs of Jani Beg Tarkhan and Ghazi Beg Tarkhan, Baqi Beg Uzbek, Tughral Beg, Isa Khan II, Jan Baba, Shurfa Khan and graveyard of Nawab Amir Khan’s family are the outstanding monuments to this group.

The second group belongs to the Arghuns and Tarkhans (1520-1592). This group includes the graveyard of Isa Khan Tarkhan I, Baqi Beg Tarkhan, Ahinsa Bai, Sultan Ibrahim, Mir Suleiman and many others.

The third group, which occupies the extreme north represents the Samma period (r.1351-1520). It comprises the tombs of Jam Nizam- uddin Nanda, Mubarak Khan, Malik Rajpal, a mosque and some canopies built over some unidentified graves.

Some tombs such as those pictured above are adorned with ornamental motifs or religious scriptures | Photos by Iqran Rasheed Mehar
Some tombs such as those pictured above are adorned with ornamental motifs or religious scriptures | Photos by Iqran Rasheed Mehar

The hallmark of the architecture of Makli is the variety of forms and techniques of decoration, which represent the aspiration and genius of the people of Thatta. It bears the distant marks of its variant ancestry and shows distinction from the imperial style of Delhi.

Since the Central Asian Turks such as the Arghuns, the Tarkhan and the Mughals dominated Sindh, it caused cultural interactions in the region, which, alongside vernacular values, have also left an impact on the Makli Hill art and architecture.

Therefore, as a blend of various cultures, a new form of building art emerged at the Makli Hill necropolis. Thus, different schools of architecture seem to be displayed at Makli Hills shown through these graves.

The hallmark of the architecture of Makli is the variety of forms and techniques of decoration, which represent the aspiration and genius of the people of Thatta. It bears the distant marks of its variant ancestry and shows distinction from the imperial style of Delhi.

As far as Makli’s social and cultural significance is concerned, people from Thatta and other parts of the country visit the necropolis. It has a festive atmosphere that provides visitors a unique experience: spiritual and ecstatic.

Some specific dates and days are considered the most auspicious time to visit the graves of the great mystic saints, who were able to exercise their influence beyond the grave to bring spiritual gains — perhaps a visit to their burial places could bring a transcendental experience.

Till the 18th century, Makli Hill had a beautiful landscape with lakes and lush green parks thronged by visitors. Today, Makli is a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) World Heritage Site that is visited by pilgrims and tourists, but is in strong need of conservation and maintenance.


The writer is assistant professor of history at University of Karachi, and can be reached at humera_naz@uok.edu.pk


Published in Dawn, EOS, July 16th, 2017