I got a call in the middle of the week from a friend of mine. I thought it better to let it ring out and call back when I had less on my mind. I was, after all, living in the rough and tumble of Karachi.
He was from the small town of Nagarparkar, in the eastern district of Tharparkar, where tasks and responsibilities couldn’t possibly be so tiring. Us urban folk have a knack for such mindsets.
His name was Magan Rajiv. He eked out his living driving his kekra (a converted military vehicle from the World War II era that looks like a jeep) along the Pakistan-India border, shuttling tourists around the hidden sanctuaries that Tharparkar had to offer.
Magan had called me with his usual warmth and compassion, but there was an underlying sentiment of concern. The rains had well and truly ended, and tourists had stopped frequenting the town.
He had to run repairs on his kekra, and he didn’t have any money to spare. He was between a rock and a hard place.
This stung me hard, and left me with a sense of sadness for his situation.
We were from different walks of life, but had maintained our friendship against the odds. I had to help.
I first met Magan in August, 2015. It was the Independence Day long weekend, and what better way to celebrate the birth of the nation, than to be at its border.
Over the eight-hour drive from Karachi, we saw the landscape change from apartment complexes and ring roads, to informal settlements of slums and shanty towns, and finally to the rich expanse of agricultural land.
There were crops such as wheat, rice, sugarcane and cotton, along with major horticulture crops such as mangoes, bananas, and chilies.
Being seasonal pursuits, some of these crops had been replaced by in-season plantations. As we moved further east from Karachi, these changes ebbed and flowed, till we reached District Tharparkar.
The landscape suddenly changed, with light brown grains of sand swirling in the air, as if to delineate a rite of passage. The land wasn’t all sand dunes though, as it is most of the year.
The famous Tharparkar rains had transformed the arid and desolate landscape, into a green and lush expanse of cacti, acacia and neem trees.
The land being extremely fertile, had soaked in the rains, and made itself ripe for grazing for the over 4.5 million strong livestock - donkeys, camels, goats, cows, sheep and mules - the main source of livelihood for Tharparkar’s population.
Peacocks could also be seen roaming the hilltops, their quest for sustenance aided greatly by the rains.
We broke journey in Mithi, the capital of Tharparkar district, and a convenient location, for us to break bread and rest for the night, before the much-awaited trip to Nagarparkar the next morning.
As the crack of dawn hit, there was no call to prayer from the muezzin, but gongs from the temples. Pakistan has, sadly, over the years, pushed out its religious minorities through institutional and social bigotry.
Tharparkar, being a district with a large presence of Hindus, is the final frontier where vibrant narratives of acceptance and plurality are still found.
We hit the road – it was a windy morning, and as we made our way down the roadway (a well-constructed one, on account of private corporations), it was a bittersweet feeling.
Tharparkar being a district rich in coal, among other natural resources, has fallen prey to carrot and stick incentivisation, that capitalism viscerally advocates. The roads were built, and the hospitals were shining, but the people were broken.
Corporations had pushed off many locals from their native lands (cornerstones of their identities, and their solitary asset), and moved them either into far-flung areas of the district, or into other regions of the country.
This land not only held ancestral connotations, but had allowed Tharis to practice progressive agricultural practices, whilst maintaining a sense of identity.
Many of these companies took the shortcut, and instead of engaging the communities, transacted directly with the feudals.
The Tharis had therefore lost a part of their identity, without having a say in the matter.
On the drive from Mithi to Nagarparkar, the once desolate but now green landscape was dotted with chaunras (straw-roofed mud houses), iconic to Tharparkar.
Thari women are known for their rich and colourful dresses, and brightly coloured bangles (up to their shoulders, if they’re married), and these women could be seen hauling water on foot.
These sights reminded me of imagery from the Pink City (Jaipur), the Blue City (Jodhpur), and Udaipur, major cities in Rajasthan, India, a short hop across the border.
My great grandmother being a native of Rajasthan, the current state of cross-border mobility left me reeling.
After an hour in the car, we starting feeling restless. The landscape hadn’t changed, and we weren’t far from the border now.
However, just as our restlessness was peaking, we saw a rise in elevation on the horizon. These were the Karoonjhar mountain ranges.
These granite rock hills are etched into Thari folklore. The Karoonjhar range was on our itinerary for the next day though, so we shuttled off further down towards the border, and towards the heart of Tharparkar city.
On the outskirts of the city, we were stopped briefly by a few nonchalant border patrol officers who asked us why we would venture to the border, and what was there to see here.
As soon as we entered Nagarparkar city, it was time to negotiate kekra costs to the border. This was where I met Magan, and once we decided on a price, we shook hands (his hands being rough and calloused from all the off-roading they’ve had to navigate) and headed off.
Our first destination was Churio, the closest settlement to the Indian border. Churio had stunning 360-degree views of the Thari landscape, but is known more so for the view of India you get sitting on the abutting rocks.
Churio is flanked on three sides by India, and gives off a feeling of susceptibility, fed into us by our respective governments.
Buttressed by borders, it’s a shame it provides no view to the cities of Ahmedabad and Bhuj, despite their closeness to Churio. These are cities where many religious/ethnic groups such Memons, Agha Khanis, Bohris, and Parsis, originate from.
One of my Agha Khani friends travelling with me on this trip, hails from Gujrat. The irony wasn’t lost on either of us.
The other major attraction was the Kali temple on top of a granite peak. The temple lies inside a boulder, which apart from a tiny foundation, stands unsupported.
Thari folklore claims it’s a miracle of Kali, the Hindu devi of death, a matriarchal figure associated with both, sexuality, and motherly love.
After we digested what Churio had to offer, we moved laterally across the border, our kekra flying across once parched landscapes, maneuvering through smaller hamlets, all the while waving at farmers and kids alike.
Our next stop was Kasbo, another small hamlet along the border, but an attraction for other reasons.
Upon arriving, we entered the Ram Dev temple, made in honour of the 14th century Hindu folk deity, native to Rajasthan state.
Ram Dev is said to have devoted his life to the uplift of the poor and downtrodden. Seven centuries later, his message still needs urgent outreach.
A major feature at the Ram Dev temple were the Manganhars. Musicians native to Tharparkar, Manganhars sit outside temples and mosques, needing just shade and an audience, to ply their trade.
Their songs are about both, the physical (the infamous Thari rains, which so greatly affect the lives people here), and the metaphysical (love, passion, and tolerance – cornerstones of both Hinduism and Islam).
We were fortunate to meet one such Manganhar, Yousif Faqir, an iconic figure. It was an encounter not to be missed. Iconic as it may be, it was bittersweet, with the rains bringing cyclical tourism, but the general plight of the Manganhars remaining as it has been.
Even though they are bastions of folk music, they are being forced to abandon their generational traditions, due to changing societal norms which have pushed them into the peripheries, and onto the verge of extinction.
The next day we started with the Bhodesar mosque, a shining marble structure located at the foot of the Karoonjhar hills. It was built in the 16th century by the ruler of Gujarat, and is known for its Hindu and Jain architectural styles.
The fact that a mosque was based on the architectural edicts of a different religion, sheds light on the vibrancy and diversity, which once marked this area.
A short walk up from the mosque, is the Bhodesar Dam’s reservoir, which was completely filled with water, thanks to lady luck who had recently smiled upon the Tharis, with seasonal rains (or are they blessings of Ram Dev?).
Crossing the dam, we saw an old Jain temple, now sadly dilapidated, due to both, the exodus of Jains from this area many generations ago, and the lack of foresight from national heritage institutions.
We then hopped into our car, and made our way through the city, up the steep path leading to one of the higher points of the Karoonjhar hills.
By far the most stunning landscape I had seen on the trip, I had not expected such majestic mountain ranges in a desert. The erosion on the rocks lent to the assumption that they must be thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years old.
As we climbed the steep cliffs, we could see and hear peacocks fashioning sustenance from the landscape, pecking methodically at the shrubbery.
Thari farmers could be seen taking their livestock up and down the Karoonjhar plains, and in places where we felt we couldn’t set foot, we heard the light gongs of bells tied to goats and cows, grazing at will.
Also read: The lament of a heritage manager in Pakistan
We spent the whole afternoon there, the silence being meditative for anxious city dwellers like ourselves. It was savoured, cherished, and etched into our memories.
It was a long drive back, and as we sat in the car to start our long journey home, I couldn’t help but question how the cultural dynamic could be so stark within a country.
Upon travelling just eight hours by car, the landscape, religion, culture, and traditions had changed so drastically.
Beneath the doom and gloom that is painted about Pakistan (both locally and internationally), we must not forget to shed light on these narratives.
These are stories of diversity, celebration, compassion, and love, dotted across landscapes.
We don’t have to look very far back in time, or laterally across the country, to see these narratives. However, we do need to savour them, reflect on them, and chronicle them for the world to know that we have fading jewels, which need to be re-polished.
After this recollection, I realised that whenever Magan calls, I must respond immediately.
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