The dirt road leading to the historic graveyard of Tilla Shah in District Sanghar belies the tradition that has been preserved there. Tilla Shah was home to several tombs from various historical epochs in Sindh, but today, only 12 have stood the test of time. Many tombs have completely crumbled into a heap of bricks. Some are on the verge of vanishing. Others are perishing to underground salinity.
The necropolis of Tilla Shah is situated close to the village of Naonabad and lies south of Jam Nawaz Ali town. The graveyard is spread over an area of two acres. It became known as Tilla Shah because a local pir, Tilla Shah, is buried here. The graveyard itself is older than Tilla Shah and his shrine; the shrine might have been built later although the graveyard became associated with him.
But this is a graveyard unlike any other. It is marked by luminous architecture and frescoed wall paintings bearing calligraphy. In many ways, the graveyard is a testament to the glory of the Sindh’s past. All tombs are decorated with wonderful murals, with magnificent motifs of geometrical and floral designs.
Legends and lore are preserved in a historic graveyard in Sindh. But for how long?
The lure of Tilla Shah is in the way Sindhi legends and lore have been portrayed and preserved.
The legend of Sassui Punhun, for example, is depicted very differently from the portrayals in other tombs of Sindh. In Tilla Shah, the shepherd has disappeared. Punhun’s brothers are taking him away on camelback while a crying Sassui is being restrained by her friends, who are imploring her not to leave Banbhore for Ketch Makran.
Similarly, the aesthetics of Suhni Mehaar and Laila Majnu are different from that elsewhere in Sindh.
Another love tale which was famous in the Kalhora and Talpur period, Mal Mahmood and Bibi Miher Nigar, is also preserved in Tilla Shah. Legend has it that Mal Mahmood was a companion of Hazrat Ali (RA) and he came to Neroonkot, Hyderabad. Bibi Miher Nigar was the daughter of Neroon Kafir and she fell in love with Mal Mahmood. But when Mal Mahmood reached Neroonkot with friends for Miher Nigar, Neroon imprisoned Mal Mahmood in his palace. Hazrat Ali (RA) came to Neroonkot and defeated Neroon Kafir. Mihar Nigar converted to Islam and Mal Mahmood married her.
In another representation, a lion attacks a royal on horseback but he retaliates by attacking the lion with spears. His attendants are shown attacking the lion with bows and arrows while his attack dogs also strike the lion. A battle scene is portrayed in which the warriors are fighting one another with spears.
In Tilla Shah, the shepherd has disappeared. Punhun’s brothers are taking him away on camelback while a crying Sassui is being restrained by her friends, who are imploring her not to leave Banbhore for Ketch Makran.
Another scene paints a warrior as a messenger. Riding on horseback, he carries a sword, shield and spear with him. Birds flying above him justify his portrayal as a war messenger. Then there is a picture of a royal with his wife; there is a horse and a female attendant is also present.
But what stands out in these frescos is different kinds of leaf designs, stalactite designs, arabesque, floral scroll designs, amulets and stylised vases — these denote that calligraphy was a subject of interest for Sindhi artisans of the Kalhora and Talpur periods. But we can also infer the influence of Islamic, Mughal, Persian (including Rajasthani or Rajput) art on murals done on the walls of monuments in Tilla Shah Graveyard. The adornment of Mughal dresses, chrysanthemum flowers, and lily flowers among others bear testament to this influence.
On the inner wall of one tomb, two names, Mian Dolat Khan and Haji Khan, have been inscribed in calligraphy. Dolat Khan was Haji Zaee Marri, who remained the commander of Kalhora rulers. Thus, this burial place belongs to the Haji Zaee Marri tribe.
At present, the architectural monuments in Tilla Shah are disappearing fast. The breathtaking murals on the walls are also fading out. And the fresco paintings are also chipping away. The sad story of this crumbling heritage, however, presses home the need to conserve this splendid historical treasure of Sindh. If the government doesn’t act now, future generations will lose their history.
The writer is a professor of history
Published in Dawn, EOS, April 29th, 2018