Just the mention of Multan conjures up an array of dreamy images in my mind. When I first came to Pakistan in 2006, it was Multan, not Lahore or even Gilgit-Baltistan, that I was most excited about visiting.
It had something to do with what had initially brought me to Pakistan; at the time, I was travelling around the Middle East and was particularly fascinated by the spread of traditions, faiths and philosophies in the region.
I was in Iran when I was reading about the spiritual preachers who headed eastwards in medieval times.
While the Western world was at one of its lowest points, a period that would later come to be known as the Dark Ages, the Muslim world was flourishing with theory and thought.
So much of that emanated from Persia, and Multan seemed to be the destination for so many influential thinkers of the time.
I knew that modern Multan wouldn’t be a gilded city of grand institutions — recent history has not been so kind to much of the Muslim world — but the history buff in me hoped that I could recapture some of the magic that once drew such notables as Bahauddin Zakariya, Shah Rukn-i-Alam, Syed Jalaluddin Bukhari, Lal Shahbaz Qalander and Baba Fariduddin Ganjshakar.
Alas, it wasn’t until earlier this year that I got to explore Multan properly — illness and security concerns precluded me on my first two trips, and later trips were simply for work.
This year, however, I knew that I would have the city to myself — just me, the saints and their shrines, and a couple of good friends to pound the pavement with.
The day we chose to explore Multan was hot — like all days in Multan — and we began at Haram Gate, a stout brick structure which apparently dates back to the 16th century.
Its name is said to be a reference to the women’s quarters which were once in this part of the city.
Like much of the city’s architecture, it has been rebuilt over the years — Multan has been laid siege to more than once in history, and Haram Gate was most recently restored with the help of a team of Italian experts.
It was from this gate that we dove into the Walled City of Multan.
It was at once familiar and foreign — as a part-time resident of Lahore, Multan’s inner city reminded me of the frenetic streets of the provincial capital’s androon sheher; but in the same instance, it was different: less boisterous, unassuming, rural even.
We passed a small shrine on our right; pigeons were feeding from a scattering of seed thrown by a gatekeeper.
There’s something about spiritual sites everywhere in the world that seems to attract pigeons, and Multan is full of them. The mint green dome of the shrine was stained with the evidence of the local bird population.
Multan was already living up to its name as the City of Saints — men and women ambled in and out of the shrine before my eyes, some of them leaving an offering of flower petals, a lit candle or some money.
It was just the beginning of an afternoon of immersing myself in the culture of shrines and saints that characterises Multan. Just around the corner was the shrine of Sakhi Yahya Nawab, the son of Musa Pak Shaheed, a prominent 16th century Sufi saint.
The colourful brick structure seemed to appear out of nowhere — one minute I had my vision blocked by city walls plastered with posters, the next it was bathed by the green glow of twisted, gnarled trees and their boughs, beckoning me to enter the shrine’s doors.
Three men stood at the threshold of the shrine, and until I asked them permission for a picture, they seemed lost in their own worlds.
Inside, a man sat on the floor nodding gently, intensely focussed on his reading of the Holy Qur’an.
Further along, close to the shrine of Musa Pak Shaheed, we stumbled across an old musafirkhana which was being restored.
We got speaking with some of the workers who told us about the ongoing project to revive parts of Multan’s old city to their former glory.
The three-storey brick building features upper windows that face out over Sarafa Bazaar. The windows, all carved wood and stained glass, perfectly frame the view across the covered jewellery market outside.
The romance of the building and the bazaar was starting to cast its spell on me, but I was quickly snapped out of it once I stepped out onto the main street; the frenzied push and shove of traders and sundry jolted me back to the present.
We made our way towards the main Chowk Bazaar, and through the jigsaw puzzle of canopies covering the market, I spied the tapered tower of a Jain mandir; it appeared almost proud, as much of the foot traffic below continued on, seemingly oblivious to its presence.
Investigating, I came across the entrance to the temple up a flight of stairs. The eerily abandoned hall of the venue was dusty but in decent condition; it was covered in tiles marking out the central congregation area, and painted frescoes playing out fantastical, mythical stories of good and evil.
Peeling painted signs in English and Hindi script advised visitors of a list of items, including umbrellas, shoes and eatables, which were not allowed in the temple.
Back out into the bazaar, we approached the Hussain Agahi precinct which skirts the base of the hill hosting Multan’s two most famous shrines; those of Shah Rukn-i-Alam and Bahauddin Zakariya.
A short rickshaw ride later, we were approaching the hill from the west, near Multan’s famous clock tower, from where the bulbous dome of Shah Rukn-i-Alam’s shrine first comes into view.
The ubiquitous pigeons fluttered around, occasionally scattering from the rooftop when startled.
After circumnavigating the building, it was time to enter; the inside was cool and dark, and filled with an air of reverence, as scores of men and women came forth to kiss the tomb and make dua.
A couple of pigeons cooed distantly from overhead. What struck me the most was the contrast from the chaos of the city outside to the solitude inside; it was as if the madness had melted away, and all that was left was surrender to the spiritual realm.
The still-hot and breathless air belied the shadows which were growing longer, and the fading light of the late afternoon sun; it was late in the afternoon by the time we continued through Fort Qasim to our final destination.
Bahauddin Zakariya’s shrine is, in contrast to Shah Rukn-i-Alam’s, conventional and even understated, but its gravitas is no less.
Here lies Shah Rukn-i-Alam’s grandfather, one of the earlier Sufi preachers in Multan.
An older structure, I won’t deny that I was initially slightly disappointed with its visage; I had somehow built it up in my mind to be much bigger and more elaborate than it actually is, but what it lacks in dazzling beauty, it makes up for with significance.
As someone with an interest in historic architecture, its importance is huge. This was the prototype design for Multan’s future shrines; its square base with a hemispheric roof, heavily carved wooden doors and mud-brick construction, while individually modest, combine to create something that is more than the sum of its parts.
It was no doubt the most appropriate way to end a day which had seen me delving into the depths of Multan’s historic old city, peeling back layers of history, in search of evidence of Multan’s glory as a beacon for those who wonder about what lies beyond this world.
The sun was about to set, and so I took up my position in the corner of the courtyard as the celestial ball of fire descended behind the shrine’s white dome.
The moon started its ascent into the milky twilight, as the azaan rang out over the city, before the hearty sounds of qawwali began to emanate from a group men near the entrance to the tomb — and I knew I had found what I came for.
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