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HERITAGE: THE NEGLECTED NECROPOLIS OF SOONDA

August 04, 2019

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A battle scene carved on a grave
A battle scene carved on a grave

About 20-22 kilometres from Thatta, on the Thatta-Hyderabad Highway, lies a small, ancient and crumbling graveyard whose tombs remind one of the yellow sandstone structures of Chowkandi. This is the Soonda graveyard. Not much is known about it, although it receives a steady stream of visitors.

According to Mir Ali Shair Qane, author of Tuhfat-ul-Karam, the village Soonda was founded by Jam Tamachi in the third quarter of the 14th century. It is said that, before the town was founded, a saint lived here who had affection for raga Sondra, which is how the village derived its name.

According to the Antiquity and Cultural Department’s web portal, “Soonda village was held in high regard by Muslims as a noble family of saints, known as Makhdums, lived there. Makhdum Ramzan Vedani, Mullah Ari, Mullah Bayazid and Mullah Abu Bakar are known for their pious lives.

Along the Thatta-Hyderabad Highway lies another unique but dilapidated and vandalised graveyard

“People would come to the graveyard to visit their graves but, over time, the graves have deteriorated and there is not much left of the carving and geometrical patterns.”

Just like the Chowkandi, Pir Lutfullah, Palejani and Makli graveyards, the spectacular graves in Soonda are made of yellow stone that was probably extracted from the nearby mountains. However, at present the graves are in a poor condition.

Human representations of horseriding soldiers, warriors and archers on these graves are one of the unique features. Snakes and swords carved on the graves perhaps also indicate that the graves are of warriors and soldiers. Some also represent their rank. Six to seven feet long vertical slabs placed on some graves, depicting a warrior on a horse brandishing a sword, portrays a tribute to the warrior and his martyrdom.

Four graves on a single platform in the Soonda Graveyard | Photos by the writer
Four graves on a single platform in the Soonda Graveyard | Photos by the writer

According to the Archaeological Survey of India, 1919, the graves are constructed either as a single grave or as a group of up to four to five graves that are raised on a common platform. A few graves bear some symbols portraying the work or profession of the dead person.

The graves of women and children are distinctly carved with depictions of jewellery such as bangles, necklaces, earrings and anklets. In The Antiquities of Sindh: With Historical Outline, Henry Cousens writes that the graves of women are distinct, enormously wonderful and beautifully carved. Every grave is different from the other in the context of image. There are intricate designs on small graves, flaunting the workers’ skill.

Researchers agree that this architecture came to the subcontinent during the Samma era and there was a great impact of Gujarat construction on this architecture. Most of the buildings in Makli and Thatta are from this era.

Some graves have six- to seven-feet-high slabs, depicting a warrior who died in battle
Some graves have six- to seven-feet-high slabs, depicting a warrior who died in battle

In the seventh century, the practice of making artwork on the graves spread rapidly. Pictures of horse riders, etc. began to be carved on rocks. The Samma chief or sardar may have brought this art from Gujarat in India and the Arghun dynasty. Tarkhan and Baloch chiefs developed the art, but at the end of the 18th century, because of various reasons, the art began to decline.

“There is no doubt that this is an ancient graveyard of the Samma era, when artwork was at its finest,” says Prof. Mohammad Ali Manjhi, from the Dr N.A. Baloch Institute of Heritage Research. “There are graves of men and women who were martyred in wars, graves of chiefs as well as graves of ordinary people. However, the graveyard does not only have grave of a single tribe but people from many tribes are buried here.”

The graveyard caretaker stands among the dilapidated graves that are often vandalised by influential people
The graveyard caretaker stands among the dilapidated graves that are often vandalised by influential people

He further adds, “According to Henry Cousens, it can be said that most of the graves in the Soonda graveyard can be of the same tribe. Possibly, the Lashari tribe fought a battle with some other tribe and the soldiers who were killed were buried here. However, no final opinion can be established because it’s a centuries-old graveyard.”

Manik Mustafa Shar, from the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, University of Sindh, says, “There are more than 5,000 archaeological sites in Sindh, and many of the sites need to be appropriately documented. These sites have suffered damage from natural and human hazards such as floods and heavy rain. These sites are also being exploited by influential people so that broken stone slabs from these graves are being exchanged as gifts and used as decoration pieces in private homes.”

The Department of Antiquity has rehabilitated some of the graves at the Soonda graveyard, but this isn’t enough to protect the historical site. The graveyard needs a boundary wall, and a small museum should be established, providing information about the graveyard to visitors.

The writer is a photo-journalist and tweets at @genanimanoj

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 4th, 2019