On Saturday, October 9, 2021, I left Karachi with architect and urban planner Arif Hasan, his research assistant, student interns and a friend to head to the small town of Jhirk in the hope of finding the house where some believe Mohammad Ali Jinnah was born before it was razed to the ground.
The plan was to stop overnight in Makli, a sprawling necropolis and Unesco world heritage site, to see the tombs at night, and then progress to Jhirk the next day.
The road to Thatta is well constructed, and a divided highway for the most part — a far cry from the narrow metalled single-track road we used to take as children. In this, we were retracing our steps from my childhood, when Arif Hasan, also my uncle, habitually took us to Thatta almost every weekend where our family had some lands. This was the first time I was going back to Jhirk since I was eight years old, after nearly 40 years.
Most landmarks along the route have either been altered or have vanished; it is cleaner and the tiny towns that lined the old road appear more alive and richer. We arrived at the Archaeology Department guest house in Makli where we were received by our host, Sayyid Ghayur Abbas. We rested briefly and then decided to have lunch.
The unmarked road
After lunch, we headed to Jhirk, which is an hour's drive from Keenjhar, where we'd stopped over for lunch, and approached by a deceptively innocuous turn off the highway. Deep into the town, we reached a fork in the road where we asked some men standing around if they knew where Jinnah’s house was.
We were pointed down a side street, which was so narrow that we had to abandon the cars and continue on foot. After passing through the quiet neighbourhood we had to stop a few locals and ask again if they knew where Jinnah’s house was. They produced an elderly Mohana or fisherman, giving the impression that he was a repository of the area’s history.
This gave us hope — that is until he told Arif Hasan that Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s house no longer existed. He knew this because he used to be its caretaker. The house’s ruins had long been razed to the ground and a girls’ school had replaced it. As we heard this, our collective spirits fell. The entire purpose of the trip seemed gutted out.
We turned back, the sadness evident on Arif Hasan’s face. But then, the elderly Mohana suddenly said: “There are other houses here from the same period, especially the mansion of the first Aga Khan Hasan Ali Shah. It’s nearly two hundred years old, as old as Jinnah’s house was. Do you wish to see it?”
The palace in the middle of nowhere
Life seemed to return to the team and as we followed him, just fifty meters away we came upon a well-maintained property with a palatial gate, and a plaque that read: The palace of the first Aga Khan Hasan Ali Shah, date: 1843.
Our guide, who had been initially hesitant until he saw our deep interest, was apparently employed by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. He asked us where we were from, and if we were Ismailis. We replied that we were not. He told us that they do not open the place as a rule to anyone but he would do it for us. He proceeded to unlock a small gate at the corner of the property and invited us to step inside. When we lifted our eyes from our feet, after negotiating the raised stoop to cross the threshold, we could not help but exclaim in wonderment.
We found ourselves standing inside what was perhaps the most serene of courtyards for a mansion that had been maintained as a living piece of history. The red brick tile courtyard was built around a well-kept tree grove, which provided dappled shade and a central point to the property.
The mud walls were plastered with an ancient gaara technique of earth mixed with straw or jute fibre or animal hair. Arif Hasan noted that normally, ground seashells would be used to bind the mixture together but that was a luxury in those days. Much to our delight, we did indeed find fragments of seashells embedded in the wall.
Where there were balconies and verandahs in such architecture, timber would be used so that a large opening could be created in the mud walls. And, as we saw, here too timber surfaces were elaborately carved in geometric patterns. An unstable stairwell to the side led to the roof from where we could see the river beyond some fields.
Arif Hasan enquired if there were still fish in the river. The caretaker replied that there were and that the fishermen still take their boats up and down the river all the way to Hyderabad and to the coast when they can.
From the roof, we could see the original wind catchers on adjoining roofs, and the alams of an Imambargah. The caretaker told us the entire neighbourhood had been Ismaili in the old days but the alam meant that the neighbourhood was now, to an extent, Twelver Shia, as is the case with many old rural Ismaili neighbourhoods in the country.
Our guide pointed to the school, which had once been Jinnah’s house. All we could see was just one empty plot of land a stone’s throw from the mansion.
Jinnah and the Aga Khan
So the physical proximity between the two — the Aga Khan I and Jinnah — was quite obvious, if indeed both of them had lived here contemporaneously. The local oral history of Jinnah is that he was born in Jhirk in 1876, at around the same time that the first Aga Khan had been living here after arriving from Iran, sometime in the 1840s (the palace was built in 1843 as the plaque announces).
The Aga Khan I took a special interest in Jinnah’s early upbringing until he passed away when the latter was five years old and also gave him his name ‘Mohammad Ali’. Jinnah was an Ismaili and from an important Ismaili family close to the Aga Khan, we were told.
The Mohana went on to tell us that according to local lore, the Aga Khan I was an ascetic man and possessed spiritual powers. "His arrival blessed our town," he said. "He was a real Sayyid, and you know real Sayyids are special. Sayyids have spiritual powers. This place has spirits guarding the house," he added, implying that this was why the main chambers were locked up.
The Mohana then told us a story: "Once a man came here, just like you. He was snooping around, trying to look inside the locked house chambers and we told him it was not allowed, but he did not listen. Suddenly he got stuck to the window he was trying to look through. Some invisible force had taken over. None of us could pull him away and he kept shouting for help. And then, just as suddenly as it had happened, this force hurled him away with such power that he flew back and landed in the middle of the courtyard. He picked up his things and took off, never to return. This is a true story."
I mulled over the entire episode later on, in light of our observations and what we had learnt.
Of all places, why Jhirk?
The date on the mansion is 1843, which is exactly the year of the British takeover of Sindh and the Aga Khan’s first reported arrival there. How did the Aga Khan have this mansion made in such a short span of time — unless he had arrived earlier, or had sent news of his arrival in advance? Did the mansion belong to another rich Ismaili before and was given to him on arrival? Why did he choose to stay in such a small Ismaili enclave like Jhirk, for he could have gone to Karachi or stayed in Hyderabad, the then capital of Sindh. After all, both cities had much larger Ismaili populations.
Indeed, according to Arif Hasan, there were other small predominantly Ismaili towns in the area, such as Jhimpir, all on the main trade routes. And finally, why, if the reports are correct, was Jinnah’s family, said to be an important Ismaili family, settled in Jhirk, unless there was more to all this than we know.
As we walked back to our cars, we passed many old houses in dilapidated condition, but with the same intricate woodwork. Our guide showed us a large plot of land which he said belonged to the current Aga Khan (no.4) and which had been there since Hasan Ali Shah first arrived in Jhirk.
It was nearly 7pm when we returned to the guest house in Makli where our host Sayyid Ghayur Abbas also spoke at length with Arif Hasan about Jhirk and Jinnah’s house, its legend and reality, historical fact and fantasy.
The mystery of Wazir Mansion
At some point, mention of Sindh's former Secretary for Culture, Tourism and Antiquities, Dr Kaleenullah Lashari, popped up as he had worked on the subject of Jinnah’s birthplace. Arif Hasan recalled Dr Lashari’s work on Wazir Mansion, a house in Kharadar in Karachi, which is touted as Jinnah’s birthplace by state history books in Pakistan.
Dr Lashari presented his work at the annual Karachi Conference in 2017, discrediting the view of Jinnah having been born in Wazir Mansion in Karachi at all. According to his research, in 1880, two houses and a double-storey building existed on the land on which Wazir Mansion was later built. The building postdates Jinnah’s birth.
According to Lashari, a small two-storey structure next to this two-storey building was where Jinnah’s family had initially lived in Karachi. Lashari states that the Sindh government bought the mansion in 1953, declared it a heritage site and termed it Jinnah’s birthplace, which was historically very late. He said that the government has labeled one room in the mansion as, “The room where Jinnah was born”.
According to a report in The Express Tribune, Lashari’s discussion was based on an inquiry into official records. He asserts that Jhirk was also not Jinnah’s birthplace, as he, like other scholars seem to challenge the claim, while others ascribe it to Sindhi nationalists, who wanted to give Jinnah a real ‘Sindhi’ identity.
French historian and anthropologist Michel Boivin told me the same thing when I shared the information with him. Lashari also asserts that Jinnah’s real birthday was not known, which may well be the case.
But in the dates between the first Aga Khan’s death in 1881, which is confirmed, and Jinnah’s own reported birthday in 1876 — as cited by historian Akbar S. Ahmed, in his book Jinnah, Pakistan, and Islamic Identity: The Search for Saladin — and which cannot be off the mark by very much, there is indeed a real overlap between the two personalities.
Hence, the role the first Aga Khan may have played in Jinnah’s early upbringing, directly or directly, if indeed the latter was born in Jhirk in 1876 and lived there afterwards, simply cannot be discounted.
They were obviously neighbours as the placement of their houses reflects, and there would be little chance that the Hazir Imam would not have had a role to play in an important Ismaili neighbour’s house in such a small town in the 19th century — especially after just having arrived there from Iran.
As some would know, this was the first direct contact between an Ismaili Imam based in Iran and the Indian Ismaili community after a break of nearly 400 years.
In the late 1400s, the Ismaili Imamate had severed direct ties with the community in India by discontinuing the office of the deputy or da’i due to a dispute that had occurred between the sons of the last da’i Hasan Kabir al-din (d.1449), who was based in Uch.
Hasan Ali Shah was, after all, on a mission to reestablish his community in India. So were his successors, especially Sultan Muhammad Aga Khan III, who had close ties with Jinnah and who had helped found the Muslim League. Jinnah’s connection to the subsequent Aga Khans is well known, especially Sultan Muhammad Aga Khan III (d. 1957), on whose invitation he moved back from his law practice in London to join the Muslim League.
In spite of the dispute surrounding the actual place of Jinnah’s birth, our local oral history from the caretakers of the first Aga Khan’s mansion, the tallying of the birth dates of the two, Jinnah’s own Ismaili background, and Ghayur Abbas’s reaffirmation of the facts convinced me as an historian that Jinnah may well have been born in Jhirk after all — and must have spent some time there under the auspices of Hasan Ali Shah.
It makes complete sense in light of his reported Ismaili background at birth. In the conversation Arif Hasan and his research assistant had with Ghayur, the latter made it absolutely clear that this was not just his own opinion; everyone who lived around the area believed that Jinnah was unmistakably born in Jhirk and that the matter had been covered up later by the state and certain individuals for various motives — including Jinnah himself, who claimed in 1938 to have been born in Karachi instead — for reasons of political unity.
The Ismaili connection
After the conversation with Ghayur Abbas ended, we ordered food from Makli Grill, which is famous for its fish. I discovered this restaurant in 2014 when an Ismaili from Karachi named Amir Ali Patel had set it up for its patrons after requests from tourists for such a restaurant to be operated in Thatta.
I first met Amir Ali Patel in 2013 at another establishment sought after for its fish, Highway Grill, in Nooriabad on the Karachi-Hyderabad motorway. I was introduced to Amir Ali through Sindhi intellectual and poet Nawaz Ali Shoq who was helping us do field research for the Arzu Center for Vernacular Languages at Habib University and had in turn been introduced to me by Dr Kaleemullah Lashari.
Highway Grill, which serves arguably the best food from Karachi until you reach Multan, became so famous that the entrepreneur from Thatta called Amir Ali Patel over to set up something similar in Malki.
Finally, on our way back Arif Hasan suddenly decided to stop for tea and snacks of all places at Makli Grill. So it was to be. We could not escape the Ismailis on this trip even while trying to leave: the shadows of Hasan Ali Shah, Amir Ali Patel and presumably, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, stayed with us all the way back to Karachi.
As a result of our trip, on the request of Arif Hasan and based on his findings, the Heritage Committee of the Government of Sindh, which includes Dr Kaleemullah Lashari and Hameed Haroon in addition to Arif Hasan, has declared Jhirk a protected site — alas, perhaps a bit too late in this country’s life.
Header image: A view of the independent guest suite at the rear of the courtyard in the Aga Khan palace in Jhirk. All photos provided by author