22 April, 2017

Into the Deep Blue Sea

The excitement of diving into the sea was almost childlike, as I had waited for five anxious days undergoing academics and ‘confined water training’, a requirement of the world-renowned Professional Association of Dive Instructors (PADI).  Instructors at Indus Scuba, the first Karachi-based licensee of PADI (and a licensee of National Association of Underwater Instructors, NAUI) had stringently grilled me with quizzes after I had gone through the ‘knowledge pack’ issued earlier.  If truth be told, I had waited not just five days, but it had actually been over five decades that I had been swimming in the pools (and many years flying over the sea), waiting for a chance to ‘go down and deep’.  Now I was going to dive with the Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, off tiny Churna Island, an hour’s boat ride from the waterfront at Manjar village located on the Hub River delta.

To get to Manjar village, or the more exotic sounding Sunehra Beach, which is about 40 km from Keamari Harbour, we had to wend our way through crazy traffic, with motorcyclists and vans vying for space with trucks, the latter having a complete hold over the roads. Wayside dhabas offer tea and desi food to weekend visitors like us, and to their regular clients, the truckers. As we proceeded further west, we had to endure a forlorn landscape blighted by litter, plastic bags and pye-dogs. The Karachi politicos and municipal staff never seemed to have paid attention to this sparsely populated area. Fisherfolk’s villages or goths, interspersed all over the area, are bereft of any civic amenity whatsoever, as they have been for centuries.  Tourism, as in the rest of the country, seems to be on permanent hold. It was a wonder that a serious recreational sport like scuba diving was still on.

Nearing Manjar village, we could see the mouth of Hub River forming a well-sheltered cove, which has a small fish harbour with scores of boats anchored on the coast. Absent from view were the bare necessities or infrastructure expected at even the smallest of ports. Hub Power Station is just 3-km away, across Hub River, which marks the boundary between Sindh and Baluchistan.  I was particularly intrigued by the fish harbour, as history books mention a small thriving port by the name of Kharak Bandar, ‘at the confluence of Hub River and the Arabian Sea’.  Silting of this harbour led the Hindu merchants to abandon the locality, and resettle in Kolachi-jo-goth in 1729. A small fishing village with a few potable watering holes, Kolachi grew into the maritime trade megapolis of today.

When we arrived at the Sunehra Beach, a couple of modest resorts came into view, along with some private boats and water scooters parked ashore.  Merry-makers started to throng the place in sizeable numbers in no time. Our group of divers also arrived in small batches, and soon after, we started to load one of the hired boats with diving gear.  The divers broke up in groups and boarded two more boats whose noisy motors puttered into action, and we were on our way to Churna Island. The sea was somewhat choppy, as the diving season, which lasts from September to March in the north Arabian Sea, was coming to an end. Mustafa Hassan, a highly rated Master Scuba Dive Instructor with over 1,000 dives to his credit, was in charge of the day’s outing.  The svelte Nameera Ahmed, a film-maker and freelance Dive Master with an experience of about 100 dives, was also at hand to train a group of intrepid girls who had taken on the scuba challenge.

[Map courtesy Nameera Ahmed]
Arriving at Churna Island an hour later, the boats were anchored, and the waters tested. On getting an all clear from Mustafa, everyone donned the scuba kits, with dive buddies checking each other’s equipment for any faults. Diving is always done in pairs to make sure help is available in case of equipment malfunction, or some troublesome medical condition cropping up. Scuba diving is strictly for the medically fit people, especially on the cardio-vascular side. This aspect cannot be taken lightly because when you are deep down, you are under extreme physical pressure, causing nitrogen in the body to force its way into unwanted cavities and tissues.

As we readied ourselves to take the plunge, I imagined myself exuding the mystique of the speargun-wielding James Bond in Thunderball, a thrilling scuba flick that I had watched as a teenager. One by one, our diving pairs did the ‘roll backs’ from the sides of the boats, checked their breathing systems, and vanished with nothing but a trail of short-lived bubbles. The visibility was not too good because of sediments kicked up by freak winds and currents over the past two days. Nonetheless, my instructor and dive buddy Mustafa and I, were able to exchange hand signals with ease. I did the mandatory ‘nose pinch and blow’, for equalisation of pressure in the middle ear, without which a descent can get very painful. I was quite comfortable while going down, and was also spared the claustrophobia and disorientation that sometimes afflicts first-timers. My only concern was the stinging jellyfish, as my ‘shorty’ wetsuit left the arms and legs bare. Luckily, it was off-season for these critters, though they are known to invade warm tropical seas in astronomical numbers at odd times, as they did last December.

Arabian Sea is a haven for several species of whales including the baleen and toothed types. These are harmless, as long as one isn’t whacked by their gargantuan fins, that is! Closer on the continental shelf are found smaller marine animals like turtles, dolphins, porpoises and dugongs. The north Arabian Sea is rich in corals and kelp seaweeds that provide breeding and nursery habitats for Crustaceans like crabs, shrimps and lobsters. The environs of Churna Island are a well-known habitat of these clawed and spiky creatures, as well as many varieties of edible fish. Night dives, part of the advanced diving course, are usually rounded off with seafood barbecue on Sunehra Beach, I was told.

Surfacing after the dive, we found that many divers had drifted off because of fast currents. Getting them aboard took quite a while. Many snorkelers could be seen swimming around the island. A boatload of scuba divers went past, and we were dismayed to learn that it was one of more than a dozen unlicensed start-up dive centres that are in operation in Karachi. For safety reasons, there is an urgent need of a proper regulatory and licensing body in Pakistan. For the time being, the only two PADI licensees are Indus Scuba, and Scuba Adventures. PADI is the world’s largest scuba diving outfit, having certified over 25 million divers since its inception in 1966. There are over 6,200 PADI-licensed dive centres and resorts the world over.

During my training, I learnt that there was a lot of stress on marine conservation and protection of underwater environments. “Do not touch anything, but photograph everything,” are said to be the watchwords for scuba divers. Unfortunately, protection of underwater environments south of Karachi is terribly lacking. Industrial waste is discharged into the sea without treatment, and except for a couple of multi-national industries, no one seems to care. As a consequence, marine life has been badly hit. The harbour area is a huge toxic dump site for merchant ships, so much so that the water has turned into a horrid sludge, unfit for dipping even an ankle. It is a wonder that industrial divers work in the harbour under such conditions. So far, the area around Churna Island has remained pristine for scuba diving.

“How much does it cost to qualify as a basic open water diver?” The roundabout answer is that it costs a lot, but still much less in Pakistan than anywhere else in the world. The cost goes up if one plans to buy his/her own equipment. For reasons of hygiene and personal fit, a wetsuit, fins and mask are recommended for purchase, while the rest of the items like the buoyancy jacket, cylinder, regulators, dive computer, etc, are best hired from the dive centre. Once certified, one tends to log more dives for higher qualifications, so the expenditure keeps on spiralling. There are, however, cheaper options of doing a short introductory course with hired equipment, for no other reason than to experience the ‘fourth dimension’, a truly majestic world of exotic flora and fauna that can never be experienced on land.

During the diving sessions, I came across gadget geeks who had fancy equipment including underwater cameras, torches, compasses, computers, and large knives wrapped on their legs for easy reach, though mercifully, no shark encounters have ever been reported in our seas! Unable to resist the call of the gizmo geek in me, I have already started a collection of diver’s equipment and tools, that promise to see me through the advanced course, which comes next season.  Over the long term,  marine archaeology might be an interesting speciality to take up, as Mustafa and I have shared some thoughts about exploring the waterfronts of some ancient coastal sites on the Makran Coast. Who knows with our scuba skills, we might discover some long lost Harappan vessel that ran aground while hauling goods to Mesopotamia!
© KAISER TUFAIL. This is an open-access article published under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
This article was published in the daily newspaper The News International  on 23 April 2017.

03 April, 2017

Hidden Jewels of Lahore - III

Having seen one tomb too many during our recent cycling trips, we thought a visit to Chauburji would give us a break from the ghosts and ghouls of the Mughal nobility. Pedalling on Jail Road till Qartaba Chowk, we turned left on to Bahawalpur Road, which runs athwart the huge Miani Sahib Graveyard in Mozang. A few minutes later, the four turrets or burjis of the famous gateway appeared through a mishmash of ugly billboards, and equally unsightly wires and cables that cluttered the skyline.  Mian Bai must surely be turning in her grave, we thought.

Several monuments of Lahore – as in the rest of the country – have a controversy about the occupant of a tomb, or the builder of a mosque or gateway. Chauburji is no exception, and the inscription above the arch is of little help. “.... Bestowed on Mian Bai by the pleasure of Sahib-e-Zebinda, Begum-e-Dauran”, left me perplexed, though mention of the year of completion ie, 1056 Hijri (1646 AD) turned out to be a good clue for some sleuthing.

Zebinda has been thoughtlessly assumed to be another name of Zebunnisa, the daughter of Emperor Aurangzeb, without paying heed to the fact that she was only eight years old in 1646.  She was an accomplished poetess in her own right, but that is about all she is renowned for. A more likely candidate is her aunt, the suave Jahan Ara Begum, Emperor Shah Jahan’s eldest daughter, who had a much wider canvas of activities that included poetry, writing, fashion designing, building of Agra’s famous mosque, and several landscaping projects at Shahjahanabad, her father’s new capital north of Delhi.  With such accomplishments under her belt, she quite fits the titles: ‘One Endowed with Elegance (zebinda)’ and ‘Lady of the Age (dauran)’, the latter having been especially bestowed by her father after the death of Mumtaz Mahal. 

Mian Bai Fakhrunnisa, perhaps a lady-in-waiting and confidante of Jahan Ara, is said to have supervised the laying of a garden in Lahore, of which Chauburji was the entrance gateway. She must have earned the pleasure of her mistress, who bequeathed it for the services rendered.  I may speculate, though, that Mian Bai could well have been rewarded for nursing the princess back to health, after serious burn injuries suffered in an oil lamp accident in the palace in 1644.

As at most historic sites in Pakistan, we were dismayed to see scruffy vagabonds sprawling on the Chauburji premises, posters pasted on its walls, and litter everywhere around.  The remnants of brilliant floral-themed Kashi-kari panels on portions of Chauburji could do little to alleviate the mess. Nobody seemed to be in charge.

The Chauburji Gateway is quite similar to the Gulabi Bagh Gateway in Begumpura, except for the absence of turrets in the latter.  Chauburji’s east-facing main entrance arch (peshtaaq) is flanked by four smaller arches; of the latter, the two on the ground level are simply deep-set alcoves, while those on the upper storey are openings of balconies set with stone-carved jaali guardrails. The turrets are of octagonal shape and these flare upwards, possibly having been surmounted by Rajasthani chhatris, since lost. In fact, the north-western turret fell off during the earthquake of 1843 and was replaced in the 1960s, the gateway having seen life as a ‘Sehburji’ for nearly 120 years. Today, there is no trace of the garden that the Chauburji once opened into.

Another Mystery Tomb

From Chauburji, we set off south on Multan Road to look for a mystery tomb, again rashly attributed to Zebunnisa. After covering 1.7-km, (about 200 metres past the Samanabad Main Road and Multan Road intersection), we came across a fenced enclosure on the left, amidst a row of wall-to-wall shops; it had a steel-grill gate locked by a loose chain. With no one to guide us in, we helped ourselves through the narrow gap in the gate, only to be surprised by two families who seemed to own the premises. A small hand-painted board claims the tomb to be of Zebunissa, with another one sardonically notifying the public of its ‘protected’ status under the law!

It is well documented that Zebunnisa was confined in Salimgarh Fort on charges of colluding with her brother Akbar II, against their father Emperor Aurangzeb. She spent her last 21 years in confinement, and on her death in 1702, was buried in the garden of Thirty Thousand Trees outside Kabuli Gate in Delhi.  Her remains were re-interred in the tomb of Emperor Akbar in Sikandara, when a railway track was laid across her previous resting place.

With Jahan Ara also buried in Delhi (Nizam-ud-din Auliya Graveyard), the only remaining subject known to be associated with Chauburji is Mian Bai, which makes her a credible candidate as the tomb’s occupant.

The tomb was central to a funerary garden in the Nawankot locale. Only the gateway and two corner kiosks of a wall that enclosed the garden are extant, while the garden has been completely subsumed by the concrete jungle all around.

The thick-walled tomb is a small square structure built on a brick platform. It has three arches on each side, with the central main arch flanked by two recessed ones having small oblong openings. A cenotaph lies on a partially broken marble floor that still displays a beautiful pattern of eight-pointed interlocking stars, and each star set with an eight-petaled daisy. The roof of the tomb is of an unusual pyramidical shape on the outside, but is hemispherical on the inside.

The immediate threat to the tomb is by encroaching residents as well as some shops of timber cutters, which lie within the premises of the supposedly protected building. Additionally, a huge pipal tree grows a few feet away from the tomb, and its sub-terranean roots are likely to damage the very foundations of the tomb. The beautiful marble floor has already been uplifted in several places. Something will have to be done urgently about these issues if the tomb is to be preserved.

About 95 metres east of the tomb is the gateway to the erstwhile garden. We had to approach it through a narrow street behind the tomb, with the neighbourhood watching us with some amusement.  The design of the gateway is very similar to that of Chauburji, except for four squat chhatris that embellish the corners of the roof. We were extremely dismayed to see the gateway used as a garbage dump by a nearby marriage hall, what with cats and dogs prowling around. The chowkidar, along with a few shady characters emerged from the upper storey, which got us wondering if that part of the gateway was being used as living quarters. 

The two remaining corner kiosks of the garden wall were in no better shape than the gateway.  The kiosks are 100 metres away from the gateway, in a northerly and southerly direction, each being located in an empty plot surrounded by houses. People in the neighbourhood seemed surprised at our interest in what they thought were useless relics in their midst.

I thought the final resting place of Chauburji’s construction supervisor, the good old Mian Bai Fakhrunnisa, needs to be well-looked after.  A similar good turn is also in order for Dai Anga, who gave the Lahorites a beautiful mosque … if we care, that is.

© KAISER TUFAIL. This is an open-access article published under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
This article was published in the daily newspaper The News International  on 8 Feb, 2015.

Hidden Jewels of Lahore - II

Sunday being a regular ‘working’ day for our cycling group of young professionals – with this able old hand alongside – we proceeded on our second tour to discover some lesser known monuments of the Mughal era. This time the destination was Mughalpura, a locale that carries its name after the Mughal nobility and aristocracy of Lahore which had set up an exclusive residential estate, replete with gardens, mosques and tombs.  We shall use the GT Road as a loose dividing line between Begumpura in the north, and Mughalpura to the south, to differentiate between the two locales.

Enigma of a Strange Tomb

Starting from the Shalimar Link Road intersection with the GT Road, and heading west, we stopped after exactly 2.6-km and easily spotted a domed tomb just south of the road, inside a fenced enclosure. The dilapidated state of the tomb was deplorable, though the fascinating architectural elements of what remained were worth a brief scrutiny.  But first, we had to settle who is the actual occupant of the tomb.

That the mandarins at the Department of Archaeology are clueless, can be confirmed by the display of two conflicting information boards at the entrance. One of them claims it to be the tomb of Buddhu, a brick-maker who lived in the mid-seventeenth century; the other board says that it is the resting place of the wife of Khan-e-Dauran Bahadur Nusrat Jang, a favoured noble of Emperor Shah Jahan.  For want of her maiden name, we shall call the lady Nusrat Begum for this discourse.

While Buddhu’s influence to be able to muster a plot of land amidst the prized estates of the Mughal nobility must seem outlandish, his having left a fortune for the construction of a grandiose tomb is equally incredible. His nearby brick kiln (Buddhu ka ava), whose remains can still be seen, could have led to the erroneous association with ‘Buddhu’s tomb’.

Khan-e-Dauran Bahadur Nusrat Jang was a favourite amir in Shah Jahan’s court, having gained the goodwill of the emperor for suppressing a rebellion in Deccan. He died in 1659 and was buried in a tomb which lies 1.5-km to the south-east of his wife’s tomb.  Since his own tomb lies squarely in Pakistan Railways lands and is not accessible to the public, some people have further added to the mystery by assuming Nusrat Begum’s tomb to be that of her husband’s.  Intriguingly, a second grave in the begum’s tomb brings this riddle to a head. Not yet done, the enigma gets really knotty when we learn that Khan-e-Dauran’s own tomb has been re-purposed as a mosque and a shrine by employees of the Railways under the name of Khawaja Hasan’s, though the Khan’s real name was Khawaja Sabir.  One wouldn’t be surprised if the Railways employees yet again re-purpose the tomb-shrine in the name of one more Khawaja!

The much ado about Nusrat Begum’s tomb occupancy is less significant, I thought, than its architectural composition which needs attention. Square in shape, the main chamber is constructed in massive brick masonry, with an arched opening flanked by two recessed arched panels on all four sides, creating a baradari effect.  The low dome rests on a high circular drum, which in turn rests on a short octagonal base, resulting in a gradual ‘smoothening over’ from the main square structure upwards. On the whole, the tomb has an overbearing appearance, which must have been softened somewhat by Kashi-kari mosaic tiles, remnants of which are visible in some portions of the dome.  

Ali Mardan Khan’s Tomb

Backtracking about one kilometre from Nusrat Begum’s tomb, we turned right, heading south on Wheatman Road (corrupted to ‘Wehtmun’ by the Punjabis). After about half a kilometre, we came across two boards alongside a wall, indicating Ali Mardan Khan’s tomb and the nearby Hamid Shah Qari’s shrine. A steel gate opened into a strange narrow vestibule with an iron lattice for a roof, all 400 metres of the way. A chowkidar, who had done us a special favour to let us in on a Sunday (closed to public), welcomed us heartily, for we had coordinated earlier and had promised to be good to him.

Ali Mardan Khan was a Persian Governor of Kandahar who became a turncoat to his master, Shah Safi I  of Persia, after having been bribed handsomely by Emperor Shah Jahan in 1638.  Ali Mardan quickly found favour in the new court as Amir-al-Umara, and was granted governorship of Kashmir and Punjab.  He is best known for his engineering skills in various public works, including a canal running from River Ravi to Shalimar Gardens, and a similar canal in Shahjahanabad, Delhi. He died in 1657 and was buried in the tomb that he had built for his mother.

The tomb is an imposing structure, with an octagonal main chamber, with eight arched, deep-set alcoves, all opening to the interior.  Atop the corners of the octagon once stood Rajasthani chhatris, of which only two survive. The dome stands on a high drum in Timurid style. We discovered a remarkable double-shelled feature of the dome when one of the youngsters called us from somewhere above.  We followed his calls, climbing up a special stairway, which took us to the top of the inner dome. There we stood in the dark and dingy gap between the two domes, much like school children who had discovered a secret passage to a treasure trove.  We were surprised to see candles, a prayer mat, and knotted ribbons on a streamer, and wondered if these were signs of transition to a shrine. Indeed, the subterranean chamber of the tomb which houses the grave, had been treated as a shrine – as well as a pot-smoking den – by unscrupulous characters, the chowkidar revealed, which is why entry to the public has been restricted.

Keen to know more about double-shelled domes, I later learnt that these were a construction compulsion for large domes, in which the inner dome was constructed first, allowing the supporting framework and trusses to be placed on top of it. Thus supported, the bigger outer dome could be built with ease.  Better acoustics (for mosques and cathedrals) was an added bonus. The smaller and relatively flatter inner dome also simplified ceiling artwork.

About a hundred metres north of the tomb is an utterly dilapidated gateway to the funerary garden, that once existed. It has remnants of Kashi-kari mosaic work, and is quite similar to the one at the Gulabi Bagh Gateway in Begumpura. The designer of the ‘Versailles of Punjab’ as Shalimar Gardens have been called, deserved a better-kept tomb complex, we thought.

Nawab Bahadur Khan Kokaltash's Tomb

Going along the Canal Bank Road, past Zaman Park and Royal Palm Golf Course, when a road from Garhi Shahu (left side) is intercepted, a large domed structure can be picked up over the left shoulder.  A simpler map location would place it just outside the Railways Carriage Factory, at the southern limit of Mughalpura.

Arriving at our destination in a swarm of over a score cyclists, and with the neighbourhood in complete awe, we went through our usual motions of photography and a bit of adventure. Some clambered up secret staircases and discovered another double-shelled dome, while others explored the upper floor galleries full of graffiti that Pakistanis must always bless their imaginary beloveds with.

The occupant of the tomb carries a long-winded title viz, Khan-e-Jahan Nawab Bahadur Zafar Jang Kokaltash. He found favour with Emperor Aurangzeb for capturing his recalcitrant brother Prince Dara Shikoh, who was promptly executed for heresy.  Bahadur Khan was then put in charge of Deccan to bring matters under control there.  He also served as Governor of Punjab. He died in 1697.  He is often confused with another Khan-e-Jahan, a nobleman in Emperor Akbar’s court.

The tomb is octagonal in shape, with eight deep-set alcoves, each having an entrance arch at the ground level, and another arched opening at the upper level. The brick tomb is bereft of any outward embellishment, though pigeon holes all over the building suggest a marble facing, since removed by, who else but, the Sikhs! The dome is slightly higher pitched, with an inverted lotus finial on top, giving it a more sinuous appearance than the classic Timurid ones that we had seen earlier. The historian S M Latif wrote in 1892, that the tomb was “surmounted by turrets with cupolas”, none of which exist today. He also mentions that the tomb was used as a theatre for the British military officers, when the adjacent Mian Mir locale was established as a cantonment.

We noted that the two noblemen Khan-e-Dauran and Khan-e-Jahan were essentially loyalists to their emperors, while Ali Mardan Khan did great public service to the Lahorites. In a fund-constrained regime, it is the latter whose tomb deserves major renovation, while the other two tombs could do with simple preservation, for the time being.

© KAISER TUFAIL. This is an open-access article published under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
This article was published in the daily newspaper The News International on 1 Feb, 2015

02 April, 2017

Hidden Jewels of Lahore - I

For those intent on exploring the cultural heritage of Lahore, there are the well-known sites like Lahore Fort, Badshahi Mosque, and the Shahdara Tombs, all easily accessible by a vehicle. However, I, along with a group of young cyclists, have been pedalling about for the past few months, and have unravelled some curious monuments that are, regrettably, not the usual ‘must see’ items in travel guide books. While their location in narrow alleys and congested bazaars may be a reason for their inaccessibility, their dilapidated state may be a better explanation of why few are interested in sparing time to get there. Sunday being a regular ‘working’ day for our cycling group of young professionals – with this able old hand alongside – we started with Begumpura area. The locale carries its name after Begum Jan, the mother of Nawab Zakariya Khan, a Governor of Punjab during the reign of the lesser Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah.

Gateway to a Pleasant Garden

Heading west on GT Road, I watched the distance on the bike GPS computer roll up to 1.8-km from the preceding Shalimar Link Road intersection. As expected, this is where the striking two-storeyed Gulabi Bagh Gateway, profusely decorated with brilliant, floral-themed Kashi-kari mosaic tiles, came into view on the right side. The gateway appears reasonably well-preserved, compared to many other monuments of that era.  

The Gulabi Bagh was laid out in 1655 as a pleasure garden by Mirza Sultan Beg, a cousin of Emperor Shah Jahan’s Persian son-in-law, Mirza Ghiyas-ud-din Beg; the latter helped Sultan Beg climb up the nobility ladder, to the rank of Mir-ul-Bahar in the puny Mughal Navy. Fascinatingly, the words ‘Gulabi Bagh’ are said to be a chronogram whose hidden numerical value stands as 1066 (Hijri) – or 1655 AD!

Besides the main entrance arch (peshtaaq), the fa├žade has four smaller arches; of the latter, the two on the ground level are simply deep-set alcoves, while those on the upper storey are openings of balconies set with stone-carved jaali guardrails. This Timurid ‘aiwan’ design of the gateway is common to many pleasure and funerary gardens of the Mughal era.  The roof of the structure is, however, not topped with any minarets, kiosks or turrets, as is the case with most other Mughal garden gateways.

As we passed through the entrance arch, the chowkidar’s unkempt bedding and slippers, scattered shabbily in one of the two open side chambers, seemed to mock appallingly at the lyrical Persian stanza inscribed on the entrance:

                         In a garden so pleasing, the poppy sullied itself with a stain of envy,
                        Thence appeared the flowers of Sun and Moon as lamps for adornment.

The Gulabi Bagh is no more extant in its original size and splendour. The present-day gardeners have, however, made a modest attempt at creating a garden with clipped hedging plants arranged in geometric patterns.  With unsightly residential buildings encroaching on three sides, what is left of the garden is actually a narrow stretch leading up to the tomb of Dai Anga, about 100 metres ahead. If the tomb was constructed in the centre of a square garden, as was usual, the area of the original Gulabi Bagh works out to be about ten acres.

A Tomb Amidst the Garden

Walking up to the squat tomb of Dai Anga, we first went around it to check the commotion. To our surprise, children who were playing cricket just behind the tomb scurried away, and some women hastily shuffled indoors, adjusting their dopattas in the presence of strangers who, they thought, were trespassers on their property!

When Emperor Shah Jahan’s wet nurse, Dai Anga, died in 1671, she was entombed in Gulabi Bagh. Mirza Sultan Beg, whose pleasure garden was appropriated for funerary purposes, was most likely her son-in-law, for a second grave of a certain Sultan Begum lies adjacent to Dai Anga’s. This grave is wrongly attributed by some to Shah Jahan’s daughter, for he had none by that name. Mirza Sultan Beg, had not lived long to enjoy his garden, nor was he interred in it, when he died in 1657 in a firearm explosion during a hunting excursion at Hiran Minar, near Sheikhupura.

When viewed from afar, something appears odd about the tomb; it does not take long for a keen observer to note that the corner kiosks (chhatris) atop the roof are over-sized. Or perhaps, the Timurid low dome on a high drum, the Rajasthani chhatris, and the Persian cusped arches, are fusion of one style too many for subtlety. The walls of the tomb, now shorn of ‘richly decorated enamelled pottery’ (which the historian S M Latif noted in 1892) give a rather bland appearance. Remnants of a chevron patterned mosaic on the dome are visible; arabesque and floral-themed Kashi-kari mosaic tiles can also be seen to run along the top of the tomb.  

Entering the main chamber of the tomb, we were careful not to step on the low brick cenotaphs, which had been put up after the original marble ones were removed, purportedly by Sikh vandals. The actual graves are in an underground chamber, now sealed and inaccessible. The upper walls of main chamber are richly embellished with Quranic calligraphy, while the inside of the dome depicts an apt celestial theme.  The main chamber is surrounded by eight interconnected smaller ones, based on a floor plan known as Hasht-Bihisht or Eight Paradises. How convenient, I thought, to have such a walk-in convenience for the Hereafter!

Suckling the infant Khurram (future Shah Jahan) certainly boosted Dai Anga’s family fortunes, for her husband Murad Khan, a magistrate in Bikaner, became a favoured courtier under Khurram’s father, Emperor Jahangir.  Dai Anga’s name also lives on for her services to the public, as she built a mosque in Lahore’s Naulakha area in 1649, before she proceeded for Haj. It is a pity that someone who bequeathed Lahore with one of its most beautiful mosques, lies in an utterly neglected tomb.

Cypresses for Eternity

Sarv-wala Maqbara, always had an oddity about its name, so after doing the Gulabi Bagh, we pedalled on to find out more. Winding around some narrow streets, we soon got to the tomb, which is actually just 200 metres north on a crow’s flight from Dai Anga’s tomb. Were it not for the decorative tiled panels with the cypress motif, one could mistake the square structure for an overhead water tank. The tall green cypresses, with an undergrowth of brilliant blue irises, make the tomb unique, for the cypress symbolism of eternity and agelessness so common in Persia, has rarely been expressed in the sub-continent’s funerary architecture.

Sharf-un-Nisa Begum, the occupant of the tomb, was the unmarried sister of Nawab Zakariya Khan, the Mughal Governor of Punjab. Given to piety and religious ritual, she used to recite the Quran each morning in this tower, climbing and descending by a ladder.  On her deathbed, the virtuous lady expressed her desire to be buried inside the tower, up and away from the inquisitive eyes of the passers-by. A Quran and a bejewelled sword are said to have been placed on the sarcophagus at the time of burial. All openings were bricked up and the upper walls covered with cypress-themed ceramic tile panels, four to a side. 

Though much has been made of Sharf-un-Nisa having designed the tomb herself, it is more likely that it was already an elevated garden lookout of the Nawab family, and was improvised as a tomb on the lady’s desire. The tomb was built in the first half of the eighteenth century, though some sources are more definite about the year being 1745.

During the Sikh reign in Punjab, the tomb was pried open and ransacked to hunt for supposed hidden treasures.  It was also stripped of bronze facing on the lower portion of the walls, leaving them with a battered, forlorn look.

Keen to peep inside from the single arch that remains open after the Sikh vandalism, we arranged for a ladder from one of the nearby houses. Since the ladder was not tall enough, and several ‘Spiderman’ attempts had failed, we thought we might have been spared an unwelcome reception by bats and creepy crawlies in a dusty cavern.

Hemmed in by houses, criss-crossed by overhead electric wires, and used as a cricket playground in its immediate surroundings, one wonders how long before Sharf-un-Nisa’s tomb cypresses wilt away, bringing her quest for eternity to a poignant end.

© KAISER TUFAIL This is an open-access article published under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

This article was published in the daily newspaper The News International on 25 Jan, 2015  

06 November, 2016

Across Taklamakan to Urumqi

After completing a gruelling 1,000 km cycling expedition from Sost in northern Pakistan to Hotan in Xinjiang last August, my friend Shahid and I thought it wise to switch to a more reliable means of transport to cross the dreaded Taklamakan Desert.  We gifted away our bikes to two guides who had been of help in Hotan, and then booked our seats on what promised to be the best luxury bus service in Xinjiang. The bus terminal at Hotan was as elaborate as any airport terminal, with sparkling floors and stylish steel furniture.   Sooner the announcement of departure was made, we walked to the bus parked just outside the waiting hall.  After stashing the luggage in the cargo hold, the passengers were handed polythene bags by the driver, which got us wondering if these were some kind of air sickness bags. As we were boarding the bus, the driver told us to take off our shoes, put them in the bags, and enter barefooted.  The excitement of entering a luxury cruise bus was rudely jarred by the sight of what we saw inside.  There were thirty-odd stretchers in three rows, with half of them slung from the ceiling.  The passengers seemed unfazed by the queer accommodation and promptly lay down, ready for the journey. The driver asked everyone to fasten the stretcher belts, lest there were falling bodies and broken bones. To someone not used to such luxury ‘sleeper’ buses – which are said to be common for inter-city travel in China – one could be excused for mistaking them for mortuary cadaver transports.

The 9-hour journey to Kucha (or Kuqa) across Taklamakan Desert offered just one monotonous view of sand dunes and occasional shrubbery – when not masked by a hanging blanket or a dangling leg from the upper berth. We had to go through police security check four times during the journey, with all passengers having to disembark and go through body scanners and scrutiny of documents.  Inter-city travel in Xinjiang involves formalities no less than those at international border crossings.  Irritating as it was, the security check was also a welcome break from lying down continuously and staring at the upper berth occupants, who had nothing better to do than gawking down in a similar wide-eyed fashion. Privacy as we know it, is little cared for, something we had unmistakably noted during our stay all over Xinjiang.
A Short Stay in Kucha
We reached Kucha at night and checked in at the Kuche Grand Hotel. Well rested by next morning, we sauntered around the neat little city that was once a populous metropolitan centre of the northern Silk Road.  The afternoon was spent at the rather decrepit mosque and tomb complex of Maulana Arshad-ud-Din Khan, a revered Sufi saint of the 14th century.  The Maulana is famous for converting the first ruler of the Moghul Khanate, Tughluq Timur Khan along with his nomadic subjects, to the Islamic faith. This Mongol tribal confederacy held sway around the Tarim Basin and the steppes further north, for over two centuries starting 1347 AD. Before the advent of Islam, Kucha was an important Buddhist kingdom on the northern Silk Road.
We had several hours to spend at leisure, as our train to Urumqi was to leave late at night. After a late lunch at the aptly named Maulana Restaurant, we idled in a small peaceful park, with none of the boisterous public activities to disturb us.  We noted that the farther east one went from Kashgar, less conservative the Muslim Uyghur lifestyles became, as was quite evident on the streets of Kucha; this was perhaps due to the growing influence of the more secular and worldly Han Chinese (the majority ethnic group in China), whose numbers in Xinjiang have continued to increase over the years.
Discipline at the Railway Station
Late in the evening, we left for Kucha Railway Station to board the train for Urumqi. After collecting snacks from shops outside the station, we queued up for scrutiny of our tickets and passports, followed by a thorough luggage and body scan. The waiting hall was jam-packed with passengers of many hues – Kirgiz, Kazakh, Uyghurs, Han Chinese, Europeans, Japanese, and the two of us from Pakistan. After waiting for two hours, the announcement about arrival of the train was made. Almost two hundred passengers shuffled up the stairway to the elevated platform. Used to our chaotic multitudes storming the railway stations, we were surprised to see not a soul on the platform, no hawkers selling snacks, nor any busy-looking railway officials. Before the crowd could break off into disorderly flocks, a young uniformed policewoman emerged from nowhere, and ordered everyone to form up in a perfect square, pointing at the painted lines on the platform. Next, she started a harangue on her cordless microphone, which blasted her voice on loudspeakers in the middle of the night. We could not understand a word, but going by her vociferous commands for everyone to stay quiet and not to use the cell phones, we knew she meant serious business.  Her instructions would take a menacing tone every now and then, much like that of a drill sergeant.  The high pitched lecture continued for good fifteen minutes, and we figured out that she was probably telling the passengers about the dos and don’ts of travelling on train, much like the cabin crew do on airliners.
We heaved a sigh of relief when she finished her sermon on spotting the arriving train’s gleaming headlamp at a distance.  All was quiet when another young policewoman with a red band on her peak cap, marched across the platform right up to the edge, and stood at attention next to the railway line. As the train slowed down to a walking pace, the engine driver craned his neck out of the window and saluted the lady, who reciprocated with a crisp salute. When the train halted, about 20-odd uniformed conductors alighted, one from each compartment, and helped the passengers board the train.  In precisely five minutes, over two hundred passengers had boarded, the engine driver and the policewoman again exchanged salutes, and the train was on course to Urumqi.
We had a very comfortable night in the deluxe train, a far cry from the ‘sleeper’ bus that we had travelled in, two days earlier. We woke up to the view of Tian Shan Mountains in the distance, which was much better scenery than the uninteresting Taklamakan Desert. Windmills for power production could be seen for miles before we neared Urumqi’s industrial zone on the city’s suburbs. As the train closed in on Urumqi, we could see a riot of skyscrapers in the modern capital of Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region.  No building older than fifty years remains, we were told by a local contact who had come to pick us up at the station. Winding his way through thick morning traffic, Mr Liu dropped us off at the Tamaris Grand Hotel, popular amongst the Uyghur community for its halal food and central location.
Urumqi – a Mishmash of Faces

With no business meetings to attend to, nor financial deals to cut, Urumqi offered us little by way of sightseeing.  For starters, we chose the Urumqi Regional Museum, which showcases local ethnography under the theme of ‘one China, many faces.’  The famous Tarim mummies dating from 1800 BC to the first century AD were also on display. The mummies are said to belong to speakers of the defunct Tocharian language, who purportedly came from the Bactrian (Balkh) region in present-day Afghanistan. Colourful mannequins of all ethnic minorities of Xinjiang depicting scenes of daily life, were also on display.
In the evening we made a round of the International Grand Bazar, within walking distance of our hotel.  An attractive brick mosque with a green dome, stands out in the middle of the bazar, in a scene reminiscent of Timurid Samarkand or Bukhara. The wares sold at the bazar include clothing, jewellery, carpets, and handicrafts.  Roadside eating stalls run mostly by women promise mouth-watering skewered kebabs and laghman (noodles), while street hawkers sell everything from almonds to water melons, to all-purpose potions.
For the better part of next day, we were guests of a well-heeled Pakistani businessman. The gentleman is well-connected too, for he is married to a once famous Uyghur actress. He enriched us with his knowledge of local customs, culture and society.  We learnt that there are more than a hundred Pakistanis in Urumqi who bring in handicrafts and sundry items, and sell them off profitably. Friday prayers at a nearby mosque were widely attended, with Pakistanis outnumbered only by the local Uyghurs. The Hui Muslims (converted Han Chinese), do not pray alongside Uyghurs and have their own mosques, we learnt to our surprise.  Together, the Uyghurs and Hui Muslims form less than a quarter of Urumqi’s population, while the Han Chinese are in a majority with three-fourths of the total. The Uyghurs seem to be outsiders in their own capital city.
Nearly a month had passed since we had started our cycling expedition into China. It was time to pack up and go, by yet another means of transport – the aeroplane.  After a most memorable adventure, we were soon on our way to Islamabad, overloaded with stories of discovery that have been told and retold, ever since.  I am reminded of novelist Margaret Thien’s observation about the people in China, that ‘you learn a lot from what they don’t tell you.’  It was just as well that we could not communicate in their language, for we would have been told much less than what we discovered all by ourselves!

© KAISER TUFAIL. This is an open-access article published under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

This article was published in the daily newspaper The News International on 6 Nov, 2016.