December 25, 2011

Don't Rush in Vientiane

On being detailed for a trip to Laos, I was rather pleased as it was one country I could hardly ever think of visiting. A small delegation led by the then Foreign Minister, Mian Khurshid Kasuri, and including a few officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the armed forces, was scheduled to participate in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), a sideline to the 10th ASEAN Formal Summit in Vientiane (pronounced ‘viangchan’), the capital of Laos. I briefly wondered how on earth had Pakistan had been able to demonstrate that, ‘it had an impact on the peace and security of Northeast and Southeast Asia and Oceania’, to qualify for ARF membership, but that wasn’t my concern, really. Perhaps it had to do with keeping up with the Joneses in the neighbourhood.

I was glad that I could learn more about Laos People’s Democratic Republic regarding which, I knew little more than the fact that it was one of the last surviving bastions of Communism (though nominally), besides being the most bombed country, per capita, in the world during the Vietnam War.

We took a PIA flight to Bangkok, from where a Lao Airlines ATR-72 picked us up for a short flight to Vientiane. Prompt in-processing at the Wattay International Airport was followed by a leisurely drive to Novotel Hotel where our delegation was staying. Traffic on the well-maintained roads was sparse, largely due to low car ownership; motor cycles, bicycles and rickshaws (locally known as tuk tuk) were the principal means of transport. After checking in at the hotel, I took a short walk to sample the sights and sounds of the placid city that had seen many an upheaval in its tumultuous history of foreign occupation.

Just near the hotel, a statue of Fa Ngum, a ruthless 14th century warlord and founder of the Kingdom of Lan Xang (million elephants) – precursor to what is now Laos – stands menacingly, clasping a huge sword in hand. The road is named after his son and successor Samsenthai. As I walked down the road towards downtown Vientiane, I came across someone looking like our own countrymen, idling outside a shop. Indeed he was a Pakistani, which came as a surprise to me, as salaams were exchanged. He introduced himself as Gulzar Khan who owned a travel agency. He surprised me even more when he told me that about 100 Pakistanis are settled in the city, of whom the younger ones are mostly married to local girls. This matrimonial arrangement provides permanent residence to the Pakistani youth, while the local girls get to live in much better conditions than their less privileged counterparts. Another fellow Pakistani, Somboune Khan, originally from Haripur, emerged from somewhere and introduced himself as a director of a thriving garment import-export company. He also represented the Muslim Association in Vientiane. Both the Khans gave a good rundown of the city and its people and, helped me with some of the must-see places during the short time I had. We again met next evening when the two gentlemen, along with some Pakistani residents, came to call on the Foreign Minister at the hotel.

Walking by the roadside, I spotted a drab colonial building that houses the Revolution Museum. A rather modest affair, the museum covers the country’s struggle against the French when it was ruled as part of French Indo-China (1893-1953). Some heroic pictures of the Vietnam War showing ‘patriotic guerrillas fighting US imperialists’ and, memorabilia of the 1975 communist revolution spearheaded by the Pathet Lao (who ousted the royalists), are also on display. Incredibly, items like socks worn by Politburo members when they escaped from prison, also find a place of honour! The furniture and display boxes for various artefacts were rather worn out and the explanatory labels were on handwritten paper. For a full hour of my stay, I was the only visitor, which said a lot about the lack of enthusiasm for the turbulent past, I thought.

In the evening, we relaxed in the hotel lobby for a while, listening to the soft captivating music being played on traditional instruments, the khim (a stringed instrument struck with thin bamboo sticks) and the saw-duang (a two-stringed instrument that is bowed like a violin). We found everyone to be very courteous, though the language barrier prevented fuller communication beyond clasping both hands in the Indian-style namaste greeting. Modesty in dress and manners was evident even in the hotel, which seemed typical of the stiff communist societies of yesteryears. Jeans and long hair amongst men are particularly frowned upon. Women mostly wear the sarong-like long skirt (sinh) and blouse, with a broad sash going over the shoulder on formal occasions.

Next morning, it was the foreign ministry officials who were scheduled to attend a meeting while we, the forces’ representatives, were to attend a security seminar the day after. This gave me a welcome break for some sightseeing in the city. I took a ride on a tuk tuk to the That Luang, the huge golden stupa, which is the most important monument as well as the national symbol of Laos. Construction of the stupa was ordered by King Settathirat when the capital was moved to Vientiane in 1566. The stupa was later destroyed during the Thai invasion of 1828 and completely reconstructed a century later. Many tourists had thronged the beautiful parks and open areas around the stupa and were busy in photography, as the monument offers immensely picturesque views.

After spending an hour at That Luang and some adjoining monasteries (wats), I took another tuk tuk ride to the Morning Market, a busy shopping area where one can buy just about anything, from fresh fruit and vegetables to electronic goods. Shops and stalls are mostly run by old women while the younger lot is away at work. I haggled for a beautiful inlaid wooden box meant for knickknacks; starting from US $25, the price rapidly fell to $5 as superior Pak bargaining skills took the better of Lao talents. The shopkeeper, a university student, was so excited that he called his mother to inform her of the sale. When I enquired about the matter, he said that the money was enough for the whole family to be able to eat well for a week, so it was important to put the family matriarch in the picture. I was gratefully offered a bowl of sticky rice and fish sauce – the staple food of the Lao – but I declined it as I wasn’t sure about some other ingredients visible on the surface!

On the way back, we drove by an imposing monument known as the Patouxai or the Victory Gate, located on the city’s main Lan Xang Avenue. Completed in 1962, the monument is dedicated to the fallen soldiers of various wars. Patouxai’s similarity to the Arc de Triomph in Paris is readily apparent, though Lao motifs and figurines have been used to embellish the structure most aptly.

The tuk tuk driver dropped me off near the hotel from where I walked down to the banks of one of the world’s great waterways: the Mekong River. Considering that Laos is a landlocked country, Mekong is the lifeblood of its people. To someone used to seeing our emaciated rivers, Mekong seemed almost in flood. The river bank had scores of small restaurants, but I thought it was safer to choose a kosher fare at the hotel. The sound of flowing waters amidst croaking frogs and chirruping insects in the thick foliage was almost primal. It was late in the evening and I could imagine the reflection of a full moon in the river, a theme so creatively interpreted on the national flag of Laos. As I walked back to the hotel, I wondered if there could be a more idyllic city – almost a cosmopolitan village – where life is slow, everyone speaks softly and, anger seems like an extinct emotion.

The third day was busy with a day-long security seminar at which we were uninterested listeners as the subjects had little to do with us. In the evening a cultural show was followed by a farewell dinner. The trip to Vientiane came to a tame end and next morning we left for Bangkok, where we had time for a brief shopping spree. Our ambassador at Bangkok hosted a sumptuous lunch which was all the more enjoyable, as it was peppered with hilarity stemming from some uninformed remarks by the host. His constant addressing of everyone as ‘yara’ (buddy) got the ruddy complexioned Foreign Minister turn maroon, but he somehow managed to maintain his poise. A number of questions by the worthy minister, pertaining to our mission in Bangkok, drew unqualified blanks. Finally, the ambassador confessed in all candour, that being a political appointee, foreign affairs wasn’t quite his forte; hearing this, all eyes popped out much like those of the lobsters in our plates! Thus ended an interesting trip to the laid-back sleepy capital of Laos PDR, where the watchwords could well be: Please Don’t Rush!

© M 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 December 2011.

November 6, 2011

Magnificent Amber Fort

A fascinating weekend in Jaipur would not have been complete without a visit to the nearby Amber Fort, the original seat of the Kachwaha Rajputs before they moved court to Jaipur. Having to catch the Shatabdi Express to Delhi in the afternoon, I had several hours to spare so I set course for the fort soon after breakfast. A friendly taxi driver who had taken me around Jaipur the previous day, had left his contact with me and was available within minutes after I called him.

Amber Fort is a mere 10-km from Jaipur, so we drove at a leisurely pace, with the driver volunteering an informative commentary on the way. With a certain bit of pride, he told me that crime was non-existent in Jaipur and its environs, as locals were aware that it would adversely affect tourism which is a major source of their livelihood. Just out of the city limits of Jaipur, we came across the beautiful Jal Mahal seemingly afloat on the tranquil waters of Man Sagar Lake. Built by the immeasurably fat Maharaja Madho Singh (mota raja) in the mid-eighteenth century, the palace was a pleasure retreat used for hunting and picnic parties. Nowadays, the Man Sagar Lake is a well-protected bird sanctuary and quite popular with bird watchers.

Soon after we drove past the lake, a smattering of shallow hills came into view. The forested ravines and ridges of this isolated stretch of the Aravalli Range seemingly provided protection against any invader from the north and east. This fact that was not lost on Raja Man Singh I who started building the fort atop the crest of a hilly outcrop in 1592, on the remnants of an earlier structure dating back to the 11th century. The Kachwaha rulers went beyond merely bolstering their physical defences and, sealed their security by unique alliances with their Mughal tormentors, as we shall see in a while.

As the driver parked the taxi which was to wait for me for two hours, several men thronged around, enthusiastically yelling in an incomprehensible cacophony of which I could only make out the word ‘haathi’. They were offering stately elephant rides to the fort just 400 metres away! A two-way ride on a shared howdah cost 2,000 rupees while an elephant all to oneself cost twice as much. Any Westerner would be lucky to manage a ride for less than five to six grand. Having stayed in the Narain Niwas Palace the previous night, I had had my feel of the maharajas, not to forget the pinch on the pocket for the extravaganza! I, therefore, opted for a brisk trek up the zigzagging path to the fort.

Approaching the fort from the eastern side, the eye meets a well-maintained garden on the right and the picturesque Maotha Lake on the left. Jutting into the lake is a terraced garden known as the Kesar Kyari Bagh, named after the saffron flowers once planted in its star-shaped flower beds. What a sight it must have been to watch a raft of saffron floating on the turquoise lake, seen from the heights of the fort!

Entering through the east-facing Suraj Pol (Sun Gate) – the rising sun being an emblem of the Kachwahas – one finds himself in a large quadrangular courtyard, the Jaleb Chowk that was once used as a parade ground and quarter guard. Today, well-stocked souvenir and snack shops line the courtyard. Tourists can be counted in hundreds at any given time.

A flight of stairs, as well as a thoughtfully constructed later day ramp for the handicapped visitors, leads to the Diwan-i-Aam (Hall of Public Audience). The adjoining Sattais Kutcheri, with its 27 pillared patio, was used by the court scribes to maintain records and draft petitions for review by the maharaja. The family temple of the Kachwahas dedicated to Shila Devi lies on the adjacent side. I shuffled past hurriedly, lest it seemed rude for not offering a quick prayer outside its solid silver door, as done by most Hindu visitors.

The formidably built and beautifully frescoed Ganesh Pol (Gate of the Elephant-god) leads to the royal quarters and the harem. Atop the three-tiered gateway is a filigreed terrace from where the ladies could watch functions held in the Diwan-i-Aam. Purdah amongst the royal Rajput women was followed rigidly, much like the practice prevalent amongst all Muslim rulers of India. The original Mughal jaali or the filigree screen was, thus, found by the Rajputs to be an expedient architectural contrivance to keep their women from the prying eyes of the commoners.

Stepping beyond, into the royal sanctum, is a Mughal-style four-quartered garden known as Aram Bagh. Flanking it on the left is the Jai Mandir whose masterpiece is the glittering mirror-encrusted Sheesh Mahal on the ground floor, which served as the Hall of Private Audience. The top floor housed the maharaja’s private living chambers. Across the Aram Bagh on the opposite side is the Sukh Niwas or Pleasure Palace, complete with water running through open channels for an air-conditioned effect, much needed in an area where temperatures routinely cross 45ºC.

The last courtyard houses what is known as the Zenana Mahal, originally the palace of Raja Man Singh I. Suites on three sides, with a central baradari pavilion where the royal ladies could cavort, form the main palace complex. Generally sparse in their matrimonial assets, only one maharaja with thirty wives and concubines came close to beating the Mughals at their favourite hobby. “Well-stocked for the whole month”, quipped one of the sharp visitors to the fort, when the tour guide reported the peak occupancy of the Kachwaha zenana!

The power – and the pleasure that goes with it – had to be achieved and secured by force of arms, usually. Unfortunately, in the face of zealous Muslim adventurers, whether the Mughals or the Sultans before them, the Rajputs were seldom able to put up a united stand. Centuries of siege and subjugation had become too much for the proud Rajputs. Seeing this state of affairs Raja Bharmal of Amber made an offer that could make even the stoutest of kings drool. For the Kachwahas, there would be no more jauhars, the collective suicides in the face of defeat.

On a cold wintry morning, the marriage party accompanying the beautiful Princess Hira Kumari left Amber Fort for nearby Sambhar, where Emperor Akbar’s retinue was waiting to receive the bride. In a matrimonial alliance of convenience, Raja Bharmal had decided to give away his daughter to a Muslim emperor, thus sealing an alliance that brought the House of Kachwahas a breather from centuries of constant feuding. Mariam Zamani, Emperor Jahangir’s mother, well-remembered by a Lahore mosque of the same name near the railway station, was none other than Hira Kumari.

Having become familiar with much of Amber Fort, I could imagine Hira Kumari being led to the Shila Devi temple for invoking the idol’s benedictions before the start of a new but uncertain life. Then, amid the wail of shehnais, a sad farewell at Jaleb Chowk would soon have been followed by a cheerful welcome at Agra, full of Mughal fanfare. Much pleased by the offering, Emperor Akbar returned the Kachwaha favour by promoting his new brother-in-law’s son, Raja Man Singh, as the Commander-in-Chief of the Mughal Army. Akbar went even beyond that, by including him amongst his famous inner circle of Nauratans (Nine Jewels).

The pattern set by his father led Raja Bhagwant Das to offer his daughter Princess Manbhawati to Emperor Jahangir; she was later to become the mother of Prince Khusrau. Thus continued an alliance amongst some of the most unlikely partners, but which turned out to be advantageous to the Mughals and Rajputs alike. I should have been careful to specify which particular Rajputs, for the other ruling clans were none too happy about this arrangement. The Sisodias of Mewar, the Bhattis of Marwar & Bikaner and, the Rathores of Jodhpur considered that Rajput honour had been defiled, for their credo demanded death to such dishonour. For those who saw to it that their women burnt themselves on the pyres every time they were vanquished, offering daughters as pawns was considered the ultimate in shame. In the event, the Kachwahas turned out to be one of the most prosperous and largest Rajput houses till the abolition of the Princely States after Independence. The Mughals too, having managed to cover their western flank, were able to expand their empire in other directions, unhindered.

The fortunes of the town fell when Amber Fort started to suffer water shortages in the 17th century. So grave was the problem that Maharaja Jai Singh II decided to abandon the fort and start building a new city of Jaipur in 1727. The abandoned fort fell into neglect, but lately, conservation efforts have paid off and the fort has recovered much of its former glory. Having seen Amber Fort, with which Lahore Fort shares much in architectural and functional detail as well as place names, one wishes that we too could do more about conservation. Sadly, given the prevalent security situation, the effort might be questionable as few tourists would be there to repay the expenses.

© M 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 November 2011.

October 29, 2011

Enchanting Jaipur

The anticipation of visiting the fabled pink city of palaces and exotic bazaars was overtaken by the child-like excitement of travelling in a train for the first time in three decades. On a warm April morning, I was waiting at Delhi Railway Station to board the Shatabdi Express. As the train slid aside the platform, passengers promptly shuffled on board; five minutes later it was speeding out of Delhi. The pleasant initial impression at the railway station was soon blighted by the sight of a vast garbage dump that ran for miles and miles on both sides of the track. There was no consternation as pigs and dogs rummaged about while trains whistled past. Mercifully, the rustic charm of the countryside gradually started to transform the scene that seemed so familiar; one could well be travelling somewhere in our own Sindh or Punjab. For me, the train ride was especially thrilling, as I thought there was no better mode of travel to study the land and people of India.

Most of the passengers seemed to be well-heeled as the Shatabdi tickets are a bit dear. The money was well-spent, however, as everything was good about the train: the compartments were clean, seating was comfortable, newspapers and magazines were plenty, the food was a delight for a vegetarian like me and, not the least, the hostesses were most courteous and smart. I must also add that the train driver was an absolute stickler for punctuality, an attribute little cared for in our part of the world.

Four hours later, I was at Jaipur. As I got off, two trains stopped by in quick succession, with as many passengers on the roof tops as were inside the compartments. “Such a sight is common on weekends due to rush,” explained a polite taxi driver who drove me from the station to the Narain Niwas Palace where I had a reservation. The high sounding palace is actually a ‘heritage’ hotel now, as most of the former rulers of India’s Princely States have converted their palaces into attractive tourist dwellings. These earn them sizeable revenues which help keep up their princely airs, while the government gets a good return from the thriving tourist trade.

After a quick snack at a nearby Subway joint, I took a taxi that dropped me at a place called Bara Chaupar (Big Square) on the eastern end of the pink city. I may add that the pink colour of the buildings has an amusing history behind it. In preparation for the Prince of Wales’ visit in 1853, the Maharaja decided to impress his colonial benefactors and whimsically decided to paint all buildings of the city pink. (That should be known as ‘going pink with kindness!’) Nine blocks of buildings, including the City Palace and the Jantar Mantar Observatory, constitute the original city that was started by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II in 1727, and completed six years later. The well laid out city with wide streets is said to be the first in the sub-continent based on a proper grid plan, after a break of well over four thousand years since Harappa and Moenjodaro saw their glory days.

All kinds of wares are sold in the bazaars, including textiles, jewellery, flowers, local handicrafts, etc. Curiously, I saw several female cobblers doing their work by the road side. Sadhus and yogis were a common sight on the streets. The imposing Jamia Masjid near Bara Chaupar is a triple-storey structure with fifteen arched entrances. A sizeable Muslim population of the city lives in harmony with the rest, mostly Hindus. The main thoroughfare of the city is named after one of the most accomplished Prime Ministers (Diwan) of Jaipur State, Sir Mirza Ismail.

On the other side of Bara Chaupar is the famous fantasy structure known as Hawa Mahal (Palace of Breeze) built in 1799 as an extension of the Maharaja’s City Palace. According to one tradition, it was designed to let the royal ladies witness the market scene through the small windows and filigree screens, while remaining in purdah. The façade is supposed to represent the crown of the Hindu god Krishna, to whom the builder of this palace, Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh, was intensely devoted.

As one walks down the Tripolia Bazaar (named after a triple-arched gateway to the palace compound), a prominent Islamic-style minaret catches one’s eye, but it is a surprise to find that there is no corresponding mosque. It is actually Ishwar Tower, built as a victory memorial by one of the maharajas after defeating his step brother. The association of Kachwaha Rajput rulers of Jaipur (and previously Amber) with the Mughals is well known and, one sees this most vividly in architecture, where Islamic elements are clearly evident. Interestingly, the title of ‘Sawai’ was given by Emperor Aurangzeb to his unusual Hindu ally, Jai Singh II, for being extraordinary or ‘more than one’ against the Marathas, sawa (one-and-a-quarter) being used as a metaphor. The Maharaja’s heirs seem to have taken the title too literally, for they fly two Indian flags atop the City Palace, a full-sized one and a smaller, quarter the size of the bigger one. Old habits die hard, they say!

After a busy day, I retired to the hotel for a brief rest. The evening fare at the hotel consisted of an open air dinner in a lovely mango garden, with a Rajasthani folk dance and music troupe in attendance. Next day, I started my tour with a visit to the City Palace, which is as old as the city of Jaipur itself. A portion of the palace, the Chandra Mahal, is occupied by the heirs of the last Maharaja, while the rest is open to public. I was welcomed to the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience) by two liveried guards with lances who were keen to help me with the camera. They suggested pictures with them as, “you will look like a Maharaja,” they uttered in unison. Of course they earned a good tip for the smooth talk. Located inside the Diwan are two silver urns, said to be the world’s biggest silver vessels, each weighing 750 lbs. When a former Maharaja visited England for King Edward’s coronation in 1901, these urns were shipped along, so that the Maharaja could drink ‘pure’ water from Ganga River and not be polluted by the English Thames. Ganga Mineral Water, anyone?

Paucity of time demanded that I choose the Sileh Khana (armoury) over Mubarak Mahal where a boring display of textiles and crafts was underway. Some of the exotic items at the Sileh Khana included a dagger with two pistols on the sides, a disembowelling device whose many blades open up like an umbrella on penetration, daggers bejewelled with rubies and emeralds and, dual-purpose walking sticks that could shoot bullets. I came out awed by the opulence as well as gut-churning tastes of the Rajput royalty.

A many-faceted Maharaja Jai Singh II had an interest in astronomy and mathematics as well, which led him to an observatory construction spree in five major cities. The one at Jaipur known as Jantar Mantar is a fully functional one, and has several structures including a huge sundial and devices for calculating the positions of heavenly bodies, as well as exact times of eclipses. It was amazing to see scores of children checking the time on the sundial, while many others were seen trying their skills at various other devices. I thought we needed an observatory in every district that could at least sort out our perennial moon sighting problem!

After a short trip to the magnificent Amber Fort, I collected my night kit and checked out of the hotel. As the clerk handed me the bill, the manager soothingly came around to congratulate me for having lived like a Maharajah for a day! A late afternoon ride on the Shatabdi was uneventful except for some lively interaction with a fellow passenger. When I had declined a meat patty served over tea, he was quite pleased that I was a strict adherent of ‘the’ faith and hadn’t succumbed to modern ways. Then we discussed local politics, Delhi’s civic problems, world politics and just about everything under the sun. When he asked me what my profession was, I told him that I had been flying the fast stuff. “Oh, so you can take care of the neighbours!” To this one, I emphatically replied that I could. Despite conversing for hours I had managed not to give away my identity, but after his swipe, I was itching to let him know where I belonged. As we got off at Delhi Railway Station, he asked my address. When I told him I was from the neighbouring country, he nearly tripped off. He held his head in his hands and said it was amazing that in nearly four hours of conversation, not once did he think that I was an outsider. He was a businessman from Jaipur and invited me to visit again; he assured me that what he said earlier didn’t have much meaning to it. I thought I could do one better and warmly invited him to Lahore, “so I could take care of the neighbours!” We had a hearty laugh followed by effusive goodbyes, which brought a befitting end to a wonderful weekend at Jaipur.

© M 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 30 October 2011, under the title, 'Going Pink.'

October 2, 2011

Hasanabdal of the Mughals

“On Wednesday the 12th [Muharram] the camp was at Baba Hasan Abdal. One kos to the east of this station there is a waterfall over which the stream rushes with great force. There is no fall like it on the way to Kabul. On the road to Kashmir there are two or three like it. In the middle of the basin, in which is the source of the stream, Raja Man Singh has erected a small building. There are many fish in the basin of the length of half a gaz and a quarter gaz. I halted three days at this enchanting place, drinking wine with those who were intimate with me and employing myself in catching fish.”
That was Emperor Jahangir recounting his hedonic capers in Tuzk-i-Jahangiri. He was taking a break at the delightful way station while on his way to Kabul in April 1607. Earlier, his father Emperor Akbar and later, his son Emperor Shah Jahan had been frequent visitors to this rest-and-recreation spot, where the watchwords were opium, wine, hunting and fishing. Today, the dilapidated relic known as Wah Gardens continues to be a relished picnic spot for locals and for whom, carbonated beverages and fowl-rich biryanis provide the ultimate high.

I had visited the gardens several times when we were young students at the nearby Cadet College. For those of us whose parents were located too far for a weekend visit, cavorting in the local bazaars and verdant gardens of Hasanabdal provided welcome relief from chronic homesickness. Now, almost four decades later, nostalgia of another kind took me back to Hasanabdal. The aroma of spicy fried rohu fish sold by street side vendors, verdant loquat gardens even now too tempting for a mischievous raid, the all-pervasive whiff of bhang that grows ever so wild and, every other restaurant dedicated to Lalarukh, whoever she was: these were sights and smells that had to be savoured to relive those teenage years long gone.

About three kilometres south of Hasanabdal near the small bridge over an anaemic Dhamrai Nala, a narrow road branches off into dense foliage. On the roadside is a romantic little cottage surrounded by a bamboo thicket, which I recall, was once owned by an old German lady. Winding around acute corners of villas of the well-to-do locals, one suddenly finds himself face to face with the ever-present extortionist, greedily waving the car parking coupon. The gardens seem abuzz with activity and revellers of all ages greet outsiders with the usual small town stare.

A fifteen-rupee entrance ticket allows you inside the gardens. In the middle of the green lawns is the fish pond described by Jahangir, but instead of fish of the half gaz variety one sees dozens of mammals of the two-legged kind, clad in all-purpose shalwars, thrashing about in the water to kill the intense summer heat. Alongside, families have laid out their feasts on mats under the cool shade of some very old chinar trees. A nearby marble plaque proclaims: Chinar, Platanus orientalis, 1908.

Besides the pond, the upper terrace also has a pair of utterly ruined baradaris, the only extant buildings in the gardens. Traces of an adjoining royal hammam (bath) are also visible. The lower terrace has a central water channel (now dry, of course) lined with elegant cypresses. At the north-western end of the channel is the main entrance gateway, which is closed to the public.

“Time has left nothing but ruins of buildings, parterres covered with grass and weed-choked reservoirs, a jungle of trees….,” wrote a certain Colonel Cracroft in 1932. Today, eight decades later, it is not much different from the Colonel’s description. Unhappily, one is left wondering what the gardens must have been like in their original imperial splendour.

For those of you who thought that something was amiss about Mughals on a rest and recreation trip, we shall move to another part of Hasanabdal to see if it connects. Turning into the Main Bazaar Street, one comes across the familiar Sikh Gurdwara of Punja Sahib. It is out of bounds for Pakistanis – which is no surprise, as things are – but that doesn’t matter if you are looking for a certain Lalarukh’s tomb that lies just across the street reeking with open drains and bubbling sewers. In the centre of a small chahar bagh style walled garden, stands an odd squarish structure made of rough stone blocks crudely plastered, standing about two metres high. The somewhat stubby corner turrets of perimeter walls are topped by small ribbed domes, hinting at a Timurid tradition. A later day cenotaph surmounts the pedestal rather loftily; there is no tombstone, no sign of the forlorn occupant of this strange tomb. Lalarukh, or ‘tulip face’ is supposed to rest here according to lore, but her real identity remains an enduring mystery.

Mughal genealogies or autobiographies do not record any princess by the name of Lalarukh. In any case, if she were a royal daughter accompanying the emperor and, died due to an accident or some natural cause, a splendid tomb would surely have been ordered. Could she have been a favourite concubine who accompanied the emperor as he tarried at Hasanabdal on his way to Kashmir or Kabul? Perhaps she contracted some tropical fever in the hereabouts and, was quietly laid to rest amidst the cypresses and cool streams, far away from the court chatter of Agra, Delhi or Lahore. On the other hand, she could well have been a local courtesan who knew how to liven up the emperor’s evenings with song and dance. As for the emperor who might have been associated with Lalarukh, all three mentioned earlier were consummate pleasure seekers; however, if the famous Anarkali offers a clue, it could well have been the unstoppable Jahangir!

Just when it seemed that some headway had been made in this right royal tangle, we have one Hasan Gujjar who is claimed by traditionalists to be the real occupant of the mystery tomb. Why a Mughal emperor would edify the Gujjar’s resting place with a garden and a tomb and, not mention it in his autobiography when even the most mundane activity gets detailed, is inexplicable, unless one of the emperor’s nobles undertook the initiative on his own. One of our professors at the Cadet College, the late Mr M H Siddiqui, who was well-versed in local lore and history, was of the opinion that Hasan Gujjar was none other than the saintly Sheikh Karim-ud-din Baba Hasan Abdali.

What is known for sure is that ‘Lalla Rookh’ is just a fictional character in Thomas Moore’s grotesquely amusing 19th century romantic poem, hung around the neck of Emperor Aurangzeb’s misnamed daughter. How she ends up in Hasanabdal, remains an unsolved riddle. Perhaps someone in the British Raj thought that Moore’s imaginary princess had just the right credentials to fill in for the unknown courtesan – or the Gujjar – and, could help attract odd tourists like me!

Nearby, a well-designed but little cared for tomb known as Hakimon ka Maqbara stands derelict and decaying. The tomb was constructed by Khawaja Shams-uddin Khawafi for himself in 1589. Khawafi was the Superintendent of Works during the construction of Attock Fort and had his summer headquarters at Hasanabdal. He was later elevated as the Governor of Lahore, but was not destined to be buried in his own tomb as Emperor Akbar ordered one of his favourite ‘Nauratans’ (Nine Jewels), Hakim Abul Fateh Gilani to be buried there instead. Subsequently, Abul Fateh’s brother, Hakim Hamam Gilani, was also interred in the same tomb. One suspects that Khawafi may have earned Akbar’s ire, possibly for trying to immortalise himself beyond what his station allowed.

The tomb’s basic form is derived from a regular square with bevelled front corners. Archways on the four sides lead to the tomb chamber which is vaulted on the inside. The archways, as well as the exterior and interior walls, have niches which break the monotony of the simple structure. Unfortunately, crumbling plaster and graffiti scribbled through the ages have rendered this building in as wretched a state as the rest of the Mughal buildings in Hasanabdal – and much of Pakistan, I hasten to add. It is said that the ruinous condition of the tomb is largely due to the wanton destruction of Muslim buildings by the terrible Hari Singh Nalwa, Sikh Khalsa Army Commander and later Governor of Peshawar under Maharaja Ranjeet Singh. The cenotaphs of the Hakim brothers were razed, all embellishments removed and the tomb was used as a munshi’s office for a long time. Apparently, no worthwhile renovation has been undertaken since then. A fish pond in front of the Hakims’ tomb is full of slimy water with hideous flotsam, including polythene bags and juice packets, floating about. The wonder is that many large-sized mahasher fish swim about, apparently in good health!

The next time the Archaeology Department decides to hold its annual seminar, Hasanabdal might be good venue to set up camp. Maybe it gets the archaeology mandarins’ attention for a long due repair job at this – once celebrated – way station of the Mughals.

© M 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 2 October, 2011.

September 4, 2011

Bay Watch at Ormara

With the lone hotel in Makran having closed down recently due to security concerns, one has to think twice about exploring this fascinating vastness by camping out in the open. I was lucky to take up the offer from a naval colleague and decided to spend a tranquil weekend at the Naval Mess in Ormara. The allure of watching the turquoise waters of gently curving bays, from an exclusive viewpoint perched on the enchantingly beautiful ‘hammerhead’ was too much of an opportunity to let pass; and what better way to get there than by driving down the excellent highway which, at places, overlooks the dazzling Arabian Sea with the stratified hills of the Coastal Makran Range for a picture-perfect backdrop.

With my old Air Force friend Nauman Farrukh for company, we set course early in the morning and headed via the Northern Bypass towards the industrial estate of Hub. From there, as we drove along the RCD Highway to Uthal, we picked up many features familiar to us from the air during our bombing runs of yester-years at the Sonmiani Firing Range. We were so busy recollecting old stories that we completely missed the turn to the Makran Coastal Highway. After nearly reaching Bela, we realised our mistake and turned back to Zero Point, 18 km south of Uthal, from where the highway starts. The traction of the tyres suddenly smoothened out as we coasted along one of the finest roads in the country. The road widely arcs around the inland sea known as Miani Hor where all sorts of aquatic birds can be seen; it can be visited only in a 4x4 vehicle due to rough terrain. About 90 km from Zero Point is another marvellous geological feature, the famous Chandra Kop mud volcanoes of Makran. Located about 6 km off-road, the three volcanoes can be visited in a 4x4 vehicle; however, one must be prepared for a very bumpy ride over sand dunes and thick shrubbery.

The desolation of the countryside is evident all along, with hardly any population centres, save for a few reed huts here and there. There is no evidence of agriculture or even rudimentary industry, anywhere. The road traffic is thin, with about one vehicle passing by every 3-4 minutes. Roadside shacks serve tea and beverages, while some also sell petrol, hand-pumped out of barrels as there are no proper petrol stations on the way. About 100 km from Zero Point, the road starts to run south-west along the base of a hill range that eventually dips to the edge of the sea. For those not so lucky to manage a night’s stay in a forces’ Mess at Ormara or beyond, the drive must end at Hingol River crossing near Aghor (about 3½ hours from Karachi) so that a return journey can be completed before nightfall.

We took a tea break at a roadside shack short of the Hingol Bridge that also marks the beginning of Hingol National Park. Nearby, a signboard proclaims – dubiously, I think – the site of the graves of Muhammad bin Qasim’s soldiers, though their design and vintage seem similar to those at the 15th–18th century Chaukundi Necropolis north of Karachi. Another signboard indicates the road branching off to Nani ka Mandir, a Hindu shrine of great antiquity, about 15 km inland near Aghor. Since there is no bridge over the river and the water level was high for fording it, we decided to leave it for some later adventure.

Beyond Hingol River, the road passes through defiles and gullies in the hill range. Odd shapes chiselled by the wind and rain can be seen, the most remarkable of all being a huge sphinx-like figure. Not too different from the famous specimen at Giza in Egypt, it only needs some refinement and finer shaping of facial features to qualify as the Sphinx of Baluchistan. Other naturally sculptured shapes include pagoda-like structures, lofty towers and human figures; one of the latter is said to have been named Princess of Hope by none other than Angelina Jolie, while on a flood relief tour a few years back.

As we got closer to Ormara, the huge mass of the promontory jutting out into the sea became visible. We were low on fuel so our immediate concern was to find a petrol station in the town. As we drove through the town’s central street, we saw numerous shops selling Iranian bootlegged petrol, besides the usual groceries and vegetables. A shopkeeper’s assurance that it was top grade fuel prompted us to get a refill; in the event, we did not have any engine issues on the return leg. The drive through the town had nothing to show but pot-holed streets and an unkempt look. Iranian-made motor bikes are the principal means of transportation in the town. Occasionally a woman wrapped in a black chador would scamper past, somewhat uncomfortably. We found the locals to be generally good-natured and friendly. Almost everyone spoke Makrani Baluchi with a Persian lilt to it, though Urdu is the lingua franca in much of Makran. Unfortunately, literacy rate in the area does not reach two figures for males, while for females it is absolutely zero. A school administered by Pakistan Navy, however, promises to change things in due course.

After reaching the Mess we had a quick shower and, hurried to be in time to watch the sunset from atop the hammerhead which rises to 1,500 ft above sea level. A winding road covering a distance of 17 km takes one to the top, where a small viewing enclosure aptly named Bay Watch offers the most stunning views of the East and West Bays. Unusual for the month of July, we encountered cold winds that lashed the sheer cliffs draped in low clouds. Ospreys struggled to keep balance in delightful aerobatic flight as they scanned the shore for fish and crabs. About 50-odd fishing boats could be seen in the shallow waters off Ormara town. The Jinnah Naval Base stood out as an ultra-modern facility in the clear blue waters of East Bay. The picturesque view did a lot to soothe our tired eyes, much as the feast that followed did to our mid-sections, a little later! After the long day was done, we drove down the hammerhead in pitch dark, with our headlights picking out several hedgehogs setting off on their nocturnal forays.

Next morning we decided to go around the town to check the activities. Plenty of men were busy catching crabs on the West Bay which is a daily chore for those who cannot afford a fishing boat. Many others have found jobs as labourers at several of the Navy’s construction sites. Poaching of falcons for Arab Sheikhs is rampant, we were told; a sizeable number of shikaris indulge in this illegal falconry trade which earns them handsome amounts. The beautiful Sooty Falcon (Falco concolor), a summer breeder on the Makran Coast and the Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus), a winter visitor to the area, are prized birds which has been the cause of their declining numbers.

The Navy is well-respected in Ormara, especially for its welfare efforts which include free medical care for the locals and subsidised rations purchase. An upcoming 100-bed hospital is certain to extend health care to far-flung areas. In a few years, one expects the first batch of educated youngsters from Ormara enlisting in the Navy, which would be a turning point for the locals, both from the point of view of employment opportunities in this far-flung region, as well as national integration.

Having spent a wonderful weekend, we were ready to leave at mid-day. Shortly after driving out of Ormara, we saw two more mud volcanoes about 3-5 km off-road (approximately 18 km north-east of the town). Since we had to get back to Karachi before sunset, we could only view them from a distance. During the journey, a lot of landscape pictures were taken. We noted an excellent spot at Kund Malir for those who insist on hazarding a camping trip. About 25 km west of the Hingol river crossing, the rocky Ras Malan plunges into azure waters, and date palms laden with fruit seem to soar above the huge sand dunes of Kund. This is Arabian Sea in unmatched splendour.

It must be noted that mobile phone signals in the area are poor to non-existent; a car breakdown could thus turn into a nightmare, so it would be best to travel in a convoy of two vehicles. A jerry can of extra fuel, a properly inflated spare tyre, jump start leads and a strong towing cable are a must for travel safety. Needless to emphasise, a stock of delicious snacks and cold beverages could enrich the outing manifold! A Sunday on the Makran Coast is a thrilling picnic waiting to happen. Wise words: don’t wait!

© M 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 4 September, 2011.

July 2, 2011

Sultana's Last Abode

Standing at the Turkoman Gate, we hailed a cycle rickshaw to take us to the curiously named Bulbul-i-Khana locality inside the convoluted labyrinths of Old Delhi. “Where exactly?” the rickshaw-wallah asked us. “Razia’s grave,” I replied. Pedalling laboriously for several minutes in the April heat, he abruptly stopped for what seemed like a breather. “There, into that street .… ask anyone,” puffed the rickshaw-wallah. Looking at the width of the street that branched off, we understood why he could go no further. Feeling odd – and a bit guilty, I may add – at having arrived in almost colonial splendour, we rewarded the wretched rickshaw-wallah handsomely and strode off to pay homage to the fabled Razia Sultana.

I, along with my wife, had been soaking up Delhi’s history for the whole of the previous week and, had seen just about every landmark that we had read about in our school days. When we expressed our desire to visit Razia’s grave, hardly anyone could help with its location, which was a surprise. Though a famous film starring Hema Malini as the vivacious Sultana and, even comic books featuring Razia have been popular in Delhi, there weren’t many who seemed interested in her forlorn after-life.

We asked a chai-wallah if he could help us with the way to the gravesite. “It’s up there on Bhojla Pahari, not far from here,” he replied casually, while his clients looked at us questioningly. As we headed into the shabby cobblestone street, we noticed that it was getting claustrophobic and not even two persons could walk abreast without a nudge. Not sure if we were at the right place, we rechecked with some passer-by, who said that we were not only on track, we were actually at our destination, as he pointed at the grilled iron gate on the dead end of the street. The surroundings could not have been much different from our own Inner City in Lahore, with rickety conjoined houses putting good neighbourliness to severe test, live electric wires taking dreadful dips in every terrace and, rubbish heaps mocking at slothful babus of the municipality. The sub-continental street scene came full circle when a pye-dog soaked in sewerage slithered past us, having had a cool dip in the open sewers. Something must have gone very wrong for Razia to have ended up where she was, we wondered.
Our schoolbooks never told us that Razia was enamoured to the keeper of her horses, an Abyssinian slave by the name of Jalal-ud-din Yaqut. The chauvinistic Turki nobility known as the ‘Group of Forty,’ already incensed at having to bow to a woman in court, was aghast at seeing Yaqut promoted from the Amir al-Khayl (Superintendent of Stables) to the powerful position of Amir al-Umara (Superintendent of Nobles). Palace intrigue, thick with spying and plotting, soon implicated the unmarried Razia and Yaqut in a frivolous bit of intimacy. Yaqut was reported to have helped Razia clamber into her saddle, rather ardently. While she trotted off with a gratifying smile that eventful day, little did she know that the long knives were out.

A revolt by the Governor of Lahore in 1240 AD was put down bloodlessly, but shortly afterwards, Razia was confronted with a more ominous threat from Malik Altuniya, the Governor of Bhatinda. Razia led a force to confront the rebel governor, but was routed soon after her arrival. Her favourite Yaqut was killed in battle, while Razia herself was imprisoned in the very fortress she had come to reduce. Thereafter, in a twist right out of Indian cinema, her captor Altuniya found himself irresistibly captivated by Razia’s charms – she was about thirty, we are told – and the two promptly got married! Altuniya then led the combined force to Delhi to wrest his bride’s sultanate from her brother Muiz-ud-din, who had usurped it in the prevalent brotherly fashion while she was away campaigning.

Standing on the little Bhojla Pahari, which is more of high ground than a hillock, we looked around at the dense jungle of brick and concrete that is Old Delhi today. It took our mind’s eye to visualise that over seven and a half centuries earlier, this place was a wooded jungle on the floodplains of Yamuna; the imperial court was a further ten miles south at Rai Pithaura – the first of seven Delhis – then just 60 years old. We imagined Muiz-ud-din marching past where we stood, to square off with his new brother-in-law, as far north from the capital as he possibly could. Though Razia was more experienced in battle craft, she was constrained to defer leadership of the force to her husband, who was not quite equal to the task this time, as it turned out. After a resounding defeat, Altuniya and Razia fled westwards from the battlefield near Karnal, but after a day’s march which saw bulk desertions, they were cut down by local Hindu Jats at Kaithal. It was 14 October 1240, almost four years into Razia’s rule as the first Muslim woman ruler of Hindustan.

Reaching the iron gate at the dead end of the street, our eyes fell on two unremarkable graves in a small open courtyard. Were it not for the Archaeological Survey of India plaque which gave the details, we could well have been looking for some domed mausoleum hidden from view, elsewhere.
Mounted on a foot-high plinth, both graves are dressed in crude stone blocks. Of the two graves, one is said to belong to Razia’s sister Shazia but in the absence of tombstones, guesswork is fair game. The possibility of Altuniya resting in the company of his wife is not altogether improbable, I thought. A couple of platters full of bajra ensure that pigeons liven up, what might otherwise qualify as the most pitiful resting place of any monarch that I have seen.

With nothing more to see, nor any caretaker to talk to, we left the place rather cheerlessly. As we were winding down the street, a shrill voice called out, “aye bhai sahib.” Looking back, we spotted a middle-aged man with paan stained teeth, beckoning us to stay as he had not been able to offer his hospitality. Sensing it to be the usual attempt at extorting money, we continued, only to be chased by the man who kept insisting that we see the adjoining dargah and mosque. The whole situation started to become tense as he grabbed my arm and almost dragged me to a halt. My wife too was worried that one shrill whistle by the charlatan could draw out a dozen thugs rushing from the warrens and alleys. Before things got nasty, I jerked the fellow aside and we shuffled out of the street as fast as we could.

How on earth did Razia come to be buried in the horrid corner of Bulbul-i-Khana, if the grave is actually hers, that is? To complicate matters, there is a tomb in Kaithal also attributed to Razia. To answer the question, one can only speculate, based on the circumstances in which Razia died. If indeed Hindu Jats had killed her (there may have been a tacit nod from the top), the new Sultan would have put up a pretence of a decent burial and, would have hastily brought his sister’s remains back to Delhi. Bhojla Pahari is said to have been the place where Razia’s purported patron saint, Hazrat Shah Turkoman Bayabani, used to sit during meditation. This location may have been chosen by Muiz-ud-din in the belief that the saint’s blessings might comfort his tormented sister’s soul; that it was out of the way for any would-be sympathisers from the capital, was just as well. In the event, the saint died shortly afterwards and is buried not too far from the gate named after him.

As for the tomb at Kaithal, it could have been built by a later ruler over the site of Razia’s temporary burial. There being no tombstone or memorial tablet at Kaithal does not help matters much.

That Razia’s grave could yet emerge somewhere in Pakistan, some day, would be no surprise. In fact, discovery of Razia’s burial chamber in Kasur has already made news in some Urdu dailies, but we shall leave that for another story!

© M 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 3 July, 2011.

June 12, 2011

Thatta's Fallen Glory

If you are a Karachi-ite and have a Sunday to spare, you couldn’t make better use of your time than taking a quick tour of Lower Sindh. A spine for adventure and some good weather could see you through Makli Necropolis, Kinjhar Lake, Shah Jahan Mosque at Thatta and the little-known hill of Pir Patho, all in a day! That is what I and my good old friend Khalid Marwat – also a skilled amateur astronomer in his own right – did last month, much to our pleasure I may add!

We reached Thatta after a two-hour drive from Karachi on the National Highway. It did not take long for us to observe that the fabled town had seen better days in the past. “Negar Thuttie, a great city as big as London,” proclaimed the joining instructions to captains of East India Company in 1607. This contrasted starkly with a report by a German armyman Leopold von Orlich during a visit to Thatta in 1845 in which he noted “the narrow, irregular and dirty streets … the ruinous nature of the town.” Sadly, fortunes of the city fell forever when the silted Indus delta changed course in one of the vagaries of nature, for it had been a thriving river port and seat of power in Lower Sindh since late fifteenth century, till the Kalhoras moved the capital to Khudabad (near Dadu) in 1739.

Of the several sites visited by us over the weekend, I thought the Shah Jahan Mosque deserved a closer enquiry, if for no other reason than its being the only structure commissioned by the Mughals in Sindh – an oddity of sorts, surely. From the point of view of Islamic architectural styles, this mosque is unique too in a number of ways, as we shall see.

It is said that Shah Jahan, while an emperor-in-waiting, fled from his father’s wrath after a rebellion and sought temporary refuge in Sindh. Were it not for the generosity of Sindhis, he might have met the same ignominious fate of his seditious brother, Khusrau. Later, when Shah Jahan had the throne all to himself, he ordered the construction of a mosque as a token of gratitude to the people of Thatta, which practically speaking, was synonymous with Sindh in those days. The mosque was completed in 1647, three years after construction had started.

Located at the eastern edge of the town, the relatively unassuming facade of the mosque is lent some distinction by a chahar bagh style garden laid out only in the last major renovation in the 1970s. The entrance portal has three well-embellished arched gateways which open into a vestibule, with the main gate leading directly to the courtyard, while the two smaller ones lead to the ablutions bays, and then beyond to the arcaded galleries on the northern and southern sides of the mosque.

The twin-aisled galleries are actually a series of cubicles interconnected with thick-walled arches, each topped by a small dome. Built with red bricks lined in white mortar, the arcaded galleries and their domes are an exquisite study of myriad geometric shapes. The white horizontal lines of the arches effortlessly give way to the verticals and then, wrap themselves into concentric circles on the insides of the domes, looking much like the long-exposure shots of stellar motion in the night sky.

Besides the numerous small domes, a main dome tops the prayer hall, two secondary domes top the main entrance portal, while another two tertiary ones mark the centres of the two galleries. Ninety-three must be some magic number, for why else would they not complete a full hundred domes? Superb acoustics are said to be the outcome of these numerous domes and, the imam’s voice is claimed to be heard loud and clear in the farthest corners of the mosque. Unfortunately, we were not able to test the high-fidelty sound effects, but saw no fuss in agreeing with the multitude. Personally, I thought the visual appeal of the vaulted galleries may have been the dominant factor in the unusual design. Aesthetics were, however, soon blighted by the sight of human heaps sprawled in the galleries, deep in pious siesta!

As we stepped into the medium-sized courtyard, we could barely see the main dome over the prayer hall as it was rather squat, without a drum at its base. Even more surprising was the absence of minarets; there wasn’t a single one to be seen! The structure of the mosque is far removed from the quintessential Mughal style of Delhi, Agra and Lahore. In fact, this mosque boldly breaks from tradition and does not seek to be imposing in any way.

The prayer hall itself is emblazoned with bright Sindhi tiles in blue, white and brown, but one does not fail to note the hybridisation of designs that has resulted after recent renovations. The later ones are finished crudely, and the florals and starbursts are more evocative of our rickshaw and truck art. Sadly, yet another renovation seems in order as plenty of tiles have fallen off or are cracked.

It was heartening to see busloads of school children as well as weekend revellers visiting the mosque, despite the suffocating May heat. After all, it seems like the only place in town worth visiting! Unless the flagging fortunes of Thatta somehow find a prop, it would be quite a challenge to preserve this remarkable mosque that has a style all its own: simply, ‘jo Thatto’ (of Thatta)!

After visiting the Shah Jahan Mosque we had time to do some sight-seeing at a rather offbeat spot called Pir Patho, where we had planned to stay the night at the PAF Officers’ Mess. Located 15 miles south of Thatta at the southern tip of Makli Hill Range, the little settlement is located on a small hill, about three miles from the banks of Indus.

We first drove up to two very old mausoleums: that of Syed Sakhi Jamil Gurnari (died 1244 AD) and the other one of Shah Hussain Aplani (died 1268 AD) also known as Pir Patho Debali or just Pir Patho. The latter is considered the patron saint of boatmen, who invoked his blessings as they set out in the crocodile-infested Indus delta. Interestingly, Hindus too revered him for the same reasons, but as an incarnation of ‘Raja Gopichand,’ a somebody in their man-god pantheon.

Not needing any special benedictions as we found ourselves safe from crocs, we drove off to the nearby bin Qasim Mosque and Tower complex. As the sun dipped low, we caught sight of a dilapidated tower which, the locals told us, marked the spot where Muhammad bin Qasim landed. Of course bin Qasim had trudged along the Makran badlands on camelback, but local lore had him as an able Admiral too! The memorial tower is quite similar to the one at the mausoleum of the early 17th century writer Mir Masum Shah in Sukkur and possibly, of similar antiquity too. My friend Marwat, however, thinks that due to its elevated location (the hill is 80-ft above sea level), the tower at Pir Patho could have well have been a military look-out or an anchorage marker in Thatta’s maritime heydays: a KPT Tower of sorts. Of course, we are talking of an Indus delta and the sea that was much further inland.

The nearby mosque – actually two of them, curiously conjoined – has six domes, three to each half. Without much material for a deeper study, one can only speculate that the second mosque was a later add-on for more accommodation. Like the tower, the mosque seems to be of seventeenth century vintage.

Green Pigeon, illustration from
Birds of India by Martin Woodcock
Our busy day was done with a good shower and excellent food by our somewhat surprised hosts at the little-visited Mess. It was a wonder that Marwat could stay awake for a night of sky-gazing though I was deep asleep within minutes of going to bed. Next morning, while breakfast was being lazily prepared, we did some bird-watching, whose highlight was an unusual spotting of a Green Pigeon (Treron phoenicoptera) high up in the tree tops. Sighting of this winter visitor, which is mostly confined to Punjab, would have been significant only if we had been able to photograph it, but for the bird getting disturbed by the sudden noise of generators cutting in at the start of load-shedding! By the way, Pir Patho and its wetland environs are a bird watcher’s delight, especially in winters.

On our way back, we decided to sample thaadal, the traditional Sindhi drink, at a roadside shack near Gharo. Heaps of almonds were being pounded by wooden pestles in stone mortars, but it were the sundry ingredients being sprinkled incessantly that got us wondering if the concoction was to quench something more than ordinary thirst: rose petals, cloves, cardamoms, mint tablets and poppy seeds! Mercifully, we stayed in control after the heady drink and came home in good cheer, with some excellent memories of the genial people and fabled places of Lower Sindh.

© 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 12 June 2011.

May 15, 2011

With Alexander Across the Salt Range

I couldn’t have been much concerned about which route the invading Alexander took when he started from Taxila, to battle Porus across River Jhelum (Hydaspses) in 326 BC. To me, the location of the battlefield – still not clearly identified – and what exactly happened there, was more essential. All that changed when my friend Shahid Dad suggested that we retrace the likely routes, as his daughter Aisha had some new ideas that she wanted to test for a thesis in her Classical Studies major at Wellesley College in Boston. Ever too eager for a trek, I immediately paced up my evening walks to tone up for the rigours of the outing, while the mornings took up a study of Sir Aurel Stein’s On Alexander’s Campaign in the Panjab. Stein’s work is a modern day commentary on Arrian’s Anabasis Alexandri, which remains the best source on Alexander’s campaigns, though one has to allow for inaccuracies and omissions as the latter was written a good four hundred years after the events.

Stein would have us believe that, just because a Ghaznavid expeditionary force supposedly descended through a narrow gorge in the Salt Range to reduce the Hindu Shahi stronghold at Nandna, Alexander would have used the same route thirteen centuries earlier! Now this line of reasoning would have remained uncontested if the opening at Nandna was the only one in the widespread Salt Range spanning almost 100 miles from east to west. In the event, we thought we could look elsewhere, with the bonus of observing some of the most colourful landscape Pakistan has to offer.

Could a ‘Salt Road’ have existed in Alexander’s time for transportation of salt from the big salt mine at Khewra, if it was operational, that is? It is not hard to imagine camel and mule trains hauling the valued condiment to the markets in Central Asia, Gandhara, Kashmir, India and Persia. One has to only glance at the map to note that such a route may have been the precursor of today’s road that runs south from Chakwal to Khewra, then on to Pind Dadan Khan before swinging east to nearby Haranpur, the purported site of Alexander’s main camp that lay roughly opposite that of Porus across the river (see map, brown track). For Alexander to have followed such a route, it had to be effortlessly negotiable so as not to wear out his soldiers before the actual battle started, besides having sufficient forage in the crags and defiles for a cavalry of 9,000 horse.

In May last year, I, along with Aisha and Shahid decided to check these ancient logistics issues while motoring in merry comfort – with no worries about hay or horseshoes, I may add! Turning off the M-2 motorway at Kalar Kahar, we headed east over a narrow road shadowed by an escarpment that runs alongside for a full 15 miles till Choa Saidan Shah. A few miles short of Choa, the Ketas Raj temple complex is visible from the roadside, so we took a detour for a short visit. A Buddhist stupa dating to the 3rd century BC is the oldest extant structure, while numerous Vedic temples attest to the reverence in which the complex was held in the later Hindu Shahi era. Ketas is said to have once been the centre of annual pilgrimage by Hindu devotees from all over the sub-continent.

At Choa Saidan Shah, we had a tiffin of tea and patties which charged us up for a more difficult stretch till Khewra. The constantly winding road provided breathtaking views, only to be blighted by the ugly smoke emanating from Dandot cement factory. A visit to Khewra salt mines was not scheduled so we pressed on to Haranpur, which is about as unremarkable as any other small town of Punjab. As we took a roadside break, everyone agreed that the route, while the most direct from Taxila, had some very difficult stretches that could have severely taxed Alexander’s force. Nonetheless, the lore about the famous conqueror is so deeply ingrained amongst the locals that just about every village or small town of Potohar boasts of Alexander having having stopped there for a rest before taking on Porus!

Our next destination was Alexander’s river crossing point, which is reported by Arrian to be 150 stadia (17 miles) from the main camp. Arrian further states that, “there was a headland ascending from the Hydaspes at a point where the river made a remarkable bend”. Stein interprets this headland as the “precipitous spur projecting from the Salt Range which terminates with its south-western corner just opposite to Jalalpur”.

Covering the 17 miles to Jalalpur Sharif was straightforward and, without wasting much time, we drove to the little known but high sounding Alexander Monument and Research Centre. The complex abuts a torrent bed whose name Kandar Kas (kas = nullah or rain stream) would surely ring a bell with etymologists; the nullah passes by the eastern edge of the town before draining into River Jhelum. What a disappointment to see an interesting building locked up and no one to tell us what it was all about! With not even a chowkidar anywhere in sight, we decided to visit it again at a later time, for we had yet to explore other possible routes culminating at Jalalpur Sharif.

A month later, we set off on our next trip to Nandna temple and fort ruins, which overlook a defile from where, it is said, any expeditionary force coming from the north can conveniently debouch on to the plains of Punjab. Breaking off the motorway at Lilla Interchange, we drove past the familiar Pind Dadan Khan and Haranpur before stopping at a quaint-sounding Dharyala Jalap, where ‘Doctor’ Khalid Qazi was waiting for us as a guide. Khalid is a compounder and runs a small home dispensary in Jalalpur, but seemed to be more of an expert on all things Alexandrine. We had heard of him during our last visit to Jalalpur and had requested his help for the next trip; he graciously decided to forego his thriving practice for a day, to join us this time.

With four of us and our driver seated in the two cabins of a 4x4 pick-up truck, we set course for Baghanwala, a mere five miles north (see map, red track). A verdant settlement with lush gardens and spring water streams was a welcome sight, amidst the stark and rugged terrain all around. A few surprised locals were at hand to help us through the scrub-lined cobblestone path that led up a steep rock face. The ruins of the Nandna temple were visible high up against the skyline and to get there, it took us half an hour’s trek through an idyllic oasis ringed by small hamlets and several mills run by stream water. Grazing camels, donkeys and goats harked back to a scene which may well have been some millennia past.

Panting and sweating in the June heat, we got a feel of what Alexander’s force might have experienced in the same season. Reaching the top of the Kainthi plateau, as it is known, we surveyed the few remains of the temple and fort, as well as the northern approaches. To our surprise, we could see nothing more than a few narrow rain torrents that serve as tracks used by villagers for collecting firewood; there was no trace of any path wide enough over which a 66,000-strong infantry and 9,000 cavalry could have trodden. In any case, the narrow gorge enclosed by sheer cliffs was utterly difficult to negotiate and, we thought, any wise commander would have avoided this route unless he was mad angry or mad drunk. (Alexander was known to be afflicted by both maladies, though!)

We were told that a narrow road built in recent times led from the nearby cement factory at Gharibwal to the village of Ara and beyond. That was good enough reason not to attempt a hike through the craggy hills and, hurt an ankle or two in the effort. We, therefore, pressed on in our 4x4, though in a direction opposite to what Alexander supposedly followed.

Ara is a small settlement on the edge of a picturesque plateau that offers breathtaking views, with the lush foliage teeming with birds of all feathers. From Ara, we could view Nandna in the distance and, the rough and convoluted terrain in between only reinforced our doubts about this route. We took a break at an ancient stepped well (baoli) whose concealed location, our guide Khalid knew very well. The location of the baoli testified that some time in the past, Ara may have figured as a way station for weary travellers like us. The baoli had not dried up and in fact, it was being used to pump water to someone’s private gardens nearby. It is a pity that not many people know about the tranquil getaway that Ara is. We all thought of a dream farm house here, some day, much in preference to any at Bedian Road or Chak Shehzad!

Still harbouring doubts about the two routes explored, we decided to investigate yet another one. Aisha, incisive as always, pointed out that any heavily-laden expeditionary force would find the mere sight of hills daunting, and it would be worthwhile finding a bypass. Khalid suggested that we drive through the dry bed of River Bunha, a rather long, winding rain torrent that skirted the heights and eventually drained into River Jhelum. To our good luck, the driver of the pick-up was well-familiar with the terrain as he had brought his sahib on many a hunting trip in the past (before hunting was prohibited, we assumed).

From Ara, we headed in a north-easterly direction along a narrow broken road that eventually led us to Padhri, where we intercepted the river bed. We learnt that this bed turns into a torrent a few miles south of Chakwal and meanders east till Padhri before bending south, whence it opens out in a large fan near Pind Sawika. From there, a narrow road leads to Jalalpur Sharif, astride Kandar Kas during the last few miles (see map, blue track).

One could see that a south-bound expeditionary force could catch the Bunha bed anywhere during its 50-mile traverse and, get to Jalalpur quite effortlessly. We noted that grazing was ample and there were plenty of pockets that had retained water from the last rains several months ago. The only caveat to this alternative route is that in rainy season the river bed would turn into sludge and marsh, so Alexander would have to have marched through before the monsoons came. Of course his local guides, possibly from the Taxiles Legion made available by the confederate Raja Ambhi, would have known of this route as well as the vagaries of weather.

The drive had become bone-jarring by now as we had spent the better part of the day over hills and vales, half of it trekking. Khalid also seemed to be getting edgy, but we knew he’d get his smile back, on seeing the waiting room full of patients. We eagerly looked forward to his promised tea when we reached his home/dispensary.

Late in the afternoon, we reached the Alexander monument at the northern reaches of Jalalpur town. The structure’s baked brick walls, classic Grecian portals and rather vainly fashioned Ionic columns, left us unsure of what to make of its architectural style. An ill-conceived research facility funded by the Greek government and several NGOs, as well as some keen individuals, it never developed beyond the basic structure and is in a state of abandonment since its inauguration in 1997. Money might have been better spent if it had been a scaled-down memorial signifying the place of assembly of Alexander’s forces, and no more. Perhaps the Greek government (with the consent of other donors) could still gift it as an educational facility to Jalalpur Sharif. Any takers for ‘Sikander Primary School’?

The last item of the day was sumptuous tea at Khalid’s place. He turned out to be quite an antiquarian when he showed us several pieces, including his coin collection of various Muslim eras. The pièce de résistance was a huge and very heavy article carefully wrapped in sheets, which got us wondering, till he unveiled it. It was a mammoth (3’x2’) copy of the Granth Sahib, the Sikhs' holy book, printed at Amritsar’s first press at the turn of the previous century. Khalid told us that it was left behind by the Sikh owners of his present house at the time of Partition. Khalid’s entrepreneurial spirit showed up when he allowed that he would try to rope in some Sikh yatrees for a bid, when they next visited Punja Sahib (at Hasanabdal)!

As the journey came to an end, we were all glad at having spent yet another useful day in the Salt Range; Aisha was no less thrilled at having gone through an adventure few girls in Pakistan can dream of. I, however, have yet to ask the young Classical Studies scholar as to how it mattered whether Alexander passed through Khewra or Baghanwala or the Bunha bed, as long as he was in time to meet Porus!

© M 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 in two parts on 8 May and 15 May, 2011.