Why the crumbling heritage of Makli matters

Eight whole years.

It was eight years later that I was stepping into a bus again to go to the second largest graveyard in the world, the Makli Necropolis in Thatta, Sindh.

I first went as a college student and now I was taking The Lyceum college students (the irony) as part of the module, ‘The Semiotics of Culture and Architecture’.

This special module was being taught by Zain Mustafa, an architect, interior designer and educator.

He founded CUBE, which is a great platform to become acquainted with our heritage by visiting historical sites in Pakistan.

The edutours are especially unique, not only due to Zain Mustafa’s vast knowledge of these significant heritage sites, but because they expose students to understanding the traces of our rich pre-partition past and how they are relevant to us in today’s world.

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Our journey started at 8am and I couldn’t believe how hot it already was.

The van was carrying six students, two chaperones (including myself), Zain and the school nurse with her big, orange medicine box tucked beneath her.

We all had a good laugh as Zain exclaimed, “We could go to Mars with the amount of medicines we are carrying with us!”.

The nurse told me she had been to Makli as a school girl many years before I was born (well, not as many as she thought) and I couldn’t help but smile at the coincidence. My mother had told me the same thing this morning.

The two hours passed by very smoothly as the students were quietly talking and half asleep on a Saturday morning.

Right on schedule, we arrived in Makli at 10am.

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The first view I had while walking through the Makli necropolis was the tomb of Malik Rajpal from the Samma Dynasty.

As we got off the van, I was pleasantly surprised to see two golf carts parked in front of a rest house, which was part of the Culture Minister’s scheme to promote tourism here.

Another surprise awaited me as I stepped into the cool room, fully equipped with an AC and clean bathrooms. It was definitely a relief, to say the least.

“Enough R&R, let’s go everyone!”, Zain hollered out to us as I smiled and headed to the golf cart that was waiting for us with our driver in tow.

The mini bumps as our cart driver made sharp turns around the vast necropolis was surely a sight to see.

Amidst the sprawling Makli Hills spanning over 4 kilometers, here lay our precious history worth an astounding 700 years.

Part of of a rich era long gone but never forgotten lay the graves of Sufi Saints, royals, warriors and philosophers. I caught glimpses of the stunning carvings, calligraphy, and vaulted domes and could hardly reach for my camera, which was so unlike me. I was completely transfixed.

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to many different eras, namely the Samma, Arghun, Tarkhan and Mughal Dynasties between the 14th and 18th centuries.

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There are a staggering 150,000 graves and it is said that many still remain undiscovered.

Khanqah (madrassah)

Our first stop was the 700-year-old Khanqah (madrassah), which historians say was built during the reign of the famous ruler of the Samma Dynasty, Jam Nizamuddin.

It is said that during this time period, it was the peak of peace and progression. The ruler was very keen on gaining knowledge and used to spend much of his time with learned people.

The Khanqahs were built to be a ‘learning hub’, which attracted many scholars from Thatta, Iran and Khorasan were attracted to these Khanqahs.

To honor them, Zain made it a tradition to start his educational tour here.

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Zain explaining the detailed artwork of the sandstone columns.
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It’s hard to believe these columns have withstood 700 years of our changing planet.

As we stood around the circular space surrounded by columns mainly made of local sandstone, Zain asked us what we felt was unique about the carvings.

A student said it seemed as though there was Hindu influence judging from the floral and lace-work patterns. The carvings were such a mixture in terms of artwork, as I noticed Quranic calligraphy in between the columns.

Zain explained how the carvings were clearly done by craftsmen who didn’t understand what they were writing due to the spacing and placement of words.

Stepping out of the Khanqah, we all stood in the shade as a cool breeze swept over us. We truly felt lucky to have come on the right day as last week was a soaring 41 degrees with no wind.

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A very useful, informative guide about the history of the heritage sites, created by CUBE.
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Studying the map while Zain explained the different parts of the necropolis to us.

The graves of well-known Mughal governors were located at the southern most tip of the graveyard.

Right above this, lay the tombs of the Tarkhan and Arghun Dynasty. The Samma Dynasty rulers tombs were on the northern side.

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These smaller tombs date back to earlier years and are much more in human scale, which has a different canopy style and corbelled dome.

This particular canopy is made of stone and the dome has plaster on top to keep the structure in place.

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As we walked to the next site, I observed the crumbling state of this enclosure and wondered why there wasn’t any restoration work happening.

It was very saddening to see the dilapidated state of these artistic monuments.

Makli has so much potential to become a live museum and learning hub for students, tourists and locals to be aware of our history.

Jama Masjid

We stopped in front of the Jama Masjid ruins, which was the earliest mosque in the necropolis dating back to the 14th century Samma Dynasty.

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After being released from captivity by Sultan Firoz Shah Tughlaq, the mosque was built by Samma era ruler Jam Tamachi.
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The walls of these ruins were dilapidated and even had traces of graffiti.
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The mehrab visibly had “Allah” carved onto it, which was not professionally done or nearly artistic as compared to the other carvings in the vicinity.

It was such a purely obvious statement because the mehrab in a mosque signifies the qibla direction and place where the imam stands to lead the prayer.

As usual, Zain made us laugh by giving us an analogy of how this is similar to how gyms usually have the word WEIGHTS plastered on the wall on top of the rack.

Jam Nizamuddin Mausoleum

As we walked towards the mausoleum, I was in awe of its magnificent stone structure.

The artistic design was very striking as it stood out from the rest of the other monuments, especially because of its projected balcony on the facade.

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What really is striking about the beauty of this tomb is the detailed stone carvings on the balcony of lotus and sunflowers, clearly from Hindu influence.
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Our mini class being conducted in front of the tomb.
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The fine carving is done by skilled craftsmen from Gujrat.
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Walking at the back of the tomb gives a full view of the greenery surrounding Thatta. During monsoon season, greenery springs in the necropolis as well.
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Jam Nizamuddin was the most popular ruler from the Samma Dynasty, which Thatta was the capital of during this rich era.
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The Islamic and Hindu artwork makes a unique and creative design.

The blend of Hindu art, Quranic calligraphy and the mehrab made me wonder about the diversity in this former, rich capital that was home to people from all walks of life.

There was a time when there was peaceful coexistence, which I began to realise while exploring the different neighbourhoods of communities in Karachi.

As we walked behind the tomb, there were so much greenery which was such a contrast to the dryness of Makli Hills.

It was hard to imagine the River Indus that once flowed through Thatta in its glory days when it was a major commercial hub and rich capital.

Isa Khan Tarkhan II Mausoleum 

The statement ‘saving the best for last’ perfectly applies here.

It was quite overwhelming to walk into the mausoleum of Isa Khan II, a ruler from the Tarkhan Dynasty.

Raised on a stone platform, the tomb is a double-storey structure with low balconies that were made solely for design purposes.

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Surrounding all four sides of this domed structure are beautiful arches with calligraphy.
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Local mythology suggests that Isa Khan constructed this tomb while he was still alive and cut off the hands of the craftsmen so that they wouldn’t copy the design elsewhere.
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The design of the honeycomb style capitals and arabeque inscriptions reminded me of Alhambra in Granada, Spain.
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The courtyard is a wide, open space with arched sehans in the center of each side surrounded by small “cubbies”, which were comfortable to sit in.

The tomb is flanked by columns on both sides that have stunning surface tracery. The repetition of these identical columns gives a feeling of continuity and representation of the Oneness of God, a design mechanism often seen in Islamic art and architecture.

The students had a charcoal drawing session while soaking in the magnificence of this tomb after Zain gave them a mini tutorial.

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I was quite impressed with the students knack for drawing, although some weren’t even art students.
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I was tempted to start sketching while observing them, it had been too long since I had!

As I waited for the students to finish their drawings, I observed my surroundings and couldn’t help but feel an absolute sense of peace.

Although I was walking around a gravesite older than I could wrap my head around, I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all.

In fact, I felt at home.

This was my identity and who I am.

This is who WE are.

Eight years ago, this strong feeling of identity to my roots had driven me to write about this marvellous treasure that was just within our midst, waiting to be seen and heard.

If only we would listen.

 

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