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Grave tales

NANDITA BHAVNANI visits the world's largest necropolis in Sindh.

THE scrub desert of Sindh stretches away in front of us — sun, cactus, pebbles and limestone. We are surrounded by countless graves, old stone ones with sculpted headstones, fresh ones painted white, their green chadars shivering in the winter breeze. Everything, the desert, the graves, is a warm sandy brown; otherwise there is only the blue of the cloudless sky.

Nearby is an imposing cluster of mausoleums, only one of many: it is impossible to see from one end of Makli to another. "Shahar-e-khamoshan", Makli is the world's largest necropolis. Kings and queens are buried here, scholars, soldiers, 1,25,000 saints for which it is famed, and ordinary people. Its million-plus graves cover over 15 sq. km and 300 years of Sindh's history. I am told that Dr. Anne Marie Schimmel, renowned Sufi scholar, had wanted to be buried here too.

Nearby is the small nondescript town of Thatta, 98 km east of Karachi, founded in the late 13th Century as the capital of Lower Sindh in the days when the Indus flowed to the west of the city, gifting it water, gardens and orchards. Perhaps this is how the town was named: Tatastha, Sanskrit for "on the banks of a river".

We start at the far end, in chronological order, with the tombs of the Samma Rajputs, who ruled Sindh from 1333 to 1524. Jam Nizamuddin was an illustrious and beloved ruler: his 50-year reign was an age of peace and prosperity, when the mosques were all full at namaz time, when robberies were rare. Every morning when he groomed his horses, he prayed that he might never ride them out into battle. Fittingly, his tomb is the finest at Makli — an exquisite marriage of ornate carving and elegant simplicity.

Sculpted ducks walk across its walls, as do Quranic calligraphy and sunflowers and fine geometric patterns; delicate lace screens are carved over arched windows and there is almost a festival of jharokhas.

Some say that the name Makli means Little Mecca or Mecca-like; others that it was named after a devout lady whose prayers averted Sultan Firuz Shah Tughlaq's conquest of Thatta — he could only seize it three days after her death. Mai Makli's grave is simple, without any carving or headstone, nestled against the wall of Jam Nizamuddin's imposing tomb. But it is covered with a green chadar and prayers are still said there today.

Standing on the terrace of Jam Nizamuddin's tomb, I can see a broad swathe of greenery below the ridge on which Makli is located. This is also a grave of sorts: the erstwhile bed of the Indus, before it changed its mind and left Thatta to the destinies of the desert. The bright verdure stands testimony to the still-fertile soil — the river's legacy to Thatta. There is nobody else in sight; everything here is silent and still, only the wind and the distant chatter of parrots.


The Samma reign ended in 1524 with Nizamuddin's worthless son, Jam Firuz, who dangled his sword from his neck as a sign of submission before the invading army of Shah Beg Arghun from Qandahar. (Later, Firuz tried to make a comeback, his army tied to each other with their turbans so that none could desert, and of course they still lost.)

The Arghuns, who ruled Sindh briefly, preferred to be buried in Mecca, but their cousins and successors, the Tarkhans have their tombs here — a riot of jharokhas and latticed screens, rosettes and intricate designs, Quranic calligraphy and Persian poetry — "Arabic is the language of God, but Farsi is the language of Paradise".

The Tarkhans had to win a civil war, though, before they could claim Sindh for themselves, and they requested the Portuguese occupying Bassein for help against the Arghun loyalists. But when Pedro Barreto Rolim arrived at Thatta with his army in 1555, he found that the Tarkhans had made peace with their enemies, and had no further use for him. Enraged, Rolim proceeded to sack Thatta. The legend goes that the Portuguese massacred about 8,000 Sindhis without a single casualty, and carried off one of the richest booties in Asia.

Thatta had been a famous emporium, renowned for its excellent cotton and silk, its 400 colleges a magnet to men of learning. The East India Company had its factory here in the 17th and 18th Centuries, and the Dutch and the Portuguese were based here too, to trade in cloth, leather, indigo, saltpetre. Its full name was Nagar Thatta — the city, with a population of three lakhs. But then the wilful Indus moved away, and over time Thatta became a ghost of itself. In the old days, Thatta lent its lustre to Makli; now it is just another small town, puddles and garbage on the narrow main road, famous for its graveyard.

In 1839, East India Company troops camped at Makli en route to their infamous bloodbath in Afghanistan. A vicious epidemic felled more than 1,500 soldiers, proving the wages due for desecrating holy graves. The 21st Century hasn't brought all that much improvement. Although Makli is on UNESCO's World Heritage list, some old graves have actually been cemented over "for protection", others vandalised by treasure-seekers.

We are at the tail end of Makli now, the end of Tarkhan rule. Mirza Jani Beg, defeated by Akbar, had to kiss his foot before he was made Governor of Sindh.

His son Ghazi Beg succeeded him at age 17, but at heart he was a poet, a scholar, a musician. He was assassinated in 1612, at age 29, and with him died both the Tarkhan dynasty and Sindhi sovereignty. He lies buried near his father, under a high dome with zigzag stripes of turquoise blue tiles. The caretaker tells me that prayers made here will be fulfilled, but only if you sing Miyan ki Todi. "People are asleep, and when they die, they awake," Schimmel had said.

Today is Thursday, the ornate graves are red with fragrant roses. When I look up, the blue zigzags make me dizzy. I think about Nizamuddin's largeheartedness and spineless Firuz and the Portuguese plunder, and I wonder what music the night will bring, what prayers will be answered.

Nandita Bhavnani is a researcher of Sindhi history and culture.

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