Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Oh! Uch

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One school of historians believes that Uch is the city, another one of those several Alexandrias, which Alexander’s historian Arrian says was built on the confluence of the Chenab and t he Indus. The conqueror had hoped that ‘the place would grow and become a world-famous town.’ In the Middle Ages, Uch was known as Askalanda or similar variations of the word, all believed to be derivatives of Alexandria leading historians to connect it with the Macedonian conqueror. However, others deny this connection and would seek the city elsewhere.


Be that as it may, by the 11th century, Uch (or Ucha – Elevated – because of its situation on a high mound) was indeed ‘world-famous’. Eminent archaeologist Dr Saifur Rahman Dar points out that lying on the trunk road down from Central Asia through the Afghan highlands; Uch was a busy way station for travellers heading either for Rajasthani cities or for Multan en route to Delhi.

On the crossroads, the city naturally became a political centre by and by attracting men of religion. Early in the 13th century a religious family claiming Central Asiatic origin had established itself at Uch. Others followed, Uch turned into a centre of religious learning and today the dusty little town virtually overflows with mausoleums dating back to the 13th through 15th centuries.

But all was not rosy for Uch; it also suffered its share of setbacks. Early in the 11th century it was the Ghaznavides on the hunt for the Karamati sect deemed to be heretical. Within two hundred years, Jalal ud Din Khwarazm, on the lam with Chengez Khan hard on his heels, sacked and plundered this Islamic centre in 1221.

Kamil Khan Mumtaz, renowned architect and architectural historian, classifies Uch as the most important document representing the architectural style of the Sultanate Period. He points out that the domed buildings of Uch are exemplars of that early stage when the strength of the dome was not fully understood and it was deemed necessary to reinforce it with timbers. There is moreover a collection of varied building styles comprising of domed or trabeated and wooden as well as brick structures. According to Mumtaz, Uch is the most important historical document for the understanding of the architectural development in the later Middle Ages in our part of the world.

Just outside the bustle of the bazaars, sitting on a low eminence, are three tombs – actually their remains – resplendent with blue tiles. The oldest, that of Bahawal Halim, was built in the mid-fourteenth century, followed by that of Bibi Jivandi completed in 1494 and a smaller edifice of Nauria (circa mid 15th century). Nauria is said to have been a master builder while the other two were religious personages from the leading families of Uch.

In 1855, the Chenab then flowing right by the town (today 10 km to the west), undercut the mound on which the three domed monuments stood, cleanly slicing away one half of each building. And so they stood in their near ruinous state for the past century and a half, celebrated by photographers for their unique photogenic quality but otherwise totally neglected by conservationists.

In 1997 financial aid from the World Monument Fund, New York was made available for the preservation of the Uch monuments. Now, the Fund formulates an annual World Monument Watch listing the hundred most endangered historical buildings in need of protection. The first ever list featured this group of three Uch buildings on its cover underscoring their importance.

The funding made it possible for architect Yasmeen Cheema to create a detailed topographical map of Uch town. Moreover, detailed documentation of the endangered buildings was also undertaken. This is today available as a record of very high quality.

The retaining walls of the burial ground were strengthened and a meticulous operation replaced the rotten timbers of the arches of the tomb of Bahawal Halim. As well as that, some strengthening above plinth level of the structure of Mai Jivandi took place.

Thereafter funds dried up and work stopped. The scaffolding erected in the tomb of Mai Jivandi shows that some very ambitious restoration work had been planned but never even begun. However, because of Cheema’s non-availability it is not known what exactly was planned. This is the sixth years running since work stands abandoned.

The bolstering of the retaining walls happened in good time. Without this support the rains of the consecutive summers of 2010-11 would have taken a significant toll of the three precarious buildings.

But without further conservation work soon, the most remarkable and picturesque monuments of Uch face grave danger: the loss of a very important architectural document may well be waiting to happen.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:10 AM,

4 Comments:

At May 5, 2013 at 11:14 AM, Anonymous Khan Muhammad Osama Shaukat said...

It is extremely sad that such historic places are deteriorating as no one is present to take care of them.

 
At May 6, 2013 at 4:08 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

We in Pakistan do not care for anything. Nothing at all. Built heritage, nature, natural beauty, culture. Nothing matters to us. I don't know where we are headed.

 
At January 22, 2014 at 8:56 AM, Blogger Bilal A. Bajwa said...

Loved reading about Uch. Visited this place in Dec 2011. Very informative

 
At February 8, 2014 at 3:22 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Glad you liked this piece, Bilal.

 

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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand


Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days