Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Footloose once again

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Since 2008, I am engaged every year by one of my paymasters in preparing the images and text for their annual diary [Book of Days] and table calendar. For 2013, we are doing one on archaeological sites that were first discovered by British explorers. And so, there I was in Sindh to revisit sites that were once – when I lived in Karachi – my regular beat.

Bhambore. The way into the city from the harbor

The sun was out when I left Karachi one forenoon for the four-hour drive to Shahdadpur to reach the ruined city of Brahminabad. On the Super Highway we drove into pelting, driving rain that considerably dampened my spirits. Shahdadpur was made in good time and with an old friend from there, we went on to village Chhuttal Sehto that sits by the ruins. This was ideal time for photography. Only the thick overcast ruined the light and we returned disappointed.

‘Broadway’, a la Moen jo Daro

Bhambore the following day was great. But the getting there is a story. Because of bad weather, I told yesterday’s driver that he should come only if I called him. At 6.00 AM it was clouded up, so I waited. An hour later, it was fine and I called the driver. He said this being the day CNG was available; he was in line to fill up and would not be able to make it for another hour and half. That meant it would be too late for photography. Thinking I could just get a yellow taxi, I went to a nearby stand only to find it empty.

After waiting for nearly forty-five minutes I resolved to hire a Suzuki loader and so off I went with Sajid (from Chakwal) in his pick-up. Now, Gharo (from where you take off for Bhambore) is about sixty kilometres from Karachi central. As we trundled past Landhi, Sajid said there were police pickets on the highway (N-5) where they collected bhatta. I did not know that this was standard for all freight vehicles and motorcyclists, they being the lowest in the pecking order.

We got to the first police barricade. An ugly, ill-attired moron in police uniform sauntered over and shook hands with Sajid. I looked the other way to avoid shaking his filthy hand. Then he said, ‘Sahib, salaam lo.’ Unwillingly I nudged his finger tips. Then he leaned in and waited as I looked hard at him. He thought I or Sajid would know the procedure and I thought he, seeing we had nothing in the truck, would wave us on. But he just sort of leaned on the window as if he would collapse if he let go. At length he said, ‘Bismillah karo.’ I ask you! He wants a bribe and he encourages us to hand it over in the name of god. I snapped. ‘Oye, HARAM UD DAHAR!’ I bawled at him at the top of my lungs. And then I let him have it for asking for haram and legitimising it the way he was. I raved and screamed until another voice on my side of the truck interrupted to ask what the matter was.

I turned to find a three-stripe policeman standing there. I told the man what blasphemy his subordinate had just committed. And if there is blasphemy that the Muslims of this hypocritical country commit readily every waking moment of their lives, it is of similar nature. Sadly, no one minds it. Money makes us happy, so blasphemy, no matter how grave, is winked at if money is involved. The havaldar very politely asked us to leave. Thereafter, I told Sajid to not stop at any barricade but to simply weave his way through. In the remaining some kilometres to Gharo, we were waved at least three more times, but we simply sailed through. One hundred rupees of fleeing haram was evidently not bother enough to be pursued and extracted.

Then it was off to Sukkur to ramble amid the immense quantities of splintered chert and baked bricks amid the ruins of Aror, that glorious medieval city that dazzled the cultureless Arabs in the 8th century. The 8th century mosque, one of the earliest in the subcontinent, has been taken over by a mullah. Even as the Department of Archaeology slumbers, the mullah is making additions to the ancient historical structure. Soon, he will demolish the remaining original gateway and mehrab to replace it with his own ugly architecture.

Nearly thirty years ago we saw a Mughal mosque from the time of Aurangzeb demolished not many miles away on the outskirts of Rohri to be replaced with a modern structure. And again, I have seen the priceless Jamia Masjid Akbari (circa 1588) sitting so endearingly by the riverside, vandalised by an ignorant idiot of a mullah.

But on the top of the hill where Alexander tarried in the late summer of 325 BCE to reorder the defences and where a glorious city dazzled the Arabs in 711 with its fountains and avenues, there are now only millions of brickbats, pottery shards and shattered bits of chert. The former were once part of the opulent mansions of Aror; the latter go further back in time when our Palaeolithic ancestors crafted stone tools on the hills of Rohri.

Aror, situated picturesquely on the banks of the Sindhu when it really was mighty because there were no restraining dams, lost out when a 12th century earthquake altered the river’s course. From flowing at the feet of magnificent Aror, it began to flow some twelve kilometres westward. Here two cities were to spring up on its banks: Rohri, that took its name from Aror, on the left bank and Sukkur on the right. In the middle stood the island of Bhakkar with its massively fortified castle.

Abandoned by the Sindhu, Aror quickly dissolved into the dust it had risen from. Its populace, stripped of their once busy river port and the wealth it garnered, moved away; the babble of the bazaars died; its grand mansions crumbled; the fountains first ran dry and then fell to pieces; the lovingly watered trees withered and died; Aror, the jewel of Sindh, quietly returned to its mother dust.

The 19th century mosque on the top of the hill, where once Aror stood, was last visited in May 2008. That was eight years after an earlier visit and I had found its central dome missing. Only the four walls remained in 2008. This time around, only one wall survived, a forlorn reminder of what once was. A young man came up from the fast spreading squatters’ settlement below the hill to the southwest side. He said the building buckled during the rains of 2012.

Two more days in Moen jo Daro completed the circuit. In Larkana, young Zaman Narejo put me up. He is the Additional Commissioner (1) and a remarkable young man who reads and cares for the history and culture of his land. May his tribe increase for it is an ever decreasing one. He is the bringer of good news concerning Jacob’s Clock in Jacobabad that I had heard had been destroyed by an enraged mob after the assassination of BB in December 2008. Having read my lament on the internet, Zaman betook himself to the neighbouring district to come back with word that the clock was very much alive and ticking.

With Izhar Hussain at Moen jo Daro

I have never seen an image of Moen jo Daro with the cloud-laden sky. This being monsoon time, I thought I was finally going to get one. But strangely while in Punjab the sky remains largely bedecked with cumulus, in Sindh, immediately after a fall of rain the sky becomes a nameless colour without a hint of clouds. The sun therefore shines with a vengeance unknown.

The Aror mosque. Subsequent to the 2011 rains in Sindh, only one wall remains

From Sukkur, there were no flights north for two days after I finished work. My one recourse was to fly back to Karachi and then take another one to Lahore. The flight from Sukkur reached Karachi at five minutes before midnight at its scheduled time with a full eight hours for my flight to Lahore. I calculated if I went back to the guest house I had stayed in earlier, I would not be in bed and asleep before 2.00 AM. That left me with only three hours of sleep before I would have to get back to the airport. So I thought I would commandeer three seats in the briefing hall at the airport and catch a few hours’ sleep.

But the security man at the entrance said that a 2.30 AM flight having been cancelled, the lounge was closed and I could not go in. Not to be defeated in my quest for sleep, I went to McDonalds in the parking area of the airport. Having had a bite I lay down on the seat and despite the harsh lights overhead, the jarring music and the screaming children tried to sleep. For the life of me, I could not understand what people with little children were doing there well after midnight. Did they and their children never sleep?

I had just nodded off when a sharp rapping on the table brought me to. It was the manager who curtly informed me that I could not lie on their seats. Why, I had just made them rich by about four hundred rupees, I said. But the man insisted that even so, lying there to sleep was not permitted. I went outside to a thin drizzle and a Lahori (from his accent) who had just got of a plane and was talking to his friend on the phone and eating his burger. He suggested I should take the shuttle to the Airport Hotel where I would be put up gratis since I was taking a connecting PIA flight. But then it turned out that I should have first procured a coupon from the arrivals lounge.

Anyway, off I went and asked the room rent at the reception. And then I did what I thought was some pretty nifty reasoning: since Rs 3300 was for a full twenty-four hours and I was staying for only three hours or one-eighth that time, I should be charged only four hundred rupees. The two men at the counter regarded me with slightly open mouths as if about to burst out laughing. Clearly they thought I was mad. However, they offered to give me a fifty percent rebate, but since I had heard that the rooms are cockroach-infested and was only half interested, I said I’ll just wait in the sofas in the lobby.

Here again no sooner had I reposed in the sofa when a man came over to tell me that was not permitted. Here I had not even purchased a four hundred-rupee burger, so I quietly surrendered. Then, perhaps feeling sorry for me, he pointed to a corner and said I could sleep on the sofa there. Unfortunately, this was where they kept their pet mosquitoes and this was only a ploy to feed the insects at my expense.

That night, no matter how hard I tried, I could not sleep a wink. Neither in the various ‘No Sleeping’ seats nor in the plane. My ordeal ended when I finally got home.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,

11 Comments:

At August 25, 2013 at 6:38 PM, Anonymous Saeen Darkhat Lal on Twitter said...

I wouldn't exactly say 'first discovered.' With the exception of archaeological sites that were dug up by them, of course. Among the natives of cities such as Khudabad, there's always been an awareness of the remains of older cities under the current one.

 
At August 25, 2013 at 7:00 PM, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

I loved this part with Police (I raved and screamed until another voice on my side of the truck interrupted to ask what the matter was.) Wish everyone do that.

 
At August 26, 2013 at 10:00 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Nayyar, friends have warned me to be careful. 'Puls muqabla pay jana see,' they say.
Saeen, I use the word 'discovered' in purely a scientific sense.

 
At August 26, 2013 at 5:30 PM, Anonymous iqbal awan said...

Now I understand how much you travel. Tough.

 
At August 26, 2013 at 5:58 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Iqbal Awan, it might be tough, but it's sort of fun. You get into it and you enjoy it. Never a dull moment.

 
At September 1, 2013 at 2:04 AM, Anonymous ZM Quadri said...

I'm archaeology's student, doing my Ph.D n its quite impressing for me!

 
At September 1, 2013 at 3:07 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, ZM. I will learn things from you. we will meet one day.

 
At May 17, 2015 at 1:38 AM, Blogger Ashfaque Dasti said...

Insightful and entertaining as always

 
At May 20, 2015 at 9:13 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Dear Ashfaque, thank you very much.

 
At December 2, 2015 at 8:43 PM, Blogger Ali Gohar said...

Not to mention the wealth of information contained there in, I am really impressed with your style and facility with which you have pen down the sad demise of Aror, for instance take this paragraph, "Abandoned by the Sindhu, Aror quickly dissolved into the dust it had risen from. Its populace, stripped of their once busy river port and the wealth it garnered, moved away; the babble of the bazaars died; its grand mansions crumbled; the fountains first ran dry and then fell to pieces; the lovingly watered trees withered and died; Aror, the jewel of Sindh, quietly returned to its mother dust."
Keep up the good work.

 
At December 6, 2015 at 9:50 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

I am thankful to you, Ali Gohar.

 

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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