Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The vandal in the mosque

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It was a cold December in the year 1987 that my wife Shabnam and I went travelling in the outback of Badin district with a friend we had met only a few days earlier. Abubaker Shaikh of Badin knew everything there was to know about the district. We were looking for old monuments and he, having travelled there extensively, was our captain.

At the end of one long day as we were heading back for Badin, Abu said we ought to check out Belo vari Maseet — Mosque in the Forest. And so, somewhere near Tando Mohammad Khan, we turned off the main highroad onto a byway. The tarmac eventually gave way and we trundled along through tall grass and spreading peelu and acacia trees until we spotted the three squat domes in the distance.

It was a beautiful edifice of burnt brick, on a raised plinth forlorn in the middle of a great void. The nearest village was several kilometres away and though we found some reed prayer mats on the floor of the central prayer chamber, worshippers were evidently few and infrequent. Spotted owlets roosted on the ledge below the central dome and blue rock pigeons in the shafts of the wind-catchers.

These wind-catchers were a remarkable feature we had seen only in mosques in southern Sindh. The two alcoves on either side of the mehrab had openings at the top. The hollow shafts went up to just below the drum of the dome and opened outward in the rear wall. Unlike the chunky rooftop wind-catchers of southern Sindhi towns, these were artistically designed features integral to the structure and were not immediately obvious. We had discovered them only by accident as we stood by the mehrab and felt the blast of cold wind streaming out of the alcove. Later we realised this was a common feature in most mosques of the period.

As for the period of Belo vari Maseet, it is early 16th century. This made it among the earliest complete worship places in the province. The architecture was clearly Central Asiatic and matched other buildings raised by the Arghuns elsewhere in the region. In fact, the mosque was identical to the two among the ruins of Dhonra Hingora twenty kilometres to the north.

The brick structure was majestic with its squat domes and exposed brickwork. Inside, however, the plaster still held and with it some of the ancient frescoes. The squinches were worked in Central Asiatic style and the arches dividing the three bays had incipient cracks. I took dozens of pictures but since I was on assignment for the Department of Culture of the Sindh government, they were all handed over for publication. Sadly that never happened.

For years after I left Karachi, I had planned to return to Belo vari Maseet to capture it on film for my own record. But though I was so many times in the area, I never got to Belo until recently. There was whole new network of roads and as we came down from Hyderabad on the Matli Bypass, we crossed the bridge on the channel known variously as Bypass Mori, Naseer Canal or even Fuleli Canal. Half a kilometre on, a paved road took off to the right for village Haji Mohammad Varar. The mosque lay three and a half kilometres down this way.

What had been forest a quarter century ago was now farmland dotted with hamlets. There were people where we hadn’t met a soul; most of the trees were gone and the sugarcane stood tall above which the domes, now whitewashed, were visible. We drew nearer and I was horrified to see that the ancient building had been ‘renovated’. The brickwork was covered with cement and gaily painted in green and orange chequerboard and floral designs. The domes and the parapets had finials where none had stood back in 1987.

This never fails. It has never happened that I return to a place after many years and am not disappointed. Always the untrained hand of the ignorant matched by the aggressive inactivity of officialdom has destroyed ancient heritage. Belo vari Maseet, now called Jamia Masjid Noor Beli, was sadly no different. In the worst cases, I have seen priceless historical buildings torn down to be replaced with modern structures.

Back in 1987, I had climbed a huge peelu tree to photograph the mosque and startled a whole family of spotted owlets roosting in a hollow in the thick trunk. I asked about the tree and its stump was pointed out. The men said they cut it but were unable to say why. The peelu, a slow growing and majestic tree, was not getting in the way. But the first thing we Pakistanis do when we wish to build is we destroy all nearby trees. The peelu that had held its ground for hundreds of years succumbed to the callous mindlessness of ignorant people driven by some insane nature-destroying death wish.

The interior was similarly vandalised with cement plaster and green, brown and orange colour scheme. The ornate squinches in the corners were plastered over and the original frescoes were lost beneath the ‘renovation’. Perhaps the only good was the two pillars holding up the arches between the three bays, the ones that had cracks in 1987. While the pillars may have averted collapse, the overall ‘beautification’ greatly took away from this fine piece of Central Asiatic architecture.

Right next to the mosque was a clump of houses. The men told me the renovation was inflicted upon this beautiful historical monument by a mullah sometime in 2007. The monies were gleaned from local ‘well-wishers’, themselves as ignorant as the mullah but evidently keen to secure their place in paradise. Officialdom did not come into play very likely because they do not even know such a priceless building exists.

For a quarter of a century I had repeatedly procrastinated. Had I only been back to Belo vari Maseet early in 2007, I could have caught it in its pristine form before it was vandalised. I am certain the transparencies I left with the Department of Culture in Karachi have all been lost to fungus and there might not be a single image of this building as it looked before the untrained hand of the vandal was laid upon it.

In my roster, Belo vari Maseet now sits with buildings too numerous to be enumerated. Either the perpetrator is the untrained restorer or the treasure seeker. Always the loser is Pakistan’s national heritage. And no one cares.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 11:47,


At 29 June 2014 at 15:24, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

Thanks sir, you have an art to develop story with interest for the reader

At 29 June 2014 at 15:29, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

Sir you have a great art to develop story with interest for the reader

At 30 June 2014 at 06:01, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Athar.

At 30 June 2014 at 09:14, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Will you be surprised if one day down the history lane you see, "Nawaz Sharrif' buit G T Road."

At 30 June 2014 at 10:04, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

I am happy that the memory of these Paki politicians will not survive the next one hundred years.


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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

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