Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Marot Fort

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Marot Fort lies between Fort Abbas and Yazman on the fringes of the Cholistan Desert. Back in 1985 when I visited it I was told of a shrine with the supposed footprint of some early Islamic personage. Having seen one footprint too many and knowing for sure that this was a hangover from our Buddhist-Jain-Hindu past, I cannot get myself to believe in them. Nonetheless, I did check out the rather misshapen mark on white marble that could possibly have been a yeti instead of a human footprint.

Two years ago, I was in Marot again. The shrine was there but the footprint was gone, reportedly having been removed by a Pukhtun captain of the Pakistan Army. The captain, it was said, did not approve of the idolatry and had the object removed and presumably destroyed. Good for this man and we could do with a few more of his ilk to bulldoze all these Zinda, Ghaib and Nine-Yards-Tall saints.

To begin with, the 1904 Gazetteer of Bahawalpur State mentions a mosque in Marot, not a shrine of the footprint. That is, this Islamic footprint was invented some time after the publication of that document. It is Dr Saifur Rahman Dar, the pre-eminent archaeologist, who lifts the veil off the shady tale of the mosque-shrine. In a paper published in the Journal of Central Asia (Vol IV, No 2), he presents a reading of a tablet with a Persian inscription that was preserved in the Bahawalpur Museum when he was in charge there.

It recounts how in the year 1569 during the reign of Akbar the Great, Tahir Sultan ordered this mosque on the request of a certain Syed Nasrullah. Now, Akbar had annexed Multan in 1561, consequently Marot would also have been under his sway and Tahir Sultan would appear to be a local governor. Dr Dar goes on to discover who Sultan and Nasrullah were, but that is something that does not concern our story. Dr Dar tells us that the inscribed tablet was originally fixed on the façade of the mosque from where at some point in time it was moved to a niche to the left of the mihrab in the prayer hall. From there the tablet disappeared sometime in the year 1974. In February 1981, Afzal Khan, the curator of Bahawalpur Museum, visited the mosque and found the tablet missing. In its stead, the stone with the footprint was being worshipped by a bunch of vermin-infested, bhang-quaffing malangs. The mosque was now doing good business as a shrine.

Khan quizzed the junkies and learned that some years earlier a woman from Sindh tried to steal the inscribed tablet but her car refused to go when the tablet was put in the boot. Thereafter the woman is reported to have secreted the tablet somewhere in the dunes outside the fort. But Afzal Khan turned out to be a man of great perseverance who ferreted into the case and going from Ahmed Khan, that scumbag keeper of the shrine, to another so-called Syed of Chak Number 313 HR, eventually recovered the tablet. He took it to Bahawalpur Museum where it is on display to this day and tells us that what is now a fake shrine of the footprint was in fact originally a mosque.

As for the stone with the footprint, what the captain who destroyed it probably did not know, but what Dr Dar tells us on the authority of another historian, Azizur Rehman, is priceless: the piece that bears 'the footprints on marble of Jaina Tirthankara [was] removed from a nearby Jaina Temple.' The captain was spot on then. So here is what actually happened.

Some out-of-work fraud chanced upon the ruinous mosque in the utterly ruined and abandoned fort of Marot. Here was his chance of becoming a Syed! But the stylised inscription, even if it could not easily be read by most, stood in the way for it gave away the building as a mosque. The stone was spirited away. Being unconnected with the powerful of the land, and therefore expedient of nature, the Man who would be Syed did not destroy the tablet. He hid it, just in case someone came snooping. Then, with nothing to identify the building as a mosque, he placed the stone from the Jain temple in the mosque and turned it into a shrine to the fourth caliph of Islam. The story of the woman whose car wouldn't go was invented to camouflage the illegal activity.

The man was in business. Suddenly there was power as the ignorant of the land came to touch his feet. There was also a steady income to go with it. In 1981, the nosey Mr Afzal Khan put a spanner in the works by re-discovering the dedicatory stone and Dr Dar by writing his learned piece. But no matter, the fools who betake themselves to such spurious shrines will never end up in a museum and much less go looking for scholarly papers to read. Along came the captain to deal the deathblow. But even that devastating upset was of no consequence again.

On my last visit in April 2006, I found a middle-aged man standing in the shadow of the building. He and his wife, both from Lahore, now lived in Britain and were visiting. They had rented a car and driven out to distant Marot where the wife wanted to worship for the fulfilment of some cherished desire. Indeed, inside the not very large chamber that once began as a prayer hall before being turned into a shrine of a Jain footprint, the woman was in a trance. Sitting cross-legged she mumbled on and swayed from side to side.

Obviously uneducated, these people had lived in Britain for close to forty years, yet enlightenment had not touched them even by a barge pole. And if such people can exist in the West, their likes simply teem in this sorry land of superstition and stilted education. The mosque that became the Shrine of the (Jain) Footprint for the Muslims to bend their head to had lost its worshipful relic. Yet it is still a place where the ignorant came to seek their heart's desires.


posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 1 February 2017 at 21:06, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Historically there was a strong Jaina presence in the regions of Thar / Cholistan, patronised especially by the trading communities of these regions.
As usual a very insightful piece with your trademark humour. Cheers.

At 2 February 2017 at 14:16, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Anonymous. You have rightly pointed out the strong Jain presence in our part of Thar and Cholistan. More in Thar with those fabulous temples in Gujarati architecture.


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

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