Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Grandeur in the wilderness

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The Kalhora dynasty ruled over Sindh for a full century from 1680 to 1783. Whereas the decline of this house of religious and military leaders owed all to inept bumblers, there were in the early years of the rise and power of this dynasty men of remarkable acumen and administrative skill who guided its fortunes.

Drigh Bala necropolis
Many remember the Kalhoras as builders of the most elaborate irrigation system in Sindh prior to the British advent that turned vast desert regions into fertile farmland. The Kalhoras were noted also for raising the new city of Khudabad (Dadu district) and virtually rebuilding Hyderabad from scratch to give it that name after Ali (RA) the last of the rightly guided caliphs.

Some of the most widespread and enduring reminders of the Kalhora century are the funerary monuments they left behind. The one that haunts me since I first visited it in late 1987 is the graveyard of Drigh Bala where Mir Allahyar Talpur reposes in eternal sleep. Understandably, the graveyard is known locally as Allahyar jo Qubbo – Dome of Allahyar. It was only natural that after this imposing mausoleum was raised in a burial ground already in use, there grew around it a very crowd of lesser tombs to create a spreading burial ground.

Punnu being forcibly taken away by his brothers as a grief-stricken Sassui follows
As religious leaders, the Kalhoras commanded the unmitigated reverence of the Talpurs and Mir Allahyar was one of several outstanding military leaders in Kalhora service. Allahyar’s military service spanned the rules of Mian Yar Mohammad (1700-1718) and Mian Noor Mohammad Kalhora (1718-1736). According to my friend Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro, the well-known anthropologist, this mausoleum was built in 1731.

Among other edifices, Zulfi also identifies the tombs of Allahyar’s father and brothers.

Two heroes on gaily caparisoned horses
He further tells us that Allahyar was not merely a successful general but an accomplished administrator who built the fort of Drigh Bala in the nearby village. The fort is all but gone, but we also hear of this man having dug a canal to turn this area from desert to farmland.

There was something singular about the Sindhis 300 years ago. They were the only people across what is now Pakistan so possessed of an irrepressible joyfulness that not even death could subdue. In effect, Mir Allahyar Talpur was the very predecessor of John Jacob who came just over a century after his death.

This is very likely a scene from a battle in which the doughty Allahyar Talpur took part because it adorns an inside panel of his mausoleum
Beginning 1979, I spent nine glorious years freewheeling around Sindh looking, reading, learning. There were few places in the province I did not get to in those years. The years 1987-88 being especially intense in terms of travel with a government jeep and administrative support courtesy Hameed Akhund who was then Secretary Culture. Among other items I got to know, I was particularly amazed by the celebration of life I found on Sindhi funerary monuments.

The Chaukandi style graves in several burial sites across the province are carved with the most elaborate celebratory scenes. From the heart-breakingly beautiful rendition of the equestrian warrior preceded by the money bag carrying dancing woman (Sonda graveyard) to the wedding and hunting scenes (Raj Malk) and the renditions of weapons and jewellery to distinguish man and woman burial, were to my mind an unequivocal statement of the celebration of the life of the departed.

In an article written in 1989, I noted that the vivaciousness of scenes on funerary monuments was symbolic of the joie de vivre of the living. These were people who celebrated the death of their loved ones as they did every new birth. Even if death was to be mourned for a short while, life was to be celebrated for ever after cut in stone or painted in the interiors of mausoleums.

I was disappointed that no one until then had noted this aspect of the Sindhi spirit. Not even Dr Salome Zajadacz-Hastenrath in her masterful work Chaukhandi Gräber (1978). Later Kaleem Lashari, bureaucrat and archaeologist briefly touched upon this aspect. It is only now in recent years that we have Zulfi Kalhoro paying deeper attention to this remarkable facet.

It was after reading a paper by Zulfi that my friend Ashfaque Dasti and I headed for Drigh Bala. Past Johi (Dadu district) we lost the road and motored across a dusty landscape that was surely farmland when Mir Allahyar’s canal flowed. We crossed a ditch with a dry sandy bed and I wondered if this was the last remnant of that civil engineering works.

At the necropolis nothing seemed to have changed in the intervening 27 years. I hurried to the small chhatri on the south side to see if the scenes of what I had then taken to be domestic bliss were still there. The buffalos were still good on one panel. The next still showed the elaborately crafted, tasselled and painted charpoy with two figures on it. Both human forms viciously scratched out. 

Depicting the romance of Sohni-Mahinwal

In 1987, I had lamented the maleficent hand of miscreants defacing the beautiful renditions of joy painted more than two and a half centuries earlier. Then I was told by a local that a Punjabi mullah visiting the village had instructed young men to destroy all depictions of any form of life. It was the darkest hour of our 11 year-long Night of the Incubus and nowhere could one turn to complain against this invidious campaign. Happily, the damage done back in 1987 has not been added to.

Zulfi Kalhoro would now tell me that the two persons on the charpoy represent the potter’s daughter Sohni and her lover Izzat Baig known to us as Mahinwal – cowherd. By some abstruse mechanism, this beautiful love tale, native to Gujrat in Punjab, has been adopted in Sanghar district from where it has been broadcast across Sindh.

Besides the rendition of the Sohni-Mahinwal tale, the other panels are richly covered with frescos of flowers. All so fancifully embellished as to be just recognisable as belonging to some alpine meadow. The tomb of Mir Allahyar is remarkable for the large panel painted with what is clearly a battle scene. I would assume this to be either the final battle of the general or one of his noteworthy victories. There is also a panel recalling the romance of Sassui, the washerman’s daughter from Bhambore and Punnu, the prince of Kech. In this scene Punnu is being forcibly carried away by his brothers as a wailing Sassui follows the camel caravan.

Zulfi tells me that 18th century artists across Sindh were well-versed with the romances and quite adept at painting them. The art was inexpensive and so it ends up adorning the interiors of many low-cost funerary monuments.

This brings us back to my assertion that there was something singular about the Sindhis 300 years ago. They were the only people across what is now Pakistan so possessed of an irrepressible joyfulness that not even death could subdue. They adorned their funerary monuments with scenes of cheer and warmth. For them the renditions of folk romances on these monuments was an expression of the celebration of the life and death of a loved one, particularly a hero.

But some misguided individuals brought down their mullah-inspired mischief upon the unique monuments of Drigh Bala. Worse, neglect is helping Nature work her own damage. With every fall of rain, water seeping through cracks below the drum of the dome streaks down the scenes of battle and of Punnu being carried off to his distant Kech.

Scene of Paradisiacal luxury inside a tomb
At least two domes in this necropolis have already collapsed. Some more may if damage control is not taken in hand. And when it is taken up, I can only hope that appropriate materials will be used. I can only hope that misguided and zealous ‘conservators’ will not cover the cracks with modern cement but will go back to the mortar that the builders first used.

And if conservation has to be taken in hand, it must begin yesterday. Even today may be just a trifle too late.

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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