Stage 7 – Pakistan: The Lower Indus Valley [2/3]
‘The Interior’ as the locals call it, or the greater province of Sindh, is a world away from the cosmopolitanism of Karachi. Unlike the big city, the interior of Sindh Province is overwhelmingly Sindhi; a land of feudal landowners, landless peasants, shimmering irrigated farmland and extravagant, colourful dargahs (shrines) filled with the smells of rose petals and incense. My guidebook, which I had come to distrust, warned that the province was uniformly unsafe for travel due to the risk of armed robbery and kidnap, by bandits known locally as dacoits. The only story I’ve ever heard relating to dacoits and a foreign visitor unfolds a follows: Dacoits stop a bus, shoot the driver dead and begin to walk up the aisle of the bus, collecting the valuables of each passenger, until they come across a European traveller. The dacoits stop for a moment, and respectfully greet the foreigner ‘Welcome to Pakistan!’, and pass by, leaving him unmolested and going on about their business. Of all the dozens, if not hundreds of other travellers I have met in Pakistan over the years, almost none have ever set foot in Sindh. This welcoming, magical land remains a hidden secret to the outside world.
It’s the 28th January 2008, and I’m driving out of Karachi, finally extricating myself from the city’s chaotic traffic and onto the National Highway, the country’s main artery. The road passes through a flat, sun-baked land of dusty villages and irrigated fields, dotted with the domes of shrines to which devotional followers flock from surrounding villages and towns. It is in this region that the Arab conqueror Mohammad bin Qasim landed in 711, and despite initial defeat, eventually brought large-scale Islam to an area of the Indian Subcontinent which correlates very roughly to modern-day Pakistan, incorporating it into the Umayyad Caliphate.
I pass a huge necropolis at Makli, dotted with dozens of grand mausoleums, whose architectural styles show influences of Persia, Central Asia, Arabia and India, hinting at the long and glorious past of Sindh. But it is a few kilometres on in the town of Thatta that I run into one of Pakistan’s greatest pieces of architecture. In this small, bustling market town, which was capital of Sindh from the 14th century until the early 18th century when the Indus River changed its course, lies a mosque completed in 1647 by the Moghul Emperor Shah Jahan, responsible for one of the most iconic and graceful pieces of Islamic architecture ever created, the Taj Mahal. Whilst the mosque is not quite in the same league as its counterpart in Agra, it has strong traces of the same elegance and grace; a large, open courtyard of polished marble is surrounded on four sides by arcades of linked, domed chambers, executed in intricate red-on-white brickwork, covered by a façade of fine turquoise and lapis mosaic. It’s a mesmerizing place, all the more so in the knowledge of how few foreign visitors have seen it. In rather typical Sindhi fashion, this exuberant and exquisite place of worship is surrounded by squalid streets of open sewers, festering rubbish piles and the most desperate-looking beggars I’ve yet come across.
From Thatta, the road cuts across more barren desert and sparse farmland, crossing the small, murky and nearly stagnant Indus River at Kotri, and entering the city of Hyderabad. The second city of Sindh and unofficial capital of ‘The Interior’ and, completely unknown to me at the time, it would be the place I called home for more than half a year in 2009.
My host is a Mr Bossin, with whom I plan to stay for one night before continuing north along the Indus River, towards the city of Lahore, where I can cross the 1947 border and enter the modern state of India. All I know about Mr Bossin is that he is French, and lives in Hyderabad with two other people. I arrive expecting to find three French anthropologists, but instead I’m welcomed by a family; Aly, his Pakistani wife Shahana, and their five-year-old son Noé. We sit in the garden of their modest, though comfortable house in one of the city’s more tranquil areas, and I’m introduced to friends and neighbours who come round most evenings to enjoy the cool night air. Aly arrived in Hyderabad in 1973 as a lone traveller escaping his native France, built up a network of friends in the city, and soon fell in love with the place. As I sat explaining my journey so far, described my affection for the gentle, laid-back atmosphere of Sindh and an interest in seeing a few things in the surrounding area, I felt that Aly could see himself in me; a lone twenty-something discovering the wonders of Sindh for the first time. Aly went on to convert to Islam, and marry Shahana, the daughter of an acquaintance he had made soon after he had arrived in the city. Shahana, who comes from a clan of Saraiki-speakers, descended from Balochi nomads, struck me as a slightly unusual character. In a country where women are often absent in public life, or play at best a very discreet role, Shahana would lead conversations and debate heatedly with men without any sign of intimidation. As time passed, I would see that Shahana was an extraordinarily strong woman, who cared little for petty social conventions (marrying a European was a clear sign of this), yet at the same time was deeply spiritual and human. Then of course, there was also Noé, who having been brought up by two such strong characters, was anything but an average five-year-old. I soon felt extremely comfortable and at-home with Aly and his family, and what I had planned to be a stay of one night, became a stay of one month.
Hyderabad has in places a slightly jaded, post-colonial air, but suffers from sprawling, chaotic, shoddy and unplanned building ‘development’ which mars many of Sindh’s once beautiful cities. One is impressed by the central district of Heerabad, which was obviously once planned to be an orderly and elegant place. Huge, finely decorated villas line the narrow streets, originally built by wealthy Hindu merchants in the 1920s and ‘30s. Many – though not all – of this Hindu merchant class left for India during the upheavals of partition in 1947, to be replaced by Mohajirs, whom the local Sindhis roundly and perhaps unfairly blame for ruining the neighbourhood with their unplanned modern construction. Certainly, much of the elegance and grace has vanished as the narrow streets are brought to a standstill by deafening, smoke belching squads of autorickshaws and Chinese motorcycle taxis, who weave around encroaching market stalls, fetid open sewers and chaotic illegal electricity lines which sway and spark on their way from one overloaded transformer to its illegal hook-up. But within this bedlam lies a certain charm, and on a quiet Friday afternoon, or during a strike or curfew when the streets are empty, one still gets strong echoes of Hyderabad’s glory days.
Sindh is a land of spirituality and mysticism, embodied in its countless dargahs which dot the landscape with their bright white domes; islands of cleanliness and calm in the surrounding sea of squalor and clamorous traffic. There exists, of course, a hierarchy of these shrines, and one of the region’s most famous lies around forty kilometres north of Hyderabad, in the small pilgrim town of Bhit Shah. Here lies the 18th century Sufi mystic and saint Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, revered as the greatest of all Sindhi poets, whose humanist verses preach a unity of God and religious tolerance. Visiting this mausoleum is quite a different experience from those I had visited in Iran. Gone is the sombre, state-controlled atmosphere of the Persian shrines, replaced with an almost festive air, with strong echoes of a Hindu temple. The smell of rose petals and burning incense fill the air, everywhere is brightly coloured, and devotional music wafts from an open terrace just outside the mausoleum itself. Most interesting perhaps is the stream of people coming from the interior; great troops of peasant families flood into the dargah, their women dressed in bright, multicoloured robes, carrying infants, accompanied by shrieking children, whose eyes are highlighted with kohl (antimony). These people have come from deep within the province, where a feudal system similar to that of medieval Europe remains in place. Looking through their billowing headscarves, I see some of the women are extremely beautiful; some have tribal facial tattoos, and many are wearing considerable amounts of jewellery. I suspect that for some of these people of the interior, I am the first European they have set eyes upon, for many take as much interest in my appearance as I do in theirs.
The whole shrine complex is suffused with mysticism, and seems to be influenced as much by the ancient native spirituality of the subcontinent, as by the latterly-introduced Islam. This is like no Islam I have seen so far; music, singing and the devotional acts associated with shrine-visiting are seen as apostasy by traditional, Sunni Muslims, and reek far too much of hedonistic abandon for the morose mullahs of Iran. This is Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, which its ‘adherents’ often claim exceeds the sectarian divisions within Islam, the divisions between the three ‘Abrahamic’ religions, and perhaps unifies all human spirituality. It’s a doctrine which largely defies definition, though perhaps the simplest description, of which I know, is to ‘find one’s own way to God’.
I sit down near the group of men who are playing devotional music on large, five-stringed lute-like instruments. It’s a beautifully warm, sunny mid-January day, and my thoughts drift off in tune with their deep, passionate singing. It’s very nearly nine months since I left the UK. I’ve passed through the new republics of post-Soviet Central Asia, through the ancient relics of the distinct epochs of Persian history, crossed the desolate void of Balochistan and entered this most spiritual corner of Pakistan, fondly re-acquainting myself with my favourite country. I feel as if I have broken free from any pull of my previous life in western Europe; the job, the girlfriend, the family, are all far behind me now. I’m far, far out to sea, alone; not in a sea devoid of all life, but in a sea of people, places and experiences far beyond the limitations of my previous existence. I begin to feel that I am no longer a solitary observer, simply visiting the places of obvious touristic merit, no longer a tourist in fact, but that I have become a traveller, engaging with people whom I meet on my way, and enjoying the journey itself as much as the individual destinations. From this point on, I distance myself from making plans in too much detail, and become more open to taking things as they come; I began from here to see my journey not as a finite trip away from my home, but as my own unfolding lifestyle, without a definite goal or end.
I get chatting to some local men who are also watching the performance, slowly chewing dark lumps of charras (hashish). One man looks like the archetypal Indian saddhu, with a long flowing beard and a look of personal peace and satisfaction which suggests he has found something in life that most others haven’t. They are part of the group of musicians, and towards lunchtime, as the performers wind up and pack away their instruments, they invite me to eat lunch with them. We walk to the edge of the grounds, and retire to an uthaak, or guesthouse, where visitors are accommodated in this traditional and gender-segregated society. The musicians divide up their earnings – donations given by pilgrims – and insist that I take a share. Soon after, a chillum, a traditional Indian type of hand-held pipe, used to smoke charras, is passed around. I take a couple of drags of their strong, coarse hashish, and am soon expending all my effort and concentration on avoiding what seems like an inevitable meeting of my limp body with the ground. A hot, spicy chicken curry arrives from a nearby kitchen, which does something to bring me round, much to the relief of my hosts. Before leaving, I’m given a rilly, a traditional patchwork quilt, one of the few material souvenirs which I have kept to this day from my trip. Sitting on the minibus on the way back to Hyderabad, I reflect upon what I’ve just experienced in my semi-stoned state; this is exactly the reason I had fallen in love with Pakistan five years ago, and it was experiences such as these that fundamentally motivated me to travel. Reaching home, in Hyderabad, Shahana immediately looks over my gift, commenting that it is of fine quality, and an especially honoured present, for, the more rillys one has, the more guests one can accommodate; to give one away is a sign of great respect.
After a few days, on a tip from Shahana (I’m now well out of the depth of any guidebooks to Pakistan), I take myself deeper into ‘The Interior’, to the dargah of Sufi Inayatullah, in the small town of Jhok Sharif. The journey takes me through quintessentially Sindhi scenery; a land of camel, donkey and ox-drawn carts, herds of black water-buffalo, fields of corn, wheat, cotton, sugar cane, bananas, mangos, papayas and palm trees. Sindh owes its great fecundity to the vast irrigation projects set up during the time of British occupation, which turned the notoriously barren Indus Valley, known as the ‘Unhappy Valley’ to travellers of antiquity, into something akin to the Nile Valley; where there is water, the land blooms with great bounty, where there is no water, the desolation is acute. I pass numerous small towns and villages of the most rudimentary homesteads; life here has changed little over the centuries. The people are brightly dressed, extremely friendly and laid-back, but I notice a high incidence of ill-health, which suggests a lack of even basic medicine; stunted growth, polio cripples, malnutrition and eye-diseases seem especially common here.
When I reach Jhok Sharif, the dargah is visibly more low-key than that at Bhit Shah, and seems almost deserted. Just as I approach the entrance to the mausoleum, a man approaches me, and with just a brief greeting leads me by the arm to an office at the rear of the shrine. My initial fears that I have breached some unwritten law of etiquette are soon dispelled when I meet Attaullah, the mureed, or the present successor of the interred holy man. He’s an ebullient, well-built Sindhi man wearing a white shalwaar / kameez, and a baseball cap with a ‘Texas’ logo. He has returned from a few years of living in Texas, and speaks in an accent which is an interesting mix of Pakistani and Texan. Despite being a massively revered man – almost a god perhaps – in local circles, there is about him no hint of pomp, and he invites me to sit and share his lunch, sending the assistant out to fetch tea and water. His ancestor, the Sufi mystic known as Shah Shaheed, was born here in the 17th century, and went on to wander across the Indian Subcontinent looking for knowledge and a spiritual guide in a tradition which is shared by Sufis, Hindus and Buddhists.
I mention my impressions of the expressive and free atmosphere in the dargahs here in Sindh, and what seems to be a far greater tolerance of different sects and religions than I’ve seen elsewhere in the Islamic world. He looks at me earnestly, and says ‘God created Adam, that’s all. All these religions, and these divisions, have been created by man. Religion just tells us to be good people. We Sufis believe in accepting all people; Hindus, Christians, Jews…’ He leads me outside to a dusty area where there are a number of low grave mounds each marked with a stick and an orange strip of cloth. ‘These are Hindu graves. Hindus come here to the dargah, they pray in the mosque, and some even wish to be buried here’. I’m taken aback; not only is it unheard of for Hindus to bury their dead, but to do so outside a holy site of Islam would be unthinkable in for instance, Iran, or even further north in Punjab Province. But I begin to realise that I’m looking at Sindhis’ faith from the wrong perspective; rather than purely defining themselves as Muslims or Hindus, their beliefs seem a little more organic, less defined, and influenced by the great shared traditions of the subcontinent which long predate even the earliest incursion of Islam.
Attaullah summons his nephew, and they drive me back to the centre of town to look for a minibus. We stop on the way to meet an elder of a local Sheedi community. I’ve not heard of any such group and I’m surprised when I meet a man who looks to be pure black African; his face suggests he might be from the coast of East Africa, though his accent when he speaks is unmistakably pure Pakistani. The Sheedis are a group of Afro-Pakistanis originally brought as slaves by Portuguese and Omani traders, and now have a rich culture in the lower reaches of Sindh and Balochistan. Attaullah drops me off in town, and whilst I’m on the minibus heading back to Hyderabad, I reflect at another priceless experience in this fascinating and welcoming corner of Pakistan, all but unknown to foreign visitors.
As the warm days pass in Hyderabad, I begin to strike-up a good relationship with Shahana, an unusual experience for a foreign male visitor to Pakistan; during my month-long visit to the country in 2003, I didn’t so much as speak to single Pakistani woman (with the exception perhaps of a transsexual in Islamabad). Shahana asked me to drive her and another female friend of hers to visit a fakir, a holy man who has given up the worldly ways of life for the love of God. We find him in a village near Jhudo. He’s a dark-skinned, haggard, middle-aged man with a wispy beard and some missing teeth. His bare feet are caked in drying mud, and he wears nothing except a worn dhoti, (a simple rectangular piece of cloth wrapped around the waist). He squats on his haunches on the edge of a rope-bed, rather like a giant bird, muttering a mantra whilst rocking slightly, and occasionally turning his head and bellowing something unintelligible into a patch of acacias where some goats are nibbling on the thorny bushes. Shahana and her friend sit in front of him at a point which he indicates, and chat in Sindhi about fairly mundane things; news, politics. Aside from his occasional outbursts, he seems like a fairly ordinary guy.
Another holy man, whom we visit with Aly, lives in a simple hut on the edge of the Thar Desert. He lies nonchalantly on a rope bed with his back to us, and refuses even to look towards his visitors, staring vacantly into the distance. A cup of tea and a biscuit seems to stir him slightly, though he simply put the biscuit on the floor, blesses it with a bit of tea, and then watches a crow pick it up and fly off with it. Aly and I look at each other, bemused; we’re not sure if this we’re seeing a holy man, or a charlatan. Shahana suggests that we return another day when he may be more responsive, and we leave without having spoken to him. We visited a few more holy men; fakirs, babas, pandits, bozorgs – there are many names for them – and I could see that the advice they gave, or simply their company, gave Shahana some deep, spiritual satisfaction. The Sufis of Sindh seem to be finding their own vehicle towards God; be it song, dance, drugs, or visiting shrines and holy men. This faith, without dogma or ritual was attractive to me, and whilst Shahana respected my atheism, or perhaps interpreted it as a shunning of this dogma and ritual, once told me that I was, of course, a Sufi, leaving everything of my previous life and taking to the roads in search of knowledge and experience.
Aly and Shahana run a number of social and humanitarian projects, primarily a school in Hyderabad (of which we will learn more in future stages of the trip), but also out in the almost wholly undeveloped interior of Sindh. This, together with Shahana’s great charisma gives them a chance to penetrate into the private life of the communities here, and I was privileged to be invited to join them. The land of the interior is divided between rich and immensely powerful landowners, whose guarded mansions and fleets of late-model Land Cruisers stand out acutely in the harsh and impoverished landscape. Around these estates are the village compounds of the landless serfs, isolated behind high mud-brick walls, the interior of which is strictly of limits to outsiders. We however, are invited to visit, not simply the uthaak where visitors are normally received, but to enter the inner compound where family life takes place, and I have a rare glimpse of women, unveiled, tending to everyday life.
The compound, which constitutes a village, is known as Goth Qurban Ali Rind. Inside it live six brothers, who between them have dozens of children. The family is Rind, a Sindhi caste descended from Baloch herders who moved into the area around three-hundred years ago. Here one sees the age-old rhythms of life, unchanged for centuries, cosseted from the outside world in this almost medieval feudal village. This is the private face of interior-Sindhi society, and well illustrates the difference between a village, as a place where people live, in contrast to a town of the interior where one goes to shop, and in the case of the men, lie around on rope beds drinking tea.
We spend the night in the village of Shahana’s maid, Husni, whose family live in a single roomed shack made from sticks and hand-plastered with mud, out amongst a field of papayas and sugar cane. These people, who own very nearly nothing, and have no claim to the land they work, have invited us to sleep in their only beds, out under the stars, in the most rudimentary of homes I’ve ever seen. Yet another unforgettable experience.
I’m dreading the thought of leaving Sindh, but the expiry date of my visa approaches, and I wish to continue my journey across the subcontinent, reaching Bangladesh before the worst of the pre-Monsoon heat sets in. To this end, I make a trip by train up to the capital in order to lodge a visa application at the Indian Embassy. In Hyderabad station I read a sign: ‘Beware of thugs, pickpockets, intoxicators and terrorists’ I can’t help but think this should be somewhere in Western Europe, rather than in this enchanting land of gentle, tolerant, warm and generous people.