Stage 7 – Pakistan: The Indus Valley [2/3]
‘The Interior’ as Karachiites call it, or the greater province of Sindh, is a world away from the cosmopolitanism of the big city. Unlike Karachi, Interior Sindh is overwhelmingly Sindhi; a place of shimmering, irrigated farmland, zamindars (feudal landowners), landless serfs and extravagant, colourful dargahs (shrines) dedicated to long-dead sages. My first visit to this overlooked corner of Pakistan would be a landmark in my journey, one which would come to dictate the future of The Odyssey as the experiences; surprising, enlightening and humbling, were etched indelibly into my memory.
It’s the 28th January 2008, and I’m driving out of Karachi, finally extricating myself from the city’s chaotic traffic, onto National Highway 5, the country’s main road artery which runs along the course of the Indus Valley and then on to the Khyber Pass. The landscape is rather flat, nondescript, part of the mouth system of the Indus River. It was on these plains that the armies of the Arab general Muhammad bin Qasim arrived in the Indian Subcontinent in 711 CE, brining Islam to an area corresponding very roughly to that of modern-day Pakistan, incorporating it into the Umayyad Caliphate. Just under one hundred kilometres from Karachi I stop short of the Indus at a sprawling site of mud and broken coral on which are anything from five hundred thousand to a million graves, collectively known as Makli Necropolis. Said to have grown up around a khanaqah (meeting place of a Sufi brotherhood) established by a Sufi saint in the fourteenth century, the sprawling, countless graves span around four hundred years of burials. Amongst them are several large mausoleums which showcase distinctive, evolving architectural styles; the earliest made from golden sandstone, elaborate carved in the Gujarati style, which then blend into the more Mongol-Persian styles of the Mughals. My favourite is the seventeenth century tomb of the Mughal vassal Mir Sultan Ibrahim Tarkhan; a neat, octagonal shrine with a Mongol dome once covered in faïence, in whose crumbling brick arches men laze, smoking and chatting. There’s a slight air of iniquity about the place, but its decaying grandeur seems to fit well with Sindh’s backwater atmosphere.
Adjacent to Makli is the city of Thatta, which was the capital of Sindh well into Mughal times, until the Indus silted up and changed course in the late seventeenth century. Today little more than a junction town on the highway, Thatta is a good introduction to the settlements of The Interior; a dusty, pot-holed main street where colourfully painted autorickshaws and donkey carts compete with ancient, decorated Bedford lorries piled high with cut sugar cane, street stalls and simple eating holes in unfinished concrete boxes where men laze on charpays (rope beds), chewing betel nut and spitting out gobs of deep red liquid, which stain every wall and floor. A singular air of indolence and indifference to the passing of time. One thing however, very clearly marks Thatta out as more than an average Interior town; the stunning Shah Jahan Mosque. Commissioned by a grateful Shah Jahan (builder of the Taj Mahal) in 1647 after he was given refuge here from his father, the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, the mosque is one of the very finest buildings in the country. One enters a square park set with tall palms and a dry fountain, then passes through an entrance portal into wide courtyard of polished marble, surrounded on four sides by arcades of fine red-on-white brickwork. Walking through these arcades, one appreciates the perfection in architecture as the succession of vaulted chambers play parallax tricks with the eye, but it is the tilework of the mosque’s interior which is most impressive; intricately covering every surface, in mesmerising, geometric patterns of floral tiles. Stepping out of the mosque’s rarefied atmosphere I am back in the squalor of Thatta and escape a few desperate-looking beggars to continue on the highway, which now joins the Indus. By mid-afternoon, I pass Kotri, crossing the Indus on a British-made iron bridge, and drive into Hyderabad.
My host is a Mr Bossin, with whom I plan to stay for one night before continuing northwards. 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 Sindhi wife Shahana, and their five-year-old son Noé.
Aly and Shahana suggest a number of places in the surroundings of Hyderabad which I should visit, and so I decide to stay for a little longer. On the day after I arrive, I take a minibus up the left bank of the Indus, around seventy kilometres to the small pilgrim town of Bhit Shah. 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. Bhit Shah hosts one of the most revered of Sindh’s many shrines; that of the eighteenth century Sindhi Sufi mystic, saint and poet Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai. Bhittai wandered the region’s landscapes, seeking out other mystics, and his poetry espouses tolerance and humanism attracting both Muslim and Hindu followers. Clearly influenced by Rumi, Bhittai’s mystical verses include much Sindhi folklore, and he may be regarded as the local spiritual emanation of the mysticism which has flowed into the subcontinent with waves of Turkic and Persian arrivals since the twelfth century.
Visiting Bhittai’s shrine is a joyful experience, a celebration of the great man’s death as a union with God. The building is riotously decorated with glazed tiles from nearby Hala (where Bhittai was born) and filled with the scents of rose petals and incense. In an ornately arcaded atrium, a group of musicians play wahi (devotional music), singing in powerful falsetto and strumming tall, five-stringed tanburs, which swing with tassels hung with bright pendants. It’s a truly beautiful scene; religious expression with no hint of politics or sectarianism (a great relief after Iran’s morose shrines) and I feel that I am glimpsing a timeless, organic scene of the Indian Subcontinent.
Most interesting perhaps is the stream of people coming from The Interior; great crowds of serf 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). Fakirs (holy men who subsist on alms) squat or lie patiently about the place; one plays a recorder and flute simultaneously with a cloth spread in front of his feet. These people may have come from deep within the province, where a feudal system similar to that of medieval Europe remains in place. I imagine the majority, especially the women, are illiterate and so whatever they know of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai and his mystic works must have been passed down by oral tradition. 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.
I sit down in a contemplative mood near the group of musicians. It’s a beautifully warm, sunny, late January day and my thoughts drift off in tune with their 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; my former job and girlfriend and my family all seem far removed in both space and time. 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 begin 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 charas (hashish). One man looks like the archetypal Indian sadhu, with a long, flowing beard and a look of inner 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 shrine’s courtyard and retire to an uthak (guest-house) where visitors are accommodated in this traditional and gender-segregated society. The musicians divide-up the 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 charas, 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 as a gift; one of the very few material souvenirs which I would keep from the journey. 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. When I reach 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.
The following day, on a tip from Shahana, I take a minibus further into The Interior, to the dargah of another Sufi; Shah Inayat Shaheed, 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. 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 and extremely friendly and laid-back, but I notice a high incidence of ill-health; adults with stunted growth, polio cripples, malnourished children and eye-diseases seem especially common here: the diseases of poverty.
When I reach Jhok Sharif, the dargah is visibly more low-key than that at Bhit Shah and seems almost deserted. As I approach the entrance to the mausoleum, a man emerges 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 present successor, of the interred holy man. He’s an ebullient, well-built Sindhi wearing a white shalwaar kameez and a baseball cap with a ‘Texas’ logo. He has recently returned from a few years of living in Texas and speaks with an accent that is an interesting mix of Pakistani and Texan. Despite being a massively revered man, a saint in local circles, there is about him no hint of pomp and he invites me to sit and share his lunch, sending his assistant out to fetch tea and water. His ancestor, the Sufi mystic known locally as Shah Shaheed, was born in Thatta in the seventeenth century and wandered across the Indian Subcontinent looking for knowledge and a mursheed (spiritual guide) in a tradition which is shared by Sufis, Hindus and Buddhists. Unlike most mystics however, Shah Shaheed’s teachings of tolerance and equality extended into social activism and revolution against the local zamindars, the ruling Kalhora Dynasty and ultimately the Mughal Emperor Farrukhsiyar, who had him executed in 1718 following the Battle of Jhok.
I mention to Attaullah 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 tells me ‘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’. This takes me by surprise, but I realise that what I am seeing here is an almost syncretic mixture of Islam and the far more ancient mysticism of the subcontinent. This the local interpretation of Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, whose ‘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’.
Attaullah summons his nephew and together they drive me a few kilometres north to the next town, Bulri Shah Karim, which clusters around another extravagantly tiled dargah of a mystic; Shah Karim, grandfather of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai. After a brief visit to the shrine, Attaullah introduces me to an elder of the local Sheedi community, a handsome and distinguished-looking African. The gentleman is clearly of pure African descent; his face suggests he might be from the coast of East Africa, but his accent when he speaks is unmistakably Pakistani. The Sheedis are indeed 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 at the bus stand where we wish each other farewell, and whilst I’m on the minibus heading back to Hyderabad, I reflect upon another fascinating, disarmingly humanistic experience in this most welcoming corner of Pakistan, all but unknown to outsiders.
As the days pass, Aly and Shahana repeatedly encourage me to stay longer, to feel as if I were at home and to see more of the local area; something I am very glad to do. In the cool winter evenings we sit out in the fresh air talking to visiting family members and friends, and I am keen to learn Aly’s story. Philippe, to use Aly’s original name, arrived in Hyderabad in December 1974 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 sit describing my journey so far and explain the impression which my experiences so far in Sindh have made on me, I feel that Aly can see his younger-self in me; a lone twenty-something discovering the wonders of Sindh for the first time. Aly made repeated, long visits to Hyderabad in the 1970s, then converted to Islam and in 1984 married Shahana, the daughter of an acquaintance he had made soon after he first arrived in the city. Shahana, who hails from the Saraiki-speaking Bhurgri Tribe, descendants of Baloch nomads, strikes 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 will 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 is deeply spiritual and humanist. I soon feel extremely comfortable and at-home with Aly and his family, and what I had planned to be a stay of one night becomes a stay of one month.
Hyderabad is the second city of Sindh and was its capital under the ruling Kalhora and later Talpur Dynasties, until the British transferred the title to Karachi. Hyderabad’s ancient centre is marked by the Kalhora-era Pakka Qila, a crumbling eighteenth century mud-brick fortress and a number of slightly shabby though attractive tombs of the deceased rulers of both ruling dynasties. The central district of Heerabad is filled with once elegant, finely decorated mansions, which in the 1920s and 30s belonged to a wealthy Hindu merchant class. Many (though by no means all) of these Hindus left for India during the upheavals following Partition in 1947, with Muhajirs (Indian-born Muslims) coming to take their place. Despite these fading landmarks however, one’s strongest impression of Hyderabad is of sprawling, chaotic, shoddy new ‘developments’ and hellish traffic; narrow streets are brought to a standstill by deafening, smoke belching squads of autorickshaws and Chinese motorcycle taxis, who weave around encroaching market stalls, foetid 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 relatively quiet Friday afternoon, or during a strike or curfew when the streets are empty, one still gets strong echoes of Hyderabad’s glory days.
As the warm days pass in Hyderabad, I begin to strike-up a good friendship with Shahana, an unusual experience for a foreign male visitor to Pakistan. One weekday, Shahana asks me to drive her and her Urdu-speaking friend Farah to visit a dervish, a holy man who has renounced the things of this life to seek the divine. We find Lalan Sain in the village of Karam Ali Lavali 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 the name of God as a mantra whilst rocking slightly and occasionally turning his head to bellow something unintelligible into a patch of acacias where goats are nibbling on the thorny bushes. Shahana and her friend sit some distance in front of him at a point which he indicates and chat in Sindhi about the spiritual and also the mundane; relationships, politics and so on. Aside from his occasional outbursts, he seems like a fairly ordinary man but I’m seeing another ancient tradition of the subcontinent: asceticism, a tradition which fits naturally into Sufism.
Despite being far from wealthy, 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 The Interior, in the irrigated hinterland which spreads south-east of the city, a place which feels deeply neglected by the authorities. This, together with Shahana’s great charisma, gives them a chance to penetrate into the private life of the communities here and I am very glad to join them. The land of The Interior is divided between rich and powerful zamindars whose guarded mansions and fleets of late-model Land Cruisers stand out starkly 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 uthak where visitors are normally received, but to enter the inner compound where family life takes place, and I have a rare glimpse of everyday family 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 tribe 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, hidden 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, and a town of the interior where one goes to shop, and in the case of the men, lie around on charpays 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, hand-plastered with mud, out amongst a field of papaya trees and sugar cane. These people, who own very nearly nothing and have no claim to the land they work, invite 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.
In the morning we continue, following the abandoned metre-gauge railway line northwards through poor, patchy farmland. We stop at some abandoned British-built railways buildings, one dated to 1925, and notice a slight demographic shift, with the appearance of a noticeable Hindu population; very colourfully dressed women with facial tattoos and arms covered in bangles. In 1947, during the ugly process of partition, communities were violently torn apart with the deaths of hundreds of thousands to the north in Punjab, and far to the east in Bengal. Here in Interior Sindh however, the process was largely peaceful and in the timeless communities of The Interior, the pre-Partition balance remains largely intact, with some districts further east in the Thar Desert being majority Hindu.
Leaving the old railway line, we drive towards Nabisar where we leave the irrigated fields and drive into a landscape of undulating, settled dunes dotted occasionally by white, cubic dargahs. We are heading for another holy man who lives in a simple hut near Cheelh on the edge of the Thar Desert. Sain Khair Mahmad Shah lies nonchalantly on a rope bed with his back to us, and refuses even to look towards his visitors, staring instead vacantly into the distance. A cup of tea and a biscuit seems to stir him slightly, though he simply puts 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, somewhat bemused. Shahana suggests that we return another day when he may be more responsive, and we leave without even having spoken to him.
Shahana and I would visit more of these holy men and sages, and I could see that the advice they gave, or simply their company, gave her 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. There is something rather appealing in this faith, which focussed on learning and perception rather than dogma and ritual, and whilst Shahana respected my atheism, or perhaps interpreted it as a shunning of this dogma and ritual, she 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.
We head back towards Hyderabad in the afternoon, stopping for a late lunch in the town of Kunri with Saloma, a Canadian Mennonite and Evangelical Missionary whom Aly had befriended in his early days in Pakistan. I’ve always found something rather insidious, even revolting about Christian missionaries but the reality in Saloma is of a doting, grandmother-like figure working in a mission hospital in a very neglected community. Saloma and Aly are perhaps a bizarre pair of friends, with Aly a European convert to Islam, but she’s a very rare European face in this magical corner of Pakistan.
In my second week in Hyderabad I extend my one-month visa with the police, then make a trip north by train to Lahore and on to Rawalpindi, in order to lodge an Indian visa application in the capital, Islamabad. When I return to Hyderabad, pre-election campaigning is in full swing in the run-up to the ballot. Although the interior of Sindh is as tranquil as anywhere on Earth, Hyderabad, like a miniature version of Karachi, is a tinderbox of ethnic and political sentiments. Musharraf’s Muslim League has little support down here, but there’s heated competition between the two big players in Hyderabad, a city where one’s preference of political party is inextricably linked with one’s ethnic identity. The native Sindhis are represented by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), synonymous with the (Sindhi) Bhutto Family, whose charismatic leader Benazir had achieved instant martyrdom when she was murdered in Rawalpindi less than two months ago. The Muhajirs, who never see eye-to-eye with the Sindhis, are represented by the Karachi-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) which operates an almost mafia-like underground in Hyderabad. If one’s car is stolen in the city, it is the MQM that one must speak to, rather than the police, if one hopes to have it recovered. Hyderabad has an ugly recent history of inter-communal mistrust, which peaked in the 1980s when tensions between Sindhis and Muhajirs escalated to deadly violence, riots and city-wide curfews. With the recent death of Benazir Bhutto came a fresh wave of violence, rioting, vandalism and looting in Karachi and Hyderabad, and in this tense run-up to the elections, people are expecting further outbreaks of unrest. If Musharraf claims victory over the PPP, this will widely be seen as fraudulent and Hyderabad will be set ablaze.
There’s a palpable tension in the city during these days. In the Sindhi-dominated district of Qasimabad, everywhere one looks, one sees a portrait of the canonised Benazir. The Sindhis seem to have forgotten, perhaps intentionally, that she and her husband siphoned billions of rupees out of Pakistan, supporting numerous lavish foreign residences. In the city centre, from every window seems to hang the red, white and green flag of the MQM. On the morning of the poll results, the city holds its breath, and the streets are unusually, almost eerily quiet. We stay in the house, watching the news for updates, anticipating violence, when, to our surprise we hear that the PPP have won; Musharraf will step down as Pakistani president after a run of almost nine years. An orgy of celebrations begin, the like of which I have never before witnessed. In the evening, the streets all across the centre are at a virtual standstill with slow-moving cars, blaring music and horns. The odd cackle of gunfire can be heard in celebration; young men dance in the streets, children ride on the bonnets of cars and throngs of women defy social norms and wander the streets unaccompanied. It’s a huge release of tension, and also, in a society without bars or nightclubs, something of a release from strict social rules. The party continues over several days, with all-night music, driving, feasting and dancing. In a country where frequent Martial Law is interrupted only by corrupt civilian government headed by an endless line of embezzling leaders, it’s a ray of rather fanciful hope for the future.
We make further weekend trips into The Interior, visiting a Bhurgri clan in Pabun Sharif, and a Rind village known as Goth Pir Bukhsh, also near Jhudo; in both we glimpse more intimate scenes of the timeless, almost pre-mechanised rhythms of rural Sindhi life. We visit the colourful shrine of Sheikh Bhirkio in a village of the same name, then head to nearby Agham Kot; an intriguing ghost-town ravaged by time, with collapsing old brick shrines undercut by flash floods. I also take Shahana to more sages of The Interior; the Pashtun shrine in Sehwan Sharif on the right bank of the Indus north of Hyderabad, and to a kindly, frail dervish in Jhirk, on the road to Thatta. Shahana is a prolific Sufi, and I enjoy being part of her roaming quest for knowledge, as an aside to my own.
Even after four weeks in Sindh, my yearning for the road seems oddly blunted; I feel that I could stay for months in this sparkling, beguiling corner of the subcontinent with my friends, and have little appetite for the stresses I know will lie ahead in India. I do wish however to cross the subcontinent before the worst of the pre-monsoon heat sets in and so get back in the truck after almost a month, and continue my journey northwards along the Indus Valley. I leave with my perspective refreshed; perhaps even a changed person, moving ever deeper into my own Odyssey.