Stage 7 – Pakistan: The Lower Indus Valley [3/3]
It’s the 15th February 2008 when I return from Islamabad to Hyderabad, and the whole country is gripped with election fever in the run-up to the ballot on the 18th. 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 eponymous leader Benazir had achieved instant martyrdom when she was murdered in the Punjabi city of Rawalpindi in December 2007. 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, worst in the 1980s, when tensions between Sindhis and Muhajirs escalated to deadly violence, riots and city-wide curfews. With the death of Benazir Bhutto last year, 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 ablaze.
There’s a palpable tension in the city during these days; 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 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 one weak, corrupt government replaces another in an endless line of embezzling leaders, it’s a ray of (rather fanciful) hope for the future.
During my month in Hyderabad, I’ve become very attached to the family, the city, and the province as a whole, but the inevitable point comes where I must leave and continue my journey east (though Shahana suggests I stay here and get married). It’s difficult to leave, but I’m also refreshed after a month’s break, and ready to see new places. I’m continuing my journey initially north on the Indus Highway, which follows a corridor between the edge of the Kirthar and Suleiman Mountains of Baluchistan, and the left bank of the Indus River. At the town of Sann, I leave the road and drive thirty kilometres into the wilderness, to a place which used to be a favoured hide-out for dacoits (bandits). Perched up here, forgotten by the outside world, is Ranikot Fort, whose outer walls, at 24km in diameter, make it allegedly the largest fortress in the world. Its rambling perimeter walls wind up and down the Kirthars which reach the Indus at this spot, reminiscent of sections of China’s Great Wall.
I stop for the night with a friend of Shahana’s, Syed Hajenshah, a local landowner whose feudal compound lies in the small town of Bhan Syedabad, near Dadu. I arrive without warning, and it’s not until I’ve parked my car in the man’s garage, been escorted to his uthaak (guesthouse) and brought a cold drink that someone asks who I am. I’m staying in the Hajenshah’s personal suite within his uthaak though he himself is absent. One of his guards comes in to make sure I am comfortable and have everything I need. He lays his shotgun against a wall, then pulls out a bottle of Scotch.
I leave early next morning, heading towards one of the few places in Sindh which is well-known to the outside world; the ancient Indus city of Mohenjo-Daro. It is on these burning, dusty, dry flatlands astride the Indus in northern Sindh that mankind seems to have constructed some of its earliest settlements. Around 6,000 BC, the earliest civilisations known in the Indian Subcontinent began to emerge in these areas; in Kot Diji, Amri, Harappa (the first site to be discovered, after which the civilisation has come to be known) and here, in Mohenjo-Daro, which is the most complete of any of them. Harappan sites can be found from northern Afghanistan to the Arabian Sea, and as far east as the fringes of the Thar Desert, in present-day India. The Harappan civilisation was highly advanced, with a complex, well-organised society, whose caste divisions can still be seen in the differing architecture of the mercantile and regal areas of the city. Located at the crossroads of trade-routes, there is clear evidence of a trade in minerals from distant points within the region, and perhaps contact with people as distant as the civilisations of the Elamites and Mesopotamians. Harappan women seemed to share a number of similar tastes with those who inhabit the area today, wearing bangles (a Hindu custom), and nose studs. The Harappans were also highly competent brick-makers; the millennia-old bricks of Mohenjo-Daro look finer than those made here today. So good in fact, were the bricks found at the site of Harappa, in Punjab, that the British had (unforgivably) used them as ballast for the nearby railway line.
Yet the Harappan civilisation is shrouded in mystery; where did these people come from? What caused the end of their civilisation? Where did they go? Who are their modern-day descendents? Are there any? Archaeologists have never managed to decipher the distinctive Harappan hieroglyphs, and their civilisation remains a tantalising unknown in the early human history of India.
From Mohenjo-Daro I pass through Larkana, home of the Bhutto family, then head east to the shambolic riverside town of Sukkur. My host here is Asif, whom I meet at an ice-cream parlour. I notice a slightly different atmosphere in this northern part of Sindh, it’s noticably more conservative here than in Hyderabad, and I see the odd burqa, a blanket-like garment which completely covers a woman from sight. It’s done as much out of ancient tribal customs, as from Islamic piety, and Asif’s home is no exception. The family practice purdah, literally meaning ‘curtain’, but referring to the practice of completely separating male and female sections of the house, so that a male visitor will never set eye upon any females in the building. Meals were slid through a curtained doorway, and the door quickly closed behind. We eat dinner with his father, who mutters ‘Allah u Akbar’ between each mouthful. It’s quite a contrast to my ‘second’ family down in Hyderabad.
In the evening Asif and I go for a stroll along the embankment. As a hazy, orange sun dips behind the vast Sukkur Barrage, which feeds the largest irrigation system in the world, a blind river dolphin jumps out of the murky Indus waters held up behind the dam. The deafening roar of motorcycles and autorickshaws is just distant enough to make the place almost tranquil. It’s my last evening in Sindh, for I must now make a detour north, through the divided province of Punjab in order to reach the only international border crossing point between Pakistan and India, just east of Lahore, before heading south again into Rajasthan, whose deserts are a continuation of Sindh’s Thar Desert.
In the morning, I cross the river a final time, joining the National Highway, which runs up the right bank of the Indus, and links Karachi to Kabul, Kashgar and Delhi. I soon cross the provincial boundary into Punjab Province, and notice a change in the landscape immediately. The agriculture is more intensive, the settlements look more prosperous, and there are large, industrial suburbs outside the towns. The atmosphere changes too; gone is the gentle, relaxed atmosphere of Sindh, replaced with a more hectic, business-like air. The Punjabis enjoy the highest standards of living in Pakistan, the best infrastructure, and exert considerable economic control over the country. The Army, by far the most powerful organ in the country, is dominated by Punjabis. Understandably, the Punjabis are not well-liked by the other nations of Pakistan; just as the Baluchis see their gas flowing down from Sui to Punjab, so the Sindhis watch much of the income generated by Karachi – up to 70% of the country’s revenue – disappear up the road to Punjab’s big cities; Lahore, Rawalpindi, Faisalabad and Islamabad.
I stop at some famous Sufi shrines in Uch Sharif, but they are attractive more for their exquisite architecture than for their atmosphere, and I push on, reaching the city of Multan early the next morning. The name Punjab derives from the Persian Panj Ab, meaning ‘five rivers’, and these rivers, the Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Sutlej, and Beas meet at various points around Multan, on their journey from headwaters in the Himalaya of India and Tibet, to the Arabian Sea, via the Indus.
Multan has the strong feel of a place that was once far more important than the provincial city it is now. It’s perhaps the oldest surviving city of the subcontinent, and has a considerable depth of history. Multan, known then as Kashtpur, is mentioned in numerous ancient Hindu legends, and it may have been here that the Rig Veda, a most fascinating collection of the subcontinent’s oldest folk myths, and the world’s oldest religious document still in use today, was written. It has certainly been a pilgrim town since well before Islam arrived. Situated on a natural route between Central Asia, the plains of India and the Arabian Sea, it has a long history of riches and ruin; it was the first city taken by bin Qasim, and swapped hands between the Umayyads, Shaybanids, Ghaznavids, Fatimids, Babur, the Ghorids, Moghuls, Sikhs and finally the British. Today, the town is famous for four things; garm, gard, garra and goristan (heat, dust, beggars and tombs), an accolade my own experience gave me no reason to dispute.
I manage to sneak into the city centre in the calm of dawn, watching the city come to life before the heat and bustle of the day set in. I go straight to the most striking of the city’s many shrines, that of Shah Rukn-e Alam, an ancient Sufi mystic known as the ‘Pillar of the World’. The early 14th century building is more imposing than any shrine I’ve seen in Sindh; a broad, stumpy red-brick structure of two tapering, colonnaded octagonal tiers, topped by a large white dome. The brickwork, inside and out is exquisite, and the whole building embodies the might, power, artistic flair and piety of its patrons. It’s a brutal but beautiful specimen of pre-Moghul architecture. The atmosphere is quite different again from that of Sindh; gone is the innocence of the colourful Sindhis flocking in from their feudal villages in the interior, replaced by a more tense and serious air. Multan’s famous beggars are businesslike in their persistence and wheedling; an unwelcome change from Sindh, but a premonition of what is to come in India.
The bazaars which make up the centre of Multan are a frenetic maze of old alleyways, time-worn by centuries of shoppers, and covered with grubby tarpaulins to fend-off Multan’s ferocious summer heat, which can reach 50ºC or more. From a high vantage point, Multan’s covered lanes stretch off in each direction, merging into shambolic suburbs; the whole city looks as if it might be constructed purely of dust. I find a quiet café of sorts, and retire with some cake and lemonade to take stock of my next move. Already here in Punjab I start to feel the tension of the overcrowded northern plains of the subcontinent, and I’m about to make that far greater by crossing into India. I can’t pretend I’m very thrilled by the prospect of visiting India.
Leaving Multan, I continue north-east towards Lahore, passing the modest remains of Harappa. This ancient site was the first of the cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation to be unearthed, by British archaeologists in the 1920s. Although the finds were rather less visually spectacular than those made by Carter in the Valley of the Kings at the same time, their historical value is just as great. Sadly, after 19th century looting by the British, there is very much less to see here than at Mohenjo-Daro.
I stay just one night in Lahore, with Nabeel, a self-made businessman, philanthropist, Prince fan and ludo player. He takes me to one of the Punjab’s most famous shrines; the shrine of Shah Jamal. Each Thursday night, vast crowds of young men come to the shrines, under the apparent pretences of piety. As the darvishes (devotional followers of Jamal) beat out a deafening, fast rhythm on their dhol drums, some perform a whirling, trance-like dhammal, and the crowd becomes more deeply intoxicated, issuing billowing clouds of hashish smoke into the evening air. Scuffles and fights break-out occasionally, pickpockets circulate through the jostling crowds, and rickshaw drivers tout for fares. I can’t see anything spiritual at this event, which has the air of an illegal rave rather than a holy shrine; whilst the musicians are skilled and bona-fide, the crowds of frustrated, drugged young men seem to be pushing the boundaries of Sufism a little too far to be believed. There’s an unpleasant atmosphere, and I indicate to Nabeel that I’d like to leave. He tells me it’s a good idea, as things are likely to kick-off later on.
I drive the last thirty kilometres out of Lahore, east to the Indian frontier at Wagah. During the terrible events of Partition in 1947, a process which left perhaps half a million dead, not from any war, but just from animosity between the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities, this frontline was drenched in blood and strewn with bodies. So widespread were the carcasses of the dead that they could be smelt across the region; even the vultures became picky in what they stripped from the cadavers, such was the plethora of carrion. Touchingly, the last border gate out of Pakistan (or the first when one enters) is named in Persian: ﺑﺎﺏ ﺁﺯﺍﺩﻯ ‘Gate of Freedom’.
I sensed a perpetual air of tension in Punjab, and missed the tranquillity of Sindh acutely. There seemed little hope of finding solace in the seething crowds of northern India.