Salman Rashid’s new book explores ancient sites, history, culture, geography and climate of an ancient city
Mithi: Whispers in the Sand, as Salman Rashid writes modestly in his latest book, is “a small attempt at preserving the district as I saw it in the second decade of the twenty-first century”. Written in bite-sized pieces, the book explores ancient sites, history, culture, geography, climate and personal stories of local people. It is an affectionate and robust portrait. The dedication of the book reads, “This book is for the people of Mithi”.
According to travel writer Tim Mackintosh-Smith, “travel books are the literary equivalent of pilgrimages.” Rashid is the foremost pilgrim to the ancient and magical land of our ancestors, moving seamlessly between the present and the past, sifting tangible history from myths.
Rashid points out that Nagarparkar (“Nagar — the town — Parkar — after the crossing of the dreadful waterless desert”), now “a remote edge” of Pakistan, once “was a busy way station” on the ancient trade route that connected Shikarpur with Cutch and Gujarat. He goes on to write: “the old part of the town and its bazaar hold that mystic air of the past. Here one can almost hear the clang of bells as camel caravans laden with goods from distant marts plod into the town square where the old inn stood until laid low by the tremblor. Here one can hear all the languages that long-ranging traders would have spoken. Their echoes resound today in the Parkari, Dhatki, Gujarati, Thari and Sindhi. These echoes draw the visitor back again and again.”
Rashid writes that the 14th Century Gori temple, with its domes and pillars, “is an architectural beauty” and “certainly the most alluring attraction of Tharparkar district at Mithi”. The fantasy of “thirty-three domes topping the building and the superior stucco that glistens like polished marble both inside and on the exterior, and the frescoes that have withstood the effects of weather mark a very high quality of workmanship”. Tragically, the “beautiful figurines lightening the bases of the pillars have all been brutally beheaded”. Rashid writes: “Weathering shows that the defacement is not recent”. He mentions that British sources attribute the defacement to “Sindhian troops”, meaning Kalhoros and the Talpurs.
About the 12th Century Jain temple in Bhodesar, “built in the Gujarati style”, the exterior “richly adorned with Jain iconography”, Rashid writes that “for eight centuries the temple withstood Nature. The spiteful hand of man is, however, clearly visible in the beheaded and defaced icons crafted with reverence and love all that time ago.” He points out that the 14th Century mosque, also in Bhodesar, was built by Mahmood Begra of Gujarat, and not by Mahmood of Ghazni as commonly thought. What is striking about the mosque is its “architectural similarity with Gori temple”.
The author visits the “sprawling ruin” of Singharo where he can see “large chunks of white marble, very finely carved with floral patterns”. Rashid thinks “this artistry dates back to the Fifteenth Century, if not earlier” and “await[s] the trained eye of the archaeologist to reveal its secrets”. He tells us about the ruins of Pari Nagar, its “sand dunes kept its secret for eight hundred years until they were plundered”. We find a Mithi where the “first utterance of the imam always was ‘Lord, may all forever be well with the Hindus and Muslims’”.
In Mithi, Rashid gives us a look into the character and attitudes of local people as well. He tells us about the “Thari Samaritan” Jahan Khan who would walk “from village to village asking people about their problems and on their behalf writing applications that he would in person deliver” to government offices at district headquarters before and after the Partition. A former policeman, Jahan Khan was “born into a titled family” but chose to call himself miskeen, “who loved the Thar Desert and its poor and marginalised Harijans”.
We meet Lajpat Sharma, retired assistant conservator of wildlife. “Known as a tough no-nonsense person who pursued his professional responsibilities with dogged resolution”, he led the efforts to reverse the bleak situation of chinkara and peacocks in the area by going after the hunters. Rashid writes: “What began as a small conservation effort where private villagers teamed with a dedicated wildlife officer to protect chinkara deer has ballooned into a district-wide programme”, resulting in an increased number of chinkara, as well as peacocks.
Rashid takes us to village Banko Chaniho where Atta Muhammad Chaniho, a veterinary doctor turned politician, keeps a “collection of curios”. Inspired by a recurring dream, the small, private museum of about 2,400 pieces includes old musical instruments and weapons, rugs and utensils, grindstones and querns, spinning wheels, antique gramophones and “pottery shards from mounds that were once cities that brought glory to Sindh”.
One theme that runs through Rashid’s travel books is the willful destruction of heritage sites in Pakistan. Rashid calls Pari Nagar, outside the town of Virawah, “the Jewel of Thar”. Believed to have been established in the Fifth Century CE, it once was “a rich and thriving town” when “sea-going vessels from the south of India and from the Persian Gulf called here”.
When Rashid first saw Pari Nagar, its ruins spread “over fifty acres or more”. In 1984, Rashid writes, “my wife and I had to poke around the thorny stubble to uncover remains of stone walls, pieces of carved sandstone and marble and large blocks, many of them beautifully adorned with carvings of sunflowers and intricate curvilinear forms, that were once lintels and jambs of doorways”.
In 2009, Rashid returned to Pari Nagar “with the hope to preserve those fabulous ruins digitally.” He writes that he “had the rudest shock of my life”. Apart from the ruins of the Jain temple, “not a single bit of the ancient ruins remained”. Rashid found out that in the 1990s, “the Jewel of Thar” had been “ravaged by her sons”, who had plundered the ancient heritage site and used the ancient lintels from the ruins as steps in their newly constructed shops. In Rashid’s words: “All around are bits of kiln-fired brick and pottery. Occasionally one stumbles upon a carved piece of limestone or some beautifully crafted pieces of marble. The rest is gone.”
Since the stories told in the book take place over a long stretch of time, the names of places mentioned in the book have changed as have their boundaries. In case of Islamkot, Rashid writes: “I have often wondered time and again why a town in the heart of a Jain and Hindu majority of Sindh should be called Islamkot.” Historical sleuthing makes the author “favour Islamkot” as the old Burdiano or Burdiaws; the name was changed by the Kalhoros around the middle of the 18th Century. Rashid writes: “the town has been Islamkot long enough for its historical name to pass out of the collective memory of the people of Tharparkar”.
In the case of Umarkot, however, Rashid uses its original name Amarkot, the Immortal Fort, throughout the book because “common people still refer to it as Amarkot”. The original, historical names of towns and cities come to embody their history and cultural heritage; their names should not be changed. As the Yemeni writer and poet Abdullah al-Baradduni writes: “Our land is the dictionary of our people — this land of far horizons where the graves of our ancestors sleep, this earth trodden by procession of sons of sons of sons.”
Whispers in the Sand
Author: Salman Rashid
Price: Rs 4,000
The writer is working on a book titled Selected Writings of Inayatullah Khan Mashriqi