Standing on the grey sands of Seaview, Karachi getting our feet poked by bits of calcite, we heaved a sigh of relief. That was a wrap. We discussed how the trip to Kotri had unfolded the day before and watched the setting sun over the Arabian Sea. Tired but relaxed. Exhausted still, but content with the achievement.
My director, Adnan’s phone rang. It was the studio in Lahore we call our second home. Another client wanted us to start production immediately. The taxing bit was that our location was in Sindh again and we were not equipped for this kind of work. Kotri had been sort of a run-and-gun thing, part of a documentary on Basmati rice and its history in Pakistan, but the task at hand needed more hands on deck.
There was no time to lose. We planned to cancel our tickets back to Lahore and extend our stay so we could assemble a team from Karachi. After a few calls we got hold of Husbaan, a Director of Photography/Videographer. The interview at a roadside café over tea went well. We had an understanding and shook on it. And by morning, we had a proud lineup of DoP, production manager, videographer, assistants and all the equipment we needed on hire from Karachi.
The new itinerary was to leave as early as possible the next day and head East solid on the N5 towards Makli. As you exit Karachi, the first towns are Dhabeji and Gharo. Quick advice for whoever takes this route. The only, and I mean only café that offers decent food, tea/coffee and average restroom is in Gharo, a place called Café Imran. Our driver Sajid, as he helped stow away the equipment in our mini production van in Badar Commercial, went on and on about it. And indeed, once we left for our journey, not much time had passed when we reached Café Imran where I had my last coffee for the next 7 days or so.
Now let me tell you that there are many sights to see and places to visit down this road. Compliments of the Indus delta, there are one or two water parks on the way between Gharo and Gujjo. There are many private resorts here as well. Just off Gujjo is Haleji Lake which is among the protected WWF wetland sites. After that is Hadero Lake — also another one of WWF’s protected wetland sites. Once you cross Gujjo Town, you head towards Makli. Over here, you will find the Makli Necropolis, which according to some resources, is among the largest burial sites in the world. It is spread over 10 square kilometres and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1981. A restoration project is underway for its approximately one million tombs and ornate graves with motifs cut in sandstone called the Chaukhandi style.
North-east of Makli is the giant Keenjhar Lake which, when fully inundated, can stretch for over 20 kilometres. These three lakes are dotted in line at the edge of the mostly barren Kirthar National Park and give way to greener pastures down south where the Indus spreads its giant delta and irrigates the land. If you have visited Dadu and Sehwan areas which also lie at the foothills of Kirthar Range, Lake Manchar presents a similar vista.
10 kilometres past Makli you cross the Indus River after which you reach Saidpur Model Village just 5-10 kilometres short of the town of Sujawal. All this time, I noticed that the road was better than most roads I have travelled on in such remote areas.
From Sujawal we head further east towards Golarchi and then to Badin. A little further ahead of Badin the highway narrows from a dual carriageway to a two-lane road. Using GPS navigation, we chose the road heading to Nindo, Khoski and Shadi Large (yes its ‘Large’ because there is another, smaller Shadi nearby). From here, the road ebbs further as sand driven by the wind claims whatever real estate it can find. If it were not for the frequent passage of vehicles, it would disappear under the dunes in a matter of days.
Shadi Large is where the land suddenly lies bereft of the dotted trees and crops. The seasonal Char Dhoro stream that separates the Thar Desert and the green plains is the last sign of the Indus. Over here you can see both the vast desert stretching for miles beyond to the east and the greenery on the west. From here you head 35 kilometres towards Northeast to Naukot. The Naukot Fort is a place to spend a few hours if you have time. We surely didn’t have that time as it was nightfall and we needed to rest. There was work to do next day. But we really appreciated that we were back on a fairly wide and well-paved highway headed to Mithi.
Beyond Naukot is all sand, cacti, hardcore species of desert shrubs and some serious dune business to deal with. Driving at night on any desert road can be taxing because of the vigilance one needs to keep an eye out for any sandbanks that may have blown onto the road. They can be pretty dangerous for motorists. I was riding shotgun and considered it important to keep chatting with the driver Sajid lest he was overcome by fatigue or showed sign of drowsiness, but he was fine.
Another 40 kilometres of vigilant driving by Sajid brought us to Mithi. The journey from Naukot to here offered no spectacle or reprieve. Only small communities of Thari huts locally called Chownra, dotted upon the huge dunes among the thorny Acacias popularly known as the Keekar tree. As you approach Mithi, you can either take the road leading to the city or a set of two bypasses. One leading deeper into the desert via Islamkot road and on to Nagarparkar, the final frontier bordered by the Indian states of Rajasthan to the Northeast and Gujarat to the Southeast; and the other will take you solid South to Diplo flanked further by the wetlands and marshlands of Sir Creek.
The Diplo route can take you back to Badin or if you have more adventure left in you, to Keti Bunder Wetlands Reserve. Another WWF protected wildlife sanctuary.
Before reaching Mithi, towards the bypass for Islamkot, you are greeted by the welcome sight of Café Thar nestled amidst two towering dunes but right on the highway. It’s a place to refresh both mind and body as you observe the landscape and sip strong tea or have a snack. They also have a small handicraft museum and a souvenir shop. This place is definitely on my favourites list. The barren Tharparkar is both mesmerising and heart-wrenching as one is struck by its beauty as well as the thought of the hardship that comes with the climate and terrain. The night sky here is dotted with stars as there is hardly any light pollution or smog.
Café Thar is not the only surprise out here in the barren desert. Upon reaching the gates of Mithi City, also the administrative centre for Tharparkar, you can’t help but notice the fine infrastructure it houses. There are three full-scale fuel stations on the road leading to the city and offering decent standard fuel. Then there is the Benazir Bhutto Auditorium near the DC Office and the Police Residential Colony and a full-fledged Mithi Radio Station right next to Mithi Cricket Stadium.
Gadi Bhit is the most popular and attractive place in Mithi. If you ask anyone where you should go first they will recommend Thar Café and Gadi Bhit.
Gadi Bhit is to Mithi what Daman-e-Koh is to Islamabad. How so? Mithi is practically laid out between a sequence of four towering sand dunes. It’s a view to behold, especially at sunset or the evening. One can drive all the way up where there is plenty of parking space, a huge courtyard and a recently built and arched clock-tower with no clock in it for now. It’s high enough to see the whole city sprawled beneath. It is such a key place in its identity that we had to visit several times during our project to capture some awesome aerial and ground shots.
Another interesting thing in this region is that the population is Hindu-dominated. 70-80 per cent of the population practices Hinduism while the rest are Muslim. And on every lunar month’s 13th night, the Hindus celebrate Shivratri or Shiva’s Night to honour their deity. On this day, everyone gathers at the grand temple of Shiva downtown to pray and celebrate. You can hear folks celebrating while dignitaries from the Hindu faith from all over Sindh attend this festival. There are at least eight temples dedicated to different Hindu deities in Mithi from Hanuman to Parvati.
The local language is Dhatki. Since the area is Hindu-dominated in terms of population, you will see cows everywhere. From the huts dotted over the dunes, the highway to the bazaars of the city. No one slaughters these animals here and it is impolite or even offensive to ask for beef at any restaurant. Veggies are the way to go while chicken and mutton is available at some places. Crime-rate here is virtually zero and the presence of security agencies is very obvious due to background-check on visitors, from tourists to welfare workers. Hindus and Muslims live in complete harmony and there has been no significant issue over religious or cultural practices.
The centre of the city is considered to be ‘Kashmir Chowk’ even though I don’t know why it is called that given the lack of a proximity connection here so, curious, I asked and was told “because that’s what its name is”. I think it’s sort of a patriotic/solidarity gesture. It’s a large square lined with important commercial fixtures including restaurants, resthouses, banks with ATM machines, opticians, GP clinics and the sort. Most times you will ask for directions, Kashmir Chowk will be given as a geographic reference.
From here roads branch towards various sides of Mithi Town. There is a street lined with clothing shops and a few handicraft shops. You can find traditional prints and embroidered clothing here including the Rajasthani Pagri aka Chunri Pagri cloth. The handicraft shops offer more pricey items including embroidered items aged between 15-35 years or more in some cases. The older, the expensive.
Another unusual occurrence here in Thar is the frequency of unique names that will resound in your ears everywhere you go. I have to say it took some getting-used-to. Everyone here is Ramesh, Kishore, Rakesh, Kuldeep, Prakaash etc. It’s quite an exotic experience for Lahore and Karachi dwellers.
After spending a few days in Thar, one feels the strong sense of ownership and responsibility the locals practice. Though people are very polite and helpful, they are very black-and-white with the dos and don’ts.
Our work here was to shoot a film about Thar Science Festival — the first of its kind in the history of Tharparkar. A competitive exhibition of sc
ience models and concepts from schools all over Tharparkar, a joint effort by Thar Education Alliance, Thardeep Rural Development Program, and a few NGOs from Islamabad, and supported by the local government as well as universities from all over the country. Our job was to capture this unique event from the eye of a curious 7-year-old schoolgirl who has a lot of questions for her illiterate father about how the world works.
While at it, we had the privilege of interacting with all the stakeholders, participants and the local people. We visited schools, households, monuments and Chownra villages. I learnt that the locals had great humour and are resilient in the face of hardship that comes with life in the desert. Though there are many issues to deal with in Tharparkar, the residents have invested blood and sweat here for generations past and want to see progress and improvement.
The Thar Coal project, if exploited in time, holds great promise for the people here in terms of employment and development. The infrastructure already in place shows commitment from the government as well as corporations working in Thar. I also believe that the coal reserve has brought a renewed confidence among the locals that their land is not just a parched, drought-stricken wilderness but has a mammoth share to contribute on a national level.
Mithi to me is a flower in the desert. One that you realise the beauty of, only after having seen it. It is an example set by the Lord Almighty in the shape of an oasis in the desert where cultures and religions practice tolerance and respect, and live in harmony.