The sun was out but its warmth, made gentle by the morning breeze, was enough to move my spirit. I sat down on a seat carved out of stone in front of the tomb of Jam Nizamuddin. With my eyes closed I found myself in the company of saints, sufis, scholars and pilgrims; I could see khanqahs all over the place thronged by devotees from all parts of the subcontinent, Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia. I could even hear a devotee crooning Amir Khusrau’s couplet:
The cypress, like you, is neither in Uchh nor in Thatta,
The flower, like your beautiful face, has never been there.
The devotees included not only Muslims but also Hindus travelling from the eastern parts of India who came here on their way to perform Hinglaj yatra on the top of Mount Hinglaj in Balochistan.
“We should go now!” whispered my friend into my ear. I came out of my trance and the world of Thatta 500 years ago. My friends and I were in the Makli Necropolis, an enormous cemetery spread over a 12 square kilometre area on a plateau of the Makli Hill in Thatta. It is one of the largest cemeteries in the world, which according to UNESCO possesses half a million tombs and graves.
The cemetery and its richly decorated monuments have been declared as a World Heritage Site owing to their outstanding value to the history and civilisation of Sindh.
Driving on the National Highway (N5) from Karachi and travelling via Gharo, we reached Makli in about two hours. Our journey commenced early morning, for the reason we wanted to explore as many sites in Thatta, which remained the capital of successive dynasties that ruled Sindh from the 11th to 18th century. These included Sumros (1030-1335), Sammas (1335-1520), Arghuns (1520-1554), Tarkhans (1554-1593) and finally Sindh’s absorption in the Mughal Empire by Akbar in 1593.
At the time of Akbar’s conquest, Sindh was carved into two provinces. The northern Sindh had its capital in Bhakkar near the present day Sukkur. While the central and southern Sindh province had Thatta as the capital. Akbar allowed Jani Beg, the last Tarkhan ruler of Thatta to remain the governor of the province but he himself took great interest in Thatta as its port Lahari Bandar gave him access to the Arabian Sea.
Lahari Bandar, also known as Bandar Lahore, served as a major seaport till the emergence of Karachi in the 18th century.
Even before its annexation into the Mughal realm, Thatta had not only become a hub of trade by sea and land but also a great centre of culture. It was largely due to its strategic location and stability under the successive Samma, Arghun and Tarkhan rulers of this independent region. Also, under the Mughals, Thatta maintained its tradition of being a major cultural and commercial centre. It was revitalised through the patronage of Mirza Khusrau Charkas, the Mughal Governor nominated by Akbar.
Charkas was a great patron of poetry, art and architecture. He built numerous public buildings, bridges and mosques including the famous Dabgir Mosque. Later, Shah Jahan appointed his son Aurangzeb to become the governor of Thatta.
Aurangzeb’s most important addition to Thatta’s built heritage is the famous Jami Mosque, popularly known as the Shah Jahan Mosque. The mosque, built as a token of gratitude to the people of Thatta, who sheltered Shah Jahan in his exile, still stands as a masterpiece of Islamic architecture.
We reached the Jami Mosque after having a great breakfast in the main city. A direct drive from Makli to the grand mosque takes hardly 15 minutes. We entered the mosque passing through the green garden in the eastern side. As soon as one enters this majestic mosque one cannot stop extolling the brick and tile work, especially the coolness emanating from the blue tiles. The 93 domes built around the beautiful open courtyard of the mosque are indeed works of genius. Exquisite archways and geometrical patterns of ceiling and pillars add to the everlasting beauty of the mosque.
Hardly one kilometre from the Jami Mosque is Dabgir Mosque, yet another masterpiece of Mughal architecture. Unfortunately, Dabgir is crumbling due to plunder of its magnificent panels and arches, and more so because of a general apathy to save our cultural heritage from extinction.
Our next stopover was the Keenjhar Lake, which is about a 40-minute drive from the Jami Mosque. The pristine lake also known as the Kalri Jheel is the largest fresh water lake in Pakistan.
A winter home for birds migrating from Siberia and a major source of water for Thatta and Karachi, the waters of Keenjhar also guard the mausoleum of Noori found in the middle of the lake.
Noori is the legendary character of Sindh’s famous romantic tale ‘Noori-Jam Tamachi’. Legend has it that Noori was the daughter of an ordinary fisherman. Despite this, her innocence and beauty won the Samma prince Jam Tamachi’s heart and she became his most beloved wife.
Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai has beautifully composed the romantic tale into his poetry.
A narrow road along the eastern bank of the Keenjhar Lake leads to Amir Pir, another religious site in Thatta visited by thousands of devotees. A grand festival, commonly known as the Amir Pir Mela, is held here every year in the month of November. The history of origin of the Mela is shrouded in mystery but the locals say Amir Pir is an important site for Ismailis where their imams came to visit the graves of soldiers who laid their lives in a battle defending Agha Hasan Ali Shah, Aga Khan I. His son Agha Ali Shah, Aga Khan II also visited Amir Pir several times and stayed at the hilltop for days in remembrance of the loyal soldiers.
The sun was coming down when we touched back the concreted National Highway. Driving towards Hyderabad, we were thrilled to visit the last site on our list. Everyone we met in Thatta talked about this site. Our driver, a young man from Hyderabad, insisted throughout that we must see the site.
In about 15 minutes from Keenjhar, we reached our destination: the small town of Jhirk, recorded as Jerruck in the British sources. We were eager to get a sight of the birthplace of Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah so-claimed by many writers and the natives of Jhirk. They believe that Quaid-i-Azam was not born in Karachi but here in Jhirk, which was once an important trading centre along River Indus, connecting Punjab in the north and Karachi in the south. It also remained a strategic town under the British and till the time River Indus changed its course. At present the Indus flows miles away from Jhirk. This caused many people to migrate from the town.
The locals showed us a piece of barren land where we could see remnants of an old building almost flattened to the ground. The plot lies between the old residence of Agha Hasan Ali Shah and the Government Boys Primary School Jhirk established in 1870.
Our local friends informed that this was where the Quaid’s grandparents lived and it was where he was born. However, they were not sure whether it was the Quaid’s own grandparents or his wife’s who migrated and settled besides the Aga Khan’s residence.
G. Allana, the well-known historian, poet and the Quaid’s biographer, is of the opinion that the Quaid’s father Poonja Jinnah migrated directly from Kathiawar in western India to Karachi and settled in Kharadar along with other Ismaili Khojas.
Unlike the Quaid’s birthplace, historians have well documented the migration of Aga Khan I from Iran to Afghanistan and then to Jhirk after the breakout of Afghan War in 1839. We got permission to visit the small house Aga Khan I used as his residence and were delighted to see the historical building was being restored to its original shape in 1843.
Notwithstanding the disagreement on the Quaid’s actual birthplace and the need for serious research to settle the dispute, the enigmatic Jhirk has left an indelible imprint on my mind.