Following an almost month long hiatus from blogging during which I have experienced many of the excitements that Lahore has to offer including its beloved (but yet truncated) Lahore Literature Festival, the PSL Final and of course the tragic wave of terrorism that has most recently hit Pakistan. As my time in Pakistan comes close to an end I hope to reflect my thoughts and ideas and aim to publish a few more pieces before I go back to college.
I wanted to start with the most overdue piece which I planned to write almost a month ago and the series which really sparked my interest in writing about travel, history and culture. Travelling around the country has made me very proud to be from a country overflowing with civilisations, religions, traditions and monuments and so wonderfully hospitable to its guests.
One city that really encapsulates this is Multan the capital of South Punjab and the city of saints and mystics or ‘Madinat-ul-Auliya.’ However although the city may be known for its plethora of Sufi shrines today its history goes back almost 6000 years and was conquered by Alexander the Great in 326 BC. The ancient city was home to the renowned Trigarta Kingdom at the time of the Mahabharata war and was ruled by a Katoch Rajput Dynasty. Legend has it that the word ‘Multan’ actually from original Sanskrit name of the Hindu Multan Sun Temple ‘Mulasthana’.
Since the 8th Century, Multan has had its fair share of invasions of conquerors from Muhammad bin Qasim who took the city for the Arab Caliphate in 712, Mahmud of Ghazni in 1398 and the great Moghul Timur the Lame in 1398. Eventually, the city like most of the region was captured by the Moghul Empire. But in fact, even after the decline of the Moghul Empire the city was taken by Nadir Shah of Persia in 1739 and Ahmad Shah Durrani in 1752 and finally by Ranjit Singh in 1818 before being besieged by the British in 1848.
Although little remains of the ancient city today or even of the fort where most of these battles took place, inside the area where the fort once stood on an elevated stretch of the city lie the tombs of Bahauddin Zakaria and Shah Rukh-e-Alam two famous 14th century Sufi saints who were responsible for sponsoring the Suhrawardia order of dervishes in the sub-continent. The red brick tombs are magnificently decorated with lavish use of the infamous blue and turquoise tiles that adorn many of the monuments in Southern Punjab. Our visit to the tombs happened to fall during sunset on a Thursday evening, the traditional day for visiting the shrines of Sufi saints and the atmosphere was heart warming. With candles being lit outside, religious songs being sung by the graves of the saints and a whole host of people visiting the sites it was truly magical. Apart from the fact that it was the only time we happened to leave all our wallets at home (not recommended for anyone visiting a Sufi shrine). Because apart from any goodwill you may be (most definitely will be ) approached to give, you even have to pay for them to keep your shoes while visiting the shrine!
One of the most unique parts about our trip to Multan was visiting Sadan Sharif one of the oldest Islamic structures in the city which was built in the 12th century for a Hindu Convert. The shrine has the most intricate brick carvings which from a far look like decorative features and Sanskirt inscriptions but are actually carvings of Islamic calligraphy. The shrine lies slightly outside Multan in a tranquil desert environment overlooking a dried up water body and sparsely scattered greenery. The setting really makes for a very serene and yet sacrosanct environment. When we happened to visit the shrine, we were pleasantly surprised a group of women were gathered outside listening to one of the ladies reciting a stories about the women of Islam particularly Hazrat Fatima, a tradition passed down amongst Shia women.
On our way back from Sadan Sharif, we visited the Shrine of Shah Ali Akbar located in a neighbourhood slightly outside the city centre. For me, this shrine was the most beautiful out of the shrines we visited in terms of its intricate detailing and its blue tile work. Although it is perhaps in the worst condition with its insides crumbling and many of the frescos blackened by the fumes of oil lamps and candles. Nonetheless, the highlight of the shrine was that Shah Ali Akbar built a shrine for his mother next to his own which was lavishly decorated in the same fashion but different in its architectural structure. The most amusing part about visiting this shrine was that a young boy came up to tell the men who were visiting the shrine of mother with us that they cannot go inside otherwise they might comeback as women!
One of the most symbolic factors that stood out for me about Multan was its identity. Fewer seemed to be covered in Black Abayas in urban areas and in rural areas many remained unveiled dressed similarly to women from Rajastan or Sindh. Also, unlike in Lahore or Pakpattan women are not stopped from going in the same room as the grave of the saint or even touching it. Refreshingly, men and equal are treated exactly the same at many of the shrines. In addition, along with the reverence for the Sufi saints that once roamed the streets of the city, there was also a sense of tolerance for Muslim minorities with traditions such as Muharram commemorated at many of the shrines. Although unfortunately the same cannot be said about other minorities with many of the Hindu and Jain temples in the city being destroyed, in a time so stifled by intolerance any spark of hope comes as a welcomed surprise.
I can’t mention our trip to Multan without mentioning our lovely hosts Mahnaz, Fareed, Ismail and Nadine who took us around to see all the lovely sights (along with a very enthusiastic guide), helped get all our Multani souvenirs like some beautiful embroidered fabrics, hand painted lamps and some lovely pottery. They also took us to eat the famous Multani chops and delicious Baba Ice cream things definitely not to be missed on a trip to the city!
Another amazing place that we were fortunate enough to visit was the SOS village, Primary and Secondary school, Youth Home and Technical Training Institute run to perfection by Mahnaz. The school provides quality English education through a special English language software program to the children from the village and also from low income families in nearby communities. The school also has a 100% first division result since 2009! The village provides a nourishing home environment to many orphans and abandoned children from the city and continues to support them throughout their life. The Technical Training Institute offers Diploma based vocational training in a variety of trades such as CAD, mobile phone repair and plumbing and lots lots more.
For information please visit : http://sos.org.pk/multan/ and please donate to this incredible cause!