‘I met a traveller from an antique land…’ wrote the rebel poet Percy B. Shelley in 1818. Even today, how we dream to meet such a traveller who could tell us tales that are lost in the mists of time. In the early days of my love for archaeology, I hoped to write the story of Mohen jo Daro, but it lacked the basic required material–there is no record of its existence in later texts; it has a script which remains undeciphered. To make matters worse excavations of the site are banned since 1965 leaving no hope for the recovery of a Rosetta Stone. In such a hopeless situation with limited artifacts and ruins even a small piece of information bearing some relevance to the site becomes precious. And sometimes such information can come from unexpected sources.

Shelley’s sonnet is so relevant to archaeology and yet so far removed. It reminds me of how ancient travellers and traders in distant lands left behind some evidence which helped the archeologists to learn a few facts about Mohen jo Daro. The sonnet also invites to read the folk poetry of the Indus region which might be holding clues useful for reconstructing the story of the region’s past.

Mohen jo Daro was discovered in the first quarter of the twentieth century, its discovery coincided with the excavations of Ur of the Chaldeans ,the birthplace of Abraham and the famed Biblical city of Mesopotamia. Whereas Mohen jo daro had no reference in any later texts such as the Vedas or the Mahabharatha and was discovered accidentally under the foundations of a Buddhist stupa, the ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian cities were located easily through the Biblical references. In the case of Ur even an Islamic tradition can be cited, perhaps, it was the city where Nimrod’s fire to burn Abraham alive had turned into flowers.

Initially, it may sound disappointing that the simultaneous excavations of Mohen jo Daro and Ur dwarfed the image of the Indus city as Ur stole the show. Its overwhelming architectural remains and the lavish artifacts unearthed from them even attracted celebrities. Ur caught my attention when I saw a picture of T.E. Lawrence standing in its ruins. In fact, I thought that he had excavated the site, later on, of course, I learned that it was Sir Leonard Woolley standing next to him had unearthed Ur. Both were great archaeologists of their times and together they had worked on the ancient Hittite sites on the borders of Syria. However, the archaeological career of T.E Lawrence is not much known today as he is more remembered through the portrayal of his political life by Peter O’Toole in the movie “Lawrence of Arabia.” Another interesting celebrity that I came to know through Ur was Agatha Christie who met her future husband in Ur. The site also inspired her to write a novel “Murder in Mesopotamia” which was later made into a movie with the same title.

However, we must remember that Mohen jo Daro, though marginalized in the media of those days, did benefit through excavations at Ur. Among the most known discoveries of Sir Leonard were the Great Ziggurat of Ur and the Royal Tombs laden with treasures and an overfill of skeletons – the remains of slaves who were buried alive to serve royalty in its afterlife. He even discovered the statuette of a ram and identified it with the Biblical ‘Ram caught in a thicket.’ And in between these spectacular discoveries came bits and pieces of evidence which suggested links between Mohen jo Daro and Mesopotamia- a few Indus beads scattered in Ur’s royal jewelry; the cylindrical seals engraved with Indus type inscriptions; trefoil pattern on Sumerian “Bulls of Heaven” that resembled the print on the robe of Mohen jo Daro’s “Priest King” even a small group of houses that bore semblance to Mohen jo Daro’s structures.

Later on, the discovery and decipherment of Sumerian texts indicated trade with the Indus regions. They referred to a few goods- timber, carnelian beads, ivory- which came from a place named Melluha located in the east of Sumer. Melluha was identified with the Makran Coast, but at the same time the Indus region was considered to be a colony of Sumer and hence the civilization was labelled Indo-Sumerian Civilization. It took some time for Sir John Marshall to change the label wisely to Indus Civilization.

The evidence of trade between the two civilizations also helped in the dating of the Indus civilization as it confirmed that indeed it was contemporaneous to the Mesopotamian and the Egyptian civilizations. According to Sir Mortimer Wheeler the trade between Sumer and Indus lasted from the period of Sargon of Akkad 2350 BCE until the decline of the Hammurabi dynasty in 1700 BCE.

Now we know that much before their contact with Mesopotamia ancient Indus cities had already a long history and experience of transporting wood. According to Alice Albinia, who in recent times journeyed through Indus, “The transport of wood down the Indus and its tributaries, between the Himalayas and the plains, is the oldest trade that we know of in the region.” At some point in prehistory that network of Indus’ trade reaching for the Arabian seacoast extended overseas to reach Mesopotamia.

This overseas trade, predating the trade on the Silk Road, was extensive and certainly a great means of income which must have boosted the agrarian economy of the region. Archaeological evidence suggests that there were busy port towns with dockyards. The Westernmost port was Sutkagen-Dor, close to the border of Iran it was located near the mouth of Dasht River, on the Makran coast. At the other end was the port town of Lothal which was active until 1900 BCE. It was located in Gujarat (in India) on the eastern periphery of Indus Civilization.

With the exception of a few inscribed seals discovered from Lothal, there is no written record describing the mercantile activities of such massive scale between the two civilizations. There must have been ships in and out of the harbor, sailors and merchants boarding them, laborers loading and unloading the cargo. Perhaps, we can trace these details in the folklore of the region. But sometimes poets can be the avatars of ancient scribes whose accounts are lost. As hazy as it may sound but apart from the ruins, folk poetry can be another repository that we can rummage to find the ancient past. For example, Shah Latif the beloved sufi saint poet of Sindh, has described in detail the sea trade in his ‘Raga Samoondi’ (Song of the Ocean) Latif laments in his poetry of abandoned cities he even accompanied jogis on their pilgrimages to ancient shrines. They shared with him knowledge, wisdom and many oral traditions transmitted to them through older generations. Latif polished and preserved those traditions and tales in his poetry. Apart from Sindhi Indus’ folklore is scattered in a variety of languages – Punjabi, Seraiki, Multani, Gujrati- these need to be explored. It will be hard to find even the mutilated remains of events that happened in the prehistoric past when Mohen jo Daro lived. But an attempt must be made before discarding region’s folklore as poets’ imagination

The Shrine by Laila Shahzada

When we are dead, seek not our tomb in the earthbut find it in the hearts of men.

-Jalal-u-Din Rumi

It is said that Sindh is a blessed land, mixed with its dust are ashes of countless saints. 125,000 are buried in the Makli necropolis, many others rest in their shrines scattered all over the land and yet many more remain unknown and lost in the mists of time. What if  we find one?

In 1909, in an abandoned stupa near Mirpur Khas in lower Sindh, when Henry Cousens (1854-1933) found funerary ashes along with a bone it was questioned whether these remains were of Buddha or of a Buddhist saint. The stupa stood in the ruins of a Buddhist monastery sprawling over an area of 30 acres, in those early days it was dated back to 6th century CE. Before the excavations, the site was described as a ‘great heap of ruins’ located about half a mile to the north of Mirpur Khas, the nearby villagers called it Kahu jo Daro, the Mound of Kahu. The Gazetteer of the Province of Sindh (1907)  mentions a minor irrigation canal Kahu Wah which flowed at a distance of 65 miles from Mirpur Khas.  It is also said that there was a Kahu Bazaar around which in 1806 Mir Ali Murad Talpur founded the city of Mirpur Khas. But still in present day Sindh Kahu is a rare name, hence my search led me to a far corner of the globe, to Hawaii where Kahu literally is the keeper of the bones but in a deeper meaning he is the guardian of spiritual treasure.

Existence of a bazaar suggests that Kahu jo Daro was not just a remote monastery but also a sizable town. Xuan Zang (Hiuen Tsang) the well-known Chinese monk, who visited Sindh about a century before the Arab Muslim conquest in 711 CE, writes about hundreds of Buddhist monasteries that thrived in Sindh. At the same time history tells us that  to run such a network of holy places most of the finances came from the merchant and the artisan class which was mostly Buddhist. Located close to the ancient trade route Aprantapatha which stretched  from the Bolan Pass in Balochistan to Kanya  Kumari at the tip of South India, Kahu Bazaar must have been a busy place where monks and the merchants mingled with the townspeople. There is enough circumstantial evidence to suggest that it remained a peaceful town even after the  Muslim conquest as monks continued to collect their pilgrimage tax while the merchants as zimmis (non-Muslims) paid the tax.

Although like the site of Harappa Kahu was also robbed of bricks by the railway contractors, but during the course when a few ornamental bricks and two remarkable figures of Buddha were exposed, it drew the attention of the British officials. According to Sir James Campbell these represented ‘Sikhi, the Second Buddha.’ Guru Nanak’s struggle against Brahmanism, his reverence for Buddha’s teachings and his visit to Tibet may have led many to consider him the second Buddha. It is important to note that before the Partition (1947) a sizable Sikh population lived in Mirpur Khas.

Cousens arrived in Mirpur Khas four decades before the Partition. His was a long  journey which began as a photographer in the Indian service and ended as the superintendent of the Western Circle of the Archaeological Survey of India. With one clerk and an assistant photographer he had already traveled many parts of India before his posting in Sindh where he explored, surveyed, photographed and recorded the antiquities . Although Kahu jo Daro was first surveyed by J. Gibbs in 1859 but it was in 1909, just a year before his retirement, that Cousens dug it to the deepest level and retrieved a relic casket, the most sought after artifact of the archaeologists during that period. The relic contained just an ‘egg-spoonful’ of ash and a bone but to the devotees it was more precious than the votive tablets, Buddha’s images, vases and many other artifacts which were unearthed and transferred to the Prince of Wales Museum in Bombay.

My last visit to Kahu Jo Daro was in mid 1960s until then images of Buddha stood firm in the niches of its exterior wall, sadly, by now everything has vanished. After an extensive research on the Buddhist monuments of Sindh, J.E. Van Lohuizen-de Leeuw, rightly remarked that ‘the  worst fate befell the site of Kahu.’ Also, instead of blaming the Arab Muslims for the destruction of pre-Islamic monuments she identified salinity as the enemy of buildings in Sindh. This is so true, in my lifetime I have seen many beautiful structures, both old and new corroding due to salt encrustation and rapidly crumbling. In such a fragile world where abodes of saints do not survive their seekers often beguile their hearts with the thought that under every tree lives a saint.

Throughout history saints have been living not only in Sindh but all over the globe, they may have belonged to different religions but they lived beyond these labels to serve humanity. Regardless of caste or creed they willingly showed the right path to those who were lost in the labyrinth of life. We may never know the saint whose ashes were buried in Kahu jo Daro but we hope to remain blessed.

Jhirk (also spelled Jhirak, Jherruck,  jerrruk,  jarak ) located off the National Highway between Thatta and Hyderabad in lower Sindh is a quaint little town known for two big names: Agha Khan Hasan Ali Shah (1804-1881) who made Jhirk his first home in the subcontinent and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, who was born here in 1876.

The very first Gazetteer of Sindh, informs us that Jhirk was located on a hill close to River Indus and was a good spot to command the navigation of the river in both military and commercial point of view.  The Gazetteer further mentions that Alexander Burnes even recommended Jhirk  as the ‘best location for a British settlement’ and ‘Sir Charles Napier is said to have regretted not having chosen it for the European Barracks, instead of Hyderabad.’ However, it was Napier who found Jhirk to be the most suitable place to accommodate Agha Khan under British protection. Agha Khan the first or Awal, as he is mostly known to his followers, also built the first Jamaat Khana in Jhirk, hence making it a sacred town for the Agha Khani Ismaili community of Sindh. Perhaps, the region has a compelling aura as in the ancient past on nearby hills Buddhists had built their sacred shrines. The big name, in fact the only name of those times, that has survived in the memory of nearby villagers is Raja Manjira, a Buddhist king who ruled the region from his hilltop fort crowned with a stupa. Little further, across from the river, on another hill stood two stupas.

We are informed about the existence of these three stupas by Henry Cousens.  By the time he visited the Kot Manjira hill its stupa was gone, all he could find was ‘a shapeless low heap of brick debris’ in which he could find only 6 carved bricks. Cousen’s however,  refers to a letter dated 1853 written by W. Cole the Deputy Collector of Sindh which mentions a hilltop stupa standing at a distance of about 3 miles from Jhirk. The natives referred to the site as Kafir Kot (the Fort of the Infidels) owned by Raja Manjira. Cole found the remains of a wall built of large stones which fortified the site and the remains of a building made of heavy big bricks cemented by fine mud of Indus, this mud cement is found in very early brickwork, he adds.  Apart from larger structures were parts of ornaments bearing semblance to those found in later Buddhist cave temples. And in fact, there were fragments of Buddha’s images of which the head was missing. A total of 113 specimens was later handed over to the National Museum of Karachi.

Mention is also made of an inscribed stone which Cole later discovered. In his footnote Cousens explains that Alexander Cunningham, the director of the Archaeological Survey of India, read two words patrasa and bhagavatasa from this ‘very curious inscriptions in old Indian characters .‘

As for the two stupas located across from the river, Cousens informs that these  were reported by Mr. Carter. The natives referred to this site as Budh jo Takar, based on this name any body could guess that these were Buddhist remains. Carter compared the potsherds and bricks of these to the ones discovered from the stupa of Kahu jo Daro located near Mirpur Khas, Sindh.

Buddhist sites are scattered in a much larger area of the Indus region as Sindh continued to remain a stronghold of Buddhism even after the Muslim conquest.  Fatehnama also known as Chachnama, an Arabic account of the conquest of Sindh, mentions a huge stupa in the center of Debal, the first city conquered by the Arab Muslims in  711 CE. With the passage of time a significant number of lost stupas had come to surface, the reexamination of these sites can shed more light on the region’s past. Following is just a brief account of the relatively recent surveys of the Kot Manjira stupa site.

In the 1970s A.Rauf Khan of Karachi University surveyed the lower Sindh region closer to Karachi and identified several pre-historic sites, some of these going back in time to the upper Paleolithic period. He also  visited Kot Manjira and found some chert blades and potsherds which indicate that the site was pre-historic and before the Buddhist occupation it belonged to the Amri Culture which precedes the Harappan or the Indus culture (2600-1900 BCE). Khan also confirmed that the entire flat top of the hill was enclosed by a six feet thick wall and within these were  massive buildings made of limestone hence,  much older than the brick structure of the stupa which formed only a small part of the entire flat top area. Based on all these finds Khan attributed the site to both the Amri Culture and the Buddhist period  5th century  BCE.

In 2009 Ca’ Foscari University, Venice and Sindh University, Jamshoro conducted a joint survey of Kot Manjira to determine the area of the Amri culture. It was found that the Chalcolithic Amri culture was located in the central-western part of the hill. Though the Amri remenants were heavily damaged by the Buddhist structure but the chipped stone assemblage showed many characteristics of the Amri culture.  Hence, the report of the survey states that the ‘first human activity in the area took place at least from the beginning of the seventh millenium uncal BP.’

It must be mentioned that since 1985 the Italian team has been surveying  Sindh and have examined a large number of stone assemblages going back to the Paleolithic Period indicating that human occupation in lower Sindh goes back to the Stone Age. I have already referred to that previous work in my book on the Indus seals.  Khan, who had listed 250 sites in lower Indus, confirms this, ‘In time they (some of these sites) go back to upper Paleolithic Period. Thus we find in this area, the vestiges of the oldest cultures of our country so far known after the Soan Valley Culture of Potwar Plateau.’

Kot Manjra site is a good example where the historic, pre-historic and the pre-bronze periods can be scanned together. Between the Buddhist and the pre-bronze period is a long span of time but it is at Manjira that at least a small space of a huge blank is filled by the Amri culture. Kot Manjira stupa like the Moen jo Daro stupa stands on the foundations of a distant culture; Amri culture even goes beyond the urban phase of the Indus Civilization hence Kot Manjira stands on a culture much older than the city of Moen jo Daro. The time span between Kot Manjira’s Buddhist period and the Amri culture is much longer than the one between Moen jo Daro stupa and the city discovered under its foundations, nonetheless,  both show the different  and detached periods of human occupation of the same site. It will still take more time and research to come up with evidence that can fill in more blanks to demonstrate the continuity of culture.

I am most thankful to Dr. Paolo Biagi of Ca’ Foscari University of Venice  for sharing his report of the 2009 Project .

As the year 2019 begins and a ‘Naya Pakistan’ strides ahead on its journey to discard the old it is hoped that it will preserve the best of its past to inspire the new. You can learn about this incredible past by reading “Moenjodaro: Metropolis of the Indus Civilization”

There is no doubt that the custodians of the Naya Pakistan have inherited a country inflicted with many ills. Corruption, crime, debt, nepotism, poverty, and illiteracy have sometimes become bywords to describe Pakistan. But beyond these ills lies another Pakistan–a Pakistan that stands upon a spectacular heritage that deserves more attention than it has received by previous governments.

With its rich history and geographical location, Pakistan already owns a grand cultural legacy. Islam arrived in this region as early as the eighth century. This is three centuries before it spread in the other parts of the Indian subcontinent. Hence, this region was rich in the early Islamic attitude of following a pragmatic policy which resulted in blending Islam well with a heterogeneous South Asian culture. For a better understanding of that Islam you can read my essay here.

It was on the banks of Pakistan’s River Indus where one of the four ancient civilizations emerged and matured to an urban phase, represented by Moen jo Daro and Harappa. These cities, unlike their contemporaneous, Mesopotamian and Egyptian cities, lasted for 700 years (2600-1900 BCE) without war or violence. The Indus Civilization’s peaceful and nonviolent traits have survived in the later indigenous religions and philosophies of Buddhism, Jainism, Bhaktism, Sufism and Gandhism. Present day Pakistan’s socio-cultural temperament is shaped by the unique Sufi culture that evolved in the Indus region.

Also, unlike its west Asian Islamic neighbors, Pakistan had the advantage of drawing the best from its British legacy in the fields of education, law, sports and irrigation. These diverse influences have given Pakistan a heterogeneous, tolerant and resilient identity. This identity cannot be ignored and must be kept alive by gaining inspiration from the past. The most accommodating cultural policy so far was authored by Faiz Ahmad Faiz in 1972. It is encouraging to note that he addressed Pakistan as a pluralist society.

Pearl Buck said: “If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday.” But where a past is wrongly reconstructed and even at times erased from the books what could be done? One of the scholars refers to it as the ‘Murder of history’  , while others have blamed the history text books of telling blatant lies, The debate continues. But while an intellectually honest team of researchers and scholars sits down around the table to correct the previous record it is the responsibility of the scholars, historians, writers, public figures and administrators to promote an awareness and a love of history.

History can come from many sources, including a country’s land. Its mountains, rivers, valleys, waterfalls, vegetation and even its deserts reveal clues about its past. It needs to be highlighted for a whole new generation of aspiring writers and historians through books, lectures, tours, television and cinema–the most powerful medium of them all.

Pakistan’s mountains are not only covered with snow but they are also draped with history. Here are a few examples:

  • The Suleman mountain range in Balochistan with its peak Takht-e-Suleman (the throne of Solomon). Legend has it that this is where King Solomon climbed to see the subcontinent
  • Kirthar range whose mountain walls are engraved with hundreds of ancient images including those of the stupas and atish kadas (fire alters), these are telling us that once here lived Buddhists and the fire worshippers
  • There are stories floating around K2, the second highest mountain peak on Earth, second only to Everest, but more punishing to climb where many have failed . One of them, Greg Mortenson, ended up at the foot of the savage mountain to discover the profound hospitality of the village folks. He tells their story in “Three Cups of Tea.”
  • Not far from K2 is the Siwalik range, a human habitat since millions of years, where the remains of the hominoids Ramapithecus and Shivapithecus were discovered to help understand the human evolution.

Even the deserts of Pakistan, scarce in water, are rich in history.

  • Gedrosia, the one in Makran had been a challenge for great warriors like Cyrus and Alexander.
  • Thar in lower Sindh, where lived Marvi, a great folk heroine who defied a King. The fringes of these arid zones touching the seacoast were dotted with legendary emporiums. One of these was Bhanbhore where Sassui and Punhoon played their fates. Bhanbhore is also labeled ‘Gateway of Islam’ as it is identified with Debal, the first city of the subcontinent that Arab Muslims conquered.
  • In between the mountains and the deserts is the fertile plain of Punjab with the 5 tributaries of Indus, on the banks of one these thrived Harappa, another larger city of the Indus Civilization.

River Indus: A Historical Lifeline

The lifeline of the ancient and present-day Pakistan, however, is River Indus which runs through the north south length of the country, and yet, it is more than a water resource. Indus is the nurturer of a great civilization; a trade route since ancient times ; a boundary line of  the easternmost satrapy of Persia’s Achaemenid empire; the retreat point of Alexander the Great.

It is also the revered river mentioned in ancient Rig Veda and Pakistan’s Sufi poetry and its land had been a stronghold of Jainism and Buddhism, the most nonviolent religions.

Decades ago, Imran Khan, the current leader of Naya Pakistan, was lured by the beauty and might of Indus. Much before I came to know Imran Khan as a politician, I had known him through this book that he wrote on Indus. It is hoped that Khan is able to inspire others to write, advocate and promote the correct history of Pakistan.


The Desert Woman

I remember,

Within the loose circle of a veil

A face strong, striking and pale

Bearing a Sphinx-like riddle

Its expression stoic, features intriguing

Chiseled sharply by piercing winds

Tanned darkly by the blazing sun

It called for a poet to feel its solidity

A historian to read the history engraved on it

In isolation it stood, in distance it was lost

Leaving its imprint on my memory

All these years after it keeps haunting

The only feature in the vast monotony of that desert

A rare ore amidst the grains of sand

Unread, unnoticed, unnamed

Insignificant and opposite of Ozymandias’ fame

Mango trees have existed in the Indian subcontintent since at least 1500 BCE as confirmed by the Vedic literature.  Their health benefits were known to the ancient practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine who used not only their fruit but also the leaves and the bark in their prescriptions. Mango is considered to be a complete food by a large percentage of rural population who, instead of curries, prefer to eat mangoes with rice or roti throughout the season.

When Emperor Asoka Maurya (268-232 BCE) ordered the planting of banyan trees along the highways he also ordered planting of many mango gardens to provide shade and fruit to the weary men and animals living in his vast empire. Asoka has gone down in history as the good king who had converted to Buddhism; it is said that his last meal before dying was half a mango.  Mango remains to be a sacred fruit for many as Lord Buddha himself is known to have meditated in the mango gardens.

Today, the mango is cultivated throughout South and Southeast Asia and is undoubtedly the ‘King of Fruits.’ It has many a variety with fancy names.  The best rated or most beloved mango, however, bears a foreign name, Alphonso, after Afonso de Albuquerque. Albuquerque was not a king but a valiant Portuguese admiral who was appointed the governor of Goa in 1511 CE. Alphonso’s origins are traced to Brazil, Portugal’s far-flung westernmost colony in South America, where by way of grafting this delicious variety was developed and later introduced in parts of India.

Eleven years after the death of Albuquerque when Zaheer-ud-Din Mohammad Babar captured the throne of Delhi, he was not impressed by the mango. Perhaps, he did not  taste the Alphonso. Babar found it close to a peach, although in reality the mango is related to the cashew.  Babar’s descendants, however, fell in love with this fruit. His grandson, Akbar the Great Moghul, who was born in the desert of Sindh, is known to have planted one hundred thousand mango trees. Mango was the most loved fruit during the Mughal era, its sweetness  is best described by the great Indian poet Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, the court poet of the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar.

Through the centuries many new varieties of mangoes were born and many became extinct. I have tasted some of the best grown on our mango garden in lower Sindh, and as a child I have also witnessed some older varieties dying in an abandoned mango garden.  Its trees were old but still well-anchored for the kids to climb. They were leafy enough to provide a cool shade but they grew very few mangoes which were always rotten. According to the village folk, these trees were planted during my great grandfather’s days. My father had attempted to save some of these ancient varieties but he failed.

And then in 1960s a new breed of mangoes called Sindhri arrived in the markets of  Mirpur Khas near our village.  They were ‘as large as melons,’ the locals exaggerated. Sindhri was developed by a neighbor landlord Abdul Samad Kachelo who convinced my father to grow this breed and hence we had a brand new mango garden.  It had shorter trees which matured faster. Within five years’ they grew fruit in abundance and they made the landlords richer. Rafiq Kachelo, the enterprising  son of Abdul Samad, began exporting mango to the Middle Eastern countries and became known as the Mango King.

Sindhri was larger with less fiber and a different aroma but once we got used to its unique taste it became a family favorite. Today Sindhri is as much a favorite in Pakistan, as Alphonso in India.  Both, as in many things subcontinental are great. We can agree with the fruit retailer who said “If Alphonso from India is crowned the ‘King of Mangoes’, Sindhri from Pakistan is undoubtedly the ‘Queen of Mango’.”

Alphonso is being imported in the United States for about 10 years now.  Many buyers hope the same for Sindhri. As of now even Alphonso is allowed in a limited quantity which reaches a very few buyers. But for those who remain deprived there is some relief from Chobani who has succeeded in blending it with the Greek yogurt. So look for Chobani’s  ‘A Hint of Alphonso Mango’ at the grocery stores.

Image result for shammi actress images

New York Times obituary of Shammi takes me back to her life that I saw on the silver screen.  Her career began in 1949 when Sheikh Mukhtar offered her a role in Ustad Pedro. Shammi worked in 200 movies, out of these I remember watching only two – Malhar and Sangdil, for me these two are enough to judge her superb acting.

Shammi is known to play supporting roles but she also played a memorable lead role in Malhar. Later on she came to be dubbed funny girl but it was in Malhar she proved she can play a happy innocent girl as well as an anguished woman. Malhar will always be remembered  for its songs by Indiwar and Kaif-Irfani and by its music composed by Roshan,  Hrithik Roshan’s grandfather, but I will also remember it for the pathos created by Shammi’s acting. Later I discovered it was also the first movie produced by the famous playback singer Mukesh .

I saw Sangdil during my teenage days with the school friends at Plaza cinema Karachi. There were various reasons to watch the movie. First, it was an adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre; second, because of the most popular leading pair Dilip Kumar and Madhubala and third because of its songs by Rajendra Krishan and music by Sajjad. Shammi was the least of the reasons, in fact we did not even know that Shammi and another great actress Kuldip Kaur were also in the cast. We were so surprised that Talat Mahmood’s popular song ‘Yeh hawa yeh raat yeh chandini’ was actually picturized on Shammi and not Madhubala. I still remember Shammi’s style of playing sitar while Dilip rendered the ghazal.

Born in a Parsi family Shammi’s real name was Nargis Rabadi she was 89. Her death coincides with the International Women’s Day and that is a good reason for me to write on a lesser known woman who in her side roles kept a large audience entertained for decades. I congratulate the New York Times for making  ‘Overlooked’ a regular feature.

Unicorn in Poetry

Indus Seals (2600-1900 Bce) Beyond Geometry: A New Approach to Break an Old Code
During my research at the Cornell University I  would often gaze for hours at the images of unicorn engraved on hundreds of ancient seals discovered from the archaeological sites of Indus Civilization (2600-1900 BCE). I have written a lot on this fascinating animal whose story is immersed in myths and magic. It has fascinated the poets and many have written poems on it, one of my favorites is by Rainer Maria Rilke.
The saintly hermit, midway through his prayers
stopped suddenly, and raised his eyes to witness
the unbelievable: for there before him stood
the legendary creature, startling white, that
had approached, soundlessly, pleading with his eyes.

The legs, so delicately shaped, balanced a
body wrought of finest ivory. And as
he moved, his coat shone like reflected moonlight.
High on his forehead rose the magic horn, the sign
of his uniqueness: a tower held upright
by his alert, yet gentle, timid gait.

The mouth of softest tints of rose and grey, when
opened slightly, revealed his gleaming teeth,
whiter than snow. The nostrils quivered faintly:
he sought to quench his thirst, to rest and find repose.
His eyes looked far beyond the saint’s enclosure,
reflecting vistas and events long vanished,
and closed the circle of this ancient mystic legend.

I still remember, with great fondness, the evenings of the holy month of Ramazan when the village women will gather in our courtyard to break their fast. Amidst the laughter and hushed gossips they also exchanged interesting stories. Out of the many that I overheard one was about the special blessings of 27th Ramazan, the gist of the story was that on this day even deer observe the fast. As a child I wondered how anyone would even know that a deer is fasting. However, as I grew up and developed a mature attitude I began to understand and appreciate the certitude of those women who never questioned the irrationality of the story.

Last week while browsing through a book on Sultan Bahoo , a seventeenth century Sufi poet of Punjab, I came across another story of a deer appearing in the month of fasting. It provided a few more details such as the deer would bring in food and water for the Sultan and his companion who were travelling in the region of Kallar Kahar in Punjab. The story is even authenticated by two graves in that region which supposedly are of an Ahoo (deer) and Bahoo (the saint).

It was natural for my thoughts to wander to an Indus seal engraved with the image of a deity sitting in a meditative posture and surrounded by animals including deer. I am referring to the well-known proto-Shiva seal as Sir John Marshall associated its deity with Lord Shiva in his avatar of Pashupati. I would like to suggest that this seal can also qualify to be a proto-Buddha seal.

In my book “Indus Seals (2600-1900 BCE) Beyond Geometry: A New Approach to Break an Old Code” I have a chapter explaining how the appearance of some of Buddha’s symbols on the seals combined with the recent revised work on the remains of Moen jo Daro’s  stupa architecture can lead to a reinterpretation of the seals and consequently to a greater understanding of the Civilization in general. Bearing this in mind along with the rich folklore and tradition of the Indus region I would like to add here my interpretation of this seal. It will make more sense to those who have already read my chapter “Indus Seals and Buddhism.”

Considering the fact that the Indus region had been a stronghold of Buddhism and that several Buddhist symbols are found on the Indus seals it is possible that Islamic versions of the deer stories associated with fasting have evolved from the Jataka tales wherein deer is portrayed as a compassionate animal and even Buddha appears as a golden deer. Such deer stories would have been more valuable during the period of early archaeological research which began with the quest of an ancient Buddhism and which I have covered in another chapter of my book.

Briefly, it was Sir Alexander Cunningham who became the first director general of the Archaeological Survey of India in 1861 and who initiated the idea of the existence of an ancient Buddhism. He also believed that ancient Buddhism was more widespread than what is described in history.  In his quest he followed the footsteps of Xuanzang, the Chinese pilgrim and a scholar who wandered in the Indian subcontinent for many years (between 630-645) to search the original Buddhist scriptures. To cut the story short of that long journey, Cunningham reached the Shahbazgarhi Rock near Peshawar where he examined the edicts of Asoka the Maurya king (304-232 BCE) who had converted to Buddhism. When he realized that the script used on Shahbazgarhi is different from the script used in Asokan edicts carved elsewhere in the subcontinent, he became curios about the origins and earlier versions of that script.

Cunningham’s journey took him to Harappa which until then was known through the writings of two earlier travelers – an absconder and a spy- Charles Mason and Sir Alexander Burnes. But while those travelogues reported mostly the architectural features, Cunningham’s report also published smaller objects, most intriguing was the image of a tiny seal he had chanced to see. The seal was inscribed with six symbols and the image of an animal below. On his first observations Cunningham had rejected the seal as a foreign object but  later on he realized that the symbols engraved on it might be the precursors of the Shahbazgarhi script.

With this background in mind we can only imagine Cunningham’s enthusiasm , had he journeyed another 400 miles and spotted in the flatland of upper Sindh a mound about 80 feet high and crowned with a Buddhist stupa. It could have led him to his Eureka moment had he spotted the seals engraved with Buddha’s symbols in the ruins of a city unearthed below the foundations of that stupa.

Dear reader, on page 103 of my book I have reprinted the symbols of Buddha that Cunningham published seventy years before the discovery of Moen jo Daro. Out of these symbols I have pointed to two which also appear on a number of Indus seals and which appear together on an object discovered from Moen jo Daro. Today, as I am looking back to Cunningham’s list of symbols I also notice a deer image along with those two symbols. This leads me to say that the appearance of deer on Indus seals might also be telling us a long lost story of a fasting Buddha, and the proto-Shiva image might be representing a fasting proto-Buddha.

I must add here that although, Sir John Marshall labeled the deity on the seal as proto-Shiva but the deer image below the throne of Shiva reminded him of the deer motif in Buddhist iconography. In fact he has recognized several other seal symbols and architectural features as Buddhist.

Changing a label leads to different consequences. The book on Sultan Bahoo while referring to the two graves also informs us that, “Till 2001, this place was famous by the name of Aahoo and Bahoo but in 2002 its name was changed to ‘Hoo-b-Hoo.” This is the case, which the writer rightly observes can lead to “altering the actual history.” The case of Indus seals is unique as I explained in my book “Had Cunningham lived long enough to witness the unearthing of Indus Civilization he might have identified its cities as citadels of  ‘ancient Buddhism.’ But the fact is that Buddhism, Jainism, Hindusm, Bhaktism, Gandhism and Sufism are all deeply rooted in the Indus Civilization, which being far removed in time was not branded with one of these ‘isms’ but which is reflected in all these through its imagery and through its most prominent trait, the nonviolence. To call this trait a philosophy, an ideology or a religion will be wrong, for the civilization at that moment of socio-cultural evolution was at a stage where philosophy, ideology and religion were all rolled together.” Hence, the seal under discussion might be representing earlier avatars of Shiva, Buddha and even of Mahavir Jain all kneaded together.



I will be missing some of my favorite movies screened at the Film Forum in New York City. Beginning from October 27 through November 16, I am particularly interested in the vintage movies of Henry Fonda and James Stewart. New York Times rightly describes these as  “a companion series’ to the book “Hank and Jim” by Scot Eyman.  the book is about the friendship between Henry Fonda and James Stewart which  began during the Depression era and lasted for the rest of their lives.  Apart from enjoying the comforts of watching their movies in a theater, the audience will also have a chance to buy the book. What a novel way to present the movies of the two giants of Hollywood.

The first day started with the screening of back-to-back Hitchcock movies: The “Rope”starring James Stewart and the “Wrong Man” Henry Fonda. It is always hard to compare Hitchcock’s thrillers and that is the case here, both the movies are excellent, and both, Hank and Jim have done justice to their roles.

Another favorite that I will be missing is the “12 Angry Men” showing today. Being a fan of court room dramas, last week I incidentally watched on Netflix “Tokyo Trial.” For those who have watched the “Judgement at Nuremberg” must watch this to complete the story of the second World War trials. “12 Angry Men,” however, is about a young man suspected of murder. His fate is in the hands of a jury comprised of  “twelve angry men” Henry Fonda, comes to rescue him in the role of the most sane member of that jury.