Archive for the ‘Pre Historic and Pre Islamic Pakistan’ Category

“In Mandalay, the capital of Burma, beneath a wonderful pagoda repose the ashes of the revered prophet of Buddhism. These relics were discovered in 1910…” This note, published in the Bay View magazine caught my attention as it continues the story of  the discovery of Buddha’s ashes from Peshawar. I had already referred to the discovery in one of my blogs ‘Restoring Pakistan’s Buddhist Past.’ The news of the discovery was also reported by the New York Times. What follows is the story of the transportation of the sacred remains to Burma.

At the time of the discovery of the ashes, Gilbert John Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound, the 4th Earl of Minto, was the viceroy of India. He was a man with a sense of religious demographics of the country he ruled. Having realized the strength of Muslim population in the Northwest and East of India he had been one of the major players behind the concept of a separate electorate and the formation of the All-India Muslim League. In the same measure he knew Burma was a stronghold of Buddhists hence he gave the Burmese the gift that they deserved. Minto is often accused of promoting the notorious British policy of divide and rule – but that is another story.

Minto also wanted to turn this opportunity into a big news, hence he personally handed over the ashes to the Burmese Buddhist monks in an impressive ceremony. The ceremony was held in Calcutta at the throne-room of the viceregal palace. The guest list was equally impressive and included British officials, Burmese high priests, Lady Minto, Sir John Marshall and the famous Anne Besant. A report by Frank G. Carpenter describes the ceremony which began with the speech of the viceroy: “The government of India has decided that the relics should remain within the confines of the Indian empire and that Burma, as a Buddhist province, and Mandalay as its capital, should provide for their safe custody. I am sure that the great honor done to Burma will be thoroughly appreciated by its people, and that the relics will be carefully preserved and cherished.” In conclusion the viceroy hoped that “a suitable shrine may be erected at Mandalay over these relics, where in future years devout pilgrims may gather from all parts of the world to do honor to the memory of the great founder of their religion.”  In 1915 when James Bissett Pratt, not a devout pilgrim but a mere traveler, visited Mandalay the work on the pagoda was being done with great zest. He describes the enthusiasm of the Burmese in his book India and its Faiths: “At present a rather unusual wave of pagoda enthusiasm is passing over Burma. Nearly all the great pagodas of the land are being regilded and at Mandalay, the religious center, the entire hill that commands the town is being covered with statues, pagodas and other religious buildings. One of these pagodas is being built for the reception of the ashes of the Buddha recently found by Dr Spooner near Peshawar; and as I have said, the entire hill is being covered with pagodas of various sizes, shaded stairways and passages for the accommodation of pilgrims, rest-halls and mammoth Buddha images.”  Millions have been flocking to the Pagoda ever since its completion, ignoring Buddha’s advice: “Do not hinder yourself by honoring my remains.”

During the ceremony, John Marshall, the director of the Archeology Department, gave the background of the ashes which were discovered from the ruins of a pagoda built by King Kanishka (78-103 CE) in Peshawar. The pagoda, once struck by lightning and thrice caught by fire, continued to survive for centuries and had been recorded by Fahien and Hiuen Tsang, the  two well-known Chinese who traveled through India in two different time periods. When Hiuen Tsang, the later visitor, saw the pagoda, five centuries after Kanishka’s reign, it was still in good condition. Hiuen Tsang was no ordinary traveler; he was a scholarly Buddhist monk who arrived in India in 629 CE and walked through its land for seventeen long years.  Rummaging through monastic complexes and collecting original Buddhist scriptures, it was his vivid description of the 13 stories high pagoda that caught the attention of a French archaeologist, Alfred Foucher, who was visiting India in the early 20th century. Hiuen Tsang had also mentioned that the pagoda stood not too far from the palaces of Kanishka, hence following his footsteps Foucher located its remains at a distance of half a mile East of Peshawer. By that time the structure of the pagoda had turned into a mound and it was not possible for Foucher to dig it out. However, he convinced David B. Spooner of the Archaeological Survey of India to do the job. The mound was dug and a great tower uncovered.  It was ‘larger than any other known pagoda.’ John Marshall evaluated it to be ‘higher than the Washington Monument.’ He also surmised that the tower lasted for three more centuries after the visit of Hiuen Tsang.

Buddha’s ashes, enclosed in a bronze casket that consisted of four charred human bones and some ash, were unearthed from a highly secure chamber beneath the heavy foundation of the tower. “British archaeologists had to sank a shaft down through the stone floor to a depth of twenty feet to reach the chamber…and there in that little stone room, which had been buried from the sight of man for over 2,400 years, they found a bronze casket seven inches high five inches in diameter.” The imagery on its exterior was quite detailed.  A frieze depicting flying geese above the images of Buddha and one image of Kanishka.  The lid had lotus design topped with a Buddha statuette at the center.

The ash and the bones were given to the Burmese monks in a different container whereas the casket is showcased in the Peshawar Museum. Amidst colossal violence and bloodshed going around it day in and day out it is a reminder to the peaceful Buddhist past. Whether it symbolizes the ‘divide and rule’ policy or the Indo-Burmese oneness under the British administrative machinery, it is hard to say. George Orwell, working as an ordinary policeman in that machinery, declared it was “the dirty work of Empire.” Ordinary men and women living in the Empire simply enjoyed the moment, a Bollywood song from those days captures that moment.

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Many were thrown as the city buzzed with entertainment, games and gambling before turning into a mound of dead.  Dice were discovered almost on every level of Moen jo Daro. This was noted by Sir John Marshall, the Director General of the Archeological Survey of India, under whose supervision the site was excavated. Moen jo Daro (translated: Mound of Dead) was the capital of the Indus Civilization (2600-1900 BCE).  Known for its non-violence, its citizens tested their strengths only on board games.  The stakes can be surmised from mythology and folklore wherein kingdoms were lost on a throw of dice. What was the nature of that game played in Moen jo Daro?

Much before the discovery of Indus Civilization it was speculated that chess had its origins in India.  Sir William Jones was more specific and suggested West India as the place and chaturanga as the predecessor of chess. Chaturanga, meaning four limbs, denoting the four divisions of the Indian army do not befit well with the ancient Indus way of life.  Nonetheless, a few game pieces showcased in the Moen jo Daro Museum are labeled “Chessmen” and placed on a modern chess board suggesting the possibility of the existence of chess in Moen jo Daro. Things change, concepts evolve, and sometimes they are even capable of representing just the opposite of the original concept. The four limbs of chaturanga may have denoted non-martial ideas in its earlier versions. The existence of dice in Moen jo Daro brings to mind other board games and chaturanga may have evolved from these.

This week I saw ‘’A Throw of Dice,” a vintage Bombay film belonging to the silent era and was made in 1929. However, it has been digitally restored and is available on Netflix.  You can watch a trailer here. The film, inspired by the Mahabharata, included a scene where King Ranjit gambled away his wife and his kingdom.  The superb restored picture quality allows a clear view of the four armed board game, the game pieces, and the dice which is not cube shaped but a set of three rectangular sticks etched with simple designs. Moen jo Daro site museum has few specimens of the stick dice. Archaeologists may be interested in knowing that these are still used by the Sindhi snake charmers, for fortune telling. As for the four-armed board in the movie, perhaps it was pachisi and who knows Arjun too may have lost his wife over such a board.

Pachisi, meaning twenty five, has survived in India and it has an older version known as chaupan. It is played by four players and until recent times, was a favorite ladies’ game in rural Sindh. Chaupan set consists of 16 game pieces, seven cowrie shells and a board, which is actually not a board but just a four-armed cloth piece marked with squares, the same as the one shown in the movie. Logically, chaupan should be the closest to the version played in Moen jo Daro. The use of cowrie shells instead of a cube dice is interesting. Perhaps this throws some light on the urban and rural divide of the Indus Civilization. Whereas the urban centers used dice since the days of Moen jo Daro, the use of cowrie shells, which is much ancient, continues in the remote villages of Sindh. So dice too has taken various forms.

What Marshall discovered in abundance are the cube shaped dice which have survived to present times and are widespread, found in almost all the countries and cultures of today’s world. In Moen jo Daro these were made of terra-cotta, one of these was inscribed with numbers on opposite sides adding up to seven another had made its way to Ur in Mesopotamia confirming the trade links between the two civilizations. The connection between dice and chess is however not yet established.

In a game of chance coincidences abound. The co-producer of ‘A Throw of Dice’, Himanshu Roy, played the role of the villain and won King Ranjit’s wife. In real life however, he had lost his wife, not on a throw of dice, but to the charms of one of the actors he had hired. This is a story better told by Sadaat Hasan Manto, captured here is an English translation.

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In olden days people said storms were nature’s way of reminding man of his fragile existence. We heard similar expressions even in modern days. When Sandy hit a large part of the United States, many people felt it was there to change the tide of presidential elections and hence the fate of the country and the world.  However, there are only few who can sense the subtle warnings of an approaching storm. In Indian mythology a fish had sensed these. According to the Hindu belief it was actually Lord Vishnu in the guise of a fish who saved Manu (father of the human race) from a devastating deluge.

The fish appears as a savior in many ancient legends spread around the World.  The belief in its powers may have existed in the Indus Civilization (2600 to 1900 BCE) as indicated by the discovery of a large number of fish images from Moen jo Daro, Harappa and a few other ancient Indus towns. Total number of symbols/signs engraved on Indus seals is close to 400 and out of these 10% is of fish and its variants. Fish images are also generously painted on the Indus pottery.

The first Indus seal discovered from the site of Harappa was engraved with six signs – one of these was a fish. Its image was published in 1875 by Alexander Cunningham in his report in the Archaeological Survey of India. About half a century later when Sir John Marshall, the director general of the Archaeological Survey, published the first account of a number of seals discovered from Harappa and Moen jo Daro, fish was immediately spotted by Ernest Mackay. He was the Director of the Field Museum-Oxford University and was excavating Mesopotamian sites. Mackay drew Marshall’s attention to a fish sign engraved on a seal discovered from Kish, located in Persian Gulf. Fish symbol has been discovered in other civilizations East and West of Indus; from Japan to Mesoamerica. Fish Talisman’s, mostly depicting carp, continue to remain popular in today’s China and Japan.  Yuri Knorozov, the Russian scholar, who is more known for deciphering the Maya script, had suggested that the fish depicted on Indus seals is carp. Knorozov’s view that Indus script represented a proto-Dravidian language eventually lead the fish to a celestial status.

In 1950s Father Henry Heras, a Jesuit priest and a supporter of Knorozov’s idea suggested that fish actually represented star as in Dravidian language the word Minh is a homonym for fish and star. He used the signs engraved next to the fish for further proof. For instance the inverted letter V sign over the head of the fish was interpreted roof and represented the black star or Saturn. The fish sign appearing with six vertical strokes depicted six stars and represented constellation Pleiades.

Heras’ theory is further developed by Asko Parpola and Iravatham Mahadevan. However, there is an opposing view presented by S.R.Rao suggesting that Indus script represents an Indo-European language. As the two schools of thought Dravidian versus Sanskrit argue against each other, there are scholars who question whether Indus script is a script at all and whether the fish sign is a fish. Walter Fairservice argued that the eye of the fish is missing. Also, fish is not represented in an upright position in later Indus folk art, could it be just a loop or a letter? One of the recent researchers feel that fish may have been used for weights in the Indus cities. Furthermore, what appears as a roof to Heras appears as a crown and a mountain to others.

Speculations can multiply and the argument can go on for another century. It is about time to seek clues in diverse and scattered sources such as the mythology, etymology, ancient texts and indigenous folklore. Below are just few thoughts.

There may be a reminder to the old myth of fish power in a Sindhi saying ‘Jeko chawundo Jhule Lal Tehnija Theenda Bera Paar’ meaning whoever says Jhule Lal (swing Lal) his/her ship will reach the shores (safely). The story behind the saying is that River saint Udero Lal as a child, rested in a jhula (swinging crib) that kept on swinging on its own. In iconography, however, he is depicted riding a fish that swings with the waves of Indus waters. Fish in fact is a vehicle that takes Lal through the storms of life, hence the slogan Jhule Lal.

Some of the fish images engraved on Indus seals are depicted with horns. If these could be interpreted as numerals, vowels, diacritical marks or rays. They can also be interpreted as a symbol of superiority and authority. A deity engraved on Indus seals and labeled as proto-Shiva too is wearing horns. The tradition continued in historic times and even Alexander the Great is depicted with horns on a few images. The last name Singh adopted by martial communities of Rajputs and Sikhs, literally means horns. Above all the exalted fish in Manu’s story is said to have horns around which Manu fastened the rope that dragged his ship to the shores.

The missing eye of the fish so far can be found in Mahabharata where Arjun, the ace-archer shoots the eye of a fish statuette and wins the competition. The story is used for moral lesson; while going through the vicissitudes of life remain focused on the target; Arjun won Draupadi as during the competition he did not bother to see what others were seeing-the sky, the clouds and the trees.

As for the upright position perhaps ancients discovered one fish in Indus that swam against the current. The palla fish of Sindh, perhaps the upright position is to illustrate the resolve of a struggling fish. Knorozov had already compared images of Indus fish with carp, another fish that is known to swim against the current and which is still considered a symbol of courage and resilience in Japanese and Chinese cultures.

And on this day of Christmas let’s not forget the Biblical references to fish. Merry Christmas.

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“What’s in a name?” Take the case of Sindhu the original name of River Indus. Different people and different platforms discuss it in different ways. The mere fact that they still discuss the name that has been anglicized since centuries is important.

Last month I had been directly involved in two discussions on the subject. First was on the facebook of Central Trading Zone launched by Saleem Aziz. It was about how the name was changed. The second was a serious conversation with Dial Gidwani, founding president of the American Institute of Sindhulogy, who is also developing video games on non-vioence theme. The conversation revolved around the question why do we still use the name Indus and not Sindhu?

To begin from the very beginnings will answer the first question. It takes us to the times when ancient rishis watched “The Rivers come forward triply, seven and seven and Sindhu in might surpassed all the streams that flowed.” This is just one line from a hymn in the tenth book of Rig Veda, the sacred Sanskrit text that mentions river Sindhu for the first time. According to Max Muller, the German translator, Veda was compiled around 1500 BCE, probably on the very banks of Indus. The spectacular scenery and the might of Indus had inspired the composition of hymns on Sindhu. The River, considered sacred, is further described as the lord and leader of the moving floods, active as a dappled mare, mighty as a bellowing bull, kind as a mother to her calves, rich in gold, rich in ample wealth for whom Varuṇa, the water god, cut the channels for its forward course.

Certainly, river was primary, the country around had no name, and was identified only by the river, hence the Indus region was known as Sapta Sindhu, the land of seven rivers. According to some experts it is a referral to Indus’ delta, ridged with its ever shifting branches rushing to the Arabian Sea. Sindhis call it Lar, the slope, the name also used for lower Sindh. Sapta Sindhu is also identified with Punjab, which is now left with five rivers but is still called by the numbers of its rivers, Punj, five and aab, water.

The process of Sindhu’s name change began with the arrival of Achaemenids when they conquered the land, converted it to a Persian satrapy and recorded it as Hapta Hindu. This is when letter ‘s’ was changed to ‘h.’ However, soon after Alexander’s conquest of Darius’ satrapy, Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador to the court of Chandragupta Maurya, recorded the region as Indos ( Indus) by dropping the initial ‘h’ and ending it with ‘s.’ Ending place names with ‘s’ was a common practice of Greek chroniclers and hence we come across Indus kingdoms such as Musikanus, Oxykanus, Portikanus, to mention a few. The suffix kanus is also spelt as kanas and the only remnant in Sindh of these versions is Larkana (without s). From Greek chronicles the name Indus crept into Latin and then to Old English and French which resulted in their own versions of Ind and Ynde.

With the passage of time Persian version Hindu extended beyond the land of Sindhu to Bharat Varsha, the old name of India. Hence Hindu came to be applied to Hindustan (the country), Hinduism(religion) Hindi (language) Hindukush (mountains), Hindu (person), Hindura (a piece of furniture, the Sindhi swing) but it was never applied to the river which is known to the world by its Greek version Indus. And then came the Arabs. They counted Sindh and Hind as two different countries. They also referred to the river as Aab-e-Sin, The water of Sin (or Sindh) the name is shortened to Abasin. Mehran is yet another name for Indus and the only other example of suffix ‘ran’ for river name is Puran, an abandoned tributary of Indus in lower Sindh. Ironically an ordinary Sindhi calls Indus simply a darya, river.

As to the question why we call Sindhu Indus? Here are some of my thoughts. If water worship ever existed in Indus Civilization then Darya Panthies, a Hindu sect of River worshippers in Sindh, deserve the credit for valiantly preserving the practice in some form until mid-twentieth century. It’s logical that not much of this sect is known after the Partition. Sindhi Hindus, in general suffered the worst under Partition as they had to say farewell not only to their ancestral homes but also to their beloved river. They must have drawn some solace from the fact that Sindhu continued to remain in the Indian national anthem. They have also reconciled to fulfill their urge of embracing Indus at its course that traverses through Ladakh district. Sindhu Darshan festival is now celebrated annually at Leh in India to highlight the River as an example of communal harmony and peace.

As far as the present inhabitants of the Indus region are concerned they may not have any memories of the long lost water cults performed in the Great Bath complex of Moen jo Daro, but Pakistani Sindhi Hindus and Muslims alike revere Udero Lal, the river related saint also known as Darya Shah, River King. Lal’s origins are lost in the murky past, he is considered to be a mythical figure but he is also confused with Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. He may not be an eqvivalent of ancient Varuna, but he is considered to be an avatar of the immortal Khwaja Khizr, the sage of Islamic tradition. Khizr guides the mortals through the labyrinth of life. He too is an elusive character appearing in different time zones and different stories throughout the Islamic World. Lal’s identification with Khizr has led to his other title Zinda Pir, the Living Pir. And like Khizr he too rides a fish, the image that abounds on Indus seals and in Islamic iconography depicting Khizr.

Fish symbol will require another blog; suffice it to say here that Udero Lal’s fish is identified with palla, which is more known for being the queen of Sindhi cuisine and less for its heroic struggle of swimming against the current. Whereas in Japan, carp, another fish that swims upstream against the current stands for courage and determination. Legend has it that Khizr too swam against the current and finally reached the island in upper Sindh where he rests in peace.

According to Islamic tradition, Khizr is the one who had guided Zulqarnain (another name of Alexander the Great) to Aab-e- Hayat, the Water of Life. Various locations are cited for the source of Aab-e-Hayat, Indus, is considered to be the most likely source.

Did Alexander seek immortality? “When Alexander sought he did not find what Khizr found unsought.” Nizami says so profoundly what history tells us coldly of an ironic end; Alexander died young in his early thirties.

Names get mingled through the mists of time, but the truth behind them does not change. Their power is not lost, call it magic, call it mystique. Thousands of years ago the might of Sindhu had given birth to the largest and most non-violent civilization of the ancient world. It may sound surreal to say that in this day and age when a handful of Mullas on one side and Hindu fundamentalists on the other side are flaring up hatred between innocent Hindus and Muslims non-violence can prove to be the most effective weapon against their monstrous mission.
The doctrine that holds all forms of life sacred and avoids any form of violence against fellow human beings, animals, insects and even plants is rooted in Indus Civilization. It runs in the blood of Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Sufi philosophies. It is also the the common heritage that Indians and Pakistanis possess in a divided land so let’s give non-violence a chance. Call it Ahimsa or whatever; Ahimsa by any other name won’t hurt.

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In the South of Pakistan, near the city of Hyderabad begins the range of Hills known as Ganjo Takar, meaning The Bald Hill.  Shah Abdul Latif, the Sufi saint poet of Sindh had pointed to the secrets held in its folds and my attention has been drawn to an article referring to this subject.

Professor Dr. G.A. Allana, the former vice chancellor of the University of Sindh, Jamshoro, who has written many books on Sindh’s history, culture and language, had also written an article using Latif’s line “Ganjay mein Gun Ghanna” (Bald has Many Folds) as the title.  In his article, Dr. Allana reflects upon his various trips to Ganjo Takar.  Most of these were undertaken during his student days from 1956 onwards.  Taking clues from Latif’s poem, Dr. Allana has traced the sacred routes in these hills that had been traversed by the yogis since ancient times.  He recalls the pre-Partition times when the yogis still arrived in a large group from Gujrat to perform rites at a spot dedicated to Kali.  Located near Fateh Chowk in Hyderabad, Kali deovari actually marks the beginnings of the Ganjo Takar range.  Dr. Allana laments on the loss of history as after Partition the road named after Kali has been ‘converted to Islam’ and renamed as the Hali Road.  From Kali in Hyderabad the yogis would get divided in two groups, one of these would head towards the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan and the other to the Makli necropolis.  The Makli group of yogis proceeded further West to Balochistan to the temple of Mata Hinglaj, the westernmost Tirtha (sacred place) of the Hindus.  The article also reveals several shrines of Muslim saints and many remains of Buddhist period; most relevant here is Sudheran jo Thul.  Dr. Allana mentions an annual fair at the Thul where Buddhist pilgrims got their heads shaven and performed rituals and where Buddha’s bones were preserved.  This indicates the existence of a cinerary stupa at Sudheran and yet another potential spot to explore the much sought-after Buddha’s ashes.  I thank Dr. Mithal Vakassi for sharing Dr. Allana’s article with me.

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In 2011, at an exhibition titled “The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara” held at the Asia Society Museum, New York, a sequence of ‘carved narrative panels depicting episodes from the life of Buddha’ were displayed.  These reminded me of  ‘carved narratives’ appearing on tiny steatite seals discovered from Moen jo Daro.  Some of these too depict episodes from a civilization long dead.  One of these show a deity standing amidst pipal (banyan) leaves next to a submissive human figure, while images of seven females carved at the bottom of the seal watch the ritual.  There are seals depicting a human figure combating two tigers, these have been compared to human-lion and human-bull contest scenes found in ancient art in Mesopotamia and Egypt.  In his recent writings, Jonathan Mark Kenoyer offers a more logical interpretation to these scenes. According to him the myth of a hero who could grapple with two ferocious animals is probably a story with deep roots extending to the Paleolithic and may have been widespread throughout West and South Asia. Each region probably used familiar animals to represent specific concepts of nature and conflict between various spiritual forces.

There is yet another seal engraved with a three-faced deity, crowned with a pair of horns, seated in a yoga posture and surrounded by animals. This image led Sir John Marshall to consider the deity to be a primordial version of Shiva, the Hindu God; Shiva is also known as Bhutanatha and Pashupati, the Lord of animals.  More relevant here is Marshall’s observation of the deer motif of the Shiva seal and its comparison to the deer beneath the throne of Buddha that symbolizes the Deer Park where he gave his first sermon.

On the surface these samples from Indus Valley Civilization may not suggest a direct link with Buddhism, at the most they can be considered precursors of the form of story telling that evolved in the Gandhara tradition of narrating Buddha’s story.

However, Sir Mortimer Wheeler had once hoped that the stupa that crowns the site of Moen jo Daro might have been built on an ancient temple.  Ernst Mackay, another archaeologist who excavated the site, had similar thoughts.  According to him a sacred place continues to be used for a sacred purpose even by new occupants of a different religion.  The ancient temple beneath the stupa was never found but a whole city marked with non-violent traits was unearthed.  And beyond the City and through the mists of time exists a template of non-violent temperament in the region.  It is this template which is primary where Indus Valley Civilization, Buddhism, Jainism, Bhaktism had befitted well and where Sufism can reign supreme.  Not too far back in times it was logical for Mahatama Gandhi’s non-violent movement to succeed here.  In the absence of tangible evidence this is how we can rely on logic to draw some answers.

After all it was the absence of war related evidence-weapons, military barracks, prisons-that led the archaeologists to label Indus Civilization as the most non-violent ancient civilization.  If there was a war it was ‘between various spiritual forces’ represented by human-animal conflict motif engraved by the ancient scribes from Nile to Indus. The Sufi concept to strive for perfection is not much different from the concept of achieving nirvana in the non-violent religions; both are versions of an inward war to conquer evil within; both are fought on spiritual realms rooted in Indus Valley Civilization and beyond in the settlements buried deep and lost in time.  Archaeologists are not allowed to dig Moen jo Daro but they are vigorously working on Harappa and few other important Indus sites in Pakistan and India.  At the moment they may not be able to reconstruct fully the ideology of ancient Indus but they cannot deny its non-violent traits, perhaps it is time to study past traits in present times.  There are numerous examples of survival and continuity of Indus tradition in the region.

Amidst the many scattered remnants of peace -1500 or so Indus sites, more than a million shrines, many Jain temples and Buddhist stupas- are also records of smaller stupas.  Listed in British records as votive stupas they have vanished without leaving any trace.  These were usually located around the larger stupas, two of these dated between 800-1200 CE, near Bhanbhore are recorded in the 1919 report of the Archaeological Survey of India “the importance of the discovery of these smaller stupas lies in their worship by the modern inhabitants of Sindh.” although the worshippers by that time were Sindhi Hindus of Vani community but the British officials strongly felt that the two ‘bleak…curious monuments were at one time Buddhist Stupas.’ This may or may not have surprised the British officials but this has been the natural response throughout history; devotees flocking to the sacred places even when the labels change from Buddhism to Hinduism to Islam.  Today at the shrines of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Pakistan and Nizamudin Auliya’s in India, Hindu devotees can be found in considerable numbers.

Saints, dead or alive, Muslims or non-Muslims, have been messengers and custodians of peace throughout the history of the region.  The areas away from militant Islam still rings with the poetry of Shah Abdul Latif, Bulleh Shah, Rehman Baba and many others. This face of Pakistani Islam is easily distinguishable from the Deobandi Islam that came from India after the Partition.  Sufi Islam also continues to remain distinct from the new militant Islam which matches the Deobandi philosophy taught in the madrasas of the North West regions of Pakistan.  I must emphasize that Sufi Islam is not a sect of Islam it is just the mystical aspect of Islam.  Mysticism is much older than Sufi Islam and had been prevalent in the pre-Islamic religions. Its long history makes it deep-rooted and strong, stronger than the bombs.Destruction by Talibans will make no difference even if all the physical remains of peace, Islamic and pre-Islamic, are eradicated from the face of the region, the non-violent spirit will survive and it may even fly and nestle in regions afar.

In the pre-Islamic days there was a Buddhist sage Padmasambhava from Uddiyana, an ancient town located in Swat, Pakistan.  He had gone to Tibet to preach Buddhism where he came to be known as Guru Rinpoche.  The seed of Buddhism that he planted in Tibet sprouted and spread to Mongolia, Bhutan and surrounding regions.  After the departure of Dalai Lama from Tibet it was exposed to the world and became popular in the West, even in  the most opulent and most worldly of all the institutions, the Hollywood. At this juncture of the history of non-violence another narrative awaits to be carved.

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Moen Jo Daro Stupa

“The restoration of the stupa sketched (above) is meant merely to give the reader a rough idea of the appearance it is likely to have presented in the days of the Kushans.” Sir John Marshall.

The recent news about the restoration of the defaced Buddha’s images in Swat is a strong message to those who had been on a spree of vandalizing the pre-Islamic heritage in the region.  Beginning in 2001 with the destruction of the colossal Buddha images in Bamiyan, Afghanistan the mischief had infiltrated in the North Western Pakistan, Vishakha Desai, the former Director General of the Asia Society, New York, was one of the first to report the damages in 2007. Read here.

Many archaeological remains in Pakistan have already been victims of time, weather, waterlogging, thefts and neglect of officials.  Almost nine decades ago, Sir John Marshall had described the sorry state of the remains of the ‘largest and the highest’ Buddhist stupa of Sindh.

“The dome of the monument has long since disappeared and all that is left is the lower part of the circular drum, which is still standing to a height of 8ft. 4in. above the plinth…long before Mr. Banerji’s arrival, villagers are said to have excavated beneath the hollow middle of the drum, to a depth of some 14 feet, in the hope of finding hidden treasures and to have lighted upon a relic casket.  Some fragments of this relic casket, which was of alabaster, were subsequently found by Mr. Banerji in the debris but not enough to its reconstruction.”  Sir John Marshall.

That outer wall of the lower part of the circular drum still exists and crowns the site of Moen-jo-Daro, the metropolis of the Indus Valley Civilization (2600-1900 BCE), located in the Larkana district in upper Sindh.

In 1919 when R.D. Banerji, superintendent of the Western Circle of the Archaeological Survey of India, surveyed the stupa he had no idea that a whole city, separated by three thousand years laid buried only few feet below its foundations.  However, once the city was exposed Sir John Marshall, Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India, announced its discovery with a bang. On September 24, 1924 by publishing an article in the Illustrated London News he informed the World about the greatest archaeological discovery of British India.  It was a discovery that led to the identification of the fourth ancient civilization of the World (Three other known civilizations at that time were in China, Egypt and Mesopotamia).  But let’s not forget the value of the fragments of the relic casket as it is an important clue to understand the lesser-known Buddhist period of Pakistan’s history.   The caskets containing fragments of Buddha’s charred bones and ashes had attracted British archaeologists and officials to the Buddhist monastic complexes scattered in India. With the dawn of the twentieth century they had reached the North Western fringes of their empire where Buddha, according to a legend, had forecasted the flourishing of his religion. Here they rummaged through the cinerary stupas, special stupas that preserved caskets.

Historical records confirm that Buddhism was prevalent in the Indus region at least from the times of Asoka Maurya (273-232 BCE). The King, who after fighting the horrifying battle of Kalinga, converted to Buddhism and looked forward to victories of Dharmmavijaya, the victory of the faith

Amongst his many contributions to Buddhism, Asoka had also retrieved Buddha’s remains entombed originally in eight stupas and redistributed these  in smaller portions to many other stupas.  Mauryan dynasty ended violently in 180 BCE but the strong Brahmin reaction failed to uproot Buddhism in the region. Two centuries later a second grand era of Buddhism was ushered in by the Kushan dynasty which lasted for 125 years. Kushans territories extended from the Indus region to Gandhara which is parts of Punjab, North West Pakistan and Eastern Afghanistan.

Hieun Tsang, a Chinese monk who visited India during 630-644, just about half a century before the Arab invasion listed the Buddhist monasteries.  In Sindh alone there were 460 with 26000 monks.  Most of these were in lower Sindh, concenterated in the Central Delta area, Mirpur Khas, Sehwan and Makran in the Balochistan, province.

Fa-Hien or Faxian another Chinese pilgrim who had visited earlier, some two hundred years after the Kushan rule, describes Taxila, the city known for education, religion and great trade.  Today, its ruins composed of three cities built in different time zones, is a window to diverse cultural layers.  Conquered and constructed one after another by Darius, Alexander, Chandragupta Maurya and the Greco-Bactrian King Demetrius it had been a melting pot where Persian, Greek, Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Bactrian cultures merged.  Taxila located on three important routes was also a trading center.  The Silk Road provided opportunities to Buddhist traders and craftsmen to sell their goods and raise money to support their monastaries.  The bloom of Gandhara art in the region suggests not only an amalgamation of Indian and Greek styles but also an immense prosperity that afforded monumental artworks.  It was in such lavish times and place under the Kushans that Buddha, for the first time, came to be represented in human form.  The largest Buddha sculptures in the mountain walls of Bamiyan were constructed under their patronage and Moen jo daro stupa was built during their rule.

Kanishka, the most known Kushan King too reached for  Buddha’s remains scattered by Asoka and stuffed these in precious caskets.  When one of these was discovered in an excellent shape in a stupa in Peshawar it made big news was reported in a full page article in the New York Times in 1909.  Another casket was discovered from Kahu jo Daro in the suburbs of Mirpur Khas in my home district Tharparkar in lower Sindh.  During my childhood days I remember passing by it and even playing around in the spacious yard around the stupa and being overwhelmed by Buddha’s images in relief.

Stupas in Sindh were also discovered at Depar Ghangro, Thul Mir Rukan, Jherruck, Mitho Dero, Sudheran jo Daro and as these awaited a thorough search, strong rumors  of a relic casket buried in the stupa on top of the unexcavated mounds of Moen jo Daro reached the British officials. But while the early intruders searched in vain for treasures in the abode of a religion that renounces worldly treasures by the time Banerji reached the hollowed drum the region itself was empty of Buddhism.  Peshawer casket had been handed over officially to the Burmese monks in a ceremony that symbolizes the final expulsion of Buddhism from the land where it flourished for thousands of years.  Nonetheless the presence of Buddha’s bones- many lost but few found- in a close proximity to each other in Pakistan indicate that the land must have enjoyed an exalted sacred status in the Buddhist world.

Indus region is still dotted with some of the most spectacular Buddhist remains in Punjab, Swat and Khyber Pakhtunkwa province whereas many have perished in the saline land and air of Sindh.  The ASI reports as early as of 1919 had described Kahu jo Daro infected with ‘kalar’ salt encrustation and appealed to the Director to dispatch a chemist from Bombay to cure the problem.  In my lifetime Kahu has withered away and the mounds do not bear any semblance to the stupa that I saw half a century ago.  It is time to preserve as much heritage as possible.

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In Part 4 of his documentary “In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great” Michael Wood covers the legends and myths woven around Alexander in the Indus region.

Finally Greece has formed a new Government.  But as the international media debates over country’s future I am reflecting upon its rich past, the fate of that too hinges upon the fiscal policy of the new government.

An article by Randy Kennedy appeared in the New York Times on June 11th.  It reports how the glorious past of the cradle of Hellenic civilization is being neglected due to the budget cuts imposed on Greece by European economic establishment.  The austerity measures by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism have resulted in forceful retirements and understaffing is causing many problems; closing of museums and galleries and thefts being the most obvious.  It is also a blow to the historical scholarship as the limited staff’s time is mostly consumed in non-academic duties.  The anonymous American archaeologist rightly says “Nobody in Greece digs nearly as much as the government archaeological service. And if they aren’t able to publish what they find, they might as well not be doing it at all; they might as well just rebury it.” On the other hand Pavlos Geroulanos, the helpless minister of Culture and Tourism says “I believe that this ministry could double or triple the number of archaeologists it hires — and the number of guards — and still be understaffed.”

What happened to Greek archaeology the most spectacular on the landscape of Europe?  Since more than a century its sites had been number one tourist destinations, and Greek archaeologists were almost a breed of celebrities.  It was not too long ago when Melina Mercouri, a former minister of culture campaigned so confidently for the return of Elgin Marbles.  As a theater actress she had enhanced Greeks’ longing for their past. She had made herself known on the international stage by acting in few Hollywood movies (“Never on Sunday” “Topkapi” and “Phaedra” with James Mason and Anthony Perkins) and she used her celebrity status too for the promotion of Greek culture.  And what about the new Acropolis Museum, constructed only three years ago?  Incidentally its third birthday is just being celebrated. Let’s hope the new government and the Euro economic establishment considers bringing back the state of archaeology back to its standard.

Greece’s past had a huge impact on the then known world; in Pakistan and Afghanistan Gandhara art is a proof.  More important are the ancient Greek manuscripts sprinkled with references pertaining to lands beyond Greece.  Megasthenes’ account of India may be exaggerated but most of the chroniclers made sure to record many solid facts of the exotic lands where Alexander is only known through legends.  What could be more revealing than the Greek record that established the chronology of Indian history or for that matter Pakistan’s history, or history of both the countries, at some points in the past it is permissible to cross political boundaries.

It was Sir William Jones, an eighteenth century British Jurist posted in Calcutta who stumbled upon the name of an Indian King in a Greek chronicle- Sandrocottus, the name that he immediately identified with Chandragupta, the founder of the Mauryan dynasty and the first emperor of the sub-continent.  Known for his theory of identifying Indo-European group of languages and tracing their roots to Sanskrit, Sir Jones had gone through many ancient manuscripts of these languages.  Through Indian texts and Buddhist traditions he had come to know Chandragupta but the period of his reign was not dated. In fact there were reservations in the western academic world  to accept Chandragupta as a real historical figure.  Greek reference came to rescue as it provided a date, 326 BCE, the year when he met Alexander the Great.  According to Plutarch, Chandragupta “was a stripling” when he approached the Macedonian conqueror with a burning desire to establish an Empire in India. Alexander by that time had already accomplished part of his mission and had reconciled with his war weary soldiers to return home. Chandragupta thus failed in getting any military assistance.  The meeting of the two had taken place somewhere in the Indus region which is now Pakistan. 326 BCE thus became a reference point in Indian and Pakistani history as most of the known events before and after this year came be dated.

Alexander is also known through vague references; there is a fort he got built in Sindh mentioned in Tuhfatual Kiram; there is a port of Alexander on the Makran coast, another in the delta of Indus and yet another somewhere in Punjab.  Out of the thirty Alexandrias that the conqueror built, few are bound to be in Pakistan.  There is also the bed of a long abandoned tributary of Indus, passing behind my village, in lower Sindh, the southern province of Pakistan.  It is said Alexander may have crossed it on his return journey.  On many afternoons I had walked on its banks with the village kids, later as a student and a novice in archaeology I had even wished in vain to discover an amphora thrown long ago  in its waters. However, there is another ancient riverbed in the island of Kythera in Greece, its banks are not as barren but sadly the artifacts studded on these are going down the drain due to the collapse of its bank.  Kythera, had been a colony of Minoan Crete, it is rich in archaeology.  Aris Tsaravopoulos a senior archaeologist who had worked in the island for 15 years, and who too had been retired, feels that the site may be part of a tomb but who knows it may also hold clues to the world beyond the island.  Wasting Greek artifacts, or artifacts anywhere in the World, is wasting a vital ancient record of the common past of human race.  Aris attempted to save some larger pieces of pottery, reports Randy in New York Times, but the pockets of his Khaki vest are not large enough to store a massive heritage that Greece owns.

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Around the time when I was regularly visiting Bhanbhore to enhance history with tradition Sir V.S. Naipaul was visiting Pakistan.  “History, in the Pakistani school books I looked at, begins with Arabia and Islam.” He had observed.

His visit had also coincided with the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan when Pakistan was helping United States with a generous supply of Mujahideens to combat the communists.  Mujahideens, the freedom fighters, were funded by Saudi Arabia, the staunch ally of United States.  As a long term project, special madrasas, or religious schools were established to indoctrinate the next generation of fighters in a militant philosophy based on distorted Islamic teachings. In the given circumstances it is very likely that some school, some where, inspired by the madrassas or under the spell of Jihad, went an extra mile and tailored a syllabus with the Arab Muslim conquest as the first chapter of country’s history.  That chapter, however, begins with Bhanbhore.

Many archaeologists and historians believe that the site of Bhanbhore was in fact the city of Debal mentioned in the Chachnama, an Arab chronicle.  According to the Chachnama, Debal was the first city of the Indian sub-continent that was conquered in 711 CE by Mohammad bin Qasim, the well-known young Arab general.  It was described as a large city on the Arabian seacoast in the country of Sindh and the ruins of Bhanbhore are large enough to be identified with Debal.  Bhanbhore is thus labeled as the Gateway of Islam.

Excavations have revealed more than a mere Arab conquest. Bhanbhore’s origins can be traced to first century BCE.  It had been a home to the Scythians, Parthians, Sassanians, Hindus and Buddhists before the Arab Muslims occupied it.  There is however, no reference of Debal in any local source, or even in the folklore.  The Sindhis have always known the site as Bhanbhore or Sassui jo Takar, the Hillock of Sassui, and that is how it has come to the posterity through the poetry of Latif, through the love story of Sassui Punhoon.

I was therefore visiting Bhanbhore to feel the mystique of the folk story from its very source and also to rummage through its streets for the mundane -the citadel and the moat, the remains of the residential and the industrial areas, slingstones and the arrowheads that targeted the inhabitants and the evidence of Manjanik, the weapon, that destroyed the city.

The coincidence that Sassui Punhoon longed for each other at a time when Islam was just gaining foothold in Sindh and that I was attempting to set their story in an archaeological and historical context at a time when Islamization of Pakistan was in full swing intrigued me.  While fighting the ghosts of a pre-Islamic era, Pakistan’s Islamization process was emphasizing on the Islamic component of history and undermining the rest, whereas I was keen to include the ancient traditions and folklore as a record of the past. I do remember that on revealing my views few government officials had looked at me with a sneer as though I was committing blasphemy.

I was also aware of the fact that Islamization process was undermining the position of women and Sassui stood no chances of official recognition.  It was the period of General Zia-ul-Haq when the newscasters on television screens were required to cover their heads with the veils.  It was also the season of Islamic punishments; flogging had become a public spectacle and stoning to death was being considered for those who committed adultery.  The most absurd quirk of the times was the definition of a new status of women in the Law of Evidence where two women witnesses were considered equal to one male witness.  Worst still was their predicament in the rape cases where the victim had to prove the rape by producing four witnesses, otherwise it was likely to be considered adultery.  However, when it came to erase the past, it was not easy. Two folk heroines Sohini and Heer had already committed adultery but nothing could be done about them. Likewise, Indus Valley Civilization and the pre-Islamic era that followed could not be erased from all the textbooks.

If Moen jo Daro, the most elaborote site representing the mature urban phase of Indus Valley Civilization, is a window to the pre-historic past; Bhanbhore, the Gateway of Islam, is one of the richest sites that offers a glance in the pre-Islamic period of Pakistan’s history.  In between these two sites are many other pre-Islamic landmarks that have survived in various forms-archaeological sites, manuscripts, oral traditions, dialects, rituals and even customs-mutilated remains of all these are calling for research and preservation. Islamization process had failed to erase these.  Naipaul, failed to view the state of history and education in totality. Ten years later in the sequel to his book, once again he committed a similar blunder and overlooked the other face of Islam prevalent in India and to a much larger extent in Pakistan.  William Darlymple pointed out that in 2004.

“In Beyond Belief (1998) Naipaul writes of Indian Muslims as slaves to an imported religion, looking abroad to Arabia for the focus of their devotions, which they are forced to practise in a foreign language – Arabic – they rarely understand. He seems to be unaware of the existence of such hugely popular Indian pilgrimage shrines such as Nizamuddin or Ajmer Sharif, the centrality of such shrines to the faith of Indian Muslims or the vast body of vernacular devotional literature in Indian Islam, much of it dedicated to the mystical cults of indigenous saints.” Darlymple 2004 Guardian.


According to a report by the National Commission on Status of Women (NCSW) “an estimated 80% of women” in jail in 2003 were there as because “they had failed to prove rape charges and were consequently convicted of adultery” from wikipedia









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Enjoy Pairhein Pavandi Saan by Mithu Tahir, the latest gem, presented by the chic Coke Studio.

In a country drifting under the spell of a militant Islam where lovers, in the name of honor, are axed to death, a great love saga lives on. Thirty miles East of Karachi and away from its ever-erupting ethnic violence, lies in peace the long dead city of Bhanbhore. In its glory, it was an emporium where merchants ‘exchanged turquoise and silk with topaz and a little wine’ and where Sassui yearned for her lover. On my first visit, its ruins were still ringing with her pleadings:

Pairhein pavandi saan, chavandee saan
rahi wanjh raat Bhanbhore mein

“I will fall on his feet and beg at him
spend the night in Bhanbhore”

The song composed centuries ago continues to remain popular and was playing on a donkey cart driver’s rickety cassette player. Even the tourist guide, a native Sindhi, was under its spell, so when I asked him about the inhabitants of the ruined city, he named only two – Sassui and Punhoon!

The bare bones of the Sassui Punhoon story have passed from generation to generation as an oral tradition. However, in the eighteenth century Shah Abdul Latif, the beloved saint and mystic poet of Sindh, composed it in a verse form. Among the many ancient love stories buried in the region, Latif was able to retrieve and preserve seven in his poetry. Sassui Punhoon is the longest and as rife as Laila Majnun of the Arabian Desert.

Spread over a vast area from Iran and Afghanistan to Pakistan and India, the details of Sassui Punhoon story may differ from region to region but the overall plot structure remains much the same. “Latif, like Shakespeare and Goethe, takes up ordinary tales that were known to the people of his day and renders them in glorious verse and employs them as instruments for the purpose of revealing the hidden side of our life’s beauty and power” writes A.K.Brohi, the eminent Pakistani jurist who is also considered an authority on Latif’s works.

Like Romeo and Juliet, Sassui and Punhoon were star-crossed lovers born in rival camps. Whereas Romeo and Juliet came from feuding families, Sassui Punhoon came from rival religions – Hinduism and Islam. While Shakespeare, found the two families ‘alike in dignity’ Latif, with his deep insight, revered both religions. Shakespeare lamented on the ‘ancient grudge’ of Montagues and Capulets; Latif, who had once undertaken a pilgrimage to Mata Hinglaj, the westernmost Tirtha (holy places) of Hinduism, must have lamented on the mutual hostility of the two noble religions, Islam and Hinduism. And as Shakespeare failed to thwart the star that blighted the fates of Romeo and Juliet so did Latif with Sassui and Punhoon’s. When Brohi says Latif reveals ‘the hidden side of our life’e beauty and power’ he points to the realistic depiction of the events and locale described by Latif and his symbolic exploration of the human struggle with the natural world and the human capacity to transcend hardship, and personal triumph won from defeat.

Sassui was born in an orthodox Hindu Brahmin family. An astrologer had predicted that she will marry a Muslim. This perturbed the parents and in order to save themselves from the disgrace they preferred to put her in a basket and leave her to the mercy of the river. The basket sailed to a washerman of Bhanbhore, and being childless he considered the baby in the basket a divine gift. His wife named the girl Sassui, the Moon, due to the radiance of her beauty. As she grew up the legends of her beauty began to spread far and wide and fate bought Punhoon, a prince of Kaitch-Makran, to Bhanbhore to marry her. Their happiness was short-lived and as soon as Punhoon’s father discovered that his son has married a washerman’s daughter, he summoned his other sons and sent them to Bhanbhore with the instructions to fetch Punhoon. The brothers reached Bhanbhore, drugged Punhoon with opium and in the dark of the night whisked him away on a camel’s back to Kaitch-Makran. This was the turning point that has made Sassui Punhoon one of the greatest stories of unrequited love.

When Sassui woke up and discovered that Punhoon had gone she embarks on a punishing journey in quest of her lover. Her journey ends with her death which becomes a means of uniting her with Punhoon. Latif’s greatest achievement, however, is that he uses Sassui’s plight as a metaphor for a mystic’s journey on the Divine Path. She follows the tracks of Punhoon’s caravan and asks his whereabouts from the mountains and the trees, pleading at the sun not to set soon and at the wind not to blow away Punhoon’s footsteps. She confronts barrier after barrier in her search as a seeker confronts on a mystic journey. But instead of her lover, she comes across a shepherd and his lust. She prays to God to save her honor, the earth cracks and she is swallowed leaving behind her veil. The shepherd, stunned at the spectacular divine intervention, builds a grave for her; Punhoon seeks her grave and dies next to it. Sassui’s journey ends with a defeat, but her death actually becomes a means of uniting her with Punhoon.

Much before the radios relayed Latif’s songs, the bards sang and performed his ballads on festive occasions, at town fairs and at the shrines of saints where large number of devotees gathered to pay homage. Their audience memorized these and passed on to the coming generations and thus the story passed to the villages and towns far and wide. Until few decades ago Latif’s Sassui Punhoon lived in every Sindhi house whether Hindu or Muslim, rich or poor, urban or rural. The peasants and the unlettered could quote his verse even with more ease. Even today the song of Sassui can mesmerize many Pakistanis.

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