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Posts Tagged ‘Thar Desert’

Last week, at the Ohio State University, Columbus, during a presentation on Moen jo Daro I was asked a question which I have always asked myself, what was the status of women in the Indus Civilization? I have already given part of the answer in my book on Moen jo Daro, but still there is a lot that we need to know about the role of women in those ancient times.

Archaeological evidence gives us a limited answer. The discovery of the well-known bronze female statuette, the Nautch Girl of Sir John Marshall, has led to the belief that dancing girls existed in Moen jo Daro; There are also hundreds of terracotta female figurines unearthed from the site and some of these are considered to be the images of mother goddesses; female images are also carved on a few seals. Most prominent of these is a narrative seal carved with a ritual scene wherein a female deity stands exalted in front of her seven women worshipers. We have to bear in mind that there is no textual evidence available to confirm the authenticity of the labels assigned to them. Our common sense also says that between the dancing girls and mother goddesses there must be women ranging from potters and dyers to brick makers and builders and even scribes who engraved the tiny steatite seals with strange symbols and signs. In the absence of any tangible evidence of such women I suggest to consider a secondary source, the folklore.

Luckily, some of the sufi poets of the Indus region, especially of Sindh and Punjab have not marginalized women in their poetry. In fact, Shah Abdul Latif, Sindh’s most revered Sufi saint and poet, had retrieved seven women characters from the past and presented them in his poetry as great heroes. Though most of them were born in ordinary homes but out of love they are called the seven queens. Sohini, was a potter’s daughter; Sassui, a washer man’s daughter; Noori a fisher-woman and Marvi a desert girl. Their stories are of unrequited love and they ended up as victims of fate, but there was something extraordinary in their beauty and their craft which attracted princes.

Shah Latif’s poems also reveals a few places associated with these women; Bhanbhore where one of them (Sassui) lived, Umarkot where another (Marvi) was imprisoned and in a strange structure in the middle of the lake Noori is buried, these landmarks in the stories of Sindhi queens are worth exploring. If Moen jo Daro, is a window to the pre-historic past these three shed light on the historic periods.

Bhanbhore is located about thirty miles east of Karachi, in the province of Sindh. According to Latif: “Dark was Bhanbhore; Punhoon arrived and brightened it” Punhoon was a prince of Ketch Makran, who bought with his caravan many exotic items. Archaeologists, on the other hand, identify Bhanbhore with Debal, the first city of the sub-continent conquered by the Arab Muslims in the early eighth century. Excavations have revealed Bhanbhore’s origins to the first century BCE and it had been home to the Buddhists, Hindus, Sassanids, Parthians and Scythians before the Arab occupation. Further excavations might reveal older cultural levels bringing it even closer to the Indus period. Even the name Bhanbhore, which has come to the posterity through the poetry of Latif, is much older than the recorded name Debal.

Umarkot, located in the Thar Desert, is said to be a twelfth century fort of Umar the Soomra prince where he imprisoned Marvi an abducted desert girl. A deeper research in the history of Umarkot reveals that the fort is much older and belongs to a pre-Islamic era as suggested by its original name Amarkot after the Rajput Rana Amar Singh.

The third structure built in the middle of Keenjhar or Kalri lake looks strange due to the circular shape bordered with a short wall whose roof seems to be blown off. It is considered to be the grave of Noori but it also reminds me of the circular wall of the stupa that crowned the site of Moen jo Daro. Could it be the shell of another Buddhist stupa? If these structures are older than what is traditionally thought it brings them closer to the Indus period and they might be holding some links which can be connected to the ancient past.

So a part of the answer about the position of women in Indus civilization can come from reexamining the folklore. It is true that Latif’s poetry belongs to the mid seventeenth century, but poets, as I always say, can be avatars of ancient storytellers, hence, it is very likely that the versions of Latif’s queens may have very well lived and died in the ancient Indus cities. The connection is elusive, but ironically, for a clearer picture of the past we have to probe the murky realms of folklore. This approach of understanding the ancient Indus society will require collaboration between the mainstream Indus archaeologists and the scholars of indigenous languages and culture. For now, those who would like to hear some samples of folk stories and songs please check the links below.

Sohini Mahival’s story by Ashiq Jatt (Punjabi)
Sassui song by Muhammad Ibrahim (Sindhi)
Umar Marvi song and the fort of Umarkot (Sindhi)
Noori’s grave

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At a local ladies book club in Columbus Ohio, during a talk on my eBook Obscure Women Obscure Stories: A Pakistani Trilogy, the following passage from Purani Kahani, one of the stories, came under discussion and a question was asked.

“Bhaag Bhari would go in the hut to fetch her small chest of jewelry. It was metallic painted green and had a latch from which hung an oversized iron lock. Haji Hussain would reach for the key tied strongly to the tassel of his trouser string. Next, he would reach for the money in the side pocket of his shirt. He would count it, wrap it in a silken scarf with the rest of his savings, place it in the box and lock it again.”

Anybody could have stolen the box, how was it kept safe? I was asked. Here is my expanded answer:

Theft is a universal theme. It took 17 years and more than 1300 pages for Victor Hugo to scrutinize it in his novel Les Miserables wherein Jean Valjean suffers 19 years of imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread.  The novel is not only about an ex-convict and his heroic struggle for redemption. It is also an appeal to law makers to look into the atrocities of law and the risks of judicial errors. For those who do not have the patience to read the novel, here is a theatrical first look of the recently released filmic adaption of Hugo’s classic.

Purani Kahani, however, is a short story about an ancient race of people who did not have any concept of theft. It is hard to imagine a person under severe hunger who would not steal a loaf of bread. Even the birds fight over a worm, but a man or woman from Thar would not resort to such an approach.

So who are these noble people and why am I writing about them since last twenty five years? It is true that being the inhabitants of my home district of Tharparkar I have special bond with them. It is also true that being a historian and archaeologist their antiquity fascinates me – but there is more to it. In an article published in the daily Dawn’s Friday Magazine, dated February, 27, 1987 I had warned: “It is alarming that nothing concrete is being done to record and document the cultures of the tribes living here (in the Thar Desert) who will hopefully undergo an irreversible social and economic change due to the upcoming development projects in the district. The government has not paid any serious attention towards the cultural preservation of Thar though its importance has been emphasized at the highest level.”

The article was actually part of my speech at the Goethe Institute where I was invited to speak on the launching of a photo exhibition of Thar and its people. The exhibits were by Ayaz Rashdi, a high government official, who was also an amateur photographer. It was an individual’s effort to document the life of a dying culture. Such efforts have been made by other individuals in the fields of film, television, journalism, history and artwork.  “Purani Kahani” is an attempt to do the same in fiction.

Thar is a part of the Great Indian Desert lying between Sindh and Rajasthan. It is also the worst section of the desert where temperatures can rise to 120 degrees. In olden days natives called it Marusthali, the region of death, where disasters and diseases were personified into mother goddesses. Out of fear and reverence small pox was called Mata, mother; famine was Bhukhi Mata, hungry or famished mother.  Goddesses in ancient worlds are known to play dual and opposing roles of being healers and killers.  Hundreds of terra cotta figurines discovered from Indus Civilization suggest that they had been ruling the spiritual realms of Sindh since those remote times; 5000 years later their concept survives crudely in the collective subconscious of Thar. There are many more ancient traits retained in Thar communities, perhaps because they have lived in splendid isolation, away from the world and close to nature.   Even in this day and age they accept calamities as part of a natural cycle. Along with their cattle, they arrive in the fertile patches of Sindh during the long spells of famine and return as soon as they see lightening in the East.

In 1987, Thar was in the third year of its famine and Rashidi’s photographs were exhibited to draw the attention of Karachi elites towards the miseries of Desert folks. As a result of the famine a large number of them had migrated to the irrigated and fertile parts of Sindh, some of the families camped outside my village. It was one of the shelters they had been using through times immemorial; they were not strangers to the villagers and I could remember their earlier sojourns  from the 1960s and 70’s (due to the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war).

Amongst the many who came was a man named Qasim, so soft spoken that only he could speak with the animals. He knew ways to diagnose their diseases and heal their wounds, even the bulls and buffaloes would cow down to him. There was an old woman who knew the art of dehydrating all the vegetables under the sun; you need to store a lot for the droughts in desert.  One day I saw her picking up a piece of roti from the floor, kissing it, looking at it with reverence and savoring it bit by bit.  Whole wheat bread is a delicacy for those who survive mostly on millet. There was yet another woman, a seamstress with perfectly carved features and dexterous fingers.  She had no idea of geometry but she could create thousands of geometric patterns in her embroidery and her quilts. She had a chest, her most prized possession, a mini storage that accommodated her colored beads and threads, mirror pieces, cowrie shells, cloves, and a few pieces of silver jewelry. ‘It was metallic painted green and had a latch.’ It looked out of place like a luxury item discovered in the ruins of a civilization that used baskets for storing items. No one robbed her of her precious box but I did steal its image and used it in Purani Kahani.

Thar Desert was incorporated in the Tharparkar district during British rule.  Today in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan it remains to be the home of the largest Hindu population. In a region where the instinct of theft is non-existent the concept of co-existence thrives. There is an unwritten social contract (going beyond the social contract theories of Hobbes and Locke) between Muslims and Hindus, between neighbors, between family members that keeps them contented with their own share of grain. Let’s not create conditions where a Jean Valjean is born; the land lacks a Victor Hugo and the news is not good.

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