May 3, 2010

This Friday, my colleague Z, and I, got done with a meeting in Sukkur and decided to go shopping (as is natural inclination). Unfortunately, Friday sneaked into the picture and as it turns out this part of Pakistan subscribes to the no work on the Muslim Sabbath philosophy (which is interesting since a large chunk of shopkeepers are actually Hindu). Anyhow, markets were closed and Z & I decided to play tourist instead (because what else does one do when stuck in interior Sindh with no shops open). We drove through Sukkur, saw assorted mazaars (burial places of saints, or holy men of differing degrees) and exited to cross the Indus and enter Rohri. Here, we passed by old houses that my brother (the architect) would have been drooling over. They were both pretty, and pretty intact, with solid stone structures and delicately carved wooden balconies. Eventually, our driver took us to the 'seven sisters tomb'.

When asked, the driver (a local) didn't really know the story of this place. It was a popular tourist spot, he said, and all he remembered really was that 'something' had happened and the earth had opened up and swallowed these seven sisters whole. We drove up to the shrine, which is placed atop a hill and we were struck by the beauty of the peeling blue and white tiles. According to the 'faqirni' whose family has 'always' lived at the base of these caves, the 'incident' with the sisters happened around 1000 something AD. Conservatively, this place we were stepping into was almost a thousand years old.

There's something about historicity that humbles you somehow. It makes you conscious, as you tread up stone steps carved into a hill that this place has welcomed millions of people like you. And unlike you, most of them were not strangers to this place's. That happened much later (perhaps in 1947) when places like these were doomed by virtue of (now) belonging to a people who have little appreciation (or sense) of either culture or history. Who are more likely to deny their ancestry in favor of imagined links. Our artificial 'good Muslim' heritage tends to subsume everything else and we deny ourselves the simple pleasure of enjoying anything beyond the rigid boundaries of what 'our' people created.

Coming back to the seven sisters. My interest, all through the excursion, was to piece together as much of their history as I could. This was only possible by asking everyone we met a series of questions. Immediately upon reaching the base of the hill where the shrine stood, we saw a number of unmarked, concrete graves. Perched on a raised platform, equidistant from each other, these graves were stark: devoid of any color, or carvings. According to a bunch of people sitting close to them, under a bunyan tree, these were the remnants of a family of 'faqirs' (literally beggars, however the term in this context possibly stood for a family of ascetics, or religious mendicants). Either way, the family lived (and died) in a small cave-like structure with a wooden door that led into the hill itself. The faqir family's present matriarch was an old woman, with orange-white hair, wrinkled skin and sad eyes.

She told me she's lived in the cave-house her entire life. Her children were born here, they grew up here, some of them died here. One of her sons is a laborer in Rohri, another is a tailor and a third is looking for work. Her daughters are married. She is the gatekeeper (and guide) to the inner sanctum of the shrine, a place which is absolutely forbidden to all men. Even male infants, she tells me, are disallowed from entering the hallowed cave where the sisters once lived. But who these sisters were (caste, class, creed), what their names were, what year they lived (and died), the details of story was she does not know. But in our strange urdu-sindhi conversation she manages to tell me the gist of what she does know, which is this:

Once upon a time, there were seven sisters who lived in this sanctuary. They were known far and wide for both their beauty and their virtue. (For what, I imagine, is a true paragon of woman-hood without both beauty and virtue - truth is, nobody loves an ugly slut. But I digress). So our sisters were virtuous and beautiful and given their fame it was inevitable, perhaps, that they attracted the attention of a very bad man. This man, accordingly to some sources could have been a nawab. Others say he was a raja. Muslim or Hindu, what we know is that this man was rich, influential and used to acquiring whatever he desired. He was also (as all good villains are) somewhat cruel. This rich despot cast his eye on the seven sisters and (I am told) decided to acquire them for his evil self. This, naturally did not sit well with the sisters. They denied his lecherous pursuit but (like all lechers) he persisted. When it became apparent that these women were helpless they prayed fervently to God to save their virtue and protect them from a fate-worse-than-death. In a truly dramatic fashion, we are told, their prayers were heard and before their pursuer caught up to them, the earth opened up and swallowed them whole. Since then, these women have been enshrined in local mythology and many-many people come by to pay them homage. Female devotees pray for marriage and babies (and other assorted things) leaving behind little cradles, and knotted fabric, to symbolize their request. Many believe that the sisters never send true devotees away empty handed.

A thousand years later, their shrine stands on a little hill overlooking the river. I imagine once upon a time it must have been absolutely beautiful. Today, it's somewhat decrepit and decorated with broken tiles and peeling paint. Despite that, it's still a lovely spot to visit. When you go through the sanctum to the top, a large number of graves dot the roof. It's anybody's guess who these people are. I asked a number of people paying their respects to the intricately carved tombs and most of them are clueless (some actually offended that I had the temerity to ask). Some say these were the graves of the seven sisters themselves. That doesn't make sense since there were a lot more than seven. Plus if the ground subsumed these worthy ladies, it makes no sense for their graves to have be top of the roof of the hill (or maybe it does). Some day these graves area of assorted holy men, mendicants who prayed/lived in or were devotees at the sisters' shrine from. This seems more credible, however it would have been nice, think I, to have known precisely 'whom' one is paying homage to. Some people say these are soldiers or other men of noble lineage who spent their lives guarding the seven sisters shrine (or some such). Again, doesn't seem very credible but we let it go. So about thirty or more graves are clustered around the roof, all of different ages, ornately carved. Interestingly, the graves boast a mixture of insignias. Hindu swastikas, Persian couplets, Arabic Ayats all intermingled with the curly, leafy pattern. Sometimes its difficult to tell what religion the grave-owner subscribed to. Which is interesting.

And there they lie, in the blistering heat of the Rohri sun, watching the boats go by on the River Indus. Thousands come by the shrine, some to enjoy the scenery, some to play tourist, others to pay respects to those long gone, and yet more to pray for something they desire. Almost all of them stop by each grave and utter a short prayer for the dead. But with each successive generation those that wait here become a little more unknown. Their stories become shorter and shorter until three sentences (the ones that everyone knows) seem to be enough to describe their fate. Their individual identities blur into a faceless whole. And as the brightly painted blue tiles chip away, day-by-day, so does the memory of those housed within.


Aneela Z said...

beautifully written, i wanted to write that you have done a naipaul here, but why should one make comparisons for this is a sentence and a moment that You Own...thanks for writing this xeb!!

Thoth said...

Great piece Xeb, honestly loved it. You've like totally won a dinner coupon from me.

Alpha Za said...

Really Interesting. Good to know that you had a good time in Sukkur.

'No one likes an Ugly Slut'....Hilarious.

Saira said...

Great piece. Wish there were some photos to go with it. :)

heewa said...

this is brilliant xeb!

the truth is sad, isnt it?

Anj said...

Was the Indus as striking and majestic as they say it is?

Gulbadan said...

Intriguing how you wrote the seven sister story Rushdie-style.

Xeb said...

AZ: Thank you :)

T: When can I collect? :P

Alpha: I had a surprisingly good time in Sukkur. :)

S: I actually do have pictures, but I'm being lazy about putting them up! :P

Anj: Thanks to our beloved neighbors, the Indus is drier than its ever been :P That said, it's still a big-ish river, but nothing like the 'mighty' Indus we've been reading about.

G: Did I? I must confess I've never actually read Rushdie!

Abbasi said...

Hi, Its so good to know that you had been to Sukkur.. i belong to a neighboring city Larkana... there are so many historical sites which are never explored by people coming from big cities! This place you have mentioned is called "Satiyan to Astaan". there is also a graveyard and it relates with a story about seven women.. i have been to that place, its very nice one.. i wonder have you ever been to "Sadh Belo" an island in river indus and its a sacred place for hindus and they go from Rohri, its also a very calm place! i am a regular reader of your blog.. Keep up the good work :) Best Regards!

Xeb said...

No, I've never been to Sadh Belo, but it sounds like the kind of place I'd absolutely love to visit. I'm going to be sure to see if I can go there when I'm in the area next! :) Keep reading! :D