In Pakistan, imposing tombs that few have seen

Just 90km west of the largest city in Pakistan, Makli is the final resting place of more than half a million people. Yet its intricate tombs are little known to travellers today.

Covering more than 10sqkm, Makli is one of the world’s largest necropolises, acting as the final resting place of more than half a million people, including kings, queens, saints and scholars. And even though the 14th-century site was inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1981 – one of just six in Pakistan – its imposing tombs and intricate artwork are little known to travellers today.

Makli is located in the southern tip of Pakistan on the outskirts of Thatta, a historical port city on the Indus River. The necropolis rose to importance as a burial site between 1352 and 1524, when the Samma Dynasty made Thatta their capital. Legend has it that a traveller on holy pilgrimage to Mecca stopped at the site and, upon seeing a mosque just outside Thatta, fell in to a state of ecstasy repeating “Hadah Makka li” (this is Mecca for me). A popular Sufi saint of the Samma period, Sheikh Hamad Jamali, named the mosque Makli after the happening.

Entering from Makli’s southern corner, where many of the newer monuments are located, it is hard to imagine just how large the site is. The structures seemed more like small palaces than graves. During my visit, there was no one there but me and my travelling companion, the ruins, and the sound of wind blowing gently over the sun-baked, barren earth.

Six types of monuments can be found across Makli. They include tombs, canopies, enclosures, graves, mosques and khanqas, which are learning spaces where saints would teach and preach to their disciples.

The first cluster of monuments we approached were erected during the Arghun, Tarkhan and Mughal dynasties, between 1524 and 1739. Rulers of these invading dynasties were Turko-Mongol people, who brought northern, central and western Eurasian influences, such as delicate floral patterns and geometric designs, to the architecture, art and stone carvings found in Makli.

Two of the most impressive monuments from this period are the tombs of Dewan Shurfa Khan, who died in 1638, and of Isa Khan Tarkhan II, who died in 1644. Both men ruled as Mughal governors in Thatta.

Isa Khan Tarkhan II, whose tomb is a two-storey stone building with majestic cupolas and balconies, is said to have constructed the monument while he was alive. Legend has it that after partial completion of the structure, Isa Khan chopped off the hands of the most talented craftsmen so that no other emperor could build a monument that would rival his.

Climate conditions, such as erosion-causing sea breezes as well as earthquakes, floods and pollution – not to mention a lack of access and attention during periods of national instability – have left the monuments in a critical state of deterioration. While plans for protection and restoration are being discussed by various Unesco-funded organisations, the fact that the monuments have lasted this long is a testament to the quality craftsmanship from this region.

Travelling through Makli, it’s easy to be distracted by the palace-and-fortress-like tombs. But equally interesting was the life we discovered. Throughout the site, nomadic tribes take shelter in the ruins or under makeshift camps, made using shrubs and discarded plastic bags. Many of the nomads living in Makli are internally displaced Pakistani people who come to the elevated plateau to take refuge during the annual floods.

For hundreds of years the site has also been a place of worship for Muslim and Hindu pilgrims. The two faiths, along with Buddhists, have lived in this area peacefully for many centuries.

Driving north on the plateau, about 6km from Makli’s southern entrance, we arrived at the Samma monument cluster. Though the origins of the Samma Dynasty are not clear, many scholars maintain that the rulers were native people belonging to the Rajput clan, the ruling Hindu warrior class of north India. They gained control of Thatta in 1335 and expanded their territory north to modern-day Punjab. It was during the rule of Jam Tamachi, a 14th-century Samma prince, that the foundations of Makli were laid.

Sufi saint Sheikh Hamad Jamali established the site as a khanqa and was later buried there. As a result of the veneration Tamachi felt towards the saint, he and other followers wanted to be buried in the vicinity of their spiritual teacher. Today, the Samma cluster is spread over five acres, displaying exquisite Gujrat-style relief work coupled with calligraphic carvings from the book of Quran.

The tomb of Darya Khan, a Samma general known for his bravery, looks as though it could be a small fortress from Rajasthan. During his early life, Khan was a slave who was adopted by Jam Nizamuddin, a Samma ruler between 1461 and 1508. Khan rose to prominence after defeating the Arghun army in battle, for which he received the title of “Hero of Sindh”. His military success eventually led to his appointment as Madrul-Muham (Prime Minister). But he died when he was struck by an arrow in battle in 1521.

One of the most outstanding monuments in the Samma cluster is the tomb of Jam Nizamuddin, adoptive father of Darya Khan and the most famous ruler of the Samma Dynasty. Completed a year after his death in 1509, the rich ornamentation on his tomb speaks of a time of peace and prosperity in the country.

The centrepiece of the tomb is a jharoka, an overhanging, enclosed balcony used in Indian architecture. Consisting of carved motifs and niches, arches, and even a miniature sikhara – a mountain peak like roofing structure common to Hindu temples – the monument looks more like a place of worship than a funerary.

Along the exterior of the tomb there are 14 bands of decorative motifs. The seventh band features verses from the Quran while the 10th band has a unique feature of carved gander, a symbol frequently found in Hindu temples dedicated to god Brahma. It is a common thread in the history of people as far as the Caspian Sea to the west and the farthest corners of India to the east.