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
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
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
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
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.