On to the green desert

So you thought that the deserts of Pakistan offered nothing but vast expanses of monotonous grey sands? Think again.

Thar Desert is a great place to go for a vacation. In fact, the best geographic description of the land is ‘green desert’ given that the occasional rainfalls have ensured that there is a moderate amount of vegetation matting the territory. Visitors have remarked that the smell of wet earth in the wake of torrential rain is one of the most heavenly fragrances their nostrils have experienced.

What many don’t realise is that the Thar Desert houses areas of great historical significance. Emperor Akbar was actually born here and it is thus no surprise that forts are one of the key attractions of the land. There is a multitude of mosques and both Jain and Hindu mandirs. In fact you’ll find some of the most intriguing Hindu worship sites around in this area.

The must-visit town in Thar is Nangarparkar, which caresses the Indian border and boasts hills that are described as egg-shaped.

Thar is a veritable zoo where peacocks and deer abound and one of the most common activities is to set out and observe them from a distance. To catch sight of the regal peacocks, you may have to peep into the branches of the Pipal trees where they attempt to camouflage themselves. Hunting is banned in most areas so keep those rifles at home or at least inquire into local norms surrounding this activity.

If you’re the sort who must collect a few trinkets and souvenirs on travel, you are highly encouraged to check out porcelain goods and embroidery in this territory. Also tune in to the many local musicians and their folk music including fusions of sitar, harmonium and tabla.

A far cry from the hue and cry of the urban areas, Thar is one of the most serene and peaceful lands you can visit within our borders. You are advised to use your own transport to drive through and experience it. It is described as one of the safest places around and you should thus explore to your heart’s content.


Blue tiles, fresco and mosaic

There are some delectable options across southern Punjab. The Multan district offers more than hibernating mango fields, copperware and the mellifluous Seraiki tongue. You could traverse ornate tombs and shrines dedicated to revered spiritual leaders. You could traipse around Multan Fort or Multan Clock Tower all boasting classical architecture with blue tiles, fresco paints and mosaic work. The winter temperatures here remain mild, but steer clear of those abrupt dust storms.


Mysterious palaces of

the South

Multan brings you within striking distance of the mysteries of Bahawalpur. The premier attraction here is the square Derawar Fort, bearing a striking resemblance to the Red Fort of Delhi, and standing tall with 40 massive bastions. Bahawalpur is also home to opulent palaces such as the Nur Mahal palace. Unfortunately, you may only explore the lobbies and exterior since much of the interior and rooftops have been blocked off from public visits. If you’re in for a bit of adventure you could explore Cholistan by camel and camp in tents in lands where conventional accommodation is not available.


Penchant for history

If you have a penchant for history, you should plan a trip to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Mohenjodaro within Sindh. It’s a great chance to marvel over excavated ruins from centuries ago which include meticulously planned layouts such as street grids and rectilinear buildings. Also check out the remains of public baths and granaries and if you’re lucky you may stumble upon priceless statues such as those of dancing girls and priest kings.

Beaches with pristine white sand

Balochistan may feel like an alien land to many of you but with the right kind of planning, it can provide an exotic holiday experience. Some love to drive along the coast around Gwadar to indulge in the beautiful beaches with their pristine white sands. Others just watch the dolphins as they pierce the ocean’s surface at intervals and descend through a curved arc. Some are content with experiencing the most vigorous of ocean sprays in their face while dreaming of the day when this coast will be dotted with gargantuan wind turbines such as those posted along the Mediterranean Coast. Ormara along Makran Coast is the place to go for the grandest of aerial views. There are plenty of hotspots for crabbing and catching and eating all kinds of fish and prawns.


There’s more to


Brave souls who wish to experience the interior Balochistan are encouraged to contact appropriate tour guides and plan a safe and fulfilling itinerary. Those with a real taste for adventure may want to plan 4 day trips to areas like Kalat and Dasht. Those who prefer to stay in the vicinity of the sea may journey to Nani Mandir, a popular Hindu pilgrimage territory along the point where the Hangol River is consumed by the voracious Arabian Sea. Kund Malir beach is a popular destination not too far from the coastal highway. The Mazar of Shah Noorani is great for aficionados of history.

But there’s more to Balochistan than beaches and coasts. There’s a whole world out there with valleys, small dams and swathes of land that are perfect for hiking and trekking. You can even find small but high quality resorts within hours of Karachi to experience areas like Sorh Valley. For such a series of excursions with highly structured activities, it is best to book a trip through a professional agency. Popular activities offered by such agencies include mountain biking, fishing, kayaking, camping and archery. The wild boar, ibex and black buck are feature attractions of this landscape.


In and around Quetta

If you can brave some amount of cold and snow, you are highly encouraged to visit the areas around Quetta. The city boasts a whole range of accommodation options from the high end Serena to more economical choices. Once in Quetta, you are a two hours drive from Ziarat, the final resting place of Quaid-e-Azam.

In Ziarat, you can scale a mountain in a place called Kharwari Baba and observe the word “Allah” naturally carved into the land through flowing rain-water. Bask in the jungles of juniper trees, the largest across Asia, or just take in the frigid beauty that is Hanna Lake. You could plan for a picnic in one of many orchards that dot the path from Quetta to Ziarat and produce the finest apples in the country. Trekking through the valleys and around the springs is popular. The lands are dry, barring evergreen trees, and have a charm very different, but no less compelling, from that of the Himalayas. The Bolan Pass is another great option within striking distance of Quetta to plan a group picnic. But proceed with caution: the locals you may encounter off the beaten paths are not necessarily amiable and there have been rare cases of hostility.


Into the Galiyats

If your heart still yearns for the far north, rest assured that trips to areas like Nathiagali, Ayubia and Kashmir Point are still possible. But you will mostly be confined to the interiors of buses as you meander through the mountains and admire the snow-capped peaks.

So this winter, switch off the television, move off the couch and shed those layers of fatigue and rest. Invest some time and effort into planning a trip to one of these incredible destinations with friends and family. Go experience the parts of Pakistan that you never get to see or read about, the parts that we can only share with the rest of the world after we get to know them better ourselves. Return with the renewed belief that not even the remotest corners of our country are lacking in any form of physical resources. It is now up to the human resources to fulfill their side of the bargain.


No one in the blighted department of archaeology is capable of understanding the essence of conservation — that an ancient monument must never ever be rebuilt, that the best conservation is simply to arrest further decay. And if anything need be done, the restoration should be in exact accordance with the soul of the original.

But in six-and-a-half decades we have not been able to get this right. In the early 1990s, we destroyed the Baradari of Kamran Mirza that once stood in its ruinous state on an island in the Ravi. Since there was no record of what the original looked like in the mid-16th century when Kamran (Babur’s son) ordered it, some government department under orders of the chief minister tore down the shell and rebuilt the gaudy new structure. Men like Dr Ajaz Anwar created a shindig, but that was merely stonewalling a deaf wall. Being ignoramuses we do not realise that the building in the Ravi is no longer Kamran’s Baradari.

Then we did in Akbar’s bath inside Delhi Gate. The tanks were filled in, plastered over and, if memory serves, given a marble floor. For some years in the early 1990s, the historic building served as a wedding hall!

And now the department of archaeology is doing a hatchet job at Ketas. Among the holiest of the holy shrines of Hinduism, Ketas sits just outside Choa Saidan Shah in the Salt Range. First of all there is a bunch of individuals infesting the premises, claiming to be from the department, who go into spasms the minute they see a camera on a tripod. “No photography!” they admonish. For crying out loud, is this another one of those many places where we hide our nuclear war heads?

But what appals is the rape of the place with marble tiles. Where, until only a few years ago, I walked on roughly cut steps in the grey limestone, there are now staircases with railings and marble risers. The temples all have marble floors. The interior of the haveli of Sardar Hari Singh Nalva, though inaccessible because of the padlocked door, also has marble flooring! And the worst is yet to come.

On the high ground behind the haveli, there is a complex of buildings. The white-washed temples here once rose above three ruinous buildings made of dark gray limestone. These three date from the latter Hindu Shahya period, that is, from about the year 1000 CE. There is one chunky building with its roof and much of the walls gone. This is flanked by two smaller buildings which are clearly temples.

I have returned to Ketas dozens of times over the past three decades, and am witness to the rape of this place by vandals, particularly following the destruction of Babri Mosque in December 1992. But recently with a bunch of youngsters from LACAS, I saw the worst ever official vandalism of Ketas. This was not the first time idiotic officialdom had tried to ‘beautify’ the place, but this certainly was the worst.

Some three years ago, they added steel piping as railings at random spots. But this time around, the morons of the department of archaeology have destroyed the Hindu Shahya temples. The ancient buildings have been either demolished and rebuilt or they have been extensively remodelled and added to.

We know that such temples had porches above the entrances. But in Ketas, the porch of the one on the right had collapsed at some point in the past. Only the one on the left had a vestige still clinging on. The most interesting aspect of these two buildings was that their porches had cinquefoil arches. Among Hindu Shahya temples in Pakistan, cinquefoil arches are only found at Amb (in one of the two temples) and Bilot and Tilot (Dera Ismail Khan). All others have trefoil arches.

The department that has rebuilt the Hindu Shahya temples of Ketas have redesigned the cinquefoils. They are nothing like the original anymore. Students of ancient architecture who could earlier have simply stepped off their cars and studied these architectural features at Ketas will now have to take the tedious journey to Amb or the dangerous one to Tilot or Bilot — dangerous because of proximity to South Waziristan.

The mind boggles at the stupidity of officialdom. If these people did not have a clue about conservation, why did they not consult those who know the business? But I suppose there is a secret room in every government department where they crack open the skulls of all new entrants to put in some diabolical programme that makes them turn into unthinking vermin who only believe that they know best.    

Did these fools not know there were experts like Kamil Khan Mumtaz, to name only one, who could have put them on the right track? Had they never heard of their own illustrious predecessor Dr Saifur Rahman Dar? Why is it that we must go from bad to worse with every passing year?

Time will come when the department of archaeology (whether provincial or federal) will have successfully ravaged every single historical monument so that students of architecture will never know what was being built in, say, the 10th century. We have started well with Ketas. It will soon be a monument of tinsel.

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