My tale of two cities
Delhi and Mumbai are two different worlds yet both the cities offer a true taste of India
By Jazib Zahir
The road from Pakistan to India never did run smooth. When you apply for the visa, you are expected to produce character certificates from authoritative sources on both sides of the border. When you go through immigration at the airport, you must be carrying forms in addition to your passport. You have to define your entry and exit points in advance. And you must share a list of all the cities you plan to visit and the addresses where you will reside.



In January, the young wheat grew in neat squares reclaimed from the invasive mesquite and the spreading pilu. But all vegetation stopped a respectful short of the mounds that contain the spirits of those who lived and died at Aghamkot — spirits that go back a millennium and a half. At least.

The mounds, bordered by a once impressive fortified wall that is now no more than a heap, spread over, what I estimated to be, four square kilometres. Four square kilometres of bricks, pottery shards, complete human skeletons uncovered from ancient graves by erosion and the ruined hulks of five hundred year old mosques and mausoleums that speak of a glorious city that Aghamkot once was.

I was returning after a quarter century and as always going back to a historical site after a very long time. Ominous and forbidding thoughts rode my mind: Will they have razed historical Aghamkot to the ground? Will they have turned its once opulent tombs into shrines and given the names of Syeds and Bokharis to ordinary people? And all because this charlatanry means good business.

We had driven through Tando Allah Yar to village Gulab Laghari and only once had to ask directions to Aghamkot or Agamana, as they also sometimes call it. As we approached, I was thrilled to see that the ruins were almost exactly as they were twenty five years ago. But there was one sign of sinister business: a pot-bellied mullah with a jet-black beard was pottering about the graves in the courtyard of the ruined 16th century mosque.

The graves were not there on my first visit. One newly-laid marble tombstone gave the name of some Hashmi. I thought this was the beginning of the business that will turn this historical site into a quasi-religious fair-ground.

Long, long ago, about the year 635 CE, Aghamkot was already a celebrated place, taking the name of Agham Lohana, the Rajput governor of Brahmanabad. Now, young Chach, a Brahman of great gumption and learning, had joined the court of Rai Sahasi, the king of Sindh, as a junior officer. Astute and endowed with all it took to rise as a court officer, Chach soon had the king’s confidence as his secretary — and that was not all. The young and very handsome Chach stole queen Suhandi’s heart too.

By and by, Rai Sahasi fell ill and passed away from this life and if you smell a rat, there is nothing amiss with your olfactory senses: Chach married Suhandi and became the king of Sindh. Perhaps that was all for the better, for here we find a king who built a great and prosperous country.

As king, Chach demanded obeisance from Agham Lohana which led to a minor battle and the part of Sindh where Aghamkot stands became part of Chach’s domain. Indeed, the frontiers of the country under this able king expanded from the present border with Iran to Attock and Kashmir. The Chachnama which deals with the period immediately preceding the Arab invasion of Sindh therefore mentions Aghamkot a number of times.

Then, strangely enough, a veil descends over Aghamkot: it fades out of the view of history. Nine hundred years later we hear a passing reference to it. In 1522, Shah Beg Arghun, great-great-grandson to Chengez Khan, on the run from a youthful Babur flees Afghanistan. Coming through Shalkot (Quetta) and Sibi, Arghun is making his way to Gujarat to seek help against what he thinks is just a young picaroon with no promise of establishing the future Mughal kingdom of India.

The pressure is evidently great. All accounts of his death point to a heart attack being Shah Beg Arghun’s killer. At that time, so history records, the man is in the vicinity of Agamana. To have paused at Agamana would mean that this was an important way station on the route from Sindh to Gujarat. Strangely enough, after this event, the city again ducks out of the glare of history.

But the ruined buildings of Aghamkot or Agamana, however you may wish to know it, tell us explicitly enough that from the latter half of the 16th century until the start of the 19th the city was periodically endowed with new buildings.

In 1986, on my first visit, I saw a bulky free-standing brickwork arch, the obvious remnant of a grand building whose debris was littered around the lonely arch. Even I, the layperson, knew that the arch dated back to the 15th century when the Sammas held sway over Sindh. This arch is now lost, consumed either by the several earthquakes or rain storms of the intervening years.

The grandest mosque (which will soon be taken over by the tomb-building fraudster) was once a fine edifice. Its domed gateway, which still survives, leads into the open courtyard beyond which was once a shallow, rectangular prayer chamber with perhaps three domes. To my untrained eye the gateway seems an original late 15th century edifice while the ruins of the mosque (of which only the west wall remains) carry renovations from a later date.

During the Kalhora period (1699-1784), Aghamkot gained popularity as a spiritual centre. This may be because the Kalhoras, who claim descent from the Abbasid family, were spiritual leaders to many Sindhis. The old buildings, whether they needed repair or not, were given the Kalhora mark with extensive restoration.

North of the mosque, across an area of undulating mounds which conceal stories without end, there stands another group of buildings: four domed funerary monuments of various ages and the completely ruined hulk of mosque. The area around this group, particularly to its north and west, seems to have been an extensive burial ground. Almost complete human skeletons peek out of the salty earth.

A doorway leading to a prayer area which also encloses a lofty domed mausoleum decorated with traditional Sindhi tiles has a date: 996 of the Hijri calendar. My very limited knowledge of the Persian tells me the mosque was raised by one Makhdoom Ismail (whoever that was?) who prayed for the mosque to ring to the sound of worship until the day of resurrection. The Hijri year corresponds with 1588, the year Sindh fell into the firm hands of Akbar the Great by the instrument of his able general Khan e Khana Abdur Rahim Khan.

Another couple of hundred metres north, across more mounds now covered with vegetation among which I see liberal sprinklings of human skeletons, there are two more buildings. The one with the complete dome is very likely from Akbar’s period. The other is roofless and certainly older. The domed building has been appropriated with a scrawled sign. It is now the burial of some Shah Ismail Qureshi (the same as the builder of the mosque?).

But the giveaway to the shifty business is the endnote which tells us that the caretakers are ‘Mian Ghulam Abbas Qureshi and Brothers’. The ending is noteworthy — ‘and Brothers’! Just the way signs on stores where siblings together run a business. And why not? Should the newly-discovered ancient holy personage become celebrated and capable of drawing worshippers, the brothers will together stand to make a great deal of money.

In order to be doubly sure their purveying of souls from the past does not go amiss, the enterprising brothers have, in fact, appropriated two buildings for Ismail: the one with the tilework façade also has the same name scrawled on the doorway.

The domeless building is empty. As I walk into the chamber, I startle a magnificent Great Horned Owl roosting in one of the niches less than a metre above the ground. It glares at me threateningly and I freeze wondering if I can reach for my camera without frightening it away. But before I can act, the handsome bird wafts upward on a great flapping of wide-spreading wings. I am spellbound as it clears the rampart in slow motion; the scene becomes forever etched on my mind. This cerebral shot is better than I could ever have done with my camera.

If there were great names like Yar Mohammad, Nur Mohammad and Ghulam Shah early on in the Kalhora dynasty, the end is sorry. Ineptitude, mental vacuity and paranoia marked the reign of the last ruler. Fearing his own Talpur generals, Abdul Nabi Kalhora invites the damned incubus Madad Khan from Kandahar. The promise is of a great tribute if he were to eliminate the Talpurs. But Abdul Nabi backtracks at the last moment and the rapacious Afghan turns upon Sindh sacking and looting. Aghamkot too goes down to his viciousness. The year is 1784.

Something of its vestige of spirituality remains in the smoking ruins of Aghamkot, however. Fully fifty-nine years later, in April 1843, a sad funerary procession brings the bier of the doughty Saad Khan Laghari to be interred in this ruined city. Charles Napier had written his terse, one-word message to the governor-general in Delhi: Peccavi, it said. The Latin word is an admission of sin, but ‘I have sinned [Sindh]’ was simply a play upon words.

Among the numerous braves who fell in the final battle to defend Sindh at Dubbo, was Saad Khan Laghari. I do not know if it was a whispered request to the comrade who may have held his mangled body just before Saad Khan gave up the ghost or if he had earlier spoken of being buried on ground where his ancestors had lived and prayed. But here they bring him and a white-washed edifice with a pale green dome recalls the courage of this brave patriot.

My two friends stand under a ber tree talking NGO shop as I walk among the ruins stepping around human bones. The mounds that were once houses spread in all directions; warblers sing in the bushes, a mongoose, sleek and shiny with a glistening light brown nose, emerges from the thicket, espies me and ducks right back in. From somewhere the unseen eagle owl regards me for I can feel his big eyes boring into me.

As I turn to join my friends, I wonder what word someone else will bring back to me from Aghamkot twenty five years hence.


Tilework at Aghamkot. — Photos by the author



My tale of two cities
Delhi and Mumbai are two different worlds yet both the cities offer a true taste of India
By Jazib Zahir

The road from Pakistan to India never did run smooth. When you apply for the visa, you are expected to produce character certificates from authoritative sources on both sides of the border. When you go through immigration at the airport, you must be carrying forms in addition to your passport. You have to define your entry and exit points in advance. And you must share a list of all the cities you plan to visit and the addresses where you will reside.

The struggle is not over once your flight has safely descended on to the Indian soil. If you are as unfortunate as me, you may learn that you need to fill out an additional residency form on arrival and be told to go back to the tail of the 100 person line and start the immigration process all over again. You may learn that the guest house where you are residing does not have a license to host Pakistanis and be forced to shift locations once the authorities get a whiff of you.

But if you can persevere through such ordeals, you will be able to experience a wonderful country steeped in rich traditions and familiar culture. The first thing you may notice upon disembarking at Delhi is how the foreigners are a non-trivial minority. The number of welcome signs in Chinese and Korean outnumber those in other languages as guests from all over the world congregate on the capital city for commercial and recreational opportunities. No matter where you go in Delhi, you’ll come across many more foreigners than you would meet in Pakistan, many having settled here with their families for long-term professional engagements.

Delhi is a city of mammoth proportions, multiple times the size of Lahore. The urban sprawl is overwhelming as is the never-ending steam of traffic. If you thought driving in urban Pakistan was a nightmare, chances are you won’t last long on the streets of Delhi. It is impossible to estimate how long it might take to reach your destination given the uncertainties on the road. Hapless police officers are confronted by impatient drivers from all directions. The authorities are certainly trying to streamline operations: an underground metro train is a popular means of transport and streetlights attempt to help indicate when pedestrians are safe crossing the roads. Traditional transport comes in two flavours: a ‘rickshaw’ is when the driver bicycles your carriage to its destination and an ‘auto’ is the three-wheeled engine-laden vehicle we all know and love.

The essence of Delhi will remind you of other historical cities like Lahore and Istanbul. It has enchanting slices of history, interspersed with more modern structures. The south side is the posh part of the city with the quaint residential areas and concrete commercial centres. This is where you are likely to indulge in shopping amid the many local and foreign brands that you may not get to experience in Pakistan.

You really need a few days to explore the heart of the city and the historical sections up north. Tourists flock to Delhi Haat, a collection of antiques, textiles, performances and delicacies from all corners of India from the pearls of Hyderabad to the candles of Tamil Nadu. Lotus Temple is a magnificent monument affiliated with the Bahai faith and you have a chance to sit on its vast benches in silent awe. Qutub Minar, Red Fort and India Gate are all popular destinations with their own historical and symbolic value.

But when you descend into Mumbai, you enter a different world. You know you are entering the entertainment capital when you are greeted by a poster of superhero Krrish at the airport. The climate is much warmer and more humid and the kind of attire that keeps you warm in Delhi will reduce you to a pool of perspiration here very fast. No wonder the blue-coloured air-conditioned taxis are sought-after vehicles. Mumbai is of a scale that is comparable to Delhi but the Sea Link Road with a great view of the ocean allows you to drive between disconnected locations relatively quickly.

The look and feel of Mumbai is more European than Asian. High-rise apartments dot the residential areas and the architecture and roads have a very classical touch that you might associate with London. Starlite café is a popular place to grab a meal given its vicinity to two landmarks: Taj Hotel and Gateway of India.

The Gateway was erected by the English and also served as their symbolic point of departure from the subcontinent. Taj Hotel would not be out of place in the Magic Kingdom of Disney World. It has a regal ambience with photos chronicling all the celebrities who have passed through the hallowed halls.

Mumbai is a city of libraries, museums, elaborate murals and stores devoted to music and books. You can promenade through cricket grounds where stalwarts like Tendulkar and Gavaskar once honed their skills. You can admire a replica of Big Ben in the middle of the city.

Yet these two metropolitan cities offer you just a taste of India, a land so rich and diverse that its own inhabitants crave for the opportunity to experience more of it. The country is so diverse that it is common to see mosques and gurdwaras juxtaposed against each other while vegetarians and carnivores share a table in the shade. The language and culinary options are immediately recognizable to Pakistani visitors, with some interesting modifications like onion-based appetisers and lemon-water to rinse your oily fingers after you eat.

Indians want to know more about Pakistan cricket, Veena Malik, our pop music and comedians. They want to indulge in Pakistani politics and are curious about the aspirations of their friends from across the border. We can dream of the day when visa requirements for travel between the countries are less stringent so that more intellectuals, entrepreneurs, artisans and travel aficionados can experience both countries and leverage their synergies. Until then, take a deep breath and plan a trip anyway; you won’t be disappointed.


Railway station, Mumbai.


Red Fort, Delhi.


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