of the Arabian Gulf
My young friend
Ahmad Umair has some business along the Ravi south of Lahore where he
frequently travels on roads that are not on the itinerary of most travellers.
One day he mentioned a place called Sarai Mughal outside which he had seen a
A couple of years earlier,
I had been to Sarai Chhimba, near Jambar about thirty kilometres southwest of
Thokar Niaz Beg and just off N-5. Talking at that time to my
guru, the preeminent archaeologist Dr Saifur Rahman Dar, I was
reminded that there were once upon a time inns at convenient intervals along
all major intercity roads. In those days of travel either on foot or by horse
or even bullock cart, a convenient distance for a day’s journey was ten
or between thirty to forty-five kilometres.
Now, Multan has long been
the first city in our part of Punjab since the early Middle Ages. Lahore, in
comparison was a minor provincial town. That having been said, the modern
darling of Punjab was gradually coming into its own by the 17thcentury. For
the Mughals, both Lahore and Multan were important centres for many reasons,
not least of which was revenue collection. And so there existed between the
cities a good deal of two-way traffic.
That warranted the string
of inns between the two cities.
But Umair was certain that
there was no inn. His ramblings in the area had uncovered only the domed
building standing forlorn amid a graveyard. And so, with Umair playing guide,
we drove off down Multan Road to Balloki village via Bhai Pheru. From the
latter we continued south along the road to Halla and at about ten kilometres
from Balloki went through the village called Sarai Mughal.
Pausing in the bazaar we
made inquiries about the old sarai. Folks looked at us strangely. I was
reminded of the time twenty years earlier in Balochistan when I excitedly
huffed uphill to check out the Chhapar Rift railway and one of the two Pathan
youngsters sunning themselves on the slope asked what I was looking for. I
said I was looking for the railway and the man said to his friend, “The
man’s crazy. He doesn’t know the train hasn’t run in decades here!”
In that same way, I felt,
the men thought we sought the sarai to perhaps be put up for the night. There
was no sarai, they said.
An older man later informed
us that he remembered ruins of a sarai that have now been built over. Other
than that he could tell us nothing. But of course, he added, there was the
old Mughal tomb just outside the village.
This was the very one that
Umair had explored on his travels.
A little outside the
village, by a government school, and surrounded by a graveyard there stood
the lofty building with its squat dome. Other than the lime plaster eroded
from the plinth and in patches from one side, the building was in good
fettle. In fact, if the plaster on the dome had not been blackened by age, I
could have said it had been laid only a few years earlier. In my layman’s
estimation the building dated to the last quarter of the 16th
century, that is, the final years of the reign of Akbar the Great.
The interior of the square
building had a bare floor: there was no burial. But the walls were ornate
with Mughal-style frescoes. Faded, discoloured and chipped, they had also
been marred by cow dung patties.
Earlier, Umair and I had
scouted around for the entrance to the basement burial chamber outside but
had found no trace of it. We concluded that though it had been erected as a
funerary monument for some passing nobleman (or someone close to him), the
interment had actually not taken place.
A young man, who lived next
door and whose family plastered the walls of this historic building with cow
dung and also used it to pen the cattle, came around to talk to us. No one,
he affirmed, was buried in the building. Nor too had stories been invented
about the holy personage who will without doubt one day miraculously be
discovered to have been buried within “since the time of the
grandfathers”. He will grant wishes and acquire a following and some
charlatan will enrich himself with the offerings the tomb will receive.
Talk turned to the
disappeared sarai. I have seen in Sarai Chhimba as well as in Rajo Pind (the
sarai outside Rohtas Fort) that people have destroyed the old building to use
the bricks for their homes. The process continues as ignorant people destroy
priceless pieces of our built heritage that successive corrupt governments
are simply not interested in preserving.
My mind flew to the
Jahangir period caravan-serai near my ancestral village Uggi in Jalandhar
district. In 2010, the government of India was wrapping up an extensive
restoration project on it. This building was comparable with our own Sarai
Chhimba, being of about the same antiquity and equal grandeur.
But here in Pakistan, we
permit people to lay waste what heritage we have. Shame on us that we have
lost Sarai Mughal.
Looking out of the
aircraft window while coming in for a landing at Muscat International
Airport, in 2005, one notices the rugged hills of the Al-Hajjar Range that
are in stark contrast to the undulating sand dunes that welcome a visitor to
the other Gulf countries.
As if the hills stand in as
the Nature’s high-rise structures in Muscat, there seems no need for the
gross man-made skyscrapers that mar the skylines of many other cities in the
Low-rise buildings in
pastel hues and beautiful mosques with domes in sparkling colours are the
features of Muscat architecture. The sooner one alights from the aircraft;
the locals appear different too, with their neatly wound, multi-coloured
turbans which seem much more utilitarian, compared to the rope-and-tassel
affairs in the rest of the Arabian Peninsula.
In Muscat, one finds the
western tourists as well as expatriates respecting traditions by way of their
own sensible dress and general conduct, quite in contrast to some other Gulf
The arrival of our armed
forces delegation was known to the Pakistani community, whose representatives
had organised a dinner on the very first evening at a local hotel. At dinner,
we were invited yet again to spend the following Friday at the farm of a
Pakistani, Haji Abdul Yusuf. Yusuf had moved to Muscat three decades earlier
during the oil boom. An enterprising gentleman, he fell in love with Oman and
decided to live here forever. Following up on a government initiative, he
purchased some barren land about an hour’s drive from Muscat, where
irrigation water had been facilitated by the government. Bringing in labour
from his village in Pakistan, he started tilling the land and today, his farm
is one of the largest, completely mechanised farms in Oman.
A sumptuous lunch featuring
a Punjabi fare was the highlight of the visit to Haji sahib’s farm.
Making use of the weekend,
we visited the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque which is an architectural
masterpiece, with some stunning decorative features on the inside. The dome
is of a unique filigreed design, with matching cavernous minarets. Inside the
prayer hall, the chandelier is of superlative dimensions, being 14 metres
tall, with over 1,000 bulbs and 6,000 crystal pieces, surely giving sparkle
and glitter a new meaning. The carpet inside the hall is said to be the
second largest single piece and was woven in Iran. In a sign of the times,
some of our compatriots preferred to pray in the hotel, rather than follow
the imam of the dominant Ibadi sect, which has some doctrinal differences
with those of Sunni as well as Shias.
The next day, after the
official proceedings were over, we were taken to the Al-Jalali Fort by a
motor boat. After disembarking at the quayside, we climbed a series of steps
that brought us atop the fort, which afforded an immensely pleasing view of
Muscat harbour and the serene waters of the Gulf. The fort was built by the
Portuguese shortly after Afonso de Albuquerque conquered Muscat in 1507. Two
partially successful attempts were made by the Ottomans to wrest control of
Muscat. It was finally captured by the local Imam of Oman, forcing the
Portuguese to finally surrender in 1650.
In the fashion of all
colonial powers, the Portuguese too committed their share of pillage and
atrocities during their rule. The underground dungeons of the fort were
evidently witness to the cruelties perpetrated, and we were told that anyone
who went in never came out alive.
We tested one of the dark
dungeons, but mercifully, not only did we emerge unscathed, we found
ourselves on a beautiful beach after opening a recently installed door, as if
in a dream.
The renovated fort now
serves as a cultural showpiece for visiting dignitaries and, we were duly
accorded the honour of a sumptuous lunch in the presence of our Omani armed
A visit to the
Sultan’s Armed Forces Museum was instructive and one could note the
emphasis on preserving Omani traditions, particularly in uniforms and
military livery. An evening fete in the Central Armed Forces Officers’ Mess
was again an impressive function, where waiters in splendid Omani
thobes, complete with badges and other regalia, and well-versed in
military decorum, served us in traditional style.
With the oil drying up,
trying to keep up with the Gulf Joneses has been difficult for Oman.
All other Gulf capitals
have the Corniche, the paved pathways on the waterfronts, and Muscat is no
exception, having built a beautiful one on the adjoining Muttrah Bay.
Similarly, luxury hotels are de rigueur for
the rich tourists and Muscat has not been left behind.
One of the most impressive that we got to see is the Al Bustan Palace
belonging to the Ritz-Carlton group.
The grand hotel was built
in 1985 to house delegates to the GCC summit conference and Oman spared no
effort to not be singled out as the ‘country cousin’ of the other Gulf
countries. The hotel is a place worth visiting and is highly recommended at
least for a coffee, if not for a night’s stay that could leave you lesser
by 1,000 Omani Riyals!
Of all my travels in the
Gulf cities, I liked Muscat the most, in part for its well-preserved past
and, for the fact that its architecture blends with the natural surroundings
without being an eyesore. Beautiful mosques, open air souks, traditional
dhows bobbing in the placid harbour, flower-laden gardens and palm groves,
and turbaned men with daggers in their belts, all conjure up images from
One Thousand and One Nights. If one were to look for the jewel of the
Arabian Gulf, one need not go farther than Muscat.
The writer can be contacted at
A bird’s eye view of
Muscat, with the Sultan’s palace in centre.
Al-Mirani Fort in Muscat.