Climate change threatens Makli necropolis

Makli (Credit:
Makli (Credit:
Karachi, Oct 15: Unusual rain patterns across Sindh in 2010, essentially caused by climate changes, coupled with man-made disasters, have adversely affected Makli, one of the world’s largest necropolis, situated in Thatta District in southern Pakistan.

“As a result of the climate change, high humidity levels, which had previously been confined to the port city of Karachi, were recorded throughout Sindh,” said Zafar Junejo, chief executive officer of the Thardeep Rural Development Programme, a non-profit NGO.

“The rainfall was unusual to say the least; continuous and with raindrops that were thrice the size of those recorded in previous years,” he told The News, “Add to that the inappropriate interventions made at the site, which include incidents such as certain tombs serving as makeshift toilets.”

“In the recent past, Makli has witnessed the worst kind of pollution,” he said, “Many of the tombs were already damaged and their condition was not helped by the antics of several NGOs. These particular organizations not only started plying their vehicles at the necropolis, they even organized cricket matches there.”

Junejo added that a few other NGOs were so careless that they collected artefacts from the necropolis to present as gifts to donors, including tiles used to adorn graves. The situation has deteriorated to the point where UNESCO has hinted that Makli’s status as a world heritage site might be revoked.

However, the Sindh government has been granted more time for conservation efforts at the necropolis, as, in a report submitted to the World Heritage Committee, a team of experts had suggested that the body wait to see results of the steps actually being taken, before deciding whether to include it in the List of World Heritage in Danger.

As reported by a leading English daily of Pakistan last year, the recommendation has been made in a report prepared after a joint team of UNESCO and the International Council of Sites and Monuments (ICOMOS) conducted a visit to Makli from May 5 to May 10, 2012.

Junejo said the natural depression of Makli is towards Kinjhar Lake but influential agriculturalists have occupied significant portions of the necropolis, blocking the natural terrain and water flow.

The most damage, however, was caused after the floods of 2011 as the government set up makeshift arrangements in Makli, which is on higher ground, for the displaced victims. According to Junejo, the necropolis is under severe pressure from three or four districts: Karachi, Thatta, Kirthar Range and Badin. According to a book, ‘History on Tombstones: Sindh and Baluchistan’, published by the Sindhi Adabi Board and authored by (late) Ali Ahmed Brohi, the entire five-kilometre stretch of the Makli Hill is dotted by various mausoleums, sepulchres, vaulted domes, arches, towers, porticos and gateways which rise in a long succession above shapeless heaps and mounds.

It is impossible to guess when the Makli Hill was first used as a cemetery. The area has had a vague sacredness associated with it from a very early time. With the tomb of Jam Nando Nizamuddin, we enter recorded history. This tomb, which represents a distinctly Hindu design and style of architecture, was built in 1508 AD, according to Brohi.

In fact, the very name ‘Makli’ suggests the existence of the ancient temple of ‘Mahakali’, from which the present term seems to have been derived. Thatta has been the capital of lower Sindh since the times of the Sammas, but its architectural glory started with the Tarkhan rulers. The mausoleum of Mirza Isa Tarkhan is built entirely of stone but that of his son, Mohammad Baqi, and all subsequent tombs of distinction comprise of glazed tiles and brick masonry of a very superior order. Many of the edifices, the tombs of Amirs, Jams and Begs, were completed after years and years of patient labour. The interiors of the tombs are almost wholly covered with carvings largely consisting of texts from the Holy Quran in the Arabic or Persian script, writes Brohi.

The principal tombs are those of Mirza Jani Beg (1599), Mirza Ghazi Beg (1612), Mirza Isa Tarkhan II (1644), Mirza Dughral Beg, Diwan Shurfu Khan (1638), Amir Khalil Khan (1580), Mirza Isa Tarkan (1573), Jam Nizamuddin (1508) and Syed Amir Shirazi (1572).

The southern extremity of the tombstone has an inscription in Persian that reads:

“Died the pitied, the forgiven, who attained the protection of the most gracious king, Badi-al-Zaman, son of Shah Rukh Khan, in the year 11 (1011 A.H/1602-03 A.D).”

The bird-serpent in Zoroastrian lore represents a conflict between the forces of light and darkness. Similarly, in Indian mythology, this symbol represents a continuous conflict between the heavenly and worldly forces, writes Brohi.

The motif of the bird of prey, whether a falcon, a peacock or a double-headed eagle, holding a snake in its claws, is popularly believed to be a Buddhist symbol. In Turkish paintings, the episode of Adam and Eve being tempted by Satan is represented in the form of a serpent watched by an eagle and a peacock, according to Brohi.

Responding to queries from The News, ex-Sindh Culture Secretary, Aziz Uquali, said, “A UNESCO mission comprising of Mr Michael Jansen and Princess Alexandra visited all World Heritage Sites (WHS) in Pakistan in early 2011. They made certain observations on almost every WHS, which have been duly attended to. The steps taken by Government of Sindh, Culture Department, include (a) preparation of a master plan for Makli, which is in the final stages; (b) conservation/preservation of individual monuments (recently taken up); (c) signing of MoU (in February 2012) between the Culture Department and Heritage Foundation of Pakistan for documentation and preservation of Samma Cluster of Makli Necropolis and capacity building of officials of the Archaeology Department; and (d) preparation of Disaster Management Plan for flood victims and collaboration with District/Civil Administration, Thatta.”

When questioned over whether there was any truth to reports that former culture minister Sassui Palijo’s father has encroached upon a considerable portion of the necropolis, the ex-secretary denied the claims, stating, “This is factually incorrect. It is a baseless allegation, without any evidence or substance.”

In reply to another question regarding whether any action will be initiated over the construction of government offices on land falling under the limits of the necropolis, Uquali said, “A few office buildings, constructed decades ago by Federal Department of Archaeology & Museums, Ministry of Culture for administration and management of the WHS, are in accordance with the Antiquities Act, 1975. There is neither any violation of law nor any negligence whatsoever. There is no plan to remove these buildings.”

When questioned over the criminal negligence of the irrigation department in maintenance of canals, which had caused much damage to the necropolis during the floods, and how the government plans to prevent further damage, he said, “That does not pertain to the Sindh Culture Department and the Irrigation Department will be in a better position to answer the question. Flooding does not pose a direct threat to the Makli, it affects the necropolis indirectly, when flood victims occupy the area, as was the case in 2010. In this regard, the Culture Department has prepared a Disaster Management Plan to effectively handle any such situation in the future.”

Kevin Gallagher, the local representative of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations based in Islamabad, in response to a query by The News, said: “You raise some interesting issues – especially on cultural heritage sites which I have not thought about. UNESCO may have some information. Also, I have noted the different roles of the World Food Program and FAO. Basically, WFP assists in food distribution while FAO works to get people back to productive work and also to recover assets such as irrigation, livestock and seeds. The UN works closely with government agencies to ensure common goals are met through joint actions as an inter-governmental organization, in which Pakistan is a key player globally! (e.g. one of the top UN peacekeeping forces, UN Security Council member). Indeed, I think this aspect of Pakistan’s contribution to international agencies should be highlighted more to acknowledge the work done by Pakistan and to build the image and confidence of Pakistanis, who should know that they are in fact a strong member of the international community. Many people seem to feel that Pakistan is a victim of the international community rather than a full player!”

Dr. Kozue Kay Nagata, Director/Representative of UNESCO Pakistan said she was not sure about the extent of the damage suffered by the Makli necropolis in and after 2010’s flooding. “This is a question for the Sindh government, as it is their responsibility,” she said, “UNESCO is assisting the government in many ways and we have a few projects, staff trainings, DRM components etc. that we have conducted in the past and will continue in the future.”

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