Spacious and serene, the 500-hundred-year-old necropolis on Makli Hill provides a tranquil resting spot for the dead as well as the living. Its yellow sandstone monuments look like an organic part of the desert that surrounds them. Yet amidst muted voices of kings and mystics, the crumbling monuments speak volumes in protest.
Makli cemetery is a Unesco World Heritage Site of Outstanding Universal Value, located on the outskirts of Thatta. Amongst its half-a-million tombs are those of kings and philosopher saints of the Samma, Argun and Tarkhan dynasties that ruled successively from the 14th to the 17th centuries from their imperial seat in Thatta, near the Indus delta.
Spread out on Makli Hill, the graveyard is, according to the World Heritage Committee, “amongst the largest in the world”, covering an area of 10 square kilometres.
It is the misfortune of Sindh’s heritage that those responsible for its upkeep do little more than use their position for personal gain
Henry Cousens, a retired Superintendent of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), made an interesting observation in The Antiquities of Sindh, published in 1929 by the ASI. In a passage on the tomb of Jam Nizamuddin II, he pointed out: “All over India, the earliest mosques and tombs, built by the conquering iconoloclasts, were, in most cases constructed of pilfered material from Hindu or Jain temples.”
Badar Abro, a contemporary Sindhologist and historian disputes this:
“If Jam Nizamuddin II’s temple was constructed of material pilfered from Jain or Hindu temples, where are the ruins of those temples?” he asks. “There are no remains of any such temples anywhere near Thatta. Under Jam Nizamuddin’s reign, from 1461 to 1509, Sindh and Gujrat had close political, cultural and geographical ties. Samma rulers did not have the tendency to demolish temples and reuse material in tombs and mosques. The design of the tomb reflects the architectural style of the region at that time.”
Of the intricate stone carvings on the tomb – such as the sunflower – no two patterns are identical. Whether or not the fusion of Hindu-Muslim architecture in the tomb is symbolic of the ruler’s tolerance and enlightenment is down to individual interpretation.
The World Heritage Committee noted at its annual convention in Istanbul in July 2016, that the tomb of Jam Nizamuddin II is in “a perilous state”, and that “no major conservation work has been carried out for at least a decade”. Similarly, Unesco has pointed out in regard to the palatial tomb of Isa Khan Tarkhan II, governor of Thatta under the Mughals, that the last time any emergency stabilisation work was carried out on this two-storey structure was in the 1980s. Access to its stairwell has been closed as it has fallen into disrepair.
As financial corruption, encroachment, looting and intrigue erode Makli, the World Heritage Committee has been forced to consider putting the gravesite on the List of World Heritage in Danger – by 2018. The World Monuments Fund, a New York-based NGO, added Makli to its list of ‘100 Most Endangered Sites’ in 2005.
In April 2016, a joint monitoring mission of the World Heritage Centre and the International Council on Monuments and Sites visited Makli. In its report, it noted that “The Government of Sindh indicates having a sizable budget for the management and conservation of the site, but the Joint Mission saw no evidence of activity at the site paid for by the government.”
There is mass negligence on the part of the Culture Department of the government of Sindh – the body officially responsible for the conservation of heritage sites in the province. Yasmeen Lari, chairman of the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan, a local NGO, points out “whether it is the Culture Department or any other department, nobody seems to be doing anything. Government departments and government agencies have so much funding available that they can easily train interested people in the methods of conservation.”
Dr Kaleemullah Lashari, a historian and chairman of The Management Board For Antiquities (an independent advisory board formed by the government of Sindh to look after the interests of heritage) explains, “The federal and provincial bodies responsible for cultural heritage were not ready for the transition brought about by the constitutional amendment of 2011” (when the domain of culture and antiquities was devolved from the federal government to the provinces). “To this day, you will find the Department of Archaeology and Museums (DOAM) functioning in Islamabad when it should be readily giving away all responsibility to the provinces. The provinces were not ready to take over either. They should have made preparations beforehand, training their employees and ensuring that a sufficient number of regulatory or monitoring officers were in place.”
According to Dr. Lashari, “Asif Ali Zardari is one visible and obvious force behind the bad governance in the province. There have been seven Secretaries of Culture in the last four years. What does this show?”
It is the misfortune of Sindh’s heritage that those responsible for its upkeep do little more than use their position for personal gain. Dr. Lashari points out “Political parties have often used archaeological and historical sites as their personal domain.”
Where the government has failed, local NGOs have filled in as best they can
The on-site staff responsible for day-to-day maintenance at Makli are unable to recall any positive contributions by the Ministry of Culture. Indeed, they can only recount a few ministerial visits to the site and then only hesitantly open up about unethical practices after being assured of anonymity.
The Antiquities Act of 1975 prohibits any construction within 200 feet of protected antiquities in Pakistan. However, it does not provide any guidelines on the removal of such illegal structures. Due to this loophole, many encroachments remain untouched.
When family members of various Ministers for Culture encroach on heritage sites across the province, prospects can only be grim.
At Makli, various tribes have built their homes and shops on the gravesite. Political representatives are hesitant in stepping up to their responsibility of relocating these families, as by moving them they run the risk of losing their vote. Various independent organisations have also built structures on the premises of the cemetery. These remain unmoved to this day.
Since 2011, there has been a significant rise in continued burials at Makli. It is essential that the government designate specific areas for this, distant from the historical monuments.
The shrine of Sufi saint Abdullah Shah Ashabi is the busiest spot in the cemetery. Vehicles move through the entire necropolis to get to it. This threatens the integrity and the Outstanding Value of Makli. Badar Abro suggests “since this shrine is located on the eastern edge of the cemetery, it would help if the entry and exit points on the eastern boundary were used to access it.”
Theft is rampant. Some graves appear to be completely stripped of their decorative components such as carved slabs of stone and glazed tiles. According to local heritage experts, the caretakers pretend not to have any knowledge of this and go so far as to say that some graves never had any stone engravings. Rubble of crumbling monuments lies scattered on Makli Hill. Some of this rubble can be mistaken for the natural terrain of the area.
It doesn’t help that the kind of politicians put in charge of the Ministry of Culture have in the past been found guilty of corruption and been barred from holding public office.
In February 2014 the government trampled over another World Heritage Site in Moenjo Daro, when it placed a stage, dance-floor and approximately 500 guests on top of the 5,000-year-old remains of the Indus Valley Civilisation. UNESCO, which has a field office in Islamabad, did not raise a voice nor lift a finger to prevent such a disaster from taking place. The extent to which UNESCO’s directives are implemented is determined by the will of the government.
Dr. Lashari, who was at that time a member of the consultative committee of Moenjo Daro, recalls, “I had advised them to set up the stage on the lawns of Moenjo Daro. There were 10,000 signatures against the structures built on the ruins. A petition was signed and sent to UNESCO. What else could the people do to try and make the government understand? Nobody believed that they were foolish enough to actually build a stage on the ruins.”
On a more positive note, Dr. Lashari points out “Something has happened recently. A new Minister for Culture has come in and has started taking up remedial measures. We are closely monitoring the change that has happened within this one month.”
Where the government has failed, local NGOs have filled in as best they can. “The Heritage Foundation of Pakistan has been carrying out extensive work at Makli since the late 1980s”, says Yasmeen Lari. “I do not seek any funding from the government or the Culture Department.” According to Lari, “the use of L-EPI (Lari-Emergency Preventative Intervention) can save a large number of the monuments from collapse, buying time until funding sources and expertise are available for full scale conservation.” She explains that this is “a low-cost methodology” that provides monuments with “immediate first-aid to save them from disappearing.”
Having lost faith in the provincial government, foreign donors and Unesco turn to local organisations.
However, international institutions are not always in tune with the intricacies of local dynamics and allegiances. Hamid Akhund, Secretary of the Endowment Fund Trust (an independent, non-profit body established by the government of Sindh in 2008), raises some important questions. “Why is it that these international organisations and donors, with their talk of transparency, collaborate with various local organisations without examining their credentials?” he asks. “Where is the merit in this? Why do they not consult all conservationists collectively?” According to Akhund, it is because some international parties rely on “old connections”.
In an article for The Huffington Post titled ‘Why Preserving Pakistan’s Heritage Should Matter to the US’ (January 29, 2016), former US Ambassador to Pakistan Richard Olson, referring to Makli, explained that “Wind and sun have taken a severe toll on the monuments, as has vandalism and looting, all perhaps part of the toll that more than a decade of fighting terrorism has inflicted on Pakistan”. Yet unlike Palmyra or Mosul, Makli’s demise cannot be attributed to terrorism or the war on terror – Islamic fundamentalists aren’t known to wreak havoc on Makli. It is corruption and a lack of will on the part of the provincial government that is doing the ‘cultural cleansing’. That a former US Ambassador to Pakistan isn’t able to voice this is a clear sign of the limited maneuverability of foreign parties.
The far-reaching effect of corrupt governance in Pakistan is erasing history, brick by brick. Makli is a testament to this. In The Antiquities of Sindh, Cousens recalled a comment made by a certain Captain Wood in the 19th century upon a visit to Makli: “Neither labour nor expense has been spared, only for the absurd purpose of giving the dead better accommodation than the living”. One wonders what Captain Wood would say if he saw Makli in its current state.