I've been maintaining this blog (for better or for worse) over the last eight years. Over these years, its natural evolution has led it into becoming something of a niche place for discussion of music in general and Qawwali in particular. Rather than trying to return my existing blog to its pre-Qawwali eclectic roots, I decided I’d start anew on Tumblr. So if you’re interested in music, Qawwali and subcontinental culture, keep reading/listening/watching/commenting here. For all of the above and everything else under the sun, head on over to my Tumblr page .

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Great Roadtrip - Of Patron Saints And Ghost Towns

It is now almost a year since I undertook what turned out to be the greatest road-trip of my life. The term 'voyage of discovery' might be a cliche but that's certainly how I will describe the week or so of traveling that I did in South and Central Punjab last September. What with one thing or the other, I've never gotten around to properly writing about it and sharing some of the experiences, sights and sounds of those six or seven days. But the leisure afforded me by my current location has trumped my innate laziness and I've decided it's about time I got around to it. My memory might be clouded over by the year gone by, but I still remember enough to get the writing juices flowing, and armed with the hundreds of photos I took with my crummy cellphone camera, I think I can finally shape the account of my great roadtrip into something resembling a coherent narrative.

Like every good story, this one begins with a prelude. I had been in Dera Ghazi Khan working in the flood relief efforts for over three weeks and was itching for a break. The workload, though heavy, wasn't the reason I was raring at the bit. I had planned a great deal of sightseeing in and around Dera Ghazi Khan and wasn't getting any chance of going about it. Although the evenings were usually free but travel restrictions meant that I wasn't able to see anything more than the one odd place of interest that happened to be in one of the villages where I'd set up a medical camp. An abortive attempt was made to visit the Sakhi Sarwar shrine; an attempt that turned into something resembling a farce on wheels starring a car that could only go one kilometer at a time before stopping to pant and wheeze, a tape deck that insisted on playing lewd Naseebo Lal songs and a driver that could only understand Pushto, which neither of the passengers could speak.

It was with great relief and a fair bit of excitement that I greeted the announcement that the entire party of around a dozen people would be taking a day off and going on a roadtrip to the nearby hilltop town of Fort Munro, with a stopover at the Sakhi Sarwar shrine. My sightseeing plans were finally starting to see fruition as the traveling party rode out on the Dera Ghazi Khan-Quetta highway. As an aside i would like to mention that I have seen around two dozen cities and innumerable towns all over Pakistan and I have never seen a place that depressed me more than Dera Ghazi Khan. A district headquarter, DG Khan looked more like, I hate to admit it, a pigsty. All the main roads were muddy ditches, the traffic was horrible, the city was skirted by a huge and foul smelling sewerage nullah and the whole place had a weirdly oppressive air. The immense relief I felt at being out on the open highway, away from the mud and congestion of DG Khan cannot be described in words. The road ran through wide plains that slowly rolled up into rocky hills where the road got a little treacherous.

The first stop was the town of Sakhi Sarwar around twenty miles down the road from DG Khan, housing the shrine of Hazrat Sakhi Sarwar (R.A), the patron saint of all travelers, which was rather fitting now that I look back on it. The shrine was located deep inside the town so we parked the cars at a distance and walked through the narrow alleyways towards the shrine. As we got closer, I was greeted by the sight that I would become familiar with in the course of trips to dozens of other shrines; a shrine bazaar. On either side of the path leading upto the shrine entrance were shops selling flowers, multicolored chadars, semiprecious gemstones and 'makhaanas'; the tiny white sweetmeat that is traditionally distributed as tabarruk. The entrance to the shrine comprised a large two-story facade with a central entryway flanked with two yellow-painted panels. The upper story had three beautifully decorated overhanging balconies. The courtyard had a neem tree in the centre and was flanked on one side with a centuries old mosque and on the other by a row of 'hujras'. Facing the entrance was the main shrine complex, with a long covered enclave and a single door leading to the tombs of the saints. The entire courtyard was bordered by an underhanging ledge adorned by beautiful painted tile that is South Punjab's speciality.

 The enclave was covered by a wooden roof that had beautiful geometric patterns adorning it in a design that I was later to see at shrines in Ucch Shareef, Multan and Lahore.Inside the tombs there was relative darkness and the unmistakeable scent of incense and rosewater. There were a number of small graves of some of the Saint's disciples and followers, and in the eastern corner of the tomb, the graves of the Saint himself and his sons. We paid our respects and then wandered around into a small room that adjoined the main tomb. Here sat an old man wearing tattered robes who would swat us each with what looked like a bouquet of peacock feathers and demand a rather hefty sum for the priviledge. It was an insight into the rather unusual system of commerce that thrives in and around shrines. After a further bit of wandering, including a futile search for the spot where Guru Nanak Saheb was supposed to have stayed when he made a pilgrimage to the Sakhi Sarwar shrine, we left for our second and final destination for the day, the town of Fort Munro.

Fort Munro is an historically important town. The seat of the government agent in the colonial times, it marked the eastern boundary of the Baloch lands and was the site of a small fort that housed a military garrison. After Balochistan's accession with Pakistan , Fort Munro served as the residence of the political agent. It was supposed to be South Punjab's answer to Murree, a temperate hill-station in the middle of the plains that offered a respite from the weather for the wealthy and the well-to-do. what it turned out to be was something quite the opposite. I'd seen ghost-towns in films and on TV, now was my chance to see one for myself. As we wound up the surprisingly tricky climb, we couldn't see a single inhabitant. There were houses, shops, motels, roadside dhaabas and pan-shops. There just wasn't anyone in them. In a town whose population should've been at least five or ten thousand, we couldn't find a single person.

This inexplicable lack of inhabitants wasn't the only eerie thing about Fort Munro. As we reached the crest of the hill, we saw to our right a body of water too large to be a pond and too small to be a lake. It had a small pier on one of the banks and had a dark, murky and somewhat sinister look. Coming to the top of the main hill, there was a fair-sized plateau that housed a park, remnants of an old fort, deserted government offices and to complete the ghost-town decor, an old colonial era graveyard. Naturally, we made a beeline for the graveyard. There were around a dozen graves, great and small, belonging to the military personnel and their families who inhabited the fort nearly a century ago. This graveyard proved to be the most interesting place we visited in Fort Munro for a number of reasons.

The first grave that caught my eye was that of a brother in arms, quite literally. Horace Allenby Smith was a military surgeon and a Fellow of the Royal Society in the days when it really meant something. The thought of that poor army doctor lying buried thousands of miles from his home in a godforsaken piece of rocky ground on top of a desolate mountain put a lot of things in perspective. There were graves of two or three little children who had drowned in the lake we'd seen earlier. And there was another grave which clearly showed signs of having been opened recently. All in all, the perfect setting for an episode of the Twilight Zone or one of those cheap TV movies they make based on Stephen King stories.

Needless to say, the entire traveling party was thoroughly spooked at that point, so much in fact that when we saw the first living thing we'd seen the entire trip; a goat on a mountain ledge, we half expected it to sprout some wings and come swooping down on us Nazgul style. Thankfully it didn't and even more thankfully we managed to catch the thing. And having caught it we did the civilized thing,  namely slaughtered, barbecued and feasted on Herr Goat. After a pwopah meal, the kind that dispels the spookies and puts courage into the hearts of men, we set about exploring again. Not that it did us any good, a deserted colonial era cricket pitch-cum-tennis court being the only thing we saw. It was then that we decided to call it a day on the trip and head back. The highlight of the return trip was a sing along. Trust me, you haven't lived till you've heard a fifty year old Pashtun gentleman belt out 'Bailamos' in a pushto accent.

The trip to sakhi Sarwar and Fort Munro wasn't entirely what I'd envisioned it to be, but it was very important to me in that it proved to be the starting point for all my subsequent explorations and photographing excursions. Three days later I left Dera Ghazi Khan for Multan which was the first stop on my Great Road Trip and when I returned home ten days later, I had traveled nearly 2000 miles and a discovered a new facet to my life.

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