Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Asif Khan’s tomb

Asif Khan’s tomb is situated among a group of monuments situated in what was once the Mughal Dilkusha Bagh (Heart-expanding Garden) in Shahdara.

The group includes a cluster of interlinked monuments of a serai forming the forecourt which leads on the east to the spectacular tomb of Emperor Jahangir, built by his celebrated wife Empress Noor Jahan, and on the west to a mosque and the tomb of Asaf Khan or Asaf Jah, one of the most powerful grandees at the courts of Jahangir and Shah Jahan. Close by is situated the tomb built to house the mortal remains of Empress Noor Jahan and her daughter Princess Ladli Begam.

A left turning from the Maqbara Road leads to the cluster marked by a double-storey imposing Mughal gateway. From here the route is by foot since the direct access since the entrances on three sides of his Chahar Bagh Rauza (paradisal garden mausoleum) were blocked in recent times. The route is to turn left towards the mosque in Chowk-i-Jilau Kham (Jahangiri Serai quadrangle).

A small door in the cloister immediately adjoining the mosque on the left (south) leads into the Asaf Jah Chahar Bagh, enclosed by a wall. As one emerges from the low-roofed cloister, they are struck by the high bulbous dome of the octagonal monument. The gateway is exactly like the gateway of the Akbari Serai, single storeyed in the centre and double storeyed on its flanks, with an internal flight of steps. Immediately behind this gateway is a canal about three feet wide which goes right up to the octagonal platform on which the mausoleum building stands. Remains of the canal, once supplied by a well, are still visible west of the southern gateway.

The walled garden around the mausoleum is a square with 800-foot sides. The tomb is a typical Mughal construction with a graceful high-pointed dome set on an octagonal base. Its huge arches were once fully lined with expensive floral Kashi work, but most of this is now gone, as is the chaste white marble facing of the dome. There were once four fountains at the four cardinal points on the plinth around the tomb. Both the platforms were made of red sandstone inlaid with white marble in the style of Jahangir's tomb. The interior was adorned with pietra-dura work. Eight doors had glittering bronze gates with finely wrought metallic motifs. From the dome hung expensive chandeliers. All these were removed by the Sikhs and sent to Amritsar to decorate the Darbar Sahib. The cenotaph of Asaf Khan is made of white marble and inlaid with decorative motifs and inscription. The actual grave was in the form of Jahangir's grave, but it was uprooted by Ranjit Singh in a search for treasure. The floor around the grave today is brick-paved. Inside, there are remains of stucco decoration. A gallery runs along all eight sides. The arched openings at the gallery level have a double frame made of rope molding in white stucco featuring cloud-like knots on stems. The floral arabesque is an exquisite example of the geometrical arrangement of natural forms.

A set of stairs on the western side leads to a gallery, and thence via another flight of steps to an ambulatory placed between the drum of the dome and the huge parapet wall, 12 feet high and 3-4 feet thick. At each end of the base of the octagonal parapet there are two small arched openings to disperse rain water. Two door-like arched openings at a height of about 8 feet in the shell of the dome are located on the northwest and southeast. The tomb of Asaf Khan provides a very clear example of double-dome construction. At the base, the drum is a circular or true dome about 3 feet in height. Above this, the drum transforms into a 24-sided drum. The height of this storey is about 10 feet. The original dome was a bulbous structure like those of the Badshahi Mosque or the Taj Mahal in Agra, for which it served as a prototype, but its apex was destroyed by the Sikhs when they pulled off the marble slabs. Its current conical vertex shape does not represent the Mughal style.

Although today but a shadow of the once grand edifice as a befitting permanent abode of the closest confidante of Shah Jahan, the tomb was built by the emperor himself at a cost of Rs 3 lakhs.

When Asaf Khan died in November 1641, he is reputed to have left behind "a colossal fortune," his house in Lahore alone having cost Rs 20 lakhs at the time of its construction. Employed by the Iranian court in Tehran, Asaf Khan went bankrupt and migrated to India in 1546. Sheer good luck brought him to the court of Akbar, where he became a distinguished lawyer and became the emperor’s brother-in-law when Jahangir married his sister, Noor Jehan. In 1612 his daughter Mumtaz Mahal (the title given to Arjumand Bano Begam), in whose memory the world-famed Taj Mahal was built, was married to Shah Jahan. Referred to as 'my adopted son (farzandi)' by his brother-in-law Jahangir, Asaf Khan rose to unprecedented heights, achieving the status of commander of 9,000 personnel and 9,000 horses, a mansab once reserved only for royal princes. Shah Jahan granted him the title of Yamin-ud-dawla and appointed him sipah-salar or commander-in-chief. Asaf Khan was not only instrumental in securing the Mughal throne for Shah Jahan in the struggle for succession, but the latter relied implicitly on the taste and judgment of his father-in-law whenever erecting his monumental architectural tour de force for which his reign became so famous. [Pakistan Today June 29, 2011 issue]

Sunday, June 26, 2011

On the Apricot Road to Yarkand

Is there anything more beguiling than a true tale of high adventure well told? Stories about places like Pakistan and China sides of Muztagh Pass, braving difficult odds under overwhelming conditions in far flung locales, relating to people of Pakistan and Chinese Turkistan who had been in the area centuries ago, can keep anyone glued to The Apricot Road to Yarkand by Salman Rashid.

The Apricot Road to Yarkand is a spellbinding tale of journey from Shigar Valley to Yarkand in the North, over the glaciated Mustagh Pass by Salman Rashid. The author is master of conveying what seems to be going on in his heads in gripping prose that is never clich├ęd.

First, a word about the author. Salman Salman is Pakistan's foremost travel writer. His passion for writing is matched by his passion for photography. His research, range of visual subjects and narratives make a remarkable combination. In addition to eight travel books, his work appears in leading English language journals. In The Apricot Road to Yarkand, Salman Rashid has also told how he switched his career in the army to become a full time researcher and a writer. (I keep thinking how Salman Rashid would have been in appreciating tactical situation on battle grounds if he was still in army?)

Salman Rashid is a historian in the truest sense. He writes from a knowledge standpoint as opposed to a position biased toward the dominant paradigm and its conquests. A moving writer, Salman reminds the heart of its search for power in a world which has forgotten its purpose for existence. As usual, Salman Rashid, 54 when he undertook the journey, delivers a ton of current information all based on historical research. No one else seems to have half the energy of this man. What is more, Salman Rashid is currently translating the book into Urdu language.

In The Apricot Road to Yarkand, Salman Rashid recounts his journey from Shigar Valley to Yarkand and he does so in frank and honest terms. Result of sixteen years of dreaming about everything that sits on the historic route from Baltistan to Yarkand, The Apricot Road to Yarkand is an epic to the essence of exploring mountains, but it is also about of the cultural, geological, and biological make up of mountains, people of that area, human behavior in difficult situations, and history and about joy of about watching purple-gray clouds spreading out like an atmospheric ocean in all directions as far as the eye can see.

Alan Hovaness once wrote, "Mountains are symbols of mankind's search for God," and Allen Ginsberg told us, "Things are symbols for themselves." In The Apricot Road to Yarkand, Salman Rashid allows the mountains to be symbols of the seeking soul and at the same time symbols of themselves - they are encountered as we internalize them in our quest, and they are encountered as they really are: cold, hard, lonely, mighty and sometime hazardous.

The Apricot Road to Yarkand inspires its readers to explore the less explored areas and experience for themselves what only a few had the fortune to discover. Well-written and wonderfully presented, the book is a must read for anyone remotely interested in mountains, adventures or for those who want to find out why a chunk of land was handed over to our best friends. I highly recommend it.

Fellow of Royal Geographical Society, Salman Rashid is author of eight books including jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Friday, June 17, 2011

Colour of the sand

In February 2006, freewheeling around Sanghar district in Sindh I ended up in the village of Ranahu. Now Sanghar is nearly equally divided between barrage-irrigated farmland and sand desert. What makes the desert remarkable in this region is the texture of sand. While southward in, say, Mithi or Umarkot districts (of the erstwhile vast Tharparker district), the sand is dark gray and hard packed, it is light in colour and texture. Here the sand dunes are rippled.

Because of the pale colour of the sand, this part of the Thar Desert is called Achhro (White) Thar. The flowering trees were here too mobbed by purple sunbirds and babblers whistled from the thorny thickets, but I did not see any peacocks that usually run across your path in Tharparker to the south.

Ranahu, caught amid high rippled dunes was idyllic. The well was its centre of activity and in the two days I spent in the village, I never found it idle: there were always two or three men working it either to fill large canvas bags fitted on camels for domestic use or topping up the watering trough for the livestock.
The water was drawn in a sort of bucket made from old tractor inner tubes which brought up around fifty litres at a time. Since the well was about a hundred metres deep (that’s three hundred feet!), it was difficult to pull up the bucket manually. Consequently, a camel was used to raise it from the unseen depth. One man drove the camel with the rope attached to it, while the other minded the bucket as it came up and emptied it into the various containers lined up by the brink.

Out of curiosity I spoke with the men at the well and learned that having to spend the livelong day at this tedious chore, they were good for nothing else. They could not go to the city for work nor could they mind the livestock grazing out on the range. There being no agriculture, livestock was the only source of income here. Though they had plenty of milk, butter, ghee and lassi, they annually sold a part of their herds to purchase other food items to make life go. Livestock was therefore their very lifeline.

Recently I returned again; this time with a friend from Sindh Agriculture and Forestry Workers Coordinating Organisation (SAFWCO). Between my first visit and now, SAFWCO and Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF) had joined hands to gift a wind turbine to the people of Ranahu. The simple device was connected to a pump on a deep bore and a pipe emptying the delivery into a large masonry water tank. Overflow from the tank went by a lined channel to a nearby watering trough where camels and goats were drinking.

As against the old well, there was no one minding the wind turbine. It worked by itself. Children came with plastic buckets to fill at the water taps on the tank and animals slaked their thirst at the trough. Hathi Singh whose guests we were to be overnight, came around to tell me one startling thing which had not occurred to me at the time of my first visit five years ago.

Every family had two men engaged in the water chore. In winters with lower water requirement the work was easier, but summers were a blur of engagement at the well. From daybreak until after sundown, two men from each family were at the well, either drawing water or waiting their turn for it. That, said Hathi, left only boys to mind the grazing livestock.

Now, the desert is home to the wily fox. Indeed, as we were driving in we had come across two at different times that quickly trotted off behind some bushes. Boys being boys and a little irresponsible, they failed to mind the livestock as mind they should. Since they were not always paying attention, foxes took a sizeable toll of suckling kids. Hathi Singh said it was not unusual for a livestock owner to lose every year up to as many as a dozen kids to the prowling foxes.

This was a major setback when livestock was their only source of income. But there was nothing for it. They were caught between a rock and a hard place: the men could not leave the well to go either with their animals or to the city to seek work.

Hathi Singh told me that the wind turbine was installed in 2007 and in the past four years, the number of animals sold has jumped up on average by forty percent for each livestock owner. I thought that was an exaggeration, but then others like Khan Mohammad Rajar from a neighbouring village (also with a wind turbine) confirmed.

Hathi had other statistics too. He said the maintenance of the old well cost about three thousand rupees annually. In comparison, the leather washer of the piston in the bore needed changing once every three months. In the beginning they got a man from Hathungo (the nearest town) who charged six hundred rupees to come out to fix it.

But the men of Ranahu watched him work. Just by looking they now have three trained pump mechanics and they do the job themselves. Not only they have acquired a new skill, but the repair now costs only one hundred rupees.

There is now the dream of getting another wind turbine, perhaps somewhat larger for a greater delivery of water, to turn the troughs between the dunes arable. I observed that may be a long way off and Hathi said there was no harm in dreaming. If I return in another few years’ time, I may find Ranahu completely transformed. Who knows, as Tharparker in the south has become a tourist destination, Achhro Thar too might if some enterprising goat farmer sets up a two-room doss house with his savings from livestock sales. And all because a simple wind turbine and pump were installed in the village.

Fellow of Royal Geographical Society, Salman Rashid is author of several books including jhelum: City of the Vitasta and The Apricot Road to Yarkand, Riders on the Wind, Between two Burrs on the Map, Prisoner on a Bus and Sea Monsters and the Sun God. His work - explorations, traveling and writings - appears in almost all leading publications.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Pakistan’s Golden Thrones

Tommy Heinrich, a photographer for the National Geographic Magazine and a mountaineer from Argentina, launched his book of photographs from mountains of Pakistan on Saturday at the Governor’s House.

The book titled Pakistan’s Golden Thrones is a joint effort by the Argentinean Embassy, Bago Laboratories, Argentina and Ferozsons Laboratories Limited, Pakistan.Ferozsons CEO Osman Khalid Waleed also spoke on the occasion while Argentinean Ambassador to Pakistan Rodolfo Martin Saravia and Punjab Governor Latif Khosa also addressed the function.All of them endorsed the collaboration between the two countries for this cultural experience and to show the beauty of Pakistan’s natural landscapes.

They concurred that this cultural exchange was an ‘excuse’ to strengthen bilateral relations. Heinrich, who is the first Argentinean to climb the Mount Everest, told Pakistan Today that this was his sixth visit to Pakistan and he was very impressed and awestruck by the beauty of the mountains, which fringed the northern borders.

“I made my first visit in 1997 and since then I have been under the spell of Pakistani mountains. Other than Pakistan I have also climbed mountains in Nepal,” he said.

“I began to then compile my pictures that I had taken there and to bring them in book form and though it was no easy task to select these pictures, I was supported by my countrymen. I am thankful to Pakistan for letting me see these places and to experience them and make them part of my life,” the photographer said.

Summits of K2 are yet other places that he has been to. “K2 was a lot more difficult than Everest in that it was much steeper and more dangerous to climb,” he revealed. “At times it got really dangerous and I did feel nervous and scared; other times we braved on.

Up there, there is a lot of air pressure, mist and it is extremely cold,” he said. Heinrich has managed to climb around 8,000 metres of K2, and says that he includes it in one of his biggest achievements.

About Tommy Heinrich: Tommy Heinrich was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He began climbing at an early age in northern Patagonia and the high mountains of the Andes. After graduating with a degree in Animal Sciences, Tommy departed for the US, from where he traveled for over 15 years throughout the world combining his passion for photography and climbing the highest and remotest mountains.

He has also been on an assignment for the National Geographic Magazine, where he photographed a Polish team doing a winter ascent of Nanga Parbat, located in Pakistan, which at 8.125 meters is the 9th highest mountain in the world. In 1995, he became the first person from Argentina to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Along with Brad Bull from the US, Apa Sherpa, Nima Rita, Arita and Lobsang Jangbu Sherpa, from Nepal they were the only six people to reach the summit of Everest through the South Col route during the entire 1995.

Member of 10 Himalayan expeditions, he is the only person from Argentina to reach the summit of Lhotse, the fourth highest mountain in the world. In 1993, he did a solo ascent of Cholatse in Nepal, a 22,000 feet mountain in the Everest region. He has done several successful ascents of Aconcagua, the first one Solo in 1992. He has also done several first ascents of unnamed peaks in the Andes region. Through the years, he has done many alpine and rock climbing ascents in the US, Thailand and Argentina.

Heinrich has done many big wall ascents in California's Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, Half Dome, Liberty Cap and many other challenging rock routes in the valley. He was hired to photograph and also film expeditions to Mt. Everest, Dhaulagiri and Aconcagua by CBS, Dish Network, and Canal 13 from Argentina. Heinrich’s film footage was shown on CBS, Discovery, CNN, Univision and most TV networks in Argentina. While working with photographer Doug Menuez, he assisted in commercial photo shoots for Versace, ABN Chicago Bank, Ford Motors Ltd, Levis Strauss, Verizon and others.

He has documented both on film and photo, World Polo Championships in Argentina, England and France. He attended Rich Clarkson's photography workshops given by National Geographic and Sports Illustrated staff, specializing in nature, adventure and sports photography. His photographs have been published in catalogs and magazines in the US, Argentina and Europe.