Saving the naked brick widow-wife of Aror

Pre-Islamic Sukkur tombs at risk of stone quarrying

Saving the naked brick widow-wife of Aror
At night Mohanlal talks to Duhagan-Suhagan. How were you built, he asks them. How can I fix you? The tombs do not speak.

As a heritage conservationist Mohanlal Ochani is only too familiar with the reluctance of the past. And so he scratches the skin of these 700-year-old structures to learn what lies beneath. Precious little is otherwise known about them. The people of Aror have been calling them Duhagan after a ‘dukhi’ or heartache-filled widow and Suhagan for a woman whose husband is still alive. But those familiar with some of the historic records of this land tend to believe that Duhagan-Suhagan are actually the graves of two saints whose urs used to be marked here. It is much less romantic but closer to what we feel is the truth here.

The twin makbaras, paced 450 feet apart, rise up as rude shocks in a raw land the hue of a vintage sun. This place is known as the Adhi Hills and you arrive at it after what can only be a slow one-hour drive from Sukkur. This is Rohri’s Aror, which was the capital of Sindh’s last Hindu ruler Raja Dahir. Here you will find the twin tombs bristling porcupine-like with bamboo sticks that Mohanlal’s team has set up as scaffolding to undertake the preservation. They have been working here for a month for the Endowment Fund Trust for the preservation of heritage in Sindh that has dedicated four million rupees to the project.

While the trust’s secretary, Hamid Akhund, already knew of the existence of Duhagan-Suhagan, he was prompted to put their repairs at the top of their list after, oddly enough, a police department employee from Aror named Haider Buksh Bhatti started sending them letters two years ago, begging them to save the makbaras. Bhatti had grown up around them and could not bear to see them eroded.

Image Credit - EFT

"Stones would come flying from the [dynamite] blasting and would hit the makbaras," says Mohanlal

“We had been hearing about them in stories handed down by our grandfathers and great-grandfathers,” he tells TFT. And then, in very simple terms he retells the story as he knows it: The Arabs came in a boat here when the River Indus ran by Aror. It was attacked by dacoits who looted it, slaughtered the men and took the women and children. Two of the women prayed, in Sassui-Punnoo tradition, for divine protection from being defiled by the dacoits. “And the mountains opened up to swallow them,” says Bhatti. Some people of Aror still believe that the women are alive in an otherworldly sense.

The academic explorers of heritage tend to say that it is more likely that two saints, Shaikh Shakarganj and Khatal-ud-Din (or Qutb) Shah, owned these tombs, Suhagan and Duhagan, respectively. Shakarganj was a saiyyid and a contemporary of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar of Sehwan. Conservationist and architect Marvi Mazhar leans towards believing that as tombs were traditionally erected for men in that time, there is a lesser chance that women were buried there.
Experts estimate that Duhagan-Suhagan are from the 13th to 14th centuries. Their baked brick has miraculously braved 700 years of the elements

What is known about the tombs is what is based on what meets the eye. They are the earliest examples of funerary architecture made of exposed brick. Helpful clues came from similar naked brick Sassanian Zoroastrian Nausherwani makbaras in Balochistan at Kharan whose origins have been traced to pre-Islamic Iran. They are built in what is known as the Nikodari style as the Nikodaris ruled over parts of Afghanistan, Iran and Balochistan during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The Nikodaris, believed to be a Mongol tribe, occupied these lands and erected their tombs in Kharan.

“It has been assumed that these funerary memorials might have belonged to those Muslim settlers… who were perhaps new converts to Islam from the Zoroastrian faith,” writes Ahmad Nabi Khan in his 1990 book Islamic Architecture of Pakistan.

Duhagan-Suhagan are unique to this area and the only other place in Sindh where this kind of brickwork is found is in Pano Aqil’s Shaikh Lalu and Pir Baid Ahmed Sultan’s tombs.

The caved in dome - Photo - Marvi Mazhar

Experts thus estimate that Duhagan-Suhagan are from the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries. Their baked brick has, however, miraculously braved seven hundred years of the elements. The graves inside were, as is usually the case, raided by treasure hunters long ago.

Mohanlal’s task is to now gently conserve them. The greatest damage seems to have been to their 45-feet-high hemispherical domes which had caved in. They are being fixed with baked brick and gypsum from Jhirk whose crystals are first burned, then ground into a coarse powder. The masons who are restoring the dome have been brought from Mithi and Umerkot as they have experience in fixing the domes there. They work till noon setting three layers of about 45 bricks a time and then wait for it to dry.

A stone worker in front of Suhagan. The Greek columns appear behind him - Photo - Iftikhar Firdous

They are also tending to the inner and outer walls of the tombs. “It was expensive construction,” explains Mohanlal. The original slop-moulded bricks were made in water and were laid together very closely so the space between them or the joint is thin. The mud mortar has eroded over time. So the conservation effort now involves first removing the centuries of caked ochre sand dust from the bricks by scrubbing them with wire to reveal their original dusky rose colour underneath. The masons then refill the joints with the same kind of clay and water mixture in a process called pointing. It is slow work as they use sickles to insert the paste.

“The hydraulicity of this [clay] mortar is good,” Mohanlal says, meaning that it strengthens with water and can take on any colour they wish. “You have to match it [with the tomb],” he says. Mud is essentially elastic, unlike cement, which explains why these structures have lasted so long.

Shaikh Lalu in Pano Aqil - Image Credit - EFT

On the inside of the tombs rough and not baked brick has been used. Here the pointing is being done with a different recipe of mortar prepared from lime, stone dust and fly ash from Lakhra power plant.

The facades of the tombs also need restoration. Duhagan-Suhagan are essentially 24- and 30-feet wide square rooms. On the outside, a broad frieze or strip runs in pseudo-Kufic or imitation of the Arabic script (Mohanlal calls it the zanjeer motif). Below it the bricks form part of the cut-work decoration in a honeycomb effect. But most unusual are the ‘Greek’ Achaemenian style brackets or columns built into the decoration.

Cracks in Duhagan - Photo - Iftikhar Firdous

The conservation, which is expected to take three months, has become urgent as the makbaras are set in the middle of what has become a stone quarry where the Adhi Hills are being blasted for their natural resource. “Stones would come flying from the [dynamite] blasting and would hit the makbaras,” says Mohanlal. The domes, which were originally white, had caved in and cracks have appeared in the walls. “These cracks show that there has been movement in the structure,” Mohanlal says, pointing to a gash inside Suhagan. Even the cracks need to be fixed, “like a cobbler does” by stitching them with stainless steel wire.

Work also continues on water-proofing the structures, strengthening the gutted-out boundary by filling in the base. “The idea is to preserve not restore it,” says Mohanlal. “There is a difference.”

In 1998, some repairs were made by the local administration but as they did not know any better they used cement to fix them up. The grey cement decoration, which is a departure from Suhagan’s design vocabulary, is clear to the eye. “They built Moen jo Daro in mud and that lasted 5,000 years,” says Mohanlal. “These makbaras are still standing 700 years on. But cement won’t last 50 years.” He is rueful that people in Sindh have abandoned their heritage of using the cheap, natural, strong resource of mud and have started building with cement and reinforced cement concrete.

Raja Dahir’s capital Aror

Prior to the invasion by the Arabs in AD 713, Sindh was ruled by a Hindu dynasty whose capital was at Aror, a large city on the banks of the Indus, also known as the Mehran. The kingdom extended to Kashmir in the north, Makran in the south, and Kandahar in the west. Ancient Aror is mentioned in the Chach Namah. At the time of the conquest of Sindh by the Arabs under Muhammad Bin Qasim in AD 711, Aror was the capital and residence of King Dahir.

Source: Marvi Mazhar

For now though, the immediate concern is to ensure no more excavations take place. EFT’s Hamid Akhund has been trying to make it clear to the authorities and political influential people from the area such as Khursheed Shah that any more stone quarrying will risk this heritage. He met the commissioner to apprise him of the damage and request that the blasting be stopped at the site. The commissioner tasked the assistant commissioner of Rohri to look into the matter. “She took a look from far away and said we needed to submit an application,” Akhund saheb says. “I’ve sent two reminders,” he told TFT. “The last one was on September 3.” The blasting continues.

Mohanlal crouching in one of the tombs

The excavation has come within 100 feet of the two tombs. The ground around Suhagan has nearly disappeared so she stands in a veritable island now. This is illegal as the law on antiquities clearly states that you cannot do any development 200 feet from a heritage site. “But this rule of 200 feet applies to urban settled areas,” adds Akhund saheb. It is simply not enough for this setting.

The state’s concern for heritage is evident from the line of transmission towers that were erected right next to the tombs years ago. They are an odd insult to these beauties of Sindh. But Mohanlal doesn’t mind them. He has come to understand that this modern infrastructure actually acts as protection for Duhagan-Suhagan. “They mean no one will touch the tombs,” he says wryly.