Rohri, a famous city of Sindh, is situated at the East bank of the Indus River, with the city of Sukkur to its west. In ancient times, it was known as Aror, the capital city of Ror dynasty. As a young child, whenever I would visit Rohri with family, I would instantly recognize its vicinity because of the rock formations and hills that are only to be found outside this unique city. Among the many tourist attractions found in Rohri, is one of Sindh's historical sites: ‘Sateen Jo Aastan’.
The name ‘Sateen Jo Aastan’ finds its origins in a local folktale about seven friends, or according to some versions, seven sisters. It is said that they were all unmarried and lived together on the banks of the River Indus. Legend has it that the women were extremely beautiful, but were reclusive and observed purdah (veiling). Upon hearing about these women, the Raja of the region ordered his men to bring them before him. The seven women became worried, and prayed to God to never let the Raja see them. Soon, the earth cracked open underneath them, and the women were swallowed by it. ‘Sateen Jo Aastan’ is supposedly the site where these women are buried. The graves on the roof of the structure are said to have been built later on, but in their name.
Since the influence of Hinduism does exist in the province of Sindh, some accounts associate this story to the Hindu practice of Sati, due to the similarity the word shares with Sateen. In Sati, a widow commits suicide soon after her husband's death, usually by lighting herself on fire near her husband’s funeral pyre. However, this is questionable, because usually graves are not constructed by Hindus. Another account, notes that the word ‘sateen’ is also similar to the Sindhi term satth, which means ‘seven’. Thus, the name of the site becomes a simple reference to the seven buried women.
Currently, the site is in a miserable condition, and preservation efforts by the Sindh Government are next to none. As I went up the stairs leading to the main entrance, I could see the structure is built from small bricks, but that there are layers of fading ornamentation. The walls of the rooms are covered in geometric patterns and intricate details can be observed on the turquoise domes. Blue tile work and blue rock are amply used in the kashi work, which is typical of Sindhi architecture. Within, I found stairs leading up to the roof, which overlooks the Indus River, the Lansdowne Bridge and the cityscape of Sukkur. There is a great deal of variety in the types of graves; some more extravagant than others and covered in calligraphy of Quranic verses. Most of the tombs have engravings and patterns similar to those found in Makli, one of the world’s largest graveyards, located near Thatta. Many of the walls are beginning to crumble with even the basic four-wall structure said to now be in danger. The presence of the Indus River has increased the instability of the site over the years.
While the captivating myths have remained ever popular, a more logical account states that this structure was built towards the end of Raja Dahir's reign (663 AD – 711 AD) and its purpose was simply to provide an aesthetically pleasing view of the riverside. Later, when Arabs conquered the area under Muhammad bin Qasim, they used the site as per their own requirements. While prior tombs of the royal family may have existed, most are believed to have been added later by the Arabs, and are of their generals and officers. Other researchers claim that the main tomb is of an old governor of Sindh, Mir Abu Al-Qasim Namkeen (1553-85). All of these explanations are supported by the fact that there are more than seven graves on the roof of the building overlooking the Indus, some more decorated than others, and all seemingly from different time periods.
As the sun sets on these historic graves, I marvel at how this place has served different purposes for different people at different times. Perhaps the seven sisters really did reside here long ago. Perhaps the Arabs took over this place but were in such awe of its natural beauty that they decided to bury their dead on the roof, rather than underground. It is only natural that some of these narratives will be lost forever but all of them add to the mystery surrounding this captivating place.
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