Throughout its tumultuous history, the medieval capital of Sindh, Thatta, has been ruled by various dynasties, starting with the Sammas. The city was later ruled by the Turkhan and Arghun kings but it was subsequently occupied by the Mughals. It is said that the city saw its prime during the 16th and 17th centuries, when it was a bustling cultural hub, an important port, and considered an esteemed seat of learning with about 400 institutions in place. It is fabled that in 1699, an English sea captain compared Thatta to London in size. The 18th century dawned with a sorry tale for Thatta - the tributary of the Indus that supplied it dried up, with the Kalhoras finally shifting their capital to Hyderabad. For what it’s worth, the city had already produced a number of kings, philosophers, teachers, artisans and saints, and nowhere can greater testimony to this be found, but in the Makli Necropolis.
Thatta’s ‘City of the Dead’ is home to an estimated half a million to a million graves, with some claiming it is the largest cemetery in the world. Spread over an area of a little more than 10 square miles, the graveyard houses graves from the 14th to the 18th centuries. Makli (literally “little Makkah,” as christened by an ecstatic Hajj pilgrim) was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981. Owing to its archaeological diversity, both in time and space, the site holds special interest. The buildings have been divided into three time periods, according to the different periods of reign.
The graveyard spreads out into a diamond-shaped enclosure, before thinning out into the surroundings. It remains open throughout the year, and is easily accessible; while coming from Karachi, the graveyard can be spotted on the left side of the road. A network of roads is spread across the graveyard, thus most of it can be covered on automobiles. The graves are a unique amalgamation - offering a range of visuals: there are those of the kings which can easily pass for palaces, those of the Sufis that have now turned into oft-visited darbaars, and outnumbering both of these are the nameless ones - numbering in millions and eaten away at the sides.
It is a little overwhelming to cover all of Makli in a single go. There’s too much to see and prioritizing isn’t easy. Time shouldn’t be a constraint, as the charm lies in the details. From Quranic verses inscribed on the graves, to Hindu architecture on the buildings, the structures in Makli are a treat to behold. The buildings from different eras have their distinct set of features. Still, these signs aren't always easy to identify, especially when you have no previous experience. The services of a guide might come in handy. Another important thing regarding a visit to Makli is pre-planning and taking the necessary permissions. Many of the royal tombs are locked (either to avoid vandalism or prevent drug addicts from taking shelter there), so you need to contact the curator to see them.
While you may find some tourists visiting the site for its historical appeal, the life of Makli depends upon its Sufi saints. The tomb of Abdullah Shah Ashabi, for one, is a popular spot for devotees throughout the year. His annual urs is among the most celebrated occasions in the region, and the necropolis is traditionally lit up like no other night. While many unnamed and unidentified graves also add to the charm of Makli, owing to their specific features, the most sought after tombs in the area remain those of Jam Nizamuddin II, lsa Khan Tarkhan and Jan Baba (son and father), and Diwan Shurfa Khan. These have often been featured in music videos, TV shows and movies.
While a graveyard may at first seem to be an inappropriate choice for a picnic, there’s too much in Makli to not appeal to your finer senses. Not only does it offer a shining glimpse of Thatta’s lost splendour, it also presents an accumulation of culture and diversity. However, natural disasters and poor conservation have often affected Makli adversely. Despite being a protected site, recent graves can also be spotted in ancient enclosures. UNESCO’s website carries reservations about the poor conservation of the Makli Tombs, although restoration attempts have been made in some places in the graveyard.
At only a two-hour drive away from Karachi, Thatta is a must visit for all travel aficionados, a glimpse into the lost civilizations of Thatta.
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