As you cross the Sassi Toll Plaza and rush onto the National Highway towards the interior of Sindh, the change in environment is almost shocking. As the infrastructure of Karachi fades away and billboards replace Sindhi for Urdu, even the short journey to Thatta is one great lesson in anthropology. The good part is that you get to observe the distinct Sindhi culture in all its glory. The bad part is that these places emphatically tell you about the neglect this area consistently faces. You see a procession of the banners of a particular political party hanging in the air. As you try to grasp the locals’ logic for their loyalty to these faces on the panaflex, your attention is won over by an ajrak wearing driver whose rickshaw overtakes you, blaring vocals of Shazia Khushk. In a moment, all but awe is washed away.
It was in this cloudy state of mind that I reached the ancient capital of Sindh, cozily warm in the middle of the winter season. At first glance, the city of Thatta, once a jewel of Sindh, is something of a disappointment. The roads are crumbing, the buildings reeking of desertion, and nothing in the air will remind you of its lost glory. But then I made it to my first destination in the city, and Thatta charmed me with all its forgotten grandeur.
The Shah Jahan Mosque in Thatta is undoubtedly the most beautiful Mughal structure in Sindh. Built by the Mughal king as a gift to the people of Thatta for their hospitality, the construction of this mosque started in 1644 and took about three years to complete. Besides the simplistic yet elegant design, and the stunning red bricks that win you over, it is the geometrical details of the mosque where the real beauty lies.
In many ways, this Jamia Masjid of Thatta departs from typical Mughal styles. For one, there are no frescoes here. What especially makes it stand apart is the complete lack of any minarets. The mosque is a blend of Sindhi, Timurid, Persian and Indian influences among others. It has the most domes of any structure in Pakistan, and there seems to be a trick at work here: counting the domes accurately is no mean task. Wikipedia insists there are 93 domes in the building. The board within the site claims the number to be 100. Most travel journals put the figure at 99. People try counting the domes all the times, but more often than not, each member of the group comes up with his own number!
Apart from these structural complexities, the mosque has been designed in such a way that whatever the muezzin says in the mehraab, can be heard throughout the mosque without any acoustic aid. Moreover, the verandahs with their ceilings have been designed in such a way that it’s always windy inside the mosque. This use of mathematical genius and natural ventilation can be seen in other Mughal structures too, but in this mosque they are taken to a new level.
Much like every other heritage site in the country, though, this supreme mosque in Thatta has often suffered from neglect and vandalism. Despite being proposed by Pakistan as a tentative site for inclusion in UNESCO’s World Heritage List since 1993, maintenance work on the site is at a bare minimum. There is no water in the fountains and some places within the mosque require proper cleaning. It was only last year that the mosque made headlines in the national press. Many stones and tablets were removed by the Government of Sindh on the pretext of repair and renovation. These, however, later ended up on the gate of the National Museum in Karachi, which caused a considerable but short-lived furor.
For these reasons, tourism at this marvel seems to be unimpressive. When I went there, there were no tourists at all. Only a couple of Sindhi school boys were taking selfies in the compound. It’s a shame, really, that so much potential for attracting tourists is not being tapped.
The Shah Jahan Mosque of Thatta, with all its fading charm and unimaginable beauty, transports you back in time. The mosque’s colours of red and blue, its numerous domes, and the calls for prayers, are an echo of Thatta’s glorious past.
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