Iris

The silence of a graveyard

Updated May 03, 2015 10:09pm

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The Indus River originates from the mountains of Tibet, flows through India and Pakistan and falls into the Arabian Sea, covering a journey of more than 3,000 kilometres. For thousands of years, it attracted conquerors to its banks to acquire land and power — for agriculture, for trade, for religion and for survival. Invaders made their way one after another; some ruled for a few years while others reigned for centuries. They destroyed and built empires, and left behind monuments — some celebrated to this day, others still undiscovered, keeping history silent.

Forty kilometres south of Dera Ismail Khan after the village of Paroa on the main Indus Highway, is a poorly painted roadside sign, pointing travellers to the right. "Ancient Tombs and Graveyard," it reads. The trail – rough, uncarpeted and dusty – runs alongside a small irrigation channel and green fields. We turn left after seven kilometres, where the trail ends at the village of Lal Marah Sharif. This village has a huge graveyard, where stand four distinct and beautifully constructed tombs — graves of the unknown.

The Lal Marah tombs
The Lal Marah tombs
A man stands inside the Lal Marah tombs
A man stands inside the Lal Marah tombs

The tombs are known as andiray, which means ‘graveyard’ in the local dialect of Pashto. Seraiki-speaking people dominate the village’s population but, given that it lies on the ancient route from Ghazni to Multan, the Pashto name could have been given during the Ghaznavid period in the ninth or 10th century.

The tombs are a symmetrical wonder, made of red bricks, blue glazed tiles, arched doors and small windows. All four tombs have a single dome; two of the tombs also have round towers on four corners. The decorative elements represent the architecture of Central Asia and imitate the tomb of the Samanid ruler Ismail, in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.

The style that these graves represent is very common in southern Punjab and Sindh, where certain shrines and tombs have glazed style workmanship, reflecting the art of Central Asia. There is no date or detail written on any of the graves or tombs, but their structure denotes that they probably belong to royals or saints. The general public was not given such status.

Inayatullah shows a photo of the tomb before restoration
Inayatullah shows a photo of the tomb before restoration

Newly built graves dot the compound. The Department of Archaeology and Museums took custody of the tombs in 1978 and installed a tall board that has details painted in Urdu and English. The English text has faded away with time but some Urdu is still readable. As mentioned on the board, the only notable work done on the tombs is by Dr Ahmed Hasan Dani, a renowned archaeologist and historian. In one of his books, History of Pakistan: Pakistan through Ages, Dani points out that the site must have acquired an important geographical position during the march of the Ghaznavid sultans to Sindh and Punjab. Perhaps they left the tombs as a sign.

Inayatullah, a young man with a thin moustache, is the current caretaker of the graveyard. His father, Gul Muhammad, who was the caretaker before him, has saved some records in a room that includes a visitor book and some old photographs taken before the restoration of the four tombs. There were 11 tombs in total, but only the rubble of the others is now visible, with nothing but a boundary and graves without a structure.

The only other tomb left at Chira Graveyard from the time of Lal Marah
The only other tomb left at Chira Graveyard from the time of Lal Marah

While going through the debris of history, Inayatullah tells us that there is another such structure still standing, apart from the four tombs at Lal Marah, at another graveyard 10 kilometres further south — the Chira Graveyard.

The Chira Graveyard lies on the same ancient route, a few miles away from the main Indus Highway. A local farmer accompanies us to the graveyard along a dirt track. He is surprised to receive visitors; it has been 25 years since anyone has come looking for the graveyard, he says. I assume the previous visitor could only have been Dr Dani himself.

The route is full of wild bushes covered with spiderwebs. The tomb is very similar to the ones in Lal Marah, though in much worse condition. It also has arched openings on each side and a single dome. The farmer tells us there were more such tombs in the area; according to him, at least three have collapsed. More rubble is spread throughout the graveyard, including red bricks and blue glazed tiles. The Chira tomb is now left to the mercy of nature and will soon fall if not restored.

The visitor book at Lal Marah has no recent comments. One comment from 2006 is by a student from Gomal University in Dera Ismail Khan, glorifying the beauty of the tombs and anticipating what Dr Dani would reveal about the people buried there. Dr Dani was a rare source who could have, in fact, shed light on the history of this place. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2009, leaving behind scores of such unexplored sites that require restoration and more research.

All photographs are by the author.