Over three decades ago, I saw for the first time a stele on the bank of Bhodesar pond outside Nagarparkar town in Sindh’s Thar region. It was a time of drought. The pond was dry and an upright sandstone slab was standing there.
The slab carried a beautiful carving of a horse rider, his raised left hand holding what appeared to be a staff. At his waist was a quiver bristling with arrows. In a panel immediately below the artistic rendering were a few lines of writing that I thought was in Hindi. Nearby was another slab bearing what was clearly the depiction of a woman. Her dress was notable for being quite similar to the ghagra still worn in Thar.
The loose ends of her ornate cummerbund came down to her knees. To the right of the woman’s figure was an arm raised upward as if in salutation. This disembodied arm was covered with bangles above the elbow — just as Hindu and Jain Thari women adorn their arms to this day. The writing on the second slab was much longer than that on the slab with the male figure.
Back then it was difficult to find an expert to divulge the secrets of the story and symbolism preserved in those stones. All I learned was that these were memorials to famous personages buried beneath them.
About that time I became acquainted with German scholar Dr Salome Zajadacz-Hastenrath’s seminal work on the funerary art of Sindh’s Chaukhandi tombs. I saw a vague similarity between the elaborate Chaukhandi carvings and the stele of Bhodesar. But nothing more.
It is only now, with the recent publication of Memorial Stones Tharparkar by Dr Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro, that the secret of Bhodesar is fully out: the steles by the pond are not the only ones present in Sindh. Memorial stones harking back to historical persons and events are liberally strewn throughout the desert of Thar. We also now know that the Bhodesar stones celebrate Naraji, a prince who was sacrificed by his father Bhodo Thakur so that the pond was never empty of water.
Such memorials to local heroes are unknown in Punjab and other parts of northern Pakistan — as well as in northern parts of India. Unsurprisingly, however, we find the same art forms widespread in India’s Kutch region which is adjacent to Thar.
Kalhoro tells us the carved stones preserve tales of heroism of old. The hero – vir, surmo, jhujhar, surayah or sarfarosh in local languages – is celebrated for bravely resisting enemies and losing his life in combat. Intriguingly, many of the heroes lost their lives when one wedding procession crossed another or refused to give way in the crossing. In such cases, the grooms faced off in one-on-one combats — a rather meaningless Rajput silliness to engage in, one would say.
In some other events, the heroes lost their lives attempting to retrieve cattle from rustlers. We know that cattle-rustling was prevalent across the Subcontinent and we also know that successful rustlers were celebrated in their communities as superior combatants. Consequently, the one to retrieve his cattle from a famous villainous rustler was deemed a hero of great stature. And if he lost his life in the bargain, he was duly commemorated through depiction in stone.
Among all those heroes, jhujhar was the most venerated, notes Kalhoro. He embodied sat — goodness, truth and character. In order to avenge the ultimate disgrace of decapitation by his enemy, he continued to fight headless. He only collapsed after having killed a number of his enemies.
Memorial stones were introduced to Thar sometime in the 10th and 11th century, according to Kalhoro. He lists 11 different kinds of memorials carved either from sandstone and granite or coarse calciferous rocks. Many of these monuments celebrate heroes and their exploits through elaborate carvings; others are unadorned upright slabs and even cairns. Still others depict sati, a woman cremating herself on the pyre of her spouse or son.
The iconography on the stones documented in the book is handsome. One sees turbaned men in elaborate Rajput battle dresses, shod with fancy footwear and sitting astride gaily caparisoned horses. The riders bear swords in their right hands and spears in triumphantly raised left hands. Shields can be seen on their backs.
Sati stones show equally gaily dressed women holding dead heroes in their laps. They can either be standing upright or sitting cross-legged, apparently awaiting along with a rider-less camel in front of him is celebration of a hero who successfully retrieved his stolen animals — the same event that is celebrated on many memorial stones from Thar.
This memorial from Thatta, Kalhoro perceptively points out, provides the connection between carved stones from Thar and the tombs in Chaukhandi — something missed by Zajadacz-Hastenrath.
Memorial Stones Tharparkar not just makes Thar’s best kept secret public, it also documents it comprehensively.
The book includes a catalogue, listing the full inventory of memorial stones from the region. The author also has recorded names of the men and women whose stories are celebrated in the carvings.
The book is essential reading, not only for anthropologists and historians, but also for the laypersons interested in the history and culture of Thar. Its brevity, however, gives the feeling that it might be a precursor to a more exhaustive study — an expectation not entirely misplaced since Kalhoro is one of the only iconography experts in Pakistan.
Whether it is the art on the rocks of the Kirthar Mountains or on commemorative stones from Thar, he is our go-to person to unravel the secrets of ancient writings and symbols. And he has been working hard at it for years.
Lastly, one needs to commend the Endowment Trust Fund for bringing out this useful compendium, especially when other publishers look only for work they perceive as commercially successful even when it is rubbish. As for myself, I confess Memorial Stones Tharparkar will be my guide on my next trip to Thar.
This was originally published in the Herald's May 2017 issue under the headline "Set in stone". To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
Salman Rashid is a Lahore-based travel writer and a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.