Mother Makli: A Living Heritage

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The 16th century tomb of Sultan Ibrahim in the background as pilgrims throng to more active shrines.

The 16th century tomb of Sultan Ibrahim in the background as pilgrims throng to more active shrines. | Photographer: Humza H. Naliyawala

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Issue 10 | Purchase today!

I fell in love with Makli three years ago, on a Saturday night, at the sixteenth century shrine of of the Sufi Muslim saint Sheikh Jia. Chronic load-shedding had meant that there were no lights on the horizon, only stars, and a portable tube light that just about allowed us to make out the figures of a dozen men in a trance-like state of devotion. They were performing the maulood, a ritual act of Sufi Muslim devotion and a lyrical chant, that brought to life this ancient necropolis in the rural southwestern expanse of Pakistan’s province of Sindh. 

I travelled to Makli to study, photograph and document the countless tombs and sepulchers scattered across a 9 kilometer-long limestone outcrop. Here, centuries of Sindhi history unveil themselves in the monuments to past rulers and shrines to mystic lineages. On these structures and graves is written the history of this land from the 14th century till the present day, representing a fascinating fusion of Hindu traditions from Rajasthan and Gujarat and the Islamic influence of Persia and beyond. 

I had gone to Makli to look at bricks and mortar, but soon realized that the architecture was merely a backdrop to the lives of countless devotees, mystics, and ordinary people. It became increasingly apparent that their cultural practices and wealth of traditions now comprise Makli’s precious, and intangible, heritage. It is, like the buildings themselves, rich and syncretic, emerging from the co-mingling of faiths and traditions. As historian Gulraj Parsram put it, it is “a marriage between the Indo-Aryan Sanatana Dharma and the Arabic Persian.”At Makli, I saw men in green turbans visiting the same shrines as Hindu wedding parties. This is a world in which religious rites are truly shared and margins are blurred. Whilst evident in its architecture it is brought to life in its people, traditions and rituals.

Understanding The Intermediary

Key to understanding this world is understanding the role of intermediaries and intercessors. The mystic, or pir, is the intermediary between God and devotee who interprets God’s word and passes it on to followers. At Makli, however, this idea of a mediator goes much further than just an exchange facilitated by a pir between the follower and the divine. Instead, mediation and intercession is embedded in the earth and the culture of the place. In many ways, the everyday life of Makli rests on the ability to connect to God by way of the arbitrator that is Makli.


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The lived experience in Makli is made up of many stories mostly grounded in folklore rather than a recorded history. One such story concerns the etymology of the name Makli itself: A traveller on his way to perform the annual Hajj pilgrimage, it is said, stopped at Sheikh Hammad Jamali’s mosque at Makli and repeated, in a state of divine ecstasy, “Hadha Makkah Li”–“This is Makkah for me.”

Not only are living and buried pirs intercessors between God and the devotee, but the earth itself, elevated upon the ridge, appears to mediate between the peripheral Muslim land of Sindh and the very centre of Islam in Makkah.

The mobile fakir outside the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ashabi. | Phot

The mobile fakir outside the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ashabi. | Photographer: Humza H. Nalyawala

Mother Makli, and The ‘Mobile Fakir’

The shrine of Mai Makli, or Mother Makli, is little more than a grave and a small paved area, but it is the earth that is venerated here, not the tomb (or lack thereof) atop of it. According to folklore, everyday Mai Makli, carrying milk from Thatta, leaves for Makkah from this spot to distribute it amongst pilgrims. This patch of venerated ground has the ability to connect devotees to God and Makkah regardless of what sits atop it: Its significance lies in its narrative as opposed to its construction.

When I roamed a little further in Makli, I came across the mobile fakir sitting outside the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ashabi. A member of Pakistan’s transgender Khwaja Sirah community, she connects devotees to God using her (fake) mobile phone. The practice may seem frivolous to an outsider, but this is a poignant example of the role this area plays in the lives of the many who throng here.

Once every year, the daily rituals and acts of devotion in Makli come to a climax, during the Urs of Abdullah Shah Ashabi. For three days, this shrine, at the corner of the necropolis, becomes the centre of a true celebration of Sufism and Pirs. The festival itself marks Ashabi’s death, or wedding, with his beloved creator, and is celebrated with all the fervour expected from the most boisterous of South Asian weddings. 

Devotees flock to the shrine from across Sindh and Punjab, many spending their days and nights in the shrine itself. The Khalifa, or leader, of the shrine, normally resident in Multan, visits to oversee what is a truly diverse festival.

Alongside the religious rituals taking place within the shrine, the surrounding bazaar, too, begins to thrive, infused with fresh life and business brought by thousands of pilgrims. The surrounding area comprises shops selling food, blessed strings and cloth as well accommodation and ablution facilities for the faithful. Side by side with the spiritual at Makli exists the practical infrastructure that allows it to thrive as a place of living heritage.

It is important here to note that though a shrine has existed at this site since the death of Abdullah Shah Ashabi in 1580, its primary building dates from 1949, suggesting a different relationship with heritage and architecture, where ideas of conservation are replaced with a sense of practicality and opportunism.

It is ironic that the older and less active shrines that are seen as being of primary importance to Makli are left to crumble whilst newer and more active shrines, so often disregarded by historians, continue to receive attention, constantly being updated and cared for by both devotees and Sufi mystics. 

Devotion Despite The Decay

The official history of Makli dictates that this once great capital reached its peak between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries only to fall by the wayside as a result of both natural and political changes. The once great Tombs fell victim to the stresses of time, neglect and pilferage, and Thatta as a city was robbed of its significance and plunged into a state of chronic decay.

Despite this dereliction, however, many historical accounts speak of how people’s dedication to the shrines never waned. As Delhi’s influence declined, Thatta, too, fell on hard times, but the living heritage of Makli never paused–devotees continued to attend to the shrines and tombs. Makli continued to be an important place of pilgrimage and the influence of the pirs has never waned. 

In Sindhi society, pirs have always played a significant role, and Sufi saints and their families have maintained their power, sometimes walking a tightrope between appeasing hostile or nationalistic devotees and remaining on favorable terms with the British colonial government.

As the movement for Pakistan gained momentum in the 1930s and ‘40s, many mystics were absorbed into the pro-independence Muslim League. Today, Sufis have continued to thrive, and their continued rural influence and large support bases mean that governments seek legitimacy through their support. They are either absorbed into political parties and movements, or their shrines are turned into national monuments through government patronage. In a way, the flexibility of Sufi mystics under various political movements has allowed them to remain relevant in Sindh today.


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In January 2014, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the co-chairman of the Sindh-based Pakistan People’s Party, appeared in a television advertisement proclaiming a cultural emergency. He declared that five thousand years of Sindhi heritage were in danger of being lost and immediate action was needed to save it. 

He was speaking at the opening of the first-ever Sindh Festival, which centered itself around Makli and Moenjodaro, using the language of Sufi Islam to present a bulwark against creeping “extremism.”

In claiming sites such as Makli and placing them firmly on the frontline of this cultural conflict, the ruling party of Sindh appropriated heritage in order to meet its own ends. Since those two weeks of cultural reawakening in the province, however, very little has improved on the grounds of the heritage sites that were meant to be conserved. Indeed, the damage caused by the festival may be even more significant than the gains made by Bhutto’s intervention.

Makli, and all it represents, was appropriated in order to present a more tolerant image of Pakistani Islam, but the sites so exploited continue to remain vulnerable. The physical fabric of Makli continues to decay, even as the spiritual fabric remains undiminished. Indeed, perhaps it is the lack of commercialization and tourism that allows Makli’s soul to thrive, unhindered by base economic pursuits. Government apathy is, perhaps, not just a curse, but a blessing.

3_Shrine of abdullah shah ashabi at urs

The shrine of Abdullah Shah Ashabi During the Urs. | Photographer: Humza H. Naliyawala

Domestic Disrepair Fuels Foreign Interest

The little conservation work that has taken place at Makli during the last four years has been undertaken by the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan, supported by 35,000 euros (approximately PKR 4.06 million) in funding from the Dutch government, and grants from the US government. With negligible support from the provincial government, it seems Makli has become dependent on foreign donors, who have intervened to save Pakistan’s heritage.

There is, however, a double-edged sword to this funding: Foreign donors, though well-intentioned, can affect local narratives based on which sites are focused on, and why.

“It is also often the case that first world […] governments have engaged in [preservation] efforts while at the same time condemning or rejecting much of the social and political practices of the societies whose traditions they claim to want to preserve,”writes architectural theorist Nezar Al Sayyad. Allowing foreign countries to control the means of heritage preservation allows those countries a degree of say in the narrative of the site, by bringing it into line with what they wish to be true and using it to forward their own agendas. 

The involvement of the United States in Sindh is an example here. Richard Olson, the former US. ambassador to Pakistan, paid particular attention to Malki and emphasized the need for pluralist Islam in Sindh to oppose the emergence of groups such as Islamic State. The US Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation, which donated to preserve the site, was established in 2001, just as the US invaded Afghanistan and embarked on its Global War on Terror. According to the US Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs: “By taking a leading role in efforts to preserve cultural heritage, we show our respect for other cultures by protecting their traditions.” Makli is, once again, swallowed up into someone else’s narrative. 

A New Narrative

Even if the work on the ground is being done by Pakistani, even Sindhi, architects, craftspeople and builders, the research, historiographies and guidelines relied upon are either colonial or foreign. And so, even what may appear to be local is, in reality, something imposed on Makli from the outside. There is a dearth of local voices in the formal academic discussion on Makli. Almost all references to Makli during the British Raj focus on its dilapidating architecture, which compares and contrasts it to that in the West with no regard given to its associated traditions and practices. Much of the current historiography around Makli is infused with little more than orientalist tropes, as Pakistani writers and historians continue to rely on the writings of British colonialists such as Henry Cousens. 

This leaves a gap that I believe must be filled by local voices if any engagement with Makli is to be truly inclusive and productive. In the absence of local voices, an intellectual and financial top down approach is taken to the conservation of Makli. This process rightly facilitates the framing of Makli as world heritage, firmly establishing its importance for more people than just its devotees, Sindhis or other Pakistanis–but it inadvertently downgrades the importance of the site to those who live beside it.


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Today, there is more than one Makli. There is a place of great historical significance, which is dominated by towering sepulchers and intricately carved graves. This is the Makli that is easiest to map, restore and photograph, and this is the Makli that dominates architectural descriptions of the site.

The second Makli is the lived site: the everyday, weekly and annual rites, rituals and activities that make this place and inform the stories and narratives that echo through it. This is the world of festivals and continued devotion to and reverence of the site as an intermediary, and the Sufi mystics who preside over it as intercessors between the devotee and God. 

The third Makli is that which is represented, the narrative of the place that is related both to its formal history as well as its role as a centre of Sufi mysticism and culture. This narrative has been appropriated where necessary to meet the ends of governments, both local and foreign, Sufi leaders as well as planners, with varying entities picking up on, and choosing to appropriate disparate aspects of the site–different Maklis. 

A lack or conservation and adequate protection has allowed for the continued use of ancient burial grounds at Makli, pictured here is a contemporary, crudely constructed, grave within the ruins of an eighteenth century enclosure.

A lack or conservation and adequate protection has allowed for the continued use of ancient burial grounds at Makli, pictured here is a contemporary, crudely constructed, grave within the ruins of an eighteenth century enclosure.

These different Maklis are related: The lived, intangible heritage of Makli feeds directly off the historical significance of it. Just as the dynasties that have ruled Sindh from the fourteenth century have changed, the importance of varying shrines and the way they are constructed have as well. However, this is not to suggest that Makli has been lost–on the contrary, Makli today is vibrant, growing, and active. The intangible heritage is thriving as new shrines continue to be built. However, the lived heritage, embodied in these newer shrines, are missing from official maps, including one recently drawn up by the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan for UNESCO. The importance of these new and active shrines depends on the holy site they have placed themselves on but lack the architecture of older monuments. They suggest a continuing life of the place. This life has been categorically ignored by those who seek to restore the site and pushed aside by its official history which to this day remains an ultimately colonial exercise.

What is required is a view of heritage that is more flexible, more engaging, less pedagogical and more practical. This practicality is not about construction, but a thought that takes into account the significance of Makli’s narrative to Pakistan and the world whilst respecting and acknowledging the lived place and experiences of the site.

At this point, I would love to write that Makli should be left entirely to its own devices as official apathy has allowed a culture to flourish. This part wants to argue that the ancient sepulchers are no longer significant and life at the world’s largest graveyard goes on with or without the conservation of fourteenth century ruins of tombs belonging to now obsolete ruling dynasties. However, to do this would betray Makli’s value as a historical repository: both as a place where our history is available for all to see and a site where Sindh’s syncretic traditions are carved into stone. To lose this would be criminal. But to view this site as one large open air museum, and to preserve each historical tomb for presentation purposes, would be doing a similar injustice to the continued existence and future of its living heritage. Makli not only needs a conservation that respects the different aspects of the site but it requires a historiography that does too. Conservation is about more than physical structure: It is about narrative, and the true narrative of Makli, in all its diversity, can only come about by giving due importance to the continued life on this hallowed hill.

Humza H. Naliyawala has recently completed a degree in architecture at Cambridge University, where he wrote his undergraduate thesis on preserving the living heritage at the Necropolis at Makli. Having previously worked with the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan in Karachi, he is currently working at an architecture firm in Hastings, East Sussex.

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