`Sind Photo State’ and other stories from Mohenjo-daro

A year ago, I visited Mohenjo-daro. A few days ago, I read a report that marked the beginning of the annual restoration work at the World Heritage Site in Sindh, Pakistan. That brought back memories of a wonderful and exciting personal visit to the site last year. Here it is:

“We nearly didn’t end up going to Mohanjo-daro – many times over. The familial travel agent gently suggested that the additional cost wasn’t worth it. Many Pakistanis we spoke to hadn’t even been there and painted a gloomy picture about security and hotels. Others warned that we would be underwhelmed. Wasn’t Harappa, the other famous Indus Valley Civilization city, more convenient, located a couple of hours out of Lahore? And 24 hours before we were to leave India, the visa arrived sans the Mohenjo-daro stamp.

But quite miraculously, the Pakistan High Commission agreed to grant us the visa to Mohenjo-daro at the very last minute. That visa got us into a spot of bother, but more about that later.

For now, we were visiting an abandoned city from 5,000 years ago that marked what has come to be know the Indus Valley Civilization – a remarkable Bronze Age cluster of town and cities in parts of present-day Pakistan and India, comparable to civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia. We were visiting a place that most children in the sub-continent (and the world over) read about very early on in school textbooks. As their uncle put it, the K boys would have serious bragging rights in their school back in Delhi!

After a comfortable 1-hour flight from Karachi, we landed practically one km from the site. At 6pm it was a blistering 41 degrees. On reaching the Spartan guest house inside the Mophenjo-daro complex, we checked into our rooms. There was no electricity. We dropped our bags, and walked to entrance of the world heritage monument – the objective was to catch a glimpse of the site before dark. We spent a pleasant hour exploring the famous Great Bath and a Buddhist stupa built above the ancient site 16 centuries later. As we walked back to the hotel, our guide Irshad Ali Solangi informed me that there was going to be no electricity that night – the transformer had gone bust! After a brief discussion, we decided to head to a hotel we had heard about in Larkana, the Bhutto fiefdom.

I was somewhat on edge during the 45minute journey from Mohenjo-daro to Larkana. The roads were smooth but not well lit, making the Sindh countryside seem dark and mysterious. We would whiz past large groups of men watching a single TV set. It didn’t help matters that our two-car convoy had a tiny Suzuki Mehran that would switch off after every speed-breaker and agonizingly cough away before starting.

By the time we reached Sambara Hotel in Larkana, it was 9pm. The major domo at the hotel reception (check out Trip Advisor reviews https://www.tripadvisor.in/Hotel_Review-g676664-d6405918-Re…) was welcoming, but made it clear that I had to submit photocopies of our passports so that he could inform the police about the guests from India. The problem: there was no photocopying machine at the hotel, and I wasn’t going to part with them under any circumstances.

So Irshad and I were driven into the large town in search of a photocopying machine. Not surprisingly, Larkana was bustling at that hour and seemed to be populated with medical shops and hospitals of all kinds and sizes. The town was famous for hospitals, I was informed. After twenty minutes of driving about, it was apparent that photocopying machines were not abundantly available.

And then we spotted it: a store open to the sky, surrounded by crowded eateries emblazoned with the sign: “SIND PHOTO STATE”. All it had was one photocopying machine and a bench, where three men were sitting, chatting. A quick hello, and the shop owner got down to business. It was warm, and I was perspiring. I could hear some murmurs from the men on the bench, who noticed that I was handing him passports (Pakistanis, as you know, carry a national identity card).

After it was all done, the shop-owner asked me where I was from. I gave the standard response I used while in Pakistan: Delhi (and not India). What followed was quite extraordinary. The man dismissed me with a wave, and turned away, saying he would not take any money from me. He then summoned the fellow bench-warmers and before I knew it, there were coming forward to hug me. Seeing all that action, a little crowd began to collect.

The tallest of them, in a grey Shalwar & Qamees, stood up straight and saluted me formally, and then fished out his phone to show me photographs of his nephews from India who, he informed me, had participated in a talent show. As more people began to gather, all seeking to hug me or shake my hand, Irshad nudged me towards the car. With a smile, I turned and waved goodbye to the gathering. It was time to get back to Sambara Inn. I was famished – and happy. I had just experienced a lovely moment in Larkana.

After an excellent meal (by my estimate, Sambara’s open air barbeque restaurant was feeding over 300 people that night. Families were on one large park, being entertained by three children dress as clowns and dancing to some sad music; the all-male gathering on the other side was eating kebobs on charpoys) we retired to our small but functional rooms. Apart from a rat sighting or two, the night passed of uneventfully. We woke up at the crack of dawn and left for the site. Half an hour after we left, Intelligence officers landed up at the hotel to check on us.

Over the course of the day, various officers kept on calling members of our group (we were accompanied by a London-based Pakistani lady). This was standard operating procedure, we were told, but for the fact that *technically* our visa was only for Mohenjo-daro – and not the Larkana district. That didn’t stop us from moving around — later in the day we visited the Bhutto Mausoleum which was another half-hour drive from Larkana). Given that police cars appeared mysteriously along our route (the officer at the entrance of the mausoleum told me that they were “expecting us”), we were being watched with benign interest.

Now to Mohenjo-daro. Between 8-11am our group walked around the massive site, which is divided into three sub-cities excavated by different archaeologists. We walked down streets, into homes and community spaces, past wells (400 of them) and bathrooms (including what we call “Indian-style” loos). It was truly amazing to see the thought, design, architecture and art of that period. This was obviously an advanced people before climate change/floods/earthquake destroyed it all.

Barring a school group as were leaving, the massive complex was almost empty. The blinding heat is a factor. Our driver informed us that from April to September, visitors dip drastically. The museum (basic, as most of the valuable artifacts are in Karachi) was crowded with locals. It is obviously a popular destination in the winter months.

The site is generally well preserved, though the high content of salt in the ground water is eating into the bricks. Most structures are therefore covered by some sort of clay-like material to protect them from the elements. This gave the complex a white-ish, ethereal kind of glow. I must say, it felt a bit eerie being practically by ourselves in the vast complex. As the piercing sun rose up in the sky, our group’s energy levels flagged. We had been walking for 3 hours now. We started heading back to the guest house (no sign of electricity yet, but anywhere indoors presented itself like an oasis).

Just before the entrance, we passed below the highest point of the site. I broke away from the group for one last look. After a 5-minute climb, I reached the top. The wind levels had picked up, the sun seemed even more intense. After a short walk, I stood near the edge, all alone, with the Sind river in the distance, seeking some sign from the remains of a great civilization.”


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