Monday, 23 May 2016

Multan and Bhawalpur

When I came back from Pakistan back in March, a few of friends and folks I forgot were on my Facebook friend list remarked that they had enjoyed my adventures in Multan and Bhawalpur through my photographs. Now, it is time to capture my trip in words.

The trip took place from 3 to 6 March but I can still remember the adventure in vivid technicolour.

Might I say right from the outset that I feel my best friend Aysha and I deserve an Oscar each - for visiting 2 cities, a fort, 2 palaces, and a few shrines in 3 days with 2 naughty kids in tow.

Islamabad to Multan

Like all trips, this one nearly didn't happen. First, Aysha and I tried to go to Lahore together but I jumped the boat last minute with the excuse that there were too many relatives in Lahore. Then, I wanted to go by road to Multan via Lahore. Aysha wasn't sure that her daughter Aleeza could make a road trip. Finally, I just bought my ticket for the first days of March and, told Aysha after the fact. Until the last minute I wasn't sure she was going to make it because she said her travel agent was going to get it and, PIA had told me there weren't any more seats and I had to get 2 Economy Plus seats for about 17,000 rupees each. But Aysha got some tickets in Economy through her agent and, she was actually coming. The only thing was that she had booked for 3 nights while I was going to come back after 4 nights. Her Daadi was in the ICU and she wanted to only go away for 3 nights.

I was so excited! We were finally going to make a trip together. She said she'd only come on one condition that we'd hire a car instead of taking local transportation and we would stay in the Army Mess. She called me up the night before to ask what kind of clothes I was packing.

Before I knew it, we were at the Airport.

The flight was only a couple of hours and, to someone who is used to taking 3 flights over 2 days from Monrovia to Islamabad, it was a breeze. It was a small plane, an ATR.

I didn't see the difference between the Economy Plus seats and the ones in the back. Before we had even finished scoffing our tasty PIA sandwiches, we had landed in Multan.

Aysha and I were struck by the beautiful Multan Airport. We couldn't believe our eyes. After years of feeling suffocated and infuriated at what is a bus stop that is Islamabad Airport, it was quite impressive to see a beautifully-built spacious airport. We didn't disembark off the plane using a jet bridge but the Airport has 4.

I wanted to caress the beautiful marble columns and walls and leap up in joy. The arrival hall was beautiful, spacious and gleamed!

We dashed into the bathrooms to freshen up. A cleaner lady told us that the new Airport had been completed a year before. We tipped her (as one does in public bathrooms in Pakistan, it seems) before going to the baggage hall to pick up our luggage.

I took a few photographs next to a stunning 'Welcome to Multan, the city of saints' mural before leaving the Airport.

The outside were equally beautiful with shops, flower pots and more murals.

The car that Aysha had organised was waiting for us along with the driver Zaman, who would take us to Bhawalpur, Derawar Fort and then back to Multan. He would become our photographer, too.

It was around 7:30 PM. "To Bhawalpur" we declared!

Multan to Bhawalpur

We settled ourselves in the car and started heading out to the city. We only made a short stop at a gas station to buy some snacks for the way. I went in the shop to make the purchase while Aysha was busy with Aleeza in the car. I felt so excited at being in another city in Pakistan. It was an ordinary gas station ki dukan but it was Multan!


The car ride from Multan to Bhawalpur was about 2 hours and, of course, it passed by in minutes, because Aysha and I chatted away. Aysha mentioned a saji place her father had recommended. We decided to skip it and head straight to the mess where Aysha's brother had got us a booking. We reached the gate but there was the guards could not find our booking. It was quite an impressive gate at the entrance of the Cantonment  Aysha telephoned her brother and several calls were made back and forth until the booking was confirmed.

Aysha asked for directions to Noor Mahal and, explained we could probably have dinner there. She also double checked with one of the guards and, a 'fixer' on the phone.

She said it would save time to have dinner first then go to the Lodge and unload our bags.

Noor Mahal was literally a couple of minutes away from the Cantonment, in fact adjacent to us. Aysha explained that this was one of the Mahal s that her father had helped to renovated when he was posted in Bhawalpur. She was really quite excited to revisit the city and was reminiscing fondly, quite frequently. It was quite dark by the time we pulled up to the entrance of the palace. Aysha sent the driver back to the Lodge to drop off our bags and then come back to for us.

Aleeza and Kavita were happy to be able to finally run around. We walked around for a few minutes and snapped a few photographs. It was a beautiful big hall with royal portraits adorning the walls. There were antique chairs and and tables spread all over the hall. Ornate chandeliers hung from the high ceilings. There was a guided tour going on while we posed with random maharajas without even understanding who was who and how long they had their blessed reigns.

We walked out of the palace and across the green manicured green lawns. It was quite dark but there were some lights. It was slightly chilly but refreshing to sit on the lawn at nighttime and enjoy that crispy cold night air. A waiter appeared promptly with menus and, we ordered some food with garam garam naan.

We finished our dinner and then drove back to the Cantt. They let us drive through the check point and, an armed guard took the driver's ID card and scanned it in a device.

We drove for a good five minutes through wide boulevards, round abouts (one had statues of lions) before we arrived at the Desert Lodge. I really had no idea what to expect but as drove past the gates that glided open by guards and then drove up to the entrance, I knew we were in for a treat. There were 3 or 4 persons dressed in smart shalwar kermeezes. We were shown into our rooms. This wing had 2 rooms with a hallway, dining room and attached kitchen. The rooms were very spacious, beautifully furnished and equipped. There was a walk-in closet, a modern bathroom, a huge flat screen TV and a welcome fruit basket! 

We put on some cartoons for the kids while Aysha and I ordered tea and chatted some more.

At about midnight, we decided to hit the bed.

Derawar Fort

The plan was to be out of the Lodge by 0830 hrs the next day. We didn't get up until 1030 hrs! We hurriedly had a delicious breakfast of parathas, hot piping tea and fried anday served to us by the Mess staff. 

It was a cloudy, rainy day. Before setting out, we admired the manicured lawns and flowers of the Lodge.

The drive to Qila Derawar was only a couple of hours. I really enjoyed the car ridge no the 4-lane highway. We passed small towns, villages and green fields. I saw trucks with livestock in the back, including camels. I saw many trucks transporting sugar canes, packed with the canes to the top. We stopped at one green field to take a picture.

The scenery started to change after a while, becoming more and more arid. Before long, we were passing by a desert-like scenery with shrubs and sands.

We passed by a mosque that seemed to be in the middle of renovation. We drove up to the Fort's darwaza. The Fort is built on top of a hill. The road leading up to the gate is on an incline. We parked the car and walked up to the gate. We climbed over it and starting our exploration.

A guard had been seconded to us who toured the Qila with us.

We came up on a very big open maidan and, felt excited to begin exploring. It was an overcast day and, there were a few tourists around. We toured the 1,200-year old Qila's grounds, walls, jails, court, and secret tunnel. 

One of the guards at the gate had offered to come and give us a tour of the palace. He explained that the Qila was the personal property of the Nawabs of Bhawalpur. He said the Qila was deeply in need of renovations and preservation.

Unfortunately, vertigo hit me badly as we went to climb one of the bastions. I started feeling dizzy. I didn't want Kavita to run otherwise I felt the ground was shaking and was going to fling us both over the top and into the Cholistan Desert. I saw kids and aunties and uncles hopping and skipping in sandals and high heels over the pile of bricks. Aysha and Aleeza went on ahead while I just sat on some rocks and bricks and tried not to move. Kavita also sat with me. I stayed calm until m friend came back with the guard and we all climbed back down. I really hope Kavita will not inherit my vertigo. I must try to get over it! 

The most fascinating thing about the Fort was the secret underground tunnel. Apparently, a messenger could be sent to Bhawalpur city on a horse in this tunnel! It also had rails for a cart to moved on it. 

We walked over to what was apparently the rooms where the Nawabs held court. Like all the other parts of the Qila, it was falling apart. There were smelly bat droppings all over the floors of which we could see the original tiles. We could also see the original intricate ceilings and columns. Everything though was falling apart.

After looking at the jails and briefly imprisoning the kids for a laugh, we made our way out of Qila to where car was parked. We thought about taking camel rides but the kids were not up to it. While Aysha gave some snacks to the kids, I walked around the Qila and took some photographs.

I saw deep cracks in the bastions. It's really going to be a tragedy if the Qila is not renovated and preserved.

We started heading back to Bhawalpur. The scenery started to turn green again and before long we were back at the beautiful Desert Lodge. We had high tea in the gardens while the girls ran with bare feet on the beautiful grass. 

Darbar Mahal

We reached Darbar Mahal at the most perfect time: sunset. Set in lush green gardens and beautiful flowers, one felt like one was in fairy tale. The evening sunlight had bathed everything in a golden glow.

The Mahal's architecture is a mix of Europe and Mughal India. It was renovated in the early 2000s and Aysha's Dad's name is in a plaque in the main Hall. We didn't spend much time inside but outside, enjoy the sheer beauty of the grounds. 

Pelicans were the state symbol of the Nawabs. There were some engraved in the railings. There was a stuffed pelican in the main hall. And even a few live ones in the grounds. 

There were 2 smaller palaces in the grounds one of which had been converted into a museum. 

We took tea in the main palace, in the library, and then went out again to enjoy the illuminated palace by night. 

Bhawalpur to Multan

We went back to the Lodge, quickly packed our bags, paid our bill and hit the road. The plan was to reach Multan and sleep there. We stopped at the Tasty Bamboo BBQ and Banquet lawn en route and, had delicious kebabs and naan in a small pavilion, serenaded by Kumar's 90s hits. It was such an amazing atmosphere at night in this open air restaurant that had fountains and a children's play ground. I would have given this restaurant five out of five stars had it not been for the bathroom experience.

I asked to use the bathroom. I first looked for it all over the place. I wandered into one of many huge dark, empty banquet halls. Then I mistakenly went into in another empty room before I found a restaurant staff who guided me to a flight of stairs going up. I carefully climbed these stairs to the chath which seemed like it still had to undergo some construction. I saw a lone room with a rusty looking door. I peeked inside to see a squatting toilet which was not flushed and really needed to be cleaned. There was grimy lota in the bathroom. I could do my business as best as I could. But I was really scared too. There was a window without any glass that looked out into total darkness. What if a bhoot woot came into the bathroom? What if there was a bade rooh that was suffering from food poisoning that would come and try to scare me? I swiftly relieved myself and dashed out of that haunted bathroom and ran down the stairs. 

We proceeded to Multan and found our Lodge at around midnight. It was not as fancy as the one in Bhawalpur but it was quite comfortable. 


The next day, I had to get some money changed and, change my booking for the flight back to Islamabad as the same day as Aysha's. It cost me 4,000 rupees, which completely reminds me I spent about the same amount before to get the same date as my friend Aysha. I spent a fortune on ticket date changes.

We drove into a plaza in the Cantt area and I got my tasks done. After this we drove to the Multan Fort to see the famous darbar that Multan is famous for and is called the city of saints.

I've never been to a sufi shrine before and really did not know what to expect. I don't have really any historic or cultural understanding of sufism, except for a very pathetic high school paper I tried to write on this topic (when I was attending a high school in Athens, Greece) and I can't remember anything about it. I have enjoyed sufi folk music and qawwali (devotional sufi singing). I have enjoyed sufi rock - a genre started by Junoon. Nowadays, you will see sufi fusions on Coke Studio.

My experience of mausoleums of course is also limited. I visited churches, of course, in Europe. The Byzantine ones I visited as part of my Humanities class in high school (also in Athens, Greece) were beautiful. Christianity is full of saints. My upbringing as an Ahmadi Muslim took me to Mecca for Umrah (we were able to go as diplomats but now that I have Ahmadi as religion on my passport, I suppose I could not go back). I have visited the Ahamdi mosque (it doesn't look like a typical mosque at all from the outside because it has to appear like a normal building) in Islamabad and in London. I have been to Faisal Mosque in Islamabad and the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore. I have been to mosques in Iran when I went traveling there with my brother. I can't remember any shrine I have been to.

We first visited Shah Rukne Alam's darbar. He was a 13th century saint and is the successor of  Baha-ud-din Zakariya who also has a shrine in the Fort. Shah Rukne Alam's shrine is the iconic image of Multan. You will have seen this image somewhere or the other. In fact, I pulled out a coffee table book out of our library on Multan to try to do some reading before my trip and the front cover has a picture of the Shah Rukne Alam darbar.

There was a small desk at the entrance which was giving polio drops to all children streaming in.

I really enjoyed the atmosphere. We walked around the building first. We bought some feed from a fellow to feed the pigeons which the kids enjoyed. We entered the building and, were led into the main room where the tomb is. There were many people in the room, devotees and visitors.

I entered the room with my friend and hoped I was appearing as respectful as possible. We saw a handicapped child being led by his parents to touch the tomb. We saw regular tourists taking selfies with the tomb. I asked my friend Aysha to read a plaque in the tomb because my Urdu isn't very good. I can't remember any of that now.

We left the tomb and came out. We saw some disabled persons begging. There was a langar in the lawn across from the entrance. There were beggars everywhere. Our driver told us to be careful of the beggars and apparently, there were some expert pick pockets, too. A few of the ladies kept taunting me, "Gari wali ho, paisay do." They promised to pray for me, that I would have sons and I would see Mecca. I didn't have any small change so I told them I would give them something afterwards.

We walked to the museum. The museum had some old photographs but could definitely be improved. After this, we sat on a lawn and enjoyed crisps and coke bottles. Why do they have Lays crisps everywhere? What happened to some Pakistani brands?

After this, we went to see the darbar of Baha-ud-din Zakariya which is also in the same Fort. We kept getting trailed by women who were asking for money. Finally, I relented.

Baha-ud-din Zakariya's darbar is even more beautiful. Both have white domes but somehow I felt it was more beautiful. In the entrance, we enjoyed Bhar do jholi by a singer with a harmonium. It was really a wonderful moment and, the first time I experienced a qawwali at a sufi shrine. Kavita of course really enjoyed it and started swaying to it. A couple of men came over to the qawwali singer and snapped some selfies with him. One was wearing regular pants and the other a shalwar kameez with aviator sunglasses and a Chitrali topi.

There were many other tombs in Rukne Alam's grandfather's shrine. Aysha and I picked out some bangles for the girls from across a small shop within the walls of the shrine. We sat on the floor and enjoyed the atmosphere.

We both talked about how we felt about our sight seeing, whether or not it was a spiritual experience, how some Muslims thought these shrines were not Islamic, and how much we were enjoying our trip. I had come to see a side of our culture which was very old and where common folks came to pray and seek solace at a shrine of  a saint revered for almost a thousand years. Music is a form of religious devotion. But why do some Muslims condemn this Islam? And, how are these shrines different to Hindu temples and shrines where devotees come to pray and celebrate gods and saints? 

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