After almost a decade after I had last traveled in a Pakistani train and promised myself that I would do it every year because I’d absolutely loved the experience, I found myself settle down in an air-conditioned Tezgam Express berth with my best friend and tour companion amid much nervousness and anticipation.
We were nervous because everyone we’d met over the last few days had declared our impending adventure a stupid move, warning us against the many dangers of traveling by rail to an alien city and cold-blooded goons that get on board in the middle of the night, rob you at gunpoint and get off the train before you can think about calling for help. But our excitement was uncontrived because we were on our way to Multan—the ancient Punjabi metropolis that is redolent of an unadulterated era of divinity and stands proud in today’s world as the great city of Sufi saints and shrines.
Surprisingly enough for us, the 15 or so hour journey from Karachi Cantonment Station to Multan Cantonment Station was anything but uncomfortable or intimidating. The train itself was fairly clean except maybe the unusual toilets that justifiably took a little time getting used to and the obnoxiously loud neighbors with an army of mischievous little brats for children.
We didn’t order our dinner from the onboard bistro but some of the other passengers did and the hearty rice & chicken platter topper with freshly cut green salad didn’t look half bad. Definitely doable on the trip back home!
Hiring a taxi from the ageing station proved to be quite easy too. After dropping off our bags at the 2700 Rupees-a-night room in the no-nonsense 3 star Sindbad hotel on Qamar Gardezi road in central Multan which had been recommended by a friend who’d stayed there on her visit to the city last year, we set out looking for a decent place to grab a bite and rent a chauffeured (indulgent, but necessary because we needed someone to show us around!) car that would make our two day escapade a little less dependable on moody taxi drivers, who, we had also been warned, wouldn’t mind charging us an arm and a leg for all the sightseeing that needed to be done.
Multan is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It was conquered along with Sindh by Mohammed bin Qasim in 8th century AD. Following Mohammed bin Qasim’s conquest, the city was attacked a couple of times by Mehmoud of Ghazni, but it was under the Mughal Empire that Multan enjoyed over two centuries of peace and financial stability, becoming rather popular in the subcontinent and other adjoining areas as Dar al-Aman (Abode of Peace). But the city’s peace and prosperity eventually capsized, and Multan witnessed many hardships as the Mughal rule came to a decline. In19th century AD, Sikh ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh conquered Multan and put an end to Muslim rule in Punjab. Soon after, the British overthrew Ranjit Singh and Multan was made part of the British Raj. The British built some rail routes to the city, but its industrial capacity was never sincerely developed. Today Multan is an important commercial and industrial centre of Pakistan. Its major industries include fertilizer, cosmetics, glass manufacturing, cotton production and processing, textile, flour mills, sugar mills, oil mills and large-scale power generation projects.
Old Multan, however, was a walled city built on a huge mound with six gates on a circular barricade that gave access to the ancient city in the time of its earliest inhabitants. Three of the magnificent gates have fallen prey to the unforgiving winds of time while the remaining three are standing protective still.
Our first stop was the site of the legendary Multan Fort, which was originally built on a mound separating it from the city by Ravi, but has now merged into the city and is distinguishable only by a crowded bazaar like road. When intact, the fort’s circumference was an impressive 2200 yards, decked with almost 50 bastions, including two imposing towers at each of the four gates called the Delhi Gate, Khizri Gate, Sikhi Gate and Rehri Gate. The actual fort does not exist any more as it was heartlessly ravaged during the British Raj, but the entire vicinity is now known as the Fort, with only a few parts of the rampart and bastions, the shrines of Hazrat Bahauddin Zakaria and Shah Rukn-e-Alam along with a Hindu temple remaining. The famous Qasim Bagh and a stadium are also located within the ruins of the fort.
The many Sufi shrines and mausoleums within the city are extraordinary examples of the local workmanship and structural design with their striking domes proudly dominating the Multani skyline. One of the key attractions of the fort area is the Mausoleum of Sheikh Bahauddin Zakaria—a saint respected throughout the country for of his exemplary piousness and religious teachings in the 11th century AD. The mausoleum is a red brick square of about 52 feet, topped by an octagon which is about half the height of the square, which is surmounted by a hemispherical dome in white. Built in 1267 AD from Seikh Bahauddin Zakaria’s personal wealth, the mausoleum was almost completely ruined 600 years later during the siege of 1848, but was soon restored to its original grandeur by the Muslims of the subcontinent. The precinct includes besides the tomb of the saint, graves of his descendants including his son Sadruddin along with a few other prominent personalities of the area.
Located on the south-west side of the fort premises is the Shrine of Sheikh Ruknuddin Abul Fath, grandson of Sheikh Bahauddin Zakaria. Sheikh Ruknuddin Abul Fath was better known as Rukn-e-Alam in 12th century Multan, where his stature and reverence was almost as great as his grandfathers. The legendary shrine is famous as the pride of Multan because of it’s dome’s enormous size (second largest in the world after ‘Gol Gumbad’ of Bijapur, India) and the fact that it is visible from all corners of the city. This elegant structure is an octagon, 52 feet in diameter internally, with walls over 41 feet high and 13 feet thick that are supported at the angles by sloping brick towers. Over this is a smaller octagon almost 26 feet on the side and 27 feet high, leaving a narrow passage all round the top of the lower story for the Muazzin. The whole structure is surmounted by semi-circular dome that is 58 feet in diameter. The total height of the shrine, since it stands on high ground, is 150 feet from road level!
The mausoleum is built entirely of red brick and bordered with beams of blackened Shisham wood. The whole of the exterior is elaborately ornamented with intricate glazed tile panels in dark blue, azure and white, creating a positively mesmerizing effect that’s not easy to forget.
The actual grave of Rukn-e-Alam is made from plain bricks and covered with plaster. The tomb was said to have been built by Ghiasuddin Tughlak for himself, but was given up by his son Muhammad Tughlak in favor of Rukn-e-Alam when he passed away in 1330 AD at the age of 88.
By the time we were done admiring the two beautiful shrines that virtually define Pakistan’s 6th largest city, it was well after four in the evening and the scorching sun was getting rather agonizing (be sure to take along your tourist essentials: sunglasses, caps/hats, water bottles and sun block). Our next stop was the local Pizza Hut where we spent the next hour praising ourselves for making the trip and decided that we’d had enough sightseeing for the day and it was definitely time to hit the local bazaar we’d heard so much about!
Multan has always been famous for its brilliant handicrafts and masterpieces in copper, brass, silver; vibrant textiles, embroidery, carpets, camel skin crafts, khussas as well as the legendary blue ceramics, and the narrow, winding streets of the old bazaars that we stopped by on our way to the hotel are still home to hundreds of craftsmen who are busy producing works of art on an alarming rate. Its sad how these craftsmen are seemingly unaware of their genius and willing to sell their creations for measly sums of money to passing admirers like ourselves.
The old bazaar is hardly impressive in itself, especially for people coming in from bigger cities, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still an ideal place to buy souvenirs and gifts for those back home. We overspent, naturally, but it was totally worth it.
The next day started early. We had to visit at least two more shrines and make a quick stop at the bazaar to buy khussas (that we’d passed on last night) and the ever essential Hafiz ka Multani halwa before catching the evening coach back home.
Our driver/guide drove us to the famous Bohar Gate, insisting that we pay homage to the shrine of Mohammed Yousaf (Shah) Gardezi, which turned out to be a plain yet beautiful dome-less building adorned only with Multan’s trademark glazed tiles.
Next on our agenda was the mausoleum of legendary Shah Shams Tabrez, which was built by his grandson in early 14th century AD, but was rebuilt by one of his follower in 1718 AD. The tomb is merely 15 minutes walking distance from the Fort, and stands impressive as a 30 foot square heavily decorated with ornate tiles and topped with a hemispherical dome.
On our way to the train station, we paid a flying visit to the Multan museum, which has on display an exciting lineup of historic coins, medals, postage stamps, manuscripts, paintings, and numerous wood and stone carvings of eras gone by.
As we bid farewell to the saintly city, our only regret was our lack of time that didn’t allow us to visit shrines and mausoleums of Hameeduddin Hakim; Qutab-al-Qutaab “Moj Dariya”; Syed Pir Sakhi Shah Hassan Parwana; Qazi Qutabuddin Kashani; Syed Hasan Khanjzee; Hazrat Shah Dana Shaheed; Abu Hassan Hafiz Jamaluddin “Musa Pak Shaheed”; Hazrat Shah Kamal Qadari; Hafiz Muhammad Jamal Chisti Nazami; Pir Chup Wardi Waly; Mollana Hamid Ali Khan Naqshbandi; Allama Syed Ahmad Saeed Kazmi; Hazrat Khawaja Awais Khagga; Pir Syed Wali Muhammad Shah; Hazrat Gul Shah; and the shrine of Bibi Pak Daman, all of which are located within a 40 mile radius of Multan—a land rich with culture and history, visited by Alexander the Great, marked by legendary warfare, home and resting place to the virtuous sons of Islam—truly an incredible city that oozes with its own unique charm, culture, crafts and grandeur.