Chawkhandi – Sindh’s Limestone Jewel

When a few of my friends flew over to Pakistan for Spring break, the responsibility of showing them around Karachi and promising everyone a good enough time automatically fell upon me. I didn’t mind playing a leader to a bunch of semi-spoilt expatriates out on a mission to devour all the food, culture and adventure the city has to offer in a couple of weeks, of course, but things obviously started to get a little dry a few days on, and what had begun as a crazy shopping spree cum sight seeing extravaganza slowly turned into monotonous trips to the same malls and eateries, and we soon realized there was only so much one could see and do in this otherwise action-packed metropolis!
The name of Chaukhandi came up after a joint brainstorming session was conducted in attempt to salvage a dulling vacation that was already nearing its end. None of us had been to the place before, but it definitely sounded interesting, and boy were we right!
Three laid-back hours on a cool Sunday morning is all the great Chaukhandi Tombs demand to be duly appreciated for their dusty brilliance and splendor. About eighteen miles east of Karachi, this breathtakingly beautiful necropolis of intricately carved tombs of certain warriors of Baloch families settled in this area some time during the 15th and 18th centuries continues to impress tourists and scholars alike with their variety, architectural technique, calligraphy and design.
The Chaukhandi tombs render an original and sovereign contribution to Islamic sepulchral architecture and ornamental sculpture. These above-ground funerary structures comprise some fifty cemeteries of varying dimensions, with a total of approximately 2000 beautifully crafted monuments covered in relief with human and figurative designs that spread over an area of about two square miles.
One possible explanation for the name Chaukhandi could be the square canopy structure on many of these graves that were originally built for beautification and prominence. An average tomb cenotaph measures 7 to 14 feet in height, making them the most enigmatic funerary monuments in the world after the great Egyptian pyramids. Most of these graves are made out of carefully sculpted sandstone slabs that make them look like symmetrical boxes with tops made out of several horizontal blocks, usually rising like a pyramid. These extraordinary specimens of cultural legacy display occasional rosettes with star like points and circular patterns carved into their slabs. Some of the comparatively newer tombs display more complex and multi patterned carvings with Arabic calligraphy, often giving biographical information on the deceased individual—both male and female.
The carvings on some of the male vaults show horses, shields, swords, bows and arrows with a prominent projection provided at the northern end intends to hold the turban of the deceased while the female vaults exhibit basic ornaments such as necklaces, trinkets, rings and anklets.
The other patterns are mainly suggestive of obvious Buddhist, Hindu and historic Central Asian influences. These incredible carvings are timeless and illustrate the similarity of motifs in the design repertoire of other traditional crafts of Sindh. What is most impressive, however, is the fact that even though these tombs are held down by nothing but gravity, they have borne fierce storms, callous winds and heavy monsoon rains year after year for well over 4 centuries without being dislodged or falling over, reinstating the architectural expertise of these aesthetically brilliant people.
Some of the smaller graves have been disassembled and the blocks are left unattended, which is sad, but the only apparent damage is a few visible cracks in one of the more prominent sepulchers, but that has dutifully been taken care of by Pakistan National Commission for The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Ministry of Education, which placed Chaukhandi’s monumental tombs under its protective wings in 1993 to preserve their priceless legacy.
The 5 square kilometer plot is literally like a potpourri of gold sculptures in the stark desert. It is a unique exemplar of human heritage that has at last attained the international acknowledgment and regard which these interesting monuments so fully deserve. I’m not going to rant about the beauty of this place as the pictures say a lot more than my meager and worthless thousand words, but why the place remains so mysteriously uncelebrated locally is beyond me, and that is an offense worth mentioning. Surely Pakistan Tourism and Development Corporation (PTDC) can appoint a few more guards to watch over this precious vista that is currently susceptible to archeological theft and manhandling. Pakistan has been blessed with a myriad of historical wonders and most of them have sadly been left unattended to depreciate with time.
Another concern is Pakistan’s youth’s deteriorating interest in their cultural heritage and I include myself in the category. Why hadn’t I been to Chaukhandi before? Why do we cherish our sight-seeing trips to Egypt and Europe and ignore all the beauty Pakistan has to offer, wasting our holiday away cursing power outages and the hot weather when we could be out there having the time of our lives! Pakistan is brimming with art, culture and history that are screaming for exploration and appreciation. I seriously suggest everyone to start making these small excursions and absorb the richness our country has in store for us. How hard could it be, really? All we need to do is have the right attitude; steel ourselves for a nasty sunburn and a fantastic experience will fall into place itself!