Friday, 4 March 2011

Multan: Satan’s birthplace, holy men and blue pottery

I imagine Multan, the city of one thousand saints, fascinates all who step foot in her domain. At least in the winter time, for few humans relish temperatures in the forties, routine for Multan's summer months. (The city's highest recorded temperature is 54 degrees Celsius.)
For someone who traces his roots to the semi-arid desert of Karachi, Seraiki speaking Multan is intriguing. Starting with its lush farmland found on a unique confluence of mighty Indus River's five tributaries, and ending with the city's aloofness from the rest of Pakistan.
It often seems as if the city forgets it is part of Pakistan, although Pakistan's present Prime Minister is from Multan. 
A montage of Multan city

Multani folklore suggests that when God created the earth, God decided to drop Satan into Multan. Hence, the real reason for the city being a magnet for religious saints and Sufi mystics: one thousand holy men were required to counter Satan's evil hold on the city!
The city illustrates the shortcomings of labelling. Multan is a part of Pakistan's Punjab province. Or so we are taught at school.
Multan is not 'real' Punjab, at least not to outsiders like me. Unlike Lahore, people do not speak Punjabi in public. In Lahore, questions asked in Urdu will elicit a response in Punjabi. Punjabi follows Urdu as naturally as night follows day.
Punjabis may consider themselves to be a martial race but Multanis are more at home as craftsmen. Witness Multan's famous blue pottery. I suspect Multanis will prefer to watch crops grow while lazing on a charpai bed smoking a hookah (hubbly-bubbly) rather than fight the next war. Why worry when crops are growing and the Indus River continues to provide?
Multanis are wrapped up in their own world. They gaze at other parts of the country with wondrous fascination.
The rest of the world may be amazing but it's necessary to maintain a distance between Multan and the universe; the way a child is rendered speechless by fire but still keeps a safe distance from its flames. Multanis obviously believe such detachment is required if the earth is to keep rotating on its celestial axis.
Multani tiles and pottery are well known throughout the subcontinent

There must be something to the diffusion of Islamic influences in the city, Shia, Sunni, Sufi and even Hinduism. (One cannot travel anywhere in Pakistan without noticing Hinduism's pervasive influence on 'Pakistani Islam.')
Multan has a higher proportion of Shia Muslims than Pakistan as a whole. It stems from the city being captured by Ismaili Muslims in 965 AD. Although puritanical Muslims (aka Taliban types) 'purged' the city around the 1080s, the Shia influence remains prominent to this day.
Back in the day, Alexander the Great's conquests brought him all the way to Multan. Some even believe the Macedonian warrior's battle wounds were treated by Multani medicine men. Whatever the truth, Multan's greatness located on the fringes of the civilized world is one aspect of the city which has not changed much from Alexander's time.
Oh and by the way, one may fly into Multan. It is not necessary to take the train!

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