Dr Masuma Hasan: Uch Revisited

Last week I visited Uch after five years. Uch is an almost perfectly preserved medieval city with narrow streets lined by old houses So far, it has not been much spoiled by ill- advised modernisation. It was historically important as a centre of Suhrawardy Sufism and the magnificent shrines of the Sufi masters of the Suhrawardy Order dot the city. The construction of these shrines spans three centuries from 1200-1400 CE. The city was never known for its cleanliness but, during my recent visit, I found it much cleaner than before.

When I visited Uch in 2007, I went first as most visitors do, to the shrine of Jalaluddin Surkhposh (1192- 1291 CE). The simple and dimly lit interior of the shrine with its exquisitely crafted and hand-painted wooden roof, wooden pillars and turquoise floor, is awesome. There are scores of simple unnamed graves of his followers and devotees within the sanctum and, in one corner, the grave of the great Sufi himself. I noticed immediately the prominent Christian cross niches along the wall behind his grave, all in one row. They were symbols of the multi-faith approach of the Suhrawardy Order which inscribed its monuments with icons and symbols from all major religions. In the visit last week, I was astonished to see that the cross niches had been plastered over and all but one remained, perhaps because the Auqaf department (the official department which has taken over the upkeep of the shrines) had run out of plaster. Surely, somebody out there considered these niches un-Islamic.

As I sat in the courtyard beside the old pond which dates back many centuries, some young men from Uch lamented about the cavalier attitude of officials towards of the shrines. The old red sandstone stairs which led me up to the shrine in 2007 have been covered with commercial tiles. The Auqaf insisted on replacing the sandstone flooring in the courtyard also with these tiles. But the community protested and a small space outside the beautiful mosque adjacent to the shrine was, therefore, left touched. They also wanted to fell the huge tree in the courtyard and fill up the ancient pond but have been prevented successfully by the community, so far, from doing so.

When buildings of utmost historic and spiritual importance are “renovated”, a scholarly understanding of their antiquity and the symbolism they carry, should be undertaken. Some officials of government departments understand the tradition behind these monuments but, by and large, many shrines throughout the country have been denuded of their symbolism by uneducated ― and perhaps bigoted ― enthusiasts who feel the need to spend official funds. In this particular case, the multi-faith doctrine of the Suharwardy Order, reflected in its symbolism, would be a balm on the wounds of the people of our country who are victims of violence and intolerance.

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Filed under Pakistan, Sufism, Uch

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