‘Chahaar cheez az tohfa e Multan
Gard, Garma, Gada o Goristan’
As we approached Multan the landscape spread out to include mango orchards lining both sides of the road. The branches were bowed down with green but plump and succulent looking mangoes. These were mostly ‘Chaunsas’, not yet ready to be consumed, we were told…they required another two weeks on the trees.
Multan is one of the oldest cities not only in the Asian subcontinent but also in the world, dating back 6000 years when it was known as Maloha. It is Pakistan’s 5th largest city by population and has an area of 133 square kilometres (51 sq miles). The city is located on the banks of the Chenab River in the near geographic center of the country.
We traversed Multan City and drove toward Multan Cantonment. It seems that Multan has got its fair share of flyovers and so the traffic flowed smoothly enough. The approach to any army cantonment in Pakistan is marked by barriers, massive road bumps, bunkers with Jeeps and nifty looking soldiers with assault rifles and Multan was no exception. As we drove up to the check post I braced myself for the hassle that accompanies almost all entries into a cantonment area. I was pleasantly surprised when I did not have to get out of the car and the Jawan at the check post efficiently scanned my ID card and waved us in. Multan Cantt is like any other Army area in Pakistan…clean, green and decorated with with tanks, missiles and machine guns at many places. The self assumed superiority of all things army becomes more apparent here as any person with an army title before his name is ‘more equal’ and attracts more attention and respect. When you are asked to introduce yourself at any checkpoint and you fail to mention a title before your name the sentry at once looks less interested and more disdainful.
We managed to find MGM lodges quite quickly. This was where we had booked two rooms for a night through an army connection. I had requested for a reasonably comfortable arrangement but was not prepared for the luxury that greeted us. Needless to say that not only did we spend a very comfortable night there, but my wallet too felt quite a bit lighter when we left. Apparently the Pakistan Army has fingers in many pies and has many cows it can milk to make those pies!
The temperature was around 35 C and we decided to take a nap after an early, room served lunch. We exited our rooms at 4 pm and decided to see the shrine of Hazrat Shah Rukn e Alam.
The tomb of Shah Rukn e Alam, the successor and grandson of Shaikh Bahauddin Zakaria, was built between 1320 and 1324 and is an unmatched, pre-Moghul, architectural masterpiece. From whatever side you approach the city, the most prominent thing that can be seen from miles around is a huge dome. This dome is the Shrine of Sheikh Rukn-ud-Din Abul Fath commonly known by the title Rukn-i-Alam (pillar of the world).
With some help from google maps and friendly pedestrians, we squeezed through thick, unruly traffic on narrow streets and soon managed to pull into the dusty parking lot, where we were allowed to park our car in exchange for Rs 20. At the entrance to the parking lot was a large area that had been commandeered by fat, lazy looking pigeons, who pecked disconsolately at the heaps of ‘bajra’ spread all around them. Apparently the done thing is to buy a plate of ‘bajra’ for Rs 10 from the enterprising vendors squatting all around and feed the already over-fed pigeons, as this is supposed to make you feel holy and pious. Most of the pigeons, full to the point of bursting, couldn’t care less. Still we bought a plate and scattered it all over the pigeons while they fluttered their wings and looked amused to death. The shrine also had scores of kites circling over it. Indeed many trees had big kite nests with massive kites looking after their young ones in the nest.
Besides its religious importance, the mausoleum is also of considerable archaeological value as its dome is said to be the second largest in the world, after ‘Gol Gumbad’ of Bijapur, India which, reportedly, is the largest. This elegant building is an octagon and built entirely of red brick, bounded with beams of shisham wood, which have now turned black after so many centuries. The whole of the exterior is elaborately ornamented with glazed tile panels, string courses and battlements. Colors used are dark blue, azure, and white, contrasted with the deep red of the finely polished bricks. The tomb was said to have been built by Ghias ud din Tughlik for himself, but was given up by his son Muhammad Tughlik in favour of Rukn-i-Alam, when he died in 1330 AD.
The main gate of the Shrine seemed to be under long-term renovation. Despite the afternoon heat and the fact that it was a mausoleum, the atmosphere appeared to be quite festive. It seemed that it was an attraction for the local Multanis too, who swarmed the place with their families. The road leading to the mazaar was lined with beggars of all shapes and sizes who seemed afflicted by ailments that were in no way ordinary. There were sorry looking fortune tellers, who had misfortune writ all over them and others who sold cheap trinkets, bracelets and rings.
You pass through a security check, manned by bored looking, sweaty policemen and climb a few stairs to reach the entrance to the shrine. Here you take off your shoes and hand them over for safe keeping in exchange for Rs 5 per pair. The atmosphere inside the shrine is quite somber and solemn. There are two young boys sitting separately by the wall with their parents, reciting the Quran loudly and with great gusto. People touch the tomb in spell binding awe and then rub their eyes and chests as if to transfer some secret power from the tomb to their selves. Some even prostrate themselves before the tomb.
You get the feeling that curious eyes are watching you and weighing you…not with malice but with the intent to size you up. These are of the local hangers-on who spend their days around the mazaar for various reasons. One corner of the big courtyard surrounding the actual shrine is devoted to another lot of equally well fed pigeons, who defy all attempts to make them fly. They are protected by a self appointed, scraggly looking custodian who believes the pigeons are holy and anyone who dares to disturb them deserves a mouthful of invectives. We leave the shrine as the sun starts to set over old Multan city.
It is evening now and the traffic in the narrow city roads even more maddening. It comprises motorcycles, rickshaws, camels and camel carts, cars, tongas and some wandering cows but the most pathetically memorable of these all is the donkey carts with their lone, frail looking donkeys carrying cargo very many times their weight and even then being beaten mercilessly to get them to go faster.
Our next bid was to get the real Multani Halwa aka Hafiz ka Multani Halwa which seemed an easy enough proposition…till we saw the long line of shops all professing to be the real deal. All were called Hafiz or Hafiz Abdul Wadood and sported different numbers like 101, 301, 501 etc. All had giant sized pictures of a bearded gentleman, who seemed quite proud of his halwa but looked rather uneasy at all the commotion his halwa had created after him.
The real deal is light and grainy and surprisingly not unduly rich, dark or heavy. The halwa itself is made by boiling a mixture of water, sugar, milk and wheat until it becomes solid. Saffron is used for flavoring. Ghee is used to prevent it from sticking to the pan. Almonds, pistachios, walnuts and cardamom seeds are added. Finally after much research and deliberations we arrived at the crux of the matter: the only real halwa makers in Multan are two: the direct desendents of Maulana Abdul Wadood known by the number 301 and that of Hafiz Habib ur Rehman. All others are wannabees!
Having established cordial relations with both and after purchasing a box each from both, for around Rs 400 per Kg, we returned to the saner, cleaner and greener environs of the cantonment. Multan is well known for its typical blue pottery and camel skin handicrafts and we spent some time browsing a souvenir shop. The camel skin lamps looked exquisite with colourful, intricate patterns drawn on them. A simple one cost around Rs 600, which seemed quite reasonable to me. The pottery is hand painted and quite unique in its elegance and colourfulness.
We reached our lodgings at around 10 pm and after a simple burger / sandwich supper turned in for the day. Had a wonderfully restful night and were ready to leave Multan at about 10 am the next day. We were to enter Sindh that day and the next stop was Pano Aqil…but that is another story!