Interview given by Dr. Kaleemullah Lashari-KL (Interviewer: Saba Sindhri (SS), PhD Student at CEIAS, Paris)
Dr. Kaleemullah Lashari is an archaeologist, historian and author. In March 2019, the government of Pakistan awarded him the Sitara-i-Imtiaz, the third highest honour and civilian award in Pakistan. He works and preserves physical heritage.
SS: Can you describe for us the steps that led you to the training in Archeology, History and Persian language?
KL: The interest in the field of physical and cultural heritage was a harvest, which was a result of exposition to many factors. My late father was a poet, and also a political activist, with leanings to the far left. His collection of books, and his profession as journalist, as well as publisher of newspaper opened up a very broad perspective. My elder brother had very sensitive intellectual and cultural leanings, those proved a sort of catalyst, contributing to the lifelong interest in books and reading. At school, the learning process was as per the social dictates, and I progressed and found myself in an engineering college, which was much to the liking of my social circle / relatives. Though I couldn’t come to terms with the conventional following, but found myself in the Training Academy of Civil Services of Pakistan, in Lahore. The rich library of Lahore Museum was frequented by me after the training hours, on a daily basis; it helped augment my knowledge in numismatics, biblical archaeology, and the physical heritage of the country.
During the service years I was in a unique position of access to the archaeological sites, far and wide. I began my field study of funeral remains in Baluchistan and southern Sindh, these presented a challenge vis-a-vis their origin and belonging, as there was not much learned knowledge in publications about these interesting graves, which were built with beautifully carved stone slabs. The research began early and was concluded with the publications of various papers, these culminated in the publication of the Study of Stone Carved Graves, in 1996.
Meanwhile my work brought me a grant for three-year Diploma in French, in Paris, but due to Service exigencies I could not avail the grant, that was meant to help me defend my dissertation in Sorbonne.
The association with the Foreign Archaeological Missions working in Balochistan in the days of unrest brought about closer association with the scholars working on South Asia. Thus the Civil Service, despite its taxing duties proved a conducive ground for field work. Academic progress was also gradual, PhD followed in quick succession to two post Doctoral Studies, one at Islamic Arts Museum, Berlin in 2002, and another in 2005-06 at Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin, at Madison.
It was followed by the creation of the Directorate General of Heritage Sector Special Projects, which was transformed into Department of Antiquities in 2008. The new Institutes were established under the Department, funds were created, schemes for the establishment of museums throughout the province were initiated. Thus a new era dawned in the province of Sindh, where archaeological investigations received preferred treatment, technical publications became the departmental initiative, and human resource development became the core function.
My personal research activities included regional histories, as I realized that a meaningful national historical narrative was not possible without more focused accounts of the regional historical accounts, of various events and persons. The publication of the work on the funeral practices of the major tribes in southern Sindh-Balochistan became a pertinent example of how the land-tribe relationship could be studied and the major historical sites understood. This provided reason enough and I started encouraging the District Historical societies, and established new working plate forms in Sukkur, Dadu and Thatta. This single fact went hand in hand to promote the regional languages as the medium of the learned discussion. Sukkur Historical Society, under my guidance was able to carry out extensive research work, and within a year was able to publish the proceedings of the learned pursuit in sixteen volumes in the year 2000-01.
SS: In the graves of Makli, we commonly hear about Hindu architecture, Muslim architecture and then the amalgamation of both. Could you tell us if there is Buddhist architecture as well? If yes, where?
KL: The appreciation of Makli and its architecture still remains to be done. What we so often hear is the generalization of vital elements, it has therefore generated many misgivings. Makli and its architectural legacy has three basic elements, which are to be kept in mind; one is stone, as Thatta and its environ has good quality stone available, thus the stone workers from the adjoining regions were drawn to contribute towards buildings and decorations. Second is the availability of quality clay, which was exploited to its maximum, and the third one was glazed bricks and tiles. You would appreciate that the stone masons and carvers mostly came from the eastern adjoining regions, however they still happily followed the instructions of the sponsors, and carved secular motifs. Not a single decorative theme was brought from Buddhist historic narratives. Nor was there a single Hindu religious motif carved. It is true of the Jains as well, the presence of goose is not in context of any religious narration, but as a neutral representation of the innocent nature, on the tomb building of Jam Nizamuddin. The reliquary of this tomb does not emulate any Hindu elements, you would appreciate that the mosques and tomb buildings in Gujarat, especially Ahmedabad, Champanir etc. could be cited as the inspiration.
SS: Further, besides the presence of different kinds of architecture in Sindh, could you tell us if Sindh, as an autonomous region, had its own unique style of architecture, present in Makli and elsewhere in Sindh?
KL: It is to be noticed that the architectural practices of a region are dependent upon the role played by the people in power. The region also impacts the architecture with the type of building material available therein. As far as local craftsmanship is concerned, that too is one of the variable factors. It is a fact that geographic hurdles in Sindh are scanty, thus the region has remained accessible to the influences of adjoining areas, the ruling dynasties belonging to these regions have especially brought preferences in design and material. However there are a few independent styles which are totally unique to Sindh-Baluchistan. These include the building types in the ancient past, flourishing in the urban centers of the Indus Valley Civilization. Another type is that of stone carved graves, which abounds in Sindh-Baluchistan. Another instance is that of the tomb architecture from 18th and 19th centuries, in the piedmonts of the Khirthar; these small-scale buildings are very economical, and are profusely painted.
SS: You break many myths around the graves of Makli. One of them is about the inscription of Ayatul kursi that not every grave is inscribed with it. Can you explain it in more detail and tell us what most of the graves are inscribed with? And what does it tell us about the religion of that time of Sindh?
KL: The inscriptions on the cenotaphs and on the buildings are the real strength of the necropolis, it is greatly appreciated for its calligraphic beauty. However, the important fact is that the carvers, the calligraphers and the medium itself has made it quite difficult for the visitors to read these epigraphs with accuracy. That is the reason that certain misgivings have taken root, which are not necessarily correct. Sir Richard Burton, the British scholar who visited the site during mid-nineteenth century said that the main characteristic of the inscriptions is that these are not readable. Thus the concept took root that all the cenotaphs are inscribed with the Ayatul kursi. The fact is quite contrary to it, out of 114 Surah from Quran there are quotations from about 42 Surah represented in Makli, and it is not only the Ayatul kursi. Likewise many more facts come to light with systematic survey and documentation.
SS: There are different hypothesis regarding the decline of the Indus Valley. What do you think were main reasons of its decline? Or what theory do you suggest?
KL: The reasons of decline of the Indus Civilization have been very broadly commented upon; but there has not yet been any scientific investigation upon the subject. The archaeologists have not found any evidence of the forced end of the demise of the civilization, thus the ground is open for speculations. The most recent area of speculation is the environmental impact; however it has to be probed scientifically before anything can be said about it.
SS: Do you have any ongoing or upcoming projects?
KL: I have many roles to play, on the one hand I am serving high level committees, dealing with World Heritage, on the other hand I have to undertake consultancies, besides which I devote time to my own research / studies, and also practice conservation of physical heritage; it thus makes me a very busy person. I am presently engaged in the activities aimed at the Centenary Celebrations of Excavations at Mohenjodaro. At the same time I am finalizing rehabilitation work on the Old Nusserwanjee Building, and have very recently initiated conservation work on the Frere Hall, Karachi. I am also completing my work on the Chronograms from Makli, a comprehensive study of this genre of literature, comparing the trends in other contemporaneous societies.