It came as no surprise that I found myself completely oblivious to what Thar had to offer. The images I had of the ‘other’ turned out to be a mere fragment of my own imagination.
I had heard stories of inter-religious harmony and pluralism bequeathing the region and always wondered, why has this become such an exception? Why does the rest of Pakistan choose to treat this sense of diversity as exotic? And why has one side of the border chosen to estrange itself from Thar while the other has embraced it? I wanted answers.
The quest began some 1,500 km away from my hometown, Rawalpindi, which used to be home to over 350 mandirs before Partition, but now has only one. I hoped this long journey to the desert wasn’t going to be a repeat of an illicit memory of the past. Hindus forgotten and disowned, in the land of the ‘pure’.
Thar Desert, or Tharparkar in Sindh, for millennials, is a name synonymous with horrific images of drought and famine. Many Pakistanis detached from Thar often think of this land as an anomaly when compared to the rest of the country. Alongside poverty and malnutrition, this desert invokes a sense of alienation amongst many citizens.
With a majority Hindu in population, still imbued with the deeply-rooted caste system, and frankly, ‘too close to India’, we have quite conveniently chosen to detach ourselves from this region that is a little obscure for an Islamic Republic.
This rather “impure” desert, known for infatuating locals with Morr, Mosiqi and Mahboob, has for long survived climatic hardships, numerous takeover attempts from warlords such as the Talpurs, a gruesome Partition and two wars between Pakistan and India. Surely, it can’t be disintegrated, in the religious sense, as easily as the rest of the country?
Similar to venturing into the unknown, Thar’s golden dunes of sand are akin to waves of an ocean, where one must delve into their depths to truly fathom the lure of this place. As I approached the region and started to interact with locals, I realised that beneath this sand lies a land with a rich history, immense pride and warm hospitality.
Stretching from the cradle of civilisation, the Indus Valley, to central India, the Thar is regarded as the only fertile desert in the world. It’s a region not only fertile for vegetation, but also for religious and cultural harmony.
My first stop, Mithi, where about 80% of the population is Hindu, is the commercial hub of Tharparkar. It doesn’t take long for one to notice the Hindu influence in the city, with houses adorned with ‘Om’s and colourful mandirs with deities perched on top of their entrances – a very different sight from the sacrosanct “MashAllah” emblem on every other house in Rawalpindi.
This bustling city, along with the succeeding towns of Islamkot and Nagarparkar, has been home to Hindus, Muslims and Jains for centuries, and witnessed large-scale migration both ways after 1947.
During my journey along the Tharparkar highway, I got glimpses of how the state has made concerted efforts to isolate itself from this place. There were periodic check posts, despite being more than 150 km away from the border. Occasional security officials, baffled as to why I would travel more than 1,000 km to see dilapidated mandirs, would often ask “Kia karo gey mandir dekh ker…masjid dekho, ziyada khoobsurat hai (What will you gain by touring mere temples, go visit the mosques, they’re prettier).” But we’re all used to this by now.
Even in major metropoles, a Muslim isn’t allowed into some of the gurduwaras and mandirs until prior permission has been granted by the Aukaaf Foundation. These checks have become routine, and never have I appreciated my career as a teacher more than in such instances. Play the history teacher card, put on my spectacles, throw in a sentence or two about embracing diversity and move on.
Despite the political confrontations 70 years ago and its dire consequences, Thar has continued to harbour inter-faith harmony. External influence has been minimal, partly due to the geographical remoteness and partly because of our decision to label the place and its people as ‘others’.
The more you explore, the more convinced you are that indeed it’s the people that make this place truly unique – the landscape is only secondary. After all, this, perhaps, is the only place in Pakistan where Muslims refrain from selling beef in the open, and where Hindus abstain from eating publicly during Ramadan, both out of mutual respect.
While the rest of Pakistan yearns for this mutual respect, the people of Thar have learned to embrace coexistence despite harsh realities. From this place where the soil is barren and capital scarce, we, the rest of Pakistan, have a lot to learn. Continuing to neglect this region for what it fosters might deprive us of our only prospect to see this country slowly canter towards a pluralistic society. This ‘other’ that we have shunned for so long is, possibly, the only hope for all of us – the true embodiment of live and let live.
Sameer Shafi Warraich lives in Rawalpindi and is a teacher, story scholar and a scholarship trustee. He has an interest in exhibiting unchartered places of Pakistan.