A Trip to Thatta

Once a cultural hub, the city today still grapples with the history confined in its time-worn edifice, explores Attiya Abbass
  • 24 Nov - 30 Nov, 2018
  • Attiya Abbass
  • Feature

Last month, a group of journalists, including myself were part of an excursion planned by the International Heritage Workshop, to the medieval city of Thatta. Located over 90km west of Karachi, the now commercialised city has witnessed ascends and descends of three successive historic dynasties. Once a cultural hub, the city today still grapples with the history confined in its time-worn edifice, offering majestic spectacles to enthral the traveller in everyone. The most important cornerstone of the city is its UNESCO recognised heritage site, the Makli Necropolis, that houses approximately 500,000 to 1 million tombs built over the course of a 400 year period.

Entering the City of Silence 

Oh the silence of Makli, tell us how many stories are buried in you.

As I entered the sun-baked site from its main entrance following a long exhaustive walk, the enormity of the place had me reeling; even in its bareness Makli is grand. 

Thatta’s scorching sun was merciless yet our resolute to hike ahead didn’t wane even a bit. My eyes took in monuments of every kind; there were imposing tombs, canopies, graves, majestic mosques and khanqas – wide spaces where saints would teach and preach to their disciples. Many of the graves – some in various forms of breakage – appeared more to be small palaces than graves.

Stretching from southern end of Makli Hills called Pir Patho, the large expanse continues northward in a roughly diamond shape. The eastern end stretches to form Makli Hills ridge. The largest monuments of the site have occupied grand spaces at the southern edge, while the Samma tombs are clustered in the north. 

Erected outside every monument is a plaque that explains the exhaustive history and significance of the place; ensuring the travellers don’t rummage clueless. Upon entrance, the first monuments which greet the eyes were constructed during the Arghun, Tarkhan and Mughal dynasties, between 1524 and 1739. The people who ruled these invading dynasties were Turko-Mongol people, who brought with them northern, central and western Eurasian influences. These influences are seen inscribed in the intricate floral patterns, breathtakingly complicated geometric designs, tremendous art and architecture in the stone carvings found in Makli. Two monuments which knocked the breath out of me in the already-heated air of the necropolis were the tombs of Mughal governors which reigned in Thatta, namely Dewan Shurfa Khan, who died in 1638, and of Isa Khan Tarkhan II, who died in 1644. Tomb of Isa Khan Tarkhan II is a two-storey stone building boasting of beautiful cupolas and balconies. He is said to have constructed the monument during his life. The plaque outside his monument narrated a flinchingly odd story; the legend goes that after the structure was partially completed he chopped off the hands of the most skilled craftsmen, to seal his tomb’s unique majesty; so no other emperor could build a monument that would rival his. [No wonder Taj Mahal also has the same legend attached to its glory.]

Makli In All Its Grandeur

Strolling through the site and wondering if the dead could still hear us, it is too easy to lose oneself in Makli; physically and mentally. 

As we wandered, mesmerised by the grandiosity of the dead, it was usual to be stopped by the beggars along the way. Another staggering sight which I feel is quintessential of Makli, are snake charmers dressed in orange apparel squatting on the floor along with their snake baskets and chained mongooses. They cry to the intrigued passers-by for an exclusive demonstration of a snake and mongoose fight.

The grave situation at Makli 

The fact that the monuments have survived the wrath of time, is a testament to the quality craftsmanship. Yet, time, climate, natural disasters and indecent human intervention have finally taken a toll on Makli, which has underwent periods of deterioration. Erosion caused by sea breezes, damage from earthquakes, floods and pollution, and lack of heed, have all contributed to its collapsing structures. During the fatal floods of 2010 and 2011, thousands of affected families took refuge here, which made it prone to irreparable damage. The natural plunder was exacerbated by rounds of stealth by ‘dacoits’. Gems, precious stones and expensive tiles were reportedly chipped and stolen from many monuments. Large areas flanking the site have been encroached upon, too. In March 2017, the plunder and purloin grew so bad that UNESCO warned to strike Makli Necropolis off its World Heritage label. The threat put several power forces in motion and the Sindh Government finalised and approved of a thorough plan to preserve the heritage site.

The Role of Heritage Foundation of Pakistan

One woman’s name and tireless efforts have been indispensable to the protection and restoration of the heritage sites. Yasmeen Lari, cited as Pakistan's first female architect and the co-founder and CEO of Heritage Foundation of Pakistan, has converged massive efforts to restore the cultural heritage. Lari has dedicated her time, and energy to restore the plundered remains using ingenious and technical methodologies. She has also embarked on humanitarian relief work as well as historical conversation projects in rural villages all around Pakistan. 

Life beyond the death

It’s called a ray of life sprouting from the land of dead. Beyond the peripheries of the necropolis, once resided the deplorable community of the poor who had no choice but to stoop to begging for a living, spread over a cluster of eight impoverished villages. When Yasmeen Lari was working on her restoration projects on the heritage site, she couldn’t turn her back on the plight of the destitute communities living there; unlike many have. Lari’s attempted to turn the destiny of the destitute and give them a shot at life by inaugurating a shelter program. She converged efforts to construct sustainable homes for the poor. One of her trusted methodologies was to recruit beggars and motivate them to build their own homes by providing resources. She insisted the project would allot home to those who help in the construction. The result was dramatic; many from the community of beggars began to register with the project. They worked tirelessly and diligently for 10 days and finally earned their homes. 

The idea was not just to provide shelter to the beggar community, but provide a holistic life to them in the shape of better living conditions, education, sanitation and more.

Many labours were even sent across the nation and abroad for more income sources. This also ensued a round of women empowerment with many women beggars getting trained in making kashi (glazed ceramic). On the front is Kareema, who Lari says, “turned out to be one of the bravest and enterprising personality of the community”. She, along with her clan of women have focused on making hand crafts, choohlas and other crafts to earn money for their family. 

A gander at the projects conducted by Heritage Foundation of Pakistan one knows that women can play a dynamic role in adopting the messages that could be beneficial to the society at large.

As for sustaining our heritage, it’s important to realise that for six centuries Makli has preserved our past for our future. We need Makli in future, more than Makli needs us now.


Makli is no less than a civilisation within itself. This ‘city of silence’, still whispers the forgotten tales of the ancestors who found abode here. It holds age-old stories, a burden it is determined to carry till eternity. 

Spanning over a vast area of 10 square kilometre, the Makli necropolis is considered as one of the largest graveyards in the world. It is the last abode of over half a million people’s graves and tombs, accumulating over a period of four centuries. The ancient graves belong to esteemed royalty, warriors, Sufi saints and renowned scholars. 

Makli is amongst the six cites recognised under the cultural category of UNESCO World Heritage Site. The other five sites being, Moenjodaro, Buddhist ruins of Takht-i-Bahi and Sahr-i-Bahlol, Shalimar Gardens in Lahore, Rohtas Fort and Taxila. Makli from the list, was titled an "outstanding testament" to the Sindhi civilisation in the 14th to 18th centuries.

The necropolis owes its distinct name to a Hajj pilgrim’s state of spiritual ecstasy. As the legend goes, when a pilgrim travelling to Mecca reached the site and saw a mosque on the outskirts of Thatta, experienced a spiritual upheaval and joyously chanted, “Hadah Makka li” (this is Mecca for me). Later, Sheikh Hamad Jamali, a Sufi saint from Samma renamed the mosque 'Makli'


• It’s important to carry adequate supply of water. 

• Travel in groups or at least have one companion with you.

• Carry caps and sunglasses. Make sure you are wearing the right hiking shoes.

• There are a few places where you can stop by and eat. But it is advised to pack some refreshments.