Harking Back: Tale of ‘bones in a pot’, of burials and of our forefathers

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn Jan 15, 2017

It was in the middle of the 1970s when as a crime reporter I was informed of human bones being found in an earthen pot in the walled city as workers dug the foundations for one of the new plazas in Shahalam Market. The trader invasion was on.

The police sent the bones for forensic examination and they told us journalists that the bones were over 500 years old. But why place bones in an earthen pot? The question had puzzled me then, but life moved on as it was not a story we could investigate, at least not as a crime reporter. Of recent I have started studying burial rituals in Lahore and the Punjab in the Harappa Age, and those ‘bones in a pot’ make more sense now. The last week saw me thinking about death, burials and its rituals after the loss of a dear one in the family. This got me thinking about the history of the treatment people in our land mete out to their dead. Burials provide a powerful insight into a people’s culture, a subject dear to all archaeologists and social scientists.

The DNA method of analysis had not been discovered when the Lahore ‘bones in a pot’ were found. I often wonder what happened to those bones. Probably the oldest history books we have, which we do not read in Pakistan any more, are the different Vedas, which state that both ‘agnidasdha’ (cremation) and ‘anagnidagdha’ (not cremation) were equally practised among our forefathers. Earlier, references tell us of burials being more common among the people of our land than cremation. The clear proof of burials we can see if we visit the Harappa burial sites, which are approximately 4,500 years old. These provide an amazing insight into the culture of our forefathers, as well as provide us with considerable clarity, how they viewed life and death as well as the natural and the supernatural. In Lahore the only archaeological dig was carried out inside the Lahore Fort in 1957, and the report still remains marked ‘Secret’ (Imagine!).

We know that nearly 1,000 years ago Sheikh Ismail was buried on a mound in today’s Hall Road. Very near that time Raja Jaipal, the ruler of Lahore, committed ‘johar’ (self-cremation to redeem lost honour) outside Mori Gate as a mark of Rajput bravery. His ashes were deposited in the River Indus, the original holy river before the caste-structured Brahmins moved eastwards and the Ganges gained ascendency. So both types of burial have been around for a very long time.

As someone who has been writing about the people, places, the things and faces of Lahore for the last 16 years through this column, I must confess that visiting graveyards has been a very rewarding pastime, for it tells of stories and histories that we have forgotten. But then death never did worry me much, for my late father instilled in us the dictum that ‘death protects’. Seemed strange then, but with time it sort of makes sense.

The three major Lahore graveyards, besides others, that have yielded excellent stories have been the Miani Sahib, the Mian Mir and the Model Town G-Block graveyards. Miani Sahib is surely the oldest which once stretched on an area of over nine square miles, which in Moghal times lay on the side of the garden of Zebun Nisa, which we know has completely disappeared with her grave dilapidating fast. The gateway, the Chauburji, is also threatened by modern official vandals. Princess Zebun Nisa was an enlightened lady who Aurangzeb incarcerated for life after reading her excellent liberal poem. Women activists of today have little idea of her suffering, let alone her lost garden.

But then over time, especially after 1947, people started stealing Miani Sahib’s space, literally digging up graves while expanding their housing colonies thanks to a bureaucracy out to make a quick buck. Today’s Samanabad is built mostly on flattened graves. But what remains contain, among others, the grave of probably our greatest freedom fighter, Dullah Bhatti, whom Emperor Akbar deceived and skinned alive to hang the corpse outside the Lahore Fort for a week.

Our collective ignorance of the great man truly reflects who we are as a people today. But then there are literary thousands of others, saints and charlatans, alleged royalty, thinkers, writers, soldiers. In death everyone has equal space. The graves of Sadaat Hassan Manto, of Hazrat Tahir Bandagi, of Major Shabbir Sharif Shaheed and the list is endless and worth exploring, each a story in its own right. The graveyard was originally allotted 40,000 kanals by Sher Shah Suri (1486-1545), which has shrunk today to a mere 1,206 kanals, with the post-1947 period consuming over 70 per cent of the graves. The ‘claims generation’ spared nothing for the fruit of hatred are before us today.

But let us return to the Harappa burial sites. There are a total of six known burial sites around this place alone and 55 known within a radius of 100 miles around Lahore in every direction. These sites have been studied by experts from all over the world and they provide an excellent set of conclusions that reflect the social structure and hierarchy of our forefathers.

At Harappa we have two major sites (classified as R37 and H), with the site earmarked as ‘H’ having nearly 200 graves. Carbon-dating and other studies on the bones tell us that they belonged to a single family that lived in Harappa nearly 4,500 years ago.

The most interesting study by A.S. Dudi, as well as the research of N. Sabir, concluded that at Harappa graveyard sections were divided not only by social class, but that it seemed that in those times men when married went to live with the girl’s family. Both shrouds and wooden boxes can be found in the evidence. Amazingly all the graves have a burial direction of north-to-south and all in a straight line. Women seem to have been buried with their jewellery on, while all the men wore ear-rings. Important persons were crammed into huge earthen pots and buried looking upwards. So instead of facing towards Mecca like we do today, our forefathers faced the sky. Makes sense. In death nothing and everything makes sense.

As opposed to Harappa, which is the nearest archaeological site to Lahore, the ones in Mohenjo-Daro have no burial sites. If at all bodies that have been found they are of dead people lying in streets. What really happened is not known, and hence these are known as ‘tragedy sites’. It is assumed that people in Mohenjo-Daro were cremated. But with the coming of Abrahamic religions cremations were disallowed. Islam has clear instructions on how to treat a dead body, hence burial, so far, is the sole option.

But then people, as always, use graves to exhibit their social standing, with families earmarking specific sites. The structures on graves reflect their status, like those of Moghal rulers and currently, in some cases, the rich have marble rooms built on them. Like our forefathers people today continue to express their status in the way the dead are buried, and the rituals defy description. In the end only memories remain.



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