Another day in Pakistan ….. another tomb! But this one was a bit special architecturally and, unusually for Pakistan, had been restored (1971-7) and still seemed in reasonable condition. We were in the southern Punjabi city of Multan which Wiki describes as “the City of Sufis or City of Saints ….. because of the large number of shrines and Sufi saints from the city”. But we were concentrating on just 2, of which the more important was the Tomb of Shah Rukn-i Alam. Indeed, so important must Pakistan regard this site, that it has placed it on its Tentative list twice in a double entry! I have chosen to review it in its 2004 rather than its 1993 manifestation on the assumption that the latter will eventually get removed in some “clean up” operation.
The tomb is regarded as an “unmatched pre-Mughal masterpiece” – but who was the guy whose tomb it is? Well Shah Rukn-i-Alam is yet another of that plethora of Sufi “saints” whose names will probably not fix themselves in your mind as you visit their tombs! It appears that he was the grandson of yet another such teacher – Baha-ud-din Zakaria whose grandiose tomb is situated around 400 metres away and was the other one we visited in Multan.
Now, a reasonable understanding of the history of the Indian sub-continent helps considerably in appreciation of the succession of cultural inscribed and T List sites one will see in Pakistan. But it is not a subject widely covered in European history syllabuses! I just about cope with the Mughals but the period of the pre-Mughal Sultanates is more of a closed book. As my review of the Port of Banhbore identifies, Islam first reached India from Arabia on the coast and the Ummayids in Sindh managed to progress as far as Multan but no further. Generally in North India, it took a series of Turkic invasions from the 10th century to introduce the religion there – and these also overcame Multan’s Arab rulers. So Ghorids followed Ghaznavids and, in 1206, the area came under the Delhi Sultanates, a series of dynasties, mostly of Turkic and Pashtun origin, who eventually gave way to the Mughals in 1526. Of these, the Tughlaqs (1320-1414), are the relevant ones here. During this period Islam was not so much being imposed from above but spread at grass roots by large numbers of Sufi teachers. In this transfer Islam underwent changes at least partially in response to some of the (Hindu) cultural norms found in India, creating a particularly “South Asian” flavour of Islam with a significant “Sufi” aspect. Anyone interested could start with http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sufism_in_India. The Sufis operated in “schools” of similar practices and thoughts and these were handed down across the generations by individuals operating within a significant hereditary framework.
So, in Multan, Rukn-i-Alam was linked by heredity or “discipleship” back through a line which traced its roots to the Baghdad Caliphate. He himself was said to have been “an accomplished mystic by the age of 25” who “established a khanqah and madrassa in Multan. He also held the title of Sheikh el-Islam bestowed on him by the Sultan of Delhi”. Then, going forward, his descendents populated Pakistan’s religious and political history through to this day. One such descendent who is the current “Sajjada Nashin” (or custodian) of the Mausoleum is Makhdoom Shahabuddin – a Pakistani politician who is currently minister of Textiles, member of the PPP and tipped as possible future Prime Minister (and, like so many Pakistani politicians, has had a warrant issued for his arrest – such warrants, initiated by political opponents for reasons good or ill, seem to be n occupational hazard there!)
When Rukn-i-alam (a given name which means “Pillar of the People”) died in 1335 he was originally buried (as he wished) in his grandfather’s mausoleum. The building which now acts as Rukn’s mausoleum is said to have been built by Ghiyas-ud-din Tughlaq between 1320-24 as a mausoleum for his own family (though there is some debate about this). His own origin is a subject of some uncertainty. He was probably Turkic and of humble birth who worked his way up as a soldier by fighting the Mongols at a time when Multan was only nominally part of the Delhi Sultanate and was facing repeated Mongol incursions. Then, in 1321 he marched on and captured Delhi, creating his own dynasty which he marked by setting in motion the building of Tughlaqabad (Which is officially part of the Indian T List of “Delhi’- a Heritage City”, though it appears to have been dropped from the initial scope of that nomination. Although mainly ruined, it contains his mausoleum to this day!). Meanwhile the “empty” mausoleum in Multan was given in 1330 by the next Tughlaq ruler (Muhammed bin Tughlaq, who had been born in Multan) to the descendents of Rukn for his burial there.
The 2 Mausolea are situated on the highest part of Multan – the old fort mound. The whole area was under strict security when we visited but there was nevertheless a relaxed atmosphere in the large courtyard area outside and a subdued religious one inside the mausoleum. This link to photos of the restoration (http://islamic-arts.org/2011/restoration-of-the-tomb-of-shah-rukn-i-alam-multan-pakistan/) will provide a better feeling for the structure’s elegant proportions and fine tile-work than my single “allowed” photo. Just as Rukn expected to be buried in the Mausoleum of his grandfather his own mausoleum is the location for the graves of many of his descendents and disciples which surround his tomb situated centrally under the dome . A number of sources cite this dome as being the “second largest in the world” (e.g Wiki) but, with an external diameter of 58ft (= 17.678Mtr), even if this refers to “at time of construction”, this just cannot be. Elsewhere I have seen it stated that it relates to the total area covered rather than to the diameter of the dome (the structure is octagonal and larger than the dome and has an open interior without pillars) – but it still seems a dubious claim!
And what of its chances of becoming a WHS? Well it is a fine building which would seem to me to be the equal in its way to numerous single European structures considered to have adequate OUV to justify inscription. And there is surely room for more examples of early Islamic architecture from the Indian subcontinent. Such buildings provide a link between the Central Asian styles of Uzbekistan/Kazakhstan and Afghanistan and that of the later, and already well represented, Mughal period. As for its authenticity and condition - It is heavily restored but that work appears to have been done to high standards and even won the Aga Khan award for architecture http://www.akdn.org/architecture/pdf/0403_Pak.pdf
Date posted: December 2013
Have you been to Tomb of Shah Rukn-e-Alam? Share your experiences!