Karachi: Big money, big Chaukhandi tombs

“Big money, big tomb. Small money, small tomb. No money, no tomb.” The old and wrinkled caretaker of the Chaukhandi tombs, an early Islamic necropolis on the eastern outskirts of Karachi, offered this apt description of the place in a Pakistani accent. Leaning on a crooked walking stick, the caretaker waddled around the ornately carved burial ground for a good hour, haphazardly, with the blinding sun always behind him to give me the best possible photographs.

Built mainly during the Mughal rule in the 15th and 18th centuries when Islam became dominant here, the tombs are notable for their elaborate sandstone carvings. These masterpieces of early Islamic funerary art are embellished with geometric designs and motifs that also include figural representations of various hunting scenes with weapons and mounted horsemen. The golden-coloured sandstone of the same hue as the sandy ground has kept remarkably well in the arid local climate.

Uniformly oriented from south to north, the Chaukhandi tombs are built out of large stone slabs, which are delicately stacked into a pyramid shape. The tombs are constructed either as single graves or as groups of up to eight graves, raised on a common platform. Most of the graves stand freely in the open, with a small minority hiding under equally elaborate sandstone domes that seem to float weightlessly above the ground. The latter are the very epitome of “big money, big tomb”.

Without any visible fencing around them to indicate a protected heritage area and with only the old caretaker to look after them during the daytime, the tombs are now mostly half broken. Entire blocks and small pieces of these structures have been stolen by vandals over the years and, according to the caretaker, they now grace the drawing rooms of art collectors in Pakistan and abroad. Promises from the successive Pakistani governments to secure the site have come to nothing.

Located less than 30km from downtown Karachi, the Chaukhandi tombs make a spectacular day trip. The relatively short distance doesn’t mean that it won’t take hours to reach the site from the city centre: the traffic in Pakistan and in Karachi specifically is another story for another day. The contrast between the incessant hooting which one can’t escape in downtown Karachi and the eerie silence of this unique burial ground is almost as impressive as the stately tombs themselves.