The hues of terracotta red structures glaring out on the vast sheet of land are clashing with the blue sky that continues to unroll over the silence of the Chaukandi cemetery, built presumably during the 17th and 18th centuries AD. The Chaukandi tombs are the masterpiece of funerary art exquisitely designed in this early Islamic cemetery situated on main national highway near Landhi. The tombs are notable for their elaborate sandstone carvings. The graveyard spreads over an area of 82 acres of land as per record and contains different sizes of tombs and graves believed to be of certain settlers, who lived in the area at the time.
Funerary art expresses relationship to the afterlife. It is not always architectural, since it may be purely symbolic. Sometimes these are created as a mark of honor for the dead or for the purpose of aesthetic pleasure and therefore suitable to sculptural treatment, as is found in the classic Greek, medieval, and modern tombs. This category of architecture is produced by societies, whose belief in the afterlife is either materialistic or superstitious and by individuals who want to spread and symbolise their temporal importance. But by any means this practice is not motivated by Muslim faith as there is no historical evidence of Muslims constructing over-the-top lavish grave structures during the time of Prophet Hazrat Mohammad (PBUH).
My five years on the campus were critical in my study of art, sculpture, and architecture as I learned immensely about the architectural research process. To be perfectly honest, the old interest was lost somewhere in the deadlines of a working journalist. But during my recent visit to the Chaukandi site, I found one of the largest preserved necropolises in the world.
This article is a brief study and analysis of these funerary structures. I will use the style-critical method to demarcate the particular features of the Chaukandi architecture as well as to trace the elements that link it to the architectural tradition imported through maritime links of that period.
The name is not Chaukhandi, it is Chaukandi, a derivative of Hindi word Chaukandi accepted by the Asian linguistics. Here its means square due to the shapes of slabs or caskets. It should be accepted just as we accept chaurasta to define crossroad specifically the juncture of four roads. Owing to the scarcity of dated inscriptions on Chaukandi tombs, it is difficult to assign exact dates to them. Truly the lavish work must have been commissioned by rich or influential to glorify people of a certain tribe, social rank, soldiers or nobility of any kind. Stone coffin shaped tombs were constructed either as single graves or as groups of up to eight graves, raised on a common platform, which is typically ancient Egypt, Roman and Greek style. The structures are a composition of six vertical decorative stone slabs, with two long slabs on each side of the grave and the remaining two vertical slabs on the head and foot side. Toping on it is another layer of similar numbers of small coffin slabs to step up as pyramid. The upper casket is further covered with four or five horizontal slabs and a vertical construction dominates the top. The tombs are embellished with geometrical designs and motifs, including figural representations such as mounted horsemen, hunting scenes, swords and jewelry. Only a few of the graves are placed under pillar canopies.
When it is suggested that the funerary style is typically native of Sindh and not found anywhere else, questions arise as to who brought in this typical and distinctive culture of multi-layered or step pyramid grave construction to Sindh? Was this the result of Muslim conquest by Mohammad Bin Qasim?
As per historical study Islam emerged in South Asia before the Muslim conquest of India. At the beginning of the 7th century AD, Arab traders entered India for commercial purposes. Although trade relations between Arabia and the subcontinent existed before the establishment of Islam in Arabia, with the advent of Islam, the Arabs became one of the world's major cultural powers. During that period the Arab merchants and business community were engaged in preaching in India. Later, the number of Muslims gradually increased with the conversion of the locals to Islam and people were already following the custom of burying or entombing the dead. Therefore, it is clear that Islam had reached in South Asia much before Muhammad bin Qasim invaded the north-western part of India in 612 AD. Not only traders and merchants were exchanging culture via Debal route, but travelers and tourists too were contributing to the socio-cultural change.
Architecture of pyramidal structures was trending very much in the Achaemenid Empire of ancient Persia. The best example is the mausoleum of Cyrus the Great in Iran where a large quadrangular stone is placed at the base followed by a pyramidal succession of seven, irregular smaller rectangular stones reaching a height of eighteen feet, until the structure is curtailed by a rectangular cubical edifice. The roof of the edifice and indeed the structure is an elongated limestone pediment. Therefore, it is very much likely that the aesthetic concept of multilayered Chaukandi grave filtered through Persian traders entering Sindh via Debal route.
Similarly, the Chaukandi design is a stereotype of step pyramid design of graves of ancient Egypt and was commonly acknowledged as the best stone structured graves. The design is called ‘mastaba’ in Arabic, which means bench and refers to the rectangular superstructure of ancient Egyptian tombs with sloping walls.
Now the question about the figural motifs created on the bannisters, slabs and walls is whether these designs are indigenous or have any foreign influence. It is not surprising that the style and character of Chaukandi graves presents a complicated synthesis of influences, first from Egypt or Mesopotamia where there is a long-standing tradition of using squared stone and sculptured ornament. The Arabian and Persian motifs are recognizable for instance, the sword and the horseman.
The fascinating feature of the graves is stone lattice walls. The interlaced structures have finely carved lattice or jaali bannisters. It remains a mystery who were the artisans or stonemasons of this delicate crafts, whether they were stonemasons from Raja Dahir’s rule or of any other faith as Muslims never practiced animal depiction on graves. Mohammad Bin Qasim’s brief stay on the land saw submission to the Muslim faith as many Hindus converted following Qasim’s liberal approach. No doubt that they were the native people and knew well about the arid environment of the region. But did they actually know the art of lattice wall?
My study proposes that there were some unique trends during the Mughals that were borrowed from Arab and Persia, while artisans and designers were commissioned from Persia, Bukhara and Afghanistan who built many magnificent monuments of the world. In addition to this, Turkic and Mughal rule in the Indian subcontinent also introduced central Asian and Persian style of architecture in this region. It is possible that the owners of Chaukandi cemetery too had commissioned artisans and architects who imitated those styles to produce the unique architecture.
Further, I strongly oppose the views of many researchers, who have concluded that canopies belong to the Hindu style. Canopies over pillars were 12th century Roman designs and were widely used in Egypt and Persia. Later, it was adopted by the wider parts of the world. The features we see in Chaukandi architecture had already started appearing in monuments of 12th century AD. The style emerged as Indo-Islamic art and brackets, balconies, and of course - the ‘chatri’, umbrella, kiosk, or canopy became everlasting Mughal legacy. This was the time that lattice screen and walls were introduced and were extensively seen in Mughal architecture.
The lattice bar design of Chaukandi is an outstanding creation of Mughal element crafted by the stonemasons, whoever they were. Although there are many aspects of design and layout of Mughal architecture that can be elaborated, but lattice or jaali screens make up a substantial part of the sub-continent’s architectural designs. The lattice or stone carved jaali walls were used as screen by artisans of Mughal era. Mughals fashioned the idea from Arabs, who called it ‘Mashrabiyya’ now found in Islamic and east-Asian architecture. It originally developed as an architectural solution to battling extreme heat in arid climates as well as regulating light. Mashrabiyyas have a celestial, spiritual, and an aesthetic purdah element in Islam. It is also a metaphor for light. The ornate carvings originated from the strong foundation in geometry and science in Arab societies and the designs represent notions of infinity, the heavens and symmetry within Islam. The intricate geometric and floral design of the lattice has since become a symbol of beauty. With all these historical architectural elements style, design, motifs, and construction, Chaukandi stands out marvelous and unique among all funerary art ideas of the past and present world.
According to the Chaukandi site in-charge Raja Ashfaq, ‘This is a remarkable heritage site and draws good number of daily visitors including students and foreigners. More than 150 people including foreigners visit the graves every day.’