Makli Necropolis in Thatta

Trade between Thatta and Lahori Bandar, and Hurmuz, was well-established by the early sixteenth century, and the governors of the Estado da Índia at Goa were broadly aware of the commercial significance of the area.

Sanjay Subrahmanyam

The valley of the great river Indus along which the region of Sind lies, has a long history of external contacts, dating back several millennia to the period of the so-called Indus Valley Civilization. Sind was also the first region in South Asia to come under Islamic rule, with early Arab incursions beginning in the second half of the seventh century A. D. By the first decades of the eighth century, the entire region between Multan and the mouths of the Indus had come under Arab control. At this time, the chief port of the Indus delta was Dewal (“Daybal” to the Arabs), a name that survived as late as the Portuguese chronicles of the sixteenth century, which call lower Sind “Dyulsinde”. Dewal was captured by Arab forces in around 710 A. D. after several earlier unsuccessful attempts, but it survived as a port into the last quarter of the twelfth century. Thereafter, its place was taken by Lahori Bandar, which was visited and described by the well-known traveler Ibn Battuta in the 1330’s.

Our principal concern in this paper is, however, not so much with Lahori Bandar as with another town to its north, Thatta, a river– port located almost two hundred kilometers from the river’s mouth. We have little knowledge of the early history of the town of Thatta. Located upriver from Lahori Bandar in the western Indus delta region at 24°45’N and 67°58’E, the town still exists today as a dusty, provincial backwater, a condition into which it had already fallen in the 19th century. Edward Thornton describes it in the mid-nineteenth century as “a town formerly very famous, but now much decayed… situated about three miles west of the right or western bank of the Indus”. A half-century later, by the time the Imperial Gazetteer of India came to be written, the river had moved still further away from the town, a process that has continued in the present century. In 1901, Thatta (or Nagar Thato, as it is locally termed), now located some twelve kilometers west of the river, boasted a population of 10,783, a far cry from the late seventeenth century, when Alexander Hamilton estimated the number of people resident there at some 150,000.

Visitors to Thatta today find only one monument of real note there, and this is the Jama Masjid, built on the orders of the Mughal ruler Shahjahan between the mid-1640’s and late 1650’s. A prepossessing structure in brick with a rectangular floor plan, the mosque has an area of 6,316 square yards, and far outshines the rather older Dabgar Masjid built in the early sixteenth century, and located on the southern outskirts of the town.  The fortifications of the town, which we shall have occasion to mention below, have been in ruins since the early nineteenth century. But some distance from the town, in the Makkli hills, one still finds an enormous and impressive necropolis with tombs dating to the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These tombs, like the ruined fortifications and still intact mosque, testify to the great importance of Thatta in the centuries that the Portuguese had their most significant impact on Asian maritime trade — namely the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

However, Thatta’s importance as a courtly and trading center predates the Portuguese incursion into Asian waters by some centuries. The town does not appear to have been of great importance during the early years of the Ghurid and Mamluk presence in north India in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. The Mongols having made encroachments into Sind in about 1241, Sultan Balban (ruled 1266-87) of Delhi attempted to re-consolidate his control over the region, and gave it over to the government of one Sher Khan Sunqar. After some years, it was taken over by Balban’s own son, Muhammad Khan. At this time, Sind formed part of the same governorship as western Punjab. But the region proved difficult to control on account of the resistance that coalesced around an important local dynasty of Isma’ili persuasion, the Sumras, who ruled first from Thari and then from Tur (the latter about forty kilometers east of Thatta), and who made repeated attempts to ally themselves with the Mongols against Delhi. Thus, again, under Alauddin Khalji, it was necessary for Delhi to suppress a revolt in Sind; later, during the reign at Delhi of Muhammad bin Tughluq, in the late 1340’s, a certain Taghi, reputedly a cobbler from Gujarat, revolted and fled to Sindh, in order to seek an alliance with local tribes. The Tughluq ruler followed him there with an expeditionary army, but died in 1351 of natural causes near Thatta. It is now that Thatta is mentioned for the first time, in Barani’s Tarikh-i Firuz Shahi.

In around 1335, political power in lower Sindh passed from the Sumras, who were succeeded by the Sammas, a Sunni dynasty of local origin, who used the title Jam. They owed allegiance to Delhi, but continued to negotiate alliances with the Mongols nevertheless. Due to this, Firuz Shah Tughluq again had to mount a campaign there in 1366, in the course of which he defeated the Mongols, and captured the Samma ruler Jam Junan, who was however later reinstated by Delhi. At this time, according to the testimony of the Tughluq court–historian Shams-i Siraj, Thatta, then the Samma capital, was already fortified. The Sammas continued to rule from there until 1527, with the greatest extent of their territorial control being during the reign at Thatta of Jam Nanda or Nizam al-Din (1461-1509). Thus, at the time that the Portuguese took Hurmuz for the second time, in 1515, lower Sind was still largely controlled by the Sammas, with Thatta the capital and seat of political power, and Lahori Bandar being the port that mediated between Thatta and the western Indian Ocean.

Makli- Thatta Pinterest
Another view of Makli – Courtesy: Pinterest


During the fifteenth century, there had been considerable expansion in agriculture and manufacturing in lower Sindh. The region around Thatta itself became a center of textile manufacture, with the raw cotton coming from the area around Bhakkar, in the upper valley of the Indus. Sindh did not quite rival Gujarat in textile production, but we must not underestimate its trade in the early years of the sixteenth century either. The principal part of this trade was to the west, to the great Persian Gulf entrepôt-state of Hurmuz centered on the island of Jarun, but coastal navigation also linked the ports of the Indus delta with Gujarat (Khambayat), and Konkan. It is in this context that Sind is mentioned in the accounts of early Portuguese writers such as Duarte Barbosa.

The Portuguese takeover of Hurmuz did not greatly affect trade from Sindh. According to one estimate by Rastião Lopes Lobato, in the 1540’s, trade from Sind (which is to say Thatta and Lahori Bandar) accounted for a good part (7 to 10 %) of customs-revenues paid at Hurmuz in the period.

But Lobato was quick to state that these revenues were only realized “quãodo Dyul, a que por outro nomee chamão Simde, está em pas e navegua pera Urumuz”. The suggestion is clearly that this was at times not the case, and in fact the 1530’s and 1530’s had seen a contest for control over lower Sind. In particular, the Mongol Arghun clan had begun encroaching on the region from the second quarter of the sixteenth century (according to Couto, in the precise year 1525), from an initial base further north. The Arghun prince Shah Beg maintained relations with Babur, when the latter was at Kabul, and his son Shah Husain continued to maintain some form of political ties with the Mughals. However, the late 1530’s and early 1540’s were troubled times for the Mughals, with Humayun himself being under threat from the Afghan chiefs of north India, in particular the Bihar-based Sher Shah Sur. Forced into exile in Iran, Humayun passed through Sind en route to the Safavid court in the early 1540’s, but was given a cool reception by the Arghun rulers, who flirted for a time with the idea of supporting his brother Mirza Kamran against him. It was during this uncomfortable journey through Sind, at Umarkot, that Humayun’s son the future “Grão Mogol” Akbar – was born.

But it was not principally on account of the Mughals that Sind faced political turmoil in these years. Rather, the problem was that the Arghuns, while controlling upper Sind, gradually lost control of the lower delta region (and with it of Thatta and Lahori Bandar) to the Tarkhan, their erstwhile subordinates and military allies. The conflict, already in the making in the 1450’s grew more serious in the early 1550’s when Mirza Isa Tarkhan sought to distance himself from Shah Husain and his adopted brother, Sultan Mahmud, by having the khutba read in the name of the recently restored Humayun. The conflict of the period has been described by the Ottoman admiral Seydi Ali Reis, who found himself in Sind in those years, after being shipwrecked off the coast of Gujarat. In his Mirat ul-Memalik, he writes:

At that time Isa Terkhan, the commander of the capital of Sind, called Tata, had put to death a number of able officers belonging to Shah Husein, after which he had captured the treasure, stored in the fortress of Nasrabad, and divided it amongst his men, and then proclaimed himself as ‘for’ Humayun Shah by having his title inserted in the Friday prayers, and ordering the Nakara to be played. Thereupon Shah Husein had nominated his adopted brother Sultan Mahmud as commander of the land-troops, and he himself with 400 ships had set out against the rebels.

Seydi Ali, who found himself a bystander, was offered “the governorship of Bender-Lahuri or Duyuli-Sindi” by the Arghuns in exchange for his expertise; he turned the offer down, and witnessed an extended siege, at the end of which Mirza Isa agreed to return to the Arghun fold. But the compromise was not to last long. Shortly thereafter, Shah Husain died, and Mirza Isa once more declared his independence of the Arghuns, leading to further hostilities.

It was now that the first significant intervention by the Portuguese in the region took place. As already noted, trade between Thatta and Lahori Bandar, and Hurmuz, was well-established by the early sixteenth century, and the governors of the Estado da Índia at Goa were broadly aware of the commercial significance of the area. As Diogo do Couto writes in his Década Sétima da Ásia, the area was rich, and the same could be said of the Cidade Tahta, principal do Reyno, e das maiores, e mais ricas do Oriente, assim pela grossidão de seus mercadores, como pelas louçainhas, e subtileza de suas mecânicas, em que precediam, e faziam vantagem a todos, tirando os Chins (Couto, vii/1, 233). Now, it would appear that late in 1556, Mirza Isa Tarkhan sent an ambassador to the governor Francisco Barreto in Goa, asking for help against Sultan Mahmud, described as “hum tyranno alevantado”; Barreto agreed, and sent out a fleet of twenty-eight ships and seven hundred men, under the command of a certain Pero Barreto Rolim. Rolim and his fleet arrived in Sind early in 1557, and entered the Indus, making their way to Thatta, where they found not Mirza Isa (who had gone off to besiege a distant fortress) but his minor son. As Couto has it, despite several emissaries sent on land by Rolim, he could get no response other than that he had to wait until Mirza Isa’s return and that his expenses on supplies would be met by the Tarkhans in the meantime. The Captain-Major grew restive as February began, the more so as he received word from Thatta that “se se quizesse ir o podia fazer”. Couto is quite explicit on the nature of the pressure that he faced. (Continues) 


Courtesy: ICM Cultural Affairs Bureau (Instituto Cultural, Macau)


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