Jaihoon’s tryst at Uzbekistan, October 2014
No Intellectual Foreplay
I undertook many journeys in the past with a sense of pre-knowledge. I had my own pre-manufactured notions over the nations and communities I’d visit. However, for this one, I thought it would be rather wiser to set out with zero expectations. Let Time and Space, I agreed, do their interplay without my intellectual foreplay.
My near and dear ones asked me to bring back a thousand gems of prose and verses from this journey. And I set on the road, not sure if I could fulfill their hopes.
Though we all enjoy to be loved in the company of our dear ones, there are moments when we yearn to be crowded within our fortified solitude. For, in the cold of crowd, the blanket of solitude is the most deserving.
Enter Delhi, the Mughal-built capital of India. A one-day stop over before heading to the land of the founder of India’s gigantic yet glamorous empire. Delhi’s Delicious dhabas, India’s traditional answer to western fast food, continue to be in fashion attracting both the rich and poor, learned and illiterate. And add to this the mix of music and devotion, one ought to agree India is India, despite the all-consuming globalisation.
It would be rude and crude to visit a ‘Kingdom’ without paying respect to the ‘Sultan’. Therefore, accompanied with a friend, I set out to the presence of Khwaja Nizamuddin, the beloved saint of Delhi, whose life made me realise that if we honour the Merciful Lord for few decades, HE will raise our dignity for infinite centuries.
It maybe out of coincidence that the tomb of Delhi’s Spiritual Sultan faces the tomb of Humayun, one of its most powerful rulers till date. This superb structure was commissioned by his wife, Bega Begum, designed a Persian architect chosen by her. It would be interesting to contrast this structure with the Taj Mahal built by Shah Jahan, the great grandson of Humayun, in memory of his wife. These memorial tombs force us to conclude that Mughals took their love as serious as their throne. It is said that the grandeur of Humayun’s tomb set a precedent for future Mughal architecture in India. Little did I know while standing there that this tomb was inspired by the building of Gur-e-Amir, the tomb of Amir Timur, his great ancestor resting in Samarkand, Uzbekistan where I would be visiting in the next few days.
Delhi has all the charm and glam of India’s wealth and filth. Beggars are common in the streets. Mothers and infant children approach car to car at traffic signals. One can see all their plight during the day and just when you feel like handing them a handful of rupees, they are seen boarding a four-wheel car to return to their master’s den. Organised begging is a wild vice to deal with in emerging India.
Next day morn, a slight drizzle started as I began to wait for the taxi to the airport. I always believed Rain to be a good sign for my upcoming journeys. And this time too I was not disappointed in my belief.
The flight was filled with the chatter of Indian medical students who were studying in Uzbekistan. The students mainly hailed from the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Was it the academics or the economics, or the mix of both, which attracted them to the land of Timur? I left the question unanswered. Even as I tried to engage myself with various distractions, I ultimately realised it was not easy to stay out of touch from the ‘touchscreen dhikr’. Albeit, I saved as much battery life as I could for the upcoming few hours.
The official greeting in Uzbek airways remains ‘Assalamu Alaikum’, though the ‘ground’ realities are entirely different, as visitors had noted in their travelogues. Occasional flight announcements interrupted the sleepy eyes.
Uzbek soil, I have heard, is royally rich for both agricultural, political and intellectual cultivation. While cotton and other crops continue to enrich their economics, it has also supplied the world with some of the finest statesmen and scholars too. Amir Timur, Ulugbek and Babar shone on the power thrones. Bahauddin Naqshabandi reigned and rained in the believer’s hearts and Imam Bukhari on their minds.
It is impossible to enjoy the Uzbek breeze minus the fragrance of Imam Bukhari, the intellectual hero of Islamic world known for his unforgiving scrupulousness in recording the sayings of Prophet, known as Hadith. It is no poetic state for Lovers to lose sleep pondering on their Beloved. ‘I was with Imam Bukhari at his home. He woke up from sleep at least 18 times and each time wrote down something he remembered about Hadith’. For, when it comes to all things love, true lovers demand the highest form of accuracy. They content at nothing short of the truth. Imam Bukhari belonged to a wealthy family. He spent much wealth in seeking knowledge and when exhausted, he became so poor that he had to even eat grass once during his journeys. This ‘yellow-haired’ scholar (a traditional Arab reference to European-descent races) is credited with not only compiling the most revered book in Islamic world after Quran, but also producing some of the brilliant minds in Hadith literature such as Imam Muslim, Tirmidhi and anNasaai. Today’s Islamic world has few such self-less scholars but plenty of outspoken orators. And they mostly confuse between scholarship and eloquence. Orators are not same as scholars. Kerala Muslims are apparently in the forefront of this misunderstanding.
The thoughts of Bukhara’s scholar was interrupted by the ice-crowned mounts seen from Uzbek skies. The land of Timur and Babar were soon to arrive. Chocolate-like mountain ranges with vanilla toppings. I was sure Uzbekistan would give me sweet memories as I stepped out of the flight passing by the assuring smile of the Uzbek flight attendant.
Enter Tashkent airport. A tiny building compared to Humayun’s tomb back in Delhi. Modern governments’ architectural grandeur are nothing compared to the kings’ of past. The queues were modest, but being a tourist, the Timurian official let me go pass quickly. Behind me were native men, women and children of diverse appearance. Crowned with red, brown, yellow and black hairs, the children of Adam have honoured the Colours in nature.
After reaching the hotel, a harmless walk around the neighbourhood, I thought, would give some insight to the local life of this calm and quiet town. It was autumn. The trees had boldly shed their leaves for the onlooker to enjoy, and sweepers to clean. Rose gardens nearby complemented the existing beauty and twenty something degrees temperature pulled my age to a decade younger.
I approached the grocery beside a bus stand. Old and young natives waited for the public transport. I entered the shop in search of a local sim card only to be greeted by two youths of Tajik ethnicity. It took almost an hour of sign language to convince what exactly I was looking for. The moment he knew I was from India, he started exclaiming about the King Khan of Bollywood. I’m sure he knew very little that the son of Timur too shared the same name as SRK. He was equally excited, just as the waiter in the hotel, to see the sixth version of Steve job’s dream phone in my hand. He held it in his hand to take a snap and update his social media account with his picture holding it.
When it was time to pay him, he made me somehow understand that he didn’t want to be seen on the CC tv receiving the money for the SIM card. I left to him the problem of loyalty towards the owner of his business. The day came to an abrupt end and dinner was served at an Indian restaurant few miles from the hotel of residence.
The next day morning, post breakfast, I joined the sightseeing group around Tashkent.
Amir Timur Square
The Amir Timur square hosts an impressive statue of the legendary ruler on a horseback with the inscription ‘Strength in Justice’, which was built in 1993 by the then as well as now President. The square also has besides it the massive Hotel Uzbekistan.
Hazrat Imam Complex
Further ahead, the spacious Hazrat Imam complex hosts many significant buildings. The museum there contains the blood-stained copy of Quran belonging to Usman, the third Caliph of Islam. There is also an extensive library with very rare manuscripts from the Islamic world. The complex also has the tomb of Kaffal Shashi, a well known saint and poet of Shash (present day Tashkent). Several other mini tombs at the entrance belongs to his disciples. Little children came in long queues, led by their teachers, to the madrasa, carrying book and pen in hand. They giggled and wished ‘Assalamo alaikum’.
It was time for the midday prayer. The facility for ablution was magnificently arranged. Large number of water taps with royal seatings. After wodhu, a man stood at the counter to apply perfume for the worshippers. Elder men, with long coats and kingly looking caps, flocked towards the mosque.
After the obligatory prayer, there was a short session of melodious Quran recitation followed by dua and dhikr. Believers waited patiently for the devotional session to conclude before parting for their daily chores. The 40-something looking Imam was clean shaven even as the natives had full grown beards. They were eager to meet the Indian Musalman and expressed their pride as the descendants of Babar.
The ‘Shaheed Park’ is built in memory of those martyrs who laid their lives for the freedom of this country. Their names are preserved on golden metallic sheets well arranged in alphabetical order.
Modern Uzbekistan has spent (read invested) well in preserving their ancient and recent history for both political and economic reasons. Political, because the current regime needs it for existentialist reasons. Economical, because it attracts large number of tourists thus helping the ailing economy.
Lunch was held at the Tashkent town which had malls around the place. Besides the bread and soup, the final Savi, a sweet delicacy made of vermicelli, was especially endearing.
Lunch was followed by visit to the Kukuldesh Madrassah, an ancient school of Islamic learning, which had lost its prominence during the no-GOD Soviet Communist rule. The building contains a refreshing garden in its courtyard and is fully made in line with traditional Uzbek architecture with Persian arches and domes. Students are few just as in any other part of the world. The complex also has a calligraphy workshop for imparting this beautiful art. Upon conversing with the talented artist, he revealed about his trip to Kerala and blessing his art on a masjid in Calicut, the coastal trading town in North Kerala.
I was then taken to the well known Chorsu Bazaar, a marketplace for almost everything Uzbek. It even had goods from China. Clothes, bags, bread, fruits, sweets, dry fruits, meat, spices… it reminded me of the Silk Route documentaries on travel channels. Majority of the vendors here are the hard working elderly Uzbek women. There were more crowd than the items for sale. Bargaining was normal since outsiders were aplenty. I had my hands on few Uzbek delicacies and antiques.
The White Mosque
The White Mosque is another interesting monument of recent times. Men and women flocked in and around the masjid in the afternoons. Not only is the mosque beautiful with a large dome and without any pillars inside, but also allotted a spacious and gracious parking around it.
An Indian friend from the UAE showed me around further in Tashkent. He explained the massive earthquake which had destroyed this town (which reminded me the reason for the quake meter in the hotel). The Alisher Navoi Ballet Centre is an interesting sight in Tashkent. Impressed by the beauty of Uzbek women, he says, an average lady here has ‘fair and lovely’ appearance. The mere clerk in his office, to his disbelief, was a Uma Thurman lookalike.
It was 530pm local time. The day was coming to an end. But not the journey. I reached the gates of the Tashkent railways. There was huge rush at the security check. And then a long walk across the corridors. Stairs down. And then up. And then a long walk again. The sun was to set. Birds chirped in a hurry. And I hurried to the train cabin. The compartment was narrow. Even air would feel uneasy to pass by. Each cabin was to accommodate four passengers.
At exactly Six pm, the train moved forward and everything else around background. The two Uzbek men in my cabin spoke purely and only Uzbek. Hence, we didn’t (read couldn’t) bore each other out of talking.
We learn new and unlearn some other old habits during travel. It’s actually learning at circumstantial gunpoint. After a struggling ice breaking session, I understood my co-traveler name was Hasil. When told I was Indian, he too named a senior Bollywood actor’s name.
Do we need a world full of possessions to get our life going in this world? Are the basics in life as fundamental to us as we think they are? If a man and lady can survive during travel with a backpack of possessions, it means that, all that he or she needs in life is so much.
9pm. Phone Battery remains less than half. Only three hours had passed from the 15 hour journey to Tirmiz, home to the two Imams, Hakim Tirmidhi and Isa Tirmidhi.
Travel is an interesting time to remember and rehearse the praises of the Creator. For, isn’t life a long travel by itself. The co-traveler, an Uzbek army officer, readily corrected me in the direction to prayer and even gave me a thumbs up as I concluded my devotional act.
What did Tirmiz have in store for my eyes and heart? I would soon discover the next morning.
At 930am, I set foot on the platform of Tirmiz. A small town with very little people around the station. I prayed for the man in the train who could not sit well due to the bullet in his leg. Few trees here and there. Houses with roofs of asbestos sheets. Tirmiz was more than simple.
Breakfast consisted of soups and salads. Noodles and meat too.
The tomb of two Tirmiz Imams were both bathed in white marbles. Unlike the mausoleums in India, the nearby surroundings are elegantly clean and well maintained. The Islamic architecture is preciously preserved in these buildings, despite the unfavourable political conditions of past few century.
It was a regular sight at the tombs to come across newly wed couple with their relatives visiting for blessings and photographic purposes. The relatives became curious seeing this Indian origin and started taking photos with their mobile phones. And me of their’s.
The people of Uzbekistan had to undergo two regimes of utter suppression of their faith and practice. Even those who could afford to learn their creed had to sit in concealed bunkers under the light of candles.
The bus then moved across a beautiful but scary route of mountains and little streams. Cattle grazed on one side. Villagers on another. Humble vendors sold water, soft drinks and snacks at border stops with very strict security check. Tirmiz has very close borders with Afghanistan and hence the close vigilance perhaps.
Tirmiz is also the home of the spiritual guide of Amir Timur, Sayed Baraka, whose mausoleum I later found at Samarkand.
The time was almost 6pm. Night was waiting to embrace the solitary mountains to whisper its songs of Affinity. ALLAH is not short of ‘robotic’ worshippers. What HE loves is ‘conscious and self-aware’ Lovers who celebrate His glory & praise at all times, irrespective of the position of the solar body in the horizon.
And HE wants each heart individually, not a collective of any organisational banner. Almost every notable scholar in Islamic history, let alone of Uzbek soil, lived and worked unblessed by the shade of any organisational umbrella. The present institutional and organisational rich Kerala Muslims need to take note of this historical realty when breeding the ulama for community service.
The ulama-saturated Malabar should also immediately export a large part of its religious intelligentsia overseas to lesser Islamic educated communities. Uzbekistan is just one of them. This would of be tremendous help not only to these uneducated masses but also to the activism-suffocated Kerala society too.
By the time I’d finished grinding these thoughts, the bus had reached one of my most wished places to visit in Islamic history. A quiet town with grapevines hanging around, especially where the bus parked for dinner. How could I describe the joy in breathing the air of the land which was home to countless mystics and poets? So much of history. So much of poetry. So much of love. What were I supposed to make of all the terabytes of historical sights and sounds that Samarkand transmitted on my heart?
The first ‘sufioactive’ experience came at the mausoleum of Amir Timur (1336-1405), the very founder of this charismatic nation. The powerful ruler with all his dictatorial might and military force was gone for sure. Uzbekistan is, no doubt, no more the centre of world’s intellectual activism. It scientists and thinkers are no more awake. The Silk route is hardly as significant as an alleyway on the global commercial highway. Its kings no longer threaten the regional powers. But there remained a strong aura of the Amir’s presence. The massive Persian-designed building begged for a ‘like’ for the bygone Timurian glory. Like an incomplete dream, the fine domes and arches cried for the return of their architect.
The interplay between turquoise and golden coloured stones inside the mausoleum won my eyes and heart. For a minute, I paused in silence in respect for the Amir.
But whose was that tombstone at the front of all the Timurian members? Like an Imam leading followers in a congregational prayer or like a general leading his army in the battle, these royals lay in a line behind the singular tomb. I was told the solitary one belonged to Sayyid Baraka, the spiritual mentor of Amir Timur. Though much is not known about the Sayyid, he was said to have great influence with the Timur. The Amir considered the saint a very important figure in his life and would have heeded to advice during his powerful reign. Like his name suggests, the king perhaps received his ‘baraka’ (abundance and longevity in blessings) for his kingdom and helped to preserve his name and glory to be described in this micro-travelogue, at least.
The architecture on the roof was heavenly and the closest one can describe is but to visit it personally. Squares and circles, triangles and hexagons, cubes and cylinders … when carved with the chisel of passion, then it becomes more than geometry for the onlooker. And add to it the inscriptions of Word of God and utterances of His Beloved, matter becomes spirit and dust becomes gold.
It would be significant to recall that this tomb in Samarkad was the chief architectural if not spiritual inspiration behind the Humayun Mausoleum in Delhi which in turn fired the mind behind the magical Taj Mahal in Agra. The Gur-e-Emir mausoleum contains the tombs of his son and successor, Shahruh (1377-1447) and his grandson Mirzo Ulugbeg (1396-1449).
Nevertheless, howsoever big or small, all great things becomes nil. Amir Timur had a celebrated empire with Mediterranean one one hand and Indian subcontinent to the other. But every full moon fades. So did Timur’s empire. Let peace and blessings prevail in the abode of the Sayyid and his royal disciples. Visitors, both natives and foreigners, continued to flock the mausoleum. I happened to meet some of the local elders while on the way out.
In the vicinity of this area is the Rukhabad (monastery of spirit) mausoleum which houses the mortal remains of Burkhaneddin Sagaradji, another sanctified saint who died in China but had willed to be buried in the land of Samarkand.
Samarkand is also home to Imam Al Maturidi, the intellectual counterpart of Al Ash’ari, two renowned souls who defended the creed of Orthodox Islam from the disintegrating attack of rationalists and philosophers.
This landmark is counted among the world’s most beautiful squares and is called by many as the Pearl of Central Asia. This architectural ensemble accommodates three madrassahs, the Ulugbek madrasah (1417-1420), Sherdor Madrasah (1619-1636) and Tillya-Kari Madrasah (1646-1647), besides the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, which is a mosque named after Amir Timur’s wife. It should be noted that it is very rare in traditional Islamic societies to have mastoids named after women. Masjidul Ayesha, in Makkah, is a rare but popular exception.
Registan, literally meaning “a sandy place”, was a first class commercial centre in Timurian times but shifted to become a a spiritual centre under Ulugbeg. Today, it’s neither. Presently, its completely dysfunctional in terms of the original purpose for which it was built. While UNESCO has added this landmark with the surroundings to its World Heritage List, Registan was originally a commercial-spiritual hub of Samarkand. Today history seeks refuge within its bricks. When the Silk route ceased to operate via Samarkand, everyone abandoned its glory so much that legend has it that madrassas whose products included brilliant minds such as poet, scholar and philosopher, Abdurrahman Jami, became inhabited by beasts. And what could one conclude about the spiritual condition of a community where animals roam in its religious schools?
I saw shops selling handicrafts and traditional attires, mainly catering to western tourists. Several government schools which are number-named in reference to their academic ranking. Well-groomed in their black uniform, children were heading towards their institutions. Some rode cycles. Most walked. The only moving vehicle was that of the municipality to water the plants. Fast food outlets with kabobs and fresh juices could also be seen. Natives here are highly respectful of tourists and fascinated to have them photographed.
Not very far from the Square is the ‘Tomb of the Living King’, or Shakhi-Zinda which is blessed with the burial tomb of Qusam ibn Abbas, the cousin of Holy Prophet (Sallallahualaihiwasallam) who played an important role in spreading the fragrance of Islamic faith in this region. The Holy Prophet himself described ‘Qusam as the closest in resemblance in his character and looks’. The architecture of this complex, which also has the graves of several royal family members of Timur including women, is regarded as one of the finest examples of Persian architecture.
By then it was time for the Friday congregational prayer. The tide of Faith has risen and fallen. But the Friday ‘EID’ continue to be celebrated with modest vigour, even in the less vigorous Muslim communities. And where else but beside the hero of Bukhara could one find a better venue to spend such blessed moments?
The turquoise-colored domes welcomed us to cherish the glory of Creator. Believers flocked in hurry to capture their seat inside the masjid. On the way, the bridal shooting session continued.
Inside the mosque, the Imam delivered the sermon in Uzbek first, then in Arabic. The latter seemed to be less fluent than expected. With a mini dome-sized white headgear, he was completely dressed in white spotting zero beard on his face. After the prayer, he conversed little in Arabic. Men in black suits adorned in tubeteika , the typical squared Uzbek cap, escorted him while he was returning to his room.
An aged Uzbek man walked in silence holding onto his staff in hand. Unlike Moses, he didn’t have the power to split the ocean of history and march into the bygone past of his favourite Imam’s days of love and learning.
Women in bright coloured attires roamed the courtyard searching for their dreams and prayers for their future. They hoped, perhaps, a visit to the Saintly Compiler of Prophetic Narrations would knit their broken hearts.
As I walked towards the tomb of the Imam, a family group of seven members – five male and two women, were performing congregational invocation to the Creator. Their eyes fixed on the white tombstone of the Imam’s mausoleum.
The tombstone is on an elevated platform, although the actual grave is much below.
Newlyweds assembled with an existing delegation to offer their respects and duas. I too prayed standing beside the Imam. May the Uzbek soil be once again blessed with more men and women of Imam Bukhari’s like. With a golden memory and golden pen, the Imam was gold in letter and spirit. And not to forget, it was his devout mother who raised him and provided the fodder for his knowledge cultivation.
A little girl played on the rails of the garden in the courtyard. The innocence on her face would baffle even the angels around this vicinity. The arches reflected well in the green pond in the left corner.
I concluded the visit and walked towards the exit gate. The corridors of my heart remained half-content. I didn’t have enough of this cradle of learning. Samarkand still remains on the top of my wish-list. A land so blessed and kissed with history and heritage. Given a chance, I would still dare and care to fly there again. Samarkand is actually the Sama’ for the souls who love the melody of culture and heritage.
Uzbeks believe that visiting the three shrines in Samarkand on a single day, including Imam Bukhari, Shakhi Zinda and Rukhabad, is equivalent to ‘small hajj’. Hailing from a native town close to the ‘Minor Makkah’, I too felt more or less the same.
” The dervish imbued with the spirit of God is neither of the East nor of the West
My home is neither Delhi, nor Isfahan nor yet Samarkand.”
The bus turned sharply to the right and I suddenly realised I was at neither of Iqbal’s couplet. I rubbed my eyes and stroked my heart. A lot had happened in the three hour something drive from Samarkand.
Grapevine hung here and there, blushed in the cold. Past seemed to be alive here more than the present. Was this for real or super-real? My heart had to testify to what my eyes witnessed. Yes, I was in Bukhara, the gem-city of countless poet-saints and saint-poets. Scientists and theologians, arithmeticians and musicians, architects and artists, saints and painters, Bukhara (had) had it all.
Rumi who crowned human poetry concluded that if you had to be learned, then you had to be Bukhara soil.
آن بخارا معدن دانش بود
“Bukhara is a mine of knowledge,
پس بخاراییست هرک آنش بود
Of Bukhara is he who possesses knowledge.”
Bukhara was a benevolent blast within. Would I be able to contain the impact of this super opportunity that befell on the doorstep of my destiny? Would I first stretch my hand to the skies in gratitude or rather contract them to capture the beauty in the limited hours I could afford in this blessed town?
Bukhara is still today what it was earlier: the vihara (Sankrit word meaning monastery) of the man’s quest for endless perfection and wisdom. With more than three hundred mosques and madrassas, Bukhara was the sanctuary of Islamic learning, with the religious schools’s syllabi lasting unto twenty one years.
Bukhara is inhabited by several ethnic communities including Tajiks, Russians, Uzbeks, Tatars and Koreans besides Turkmen and Ukrainians. Jews too inhabited this scholarly city until recently.
The stay was arranged at the Lab-i Hauz Ensemble. But how could one sleep in peace listening to the melodious myths and lovely legends knocking on the window panes? I could not stop gazing out of the balcony enjoying every nano-pixel of the surrounding beauty. Could human made architecture be this marvellous? Past eclipsed the Present here by every count. The likes of the arches and pillars of this UNESCO-recognised heritage area were nowhere seen. It was if they engineered the monuments using the music-emitting geometry.
This by-the-pond city had many ponds in the olden days, I am told. The coming of Soviets reduced their number considerably. The Ensemble has around it the Kukeldash Madrasah (1568–1569), the largest among others, a monastery for Sufi retreat and yet another grand madrasah too.
Lab-i-Hauz’s architecture for the onlooker is music for ears and candy for lips. The grandeur of an isolated pillar in an isolated corner will rival the outstanding architecture elsewhere.
Morning broke out in truly beautiful style. Light shower added to the already intoxicating experience. My senses became drunk with the magical surroundings. The ‘mizan’ of my Conscience jolted between Past and Present. Unable to stand the torrent of this exhilarating ambience, I decided to swim into it than to run away.
The canals were handsomely flowing with water. Narrow alleyways ran on different sides. Birds shared with one another their joy of rain. Coffee-brown tiles appeared brighter with the drops. Umbrella-veiled women with children were walking to the school. Rainwater accumulated in certain corners. The canal water reflected the youthful sky.
The balconies of the residences had twin doors, one of wooden and the other of glass. Curtain covered both. Wood was lavishly utilised and the roof interior was luxuriously used.
I walked past the Nadir Divan-begi Madrasah, the seminary named after its builder. The madrasah is said to contain a Sufi retreat centre which has nevertheless ceased to be used for at least past few centuries.
A few steps ahead, I met with a journalist from an European TV channel who had come here to produce a documentary on the wonders of Bukhara. He recalled walking past this city two decades ago in its higher originality with less tourists and tourists-related developments. Like any other tourist-prone venues in the world, Bukhara too had its ‘history-whorification’ of people and places to seduce more visitors. Nevertheless, Bukhara remained far authentic than other destinations elsewhere.
Little did I know as I walked further, I was entering the once busiest markets during the Great Silk Route days. These isolated shops and antique-sellers were then the hub of profitable trade in the 16th century. The Shaybanides had transformed Bukhara’s Trading Domes into the most sought after centres of international trade. These streets were heavily congested so much that residents could hardly move around. These Domes housed one of the largest currency exchanges known as Sarraf which in turn inspired the name ‘Toki-Sarrofon’ for one of the domes here. Now all that I could find here were caps, handbags, antiques, jewelries, musical instruments like duff and carpets. Other shops sold pottery. Local craftsmen made their living quenching the tourists’ curiosity for Uzbek antiques. Another dome here is called Kitab-Furushon since it was mainly for selling books. Knowledge was a gem in Bukhara, until recently.
Old women sold these antiques with great vigour. If not anything else, Bukhara lend its heritage to fill the hunger of its people. Vendors conducted their business from both permanent and temporary kiosks.
I walked on. And stopped at a place where a tower’s height reached as far as my eyes could. This ‘Burj’ was called the Kalyan Minaret and was part of the larger complex called the Poi Kalyan Ensemble.
The Poi Kalyan, or the Pedestal of the Great, comprised of the Great Kalyan Masjid, Pir Arab Madrasa, Kalyan Minaret and the Amir-Alimkhan Madrasa.
The Minaret is fashioned in Mavernaharan architecture and was ordered to be built by Arslan Khan. A man named Bano, who is believed to be buried behind the tower, was the chief architect of this mammoth structure who completed it in around 1127. The minaret was used to call the faithful for the five times congregational prayer.
The Madrasa buildings were long and grand. Their walls today serve no purpose but to yield tourists’ ‘likes’. A garden yearning for flowers. The sky weeping for stars. A flawless wine-cup sans any wine. Bukhara’s Madrasas had all but the soul. The fragrance of Knowledge and its Seekers were nowhere around them.
The Kalyan Masjid was built and rebuilt repeatedly after being victim of the Mongol scourge and other disasters. Though Timur focused on cultivating the architectural landscapes of Samarkand, it was Ulugbeg, who under the inspiration of influential Bukharan religious figures, went on a architectural spree in this site. A large courtyard stretches outside the Masjid while blue domes and coffee-coloured arches ‘cool’ the onlooker’s pupil.
Though after a struggle with my spell-bound mind, I finally broke free from the Kalyan ‘karamat’. Resisting all the sights and sounds, I treaded the path into the narrow alleys.
After walking a while through non-paved tracks, some old women sitting outside their small dwellings showed me the way to the four-minareted seminary, Chor Minor Madrasa. The rectangular building is fortified by four tall minarets with four minor domes. While some say the four minarets indicate four world religions, it is hard to conclude so in the absence of any solid facts. The building also contains a hauz-basin for ablution purposes. Believed to be built by the wealthy Turkmen Caliph Niyazkul, one can find also the ‘dhikr-hana’, the monastery for mystical rituals including sufi recitations and music.
A dog began to bark restlessly from a house nearby. I thought it was better to leave to destination other.
The clouds by then had freed the sun from captivity. Day became brighter as I reached to another masjid closer. The signboard read, ‘Bolo Khauz’. One more masjid with one more pond facing it. Water was as green as forest but inaccessible to the public. The visitor would take around 10 minutes to walk around it. The mosque structure had narrow pillars with gigantic height. One version of history says it was an Emir’s wife who ordered the building in 1712. Others claim it was a people-friendly king who commissioned its construction. Either way it served well the little observant faithful population.
A craftsman outside the mosque corridor executed his art with his ancient tools unaffected by my interruptive approach. Today’s artists’ greatest challenge is to remain indifferent to the distractive encroachments from anti-art elements. Most men and women of calibre undergo their intellectual vertigo during their career.
I counted almost 13 pillars and before I finished my count, the azan began to be heard. The craftsman kept his tools aside and was readying for the prayer.
But why was the azan so low-volumed? It did not radiate across the skies nor pierce the ears. That is when I looked back and noticed the muezzin standing outside the masjid and airing the call sans any mic. Though it was reminiscent of the Prophetic days when his favourite Bilal would invite the faithful with his loud human voice, what struck me was this strong contrast to the microphone usage in the Muslim world. Hailing from a non-Muslim majority democratic nation, it was hard to digest a 99% Muslim majority state not allowing its faithful to use loudspeaker for azan?
Calligraphy was carved sumptuously on the walls. Names of Allah and Prophet were deliberated in all possible shapes and colours.
Observant Faith in Bukhara did not have the charm of the beautiful rose flower which kept dancing in front of the masjid. I left without much delay from the Children’s Pond masjid.
Soon I arrived at the gates of a mausoleum which was built for the Samanids, the last Persian dynasty to rule over central asia. The building had the colour of Tea break biscuit.
Although the Samanid Dynasty began as a dependent governorate of the Abbasid Dynasty in Baghdad, they soon established their independent rule of law and art as well. It seems inevitable, from known history, that every extension of an existing authority further evolves to become a self-reliant power on its own.
The mausoleum contains the remains of Ismail Samani, a powerful ruler and founder of this dynasty, among other rulers of his bloodline.
A bystander asked me had I been to the Chashma-Ayub, the well believed to be formed at the hands of the Prophet Ayub whose waters have healing benefit for its users.
For a while, I relaxed on a bench placed in the courtyard. And watched a white cat walking by in search of something. It was hard to comprehend its intentions behind its compassionate walk.
Bukhara was not just about mosques, mausoleums and madrasas. The Ark fort, considered to be built around 500 AD and innovated several times under different regimes, also had one of the finest libraries in the then world. Ibn Sina, the intellectual hero of Khurasan, has showered much praise on this house of knowledge:
“I found in this library such books, about which I had not known and which I had never before seen in my life. I read them, and I came to know each scientist and each science. Before me lay gates of inspiration into great depths of knowledge which I had not surmised to exist.”
The Ark also gave refuge to the local population when Genghis Khan inc. attacked this part of Khorasan region.
The Ark had tower-like minarets and walls. Just after the entrance, a structure stood with huge pillars which reminded me of the Bolo-Khauz masjid. Behind it, a native trader sold antiques and textiles for the visitors.
I spoke to an old lady who seemed to be wrinkled from both age and experience. She turned out to be a teacher by profession who was educated in Germany and taught English in Russia. She had worked with the military too and, like all veterans, could recall well the bygone days and nights of war.
The museum inside the Ark had an excellent collection of paintings and pictures of the bygone past. The costumes and thrones of kings and queens were preserved inside glass boxes. Swords and other war-wares were on display too.
Finally, the guard at the Ark showed me the prison where the culprits were imprisoned to complete their term or life, or whichever came first.
It was almost time to bid farewell for to Bukhara. But how could a bee return without tasting the nectar from the hive? How to leave the house without paying respects to the host?
Bukhara owes its material beauty to its spiritual architect. There I went, to the presence of Shaykh Bahaddin, the spiritual head of Naqshabandi branch of ‘sufistic healing’.
The entrance was drenched with rain. A golden dome crowned the Persian designed mausoleum. In I entered. the breeze of beloved Bahaddin’s benevolence began to bloom in my heart’s garden. Visitors from east and west surrounded the master. I stood a few steps away behind a visiting scholar from India, co-incidentally with the same name.
However, discontent with the few steps distance, I moved closer. And then I offered my loud love silently before the sufi emperor. Spiritual masters live and rule longer in people’s hearts than worldly rulers do in their lands. While kings and generals’ dominion ends when their eyes go wide shut, the spiritual heroes remain evergreen celebrities despite their mortal farewell from this finite world.
Lovers are not content with treading others’ paths. Their feet hesitate to try used sandals. After a time, they are shy to borrow arrows from fellow hunters’ quivers. Others’ wine fail to intoxicate them. Instead they prefer to brew their own. Shaykh Bahauddin, like Abraham, wished for a path on which he could lead others. “Give me a way which will lead all who travel on it directly to the Divine Presence.” The present shows his prayer was fulfilled in better fashion than he had originally imagined.
Naqshabandiya order continue to remain a ‘premium brand’ in the Sufi ‘marketplace’. Hundreds of thousands since his lifetime have joined this ‘hearti-culture’ revolution cultivating their souls with the Divine crop.
Bahauddin suffered great trials and tests in attaining the spiritual status he was blessed with. He swore to ruthlessly follow the lifestyle of the Merciful Meem to the minutest detail as possible. And the Lord in return rewarded Bahaddin for endearing His Beloved.
Little boys ran around playfully. I watched their innocence while wiping my moist eyes.
As I came out of his love-shrine, a pigeon sat on the fence in silent meditation. Was it, like me, enjoying the spiritual nectar from Bahauddin’s hive just as the butterfly enjoying the flower’s in the adjacent garden? The flowers there had an extraordinary colour and vigour like nowhere before.
Uzbekistan’s itinerary was destined, it seemed, to culminate with Shaykh Bahauddin’s graceful presence. Uzbek land is the land of charms. Of architecture, art and authority. And of scholarly and spiritual sultans too. Imam Bukhari and Sheikh Bahauddin were, and to some extend still are, two unmatchable gems of this treasure land.
When I boarded the flight back to Delhi, the land that used to be playground for the power games of the Timurian descendants, I felt an extraordinary connection between the two nations. Uzbekistan was no longer alien nor foreign to me. With the Two Bs, Baber and Bukhari, I had to acknowledge the Uzbek contribution to my own country and creed.
I am not sure if these hurriedly penned notes would satiate my near ones. Nevertheless, expectations from the beloved ones are both a burden and blessing. Hoping these notes become a generous payback for their caring curiosity.
Dec 24 2014