Visitors to Afghan Interiors have often marvelled at the lighting in the store – hundreds of hand-painted camel-skin lamps decorated with flowers and geometric patterns. These lamps are unique to Multan, a city of ancient renown, and the fifth largest in Pakistan.
The hand-painted designs of the lamps share a common origin with Moghul tilework, visible throughout Multan. Ceramics and tilework are historically famous industries here, based on the alluvial clay of the surrounding river systems.
Multan is known popularly as the ‘City of Sufis’, referring to the wonderful collection of shrines dedicated to various saints and founders of Sufi orders that still form the town’s most prominent landmarks.
The two-storied octagonal mausoleum of Shah Rukn-e-Alam, with its white dome and bands of dark blue, azure and white glazed tiles contrasting with buff-coloured polished mud brick, is in my opinion, one of the most beautiful Islamic monuments in South Asia.
The city’s shrines glitter with intricate glazed tiles that were produced in the medieval and Moghul eras. Formerly these achieved a wide range of colours, including reds, olive greens and acid yellows. Unfortunately, over time this technology was lost, and today’s ceramic products are chiefly blue-and-white. Luckily, the lamps are still painted in glowing colours.
The liberal and syncretic religious traditions of the city are probably a consequence of Multan’s location astride the southerly of the two main trade and invasion routes between the India and Afghanistan, via Kandahar and the Bolan Pass. (The other being by way of Kabul and the Khyber Pass)
This made it a natural meeting-place for the religions, trade and culture of the Arab world to the south, of central Asia to the West, and Indian sub-continent to the east.
The camel leather does not originate in Multan itself. It is mainly brought in as salted hides from the Cholistan Desert to the east. Here, at the great Islamic festivals of ‘Big’ and ‘Little’ Eid, the ritual slaughter of hundreds of camels takes the place of the feast of sheep and goats more usual in other parts of Pakistan. This seasonal income is of great importance to these pastoral semi-nomadic people, and the processing of the hides supports a large number of workers in the city.
Multan is also colloquially known for ‘heat, dust and beggars’. Stranded in the baking plains of southern Punjab, near the confluence of the Indus and the five rivers that give the province its name, it’s certainly hot, 57 C having been recorded one unlucky summer.
However, this in combination with widespread irrigation and rich alluvial soils also makes it extraordinarily rich agriculturally. Cash crops such as cotton, sugar cane, tobacco, wheat, and, most famously, mangoes provide the foundation of the city’s economy.
I entered Multan from the north through an endless green sea of mango orchards. This being winter, smudge fires had been lit to prevent any hint of frost blighting the crown of the trees.
In summer, roadside stalls are the scene of mango orgies. The fruit are plucked and eaten straight from the trees for a few cents, with the juice running down to your elbows. Wise men temporarily doff their kameez to eat. (Multanis are rather more uninhibited than the Pathans to their north when it comes to public displays of flesh, at least of the male sort, with the Indian dhoti frequently taking the place of the loose trousers worn elsewhere.)
Australian mango-lovers may also note that Multan produces over 200 different varieties, of every conceivable shape and colour, ‘Anwar Ratol’ and ‘Chonsa’ being the most popular on the domestic market. However, the jewel in the crown, little known to outsiders, is a variety as delicious as it is difficult to grow, called ‘Sanglaki’. This seldom makes its way outside of Multan.