Traveling through Pakistan countryside away from the main highways, it is best to keep remember that petrol stations are few and far between on relatively deserted roads. Also the road, drive slowly and keep close to the edge of your road when encountering large trucks. Watch out for animals transport and animals on the road. Be sure your motor vehicle is roadworthy. You do not want to suffer a breakdown anywhere back o’ Bourke, ie, away from civilization. Or else be ready to what happened to us while going to see the mosque in Bhong.
After having famous ‘Doodh Mesu’ from a hotel in Sadiq Abad, we turned off the Road towards village Bhong. In the areas as the harvest approaches, the traveller, especially in the irrigated tracts, ride through endless expanses of waving crops of different shades of colour, out of which the villages seem to rise like islets in an ocean of green. After the harvest all is changed: the dull brown of the fields is relieved by the trees, solitary or in groves and avenues, and by the hamlets and village ponds. Or one sees the haystacks and threshers kicking off dust.
The modern demographic trends are changing the relations between rural and urban areas. Insufficient infrastructure, non-existing civic services and lack of opportunities in rural areas have increased rural-to-urban migration. There is a lack of human capacity in the Punjabi villages in general.
Bhong Mosque is famous the world over. Late Rais Ghazi Mohammad, the direct descendent of Abbasi family of Bahawalpur and landlord of a large estate, began the mosque project in 1932 in Bhong village, the most important of the scattered villages on his vast property. The mosque was to be the most glorious building in his palace compound which also included a smaller mosque, a madrasa and rooms for students.
The work of specialists gathered from all over Pakistan and India (master masons and craftsmen from Rajasthan, calligraphers and painters from Karachi), the compound was designed and constructed over a period of nearly 50 years. And it is. Broadly assorted in their use of sources, the builders have combine stylistic elements from Lahore, as well as Iran, Spain and Turkey, and combined them with almost all known elements of the time. Materials and crafts used range from the traditional (teak, ivory, marble, coloured glass, onyx, glazed tile work, fresco, mirror work, gilded tracery, ceramic, calligraphic work and inlay) to the modern and synthetic (marbleised industrial tile, artificial stone facing, terrazzo, coloured cement tile and wrought iron). Only traditional materials were used in the mosque interiors. Gold leaves have been used for the intricate decorative work in the mosque which has made it famous. It is a site worth visiting for its beauty and the stylish calligraphic work.
The Bhong Mosque stands on a majestic citadel like a pearl. It is a part of a complex that consists of a prayer hall, library, a madrasa, and residential dormitories for students and visitors. The complex is utilized by the local population. The madrasa is functional, although with less importance than in the past when students came to the school from as far as Turkey, Afghanistan, and Iran.
Bhong Mosque received the Aga Khan International Award for Architecture in 1986. In the words of the jury: “Bhong (Mosque) enshrines and epitomises the popular taste in Pakistan with all its vigour, pride, tension and sentiment. Its use, and misuse, of signs and symbols expresses appropriate growing pains of architecture in transition.” Earlier, the shrine of Shah Rukn-e-Alam was given the prestigious Aga Khan award. The Tughlaq built shrine marks the climax of Multani architecture and is surprisingly original.
Since conference of award, the Mosque has become a site of interest for architects from all over the world. “To many architects and intellectuals, the Bhong Mosque complex is a product that negates the very purpose of an architectural enterprise rooted in the deep understanding of the culture,” writes steering committee member and architect Ismail Serageldin. “To many others, it is a wonderful, exuberant structure that evokes an almost palpable joie de vivre, and that represents a bow to the prevailing taste of its users,” stated (along with the majority’s final thoughts and statements) by Hans Hollein and the Turkish architect Mehmet Doruk Pamir in their work. Much more have been written by the international architectural press about the mosque that is a thing of beauty.
The Aga Khan International Award for Architecture, established in 1977 by His Highness the Aga Khan, recognises examples of architectural excellence that encompass contemporary design, social housing, community improvement and development, restoration, re-use, and area conservation, as well as landscaping and environmental issues. Through its efforts, the Award seeks to identify and encourage building concepts that successfully address the needs and aspirations of societies in which Muslims have a significant presence. The award enhances the understanding and appreciation of Islamic culture as expressed through architecture. Through its efforts, the Award seeks to identify and encourage building concepts that successfully address the needs and aspirations of societies in which Muslims have a significant presence.
Beyond the architectural wonder and potential for development of pollution free, serene and quite sleepy place, the village is a dwelling where farmers live like rustic in the face of modern urban attractions and in the state of total neglect. Main bazaar is lined with modest shops selling meat, sweets, fresh vegetables and other commodity items. There are few hotels. Sturdy tonga is the vehicle of convenience here for going to and coming from place to place. But the moment some automobile passes through the bazaar, it kicks thick clouds of dust that keep hanging for some time before it settles on eatables on sale in the open.
Tractors, Suzuki pickups and small tucks are edging out animal drawn carts seen roaming on the dusty trails and tracks of rural Pakistan now. But animal power can not be written off in and around Bhong village. Bullocks, donkeys, horses and camels drawn carts still move large quantity of freight in rural areas (as well as cities). They go where trucks can not go; they are cheap; they are invaluable when speed is not important. They have not outlived their utility so they will be with us for at least another 50 years.
Similarly, agricultural implements like axes; hatches, shackles and ploughs produced by village lohar (blacksmith) are being replaced by modern farming machinery. The tradesmen like lohar, tarkhan (carpenter), nai (barber) and darzi (tailor) traditionally working in the villages since centuries – mostly paid in the form of grain at the end of each rabi and kharif seasons – are no more pursuing their vocations. They are putting their children in schools for education, instead, And, without the agricultural land holding, it is easier for these tradesmen to shift to the cities. But the Bhong Mosque will stay there for ever for people to come and see.
It is on our way back that only seven kilometers from the National Highway, engine of our vehicle (RKR Toyota Jeep) coughed and died down. Driver opened the bonnet, fiddled around some and gave a blank look. Every one else also tried to figure out what has happened but no results till Captain Jamal pointed out that we should also check the petrol level. That was it. The driver was sent to get the petrol with empty container hanging at the back of the vehicle on a local bus who came after one and half hour. And while waiting under a shady tree, we had a cribbing and bickering session.