The Mizdahkan Necropolis: A city for the dead

About 20 km west of Nukus and past the town of Khojayli on the way to the Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan border crossing, is Mizdahkan. An ancient and vast necropolis, Mizdahkan is spread over three low-lying hills, covering an area of approximately 2

Mizdahkan appears rather suddenly in an otherwise flat landscape. One moment you are driving past Soviet-style blocky constructions separated by vast stretches of emptiness. The next moment there are thousands of graves, tombs and mausoleums stretching away from you and into the horizon. Even though I had seen online images of the Mizdahkan Necropolis before my visit their, their appearance was still unexpected and a little unreal. I actually confirmed with the driver that it was Mizdahkan !

A low boundary wall separates the necropolis from the road, and like the seemingly unending graves it enclosed, this one too seemed to stretch on without a break. Just as I was wondering where the entrance to Mizdahkan was, a partly open blue door appeared on the wall. It was the entrance to the city of the dead, Mizdahkan.

Once inside the blue doors and after the initial look, the first thing that struck me was the different ages, styles and types of tombs — from unmarked graves to those with gravestones to plain tombs to elaborate ones to well-preserved ones to those falling apart… they were all there.

Mizdahkan, Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan, Necropolis, City of the Dead, Ancient burial site, travel, Central Asia, Culture Continue reading

Art in the Desert: The Savitsky Collection at Nukus

I love museums and they are an integral part of my travels. The trip to Uzbekistan was no different and I visited quite a few museums there. In the case of one museum, I took it one step further — I added one destination to my Uzbekistan itinerary, only because of that museum.

The destination? Nukus, in the remote Karakalpakstan region of Uzbekistan. The museum? The Karakalpak Museum of Arts, which houses the Savitsky Collection.

Karakalpakstan Museum of Art Savitsky Museum Nukus

The Karakalpakstan Museum / Nukus Museum which houses the Savitsky Collection

The story of how this museum (known locally as the Nukus or Savitsky Museum) came to be is straight out of a “believe it or not”. Like most stories, it has:.

A protagonist: Igor Savitsky, an artist
An antagonist: the Communist Soviet government
A supporting cast: Several artists from Uzbekistan and Russia
A location: Karakalpakstan

Our story begins in 1950, when Igor Savitsky (1915–1984) joined the “Khorezm Archaeological and Ethnographic Expedition led by the world-famous scientist, Sergei P. Tolstov” as the artist for the expedition. Continue reading

A city called Nukus

Nukus was my first halt in Uzbekistan. The 6th largest city of the country, it is the capital of Karakalpakstan, an autonomous region within Uzbekistan. Karakalpakstan covers a third of the area of Uzbekistan, which includes a major portion of the Ustyurt Plateau, and the Kyzyl-Kum Desert. The Amu Darya river is the lifeline of the region and flows through the city of Nukus.

Nukus is not known for its tourist attractions, but there was a reason I visited this city. More about that at the end of the post. It is located about 1000 km northwest of Tashkent, or a two-and-a half-hour journey by air from there by a propeller-driven plane, like the one in the photograph below.

Hukus, Tashkent Domestic Airport, Propeller PlaneHukus, Tashkent Domestic Airport, Propeller PlaneWhen I saw the propeller-driven planes waiting on the tarmac of the Tashkent Domestic Airport, I got all excited as I had never flown in one. But 5 minutes into flying, I was reaching for ear plugs for they were incredibly noisy. It didn’t help that my window overlooked one of the propellers.

Once the initial excitement of the propeller plane had worn off, the flight was uneventful and monotonous, just like the landscape on ground below. Apart from a road or two or a cluster of dwellings, I didn’t see anything to break the sandy ground below.

Nukus itself arrived rather suddenly and if I didn’t feel the plane descending, I wouldn’t have known that we had arrived. It is only later that I found out that the city is quite spread out and away from the airport, and one of the reasons why I didn’t see anything from the air.

When I landed at the rather small and quaint Nukus Airport on that September morning, I had been travelling (or waiting for a connecting flight) for almost 20 hours, and sleep deprived for even longer. It had been a long journey from humid Mumbai, to hot Delhi to cold Tashkent to dry and arid Nukus. I should have been sleepy and tired, but thanks to the numerous cups of coffee and excitement at finally being in Uzbekistan, I was not only awake, but also alert and ready to explore. :)

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Dear Uzbekistan

Many, many years ago there was once a quiet, little girl who was happiest among books, especially picture books. She hadn’t yet learned to read, and would always be asking her family members to explain what she was ‘reading’.

One day, her father came home with a stack of magazines. The little girl went through them all, one by one. She was particularly mesmerised by the cover of one of the magazines. It had a picture of a blue dome against an even bluer sky, and she liked it so much that she wanted to see the dome for real.

Uzbekistan, Samarkand, Samarqand, Blue ribbed domeShe went up to her father and told him of her intention. Her father looked at the magazine cover and said, “This is in a place called Samarqand. You want to go to there?”

The girl nodded.

“It’s quite far from here. Why don’t you wait till you are grown up?”

“Okay,” said the little girl. “I will go to Samarqand when I grow up.”

The years went by. The little girl grew up, the magazine got misplaced, her father passed away, but the blue dome of Samarqand and her dream of seeing it was not forgotten. Friends and family, who knew of this, would often ask when she was visiting Samarqand. Her answer always was, “I don’t know when. All I know is that one day I will.”

That day came four decades after she had first declared her intention to visit Samarqand. Last month, the now not-so-little girl made that trip to Samarqand and other places in Uzbekistan. There was a touch of the unreal when her plane landed in Tashkent and she couldn’t help but wonder if she was part of a dream. The fresh, cold air that hit her when she exited the aircraft convinced her that this was no dream, but the real thing ! :)

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Book Review: Waters Close Over Us

This book review is part of #TSBCReadsIndia, a reading challenge wherein one reads a book from each State and Union Territory of India. Presenting the book from Madhya Pradesh and the third of the 36 books to be read in this literary journey across India.

My earliest travel memories revolve around trains and river crossings, in particular the Narmada at Bharuch. I remember being awed by the expanse of the river flowing the railway bridge, and wondering where all that water was coming from and where it was going to. As the train crossed the river, my mother and I would fling coins from the train window into the Narmada. These were offerings, my mother would whisper into my ears, for the Narmada as it was life-sustaining and, therefore, sacred. Together, we would fold our hands and bow before the river.

Decades have passed since those train journeys. I no longer throw coins into the Narmada or other rivers from the train window, but my fascination and reverence for rivers — especially the Narmada — continues even today. And that was the reason I bought a copy of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada (HB, 242 pages, 2013, Fourth Estate) by Hartosh Singh Bal, soon after its release.

Waters Close Upon usThe book lay unread for almost 2 years and then #TSBCReadsIndia happened. I did not even have to think twice before selecting this book as my read for Madhya Pradesh. There couldn’t be a more apt book for as just as Madhya Pradesh is the geographical heart of India, so is the river Narmada. Continue reading

Buddha, Brahma & Shankaracharya: A visit to Nala Sopara

The visit to Nala Sopara in March this year had its beginnings in a museum located 85 km away in Mumbai. On one of my many visits to the sculpture gallery of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, I came across an exhibit which, at first glance, looked like a random block of stone.

Ashokan Edict, Nala Sopara, ShurapakaBut museums don’t exhibit just about any random block of stone, do they? A closer look at the stone exhibit revealed inscriptions and when I read the accompanying information board, discovered that I was looking at the 9th Ashokan Edict. This edict, which dates the third century BCE, had been found at a stupa in Nala Sopara.

I was vaguely aware that Nala Sopara had a Buddhist past, but this was the first time I was hearing about the presence of a stupa there. An internet search revealed that the stupa at Nala Sopara still existed, that it was under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), and also that one could visit it. The same internet search also led me to this fabulous blog post that not only talked about the stupa, but also an ancient temple in Nala Sopara — the Chakreshwar Mahadev Temple.

The result? The first free Saturday that came up saw me headed for Nala Sopara (which is connected by suburban train services from Mumbai) with my friends — Anuradha, Rama and Rupal. :)

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