A Day in Khiva

272Pahalvan Mahmood is perhaps the only wrestler in history who has a beautiful mausoleum built for him, which he shares with his king. The Pahalvan apparently was a man of extraordinary talents. Apart from his herculean strength and skills as a wrestler he was a polyglot, philosopher and a poet. He was also known to be a Sufi and the patron saint of the city of Khiva in Khorezm (Khorasan) region of present-day Uzbekistan. As I stand agape at the beautiful monument, our guide Umeeda tells me that the most famous wrestling match that Pahalvan Mahmood had won was with a renowned Indian pahalvan in the city of Multan. Pahalvan Mahmood beat the Indian wrestler and was cleverly able to free over 500 Uzbek prisoners as a reward for his efforts.

The Pahalvan’s mausoleum is carefully kept in Khiva, has a magnificent tiled courtyard and a turquoise dome, which gleamed in the sun. The aquamarine dome is striking and the tiling on the walls and the sarcophagus are marvellous. The tomb was built-in 1326 and has been very well-preserved. Pahalvan Mahmud has the honour of sharing the mausoleum with the 13th-century ruler of Khiva.

224Khiva has a history going back to over 1000 years. The city is located on the banks of Amu Darya in the Khorezm region of Uzbekistan, west of the modern Uzbek capital Tashkent. The region is also famous as the birthplace of Al Biruni, arguably the finest scholar of the medieval Islamic era. Al Biruni knew physics, mathematics, astronomy and natural sciences. He was also a historian and linguist familiar with Khawarzemin, Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit, Greek, Hebrew and Syriac. Al Biruni travelled to India and published a famous study of Indian culture after studying Hinduism. In Khorezm, he is a national hero.

Fortunately, travel to Khiva is a lot easier in today’s time. Direct flights connect Tashkent to Amritsar and Delhi. The nearest airport to Khiva is Urgunch 70 minutes flying time from Tashkent. Khiva is a 40 minutes drive from Urgunch. A 4 lane modern highway took us from Urgunch to Khiva. The road on either side was lined with fields of cotton, sunflower and peach orchards. The land is fertile and well fed by a network of canals visible everywhere.

190Stepping into the walled city of Khiva is like entering a living and breathing medieval Islamic city. The inner part of the city called ”Ichan kala” is well laid out with beautiful madrasas, mosques and lovely minarets. The Kalta Minor, which is a huge blue and green tiled tower in the centre of the walled city is an incomplete minaret, which the Khan building it could not complete and his successors chose not to finish. Today, it is the most distinguished landmark of the walled city of Khiva.

We strolled across the thoroughfares of the lovely city on a mild afternoon. The streets were lined with shops selling curios, beautiful ceramic plates and fur huts made from authentic minx fur. We walked onto the roof of the king’s palace to have a great view of the city spread out beneath us. This is a city steeped in history and so well-preserved that it appeared as if we had actually travelled a few centuries and were looking at a real medieval city.  The silver throne of the king though was a disappointment. This is apparently a replica, the original one is now a part of the National Museum in Moscow.

242Opposite the King’s Palace stands a madrasa with a beautiful tree-lined courtyard and the rooms of the students around it. There is a museum there as well, where I came face to face in a painting with Pahalvan Mahmood standing victorious after his famous ”dangal” in Multan!!!

257A little later we walked into the Djama Masjid, the Friday prayer mosque. The mosque is now a monument with hundreds of carved wooden pillars supporting the roof arranged in rows. The mosque was built in the 10th century and rebuilt in 1788-89. Umeeda showed us some original columns taken from the earlier structure. From the place, where the imam stood, Umeeda pointed out to us that all the columns were clearly visible. With the sun filtering into the mosque, it almost looked divine.

277A small turn towards the right took us to the mausoleum of the famous pahalvan and the king Rakhmat Khan. Abutting the mausoleum is a tall minaret. Umeeda challenged us to climb to the top for the most magnificent views of the city. We accepted the challenge and entered the dark minaret through a flight of stairs leading to its entrance. Soon we were on a treacherous, winding, ancient staircase with polished wooden steps. We soon realised our folly but decided to continue up through the minar. A little light seeped through the openings cut into the wall of the minaret and we used the torch-light from our mobile phones. The journey up the minaret is arduous but the views from the top well worth it. I imagined seeing the Amu Darya glinting in the sun, far away to our east. We learnt that the minaret also served as the ancient gallows, with the condemned being flung to their deaths from the top.

The return to mother earth was even more treacherous. The stairs are uneven, slippery and there is just nothing to hold on to. We negotiated each step with a great deal of caution, holding on to the step above while taking the next step down. To make matters more difficult, we encountered people going up the same time. Stepping out of the minar, I took a deep breath and resolved never ever to try scaling a medieval minaret, whatever the reward!!!!

PS : The melons of Khurasm are something to die for. Pristine white slices dripping with the sweetest nectar, they are just out of the world. We saw these piled high up on the roadside, each melon the size of a football. Actually, they come in two shapes, oval like a rugby ball and round ones like a football. We had them for dessert that evening.

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