The Mohanas A boat-making community
Many of the Aryans who migrated from Persia and Central Asia to the Indian Subcontinent in 1250 BC were attracted to the fertile plains of this region. They made the perilous journey across vast deserts, plains and mountains of Central Asia. The Indus River was one of the greatest barriers they had to encounter. They named it Sindhu, synonymous with ocean in Sanskrit. Since time immemorial, the destiny of the subcontinent has been shaped and guided by this capricious river – Sindhu or the Indus. In the Vedas, the Indus has been described as a ‘self- moving river of golden hue, roaring down the snow-clad mountains rushing through fine forests, passing along fair fields and expanding into vast water’. On its banks flourished the splendid Indus Valley Civilisation and from its banks were washed away entire villages and chapters of history during times when the mighty Indus was raging.
The Mohanas are an ancient community of Sindh in Pakistan, who have lived in houseboats on the Indus River since the time of the Indus Valley Civilisation (2600 – 1900 BC.
They were given the title Mir Bahar or ‘Lords of the Sea’. They are called Mohano Mallah Mirbahar Mirani in Punjab, Khyber Pakhtoon Khan (KPK), Dera Ismail Khan and Sindh in Pakistan.
Some of them still have their floating boats on Manchar Lake, the largest fresh water lake in South Asia, with an area of 233 square kms. It is located west of the Indus River. Manchar Lake receives fresh water from several streams from the Kirthar mountains and this is emptied into the Indus River. The houseboats form what are called the ‘Floating Village’.
The Mohanas own no land. Their houseboats are passed down generations. There are different floating villages of different communities on the lake, living in complete harmony with nature. The Mohanas follow the lunar calendar.
Manchar Lake was once a fishing paradise and a sanctuary for migratory birds from Siberia. Earlier, it provided a livelihood to 10,000 fisherfolk, living on 2000 houseboats. Now it is a threatened wetland. Many Mohanas have moved to the urban areas in Karachi, living in Lyari and Ibrahim Hyderi, where they continue to make smaller fishing boats.
Changes in the Indus’s course, climatic changes and the challenges of modern living have transformed the Mohanas way of life. Their once magnificent house boats have also changed in appearance and have almost disappeared from the Indus River.
I was privileged to be asked to curate the inner journey of the Pakistan Pavilion at the Dubai EXPO 2020, which I titled, ‘Pakistan: The Hidden Treasure’. I wanted to project two ancient civilisations that still exist precariously. One was the Kalaasha Community in the Northern mountainous areas and the other, the Mohanas in the South on the Indus River.
Hence, the indigenous process of Mohana boatmaking that originated 5000 years ago, now an almost forgotten craft, was revived after six decades. The Mohana Craftsmen’s memories were refreshed through archival photographs and some images of a Mohana boat that I photographed thirty years back on the Indus River in Sukkur. There are no specimens in any museum in Pakistan. Most houseboats had been scrapped, their wood being used as firewood or for other purposes.
Making an authentic houseboat for the Dubai Expo became a collaborative dialogue between the surviving master boatmakers and a miniature artist. Basic canons of geometry were used to revive the proportions and curvatures of the boat, then later for the ornamentation on the boat or Kashti as we call it in Urdu. This artistic dialogue and the construction of the houseboat took place in the historic city of Sukkur on the banks of the Indus River where many members of the Mohana community now live. This feat was carried out during the COVID Pandemic.
Noorjehan Bilgrami is a visual artist, curator, textile designer, researcher and educationist. She is a founder member of the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, its first Executive Director and former Chairperson of the Board of Governors
Top Image Caption : For generations, the Mohana Community lived in houseboats on Manchar Lake, with their pet egrets and herons. They moved their location four decades ago to Taunsa Barrage, Kot Addu on the Indus River as there was more fish in this region. Manchar Lake was being polluted by industrial waste, and water salinity had increased. Interestingly, the recent floods helped to naturally cleanse the Manchar Lake.
Many of the Aryans who migrated from Persia and Central Asia to the Indian Subcontinent in 1250 BC were attracted to the fertile plains of this region. They made the perilous journey across vast deserts, plains and mountains of Central Asia. The Indus River was one of the greatest barriers they had to encounter. They…