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Cricket finding its feet in this city of shrines and saints

What everyone does know however, is that it was very much inhabited when the armies of Alexander the Great were retreating from India around 327 BC, writes Kadambari Murali.

india Updated: Mar 27, 2004 00:05 IST

No one is exactly sure when this dusty City of Shrines first came into existence. What everyone does know however, is that it was very much inhabited when the armies of Alexander the Great were retreating from India around 327 BC. Legend has it that Alexander was wounded only twice in an illustrious career, once in Macedonia and once here, in the battle for Multan Fort.

It seems somewhat bizarre to stand here in Pakistan, the site of one of the most momentous battles of Ancient Indian history (Porus vs Alexander was reportedly fought here). As we drive up the winding road to the Fort area, our guide reminds us that but for the past 50-odd years, we were one nation.

“We have one past, one history,” he says and then switches again to singing rapturous praises of their current icon, local boy Inzamam ul-Haq. "His form in the one-day series (Inzamam was man of the series) was only a taste of what is yet to come," he says confidently. "Multan is his home and he will not disappoint his home crowd."

So far, the poised Pakistan skipper has not. Two Tests have been played so far in the starkly beautiful stadium here --- about half an hour from the city.

Both were against Bangladesh, one the inaugural Test in August 2001 and the second in September 2002. Pakistan won both with Inzamam getting hundreds on both occasions.

He would be looking to make it thrice in a row.

While Pakistan would be looking to get over the loss of the one-day series, India would be looking to cement that loss with a historic Test win and it would be quite fitting if that happened here, in this city steeped in tradition and history.

It's not that strange that this holy city is also supposed to be a base to fundamentalist groups including, reportedly, the Jaamat-e-Islami. But the city itself, the gateway to India for centuries and ravaged by war in the past, is peculiarly a symbol of peace.

The people are very proud of that reputation and their rich cultural heritage.

About 30kms down the road from the stadium lies Khaanewal, a village of only Christians. There has never been any problem between the communities, they say. Little under two hours away by road lies Harappa and the remains of the Indus Valley Civilisation.

In the fort itself lie the mazaars of two of Islam's foremost scholars, Sheikh Baha-ud-Din Zakaria and close at hand, that of his grandson Shah-Rukn-e-Alam. Legend has it that Sheikh Zakaria was sent by Allah to save the people.

In a story similar to one in other religions, it is said that once when the river Chenab grew angry and wider and wider and threatened to drown Multan and its denizens, the Sheikh stood at its edge and asked it to turn back. It acceded to his request and a legend was born.

Incidentally, the Sheikh's mausoleum shares a boundary wall with Multan city's only temple, which predates all Muslim shrines here. That temple, the Prahlad Mandir, is for the locals the one blemish in their liberal past.

In 1992, following the razing of the Babri Masjid, India's eternal shame, sections of Multani youth reacted by trying to demolish the temple. Saner minds called in the police, who were stoned by the youth. “Many people were embarrassed and ashamed and tried to stop it," said our guide, pointing to the dome-less structure.

"By the time rationality prevailed, miscreants had broken part of the dome. We are all ashamed of what they did. What is left will not be touched again, whatever happens in India.”

The temple was not in use. Unlike in Karachi, Lahore, Pindi and Peshawar, one has not met a single Hindu in Multan. Some say there are none. But if you climb over some broken bricks and get to the front of the ancient structure, there are some children playing in front. You ask them what the building is and one replies, "Mazaar hai. Ye purana ho gaya tha to saath mein naya waala bana diya.”