Friday, 13 April 2018

M for Multan

The present city of Multan in the heartland of modern-day Pakistan finds its origins firmly in ancient Indian mythology and traces its history through a wonderful heritage worthy of note.

The mythological origins and etymology of Multan

Multan derives its name from its Sanskrit name Mulasthana, but before we come to that, let us first explore the myths related to the city’s origins.

The city is said to be founded by the great Rishi Kashyap – one of the Saptarishis. Kashyap was married to Daksha’s daughters Aditi and Diti. Through his first wife Aditi, he begot the Agni (Fire) and Aditya (Sun) clan of sons, while through his second wife Diti, he begot the Daitya (Asura / Demon) clan of sons. The city which Kashyap founded as their home was named Kashyapapura, situated in the plains between the lower Chenab and Sutlej rivers. However, Kashyap was succeeded by his Daitya son Hiran Kashyap, who was succeeded by his son Prahlad, who then was succeeded his son Banasura. It is said that later Krishna had killed Banasura and placed his son Shamba on the throne of Kashyapapura.

The legend of Prahlad

The story of the haughty and unjust king Hiran Kashyap and his son Prahlad is a very popular folklore in India from a very long time. Being an Asura king, Hiran Kashyap could not bear the fact that his son Prahlad would worship Lord Vishnu. However, Prahlad was a dedicated devotee of Vishnu and was protected by the Lord from the wrath of his father. The legend has it that Lord Vishnu adopted the avatar of Narasimha (man-lion) and broke through a pillar of the palace and killed Hiran Kashyap tearing his body with his claws. Even the legend of the treachery of Prahlad’s aunt Holika intending to throw Prahlad into the fire, is also quite popular.

It is believed that Hiran Kashyap’s palace where Vishnu appeared in the Narasimha avatar, was at Kashyapapura. The Prahladpuri temple in the city was built by Prahlad himself and the deity of Narasimha was worshipped there. It was a very popular temple throughout the ages and a pilgrimage site for the Hindus, who also believed that the ritual of ‘Holika Dahan’ and the celebrations in the form of Holi were also started in Kashyapapura in the mythological age.

The Hindu heritage of Multan

During the later mythological period, or the Mahabharata era, the region was ruled over by King Malla of the Chandravanshi (Lunar dynasty) line of kings. His tribe was known as the Malli’s who resided in the area of Kashyapapura. Thus the place was named as Mallisthana (the place of the Malli’s) which was later adapted in conversational Sanskrit to Mulasthana, from which the present name Multan is derived.

It is however interesting to note that people of the Malli tribe were originally Rajput Katoch people who adopted Kashyap as their Gotra (lineage) from Rishi Kashyap, thus keeping the name of the city’s founder alive.

Multan, from the ancient times itself was a place known for its impressive Hindu temples. The Aditya Sun Temple in Multan was considered to be one of the largest Hindu temples of its time, and could house 6000 people at a single time. It was dedicated to Aditya, the Sun-god of Hindu mythology, but apart from the Hindu pilgrims it also attracted people of Persia who in the Zoroastrian faith worshipped Mithra – cult of the Sun.

The Sun Temple of Multan is believed to have been built by Shamba, Sri Krishna’s son as a homage to Surya, the Sun god, for curing him of leprosy which was inflicted on him as a curse by Sage Durvasa. Thus, it was widely believed that the golden idol of Aditya in the Sun Temple of Multan could cure maladies.

Hieuen Tsang, the Chinese traveller and Buddhist monk visited Multan in 641 AD and after visiting the Sun Temple wrote that “the Aditya Surya Temple is by far the largest temple in India. The idol of Aditya was made of pure gold with his eyes made of large red rubies. Gold, silver and gems have been abundantly placed in the temple’s doors, walls, pillars and shikhara (tower). Thousands of Hindus regularly come to Multan to worship the Sun god.” Hieuen Tsang also mentions having seen groups of Devadasi’s (dancing girls) in the temple at the time of worship and other functions. Other travellers who visited the temple mention that idols of Shiva and Buddha were also installed in the temple. Overall, the ancient sources all provide a glowing description of the Sun temple of Multan.

In the 8th Century, when Multan saw its first conquest at the hands of the Umayyad Caliphate under the leadership of Muhammad bin Qasim, the Sun Temple was “carefully protected” by the city’s rulers. The earning from the temple offerings used to account for about 30% of the kingdom’s revenue, and the fact that the temple was such a highly regarded and famous place of pilgrimage of the Hindus made the rulers take precious care of it.

However, during the mid-900’s Multan was conquered and occupied by the Qarmatian Ismaili Shias, who were infamous for having notoriously destroyed, plundered and killed pilgrims at the holy Kabba shrine in Mecca. Under their fearsome leader Jalam bin Shayban, the new Ismaili Shia ruler of Multan, the gorgeous Sun Temple of Multan was completely destroyed, the golden idol of Aditya was hammered to pieces and all the temple wealth pillaged. The Ismaili Shias built a congregational mosque atop the decimated Sun temple, which in turn was looted and destroyed by Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni (due to his hatred against the Shia Muslims) when he attacked Multan in the 11th Century. During Mahmud’s attack, his accompanying historian Al Beruni, wrote in glowing words about the Sun Temple, though by then the temple was already destroyed.

The Prahladpuri temple in Multan, (mentioned earlier in this article) had also been destroyed multiple times during the Muslim conquests of Multan, and by the 19th Century had become a nondescript shrine, being barely managed by group of influential Hindus in the city. A mosque had also been built within the original temple premises. During the Sikh era of 1810, the temple had been restored to some extent, but again in the Colonial era, it was damaged during gun-shelling on Multan by the British armies. Finally, during partition and creation of Pakistan in 1947, the then Mahant of the temple, Baba Narayan Das Batra, carried the Narsimha and Prahlad idols of the temple from Multan and placed them in a new temple in Hardwar.

The Prahladpuri temple thereafter lay vacant with some local Hindu groups making efforts to upkeep the temple structure. But during the 1992 Ayodhya Babri-Masjid demolition episode, retaliatory attacks were made on the remains of the Prahladpuri temple structure by Islamic extremist groups in Multan after which the temple fell to ruins completely.

Muslim rule era in Multan

The Muslim conquest and consolidation of Multan started with the Umayyad Caliphate as early as the 8th Century, followed by the ruthless rulers of the Qarmatian Ismaili Shias and then Mahmud of Ghazni who annexed the city to his Ghaznavid Empire in 1005. Muhammad Ghori took Multan in 1175, when he expelled the Ismaili Shias who had asserted their independence from Ghazni in the meantime. Later Multan passed on to be governed by the Delhi Sultanate, established by Qutbuddin Aibak and consolidated by Iltutmish. The later dynasties of the Khiljis, Tughlaqs, Saiyyads, Lodhis and Suris all had Multan under their control.

It was under the Mughal Empire in 1525 that Multan saw development and enjoyed a reign of peace for almost 200 years. The city grew under the Mughal patronage such that it came to be known as Dar Al-Aman (the Abode of Peace). The Khakwani Nawabs of Multan who were the governors of the city under the Mughals gave it strong financial stability, boost for the economy and promoted agriculture and industry in the area. In line with the Mughals’ love for architecture, many beautiful and important buildings and palaces were built in Multan during this time. The influence of the Sufi saints during this time in the region saw the peaceful spread of Islam and of Muslim religious and cultural impact over Multan.

Post the decline of the Mughals, the North-west region saw the invasion of the Afghan kings of the Durrani dynasty. Ahmed Shah Abdali led the charge which was carried forward by his son and successor Timur Shah Durrani, who was defeated and thrown out by the Maratha general Raghunathrao. Multan thereafter passed under the control of the Marathas for a short while. While the rest of Punjab soon saw the rise of the Sikh Confederacy misls and their supremacy, the Saddozai, Khokhar and Khatri Muslim rulers of Multan defended the city and the Multan for successfully against the repeated attacks by the Sikh misls.

It was only in the early 19th Century that Maharaja Ranjit Singh with his capital in Lahore, attacked and occupied Multan. His general, Hari Singh Nalwa defeated and killed the ruler of Multan, Muzaffar Khan Saddozai and established the Sikh empire control on Multan, with which the Muslim rule of Multan came to an end.

Multan in the Colonial Era and modern times

The famous Siege of Multan by the British began in April 1848, when rebellion sparked under the leadership of Diwan Mulraj Chopra. After a long and bloody battle which lasted for almost a year, the British finally managed to breach the Multan fort and capture the city and Multan became part of the British Raj in January 1849.

The British made some concerted efforts to enhance industrialization in Multan and set up railway connectivity, but the development did not meet with much success.

During the Independence movement and creation of Pakistan, Multan’s predominantly Muslim population supported the All India Muslim League. The partition of 1947 saw many Hindus and Sikhs migrating from Multan to India and many Muslims came over to settle in Multan. The city today continues as one of the most important urban centres in southern Punjab of Pakistan.


Photo: Modern view of the restored Multan Fort
Photo credit: Google - free to use photos of Multan

Connect with me on Twitter: @Sayan74

I am participating in the #BlogchatterA2Z challenge and today’s letter is ‘M’.


  1. I remember hearing the story of Hiran Kashyap and Prahlad and Lord Vishnu's Narasimha avatar in my grandmother's knee. I have watched it being enacted in several movies and dramas too. Multan is now a part of Pakistan. I was not aware it had such a rich history and heritage. Another excellent narrative from you Sayan. Excellent as always.

    1. Thank you Jai for reading and commenting! I am happy to bring back some of the stories you heard in childhood, in a new avatar :) Your appreciative comments are very encouraging.. thanks again!

  2. I didn't the background of Multan and how it was formed. Although, I know the story of Hiran Kashyup. An interesting read, Sayan.

    1. Thank you Rohan for reading and commenting on my post. Yes that legend is very popular, but the story around its location is yet quite unknown.

  3. Most people know the story of Hiran Kashyap and Prahalad, though we didn't know the history of Hiran Kashyap and that he belonged to Multan. I know multani mitti (fuller's earth) comes from Multan. Such an exhaustive post! Great work! Got a piece of mythology and history both!

    1. Thanks Anshu for reading and commenting on my blog post :) I am glad that you enjoyed reading it and that it could provide new information to you.

  4. According to a Persian saying, Multan was famous for four things: heat, dust, beggars and burial grounds. The latter were the magnificent tombs of various Sufis, or Islamic mystics. Legend has it that one Sufi deployed his miraculous powers to lure the sun closer to earth, thus creating Multan's crippling heat. In the 4th century B.C., Alexander the Great swung through town on his world tour, almost dying there when an Indian spear punctured his lung. Seven hundred years later, a Chinese traveler found a mammoth Hindu temple in Multan. Not a brick of it survives today, although a tiny community of Hindus does.

    1. Hi Romila, thanks for coming back and reading my post! Happy that you liked it and also added more bits of history by way of your comments.

  5. Interesting read. I knew some part of this but got to recall my history lessons. How come handful of Hindus still live there? I am sure their lives must be tough there in Multan..

    1. Thanks Shipra for reading and commenting! Yes, small groups of Hindus still live in different parts/cities of Pakistan and there are even some NGOs to ensure that the Hindus get their rights and are protected. I have read about their lives and societal conditions, sidelined and vulnerable to say the least...

  6. A very interesting piece and so very well researched! My husband's family, i.e., great grandparents moved to India post Independence and they belonged to Multan. They are Multani Punjabis. Wonderful read :)

    1. Thank you Nikita for reading and commenting on my post. I am glad that you enjoyed reading the story of Multan, and that you have a personal connection to relate as well. Do come back for more cities as we travel up to Z !


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