Khiva:Life inside a Museum City — by Sunita Dwivedi
In the evening Sayeeda, my friend, leaves for her home in Urgench, 35 kms away. I am on my own, free to loiter around the Ichon Kala fortress in Khiva, a museum city in Uzbekistan. Sayeeda had warned me not to do so. But the Tash Darwaza of the fortress is a stoneâ€™s throw from my Asia Khiva Hotel room. There is no ticket collector at this gate late in the evening and early morning before the official visiting hours. I am able to go in and out as many times as I want.
I decided to virtually live in the fortress.
Near the Tash Darwaza was a slave market until 1873. The niche inside the gates were meant to house fugitives and rebellious slaves waiting for the verdict against them. The Khanâ€™s decree was read out and criminals punished in medieval times here. Those who were convicted for serious offense were thrown down high minarets, or whipped by the qadi.
I spent days roaming around the fortress and sipping tea in the many chaikhanas. I am surprised to find many tourists staying inside the Kala. I know by heart all the lanes and by lanes. I am no longer scared of the dogs following me in and out of the Kala.
The young street boys become my guide after Sayeeda is gone. A whole battalion of them follows me from house to house and monument to monument. They are such a sweet bunch that I do not mind. With their light eyes beaming with happiness they make friends easily with tourists. But they are not looking to make money. When I tried to give them some change they refused to take it. An 11- year-old says that I am his friend. So how can he accept money from me. He says that he likes me. I really enjoy the company of these sweet Uzbeki friends and promise to write to them on returning to India. The youngsters are descendants of families living inside the walled city of the Ichon Kala for centuries.
So many families are living in quarters of the fortress. Those whom I befriend invite me for a meal. One family lives in a two room house with a courtyard covered with vine climbers and bunches of grapes hanging from the trellis. The kitchen is small. A big aluminum pot is set on a gas fire to cook rice plov. A big bundle of naan hangs on a nail in the wall. In a bucket there are some brinjals, tomatoes and onions. I sit with members of the family of my host around a low table and am served plov from the pot, along with naan and jam.
A young girl pulls out hand embroidered napkins from a drawer and displays them for sale. But I have left all my money in the hotel room and excuse myself. Besides, I have a long journey through Central Asian and cannot burden myself with extra weight.
I wanted to see the kind of toilets the residents of ichon Kala used. I found that there was water in a bucket and the toilet floor was roughly constructed perhaps by the residents themselves. The walls were made of canvas wrapped around a wooden frame.
An old man squatted on a large wooden bed in the verandah. A broken cycle was being repaired by a small boy under his supervision. The lady of the house held my hands and greeted me. I promised to visit them again or to write to them from India but I never did.
Behind their house was a guest house where many foreigners were staying. A huge tandoor was set up in the courtyard where a lady was baking fresh flat bread for the nearby tea house or choykhana or chaikhana and the guest house. Many local families too preferred to buy bread here. Freshly baked naan tastes superb. It is soft and melts in the mouth. A young girl sat on a stool holding a big aluminum pot cover in which she dropped chopped tomatoes, onions and lots of red chillies with lime juice.
Woodcutters, weavers and water shortage
The descendants of the original residents of the Ichon Kala still reside inside the fortress. Their quarters lie near the left alley of the Tash Darwaza. On the right is a small guest house wholly occupied by European visitors here to enjoy the Khivan hospitality and feel of the days bygone.
There are no palanquins anymore to carry them from one palace to another. One has to walk long distances inside the fortress and it is easy to get lost in the innumerable alleys that cover the Ichon Kala like a net.
The legacy of the Ichon Kala is kept alive by the descendants. After the end of the Khiva Khanate, and with it the rule of the Khans, they are the only residents of the Ichon Kala who have remained inside the old quarters. They are the ones who have kept the fires burning. They run a network of choykhanas on every street corner. There are descendants of ancient woodworkers sliving in a section of the Kala still doing the same work. One wood carver works on a large pillar. Along with a chisel he uses an electric cutter. In a small room near the entrance of his home there is a grave of his ancestors from the time of the first Khans, or rulers residing inside the Kala. There is also an ancient mulberry tree inside his courtyard as in memory of his ancestors.
Some residents sell embroidery work and jewelry. The most popular piece of jewelry are gold earring inlaid with large rubies. Near the Oq Masjid a dozen women sell carpets displayed from the parapet of the Masjid. These carpets are woven inside the homes. I am told that they are still following the family's ancient profession of carpet weaving from the days of the mighty Khans.
There was a time when there was plenty of water inside the Kala. Wells were famous for sweet water and caravans rested here exactly where the Ichon Kala came up. All caravans coming from the Caspian Sea region halted near the well. The underground water source was from the mother of rivers the Amudarya delta that empties into the Aral Sea. But the Sea has nearly dried up due to excessive use of the Amu for irrigating the cotton fields of Central Asia. And the underground water reserves are withering away.
There is acute shortage of water inside the Ichon Kala. The residents fetch water from outside the Kala in large buckets and drums carried on rickshaws pulled by children. At the public tap on the street behind my hotel room I could see dozens of children and women come for water.
Since then life has changed over the centuries. No caravan stops here any more. No one draws water from the Kheivak. The Khan's palace is deserted and his harems are empty. But the fires still burn, churning out heartwarming meals for foreigners living in luxurious guest houses at the Ichon Kala.
Art collectors who visit every handicraft shop to check and to admire the wonderful creation of the Khivan artiste and craftsmen are the ones with money today. They buy up the most expensive carpet, and the most intricate woodwork. They are the modern Khans of Khiva and it is around them that the life and economy of Ichon Kala revolves today.
(The writer is a Silk Road traveller, researcher and author)
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