"Going to Timbuktu". This bit of a statement, made often in jest in metropolitan India, refers to some distant, exotic place on a corner of the earth. But for the clued up and those who care to find out, Timbuktu is the fabled city at the southern edge of the Sahara in Mali whose commercial and cultural riches attracted many for centuries.
And as columns of French troops advance towards the oasis city in an escalating conflict in the West African country, there are fears that its renowned manuscript libraries and magnificent tombs and mosques, built of mud and wood and revered by Sufi Muslims, would be lost for ever.
Founded around the 12th century, Timbuktu in the medieval years was a flourishing business hub, where African, Berber, Arab and Tuaregs traded not just salt, spices, ivory and gold but also ideas. Scholars from around the Islamic world travelled to the city to study at the universities of Sankore, Jingaray Ber and Sidi Yahya. Sankore at one time had some 25,000 students and 180 Koranic schools.
Today, in Mali's ongoing conflict, Timbuktu's glorious past has become another victim.
For the past year, northern Mali - nearly two-thirds of the country - has been overrun by groups belonging to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), and Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith).
These Islamic militants have imposed a harsh Sharia law, banned alcohol, smoking and music and forced women to wear headscarves. They have been destroying the Sufi shrines which they consider as idolatrous.
"Not a single mausoleum will remain in Timbuktu, Allah doesn't like it. We are in the process of smashing all the hidden mausoleums in the area," Ansar Dine leader Abou Dardar had declared late last year. Ansar Dine has rejected appeals by archivists that the precious manuscripts be handed over to the Red Cross so that those can be taken for safe-keeping.
And now as the conflict has intensified with French bombings and possible ground combats, Unesco has once again called all armed forces to protect the cultural heritage that has already been severely damaged.
"Mali's cultural heritage is a jewel whose protection is important for the whole of humanity. This is our common heritage; nothing can justify damaging it. It carries the identity and values of a people," said Unesco Director General Irina Bokova this month.
According to Gregory Mann of Columbia University and an expert on Francophone West Africa, the destruction of the tombs was actually an attack on the very ideas of Sufism, widely practised across Mali.
Looking at the developments in a broader perspective, Raziuddin Aquil, associate professor of history at Delhi University, says "What is happening there is symptomatic of the current crisis in contemporary Islamic world. Two groups of Sunni Muslims - traditional and reformist - are fighting in this case, only to join hands against Shias elsewhere, who in turn might be hounding some smaller minorities under some repressive political order at some place else."
The radical Egyptian Muslim leader Murgan Salem al-Gohary recently called for the destruction of Sphinx and the Pyramids as "symbols of blasphemy".
Aquil, whose research interests include Sufism and the making of Islam in the Indian subcontinent, says the reports filtering out of Timbuktu, and from Mali generally, have been quite disturbing, "but actually not shocking at all."
"Sufi-oriented traditional and inclusive Islamic practices have been struggling against bigoted and violent jihadis in Mali, as elsewhere in the Muslim world, for long. What is particularly alarming is that over 700,000 priceless medieval Islamic manuscripts preserved at Timbuktu are on the verge of destruction."
"This is not to justify or recommend counter-violence of the French-Mali military, but the invaluable manuscripts as well as popular Sufi shrines must be protected at all costs," he adds.
The manuscripts, written in Arabic and African languages, are works on mathematics, chemistry, physics, astronomy, medicine, history, botany and geography. They explode the myth that Europeans brought civilisation to Africa.
"No one has plumbed the depths of those texts, perhaps the most important historical documents telling the story of West Africa - including Islamic doctrine, slavery, marriage, trade, geography and science. If those documents are destroyed, that knowledge might be gone forever," says Mann, who has worked extensively on Mali.
When the reports of defiling and destruction in Timbuktu trickled in early 2012, it sparked indignation in India and elsewhere. But there was no concrete action to stop this "cultural terrorism".
"Islamist groups, which have no respect for tradition or history, must be prevented from destroying the fine and rare examples of surviving medieval Islamic heritage and culture," says Aquil, author of "In The Name Of Allah: Understanding Islam And Indian History" .
And the larger point that has escaped emphasising is that it was not an isolated event and what it signified. The world elsewhere has seen how iconoclasm and idol bashing have been deployed to recruit cadres. There was a direct link between the destruction of Timbuktu's heritage and its wider ramification. The recent hostage crisis in eastern Algeria was a pointer to this.
In 2001, the Taliban destroyed the huge Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. And six months later, the World Trade Centre was attacked. The similarities between Afghanistan and Mali, the ethnic conflict and entry of foreign forces have led some to call Mali "Africastan".
India has a National Manuscript Mission aimed at reclaiming and securing the country's vast treasure of manuscripts, which contain centuries of accrued knowledge in such areas as philosophy, sciences, literature, arts and the faith systems. It has also set up a Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) to preserve its intellectual property.
In the past, India had championed the decolonisation of Africa. Over the decades, it has built a sustainable partnership to face the challenges of globalisation and the threats to international peace and security.
It is time pluralist India spoke out and saw Mali didn't become another Afghanistan.
(Saroj Mohanty is a senior journalist with IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at Saroj.firstname.lastname@example.org)
-- Indo-Asian News Service