Last year, I went to visit the Shaikh Bhirkio shrine in a town by the same name some 30 kilometres from Hyderabad in Sindh. This was my fifth trip to the shrine, which I made for my book Sufis, Saints and Shrines: A Journey into the Sufi landscape of Sindh.
When I entered the tomb of the saint, an elderly woman yelled at me, telling me to first seek permission to enter. She asked me to wait until she had cleaned the floor of the shrine. Then with a watery smile, she said:
This saint is only mine, you need to seek my permission first.
I waited at the door for her approval. She turned back to cleaning the floor. I wondered why she was cleaning the already sparkling floor of the marble courtyard.
After she had finished and allowed me in, I asked her why she was doing it. “I know that it’s clean,” but it gives me sukoon (relief) when I come to pay homage and brush the grave and floor with peacock feathers.”
At almost every shrine in Sindh, one is bound to find elderly people like her, either leaning against the walls, reciting the Holy Quran or sleeping on the floor of the shrine; these shrines are source of solace for them.
|The Shaikh Birkhio shrine complex.|
|The tomb of Shaikh Birkhio.|
|Spires on the domes.|
|The facade of Shaikh Birkhio's tomb, covered with glazed tiles.|
Located 25 kilometers southwest of the Tando Allahyar town, the shrine complex of Shaikh Bhirkio is one of the important Suharwardi (a sufi order) centers in Sindh.
I have always been greatly mystified by the dual identities of shrines. The Sajjada Nasheen of this shrine told me that Shaikh Birkhio was also venerated by the Hindus as Raja Veer.
Before the partition, Hindus swarmed the shrine during the mela. Now, only a few families visit the shrine, a majority of them belonging to lower Hindu castes.
This is not the only shrine in Sindh which carries dual identities. There are over a dozen such shrines in lower Sindh. For instance, Shaikh Tahir is also called Uderolal by his Hindu devotees, Pir Patho is called Makhdoom Naimatullah by his Muslim followers, Mangho Pir was Lala Jasraj for Hindu Nath yogis, Ram Jago in Samaro (Umerkot) is venerated as Makhdoom Shafique-ur-Rahman.
Shaikh Bhirkhio was a sufi saint who belonged to the Suharwardi order of Sufism. He lived in the 16th century and travelled to many parts of Sindh, Punjab, Kutch and Gujarat to convert a large number of locals.
|The shrine as seen from the nearby mosque.|
|A distant view of the entire complex.|
One of the distinctive features of the Suharwardi shrine complex in Sindh are the grand mosques and tombs there, all adorned with ceramics and paintings. At the Shaikh Bhirkio complex, there are two mosques in addition to the tomb of the saint.
The tomb is decorated with enameled Hala tiles. The interior of the tomb is painted in fine taste, but recently whitewashed, thus wreaking havoc on the murals. Sadly, the interior of a nearby three-domed mosque has also been whitewashed.
The mehrab of the mosque has the painted names of Allah.
|A view of the shrine and the mosques.|
|The three-domed mosque adjacent to the tomb.|
|A closer look at the painted names of Allah.|
Luckily, another nearby mosque stands with its original beauty intact. The wall of the mosque is painted upon and the ceiling decorated with ceramics. The wooden pillars and fretted panels are a peculiarity of almost all the mosques built by the Suharwardi sufis of Sindh.
Suharwardi shrine complexes like these can also be seen in Bukera Sharif and Kamaro Sharif in the Tando Allahyar district.
|The other mosque.|
|A closer look at the paintings.|
|The beautiful interior of the mosque.|
|Artwork on the walls.|
|Another view of the exquisitely designed walls.|
|A painted panel.|
|Intricate designs on recesses in the wall.|
Each time that I have visited the shrine, I have seen both Hindu and Muslim men and women at the shrine of Shaikh Bhirkio — an equal source of succour for them all.
When I was leaving the shrine, I heard a Hindu woman murmuring,
Yeh pir sirf mera hai.
—All photos by author
Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro is an anthropologist and teaches tourism, globalisation and development at the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, Islamabad.
He tweets @Kalhorozulfiqar.