During a trip to India in early 1984 (my first and last), I was a second-year student at a college in Karachi. My fellow travellers on that trip were three friends, all of them Sindhi-speaking. We had travelled to Mumbai (then called Bombay) for a vacation.
We stayed in low-rent hotels in Mumbai, Poona and Goa, even though one of my Sindhi friends had some distant relatives in Mumbai.
But it turned out that the relatives were not relatives at all. To begin with, they were Hindu. They had been neighbours of the friend’s family in Sukkur before the creation of Pakistan in 1947 and had migrated to India in March 1948.
We visited their home (an apartment) during the tail-end of our trip. In their drawing room was a huge painting of a bearded man sitting on a lotus flower in the middle of a river surrounded by a school of fish that seemed to be swimming in a circle around him.
I asked the family about the image. They told me that the man was Jhulay Lal who was the patron saint of Sindhi Hindus. I was told every Sindhi home in India had a picture of him.
Two years later, I was travelling across the interior Sindh with another group of friends. We were all members of a progressive student outfit at our college.
Our plan was to drive up to the town of Dadu and try meeting Sindhi scholar, GM Syed, who was reported to be under house arrest there. Though I was opposed to Syed’s political aspect of Sindhi nationalism, I was, nevertheless, a great admirer of his more scholarly work, especially of his book Religion and Reality in which he had painstakingly charted the centuries-old evolution of Sufism in the Sindh region.
I believe he did mention Jhulay Lal in passing in his book, but I wasn’t sure because I had read it in 1983 during my first year in college. No, it wasn’t part of the curriculum.
Our group of student activists was unable to meet Syed. He was not in Dadu. On our way back to Karachi, we stopped at a rickety eatery in a village in the Sanghar District. As we entered the place for a cup of tea and some cigarettes, the first thing I noticed on a mud wall was a poster. It was of Jhulay Lal!
Paracha unearths some astounding facts about the revered saint’s life
I had forgotten about him. But it was the same image I had first come across in a Mumbai home. A man with a flowing white beard, sitting on a lotus flower in the middle of a river and surrounded by a couple of silver fish.
But there was one difference. In the image of his that I had seen in Mumbai, he was holding a rosary whose beads had tiny inscriptions carved in the Sanskrit language. But in the poster at the eatery, he was holding and reading the Muslim Holy Book.
Intrigued, I asked a Sindhi friend of mine in the group, who the man was. ‘Arey Paracha Sain, tum ko nahi pata? Yeh Baba Shaikh Tahir hai …’ (You don’t know? He is Baba Shaikh Tahir).
I told him that I had seen an image of him in the home of a Sindhi Hindu family in India and that they had called him Jhulay Lal. The friend began to laugh at my confusion. He excused the others in the group and drove me some 50km away from the village to a small, dusty town called Udero Lal.
In this town, he took me to a beautiful and spacious white shrine with prominent domes. Here is where Shaikh Tahir was buried, I was told. He then made me meet one of the keepers of the shrine. The keeper was a Sindhi and could not speak any Urdu. But somehow he could speak Punjabi fluently!
He told me that the shrine was constructed in the 17th century, 1684 CE to be precise, according to Din Mohammad Vai’s Tazkirah-i-Mashahir-i-Sindh.
The keeper claimed that Shaikh Tahir was born a Hindu but converted to Islam as a teen. His Hindu name was Udero Lal. The shrine is frequented by Muslims as well as Hindus of Sindh and the group of keepers that look after the shrine, also includes Hindus.
Another fascinating aspect of the shrine was a slight room that held a steadily burning flame. The flame has been kept burning by generations of keepers for over 400 years now. The keeper I was talking to, didn’t know exactly why.
The keeper informed me: ‘Udero Lal was an upright man with a strong strain of inner spirituality. It was because of him that the Hindus of Sindh were different because they did not practice the caste system …’
This seems to be correct. Famous 19th century British traveller, Richard Francis Burton, in his writings that he authored during his long stay in Sindh in the mid-1800s, wrote: ‘Hinduism in Sindh is mixed and has adopted many aspects of Islam and Sikhism. The Hindus (of Sindh) often become followers of Muslim saints here …’
Impressed by Lal’s spiritual disposition and work against the caste system, a Muslim Sufi saint from Multan is said to have converted him to Islam. ‘This is when Udero Lal became Sheikh Tahir,’ the keeper had told me.
He said despite this, Hindus of the area continued to revere him, and so did thousands of Lal’s Muslim devotees.
On our way back to Sanghar, I asked my friend, why Sheikh Tahir continues to sit on a lotus flower in the middle of a river in all of his images. The friend had responded by saying that Hindus of Sindh believed that he had emerged from the River Indus. He added that the Muslims began to believe the same when they saw palla fish (indigenous to Indus), circling a small shrine of Lal that is located on an island in the middle of the river near the city of Bhakkar (in South Punjab).
Interestingly, in Bhakkar, Jhulay Lal is called Khwaja Khizar. In 1991 while editing an article written (on the Bhakkar shrine) by a French anthropologist for the English weekly magazine I used to work for, I learned that indeed, schools of palla did go in circles around the tiny island. But he added that this was due to the mating and feeding cycles of the fish. So, in a way, ancient Muslims and Hindus of the region were explaining a purely natural and scientific phenomenon through mystical imagery.
Jhulay Lal is not as major a Sufi saint in Sindh as are the great Shah Latif and the mighty Lal Shahbaz. Yet, it was Jhulay Lal who ended up on the walls of Sindhi-speakers in India. I’ve always wondered why.
This inquiry of mine finally came to a full circle when I got the answer only two years ago in the Michel Boivin and Matthew Cook edited book, Interpreting the Sindh World.
In an essay (for the book) on the saint, L. Parwani suggests that when hundreds of Sindhi Hindus migrated to India during Partition in 1947, they felt spiritually alienated in India because they could not relate to the forms of Hinduism practiced there.
Parwani informs that after noticing this, one Professor Ram Panjwani, a Sindhi educationist, began a hectic movement among the Sindhi Hindus in India to revitalise Jhulay Lal as their main deity. He succeeded, and to this day most Sindhi Hindus in India revere a saint that their elders had brought from Sindh.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine December 20th, 2015