Sindh has two deserts: Thar in Southern Sindh and Achhro Thar in district Sanghar. Achhro Thar has white-coloured sand, and does not have the capacity to grow vegetation even after rain, unlike in Thar where green sprouts after rain.
During my recent visit to Achhro Thar, my guide Atta Chandio, who has set up his personal museum in the village Bankoo Chanhio near Khipro, took me to the spots that were used as hideouts by Hur forces who fought against the British Army. But the story I chanced upon was even more intriguing than that of the Hurs.
It is impossible to travel in this desert without a four-wheel jeep. When we left for Achhro Thar, the weather was hot, humid and windy, and soon the tire tracks were covered in sand. But, fortunately, our driver Abdullah seemed to have memorised the tracks of the entire desert by heart. After driving for one-and-a-half hour, we reached the zig-zagged sand dunes. Called dhenh in Sindhi, the dunes change positions and shapes due to wind storms in the desert and look like huge mountains of sand with deep ravines.
Marginalised by the Hindu caste system, the ancient tribe of Bheels of Achhro Thar has found a way of life similar to the Muslims in their quest for belonging and identity
People living in the desert don’t have fencing around their houses as they have no reason to fear anyone. During our drive, Chandio told us about a tribe of low-caste Hindus who live in the desert. They are known as Bheels and their origin is not clearly known.
According to Bheerumal Maharchand Advani’s book Ancient Sindh, the present-day Bheels travelled from Mariwar or Rajasthan and settled here. The British writer Horatio Bickerstaffe Rowney writes in his tome Wild Tribes of India that the Bheels belong to Mariwar and migrated to different areas, mostly in Sindh and India, but it is said that some settled in Sri Lanka as well. Many of the sub-castes of Bheels can be found among the Rajputs. They are brave people who often rely on hunting.
It is said that the Bheels lived in Sindh before the Aryans came here and the tribe is also mentioned in the Ramayana. According to the myth, when Hindu god Lord Rama was in a jungle to fulfill his banwas (take seclusion in the jungle in order to purify one’s soul), a Bheel woman had offered him wild berries.
Historians believe that both Marathas and Muslims have shown aggression towards the Bheels while some Mughal rulers recruited them in the army for their bravery and strong physique.
I met a Bheel family in a village near Dungao in Achhro Thar, close to the Indo-Pak border. Two brothers Aarab and Malhar were busy making khaes and farasi (a handmade sheet that is spread on the floor) and bedsheets using camel hair and wool. They have been engaged in this profession since their childhood.
“I don’t remember when we started this work but we have grown old doing it,” smiles Aarab. He adds, “A farasi is prepared within five days but it takes much longer to make a khaes as it is a long and a tiring process.”
Though the Bheels are a non-Muslim tribe, they often have Muslim names like Ahmed, Rasool and Mohammad and they celebrate Muslim rituals instead of celebrating Hindu festivals like Holi and Diwali. The upper-class Hindus do not mingle with them. The marginalisation by upper -caste Hindus has led the Bheels to dissociate from Hindu practices and align themselves more with Muslims. It gives them a sense of belonging and security. The Bheels represent a culture of religious harmony and a long history in the desert .
“We are not allowed to participate in Hindu festivities by the upper-caste Hindus but the Muslims have no objections including us in their festivals. We have been celebrating both Eids and other Muslim festivals for generations,” says Malhar.
The Bheels do not visit Hindu temples nor do they worship idols. While they celebrate Eid, they do not go inside the mosques to perform Eid prayers. “We stay outside the mosque and wait for the Muslims to come out after finishing their prayers and greet them outside the mosque,” says Aarab.
Similar to the nikahnama or the Muslim marriage certificate, there is a certificate for Hindu marriage as well. A Hindu married woman is recognised by the black thread she wears around her neck called the mangal sutr.
“We have never faced any difficulties while performing the Muslim marriage ceremony,” says Aarab. “If a Hindu priest is not willing to conduct our marriage ceremony, we call for a Muslim cleric to perform the ceremony. But if we don’t find either, we conduct the marriage ceremony by reciting couplets from Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai’s poetry.”
The Bheels claim to be descendents of camel herders settled in Achhro Thar centuries ago. Even today, whenever an upper-caste Hindu, known as a thakur, gets married in this desert, his camel is led by a Bheel because it is believed to bring the new groom good fortune.
The sun was setting upon Achhro Thar, and it was time to return via the same route we came. As I took my leave from Aarab and Malhar, it pained me to think of the identity crisis these people suffered.
Will Aarab and Malhar’s future generations face the same hatred as their ancestors, I wondered. Will they ever find their real identity or not?
The writer is a Sindhi fiction writer and journalist, currently working in a daily Sindhi-language newspaper. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, EOS, June 30th, 2019