Recently when I was in Sukkur, the arcane name of Khawaja Khizr popped up frequently in conversations with the locals. As familiar as the name Khawaja Khizr may be, the man behind it is shrouded in mystery. I myself had never paid much attention to the legends associated with him. Believed to be a saint to some, an angel or a prophet to others, locals narrated multiple stories associated with Khizr in an impassioned manner.
Revered by Hindus and Muslims alike, Khawaja Khizr is known by various names: Zinda Pir, Jinda Pir, Jhoolay Laal, Darya Laal, Udero Laal. Irrespective of the name, the iconography of this figure remains the same: a turbaned saint wearing a green robe, white-bearded and riding a fish. A myth related to Khizr narrates that he rode on the back of a fish to save a damsel in distress. The fish is identified as the palla locally. It is a sweet water fish found in River Indus, and it swims against the water current.
Another story known to many Muslims is that Khawaja Khizr is the saint who guided Prophet Moses. He is believed to be the righteous man possessing great wisdom, as mentioned in Surah Kahf in the Quran, who taught Moses to be patient and not ask questions. The Quran does not mention him by name, though.
Saint, angel or prophet? The iconography of the green-clad guide associated with water survives on an island off Sukkur
As his name often came up during my visit to Sukkur, I made a mental note to research this figure. So I set out to research and dig up some answers about the man behind the myths. Serendipitously, I found that an island on the outskirts of Sukkur and Rohri is believed to house the grave of Khawaja Khizr. This shrine was built in 925 AD on the island known as Haji ka Tau. It is located north of Bukkur Island fort, and can be reached via a short boat ride from Sukkur. The island comes under the ownership of the Evacuee Trust of Pakistan. The Qureshi Family of Rohri, the gaddi nasheen or caretakers of the shrine, are responsible for its upkeep and maintenance.
This piece of information made me even more curious and, of course, I went to see it for myself.
The islet situated in River Indus lies almost equidistant from Rohri and Sukkur. About half an acre in diameter, the tiny island is quite run down and unkempt. Yet as it all came into view, I was simply mesmerised. Both the island and the grave itself are not majestic in any aspect but the overall rustic ambience and unassuming presence of this spatial marker left a lasting impression on me. The space itself seemed to speak about life and death, about the passage of time, ageing, selflessness, devotion, faith and belief. And all of these intangible qualities are associated with Khawaja Khizr.
The iconography of this figure remains the same: a turbaned saint wearing a green robe, white-bearded and riding a fish.
The sanctum of Khawaja Khizr is enclosed in a perforated jaali and is placed on a raised platform. This is believed to be the seat of Khawaja Khizr, but there is no historical reference that he visited this place in person. The jaali has many coloured pieces of cloth tied to it, representing various supplications (mannats) that people make here. The sanctum also has many large alams (flags or signs) posted, indicating the caretakers of the shrine are Shias.
The story behind the construction of this grave traces back to the early ninth century. The daughter of a Delhi merchant, on his way to perform pilgrimage in Makkah, was asked for in marriage by a Hindu king named Daluraj. The merchant’s daughter was known for her beauty. Her father refused her hand in marriage because a Muslim is not allowed to marry a Hindu. Legend has it that the girl prayed to Khawaja Khizr for help.
Soon Daluraj showed that he intended to abduct her and carry her away by force. So the merchant was ordered by Khawaja Khizr to cut loose his boat which was en route to Makkah. No sooner than this was done, the River Indus changed its course, and started flowing towards Rohri, carrying the boat and its passengers to safety. The merchant then constructed the shrine and a mosque in gratitude, dedicating it to Khawaja Khizr.
Over the years, many structures were added to the island, including lavish entrance portals, a mosque and retaining walls (since the island is prone to erosion, a structure designed and constructed to resist the lateral pressure of water was constructed to prevent this natural phenomenon). But these structures have vanished over time. Today, the island wears a minimalistic look. But even though there is an absence of any expensive structures, the mere presence of this islet at the mouth of the Indus is intriguing for travellers.
Even in the bustling metropolis of Karachi, a temple dedicated to Darya Laal is located near Custom House near Native Jetty Bridge. It houses a statue of Udero Laal, which has the same iconography as Khizr, Darya Laal or Jhoolay Laal, essentially as the river deity.
Khawaja Khizr was also accredited as a saviour around these parts even during modern-day history. During the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, residents of the twin cities of Sukkur and Rohri claimed to have seen a green turbaned saint on the Sukkur Barrage, signalling towards the skies. They believe the cities of Sukkur, Rohri and the Sukkur Barrage were kept safe because of him.
According to older images of the island, and as mentioned previously, there used to be an upsized entrance portal marking the entrance to the island, along with a mosque, and fully grown date palms and other trees, and the total original size of the island was threefold. Over time, corrosion has given way and a major chunk of the island has sunk under water.
The remaining walls and rubble masonry are in a precarious condition and although the Endowment Fund Trust (EFT) sanctioned an amount of five million rupees in 2014 — according to the Annual Report 2010-2015 of EFT — for the reconstruction of the island, work does not seem to be on the cards in the near future.
One of the reasons for the island to have fallen prey to neglect is the fact that, historically, the place was revered by both Hindus and Muslims, but there came a time when a rift occurred between them, which resulted in communal disturbance. Khwaja Khizr was compartmentalised into Hindu and Muslim sections, and the need to separate Jhoolay Laal or Darya Laal was felt by the Hindus. This resulted in a temple that was constructed on the mainland of Sukkur, facing the river.
Upon further research I also discovered that there is a Tomb of Khawaja Khizr in Sonipat in India and a Dome of Khizr on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem. Khizr is described not only in Islamic texts and theology, but is also known in Zoroastrianism (Michael Strausberg, Zoroastrian Rituals in Context, 2004). On a pilgrimage route to Yazd in Iran, six shrines are to be visited, and one of the shrine is of the ‘Pir-i-Sabz’, the green saint. It is regarded as the holiest place for the Zoroastrians living in Iran. The iconography of Pir-e-Sabz is similar to the imagery of Khawaja Khizr. Pir-i-Sabz is also associated to the goddess Anahita, to whom worshippers pray for rain and to celebrate the start of spring.
Shia Muslims believe that Hazrat Khizr, accompanied by Muhammad Al Mahdi, ordered the construction of a mosque near Qom, in Iran, a holy site and a destination of pilgrimage for the Shia community (“History of Jamkaran Mosque”, Jafariya News). Even for Sunni Sufis, Al-Khizr holds a sacred place, and many Sufi sects consider him to be alive and tell stories of having personal encounters with him. What is common, however, in many stories about Khizr is his connection with water, or rituals related to water.
In City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi, William Dalrymple writes about the Sufis he encountered in Delhi and their association with Khizr. Khizr is revered as a supernatural being, with extreme might and considered omnipotent. He is also a revered figure in the Chishti tradition, as he is believed to have built the stepped well at the Tomb of Bahauddin with his might. The place where the tomb now stands was originally chosen to be his khanqah [gathering place] by Baba Bahauddin and there was no source of water nearby. On praying and asking for help from Khawaja Khizr, the well was built in no time.
Dalrymple also mentions a ‘Makan i-Khizer’ (House of Khizr) where it is believed that Khizr could be summoned any time by saints and religious scholars. According to Dalrymple, “The Green One, it turned out, was once celebrated throughout Islam. He was said to be the unseen guide and protector of all Sufis, a mysterious figure who would rescue dervishes lost in the billowing sands of the Sinai or drowning in the Nile or the Oxus. He appeared in the wilderness and, to those who deserved it, he imparted his God-given knowledge.” Dalrymple also mentions to have met some dervish who still visited ‘Makan-i-Khizer’ in Delhi and meditated for 40 days in the hope of meeting Khizr.
Some of these fables over time become so ingrained in the lives of people that it is difficult to disassociate myths from reality. As far as Muslims are concerned, many of them believe that Khizr still lives and guides people who are lost, or those who call him for help, and the temples and shrines dedicated to him are proof that he is still revered as a living legend.
Even in the bustling metropolis of Karachi, a temple dedicated to Darya Laal is located near Custom House near Native Jetty Bridge. It houses a statue of Udero Laal, which has the same iconography as Khizr, Darya Laal or Jhoolay Laal, essentially as the river deity. The exact dates of construction for this temple are unknown. An urs was also annually celebrated previously and a large festival was organised around this period, with offerings being made to the sea to please the saint. Another temple in Jodia Bazaar also houses a statue of Udero Laal. His association with water is the reason that temples dedicated to Udero Laal always have a well, and the water in these wells is believed to be sacred.
Although there is nothing concrete to validate the existence of the elusive Khizr, his devotees believe in him with much conviction. The fables about him are supported by the physical markers whether in India, Pakistan or Iran and his iconography and legend lives on.
The writer is an architect, urban researcher and assistant professor at NED University of Engineering & Technology
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 12th, 2020