HERITAGE: ODEROLAL, THE SAINT OF WATER

22 Nov 2020

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Oderolal’s shrine near Tando Adam | Photos by the writer
Oderolal’s shrine near Tando Adam | Photos by the writer

There are many shrines in Sindh, such as Bhit Shah and Qalandar Lal Shahbaz, where Hindus, Muslims and Christians come together to pay homage to sufis and saints. But the white fort-like building of Oderolal’s shrine is quite different from the rest. Located near Tando Adam, it is at an hour’s drive from Hyderabad city.

There are three entrances through which people come to pay homage to their saint, Oderolal. The shrine is unique in the fact that, on the right side of the grave, is a mosque where Muslims offer namaz and, on the left, there is a temple, where Hindus come to worship. While the Hindus consider Oderolal as an avtaar of Jhulay Lal, the river saint, many Muslims believe Oderolal to be Khwaja Khizr, the mystical immortal saint and guide. Locals narrate multiple stories associated with him. In Sukkur, Rohri, Sehwan and Thatta, there are several astaans (places of worship) of Oderolal.

The architecture of the shrine of Oderolal is Indo-Islamic. The interior of the shrine is decorated with colourful glass, while wind-catchers on the roof help keep the temperature cool inside.

There are two narratives regarding Oderolal’s birth. According to the first account in the 19th century historian Bherumal Meharchand Advani’s book, Sindhi Boli Ji Tareekh (History of the Sindhi Language), Oderolal was born in 1007 (in the Hindu calendar) at Ratan Raichand Lohana’s home at Nasarpur in the month of Cheti Chand. This is the first month of the Hindu calendar, which falls roughly between mid-March to mid-April. During Cheti Chand, the people of Sindh organise the Oderolal fair, along with the birth anniversary of Jhulay Lal and the celebration of the Hindu New Year.

The grave of Oderolal
The grave of Oderolal

According to Advani’s book Qadeem Sindh [Ancient Sindh] and Hussain Badshah’s book Hyderabad Ji Tareekh [The History of Hyderabad], Tando Adam used to be a part of Nasarpur, an administrative district in the Mughal era, while the Indus River used to flow through Matiari city, which was a part of Nasarpur. When the river changed its course, the geography of Tando Adam city also changed.

There is a common belief in Sindh that Mirrikh Shah, the fanatic ruler of Thatta, started to forcibly convert Hindus in the 10th century. Unwilling to change their faith, the Hindus offered prayers and performed religious rituals on the banks of the Indus to ask their gods for help. After 40 days, a young horse-rider appeared and asked them to tell Mirrikh Shah to stop his oppression on innocent people. Forty years after this, according to Advani’s second narrative in Sindhi Boli Ji Tareekh, a boy was born in Ratanchand Bhaiband’s home in Nasarpur and was named Oderolal.

In the heart of Sindh is a shrine where Hindus and Muslims pray together

The name Oderolal was perhaps derived from the Sanskrit word ‘udo’ which means water. Later, the word changed into ‘udor’. Some people believe that it is derived from Sindhi word ‘uder’, which means to fly.

Some locals believe that, before Oderolal’s mother fed him mother’s milk, she gave him some sips of water from the Indus. Hence Oderolal is known as pani waro pir [the water saint] or darya shah jo avtaar [the King of River Indus] as well as pallay waro pir [the fish saint].

Oderolal is revered by Hindus and Muslims alike without any religious disparity. Every year in April, Hindu followers of Oderolal arrive from India to attend the fair, which is a joint venture organised by Hindu and Muslim caretakers, the Shaikhs (Hindus converted to Muslims) and the Hindus of Tando Adam. People from all over Sindh participate in the festivities and pay homage to Oderolal. They sing bhajans and panjrra [hymns] at his shrine. The fair begins by lighting lamps, after which the devotees decorate a huge platter with sweets, fruits and roses and offerings are made to the Indus River, in an endeavour to seek the river’s blessings.

One of the offerings made to the Indus is known as behrano. A small cot is placed on a bronze tray with lamps made out of flour dough, rock candy, incense sticks and sweets. Dandiya dance is also an important part of this ritual.

A bell in the temple adjacent to Oderolal’s grave
A bell in the temple adjacent to Oderolal’s grave

“For decades, we have been living peacefully alongside Hindus,” says Abdullah Shaikh, the caretaker of the shrine. “Oderolal preached peace and we are his followers.

“During the fair, the Hindu community donates to the mosque as well as the shrine,” he says. “Likewise, it is our duty to take care of the temple. There is no religious discrimination among people coming here and they share a bond with each other.”

“For us, Oderolal is a holy saint and a maseeha [messiah],” says a devotee. “When there is some difficulty in our life, we come to visit Oderolal. We came here before our sons’ wedding to get blessings from Oderolal. This is our custom. Our ancestors used to come here and now our young generation is also following in their footsteps.”

“At the shrine of Oderolal, you will never find a dispute between Hindus and Muslims,” says Attaullah Shah, a scholar and deputy commissioner of Mirpurkhas.

At the time of Muslim prayers, the Hindu pujari [priest] remains silent and, when the Hindu worshippers come to pay homage to Oderolal in the temple, the Muslims give them a warm welcome. The pujari and muezzin [leader of the Muslim call to prayer] are equally respected and people donate money to a common donation or charity box.

Devotees also tie a string round a miswaak (salvadora persica) tree. These strings are removed by them when they visit the shrine after the fulfillment of their prayers. It is believed that this miswaak tree produced a sweet sap until the 1970s, which was used by people for healing purposes. The sap has vanished but, for the devotees, this tree still bears holy significance.

Outside the shrine of Oderolal is the Temple of Shiva, besides which is an old well. According to Hindu mythology, water purifies the human soul. Hence, the Hindu community from all over the country comes here to bathe with water from this well.

Is the story of Oderolal based on history or not? “Faith counts more than facts,” says Professor Ram Panjwani, a Sindhi writer, folk singer and educationist. “Faith has established Jhulay Lal as Asht Dev or the community god of Sindhis. For us, Oderolal is the lord of water and light. He inspires us to believe in the unity and brotherhood of mankind. He raises us above the differences and distinctions of caste, colour and creed.”

After Partition, Hindus living in what is now Pakistan moved to India but their roots still exist in Sindh. For them, the water of Indus River is as pure as the water from the Ganges. Many Sindhi families who left Sindh and moved to India settled in Mumbai, Delhi and Gujrat, but Oderolal still bonds them with Sindh in Pakistan.

Unfortunately, Hindus from India don’t get a visa to visit Oderolal’s shrine in Sindh as easily as the people of Indian Punjab who come through the Kartarpur corridor. Since Oderolal is revered by Sindhi Hindus living in different countries of the world, they too should be allowed to visit the shrine. Perhaps Oderolal can once again be the conduit to bring communities together.

The writer is a Sindhi fiction writer, blogger and journalist

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 22nd, 2020