Saints, Sufis and Shrines: The Mystical Landscape of Sindh
By Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro
Endowment Fund Trust for Preservation of the Heritage of Sindh, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9699860423
244pp.

Dr Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro, an anthropologist by education and profession, has become a household name for his immense contributions to scholarship on the heritage and culture of Sindh.

His latest book, Saints, Sufis and Shrines: The Mystical Landscape of Sindh, once again shows the amount of fieldwork conducted to pen down the folklore, legends and stories about the saintly figures of the region and to document the built form through photographs.

Kalhoro has been researching Pakistan’s south-eastern province since 1998 and this book is the result of those 24 years of hard work. The first of a three-part series, which intends to familiarise readers with both the more well-known as well as lesser-known saints associated with Sindh from the 13th to the 20th centuries, it will pique the interest of local and foreign scholars alike with its almost 55 essays on the shrines dotting the region.

Saints, Sufis and Shrines is geographically expansive and the essays are arranged roughly chronologically. Although the author mentions the target audience that is expected to benefit from this book — historians, anthropologists, sociologists and scholars of comparative religion — it is written in a manner that even laypersons with some interest in the subject will be able to grasp the content easily. Most advantageously for the book as well as its readers, each essay works as a standalone piece and can be read independently.

Part hagiography, part documentation and part journey through the landscape, focusing on its many shrines, it serves up a thorough ethnographic testimonial that reveals many aspects of the unique and shared culture of these spaces.

Anthropologist Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro’s latest erudite book will pique the interest of local and foreign scholars and interested laypersons alike with its almost 55 essays on the shrines dotted across Sindh

In chapters spread over two to three pages each, Kalhoro gives background information on the individual saints, what silsila or Sufi order they belonged to, who were their teachers or pirs and who became their disciples and gaddi nasheens [spiritual successors]. He also narrates interesting anecdotes that have been passed down generations — the oral tradition in these places is very strong and imbues life to the ethnographic study.

As well as chapters on such popular Sufis as Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai and Abdul Wahab — better known as Sachal Sarmast — we have accounts of saints many might not be too familiar with, such as the faqeer of Mianwal, and of similarly obscure shrines and necropolises such as Agham Kot.

The remains of the Jamia Masjid at Agham Kot are a sight to behold, reflecting in ruins the architectural glory of the city that once was | Image from the book
The remains of the Jamia Masjid at Agham Kot are a sight to behold, reflecting in ruins the architectural glory of the city that once was | Image from the book

The locals, of course, are aware of their spiritual importance, but credit certainly goes to Kalhoro for bringing to a wider audience these long-lost and forgotten sites, knowledge about which has fallen through the cracks of time.

Agham Kot, for instance, was a hive of activity as early as the eighth century. Even before the Arab military commander Muhammad bin Qasim sailed his ships into the harbour of Debal, the kot [village] was a centre of arts and learning, a multi-religious space, with Buddhists and Brahmins dominating the landscape. It maintained its popularity and importance all through the Soomro, Samma, Arghun, Tarkhan, Mughal and Kalhora time periods and was second only to Thatta in its stature as a city.

The shifting of the River Indus was a cause of Agham Kot’s decline and most of its popular shrines are now nothing more than piles of rubble. Of the few monuments that continue to endure — and are photo-documented in the book — are the remains of the Jamia Masjid. This centuries-old mosque is a sight to behold, reflecting in its ruins the architectural glory of the city that once was. Its style shows that construction activity continued from the Samma to the Kalhora periods and some recent renovations are also visible.

Kalhoro’s book is special in that it prominently discusses the syncretic nature of Sindh with the dual identities of its shrines. For the people of Sindh, having a temple, gurdwara and saint’s shrine with space for alams [heraldic standards] is a common occurrence, and this in itself is unique to the region. No matter their faith, all saints are revered and respected by the people and, thus, they and their shrines acquire dual or multiple identities.

As the book narrates, Sindh served as a refuge for Ismaili Muslims fleeing Iran because of Arab persecution. The Ismaili Muslims had established a network of missionaries prior to their migration to the region, and the Soomra chieftains were among their earliest major converts. The essay ‘Ismaili Saints and Hindu Shrines’ sheds some light on the dual identity shrines and the author writes: “There are two important factors to understand the religious Ismaili history in Sindh. Firstly, with the concealment of true identity, later their shrines became popular with dual identities, ie Mangho Pir/ Lala Jasraj (Sila Khan 2003), Pir Patho/ Gopi Chand (Allana 2012), Shaikh Tahir/ Udero Lal/ Jhule Lal (Sila Khan 2003), Ram Baraho/ Ibrahim Shah and many others.”

The discussion on Pir Patho/ Gopi Chand in the chapter ‘Enigma of Dual Identity Saints’ allows us to learn how he acquired his dual identity and how his reverence transcends commonly understood religious bounds.

While reading Saints, Sufis and Shrines, one must pay attention to the fluidity of reverential practices that are a departure from orthodox understanding. For example, in a certain locality, Muslims and Hindus alike might revere a saint despite his — in some cases, her — religious affiliation. To the devotee, all that matters is the saint’s piety. Lal Shahbaz Qalandar and the Shrine/ Cult of Udero Lal are good examples of this.

Most of the shrines that Kalhoro documents are “living” and breathing sites that have a constant flow of devotees flocking to them regularly. They should be looked at through the broader lens of the social-economic realities of the present, the longevity and sustenance of ritual practices and the spiritual desires of common folk, rather than a myopic, religiously orthodox lens. The book calls for much more than a narrow reading, and it appears that the author is also implicitly advocating and encouraging this.

Just as colourful and diverse as the photos of stone carvings, fascinating tilework, domes and chhatries [canopies] are the stories. Kalhoro possesses a keen sense of how to captivate the reader and he does so with such intriguing chapter titles as ‘Ashram of Ascetics’, ‘Animal Healing Saint of Tharparkar’, ‘Renouncers of Ratakot’ and ‘Swamis and Sufis’.

The introduction provides a basic framework of how to read the book and what to expect. This is a good orientation tool for readers, but what is lacking is a comprehensive glossary that explains local terms such as “dhunni”, “darbaar” and “chela”. Such words are occasionally translated in some chapters, but not all. Another thing that can amp up reader friendliness is if the essays were grouped in some way, either thematically, or geographically, or in strict chronological order.

Overall, Saints, Sufis and Shrines should be immensely valuable for researchers, historians, anthropologists and academics. As a publisher, the Endowment Fund Trust for Preservation of the Heritage of Sindh is contributing greatly to scholarship on Sindh and, for that, it must be praised and encouraged to keep up the good work.

The reviewer is Assistant Professor at the Department of Architecture and Planning, NED University of Engineering and Technology, Karachi and holds a doctorate in History of Architecture from the Middle East Technical University, Turkiye

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 14th, 2023

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