Gurus in Shikarpur

Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro takes us through the pluralistic heritage of the famous Sindhi town

Gurus in Shikarpur
Founded by the Daudpotras in 1617 and later wrested by Kalhoras in 1701, Shikarpur became the eighteenth-century commercial emporium of Asia. The traders of Shikarpur had traded with Central Asian lands and had dealings with merchants as far away as in Africa. These traders of Shikarpur invented the Haktai script of Sindhi (like the Amils of Khudabad) which was used in eighteenth century by Sindhi Hindus. The Amils, who served the Kalhoras, also invented the Khudabadi script which was in vogue amongst Hindu Amils of Sindh during the Kalhora period.

The rich merchants of Shikarpur spent money on the beautification of Shikarpur. Once Shikarpur had eight gates, of which only a few have survived. Life inside these gates was vibrant and lively. But alas: the city has lost its past glory. However, the temples, mosques, shrines, havelis and covered bazaar – known as Dhak Bazaar, built by both Hindu and Muslim merchants – still dominate the landscape of Shikarpur, albeit in a shambles. The romance of Shikarpur still lives on. Every street in Shikarpur is Heritage Street. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Shikarpur is an open museum in many ways. Bridges that connected two havelis were a common part of nineteenth- and twentieth-century life for Shikarpuris. Women seldom came down from their havelis and used these bridges to visit their relatives. They used to observe street life from the balconies and jharokas, which were tastefully and intricately carved reflecting the opulence of the builders. In the mornings and evenings, Hindu men and women used to worship in temples, darbars, dharamshalas, math, marhis, thanssamadhis, ashrams and astans which were located in these narrow and winding streets. Likewise Muslim males worshipped in mosques and venerated Sufi saints. Muslim women also visited shrines and sought the blessings of saints. Today, all these religious practices still persist in Shikarpur.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that Shikarpur is an open museum in many ways

In one of the narrow lanes of Shikarpur is located the famous Khatwari Darbar, which was founded by Bhai Gurdas, the founder of Sevapanth, who was a disciple of Guru Gobind Singh. There are many darbars and temples of the Udasi Sikhs, Khalsa Sikhs and Hindus in Shikarpur. Bhai Gurdas, whose real name was Bhai Kanya Lal, was a Khalsa saint. He received blessings from Guru Gobind Singh. According to legend, when Guru Gobind Singh was fighting with the troops of Aurangzeb; he assigned various duties to his Khalsa Sikhs. Bhai Gurdas was entrusted the responsibility of serving water to the injured Sikh soldiers, but he was found to be serving water to both the Mughal and Sikh wounded soldiers. One of the Punjabi soldiers complained about him to Guru Gobind Singh – that a Sindhi Sikh from Shikarpur was also serving water to the enemies. Guru Gobind understood that he was a mystic. Instead of reprimanding him, he instructed him to preach Sikh thought and ideology in Shikarpur. Following the instructions of his Guru, Bhai Gurdas started preaching the Sikh ideology in Shikarpur. He used to sit on a cot while delivering lectures and sermons. Thus the darbar came to be called Khatwari Darbar.

Carved door at the Samadhi of Shankar Bharati

The darbar is a two-storey building which is built in typical haveli style. This darbar is one of the impressive structures in Shikarpur; the distinctive features being paintings and woodwork. On one of the walls of the darbar are found images of ten Sikh Gurus. Three doorways open to the main hall of the darbar, which contains the Guru Granth Sahib. The walls of the darbar are adorned with paintings representing Hindu and Sikh beliefs. Two doors are carved with images of Sikh Gurus and Hindu deities. Two companions of Baba Guru Nanak, Bhai Bala and Bhai Mardana, have also been represented in one of the wooden doors of the darbar.

The popular iconography of Bhai Gurdas shows him standing with a water bowl before Guru Gobind Singh. This theme has been represented in woodwork, painting and metalwork. Almost all the temples, darbars and marhis in Shikarpur depict Bhai Gurdas in such a pose.

The most remarkable reliefs on a metal plate is fixed on one of the walls of a small temple located on the left side of the first wooden door.

There are two metal plates on the temple walls, in fact: the first plate represents Bhai Gurdas standing before Guru Gobind Singh and the second depicts the darbar of Baba Atal Rai, a son of the sixth Sikh Guru Hargobind Sahib, with four people standing before him. The inscribed metal plate shows Sewa Das, Kashi Das, Bhai Saloki and Mohan standing before Baba Atal Rai. Many disciples of Baba Gurdas spread his thought and ideology, coming to be known as Sevapanthis. They established darbars or dharamashalas in many towns of Sindh and Balochistan.

It is believed that Bhai Gurdas himself visited some towns in Balochistan to spread Khalsa thought and ideology. One of his disciples established an impressive darbar in Gandava, which is now located in the heart of the town. This darbar is noted for th ewooden frame that decorates the main facade of the darbar. It depicts Baba Guru Nanak with Bala and Bhai Mardana, Ganpati and Krishna. The names of the caretakers of the darbar are written on the walls in one of the rooms, which include Baba Seetal Das, Baba Dharamdas, Baba Jai Ramdas, Baba Amardas, Baba Gobinddas and others.

Metal plate depicting Bhai Gurdas with Guru Gobind Singh in Khatwari darbar

There were also other Khalsa darbars in Shikarpur which were founded by Diyal Singh, who was also a soldier of Guru Gobind Singh and fought the Mughal troops. He also founded the darbar which came to be called Singhan Wari Darbar which is located in Nandi Bazaar. Masand Darbar was also founded by a Khalsa saint, Bhai Dhanraj.

Apart from Khalsa darbars, there are many Udasi darbars in Shikarpur which include Samad Ashram Udasin, Chhatwari Darbar and Baba Tulsidas Udasi Darbar. Shikharpur was also home to many ascetics including Sanyasis, Tayagis, Bairagis, Sants, Naths, Garsand Bhartis. Dwarka Nath Ji Marhi, Balkram Ji Marhi and ashram of Shankar Bharti are some of the sacred places associated with Hindu ascetics in Shikarpur.

The shrine of Shankar Bharati is noted for its ornately carved wooden door, paintings and domes that crown the Samadhis of Shankar Bharati and his disciples. The main door of Shankar Bharati’s smadahi is carved with the image of Baba Guru Nanak with his two companions Bala and Bhai Mardana.

Today, unfortunately, many ornate wooden carved doors of havelis and darbars have been sold off and some of these were bought by a dealer and put on sale at his shop in Golra Mor Furniture market, Islamabad. Mural paintings that decorate most of the temples, darbars, marhis and samadhis of Shikarpur are now in advanced stages of decay.

The author is an anthropologist and the head of the department of Development Economics at the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE), Islamabad. Excerpts have been taken from his forthcoming book on the development of Udsaipanth in Sindh

The author is an anthropologist. He tweets at: @Kalhorozulfiqar