Cult of the Qalandar

Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro on the enduring power of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar

Cult of the Qalandar
Veneration for Lal Shahbaz Qalandar is immensely popular in Pakistan. Walking in the streets of Sehwan Sharif reveals the spiritual power of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar which manifests in the form of a number of his disciples and followers’ shrines. In every locality of Sehwan Sharif there is a dargah of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar’s disciple, be it of Sikandar Bodlo, Juman Jati, Shah Ibrahim Jati Sati, Syed Mir Kalan, Nihal Nuri, Bura Badal Sher, Mir Salahuddin etc. The Qalandari dervishes and malangs are found at every dargah of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar’s disciples. People of different faiths in Pakistan visit his dargah.

The cult of Qalandar is so powerful that it transcends the religious boundaries and gender disparity. It is the only dargah in Sindh where, apart from men, women and transgender people also participate in dhamal. It is due to this powerful spiritual charm that people of different belief systems have tried to relate Lal Shahbaz Qalandar to their belief systems. Due to this contestation, the cult of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar attracts more people at the annual urs than any other shrine in Sindh. People from all over Pakistan throng the Qalandar’s shrine at the time of urs. And due to this contestation, in the last few decades, new shrines of Qalandar have come up in other parts of Sindh.

Historians and hagiographers have provided plenty of information on Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in the following books: 1) Bustan ul-Arifin by Imam al-Nawawi (d. 1277), 2) Tarikh-i- Feroz Shahi by Ziauddin Barani (d.1357), 3) Akhbar-ul-Akhyar by Abdul Haq Dehlavi (d.1642), 4) Tarikhi-i- Masoomi by Mir Muhammad Masoom Shah Bakhari (d. 1606), 5) Hadiqat ul-Aulia written in 1607 by Syed Abdul Qadir Thattvi, 6) Tazkira Mashaikh Siwistan by Abdul Ghafoor bin Hyder Siwistani, 7) Tufat ul-Kiram by Mir Ali Sher Qani (d. 1788)  8) Khazinat al-Asfiya by Mufti Ghulam Sarwar Lahori (d.1890), 9) Lab-i-Tarikhi-i-Sindh by Khudadad Khan, 10) Qalandar Namo by Hakeem Fateh Muhammad Sehwani (d.1942).

Shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar at Sehwan

The majority of these books discuss Lal Shahbaz Qalandar’s miracles, genealogy,spiritual initiation, travelling and his arrival in Sewhan. As one might guess, information in all of these books is contradictory to each other.

Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, whose real name was Syed Usman, was born in Marwand near Tabriz. Hence was called Usman Marwandi. According to Hakeem Fateh Muhammad Sehwani (1882-1942), the author of Qalandar Namo, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, was a disciple of Sheikh Baba Ibrahim. However, Abdul Haq Dehlavi (d.1642) wrote in Akhbar-ul-Akhyar that Lal Shahbaz Qalandar was initiated into the Qalandariyya Silslia by Sheikh Jamal al-Din Savi (d.1232), the alleged founder of Qalandariyya in Syria. But some other hagiographers believe that he was initiated into the Qalandariyya tariqa by Sheikh Baba Ibrahim, a disciple of Jamal al-Din Savi.

According to Mufti Ghulam Sarwar Lahori (1837-1890) the author of Khazinat al-Asfiya that Lal Shahbaz Qalandar used to wear a red dress that is why he was called Lal. He received the honorific title of Shahbaz  from his mentor.  He was Qalandar and adopted Malamati principle.  After getting robe of initiation (khirqah) Lal Shahbaaz Qalandar visited many holy Islamic cities before coming to Sindh.

There are different groups of scholars who have tried to associate him to various Sufi silsila or mystic orders. The first group of scholars believe that he was initiated by Jamal al-Din. Others argue that he was a disciple of Bahauddin Zakariya and thus that he became part of the Suhrawardi Sufi order and his Lal Shahbaziyya tariqa is a sub-order of Suhrawardi Silsila. Another group tried to relate him to the Qadiri Silsila of Sufism. Some writers also tried to associate him to the Ismaili sect and argue that he was an Ismaili preacher.

The photo of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar's dargah is flanked by Guru Nanak on the left and Lord Shiva on the right at Thano Ahmed Khan

Whatever Sufi silsila, mystic order or sect he belonged to, Lal Shahbaz was undoubtedly a great mystic and wandering Qalandar of the thirteenth century, who led a celibate life. He was believed to have travelled together with his friends known as Char Yar (four friends) Bahauddin Zakariya (1171-1262), his son Shaikh Sadruddin Arif (d.1286), Jalaluddin Surkhposh Bukhari (1192-1291) and Baba Fariduddin Ganjshakar (1173-1266). There are many places in Sindh and Balochistan which mark the visits of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. In Sindh, there are many chilagahs, takiyas, astans, kandas (trees) khudis (small structures) and dargahs which are associated with Lal Shahbaz Qalandar.

The great Lal Shahbaz Qalandar died in 1274 and was buried in Sehwan. An imposing tomb was first erected over his grave by Akhtiaruddin in 1356 who was an administrator during the reign of Sultan Firuz Shah Tughlaq (d.1388). Later another administrator of Sehwan during the reign of Sultan Firuz Shah Tughlaq built a dome over the tomb of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in 1357. Jani Beg Tarkhan (r. 1585–1599) expanded the shrine complex and later his son Ghazi Beg Tarkhan (r. 1599-1612) continued the work after the death of his father. Dindar Khan, an administrator of Sehwan during the reign of Shah Jahan (r. 1628-1658) also made extensions in the shrine complex. Mian Ghulam Shah Kalhoro (r.1757-1772) also made some extensions in the shrine complex of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in 1759. The tomb was rebuilt during the second tenure of the late Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto as the Prime Minister Pakistan, after it collapsed in 1994.
His cult is the most syncretic to be
found in Sindh

Lal Shahbaaz Qalandar was also venerated under the name of Raja Bharthari by Hindus. His dual identity is highly disputed in the contested religious history of Sindh in the twelfth and thirteenth century. In the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries Ismaili pirs were preaching in Sindh and converted many to their belief system. They even converted the Soomra rulers of Sindh. Ismailis became the powerful and dominant proselytizers in Sindh during the reign of the Soomras. Many Ismaili preachers made Sindh the centre of their missionary activities until one of the Soomra kings was forcibly converted to Sunnism by Mahmud of Ghazna (d.1030), thus forcing Ismaili preachers to adopt the practice of taqiyyah and carry dual identities. By concealing their true identity and adopting dual identities, Ismaili da’is (preachers) continued their missionary activities.

Dargah of Lal Shahbaz near Thano Ahmed Khan

Whether Lal Shahbaaz Qalandar belonged to Ismaili sect or not, his cult is the most syncretic in nature in Sindh.

In the last seven or eight decades, many of the shrines of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar have come up in other parts of Sindh which are mostly taken care of by his Hindus devotees. I just want to discuss here five of his shrines which are located in Thano Ahmad Khan, Thano Bula Khan and Thano Arib Khan in Jamshoro district. The earliest shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar is located at Kanra village on the Karchat road near Pir Gebi which was established about six hundred years ago. Other shrines in Thana Bula Khan taluka were established later.

There is an impressive shrine complex of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Thano Ahmad Khan. It is about two hundred years old but the first small structure was built in 1995 and later it was expanded to build impressive dargah and other buildings in 2015. As one enters the shrine complex, the first thing that one notices is two small structures on the right side of the entrance. These are two shrines of Laki Shah Saddar and the first caretaker of Dargah of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar at Thano Ahmad Khan. The entrance of the dargah of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar at Thano Ahmad Khan is decorated with kashi tiles of Nasarpur. Under this tomb lies the symbolic grave of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. The interior of the tomb is decorated with glasswork. Near the tomb of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar is located a hall which is decorated with the poster of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar’s shrine at Sehwan. This poster of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar’s shrine is flanked by the images of Lord Shiva on the right and Baba Guru Nanak on the left. This is the most syncretic shrine in Thano Ahmad Khan which is visited by both the Muslims and Hindus. Apart from this shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, there is another 3 km southwest of Thano Ahmad Khan near Sendlani village, which is locally called ‘Lal Jo Kando’ (tree of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar). At both, the shrines of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar are found dhunis (campfires or world renouncers’ hearth) with tridents. Lal Shahbaz Qalandar is also believed to have been the lord of Viragi/Bairagi ascetics and sometimes referred to as Raja Virag. At some of the ashrams of Hindu ascetics, Lal Ji Khudi (small structure) of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar) is found where there are placed his posters and tridents. These khudis (small  structures) are mostly found in the ashrams of Shaivite ascetics.

Lal Jo Kando, dargah of Lal Shahbaz near Thano Ahmed Khan

Apart from dargahs of Qalandar at Thano Ahmad Khan, there are two shrines of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Thano Bula Khan town. ‘Qalandar jo astan,’ which was established by Jeso Qalandari about seven decades ago, is located near the Gurdwara of Guru Gobind Singh in Thano Bula Khan town. Another shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar known as Lal Ji Khudi is located in Malik Safar Khan village, half a kilometre north of Thano Bula Khan town.

The writer is an anthropologist. He may be contacted at

Excerpts have been taken from author’s forthcoming book “Saints, Sufis and Shrines: A Journey through Mystical Landscape of Sindh” 

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