Syncretic Sadh Belo

Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro takes us to a site where the spiritual imagery reflects Sindh's traditions of tolerance

Syncretic Sadh Belo
Sadh Belo had been home to many religious communities, be they ascetics, saints, sadhus, Naths or mahants. Some halted at the island for a temporary period and the others made it their permanent abode. Much before the arrival of Baba Bankhandi, Sado Belo was one of the sacred spaces of Naths who practiced austerities on the island. Bukkur and Rohri had many sacred spaces which are associated with Naths, some of which vanished into the waters of the River Indus due to changes in the river’s course.

The island of Sadh Belo has always withstood the waters of the River Indus. It became famous in the British period when Baba Bankhandi arrived in Bukkur, in 1823. He made this island his permanent abode and began converting many to his faith. Baba Bankhandi was not a Hindu, but rather he was an Udasi. Udasipanth is believed to have been founded by Baba Srichand, the eldest son of Baba Guru Nanak. Broadly speaking, the Sikh religion is divided into the two main sects, Khalsa and Udasi. Udasi is one of the ascetic orders within the Sikh religion. The word ‘udasi’ is derived from the Sanskrit ‘Udasian’ – literally meaning to be detached from worldly concerns and comforts. Hence they are renouncers. Udasis follow the teachings of Baba Srichand. The udasis do not marry and their spiritual traditions continue through a guru-chela framework.

Facade of Baba Bankhandi darbar

Like Naths, udasis also establish dhuni, which is a popular identity that they have renounced the world. Each Mahant had their dhunis (fire-altar, renouncer’s hearth, etc). Baba Srichand renounced world, contrary to what Guru Nanak taught to his devotees. After renouncing the world or adopting the udasi way of life, he travelled in many parts of the Punjab and Sindh. In Sindh, he visited Rohri and Thatta where he established his dhunis there. After the death of Baba Srichand, Guru-ship transferred to Baba Gurditta and later to Baba Almast, Balu Hansne, Goinde and Baba Phul Das. Amongst these four mahants, Baba Almast spent a considerable time at the Dhuni of Baba Srichand at Rohri.

The Dhuni of Baba Srichand at Rohri was one of the sacred places for Udasis. Baba Bankhandi came all the way from Nepal to Sukkur. He lived in Rohri and later also visited the Dhuni of Baba Srichand at Thatta. After spending some time at the Dhuni of Baba Srichand, Baba Bankhandi made Sadh Belo his permanent abode, where he spread the thought and ideology of Baba Srichand. At the arrival of Baba Bankhandi, many Udasi mahants were already spreading the teachings of Baba Srichand in the towns and villages of Sindh, which included Pir Jo Goth, Khairpur, Babarloi and Halani. These towns and villages were important udasi centers in Sindh.

A depiction of Baba Bankhandi with devotees

Today Sadh Belo is one of the most sacred spaces for the Hindus of Pakistan in general and Sindh in particular. There are a number of religious and secular structures at Sadh Belo which include the Darbar of Baba Bankhandi, a library, a dispensary and the temples of Hanuman, Ganesh, Durga and Jhulelal. Apart from the temples, there are also Samadhis of Sadhus after whom this place is named, i.e. as Sadh Belo. These Samadhis are located near the temple of Jhulelal, which is believed to have been erected by Mukhi Devan, a rich Hindu merchant of Sukkur. As one enters into the mandir of Jhulelal, one finds the images of Jhulelal, who is shown standing on fish which is his vehicle, and Rama Pir, who is shown sitting on a horse. It is interesting – and I must say peculiar to Sindhi syncretic traditions – that the murti of the deity of Dalits and lower-caste Hindus is placed together with the murti of Jhulelal, the deity of upper-caste Hindus mainly belonging to Vaish (Vaishyas) class of the caste system.

The darbar of Baba Bankhandi is one of the most impressive marble structures in Sindh. The building depicts both floral and figural representations of Hindu deities and Udasi saints. The northern wall has a number of marble panels depicting Hindu deities and the concept of Naraka (hell) in Hinduism. The northern wall has two large panels representing dancing scenes, rituals and Naraka. It also bears eight small panels. The Naraka panel, consisting of seven hellish realms, according to Hinduism, shows sinners being punished according to type of sin committed. This is the only marble panel in the whole of Sindh, albeit there are many mural paintings of Naraka in Hindu temples and Sikh darbars in Sindh. Near this Naraka panel is another panel of Svarga, representing the Hindu concept of heaven. In this panel are shown people dancing and playing instruments. Just above this panel are three scenes: the first two show him in his Matsya avatar (a zoomorphic fish) depicting him as killing demons who stole the vedas and the third panel represents him as a liberator – and he is shown saving or protecting the elephant Gajendra from the clutches of Makara the crocodile. This motif of ‘Gajendra Moksha’ (liberation of Gajendra) became a popular theme in all major Hindu temples and Sikh shrines in Sindh. This motif was represented not only in mural paintings but also in marble relief and wood carvings. The best examples of Gajendra Moksha scenes were carved on the wooden doors of Shikarpur and other towns in upper Sindh.

Figurines of Jhulelal on the left and Rama Pir on the right at the Jhulelal temple

It is interesting - and I must say peculiar to Sindhi syncretic traditions - that the murti of the deity of Dalits and lower-caste Hindus is placed together with the murti of Jhulelal, the deity of upper-caste Hindus

Dasavatara (ten incarnations) of Vishnu have been carved on the northern wall of the Baba Bankhandi darbar. One of the panels shows Vishnu in his Narasimha avatar – who incarnates part-human and part-lion to kill evil and restore dharma. The popular iconography of Narasimha represents him as placing demon Hiranyakashipu in his lap and piercing his claws into his abdomen so as to kill him. Through this, he seeks to end religious persecution on Earth and restore dharma. marble polishing service

Another panel shows Vishnu in his varaha (Vishnu in the form of boar) avatar. The tenth avatar of Vishnu, Kalki, yet to appear in the present epoch according to Hindu mythology, has also been depicted on the wall of the darbar. In this panel is shown Kalki with his horse, Devadatta. Behind Devadatta, Vishnu is shown in the forms of Kalki with a horse face and human body and as Varaha with a boar face and human body. Some marble panel shows Krishna with his cows. Animal and bird panels are also found on the wall.

Overall, this imagery reflects how tolerant these religious groups are in the Sindhi society, where a Sikh darbar was erected by a Hindu devotee – decorated with figures of Hindu deities and udasi mahants. This is a syncretic tradition that is still the hallmark of Sindhi society, be it Uderolal or Pir Pathoro or Gujjo Rano in Umarkot. Both Hindus and Muslims venerate these saints, each claiming and disputing the religious identity of these saints. But never in history has any untoward incident ever taken place.

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