Grief Over Sehwan Tragedy Cannot, Should Not, Be Used To Sanitise History Of Shahbaz Qalandar

by Dimple Kaul and 'True Indology' - Feb 25, 2017 10:12 AM +05:30 IST
Grief Over Sehwan Tragedy Cannot, Should Not, Be Used To Sanitise History Of Shahbaz Qalandar Ruins of a destroyed Shiva temple under Sehwan Sharif
  • If records are to be believed, the views of Shahbaz Qalandar were not very different from views of those who attacked his shrine

The recent ISIS attack at the dargah of Shahbaz Qalandar, erroneously confused with the Sindhi Hindu deity Jhule Lal, has seen many odes to the ‘syncretic culture’ of Sindh in its wake. This prompted us to delve deep into the karamat (miraculous powers) of this Shahbaz of Sehwan (formerly Siwistan), whose dargah was constructed on the ruins of a destroyed Ardhanarishwar temple and fort dating to the era of Alexander. (c. 4th century BCE ).

Who exactly was Lal Shahbaz Qalandar?

According to his traditional biography, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar was born as Syed Muhammad Usman Marwand in 1177 in Iran. His ancestors were from Baghdad and had migrated to Afghanistan. He was initiated into the Suhrawardy order of Sufis in Azerbaijan and settled in Sindh. He started teaching at the Fuqhai Islam madarsa and also wrote his treatises Mizna-e-Sart, Kism-e-Doyum, Aqd and Zubda. He played a vital role in converting kafirs (non-believers) to Islam. He had his own place destroyed, in his lifetime, so that nobody would worship his grave after his death, as it was against the tenets of Islam.

However, it was rebuilt by his devotees, many of whom included Hindus. Ironically, this Sufi pir (a Muslim saint), who has been hailed as the champion of syncretic culture of Sindh against extremist forces such as IS, held the same views himself. His traditional biography says that when he first came to Sindh, he found that the natives were all kafirs and he despised them and their traditions. He used his (supposed) karamat to assert superiority over them.

Sehwan, back in the day

As already mentioned above, Sehwan, originally Siwistan, was inhabited by the Sivi tribe in the Vedic period. (Raja Sibi whose legendary tale of sacrifice and kindness is widely known, is said to have ruled this region itself). The region became very strongly associated with Shaivism by the early medieval period and was home to the Pashupata sect. In the early seventh century, the Chinese traveller Xuanzang found over 235 Shiva temples in upper Sindh along with a large one housed in Sehwan. It is generally agreed by modern scholarship that while lower Sindh had an even presence of Hindus and Buddhists, upper Sindh was predominantly Hindu. The Shiva Purana refers to the Indus River as a place where the holy ascetics can divest themselves of all their impurities. Al Beruni stated that Shiva is most frequently venerated in the south of Sindh.

The entire Indian sub-continent used to be, and still is, full of temples and sacred objects and places of pilgrimage. Anna Sururova in her book Muslim Saints of South Asia writes:

. . .their Islamisation took place easily, extensively, but to a great extent superficially. Often new dargahs would come up at places where temples existed. But no single object of veneration could do away with or expunge the old sacred object from collective memory. Many such cultural strata, where the practice of ziyarat (pilgrimage) was superimposed on pre-Islamic layers, survived in the north- western regions of the subcontinent. One of these is the Shiv Temple where the Dargah of Shebaz Kalandar was built. It used to be a big Shaivaite place of pilgrimage.

The Pashupatas were also located in Sehwan Sharif and Koteshwar. This place is located on the edge of the Rann of Kutch and was previously included in Sindh proper. Pilgrims coming back from Hinglaj would stop at the important temple of Mahadev there. In his book The Indus Delta Country (1894), M R Haig wrote that the pilgrimage centre was managed by the heretic Pashupatas (Haig, 1 894, 37). George Weston Briggs, in his book Gorakhnath and Kanphata Yogis (1938), writes that the Gorakhnathis lost control of the pilgrimage centre in the 16th century in favour of the Atits, another order of Shaivite ascetics.

Sururova further writes:

...during his lifetime Lal Shahbaz Qalandar had quite a shady reputation. The learned Islamic scholar Zia-ud-din Barani mentions how once Shahbaz presented himself at the court of the governor of Multan, intoxicated with hashish and surrounded by beshar dervishes, who committed such outrages that they were unceremoniously thrown out. Even in 1851, Robert Burton saw a woman wedded to his dargah (he also recorded many “immoral” activities).

In the legends of popular Islam, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar is depicted as an infernal dancer, in flowing scarlet clothes dancing on burning coals, surrounded by tongues of flame. It is possible that the cult image of the wandering ascetic took shape under the influence of Naţaraja. In places associated with Shiva as Nataraja, the dance emulating the Cosmic Dance used to take place on Thursdays. Since some functions and attributes of pre-Islamic objects of worship were appropriated or assimilated by Kalandar, it is likely that the Dhamal on Thursdays was a replica of Shiva’s cosmic dance Tandava.

The undeniable Shaiva connection of Sehwan Sharif is ascertained by the presence of a linga just beside the complex. The bhang, intoxication, drums, dance and renunciation show that in propagating sufism, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar seemingly made a trade by incorporating strong pre-Islamic Pashupata elements. The Hindus and converted Hindus of Sehwan had begun to look upon Shahbaz Qalandar as an incarnation of Bhartrhari. The character of Bhartrhari, the brother of king Vikramaditya of Ujjain who is believed to have renounced his kingdom and became a Shaivite ascetic, again points out to the strong pre-Islamic notions of the populace of Sehwan.

It seems that the immediate converts of Lal Shahbaz retained these pre-Islamic elements and did not consider themselves as converts to Islam in the sense that they continued to hold on to these ties to their former religion. As a matter of fact, they perceived Shahbaz Qalandar to be just another ascetic.

It is to be noted that the surviving poetry of Shahbaz Qalandar is also centered on the theme of the “dance of death”.

But then, aren’t Jhule Lal and Shahbaz Qalandar sung about together?

We would like to highlight that despite the popular rendition of Damadam Mast Kalandar including Jhule Lal and Shahbaz Kalendar in the same verse, the two are not really the same, or at least the Hindu deity Jhule Lal is definitely different from the Jhule Lal appropriated by Muslims.

Jhule Lal
Jhule Lal

Jhule Lal was an old river deity of Sindh, and it is possible that the Sindhis who converted to Islam, continued to revere him as Peer Khwaja Khizr. Here, we see an interesting transition. The converts could no longer worship Jhule Lal as a deity. However, they associated him with a lesser known water spirit first mentioned in the Hadith, known as Khizr. The iconography of Khizr borrows heavily from Jhule Lal.

Islamisation of Jhule Lal :Khwaja Khizr
Islamisation of Jhule Lal :Khwaja Khizr

Jhule Lal whose timeline belonged to c. 950 CE, had nothing to do with Shahbaz Qalandar who settled in Multan during the 13th century CE. The former was revered as a water deity and and as an incarnation of Varuna. His tradition tells us that he saved Hindus of Sindh from an impending elimination at the hands of a tyrannical Islamic ruler named Mirkh Shah.

In the Islamic rendering of the Khwaja Khizr myth, the Pir Khwaja Khizr rescues a Muslim girl from a tyrannical Hindu ruler. This story myth is obviously a subversion of the Jhule Lal tradition, as there has been no Hindu king in Sindh since the advent of Islam.

Jhule Lal’s actual temple lies near the river Indus in Rohri. At this place, Hindus and Muslims did worship together. However, the complex had two separate portions. The Hindu portion had a temple where Hindu devotees would go and the Muslim portion had a dargah. This was possible only because Sindhi Hindus had made a sacrifice by agreeing not to house any image inside their own premises of the temple.

It seems that the compromise by Sindhi Hindus was not enough to ensure a mutual coexistence. They were driven out of the temple by Islamists and had to construct another temple on the opposite banks of the river. A Sindhi author Israney recalls the incident saying that towards the end of the last century, on the instigation of some fundamentalist, the Muslims service men of God drove away the pujaris from the island and that is why Hindus built a big, magnificent temple on the land opposite to the island. This is how Hindus left the Zindah Pir of water and established their own Zindah Pir on the dry land. By 1940, both places were in ruins.

Shrine of khwaja Khizr. Sindh, 1838
Shrine of khwaja Khizr. Sindh, 1838

The association of Jhule Lal with Shahbaz Qalandar was first fabricated by a Sufi named Rochal Das in c.1950. He was a devotee of Sufi Shahbaz Qalandar and it was he who propagated the cult of Shahbaz Qalandar among the Hindu Sindhis. What better way to enhance his pir’s reputation than by identifying him with the patron deity of Sindhi Hindus? He inserted “lal meri pat rakhiyo” in Dama Dama Mast Qalandar originally written for Shahbaz Qalandar.

Media has been portraying Shahbaz Qalandar’s tomb as the place where Hindus and Muslims worshipped together. But is this true?

Yes, Sindhi Hindus did frequent this dargah during the pre-Partition days. In fact, before 1947, a ‘kafir’ low caste Hindu girl was wedded to this dargah (one could imagine the intention behind this “wedding” as all the sources coming down to us referred to this act as “immoral”). In those days, there was no confusion among Hindus or Muslims about Jhule Lal and Shahbaz Kalandar being different people. There has never been any image of Jhule Lal inside this dargah which follows Islamic tenets in theory and practice.

The pirs of Sindh have been politically powerful ever since the emergence of Suhrawardy order in Sindh in the 12th century CE and were appeased by the Delhi Sultanate. Unlike the Chistis, Suhrawardis accumulated personal wealth and were very close to the Delhi Sultanate. They also acted as political agents for the Sultanate and brokered settlements in favour of sultans using the political clout they had. When the Arghuns invaded Sindh, the Suhrawardis were driven out, and Qalandaris invited. Nevertheless, the Arghun elite also reversed their policies and began to patronise the Suhrawardy elite. The Sufi Pirs were patronised by ruling dynasties, partly out of reverence, and partly for political clout they had over the populace. The Sufis were thus the landed gentry of Sindh. They and their followers defended their interests and ascertained their power by waging frequent Jihads.

When the British got the control of Sindh, many of the privileges of Sufis were confiscated and this caused widespread resentment among them. During the Partition, the pirs of Sindh, specifically Pir Pagaro and Pir Bharchundi, took a very active part in ‘cleansing’ cities like Karachi and Hyderabad of Hindus. The Hur rebellion was a Jihad of Sufis whose position was threatened by the rule of British. They waged a jihad on kafirs and killed many Sindhi Hindus. It was with much effort that British could bring this “criminal” Sufi tribe under subjugation. The Hur tribe also voluntarily participated in what they termed as “Jihad” in the Indo-pak war of 1965.

This is why we were quite amused when Al Jazira recently referred to Pakistan as a place where the diversity of its citizens is the fabric of the society and history. We believe that the view that the recent incident at Sehwan as war between “extremist” and “moderate” versions of Islam is quite misplaced. It is rather a war between one sect of Islam versus another. And these sects are interconnected as they share a common “orthodox” base. Shahbaz Kalandar is himself credited with the destruction of his own dargah, which is exactly the act committed by IS terrorists. More importantly, the very intolerant rulers of the sub-continent Khilji and Feroz Tughlaq, whose deeds would put even IS to shame, were ardent devotees of these Sufis.

It is no secret that in this day and age, of a connected world where nothing escapes the relentless news cycles, the Sufi durgah of Bharchundi is a breeding ground for abduction, and forcible conversion of minor Hindu girls to Islam through marriage. If there is anything that definitely needs India’s collective grief and immediate attention, it is this dastardly atrocity against Hindus in Sindh, and not mere statements now that terrorism is biting its own creator-Pakistan-in an experiment gone horribly wrong.


1) Boivin, Michael. Sindh through History and Representations: French Contributions to Sindhi Studies 1st Edition (2008)

2) Sururova, Anna, Muslim Saints of South Asia (2004)

3) Schimmel, Anniemarie. Mystical dimension of Islam

4) Israney S., 1994, 'Roohani Rohri' Aseen Sindhi, August 1994, vol. 2, no. l ; pp. 34.

5) Sarah F.D Ansari Sufi Saints and State Power: The Pirs of Sind (1992)

6) Lt Gen M.Ahmed (Ret), “History of Indo-Pak war of 1965”, 2006.


Dimple Kaul (@dimple_kaul) is a learner, writer and life enthusiast who writes on various issues across genres. True Indology (@TrueIndology) is a history enthusiast focused on bringing to light the true history of India based on authentic, primary research.

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