Ismaili Saints, Hindu Shrines; The Sindhi connect

Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro

Shri Laxmi Narayan Mandir is a famous holy Hindu temple situated in the city of Karachi, Pakistan. In accordance to the Pakistan Hindu Council, the temple was built almost 200 years ago and is a significant worshiping location for the Hindus

Shrine of Lurang Dev at Haji Sawn village near Thari, BadinThe history of Sindh is full of legends, myths, memories, memorials and monuments. The religious history is more complex than the political history – the latter of which has been written only glorifying the rulers and their achievements seen through the lens of nationalism by modern historians of Sindh. All that one knows about the dynastic history of Sindh are the chronology, achievements of the rulers, some literature produced and only passing remarks on the religion of earlier dynasties of Sindh.

Arguably, the most neglected period in the history of Sindh has always been the Soomra period (1025-1349/50). Not much has been written on this period. If anything is available, that was collected from the bardic communities – Bhats, Bhans and Charans. Even the collected work did not have much to say about the religious communities of Soomra period. But the collected work was also distorted to focus only on some events and completely ignore the others. The Ismaili history is one such important chapter of the Soomra period (1025-1349-50), and later of the Samma period (1350-1524), which was not focused on and thoroughly researched.

Interior view of Mamai Dev’s shrine at Makli

In the Soomra period, the state religion of the Sindh region during thefirst quarter of the eleventh century was Ismalism. Due to the propagation of Nizari Ismailism by Ismail saints in the Soomra period in Sindh, the rulers had to face the fury of many Sunni rulers and one of these was Mahmud of Ghazni (971-1030) who forcefully converted a Soomra ruler to Sunni Islam. Despite conversion to Sunni Islam, Soomra rulers continued to protect and patronise Ismaili saints.

The earliest Ismaili saint of Nizari Ismalism, previously called Sathpanth (true path), was Pir Nooruddin, also commonly known as Pir Satgur Noor (d. 1079). He preached Nizari Ismailism in Kutch, Gujarat and Sindh and was always protected by the Soomra rulers in whose dominion he converted many to his faith.

The growing influence and power of Ismaili saints were later challenged by Suhrawardi Sufi saints of Sindh in the second half of the 13th century when many of the saints had to conceal their true identity for the sake of continuing their missionary activities.

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 i.e, ManghoPir/ Lala Jasraj, Pir Patho/Gopi Chand, Shaikh Tahir/Udero Lal/Jhulelal, Ram Baraho/Ibrahim Shah and many others.

There are even Ismaili claims to the effect that Lal Shahbaz Qalandar Usman Marvandi (1177-1274), popularly known as Lal Shahbaz, was also an Ismaili saint and he too carried a dual identity as LalShahbaz/Raja Bharthari. Secondly, the internal strife among the Ismaili community regarding the spiritual succession caused much damage with many of the shrines getting separated from them and then re-affiliated with Hinduism notably Rama Pir, Pir Pithoro and many others in Sindh, Kutch, Gujarat and Rajasthan.

With the re-affiliation or reversion to Hinduism many myths were invented and stories were made, making the local Ismaili pirs into Hindu deities. This mainly happened when internal dissension over the line of spiritual succession began appearing in the community. After the death of Pir Sadruddin (d.1409), the most popular Ismaili Dai of the fourteenth century who converted Hindu Lohanas to Nizari Ismailism, his son Hasan Kabiruddin, was made a new Pir by the Imam at Alamut in Persia. When Pir Hassan Kabiruddin died, the Imam appointed his brother Tajuddin (whose shrine is located in Tando Bagho, Badin) as new Pir of the Nizari Khoja community rather than one of the numerous sons of Pir Hasan Kabiruddin. This displeased the sons of Pir Hasaan Kabiruddin and they plotted against their uncle Pir Tajuddin.

Subsequently Imam Shah, son of Pir Hasan Kabiruddin attempted in vain to become pir of the Khoja Nizaris in Sindh. These internal schisms aggravated the situation and after the death of Pir Tajuddin, the Khoja Nizaris and the shrines of local pirs began reverting to Hindusim. In the meantime, the Imam appointed one more Dai, Pir Dadu – sending him to Sindh to prevent reversion of Nizari Khojas to Hinduism or other forms of Islam.

In the time of the Arghuns (1524-1555) and later in the Tarkhan period (1555-1592), Pir Dadu (d. 1593) had to meet local resistance from Sunnis and had to flee from Sindh to Jamnagar in Kutch.

Samadhi of Lurang Dev

Due to the internal dissensions of the Nizari Ismaili community in Sindh, many shrines of local pirs drifted away from them, prominent amongst them were the shrines of Matang Dev and his descendants. Matang Dev, an Ismaili saint, is also believed to have been the founder of Barmati Panth. The stories of Matang are lost in legends.

In one of the legends Pir Satgur preached among the Meghwars in Kutch and Sindh where he was called ‘Matang’. In another story, he was a disciple of Satgur Noor who preached in the Meghwar community. And in still in another a certain Brahman son of astrologer, whostole the books of his father, ran away and took refuge in a hut of poor Meghwar family when he was chased by his three brothers. Meghwar family gave his daughter in marriage to that Brahman. Later, the son of that Brahman became famous as ‘Matang’ who was deified and worshipped as an incarnation of Shiv.

This story is almost reminiscent of the one that also took place in the Soomra period, in the 11th century, when due to internal strife amongst the Soomras over religious affiliation, Pithu or Pithadeva the Soomra king/prince fled from Sindh to the Barda Hills in Porbandar, Gujarat, and lived amongst the Mer Hindu community who gave her daughter to him in marriage. Today he is venerated as Patha Pir Dada. Patha Pir Soomro became Kuldevata of the Odedra Rajput lineage of Mer, hence he was called Patha Pir Odedra.

The shrine of Matang Dev, the patron saint of Maheshwari Meghwars, is located in Seni Thar near the villages of Mati and Dhakan in Badin district. The shrines of his descendants, who were also local Ismaili pirs and later Hinduised in the 16th and 17th centuries, are located at Haji Sawan Goth near Thari, Talhar and Makli.

The four shrines of Mahveshwari Meghwars are now called four dhams or gaddis. Apart from Matang Dev, the shrine of his son Lurang Dev is also a popular Hindu shrine at Haji Sawn village near Thari, a historic place, now in ruins – the capital of Soomras during the reign of Senghar Soomro. The proximity of the Lurang Dev’s shrine to the Soomra capital shows that he was an Ismaili saint.

Apart from Meghwars other Hindu castes also visit his shrine. This shrine was also visited by Kutchi Memons of Karachi a few years ago. Another Ismaili saint’s shrine, which has now become the Maheshwari Meghwars’ most sacred pilgrimage centre belongs to Matai Dev who was the son of Lurang Dev. The shrine of Matai Dev is located at Badhra in Talhar taluka in Badin. The fourth shrine of Maheshwari Meghwars belongs to Mamai Devi which is located on Makli Hill, whose Ginans are most popular in the Barnmati Panth.

All these shrines of the Ismaili pirs drifted away from the control of Nizari Khojas when the community was undergoing the internal dissensions which displeased not only the Ismaili Dais but also their Nizari Imam at Almaut in Persia. Many efforts were made by the Imam and later he did not appoint more pirs to the leadership of Nizari Khojas, and instead a book of guidance namely Pandiyat-i- jawanmardi was sent to them and the Imam maintained contact through functionaries referred to as vakils and babas who had less authority as compared to Ismaili Pirs.

All through these centuries, Ismailis continued to propagate their faith with dual identities which gave birth to a‘composite culture’ in Sindh – so much so that places which were once sacred spaces of Ismaili saints have now became Hindu shrines with so many flamboyant stories woven around these saints that one  considers them Hindu saints rather than the Ismaili mystics!

The author is an anthropologist and has authored four books: ‘Symbols in Stone: The Rock Art of Sindh’, ‘Perspectives on the art and architecture of Sindh’, ‘Memorial Stones: Tharparkar’ and ‘Archaeology, Religion and Art in Sindh’. He may be contacted at: zulfi04@hotmail.com