Across borders

Jhulelal or Zinda Pir: Of river saints, fish and flows of the Indus

The worship of the Indus river in Pakistan transcends all rigid boundaries, including religion.

Perhaps we all have our pet projects which we wish would go on forever. I have been working on a primer on riverine fisheries of South Asia for some years now (my office may disagree with the definition of "some"). Like a magpie collecting shiny knick-knacks, I keep collecting (quite serendipitously, or so I think) anecdotes and interviews and snippets on the subject.

Some days ago, I was putting together information on the Hilsa fish from Indus in Pakistan and I came across a composite Hindu-Islamic river deity riding, yes, riding the Hilsa fish, also known as Palla. Thrill of this discovery overflowed into a discussion on social media, with friends from all over, including Pakistan, chipping in. Not only could I glean lesser known insights about South Asia, I was positively pushed towards reading Empires of the Indus by Alice Albinia (on my reading list for too long). After a few weeks, some more discussions and trying to join the dots that connect river deities, Palla, Indus and Sufism, I can say that Zinda Pir (The Living Saint) of Indus has been one of the most beautiful riverine riddles to stumble upon.

The story is based in Sindh, Pakistan.

Jhulelal riding the Palla fish in Sukkur Shrine. Source: sindhiance.tumblr.com
Jhulelal riding the Palla fish in Sukkur Shrine. Source: sindhiance.tumblr.com

Story of Sindh

As much as Sindh is the land of Indus and its extensive delta, it is the land of Sufism too. Some of the greatest Sufi Saints come from Sindh: Sachal Sarmast, known for his poetry in search of the eternal truth and Shaheed Shah Inayat, a reformer-poet-visionary, who laid the foundation of a free agrarian reform in Jhook, Sindh in the 18th century.

As a friend told me, Shah Inayat raised the famous slogan against feudalism: “Jo Khery, so khaey” (The one who sows is the one who reaps). It includes the unstoppable Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, whose tomb in Shehwan reads “Jhulelal” and Shah Abdul Latif, whose tomb in Bhitshah is described by Albinia as a place where it is normal to see a “Hindu untouchable family sleeping in a Sunni mosque of a Sufi shrine dominated by Shias”. It is said that 1,25,000 holy men are buried "in the yellow sandstone necropolis at Thatta" along the mighty Indus, which gives India its name.

Island shrine of Zinda Pir, Sukkur, in 1926. Source: Flickr
Island shrine of Zinda Pir, Sukkur, in 1926. Source: Flickr

Sufism in Sindh has evolved over the centuries, and the flowing Indus has had a major role to play in this heady concoction. Sindh includes the once-extensive Indus Delta, which was ruled by several dynasties, its age-old trading hubs and ports, including the largest city of Pakistan: Karachi. Indus Delta is the biggest arid mangrove system in the world, extending over 40,000 sq- km, but is suffering greatly due to ever-decreasing freshwater reaching the mangroves owing to upstream dams.

The flowing, composite culture of the Indus Delta embraces poetry, philosophy, worship and very importantly, music. Millions have been mesmerised by Sufi music and the other day was no exception when I heard Runa Laila, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Wadali Brothers and Abida Parveen, each singing their own unique renditions of Bulle Shah’s immortal Dhammal (songs almost akin to Qawalli, but infused with a lively mix of folk elements and instruments, Nakahara, drums, etc.,) based on Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, possibly one of the best known Dhammals in the world.

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“Lal meri pat rakhiyo bana Jhulelaalna,

Sindadi da, Sevan da, Sakhi Shahbaz Qalandar!

Hind-Sind pira teri Naubat baaje

Naal baje, ghadiyaal bala Jhulelaalan

Sindadi da, Sevan da

Sakhi Shahbaz Qalandar!

Damadam mast Qalandar!

Ali dam dam de andar!

Damadam mast Qalandar!”

I was intrigued by the mention of Jhulelal, a quintessential Sindhi Ishta Devta in this Sufi Dhammal. But that is what Sufism, especially Sindh’s Sufism, is all about: synergy and secularism. I have heard of Sufi shrines in Sindh which are frequented, nay crowded, by Muslims, Hindus and even Nanakpathis, during Urs.

An innocent riddle about a local fish, and I was about to find out that Jhulelal, that benign old man with a white flowing beard, has a lot to do with it. Jhulelal is found far and wide in Pakistan, as Azhar Lashri tells me: “The thing that fascinates me about Jhulelal is the inscription of his name on buses, trucks, vans and taxis, He is everywhere. This is a very ubiquitous phenomenon in Pakistan.”

Jhulelal riding the Palla fish. Source:: sanj.yolasite.com
Jhulelal riding the Palla fish. Source:: sanj.yolasite.com

Jhulelal is not a regular Hindu/Sindhi/Sufi/Islamic deity. For one, Jhulelal or Daryalal is known and worshipped in many forms, across religious sects. Although there are several tales of Jhulelal known across Sindh and the global Sindhi diaspora, there is a complex synergy between Jhulelal, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar of Shehwan, Shaikh Tahir of Uderolal and Khwaja Khijr, worshipped at different times by different groups. The link that connects these deities and saints is singular: The Indus River. Jhulelal is a part of the Daryapanthi or Daryahi sect which worships the Indus, a form of river or water worship which may have its origins dating back to the ancient Mohenjo-daro civilisation.

Jhulelal and the composite sect of saints are also known interchangeably as the Zinda Pir or Jind Pir: The Living Saint.

Zinda Pir Shrine at Rohri, near Sukkur. Source: Flickr
Zinda Pir Shrine at Rohri, near Sukkur. Source: Flickr

Fascination with fish

Jhulelal’s fascination is not linked only with the ebb and flow of the Indus, or the Sindhu. I have been researching Hilsa, that fabulous fish which comes back to its rivers to lay eggs and goes back to the sea, only to repeat its adventure in the coming season. Hilsa, or Palla, as it is known in Pakistan, is not simply a fish. Palla is a cultural icon, one of the strongest icons of West Bengal and Bangladesh too – a strange connection between two regions on opposite sides of the Indian sub-continent.

Found in deltas across South Asia (and beyond), the aroma, taste and the dramatic occurrence of this shimmering silver fish holds all in its thrall: from fish folk in the deltas of Godavari to Krishna to Narmada to Padma. But Bengalis are jealously possessive about their Ilish. I’ve seen even sane acquaintances turn a shade of puce when told that Hilsa is found in deltas across the country and not limited to their Padma and Meghana.

I thought that the cultural significance of Ilish in Bengal would be unparalleled. But in Sindh too, the place of Palla is so very special; it is an indelible part of the “Saqafat of Sindh” (Sindh’s rich culture). Palla is the unofficial regional dish of Sindh, it is the delicacy of honour in most Sindhi festivals, but is also given to urban relatives when they trudge back to their cities.

And Jhulelal is not only perched on the lotus, but he actually rides the Palla. It is said that in the Zinda Pir Shrine of Sukkur (a shared monument of Muslims and Hindus till very recently), Palla go to pay respect to its “Murshid” (revered spiritual guide). Mohana fishermen on the Indus maintain that it is here that the Palla gets its shimmering silver glow and “a red dot on its forehead”. Before visiting the Sukkur Zinda Pir Shrine, it is an “OK tasting” black fish. But swimming upstream to Sukkur, even till Jamshoro, gives them the heavenly fragrance, silvery visage and the unique taste. I partly believe this Mohana tale. When Bengal tried to raise Hilsa in captivity, feeding the fish at boring intervals, one of the problems was that the fish would not breed and second, its unique taste was eminently lacking. Its deliciousness comes from the muscle, and like all muscle, it has to be earned, often swimming against the tide.

Palla fishermen near Kotri in Lower Indus, photographed in 1890. Source: The British Library
Palla fishermen near Kotri in Lower Indus, photographed in 1890. Source: The British Library
Mohana fishermen catching Hilsa/Palla downstream in the Indus. Source: Dawn
Mohana fishermen catching Hilsa/Palla downstream in the Indus. Source: Dawn

Ways of worship

Coming back to Jhulelal, there are two major shrines of Jhulelal in Sindh where the Palla-riding god and Indus is worshipped by Muslims as well as Hindus. One is Uderolal, near Bhitshah, and the other is much further north, at Sukkur. At the shrine near Uderolal, Muslims worship it as the shrine of Shaikh Tahir, while Hindus worship it as Jhulelal. But the celebrations take place on Cheti Chand, on Jhulelal's supposed birthday. There has been no demand of separate celebrations or shrines. Shaikh Tahir is known as the Pani ka Badshah, just like Jhulelal, with power to control the ebb and flow of the Indus.

Jhulelal/Shaikh Tahir Shrine at Uderolal, Sindh. Source: Flickr
Jhulelal/Shaikh Tahir Shrine at Uderolal, Sindh. Source: Flickr

At Sukkur (also known as Darya Dino, or the gift of the river), the Zinda Pir shrine is in the middle of the river itself. Here, two separate Hindu and Muslim shrines have been built across the river fairly recently, but devotees are not too bothered with these distinctions. Same is the case with the Jhulelal Shrine in Manora island of Karachi. According to Nilim Dutta's version of Admiral Sardarilal Mathradas Nanda's comments: “Over the centuries, this deity had acquired a following of both Hindus and Muslims and has become part of the shared heritage of the people of Sindh. Sindhi Muslims believed that he was none other than the prophet Khwaja Khizr, venerated because he is believed to guide and protect travelers and also because he is believed to possess the secret of eternal life. (Christians know Khizr as Saint Christopher – the patron saint of travelers).”

Muhammad Ali Shah, chairperson of the lively and strong Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, tells me: “Sufisim in Sindh has long been serving as the unifying force between religions in Sindh. We believe that because of spiritual inclination, it has helped Sindh be much lesser victim to terrorism and extremism as compared to other provinces. Sindh bears an identity of the land that respects all religions.

People of Sindh, whether from the Islamic faith or Hindu faith, frequently visit the Sufi shrines and practice the rudimentary form of Sufism without any religious differences. When the Urs of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, Shaheed Shah Inayat, Sachal Sarmast and others are observed in Sindh, their shrines are inundated by their disciples no matter their religion.

There are shrines of Sufi saints throughout the Sindh be it on the banks of rivers, the sand dunes of the desert, the heights of mountains, nearby the natural springs or the lakes. The arrival and departure of the Sufi saints in Sindh dates back to around 1,100 years ago. The people from urban as well as rural areas had consistently been paying visits to these shrines in different Melas and on normal days as well.”

So, call Zinda Pir as Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, who is supposed to have recognised and guided young Jhulelal or call him Khwaja Khijr, literally Mr Green, “Yaaron ka yaar” who helps “Darya” travelers. Call him Shaikh Tahir or Pani ka Badshah, who controls the ebb and flow of the Indus for the Mohana fisherfolk, call him Daryanath, with a complicated lineage reaching all the way to Nath Sect of India, or call him Jhulelal himself, who is held dear by Hindus and Muslims alike: The Indus River worship transcends and brings together all these forms, across the rigid boundaries of religions.

Disturbing trend

The silvery strands that bind together the myth and the folklore of Indus are wrought by the water of the river herself, and her fish that were once abundant. However, it’s been ages since Palla reached Sukkur Zinda Pir Shrine. The Sukkur Barrage cut off the migratory routes of the fish, just like the Farakka has decimated the fish in West Bengal and Bangladesh or the Arthur Cotton Barrage in Godavari. Muhammad Ali Shah said: “As per the local communities, the Palla used to be caught in the thousands in the Indus just two to three decades back. They also claimed that the fish could once be found all the way upstream in Multan, at a time when three barrages in Sindh – Guddu, Sukkur and Kotri – were not built on the river.

Fisherfolk in Sindh protest for more freshwater in the Indus. Source: Pakistan Fishworkers’ Forum
Fisherfolk in Sindh protest for more freshwater in the Indus. Source: Pakistan Fishworkers’ Forum

Palla previously accounted for 70% of the total catch in the past; today that figure has dwindled to just 15%. The production in 1980 was 1,859 metric tonnes; this fell to only 265 metric tonnes in 1995 and just 222 metric tonnes in 1999.

Since the last 20 years, the fish has become extinct due to unavailability of water in downstream areas. After the construction of Kotri barrage in 1956, the migration of Hilsa has been restricted up to Kotri barrage, which is 300-km from the sea. This obstruction has deprived Hilsa of two-thirds of the previous spawning area. Palla fish is severely depleted because of a decline in the Indus water flow (majorly affected by the dam/barrage building) in the deltaic region.”

The mangroves of the Indus are drying and dying, just like the mangroves of Krishna, because we think that water going to the sea is a waste. Indus has only been left on the mercy of flood waters that are usually released only between March to August, which does not correspond with the Palla season.

The Indus Delta is shrinking just like the Krishna Godavari delta due to the silt trapped by the upstream dams which impoverish the delta further. Fish ladders in barrages for Palla don’t work in Sindh, just like they never worked in case of Farakka Barrage. Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, with the guidance of the “Martyr of Indus”, Late Tahira Ali Shah, and Muhammad Ali Shah, has been fighting for the rights of Sindhi fisherfolk for their right to the water of Indus. The PFF has a membership of over 70,000 people from fishing and peasant communities and is one of the biggest social movements of South Asia, working towards more freshwater for the Indus Delta.

Mangroves in the Sindh delta. Source: sindhforests.gov.pk
Mangroves in the Sindh delta. Source: sindhforests.gov.pk

According to Pakistani policy analyst and writer Raza Rumi"

“Indus legends are the lived reality of the communities that reside along its majestic banks. This is where culture and environment acquire a powerful synthesis for they are equally important to preserve and conserve life patterns. Water holds a significant position in the cultural existence of the Sindhi people. Water has been a source of literature, mystical beliefs and a composite way of life that is threatened now. Reclaiming Indus folklore along with environmental conservation is a powerful way of saving the shared heritage of India and Pakistan. The Indus is an all-encompassing metaphor of securing long-term peace in the region, documenting and preserving our cultural heritage and maintaining the sublime literary standards set by the Indus followers. India cannot be without the Indus and Pakistan cannot function as a viable ecological zone without this magical river.”

For synthesis to flourish, for a rich, synergistic and composite culture to exist side by side, we need a living Indus. We need living rivers in Pakistan and India as well. A shared Zinda Pir is not an aberration, not an alternative narrative of this subcontinent. Such sharing, such synergy formed the mainstream narrative, not too many years ago.

We need a perspective towards water management which aspires not only for improved irrigation and hydropower, but respects the livelihoods, culture, folklore, music and philosophy of our rivers embodied in miracles like the River Saints of Indus. Indus is as much about the Palla reaching its Murshid, as it is about dams and hydropower.

Parineeta Dandekar is an Associate Coordinator with the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP).

This article first appeared on the SANDRP website.

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