The Indus is a mainstay of the Indian civilisation. In particular, its mythical status penetrates each and every aspect of Sindhi life. The mention of River Indus, or Sindhu, goes as far back as we can go in recorded history.

KR Malkani, a Sindhi Hindu who had to leave his homeland during the mayhem of Partition, notes in his book The Sindh Story:

In the beginning was the word. The first recorded word was the Veda. And Veda is just ecstatic about Sindhu, the cradle of Indian civilisation:

“Sindhu in might surpasses all the streams that flow,
His roar is lifted upto heaven above the earth.”

It is on the banks of this mighty river that rishis and sages have spent endless time contemplating the secrets of life and the universe.

Gradually, a cult of river worship developed in some of the areas where the Indus flows. The devotees personified their beliefs: Muslims would call him Khawaja Khizar, Zinda Pir, and Sheikh Tahir, while Hindus would evoke him by names like Uderolal, Amar Lal, Uday Chand, and Jhulay Lal.

The people who follow the cult of river Indus are called Daryapanthis and their main centre is at Uderolal city, some 30 km away from Hyderabad in Pakistan’s Sindh province. The axis of the city is the shrine-temple complex; wherever you may go, it forms a skyline and reassuringly looms over the horizon. It embodies the spirit of Sindhudesh: the sharing of everything that is sacred, be it a Sufi shrine, a Sikh gurdwara, a Hindu temple, or a river deity.

The shrine complex at Uderolal.
The shrine complex at Uderolal.

The principle ritual is Chaiti Chand, which is both the birthday of Jhulay Lal and the celebration of the Hindu New Year. Chait is the first month of the Hindu calendar.

It sets in when the winter has gone and spring has also come to an end but the hot, gusty winds have not yet arrived. It is the time when wheat is harvested and fields are being prepared for cotton or paddy crop in the south of Sindh.

Even though most of Sindh’s Hindus have migrated to India, Chaiti Chand is still celebrated with religious fervour and a growing spirit of community. In fact, after Partition, when Sindhis in India became a de-territorialised community, Sindhi singer Ram Panjwani tried to bind them together in a sense of Sindhiyyat by projecting the image of Uderolal as the patron saint or Ishtdev of Sindhi Hindus.

A candle is lit inside a room near the shrine.
A candle is lit inside a room near the shrine.

The main rituals commence in the evening and a stage is set for people to participate. The mela starts with jyot jagayan, or lighting the sacred lamp.

The proceedings continue with a pooja just before sunset, performed at the sacred well of Balanbho sahib. Its water is believed to have healing properties. After the prayer, chhando is performed in which the water is sprinkled on the face. It is supposed to enlighten the spirit.

An integral part of the mela is the behrano parwan karan, or floating the behrano. Behrano is a huge brass plate that is decorated with flour, sweets, dried fruits, lamps, and rose petals. It is an offering to the river and the Daryapanthis believe that fish and other aquatic organisms eat the behrano and bestow blessings upon the devotees.

The Uderolal complex at night.
The Uderolal complex at night.

People bring the behrano to Uderolal from various cities like Mirpurkhas, Shahdadapur, Sanghar, Nawabshah, Sakrand and others. Traditionally, the behrano was floated into the Indus, but now it is offered to any water body or canal because whatever water there is in Sindh, it comes from the Indus.

Another ritual that takes place during the mela is called pallao payan. It is when devotees hold the hems of their shirts or dupattas and pray to Uderolal to solve their problems and deliver them from the ordeals of the world.

The proceedings end with the chhej dance performed by energetic men wielding dandia. The swaying movements resemble the waves of the Indus. The chhej starts with a low rhythm and gradually moves to a frantic pace.

Jhulay Lal statue inside the Darya Lal temple in Karachi.
Jhulay Lal statue inside the Darya Lal temple in Karachi.

As time passes, the air gets thick with the fragrance of rose petals and incense, and the men passionately chant:

“Ayo ayo, jhulay lal
Jeko chawando jhulay lal, tehnja theenda bera paar”

Jhulay Lal has arrived. One who would say Jhulay Lal’s name, his boat will safely reach the shores

This is followed by Jiay jhulay lal chants from the crowd.

For someone who knows that spaces for such activities are shrinking, the sight is at once exhilarating and a poignant reminder that perhaps all is not lost – at least not yet.

People offering their respects at the Udero Lal Dargah.The shrine complex at sunset.
People offering their respects at the Udero Lal Dargah.The shrine complex at sunset.
The shrine complex at sunset.
The shrine complex at sunset.
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All photos are by the author.

This article first appeared on Dawn.