Through arch of snowy marble

A throng of people pours

To worship in the temple

With shimmering silver doors

O Man! What pious spot is this?

Sadh Belo…Sadh Belo…

With saints and temples white –

The islet of delight

— Elsa Kazi

Sadh Belo – whenever I heard the name, it felt like an ancient incantation, a wave on water, a ripple caressing the smooth surface of the Indus.

I came across this beautiful temple complex while writing on Udasipanth in Sindh. Whenever I went to an Udasi establishment and interviewed someone there, people would ask, “Have you been to Sadh Belo?”

And after discovering I haven’t, they would exclaim, “But that is exactly why you must visit it, because that is the most important centre of Udasis in Sindh.”

The beautiful marble balconies of Sadh Belo

So, like magnet pulled by metal, I found myself drawn to it. That’s how my longing to see that famed place with my own eyes grew immensely, but it took me some time before I could materialise that dream.

The dream finally came true one fine morning in late spring 2017. Accompanied by one of my students, I travelled to Khairpur and stayed at Shah Abdul Latif University Khairpur’s guest house.

Shankar Mahadev Temple

The very next morning, we went to visit the temple.

A few men were sitting under a makeshift shelter, two or three boats were moored to the platform and right in front stood the majestic white marbled and buff-sandstone building of the Sadh Belo.

The sun was still low and a gentle breeze was setting the waves in motion.

Sadh Belo from a distance.

We sat in a boat; the fishermen had oars in hands, their sweat-soaked dresses reminded me of the indigenous inhabitants of the Indus valley. Sitting there, we could see the Lansdowne Bridge and its graceful arches on one side, and the island shrine of Zinda Pir Khwaja Khizr on the other side.

An inscription

Sadh Belo is an Udasi tirath (pilgrimage) founded by Baba Bankhandi, an Udasi missionary who came from Nepal to settle in Sukkur in 1823. Udasipanth is a religious tradition that was founded by Sri Chand (1494-?), the elder son of Guru Nanak (1469-1539), founder of the Sikh faith.

Door leading to Sri Chand Mandir

The Udasis are ascetics, they do not possess any property and spend their life disciplined by yoga, meditation and reciting the prescribed texts. The island was just a clump of trees when Bankhandi first arrived there, but he liked the place so much that he chose it as a place to set up his dhuni (sacred fire).

Looking out from the balcony

It is said that once Baba Bankhandi saw Annapurna, the goddess of grain, in a dream. She gave him an oblong metal object called Kamandal and told him that, as long as this object is in the complex, there won’t be any shortage of grain for the community kitchen.

Later, Baba Bankhandi established various places of worship, including temples, dedicated to Annapurna, Hanuman, Ganesh and Shiv Shankar, and places for Granth Sahib and Bhagavad Gita.

An Udasi saint

The temple complex is spread on two interconnected islands; Sadh Belo having kitchen, verandah, many temples, and Deen Belo which houses samadhis, a park, and Rishi Nol mandir.

Baba Bankhandi had many disciples who succeeded him one by one as the mahant or custodian of the place; the most notable among them are Swami Achal Prasad, Swami Mohan Das, and Swami Harnarain Das Udasin.

Sadh Belo attracted many people in search of spiritual enlightenment and had a thriving community of monks and devotees.

A marble panel showing singers and musicians

In front of the complex, there is a huge marble wall with many engravings depicting various scenes that are related to the local Hindu and Udasi traditions, including a depiction of hell and heaven, musicians and Udasi saints.

The glory of Sadh Belo came to an end on the fateful day of Partition, when most of the Hindus of Sindh, including the inhabitants of Sadh Belo, crossed the border and left it deserted and forlorn.

A Shiv mandir

The current gaddi nashin (custodian) is Swami Gauri Shankar Das who lives in Mumbai and comes here for Baba Bankhandi’s annual anniversary celebrations that take place in June.

Currently, Sadh Belo is under the custody of Evacuee Property Trust Board and is managed well, but the absence of the former administration of Udasi mahants is felt immensely.

Some paintings in the library

The place was once crowded by the monks living in cells, writing manuscripts in Hindi and Gurmukhi, cooks preparing food and devotees gathered across the sanctum to pay their respects.

However, the monks’ cells lie empty with cobwebs and dust, the library is devoid of readers, the books are mired in dirt and the verandahs show the stark absence of devotees.

Still, if you close your eyes for a while, the wooden balconies, marble columns, and staircases seem to echo the footsteps, chatter, laughter, and whispers of the monks and devotees once here.

Watching the sun setting over Sadh Belo, Iqbal’s verse came to my mind:

“Awwal-o-akhir fana, batin-o zahir fana

Naqsh-e kuhan ho kay nau, manzil-e akhir fana”

Annihilation is the end of all beginnings; annihilation is the end of all ends

Extinction, the fate of everything, hidden or manifest, old or new

All photos by the author.

This article first appeared on Dawn.