From Karachi to Kashmore, the people and communities of Pakistan’s Sindh province have promoted a devotional culture that transcends caste, colour or race. Whether it is the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi in Karachi, Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai in Matiari or Qalandar Lal Shahbaz in Sehwan Sharif, people in general go to pay homage to these saints revering them all as role models who have served people at large. Their followers flock to their shrines to show devotion to the faith and principles these men of God practiced centuries ago.

In a way, this is the beauty of mysticism that thrives in Sindh. The shrines of saints are emblems of the history of devotion.

Near Pakko Qilo, the site of a famed fort in Pakistan’s Hyderabad, people keep alive the memory of a local saint at a shrine curiously named Ellicott Jo Pirr. Pirr is a Sindhi word that refers to an Imambargah – a congregation hall for worship – and the man revered as saint and buried there was Archibald Dudley Ellicott alias Shaikh Ali Gohar. His story of conversion to Islam and then ascension to this elevated spiritual status began with a son’s promise to his dying mother.

Who was Ellicott?

During the time of British rule over India, the Ellicotts lived in Hyderabad at Bhai Khan Chari on Station Road. Ellicott’s father was a high-ranking British officer. His mother was a head nurse at Lady Dufferin Fund Hospital, then a midwifery school, on Station Road, opposite the Mehfil-i-Hussaini Khoja Shia Isna Asheri Jamaatkhana.

The young Ellicott came to Hyderabad after receiving his education in England. Here, he joined the excise department as inspector and was appointed at a wine factory in Kotri industrial area. At work, he was a stickler for rules, punctual and responsible. His parents loved him for these habits – the sincerity he showed for his government job and how he managed his time wisely. Outside work, Ellicott was very social, fond of late-night parties, singing and enjoyed a reputation for being a very good dancer.

Like her son, Ellicott’s mother too was dedicated to her profession. She used to visit patients at their homes if they suffered from immobility. One of her regular patients was the wife of Abdul Ghafoor Chandio. The Ghafoors’ home still stands where it did during those pre-Partition days. But it is no longer known as just their home. It is the shrine of Ellicott Jo Pirr.

Out of the Chandios’ six sons and one daughter, only one son and the daughter are still alive. The son, Mohammad Ali Chandio, recalls how Ellicott’s mother once visited their house during Muharram. Being a Shia family, preparation for the holy month were underway at the house. The English lady inquired about the rituals and the historical significance of Muharram. “Who was Hussain?” she asked. “Why do you people wear black? Why do you distribute food and sherbat?”

Chandio’s mother explained what the Muharram rituals are, and how they date back to Karbala and the cruelty inflicted on Imam Hussain and his companions. Listening to her, Mrs Ellicott was moved to tears.

Inspired by the epic of Karbala, she began offering niaz and sabeel to the mourners in Ashura processions, outside the hospital, to honour the memory of the Karbala martyrs. She did not convert but her love for Imam Hussain left her in anticipation for the month of Muharram so that she could once again set up a sabeel on Station Road. This was an act of devotion for her and she transmitted this legacy to her son.

Promise to dying mother

One day, Ellicott was on duty as usual in Kotri when his mother phoned him. She told him she would pass away that night. She wanted Christian funeral rites and asked Ellicott to come back to Hyderabad that night to give her the proper burial.

A mosque built by Ellicott.

“But make me a promise,” she pleaded over the phone. She told him how every year she offered niaz and sabeel to the mourners from the start of Muharram until the Ashura, the tenth day. She had taken this act of charity upon herself as a lifelong commitment and now he would have to continue this tradition responsibly after she died. Ellicott respected his mother’s spiritual duty and agreed.

Later that day, the staff at her midwifery school phoned Ellicott and informed him of his mother’s death. They requested him to reach Hyderabad that night for the funeral, but because of the World War II fallout, Kotri bridge was not open for commute by British officials. Ellicott could only reach Hyderabad the next morning and performed the funeral as per his mother’s will. She was buried in Gora Qabristan at Qasim Chowk, the same as his father.

The conversion

The journey to adopting Shia Islam for Ellicott began at the home of Abdul Ghafoor Chandio, as his mother was the main inspiration for his conversion.

Even before he recited the kalma, he used to design taazias – replicas of the tomb of Husain, the martyred grandson of Muhammad, carried during Muharram – and help the carpenters make them. The master carpenter of his taazias was Sher Khan Chandio, Abdul Ghafoor Chandio’s brother-in-law. The wood used in the taazia is somewhat rare to find now in Hyderabad’s markets. Ellicott developed three taazias in his life. All three were heavy and depicted the artistic bent of his mind. Their designs are a harmonious alignment of Eastern thought encapsulated in Westernised art.

The caretaker of the shrine of Ellicott is Ali Gohar Chandio. He says that his father, Abdul Sattar Chandio, named him after Ellicott’s Muslim name, Ali Gohar. He expresses deep love for his namesake saint: “Ellicott was not like a guest who came to visit friends or relatives for a couple of days, but he was like our family member.”

Ellicott holding Abdul Sattar Chandio.

Chandio’s grandfather, Abdul Ghafoor Chandio, was a lifelong companion to Ellicott. “Their friendship was not only in name but they were real friends. And one can evaluate the degree of friendship by the fact that he did not go back to England and instead he chose to settle in Hyderabad with us.” The Chandio’s home is where Ellicott drew his last breath.

After accepting Islam and becoming a Shia Muslim, he went to Ajmer Sharif in India on a pilgrimage to Khwaja Ghareeb Nawaz’s shrine, but without informing the Chandios. He stayed there for five to seven months. Muharram was approaching and the processions were to be arranged but there was no news of him.

Abdul Ghafoor Chandio went to a Qalandari order shrine in Shahi Bazaar, Hyderabad. At the shrine of Ameer Shah Chhuttan Shah Surkh Bukhari, he prayed for the help of Mast Chuttan Shah Surkh Bukhari in ensuring Ellicott’s return home before the start of Muharram. The saint looked up at the sky as if speaking to someone and said, “He is a man of Qalandar, why have you kept him there with you?”

Mast Chhuttan Shah spoke in allegorical terms about a train, suggesting to Abdul Ghafoor Chandio that he should go to the railway station to receive Ellicott because he will be back now. As it happened, after a few days, Ellicott disembarked on Hyderabad railway station. He was hard to recognise with his overly grown beard and unkempt hair. He looked like a true faqeer.

His life and times

Ellicott introduced the Jhoola of Ali Asghar along with the taazia and Zuljinah in the pirr taken out after Isha prayers. Here, pirr refers to the procession of mourners who gather to remember the martyrs of Karbala and walk a certain route, stopping at all Imambargahs in the nearby localities. Earlier, the cradles were not used in the pirr but Ellicott initiated this tradition following a sign said to have been received by him. Nowadays, pirrs from Ellicott Jo Pirr are routinely held on Muharram seven, eight, 10, 28 and on the Chehlum.

He also initiated renovation of the shrine of Syed Ashraf Ali Shah and built a mosque in the vicinity. His major source of income was his pension and earnings from looking after the lands of the Mirs of Tando Mohammad Khan district.

Those among his contemporaries who lived on Station Road still remember Ellicott fondly. Recalling the time spent with Ellicott, Sohail Ahmed Ghaznavi, a nephew of Mohammad Ali Chandio, expresses in Sindhi that, “Mr Ellicott was a man of high character”.

“He loved me a lot,” Ghaznavi continues. “I used to have lunch and dinner with him when I was around seven to nine years old.”

“Ellicott Sahib was not only a great man but he was a very nice soul. Though he was an angrez, he never drew a line between officers and common people when meeting them. Many people still turn to him to help send their prayers to God.”

Ghaznavi had seen Ellicott up close. He says about Ellicott’s daily routine activities: “Ellicott Sahib had a calm personality. But when he decided to do something useful [for others], he would utilise all his energies to achieve the target.” He says that Ellicott was fond of Sindhi white rice and fried potatoes. He was like their family member, and he used to join their family gatherings and even those of their relatives.

He adds, with some emotion, “Today I am able to earn bread and butter because of Ellicott sahib. He gave me tuitions at home and tried to educate me.” Ghaznavi currently works at the Hyderabad Electric Supply Company. He was at Ellicott’s side when the latter fell ill and had to be taken to the doctor.

Ellicott’s own children – two daughters and a son – had left Pakistan long ago. His son-in-law had moved the family back to England after Partition. His wife was his cousin on his mother’s side, and her family used to live in the Civil Lines area, Hyderabad. After Partition, Ellicott had asked her to stay with him in Hyderabad but she refused, and instead divorced him and took the children with her to England. According to Taaruf Ellicott Ka Pirr, some say that she filed for a divorce but he did not give his consent.

Ellicott did not marry again. He died in Civil Hospital Hyderabad on Rabiul Awwal [third Islamic month] 4, 1970. In the love of Ellicott, Ali Gohar instead carries on his name.

To this day, people visit the shrine of Archibald Dudley Ellicott alias Shaikh Ali Gohar. The promise he made to his mother turned him into a man of God with many followers who come from far and wide for pilgrimage to his shrine.

This article first appeared in The Dawn.