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A melting pot of spiritual experience

Exploring the mysteries and resilience of Sufianno Asthan

September 10, 2023


or the sake of context let it be mentioned that the construction of Sukkur Barrage is a major reference point in the study of Sindh’s monuments. Saeen Jairam Ji Marrhi, located adjacent to Gharibabad, for example, is one of the structures built before the barrage and Jhuli Lala Mandir, opposite the sessions court, is a post-Sukkur Barrage temple. With this in mind, let us explore the story of Sufianno Asthan Poj Darbar Sahib Bhatario Ashram.

Travelling from Hyderabad to Mirpurkhas one finds an old building, that of Ratanabad railway station.

The architecture is traditional, rural. A detour towards the southwest takes on across a channel until one arrives at Sufianno Asthan Poj Darbar Sahib Bhatario Ashram. The structure appears quite ordinary at the first glance. What caught my attention were framed poems adorning almost all sides of the veranda walls. These poems were composed by poets from various parts of the subcontinent, including Bulleh Shah, Sachal Sarmast, Kanderri Waro Faqir and Bhagat Kabir.

While I was engrossed in reading these poems, a middle-aged man approached me. He greeted me in the Sindhi way and asked, “Hukum Sarkar?” “Nothing,” I said, and added that I had come to learn more about Sufiano Asthan. He introduced himself as Hari, a member of the Menghawar community, hailing from the Umerkot district near the India-Pakistan border. He then began talking about his journey to the place. As Hari and I sat in the southern corner of the veranda, other pilgrims joined us. Each of them had their own stories about the ashram. Some of them even disputed its name. One group argued that the place was originally named Putaro (meaning one who gives sons) that had been turned over time to Bhitaro. Among the group was Gulab, a strong advocate of the view. When I asked for evidence that might support this view, he cited instances such as the story of Rejho Menghwar, who had a girl child but was blessed with four sons after coming here to pray. He also mentioned Lalo, who was similarly blessed with four sons. I noticed that the group in favour of the name Bhitaro became silent and disengaged.

I changed the topic and suggested that the place’s name seemed to combine two ideologies - Marrhi and Darbar Sahib – that caused some confusion. I went on to explain that a marrhi typically is associated with a jogi or sadhu, people who are lone spiritual seekers, while Darbar Sahib (revered shrine) is a place where the Guru Granth sahib, the religious scripture of the Sikhs, is placed, read and cared for. They all agreed that the older name for the place might indeed have been marrhi and that Darbar Sahib was likely a later addition. One of the people, who seemed well versed in modern affairs, mentioned that this type of socio-cultural-spiritual tradition thrived during the cotton boom in India during the 19th Century. He said it had led to the construction of new structures even in the commerce, communication and spirituality sectors.

Today, religious and cultural activities, such as Satsag (celebrated on the first day of every Sindhi calendar), and village fairs continue to occur.

Tea was served as we conversed and shifted the focus of discussion. One of the participants said that the ashram had been well-served by spiritual leaders such as Dado Tulsidas, Dado Motoram, Dado Satramdasm, Dado Vishandas and Dado Pahlaj Raidas. Another mentioned Aman Gordahn Bai, who was reputed to have the same spiritual powers as the other dadas or gurus. I noticed bottles of refined mustard oil and bags of Fuller’s Earth (mait or Multani mitti) placed nearby. When I inquired about it, I learned that devotees who visit the ashram often pray for the fulfilment of their desires and promise to offer mustard oil and mait. The bottles and mait bags represent the offerings of these devotees.

The devotees said that ashram’s life could be divided into two phases. The first phase was before independence, during which most of the activities at the shrine were a mix of Sufi traditions. Kafi sessions, for instance, were common. The poetry of Misri Shah was frequently recited, and people from neighbouring towns, such as Tando Allahyar, Hala, Badin, Matli, Shahdadpur, Nawabshah and Hyderabad came visiting. During this period, the place was quite vibrant, serving as a hub of spiritual devotion and cultural celebrations.

The second phase began in 1947. The mass migration of Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan to India and Muslims from India to Pakistan resulted in a significant demographic shift. This profoundly affected religious structures, including temples, in Sindh. This mass migration led to a substantial decline in the Hindu population in Sindh, significantly affecting the temples and practices that went on there. The devotees agreed that the partition and migration had profoundly impacted the temples in Sindh, resulting in the decline of their significance.

Some mentioned that even today, religious and cultural activities, such as Satsag, celebrated on the first day of Sindhi calendar, and village fairs, continue to occur. Hari mentioned that while these activities do take place, a sense of fear lingers. He said the fear dated back to late 1970s when Afghan refugees started arriving in Pakistan. He said it had escalated when Babri Masjid was attacked in India. He said there had been rumours that some people were planning to burn down the temple, but some local landlords and nationalists had taken it upon themselves to protect the ashram. Hari said that the ashram symbolised cultural pluralism. However, he said, many Hindus in the region had a sense of cultural suppression. They have voluntarily limited their spirit of festivity and avoid the display of religious symbols, even on religiously important days. He said social stigma and discrimination are pervasive among Hindus.

As evening shadows lengthened, I heard the sound of bells and chants resonating from within the temple. Devotees and visitors gathered on the temple premises and the full moon illuminated the yard. The air was filled with a sense of reverence and devotion. A young village girl lit oil lamps, creating a mesmerising, ethereal atmosphere. The soothing fragrance of incense filled the air.

The writer has a PhD in history from the University of Malaya, Malaysia. His areas of interest are peasant history, colonial history, heritage and history of archaeology. He may be reached at junejozigmail.com