The life around Indus river

The life around Indus river
Illustrations by Anoop Patnaik,

This extract from Alice Albinia--s debut book, Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River, tells the readers about Islam, Hinduism and river worship in Sindh, Pakistan

Alice Albinia
September 30 , 2014
18 Min Read

From Uderolal it is a long journey north along the Indus Highway to Sukkur, Zindapir’s other shrine in Sindh. Standing as it does on a tiny island in the middle of the river, this is the smallest, least frequented and most pleasing of all the Sufi enclaves that I visit in Sindh. With the town of Sukkur on one side, Rohri on the other, and the larger island of Bukkur a few feet away across the water, the shrine exists in watery isolation, a nonchalant synthesis of all Sindh’s cultures, suspended dolphin-like above the river, in contravention of time’s gravity.

The Indus is at its narrowest here, hemmed in by limestone, and unlike all settlements to the south, which are forever in danger of being flooded by the capricious river, comparative riparian stability has given these towns a chance to luxuriate in their semi-aquatic character. Mohanas, Indus boat-people, still live on the river in wooden sailing boats. All day long, flat-bottomed skiffs float past Zindapir’s island, carrying workers to the vegetable plantations upstream, or pilgrims to the island shrine, or sacks of rice and bags of spice from the bazaar to the shrine’s kitchen. During the urs at a shrine on the Rohri side of the river they still serve niaz (the holy food offered to pilgrims) made from fish and rice and it is here that I am awarded my own Sufi silsila: “Zabardast kism ka naam,” I hear the Sajjada’s son remark to a friend when he hears what I am called: An amazing kind of name. And he spells it out, making the last two letters sound like the Urdu word se, ‘from’, thus giving it an Islamic etymology: Ali-se, from Ali, the Sufi father of them all. (“He’s spared you the expense of a family tree,” a friend jokes later when I tell him: “Now that you’re a Syed where are your murids?”)

The Sajjada’s son also tells me that until recently, palla fish would swim up the river from the sea in order to salute the panoply of Indus river saints at Sukkur. Every Sindhi has emotional memories of the palla, Tenualosa ilisha, or hilsa as it is known in Bengal, the ancient symbol of Sindh’s vanished riverine paradise, its national dish, and now extinct (because dams on the river prevent it from migrating up and down the Indus to spawn). South of the shrine, and visible from the Zindapir island, is the cause of the pallas’ demise: Sukkur Barrage, the dam built by the British in 1932 to feed a network of irrigation canals. The barrage has of course vastly increased the agricultural potential of Sindh — but it has also trapped the blind Indus dolphin upstream of Sukkur. Resident here since the river was formed millions of years ago, this glorious mammal is only now facing extinction.

Islands are an intrinsic part of the character of these towns. A majestic, white marble Hindu temple dominates the southernmost island in the river. Between it and the shrine of Zindapir to the north, is the island fort of Bukkur, the most important military settlement in this region until British times. Of these three islands, Zindapir’s shrine to the north is the smallest — there is barely space for Zindapir’s smooth stone asthana, a few palm trees, and a hut made of leaves under which the faqirs sit all day, preparing bhang, the thick marijuana infusion that they politely tell me is ‘green tea’. And yet for centuries this little piece of land in the middle of the Indus thronged with Sindhis who gathered here to reverently worship the river.

I spend many days on the Zindapir island, talking to the faqirs, easily the most laid-back Pakistanis I ever meet. They have their own stories about Zindapir’s origins, but despite the historical dates assigned to the stories by folklore, it is impossible to tell how old the cult of the river-saint really is. There is a theory among some Muslims today that the Hindu story was only concocted after Partition; but colonial-era Sindhi biographies of Zindapir disprove this. The Hindu variant simply gives a human face to the primordial worship for the river and may have its roots in Rigvedic times, or before. The Muslim option is comparably ancient in terms of the history of Islam, for few other saints claim to have arrived here earlier than 952 CE.

The Zindapir faqirs give their version of the story a clever plot-twist by declaring that the saint who appeared on the island was Khwaja Khizr. This person, whose name means ‘Mr Green’, is found all over the Islamic world, usually in association with water-cults. His antecedents are mysterious, for while pious Muslims (such as the new Sajjada Nasheen) maintain that he is a Qur’anic prophet, in fact Khwaja Khizr is never mentioned by name in the holy book. He was inserted after the event by the writers of the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet) as the hitherto nameless friend of Moses.

This was the start of — or perhaps a subsequent means of justifying — Khwaja Khizr’s ubiquity in the Islamic world. Richard Carnac Temple, a civil servant in nineteenth-century British Sindh, researched, but never published, a monograph of the saint, entitled Zinda Peer: Everliving Saint of India. Khwaja Khizr, he wrote, is “known to every child from Morocco to the Malay Peninsula, the helper in all trouble of whatever kind, and at the same time the bogie par excellence, and the most widely known of all the modern sea and river godlings or saints”. In Muslim versions of the Alexander Romance — the medieval legends of Alexander the Great, popular in Europe and Asia — Khwaja Khizr became the eponymous hero’s friend, accompanying him on a quest for the Fountain of Eternal Life. This, Khizr discovered by chance when a dried fish he was carrying fell into a spring and he watched amazed as his lunch flicked its fins and swam away. Khizr drank deeply from the spring, and hurried away to fetch Alexander, but by the time they returned the spring had disappeared (luckily for mankind, or else Alexander would even to this day be marching round the world, conquering random countries according to his whim). Instead, it is the ‘shy and retiring’ Khwaja Khizr who lives on. The patron of travellers, the helper of those in dire need, he manifests himself to those who call upon him in sincerity.

His first recorded appearance in Sindh occurred in 952 CE, when a Delhi merchant was sailing down the river with his daughter, a girl whose uncommon loveliness came to the attention of the local Hindu raja. The wicked man attempted to ravish her, but the girl called upon Khwaja Khizr, who diverted the Indus from flowing past the raja’s capital at Alor, and instead landed the boat safely on the island in the river. (The current Sajjada Nasheen, who has spent his life working for Pakistan’s infamous, all-powerful Water And Power Development Authority [WAPDA], feels duty-bound to point out to me that while it is true that the Indus changed course several centuries ago, as an engineer he is unable to confirm that this occurrence was Khwaja Khizr’s own creation. Even Quranic prophets who have drunk deeply from the elixir of eternal youth have their limits.)

In Sukkur, Hindus and Muslims worshipped together at Zindapir’s island shrine until the late nineteenth century. The 1874 Gazetteer of Sindh attested to the non-antagonistic character of the common worship there; but by the time the 1919 Gazetteer was published, the Hindus had moved off the island.

When I ask the Sajjada Nasheen to explain the reasons for the community’s rift, he tells me that during the 1880s, the Hindus brought a case against the Muslims, arguing that the absence of a tomb on the island meant that it must always have been the worship-place of an immortal Hindu god. The Muslims countered that there was no tomb because Khwaja Khizr is still alive. The colonial court, called upon to determine in law exactly what the worship-place on the island represented, awarded priority to the Muslims, and so the Hindus placed a light on the water, and built a new temple where it came ashore. If you stand on Zindapir’s island you can see the large, yellow-painted Hindu temple across the river. Any traces of the original temple that might once have stood here on the island were eradicated in the flood of 1956, which also destroyed the mosque, the ‘throne of serpents’ and the large silver-plated gates. All that the river left behind, fittingly, was the smooth stone of the saint’s asthana.

I am keen to read the court documents that the Sajjada has spoken of but unfortunately his barrister cousin, so I am told, recently gave them away to some foreign visitors whose names he cannot remember. Nor can he recall whether they were in English, Sindhi, Sanskrit, or Persian. The barrister thinks that there might be another copy in the Civil Court — a stone’s throw, or at least a short boat ride away — from Zindapir’s island, and so we go there together.

The British-era Court is a quaint construction, the only building on top of a riverside hill, built there, presumably, to protect it from the ravages of the angry masses (or the angry river). I meet the female magistrate, who, with her lipstick and waved hair, is perched incongruously upon this crumbling edifice of another world. She kindly gives us permission to search through the records. But they are in a terrible state: three months ago a series of explosions (apparently random detonations of confiscated and forgotten armaments) destroyed the north side of the building and tragically killed the Head Clerk ‘who knew everything’. Though we search through all the bundles from the 1880s we fail to find the judgement.

For the British, who were ruling Sindh at the time, the Zindapir dispute was of limited local importance, and direct notification of the community’s religious divorce was apparently never sent to London. The affair only surfaces twice in British records. The first is in a Public Works Department Resolution of 1894, determining that the land which the Hindus have squatted across the river from the island is of no use to the Government, and can be sold to them, the ‘Jind Pir fakirs’, for Rs 1000. The second is in the 1919 Gazetteer of Sindh where it is noted that “about twenty years ago... the Hindus abandoned their claim and set up a shrine of their own to Jinda Pir on the Sukkur bank of the river”. In addition, amidst the papers that form the notes and manuscript of Richard Carnac Temple’s book on Zindapir, I came across a typed transcription of this passage from the Gazetteer, onto which Temple had pencilled a date: ‘1886’. This tallies with the Sajjada’s memory of the judgement. But neither Temple nor the Gazetteer revealed the original causes of this dispute.

Hindus still go every Friday to their temple to worship Zindapir — but they have no idea when the temple was built (there are apparently no records there either) nor of the court case that led to the split. Above the entrance to the inner part of the temple is a painting of Zindapir, royally clad in blue and crimson Mughal dress, a green turban on his head, riding along the Indus on a palla fish. On Friday night, I follow a group of male Hindu worshippers through the temple and down some stone steps to an underground cave where a light is always kept burning and Indus water laps at our feet. Singing bhajans, the men light diyas and take them back up to the main river, where they are placed in little paper boats. They float away through the night, luminous pinpricks on the inky-black water, faint memorials. 

One of the contributing causes of the Zindapir rift seems to have been Hindu reactionary piety. In 1823, when the Nepali missionary Swami Bankhandi arrived in Sukkur, he found that the Hindus had forgotten their ancient lore, and he made it his express mission to ‘awaken’ them to the sacredness of the river. He also wished to wean them away from their attachment to Sufi shrines. To that end, he colonized Sadhubela island in the middle of the river, the perfect location for such an isolationist enterprise. (It was also a direct challenge to Zindapir’s shrine, a mile upstream.)

At the time, Hindu reform movements elsewhere in Sindh and India were encouraging widow remarriage and other modernizing trends but in Sukkur the management of the Sadhubela temple believed such projects would ‘undermine the entire Hindu social organization.’ Sadhubela’s focus was on the entrenchment of ancient Hindu values. (The priests even tried to resurrect the famous Kumbh Mela at Sadhubela, claiming that ‘in ancient times’ this gigantic Hindu gathering was held here, not on the Ganges, that the Buddhists had eradicated the practice two millennia ago, and that Muslims had stifled its revival.)

Sixty years after Swami Bankhandi’s missionary project began, Hindus forsook Zindapir’s shrine altogether. Over the next century, the Sadhubela temple management undertook a series of ambitious building projects on the island, funded by Hindu ‘chiefs, grandees and rich merchants’, with the aim of articulating in expensive white marble their community’s division from the Muslim majority. (Where boats dock at the temple, two white marble tableaux still illustrate to worshippers the options before them: one shows a river of naked, drowning sinners — some being skewered and roasted, at least one a Muslim saying namaz; adjacent to it is a scene of the righteous: fully-clothed, queuing meekly to get into heaven). The white marble was complimented, in the early twentieth century, by a flurry of devout publications about ‘Uderolal’ — as Zindapir was now known to Hindus. In 1924, a book was published in English on the history of the Sadhubela temple, and another in Sindhi, Gurumukhi and Sanskrit on the holiness of the Indus. All efforts — architectural, literary, financial — emphasized disparity.

Sitting a little mournfully upstream on the near-deserted island-shrine of Khwaja Khizr, the Muslim Sajjada is quick to admit that it is the Muslims who lost out most from the Zindapir dispute: “Now very few people come to the island,” he says. “The Hindus were the richest and they made a separate shrine and the Muslims are poor and then in the flood of 1956 everything was swept away.” He has brought with him a copy of his family tree, to illustrate to me how “my Arabic family merged over time with the local culture.” The family tree begins, of course, with Adam and descends via the first Caliph. But during the eighteenth century the Sajjada’s ancestors shed their religious titles and took quintessentially Sindhi names such as ‘Nimbundo’. They became, he says, “true Sindhis.”

As the Muslims had nothing to gain from the Hindus leaving, and the Hindus wished to reclaim their original lost purity, it seems likely that the Zindapir dispute was prompted by an internal Hindu reform movement. Yet the more I search through Sukkur’s monuments, records, and memories, the more I wonder why it was that the colonial court allowed a community that had worshipped together for eight hundred years to be divided; why it conspired in rendering legalistically unequivocal that which had been harmoniously amphibious. It was with incidents such as these that the Pakistan Movement was nurtured, and with hindsight, the dispute over Zindapir does seem to be a precursor of Partition. Perhaps what the colonial court fostered here in the 1880s, was a classic case of divide and rule. As I sit under a palm tree on the island, watching the wooden boats with their voluminous white sails floating past, and observing the already-stoned faqirs mixing themselves other drink of bhang, it seems lamentable that short-term separatist sentiments were allowed to prevail over hundreds of years of shared culture.

Mohanas still live on the river, near both Khwaja Khizr’s shrine and the island-temple of Sadhubela. The unmechanized wooden boats they navigate along the Indus —  propelled by sails, rudders and poles — are identical in outline to boats etched onto the five-thousand-year-old seals of the Mohenjodaro city civilization. The Mohanas are a direct connection to the prehistoric Indus river cult, and if anybody has the answer to the mystery of its origins it is they. In 1940, the magazine Sindhian World reported that “the special duty of Zinda Pir is to help the Indus boatmen in the flood season”. Even today, faqirs on the island, and the Mohanas who live here, all say that Zindapir is the ‘pani ka badshah’ (Water King). He lives under the water and the river flows unke hukum se: according to his rule and pleasure.

In the last sixty years, the Mohanas’ lives have changed significantly. Dams have curtailed the distance they can travel by river, and road-building has created competition in the form of the multicoloured trucks which now transport most goods around the country. Mohana spokesmen also blame General Zia’s Mujahideen days in Afghanistan for exacerbating Sindh’s heroin and Kalashnikov culture and rendering the river unsafe. All these changes have taken them further away from the water. Even now, the wild, wooded kaccha lands along the riverbank are the domain of powerful landlords and their bandit henchmen, and most Mohanas are afraid to travel far up or downstream from Sukkur. Recently, though, a few Mohanas have begun making the eight-day journey north to collect timber from the kaccha lands again. On the riverbank opposite Sadhubela, enormous wooden sailing boats with crescent-shaped prows are once again being built to do this work. Every day for a week I come to the riverside to watch the boat-building and then, when the boat is ready, arrive to find the Mohanas throwing a party: sailing the boat out into the water and diving into the river from the prow.

The Indus boat-people have four family names: Mohana, Mallah, Mirbah and Mirani. “When fishermen wear white cotton and carry currency notes, then they are Mirani,” a Mohana who lives near Khwaja Khizr’s island tells me. Miranis are rich; they no longer live on boats. Today, most Mohanas aspire to be Miranis: to send their children to school, to move off the river and into a pukka home. The further Mohanas live from the river, the more orthodox is their Islam — and the faster their belief in the power of the river, and in Zindapir, dissolves.

But there are still Pakistanis for whom the power of the Indus, and the power of Islam, coexist. Early one morning, I am sitting on the riverbank opposite Khwaja Khizr’s shrine, drinking tea with a family of Mohanas, when I see a woman standing in the river. She has just had a bath in the quiet channel between Bukkur and Khwaja Khizr’s island, and her clothes and long dark hair are wet and tangled. She wrings her hair out, pulls on dry clothes, and then she calls on one of the Mohanas to row her out into the middle of the river. Pervez, a young Mohana whose job it is to ferry pilgrims from Bukkur the short distance to Zindapir’s is-land, offers to take her, and I watch as she climbs into the boat and sits in the stern. Pervez stands at the prow, pushing off the bank with a long wooden pole, and the boat moves slowly out past the edge of the island. As they reach the main channel of the river, the woman stands up suddenly in the boat, and throws a bundle of cloth into the river. It twists on the surface in a blur of red and gold, before sinking into the river. Then the woman kneels on the edge of the boat, collecting water in a bottle.

“What were you doing?” I ask her when they return. Pervez speaks for her in Urdu: “Her child is sick; we went to the middle of the river where the water is purest.” He adds what he has told me before: “Our Indus water is worth four of your namkeen sarkaari [salty bottled government] water.” He is laughing at the perplexed expression on my face when the woman interrupts.

“Darya main phenkne se sawab milta hai”,’ she says: You throw it in the river in order to get a blessing.

“Throw what?” I ask.

“The Qur’an,” says Pervez.

“The Qur’an? In the river?” I am shocked. Even now, after coming across such a plurality of practices that fuse Islam and ancient river worship, the idea of flinging the holy book into the belly of the river seems incredible. I begin to ask another question, when the woman looks up at me scornfully from the boat.

“Aap parne, likhne walli hain,” she says, “aur nahi samjhi hain.”

You can read and write — and still you do not understand.

Excerpted with permission from John Murray/Hachette India. Empires of the Indus by Alice Albinia (Hachette India, Rs 495) releases in India on September 3, 2008


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