Sutra Journal Logo

A curated journal on art, culture and dharma

Pakistan's Sufi Dervishes, Digambar Jain Monks and Udasi sadhus

by Haroon Khalid January, 2016

udasi sadhu

Editor’s Note:

Haroon's first book is called A White trail: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities. It documents the religious festivals of five minorities living in Pakistan, including Hindu, Sikh, Parsi, Baha’i and Christian. His latest book is called In search of Shiva: a study of folk religious practices in Pakistan that looks at idiosyncratic Muslim shrines of the country including shrines of phallic offerings, sacred dogs, sacred trees, shrines for transgender and other such practices.

Standing in one corner of the courtyard was this group of bald dervish. They were a combination of old ages. Their naked bodies shone through their thin black shawls that they had used to cover up their torso. Some of them wore glass ear rings and had a horizontal tika on the forehead, a symbol of Hindu ascetics. Others had glass bangles on their wrists, associated with Bhaktis. All of them were without shoes, even though shoes were allowed in this courtyard. Dust had become one with the skin of their feet. Their faces and heads were clean shaven. It felt as if they had been shaving so hard that the hair on their skin refused to grow anymore. There was uneasiness about them. They stood there uncomfortably, as if out of place. Some of them wore kohl in their eyes. Their looks could pierce through a rock.

Some of them even wore ghungroo in their feet. This is a unique feature of Islamic spirituality, where Sufi men present themselves as females to their deity, who is imagined to be a male figure. Using references from the iconic Punjabi love legend they refer to themselves as Heer while God is referred to as Ranjha. This is similar to the Bhakti tradition of Krishan-devotion, where the devotee presents himself as Radha, the perfect lover, to Krishna, the deity. On closer inspection one can see that Ranjha of this folk love legend borrows heavily from the legends of Krishna. He too is a cowherd and plays the flute. Like Krishna, Ranjha too doesn’t marry his perfect lover, Heer. Their love transcends the boundaries of human made institutions. Bulleh Shah, the 18th century Punjabi mystic and poet from Kasur, captures the essence of the fluidity between Krishna and Ranjha in his poem in the following way:

Krishna plays the magical flute

O Ranjha with the flute –

O cowherd Ranjha!

You are in tune with all of us!

You make your delights

Chime with your consciousness

Krishna plays the magic flute

O flute player,

You are called Krishna

You are our virtue

You are our inner self

Yet our eyes cannot quite see you!

How complex your sport.

Krishna plays the magic flute.

In the case of this shrine the occupant of the grave becomes a symbol of divinity while the dervish with the ghungroo his female lover. There is a sexual connotation to this meeting of lovers. The grave of the saint, the groom is decorated like a groom, with a turban placed where the head of the occupant would be. Today is a special occasion. This is the celebration of the urs of the saint, a day of his death. In the Islamic spirituality, death, as opposed to birth, of a saint is celebrated. This is because it is believed that after death, the saint, lover, becomes one with the beloved, which is God. Whereas to God the saint is a female, to his devotees he is a male and they the female.

A lot of Sufi dervish, also encapsulate this duality of sexuality in their body,

entertaining simultaneously the male and female features.

In this form they represent Ardhanarisvara – a form of Lord Shiva

with the right side being male and the left one being female.

The two cannot survive without each other and are reconciled by Lord Shiva. This duality is also reflected in Shiva being seen as the creator and the destroyer simultaneously. The image of Shiva which is the union of linga (penis) and yoni (vagina) is the ultimate symbol of the union of masculinity with femininity.

The mausoleum of Daud Bandagi

The mausoleum of Daud Bandagi

In front of the dervish is the 16th century monument, tomb of the Sufi saint Daud Bandagi Kirmani. It is a typical Mughal construction with an octagonal base and a round bulbous white dome. The shrine is covered by a protective wall and there are several other graves in this courtyard, some of his descendants and others of rich people from the city who paid or vied to be buried close to the saint, hoping to achieve salvation through their proximity.

The shrine is located in the centre of this city of Shergarh, a historical city located about 100 kilometers south of Lahore. The city as well is protected by a fort like wall. Whereas such walls of larger cities in India were razed down by the British after 1857, they remained untouched in smaller cities. The entire city was celebrating the annual 3 day celebration of the urs of the saint. All streets and roads in here had been converted into a makeshift bazaar. Smell of freshly prepared samosa lingered in the air. Some were selling eatables to those who did not want to partake in the langaar at the shrine. Most of the shops were selling religious paraphernalia – sacred threads, bangles, rings with special stones, items one is likely to encounter outside major Hindu temples. In fact to an unacquainted visitor this might as well be the threshold of a Hindu temple. The only difference would be the posters. All the posters here represented iconic Muslim saints like Daud Bandagi, Baba Farid, and Shahbaz Qalandar, while posters outside Hindu temples sell Hindu images. Women, men, children, old and young, all throng to the shrine for these festivities.

Walking in the midst of the folk are Pirs and dervish. Some offer their services to the locals, promising respite from an evil eye. Others prepare their own magical spells that need to be mixed with water and consumed. These Sufis belong to various hues. There are those who belong to a conventional, orthodox Sufi sect, like Daud Bandagi Kirmani, who belonged to the Qadiri sect. For them following religious doctrines is as much part of religion as shrines of saints. There are various distinctions within these conventional sects but there is no need to get into these subtleties here. Then there are the Malmatis – the rebel Sufis, who flout religious laws, and don’t belong to any particular order. These are the ones who through their action want to invite the wrath of the people. They believe this to be a passage towards God. They convert the sacred into profane, and profane into sacred. They are similar to the Tantric devotees of Shiva.

Scattered all around the city are the massive havelis of the descendants of the saint. The gates of their houses, manned by armed security guards are thrown open for these 3 days to entertain guests on the occasion of the urs. Not all guests though, only of a particular background. Most of them don’t live here anymore but are based in Lahore. They return annually for this festival. They are the most influential people of their city, the politicians, the businesspeople, feudal, intellectuals, bureaucrats, and of course the religious heads. Different governments including the Mughals and British have awarded vast tracts of lands to Sufi shrine establishments as a religious duty and also to appease these influential men. Most of these shrines still retain this land and their descendants reap the benefit.

I walked into the main shrine of Daud Bandagi Kirmani. The walls were beautifully decorated in traditional tile work. The grave of the saint was right in the centre while devotees circumambulated around the room and then stopped next to the tombstone of the saint, where they would offer a special prayer.

Daud Bandagi's footmark inside the shrine

Daud Bandagi's footmark inside the shrine

Here next to the grave of the saint, on a raised platform was the preserved footmark of the saint. Some devotees prayed here while others kissed. Looking at this structure I was immediately reminded of Jain temples, where also there are footmarks of saints, around which that temple is constructed. I was reminded of the footmarks of Shri Atmaramji that I had seen at the Lahore museum. Like this one at this Muslim shrine they too were made out of marble. Shri Atmaramji was a prominent Jain Acharya from Gujranwala. His smadh still exists in Gujranwala and is being used as a police station. Sometimes innocent people are tortured at the shrine which once preached non-violence. The sight also reminded me of a Muslim shrine that I had heard about at the archaeological mound of Marot near Bahawalpur. This mound is located close to the India-Pakistan border with Rajasthan on one side and the district of Bahawal Nagar on the other. Here too there is a Muslim shrine dedicated to the footmarks of Hazrat Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet of Islam. It is believed that he worshipped at this place.

Worshipping of the footmarks is not the only feature that united these distinct religious traditions. My thought went back to the dervish I had seen outside. Their semi-naked bodies, their shaved heads, and beardless faces reminded me of sadhus from Digamber Jain, who too remove their bodily hair, as a symbol of renunciation of the world and don’t wear clothes. “You know these dervish only cover up when they visit a public place, like this one,” said Iqbal Qaiser, my friend and companion. “When they are in their deras they only wear a longi or sometimes nothing at all.”

These dervish were distinctively different from other Malamti dervish here. The other dervishes let their hair long and grow their beard, which too serves as a symbol of renunciation of the world. Where do the knots of these dervish and Digamber Sadhu tie together?

There is no doubt that the latter became an inspiration for the former but what were the pathways that allowed for this influence to reach the other. I was dumbfounded.

A few years later I was visiting another historical city of Bhera where I found myself in the premises of an abandoned Sikh shrine. On the walls of this shrine, made out of colorful frescoes I saw a figure which had uncanny similarities to the dervish at Shergarh or Digamber Sadhus. The figure wore nothing but a lungi and held a tomba in his hand.

Figure of an Udasi Sadhu at a Sikh shrine in Bhera

Figure of an Udasi Sadhu at a Sikh shrine in Bhera

In the Sikh tradition these Sadhus are called Udasi Sadhu. Udasi is a Sansrkit term that means pilgrimage. Their perpetual pilgrimage from one shrine to another earned them this nickname. It is interesting to note that these Sadhus derive their spiritual lineage from Sri Chand, the eldest son of Guru Nanak. Whereas Guru Nanak spoke vehemently against such extreme asceticism, his own son defied his orders and became an ascetic. Perhaps in his own way he was punishing Guru Nanak for abandoning him as a child to depart on his own udasi that nearly took 30 years. This complicated relationship between the father and son continued when Nanak instead of appointing his son as his spiritual descendant, appointed his disciple Bhai Lehna and rechristened him, Guru Angad.

Pictures of Sri Chand depict him wearing nothing but a lungi. Sri Chand had a disciple called Baba Gurditta, who in turn had four disciples, Balu Hasna, Al-Mast, Phool Shah and Govinda. It is believed that the first two were Muslims and through them Muslim too were attracted to the movement of Sri Chand. Some of these devotees grew their hair while others removed them like Digamber Jains. They shunned clothes and started living in secluded communities called dera. They would only cover temporarily when they had to enter mainstream society. They would also scrub oil and ash over their body, associating with death and rejecting this temporary life. They became famous as Nanghe Sadhu.

A malang on his way to the next shrine

A malang on his way to the next shrine

Perhaps the dervish I had noticed at the shrine of Daud Bandagi belonged to this tradition of Balu Hasna and Al Mast. They remain in groups and spend their entire lives in perpetual udasi. They can be noticed at every prominent Sufi shrine of the country. Maybe it was through Sri Chand that influences of Digamber asceticism entered folk Islamic spirituality. Or maybe such extreme asceticism was already part of the folk religious tradition of India which was later institutionalized by Digamber Jains. Perhaps these Nanghe Sadhu at Shergarh represent that primordial religiosity, before it was encoded into a religious tradition.

Haroon Khalid

by Haroon Khalid

January, 2016

About Haroon Khalid

Haroon Khalid has an academic background in Anthropology from the Lahore University of Management and Sciences (LUMS). He has been a travel writer and freelance journalist since 2008, travelling extensively around Pakistan, documenting its historical and cultural heritage. He has written for several newspapers and magazines, including Dawn, The News, Express Tribune, The Friday Times, Scroll and Himal.

His latest book is called In search of Shiva: a study of folk religious practices in Pakistan that looks at idiosyncratic Muslim shrines of the country including shrines of phallic offerings, sacred dogs, sacred trees, shrines for transgender and other such practices.

His first book is called A White trail: a journey into the heart of Pakistan’s religious minorities that documents the religious festivals of five minorities living in Pakistan, including Hindu, Sikh, Parsi, Baha’i and Christian, and using these festivals constructs a narrative about the socio-political situation of religious minorities in the country.

He is an educationist and lives in Islamabad with his wife.

Get the One and Only Sutra Journal Newsletter

Sutra Journal Logo

© 2016 All Rights Reserved by Sutra Journal and Respective Authors.

Sutra Journal has readers from 170 countries.