Visit to Sindh, Udero Lal (the story of the Dalits in Pakistan)

Yoginder Sikand writing at DNA

South-central Sindh isn’t quite a favourite holiday destination, but I spent a fortnight there while on a vacation in Pakistan. My host was the amiable, 70 year-old Khurshid Khan Kaimkhani, a noted leftist activist, author of the only book on Pakistan’s almost 300 million Dalits. Along with a friend, he edits the only Dalit magazine in the entire country.

Khurshid met me at the railway station in Hyderabad, Sindh’s largest city after Karachi. We drove to his small farm, on the outskirts of his hometown of Tando Allah Yar, a two hour bus-ride ahead. Several Bhil families live on the farm. “They are like my own family,” Khurshid says as Baluji, a tall, handsome Bhil man, manager of the farm, welcomes us in with a tight embrace.

Later that day, Baluji takes me around. A dozen mud houses are scattered across the farm, humble structures, neatly painted. In a corner is a little shrine of Jog Maya, a Bhil goddess, in the form of a conical-shaped stone wrapped in red cloth and placed in a cradle. Pictures of various Hindu deities, some of which Khurshid has brought with him on his visits to India, grace the walls.

As darkness falls, Khurshid suggests that we have a bhajan session. Baluji and some young men bring along musical instruments. They sing songs in praise of Krishna, Mira Bai, Nanak, Kabir and various Sindhi Sufi saints. I can recognise only some words, but the music is powerful and soul-stirring.

The next morning Khurshid has a surprise for me. He has asked Baluji to drive us to Mohenjo-daro in his new pick-up truck. ‘The Mound of the Dead’, the major settlement of the five-thousand year-old Indus Valley Civilisation. A 10-hour journey by road. We drive past Hyderabad, through miles of suburban squalor, cross the mighty Indus at Kotri. The river appears placid, and country boats gently move with their sails billowing in the breeze, as they have for thousands of years, from the heydays of Mohenjo-daro. The countryside soon turns stark, stony and sandy.  Stark poverty hits one in the face, as does the virtual absence of the state, the only visible presence appears to be roads, streetlights in some places and tower-like police stations. As darkness falls, we reach Larkana. We cannot go ahead, for fear of dacoits.

Before day breaks, we are up and about. It takes us two hours to reach Mohenjodaro.
A giant mound, pictures of which every Indian child has seen at school, dominates the ruins. The bricks are still intact, remarkable as these ruins are over 6,000 years old. The mound was later used as a Buddhist stupa. Built around the mound are tiny cells, paved lanes lined with covered drains and a great bath. A well-maintained museum boasts a large collection of artefacts culled from the ruins — jewellery, pottery, toys, statuettes, seals and even something that looks like a chess board.

After brunch, we head back for Hyderabad. Some hours later we reach Udero Lal, one of the popular pilgrimage centres for Sindh’s Hindus. The shrine houses three chambers. One contains a Hindu temple, with a large portrait of Uderolal. He bears a large white crown on his head and sports a flaming red tilak and a long, bushy beard. He perches on a large fish in the middle of a river.

“Udero Lal is the saint of the Indus,” says a Hindu pilgrim. “He appeared at a time when Hindus were being forced to become Muslims. He saved us from forced conversion by showing a Muslim ruler many miracles.”

In an adjacent room is a grave-like structure built in the Muslim fashion. A Muslim, who claims to be the descendant of a disciple of the saint, tells a different story. “He was a Muslim fakir. Because he was such a devoted man of God, the Hindus, too, venerate him.” I do not know which story to believe.

I ask Khurshid, who is famous for his knowledge of Sindhi folklore. “Both stories are probably fiction,” Khurshid chuckles. “In any case, if Hindus, Dalits and Muslims all worship here together in peace, who needs to know anything more?”

Published on Friday, August 08, 2008

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