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The Supernatural in Nature of the Sindhi Tradition

People of the Hindu faith demonstrate a great deal of variety in their everyday ritualistic expression. Most of these practices are rooted in the oral tradition.

Many different explanations of the cosmic reality, as perceived by a Hindu mind, are found in classical compositions — the Vedas, the Brahmanas, the Puranas, the epics, the Bhagavad Gita and so on. At the same time, many age-old folk beliefs have been orally transmitted through the intervention of avataras, gurus, or through miracles and akasavanis. These beliefs usually prevail among specific groups and their impact is confined to a smaller region. In this context, anthropologists distinguish two streams of tradition: ‘high’ tradition enjoying the legitimacy of scriptures or of philosophical interpretation, and ‘low’ tradition backed by syncretic beliefs and myths.

Among the Sindhi Hindus is a popular sect known as the Daryapanthis, ‘followers of the river’, who worship a folk deity named Uderolal; the word is said to be derived from Sanskrit odaka, meaning water. Many temples named after the deity were built in different parts of the erstwhile Sindh in undivided India. The same deity is revered as Zindah Pir or Khwaja Khizr among Muslims as well, and has main places of worship: one on an island near Rohri (in northern Sindh) and another, at the Lal Shahbaz Dargah, associated with the Sufi mystic Mast Qalandar, in Sehwan (in central Sindh).

The believers of Daryapanth worship joti and jalu. They have elaborate rituals on religious and festive occasions throughout the year, particularly on Chetichandu, marking the beginning of new year. Chetichandu coincides with Gandi Parva the new year festival in Maharashtra. Various pujas are performed, initiated by the priestly class called Thakkurs (believed to be Khatris, the descendants of the first disciple of Uderolal). These practices have been transmitted orally. No claims are made about the existence of any written text in the name of the holy deity of his descendants (though, surprisingly, the legendary figure of Uderolal on river fish palo is shown holding a scripture in his hand). In recent decades in spite of the inception of the print media, few booklets have been compiled, formulated on the basis of oral transmission.

This chapter discusses the socio-historical background of the sect and various rituals associated with the folk beliefs of the Daryapanthis, exalting the miraculous powers of the cosmic order, particularly those of the flame and the water.

There are many legends concerning the river deity, called by various names, Uderolal, Jhulelal, Amarlal, associated with certain historical events in Sindh during the early Medieval period. It is commonly believed that, in response to persistent prayers to Lord Varuna from the oppressed folk, the river deity Darya Shah, River Lord, incarnated himself in a family of a boatman at Nasarpur (on the banks of river Sindhu in central Sindh), in the tenth century, as their saviour from the atrocities of a chief of Thatta named Mirkh Shah in lower Sindh. Having won the fierce battle, Uderolal through his miracles brought about a change of heart in the atrocious king, who also became his devotee. Devotional hymns, called janam sakhia and panjiras, are sung by the devotees of Daryapanth, exalting the river deity as a young warrior on a valiant horse emerging from river Sindhu, as a sage riding on palo ‘sweet-water fish’ against the tide, and as a jogi who received guru mantra from Gorakhnath and made a pilgrimage to the Hinglaj Devi (a holy place of Nathpanthis, situated on the Sindh-Baluchistan border).

Rhythmic compositions form a significant aspect of the folklore among the Daryapanthis. Panjiras, five-line devotional verses (sometimes stretched to seven lines), are composed by devotees for specific occasions and presented as an offering to the exalted deity. One such popular version is:

Munhinji beri athai vicha sira te
palau panyan thi man jinda pira te
jotiyuni vara lala udera
kei kani tha to dari pera
tunhinji mahira amira faqira te palau . . . .

My boat is in the mid-stream
I submit myself to the Jinda Pir
Oh ! Lala Udera ! decorated with eternal lights
Several devotees call upon at your doorsteps
Your blessings are alike for the rich and for the poor.
I submit . . . .

Jhulelal’s mission is identified by

  1. performing many miracles as a messenger of Lord Varuna, pacifying conflicting sects with the doctrine of One Almighty.
  2. mitigating miseries of the oppressed (Hindus as well as Muslims); and
  3. promoting the worship of superior powers through joti ‘holy flame’ and jalu ‘holy water’ as the source of life.

A samadhi and a qubo (mausoleum), attributed to Jhulelal and Zindah Pir, are located at the same place near village Jhijhan (in Nasarpur), where Hindus and Muslims go for pilgrimage. The Sufi dargah of Lal Shahbaz in Sehwan is also associated with the worship of Zindah Pir. Till today a place in the interior of the dargah is maintained by the Sufis for the worship of Hindu devotees.

A forty-day vigil chaliho saheb is performed by devotees of the river deity, culminating with the thanksgiving festivities, awaiting the arrival of their saviour. Chetichandu (new moon of chaitra) is celebrated marking the event of Uderolal’s birth.

One remarkable feature of Daryapanthis is that many of the elaborate rituals worshipping the flame and water have been transmitted orally in the past one thousand years or so. Followers of Daryapanth, called shewaks, perform various rituals at the initiation of Thakkurs, in temples or in individual homes; they take bahrano, an exquisite decorated offering in a thali (a big tray) for Uderolal to the river, and participate in a procession dancing their way with chheja ‘crescendo, inundation’, a dance of joy resembling the Gujarati Dandia Raas.

An elaborate ritual connected with bahrano ‘offering to the flowing stream’ has many parallels with Vedic rituals of havan, except that it substitutes water for fire, and after the puja the decorated thali is ceremoniously taken to the river (stream or ocean) for immersion, accompanied with chorus music and folk dancing. A large portion of wheat flour, kneaded with fresh water, is equally divided for preparing one or more (preferably five) modakas (round balls) and lamps; five wicks soaked in cooking oil or ghee are placed in each lamp. Flour balls are placed by the side of lamps, which are sprinkled with kumkum and adorned with cloves, cardamoms, sugar candy, flowers and fresh milk; kumkum is applied to the flour lamps as well. The tray is scented with burning dhoop and agarbattis; camphor and sandalwood are burnt for lighting the first wick, from which other wicks for the rest of the lamps are lit. Five assorted fruits, along with a coconut, are placed next to the flour balls; paddy and sugar are also set aside in the tray to be available for individual offerings to the river lord, called akho (aksaya). Auspicious markings of aum and Ganesh are drawn with kumkum and a betel is placed over the markings.

A small kalash (earthen urn), filled with fresh water and covered with a coconut on the top, is placed next to the decorated tray. Another tray is filled with prasada, called sesa, made of sweetened rice and black grams; one-third of the sesa is immersed in river and the rest is distributed among the devotees after the ceremony. In the midst of singing panjiras, clinging of cymbals, and the frenzy of chheja dance on the riverbank, both trays are taken to the midstream for immersion. At the culmination of the ceremony, water taken from the midstream is sprinkled over the devotees as a mark of blessing from the river deity. There is an air of fanfare and festivity on the river bank.

Oblations to the flowing waters (river, stream, ocean) is quite widespread among the Sindhis, irrespective of sectarian affiliations, as the subsistence of the desert people has been largely on the river Sindhu. Devout believers regularly make an offering of akho (on occasions, along with an oil lamp preferably made of wheat dough), when crossing the river.

According to the legend, Uderolal, after having accomplished the worldly mission (as saviour of the down-trodden), took his chosen disciple Pagad (Pongad) to the bottom of bhavasagar to reveal the divine experience of creation to him. Taking him to the joti mandaru at the bottom of the fathomless waters, Uderolal identifiedagni as the almighty power of creation, and explained the significance of worshipping the omnipotent joti and jalu to his disciple.

On returning to the surface, Uderolal installed Pagad as the custodian of joti mandaru for his devotees on earth and handed over seven sacred articles to be part of every joti mandaru.

  • joti:            a lighted earthen lamp, manifesting the omnipotent
  • jhari:         a kalash
  • kantha:     a silken cloth-cover, also called pakhara, as a shield against evil
  • veedha:    a ring, fulfilling one’s mission, like kalpa (verho) vrksa
  • dhokla:     a damru, signifying the original nada
  • tegh:         a sword, signifying control over external and internal lures; it protects from demonic forces
  • degi:         a metallic vessel for cooking sweetened rice tahiri as aksya patra (for providing sesa parsadu to devotees)

Joti and jhari are to be installed in the centre-stage of the temple, dhokla is used for singing hymns, and degi for preparing sesa parsadu, and kantha and veedha invoke the blessings of the priest. The significance of joti and jalu rituals among Daryapanthis has a close parallel with the Zoroastrian rituals among Parsees in India connected with atish (eternal flame) and ava (holy water) as primary forces of nature. These rituals are supported by Avestan texts (Boyce 1989, Randeria 1992).

With the migration of a large number of Sindhi Hindus to India, scattered in distant places, professional Thakkurs continue making periodic visits to the homes of their shewaks to perform pujas or the shewaks making individual contributions to their priest to perform pujas on their behalf in newly installed Jhulelal temples in many Sindhi settlements in the country. Lately the celebration of Chetichandu has acquired an added significance of creating a cultural bond of unity among the Sindhis scattered in the heterogeneous milieu of the Indian subcontinent.

There are different ways of organizing and looking at the universe. Primal groups such as tribals in central and northeastern regions show an abiding faith in nature; they live in harmony with nature. In the tribal worldview, nature is conceived as an order that includes man.

The oral tradition of Uderolal worship highlights the bountiful powers of nature. In a way it illustrates the human faculties of perceiving and recreating the world as conditioned by the socio-ecological environment. The Daryapanthis of Sindh present a unique blend of folk rituals emerging from the desert conditions, integrated with the influences of the Nathpanth, Bhakti cult, and Sufi mysticism as prevailing in northern India in the early Medieval period.

~ Lachman K. Khubchandani