Be it morning or evening, the faqirs of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai may be found dressed in black and sitting in a semi-circle before the door to his tomb, singing his poetry on the tamboura. The Shah Jo Rag at his dargah enthrals the audience, who come from different parts of Sindh to pay respects to him. This practice of Shah Jo Raag continues from the days of Shah Abdul Bhitai when he himself used to sing with his faqirs. The shrine complex of Shah Abdul Latif is always full of his devotees: led by his faqirs who enter his dargah reciting his Sufi poetry. Many faqirs are to be seen leaning against the outer walls of the shrine and reciting his poetry. The Shah’s shrine provides succour to downtrodden segments of Sindhi society, who come to find some solace praying and sit leaning against the outer walls of the shrine which are decorated with blue and white tiles. These oppressed sections of society throng the Shah’s shrine to pay homage to him and spend their most of time at his dargah feeling the mystic milieu. For instance, at almost any time, it is possible to see families of Hindus from marginalized castes at the shrine, reflecting its popular appeal as well inclusiveness.
The Shah Jo Risalo, which has 30 surs (and ‘sur’ refers to a mode of singing that corresponds to the subject matter), was first published by German scholar Ernest Trumpp in 1866 in Leipzig, Germany. This publication missed a few surs, which were later added by other scholars.
In his poetry, women find a premier place. Shah reflects in his verse the suffering, sorrow and honesty of the woman of the land
Born in the small village of Hala Haveli in 1689, Shah Abdul Latif received early education in the village from his teacher Noor Muhammad. Amena Khamisani, who translated the Shah Jo Risalo into English, believed that although Shah Abdul Latif received a scanty formal education, the Risalo gives ample proof of the fact that he was well-versed in Arabic and Persian languages. The Holy Quran, the Hadith, the Masnawi of Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi and the collection of Shah Abdul Karim’s poems (his great-grandfather, who died in 1623), were his constant companions. He was also presented a copy of the Masnawi of Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi by Mian Noor Muhammad Kalhoro to win back his favour, as he had been estranged from Shah Abdul Latif. Mai Gulan, the wife of Noor Muhammad Kalhoro, was an ardent devotee of Shah Abdul Latif. Her son Mian Ghulam Shah Kalhoro was also Shah’s admirer. When Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai passed away in 1752, Mian Ghulam Shah Kalhoro (1757-1772), then the ruler of Sindh, built his tomb. Mian Ghulam Shah Kalhoro also built the tomb of his father Shah Habib and a mosque at Bhit Shah. Later Mian Naseer Khan Talpur also made some extensions.
Today, the shrine of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai is visited by his Muslim and Hindu devotees alike, who come to seek the blessings of the saint. This is one of the few Sufi shrines in Sindh where people of different faiths come to seek solace transcending all religious boundaries. Bhitai rejected the religious bigotry of his time and travelled with Hindu yogis to their pilgrimage centres in Sindh and Balochistan. He also mentioned other holy places of jogis in Kutch, Girnar, Dwarka and Rajasthan, some of which he might have visited himself. From his Risalo, one learns a lot about his poetry on the sectarian affiliation and holy places of yogis. Shah Abdul Latif makes references in his poetry about some of the popular Hindu sacred spaces which he visited with wandering ascetics. The two surs of his Risalo ‘Sur Ramkali’ and ‘Sur Khahori’ are devoted to yogis. In fact, yogis found a good place in Sufi poetry of Sindh. Before Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, Shah Lutfullah Qadiri (1611-1679) was the first Sufi poet who mentioned them in detail in his poetry. Miyon Shah Inayat (1620-1708) also referred to yogis in his poetry, and even devoted two surs, Ramkali and Purab, to them. He mentioned Veer Nath in his poetry – who was an eminent 17th-century Nath Yogi. He was also the founder of the Veernathi Sampradaya. Veer Nath Ji Marhi at Ratokot in Khipro taluka was once an important centre of the Nath Jogis of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab and Sindh. It still attracts both ascetics and common people.
The name of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai is synonymous with Sindh identity. In every nook and corner of Sindh and beyond, a majority of Sindhis identify themselves as the followers of Shah’s message of love, harmony, devotion and tolerance. The Shah’s mysticism is a many-splendoured jewel. Like many other subjects in his Risalo, Shah Abdul Latif also utilized the main features of the folk romances of Sasui and Punhun, Suhni and Mehar, Umar and Marvi, Leela and Chanesar, Moomal and Rano, Nuri and Jam Tamachi, Sorath-Rai Dyach and Bijal etc. to expound the spiritual journey that one has to undertake on their way to God.
In his poetry, women find a premier place. Shah reflects in his verse the suffering, sorrow and honesty of the woman of the land. In Marvi’s case, for instance, Shah depicts how her longing and love for her homeland were not changed by Umar’s wealth, affluence and luxury.
Through Shah Abdul Latif’s poetry, these romances also inspired the Sindhi painters who painted scenes from them in tombs. All the folk romances that Shah Abdul Latif used in his Risalo to convey his mystic thoughts became part of the later artistic repertoire of Sindhi painters – which they could draw upon to express their feelings and emotions in the form of murals. Instead of painting the entire story, the painters focused on the important episodes of the story.
Apart from the romantic tales, the folk tale of King Rai Dyach and Bijal also became an important theme in Sindh’s art – which was again derived from the poetry of Shah Abdul Latif. In this legend, as depicted in tombs, the famous musician Bijal is shown asking for the head of King Rai Dyach who was known for his generosity. Word had it that nobody returned empty-handed from his palaces. When Bijal insisted on demanding nothing short of the king’s head, Rai Dyach proceeded to cut his head with a sword and presented it as a memento to the musician.
Apart from Rai Dyach’s generosity, Shah Abdul Latif also composed poetry on various other generous (dattar) and brave persons including Jadam Jakhro, Samo, Abro, Rahu etc. in Sur Bilawal.
Today, the shrine of Shah has become a symbol of religious harmony and tolerance, where people of different faiths interact and intermingle – shedding their bigotry by engrossing themselves in the Sufi music and poetry. Both his Muslim and Hindu devotees are likely to promote this message to their progenies for posterity.
The writer is an anthropologist. He can be contacted at email@example.com