Sufi shrines in South Asia are a living cultural heritage. Popular Sufi saints from the region have contributed to the regional literary cultures particularly poetry, as well as theological and philosophical writings. Small towns where shrines are located buzz with the rhythm of the shrine’s activities. The shrines have been and continue to be central to the town’s social and cultural activities.
A few saints of the saints and their literary contributions include Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai’s Shah jo Risalo, theological and philosophical literature originally in Arabic and Persian by Hazrat Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, Kashf-al-Mahjub by Hazrat Data Ganj Bakhsh, Baba Bulleh Shah’s Sufi poetry, and Baba Fariduddin Shakarganj’s development of Punjabi literature and language.
Moving from the saints to their shrines, one notes that the rituals performed at some of the shrines are an enactment of the collective memories of the saint, his fakirs and his followers, amassed over centuries. For instance, the performance of the raag at Shah Latif’s shrine is his legacy that has been carried through for centuries, and it echoes through the town.
Similarly, the dhamaal performed at the shrine of Hazrat Lal Shahbaz Qalandar is reminiscent of the tragedies and pain of Imam Zain-ul-Abedin, that the saint was deeply absorbed in. The tradition has continued on at his shrine for nine centuries. The Qawwali performance at the shrine of Baba Bulleh Shah is another regionally significant ritual.
The dhamaal, raag and qawwali performances are examples of social and cultural activities performed at popular Sufi shrines. But apart from these, shrines have also prominently played an important role as educational and information-sharing spaces. Shrines often have khanqahs or madrassas attached and these act as spaces that offer public welfare, charity and support to those who needed it, in the form of langar, donations or otherwise.
While the saints were still alive the shrines, then called khanqahs (a Persian word), were associated with multiple functions of public and civic natures, for the resident community and travelers, and for food and services that were of central importance as settlements developed and expanded around them. The development of the shrines and the history of the saints are a significant part of the evolution story of shrine towns.
Bhit Shah and Sehwan are examples of such small towns in Sindh where the shrine contributes significantly to the town’s culture and economy. The two Sufi shrines (that of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai and Hazrat Lal Shahbaz Qalandar) are associated with an indigenous traditional community of fakirs and followers and the extended family of the saint himself, spread all over the old town. These traditional communities have long been associated with the shrine and have a history attached. Their collective memories are passed through generations via rituals, oral stories and customs.
The physical form of the old town includes several public and semi-public places of social and cultural importance to the community reinforcing traditional norms within the built environment. For instance, in Bhit Shah there are more than a dozen autaqs that not only act as the male baithak from the traditional South Asian Muslim culture, but also as places of accommodation for families and groups that come to town for the purpose of visiting the shrine for fulfilling mannats and distributing charity through langar.
Similarly, in Sehwan, such places are referred to as kafis. Autaqs and kafis are privately managed and maintained by mutawallis or caretakers, usually fakirs of the saint. Imambargahs are numerous in such towns as well.
The traditional community operates within its prescribed norms. While urbanisation and modernisation bring about changes to the traditional shrine towns, they have simultaneously managed to maintain their identity as towns associated with shrines of Sufi saints. The town reverberates with the rhythm of its religious and socio-cultural activities and rituals, repeated often according to its prescribed calendar.
These activities also contribute to the market around the shrine and the town’s economy, particularly on the urs or the death anniversary of the saint, which is now a three-day event. The death anniversary is not just a major social and religious event for the indigenous community but a major cultural event for the region which attracts people in large numbers, making it a major economic town event.
Every year, the town diligently prepares for the annual urs. According to the gaddi nashin at Bhit Shah, about 300,000 to 350,000 people come to town each day of the urs, meaning the total number for three days goes up to about 1000,000 to 1,200,000. Bhit Shah’s proximity to Hyderabad and to several bigger towns including Hala, Tando Allahyar, and Tando Adam allows many to visit the town during the urs because after the day is over they can go back home to rest, or find accomadation at another nearby town.
On the other hand, Sehwan’s location does not play to its advantage. Sehwan itself is the biggest town in its region; its neighbouring towns are smaller in size and less developed. This means that people must stay within Sehwan during the urs of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar.
“There is constant construction happening in town,” says Sehwani, an old resident of Sehwan. Like several old residents, his surname is Sehwani, implying his ancestral relation to the town.
People are constantly expanding their residences for extra rooms, extra levels are being added to their houses, as a source of income for their family during the urs. “This is the main business for the town,” says Sehwani. Many residents of Sehwan move out of their own houses and shift to another town to give their residential spaces on rent.
The larger lower-middle and middle income resident population of the town is able to earn enough money in the urs season to make it through for the next six months or even the year.
To sum up, shrine towns have a strong independent identity and follow a traditional pattern of cultural living. Every year provincial governments organise committees months before the annual urs for security and infrastructure management of the towns.
It may help to administratively group these towns together for particular attention in planning and management in order to safeguard the living cultural heritage, and promote positive interface of traditional values and modern infrastructure. Their integration can make the cultural activity smoother and seamless for visitors.