Bhit Shah, Tomb of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai
The path leads from Pakistani Hyderabad around fifty kilometers to the north. It is already past 10pm when we leave. As we leave the bright lights of the city behind us, darkness engulfs the horizon in all directions. To the west of the road, the Indus meanders through its wide river bed that is mostly dried up this year. Here, Alexander the Great once pulled along with his army after his mutinous soldiers forced him to abandon the plans to conquer India.
Actually, we wished to travel at our own risk, however, our hosts felt obliged to use all means at their disposal to ensure our safety. So now a car with heavily armed police officers drives in front of us and another car follows us from behind. Through the windshield I see men with machine guns on the loading area of a pickup truck, they jostle for space; they seem to be having fun. Two of them have long shaggy beards of the Islamists; I wonder if it is so unlikely that it would suddenly occur to one of them that shooting us right now could secure him a place in Paradise, rather than us falling into the hands of terrorists or kidnappers by pure chance. The thought makes me laugh!
Since the past few years, I have travelled quite often with Sufis, I have visited many of their pilgrimage sites and I have felt safer there, no matter how dangerous the place was supposed to be.
We reach Bhit Shah shortly before midnight, we get down at a small place, in the midst of brightly lit stalls and shops that overflow with sweets, religious souvenirs, soft toys, embroidered caps, a wide range of glitter plastic made in China that can take every possible form and shape. In the midst of the flashing confusion, there are some young men, who seem to have merged with the surroundings. They look at us with unmoving eyes. They seem to be indifferent whether someone buys something or not. Maybe they simply assume that every rupee that God intends for them to earn, will inevitably end up in their hands, regardless of whether they perform the theater of Bazaar for us or not.
From our protection force, only two police officers are left behind, one tall and thin and the other short and fat, who despite their old Kalashnikov rifles seem to be as scary, as the two comedians from the Pippi Longstocking (Pippi Langstrumpf in German) films.
The poet, feminist, socialist and philosophy professor Amar Sindhu, who incidentally runs a literary café in Hyderabad, has brought us here without telling us exactly what to expect: An architecturally significant place, it had been called, possibly there would be Qawwali - the mystical songs of the Indo-Pakistani Sufis. In fact, I hear faint tones of peculiar melodies and voices through the sounds of rhythmically struck strings, even here, among the shopkeepers. Beggars sit isolated on the floor, one squats without his lower leg on a ragged blanket, an old lady looks through me in trance or insanity. They seem just as little interested in us like the shopkeepers. Unlike the usually seen scenario in such markets, no Orient Pop blares out of extremely loud speakers.
Suddenly some barking stray dogs pass by, halt there, two dogs seem to negotiate with each other with authority, disappear into the darkness.
To the left of the entrance to the actual tomb there is a stall, where the seals and biographies of Shah Abdul Latif as well as illustrated books about Bhit Shah, mosque architecture, the Koran and the Hadith editions are offered to the public. Even, "Mystical Dimensions of Islam" by Annemarie Schimmel can be seen here.
For centuries, Islam in the Indian subcontinent has been influenced by Sufism. Many Sufis emphasize on the inner unity of religions in their diversity that has been self derived from the Koran. Hence, it is not surprising that the spirituality of the Islamist ideologue, oriented towards tolerance and charity, is a nuisance until today. Sufism is banned among the Shiite Mullahs in Iran as well as Sunni fundamentalists of Saudi Arabia. One of the main issues is the profound reverence for saints and masters that starts with the exuberant love for the person of the Prophet Mohammed. Thresholds or tombs are kissed and perfumed. Many of the partly syncretistic and ecstatic celebrations lead to uninhibited trance. Civil ethics as well as gender segregation cannot be maintained, and the violation of rules and breaking of taboos represent an intolerable provocation for every authoritarian state that primarily provides an instrument of power for the discipline and control of its subjects in the religion.
However, in this very area of present-day Pakistan, Sufism with its multireligious mix of people with different ethnic backgrounds, has had a reconciliatory and mediatory impact by opening the spiritual borders for a long time between Sunnis and Shiites, Hindus, Christians, Jews, Parsis and the various old religions, whose followers sometimes till today live in remote valleys - such as the Kalasha with their polytheistic and animist culture.
The holy and most important poet of Sindh - Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai (1689-1752) - is one of the outstanding figures of Sufism in Pakistan. He came from an old Sunni scholarly and mystic family. Besides Sindhi he spoke Farsi, Arabic and Hindi. He was conversant with all Islamic sciences and classical philosophy, as well as the writings and traditions of Hinduism. He fell in love with Saida Begum, the beautiful daughter of Prince Mirza Mughal Beg. But her family rejected him and he left his home lovesick to find inner peace as a wandering seeker of God. For several years, he moved across the country, accompanied by yogis and sadhus, learned from them and made a pilgrimage with them to Shiite and Hindu shrines. When he finally returned to his hometown, conditions had changed there profoundly: The prince and a large part of his family were killed in an armed robbery, and now the survivors urged Shah Latif to marry Saida Begum, since they were of the opinion that the downfall of their family was a direct consequence of the rejection of the holy man as the bridegroom.
Through a stone arch, I enter the open courtyard of the actual tomb, surrounded by buildings like from an Orientalist fantasy: Large and small cupolas in different shapes, turrets and minarets rise in the darkness. The strong geometry of the facades is again seen in the fields and caskets through exuberant ornaments. The whole room seems to vibrate.
From a laterally located hall, the peculiar voices and rhythms of the singer come out louder now, a mixture of music and night sounds, the way one might hear in the jungle. I take a quick look: Ten or twelve men of indeterminate age sitting on the floor, alternately intone melodies in a kind of falsetto that deepens at the end of each invocation. Furthermore, they play long-necked lutes, its sound reminds me from afar of Sitars. Few listeners have gathered. They sit on the floor, leaning against a pillar, some lie on cheap carpets under thick blankets.
To my left are Shiite tombs: three open pavilions made of white marble with slender columns, within which one or two sarcophagus-like structures are crowned with a symbolic turban on the subterranean resting places of the dead. All are covered or wrapped with fresh intense colorful cloths. An elderly dervish or pilgrim or beggar with full white beard and a green cap, sits motionless in front of it, dressed in a brown wool coat. Eventually he disappears, without me getting to see him leave.
The others from the group have already gone elsewhere in the huge sprawling complex. Anyway, I want to be alone, I prefer not to talk to anyone. Fortunately, nobody feels compelled to give me something like a guided tour - I might have maybe missed out on one. After I enter the large open courtyard between the various mausoleums, I move as if I have fallen out of the world, follow the unpredictable and inevitable impulses to go here and there. The interplay of black and white stone slabs, partially placed in a checkerboard pattern, blue and white tiles that cover the large parts of the walls with ornaments and inscriptions, the bright green pillars, the architectural counterpoint placed in front of the roofed corridors, overthrow the views from all certainties. The eyes wander here and there, do not stop anywhere, drift through incomprehensible orders, and are caught by the next grid. A feeling as if the ground under my feet would lose its strength, perhaps it is also my knees that have become soft, or my sense of balance has lost its orientation marks.
After Shah Latif finally settled here in Bhit Shah, a kind of village community formed around him, which included Shiite and even Hindu followers - this always caused unrest with the state-supporting Sunni clergy. As in almost all world religions, also in Islam, from the outset, the advocates of rigid obedience of laws and strict dogmatism were in permanent dispute with those, who regarded solidification and formalism as death of any real piety of the heart, no matter how much they may be committed to the truth. Shah Abdul Latif replied to the angry question of a scholar when asked whether he is a Sunni or Shiite by saying that he lies between the two. - "There is nothing in between," the questioner accused him indignantly, whereupon Shah Latif replied: "I am this nothingness."
When I finally stand in front of his shrine, neither thinking nor looking, nor hearing, instead trying to figure out the notations recited in similar places by the sheikhs beside me inspite of the confusion of my extremely slow thoughts, a man passes by from the right. He is likely to be in his mid-fifties, wearing narrow dark horn-rimmed glasses and a blue turban, as well as a scarf and coat, as worn by Turkish Sufis. Apparently, he is one of the local sheiks. In turn, he opens the ornate openwork wooden shutters of the tomb. His gestures are calm and determined. He had done this many times, however, no movement seems routine or even careless.
Inside the Maqams, a bright wonderful warm light shines. Under the roof, a deep blue starry sky stretches out. Two other men are suddenly standing beside me, I did not see them coming. One of them carries a silk cloth, hands it over to the Sheikh, who then unfolds it and invites me to place it on the high tomb structure. It lights up as green as a fresh meadow, embroidered with golden calligraphy and ornamentation. Neither I know why I can do all this right now, nor the significance of all this. We do not speak a common language so I cannot ask him anything. But if it were otherwise, it would not have changed anything, because either I would have forgotten the question or there wouldn’t have been any sense in asking it. The man with the turban certainly seems to have no doubt that everything is good and right- and I am not too concerned anyway!
Eventually I go ahead, the two assistants of the Sheikh close the doors of the shrine behind me. The music that fills the courtyard has become louder, and even if nothing is pleasingly beautiful about these sounds, one always develops an ever stronger, almost physically noticeable pull.
An elderly woman in a long ocher dress, with pink scarf, comes my way, her steps are uncertain, as she feels the unstable ground. She hands me a paper bag with sweets. I know from similar occasions, that one must accept and eat the food that is offered at Sufi shrines. I do not worry, I think if she expects alms in return, but she just goes ahead, while I am still looking for an appropriate sum to give as alms. The sweet cakes are of a perfect consistency between dry and juicy and taste wonderful.
Meanwhile, a few more people gather in the room with the singing dervishes. Mainly young men, two have held cloths in orange, the color of the Sufis used to hit the head. But there are also families with children among them, their belongings and baggages are tied in plastic bags kept beside them. Some listeners seem to have slept. Perhaps they are here only because the tomb is their abode. A new song begins, tentatively, I do not even know whether it's music, or voices or tuning of the instruments. Perhaps the idea of even intervening to find a difference between them is wrong, because ultimately it is about the experience that all reality inside is only one. Sometimes, it is definitely clear vocals, solos and chorus in unison with beaten rhythms that I don’t understand like the harmonies. Inspite of that, both sound familiar almost immediately, on a level that has nothing to do with cultural background. One of the singer spins black threads and offers one to Amar Sindhu who gives it to the beautiful young woman in front of me. Even here a bag with sweets makes the round.
I do not want to continue further.
So it must have been, that Shah Latif died on one night in 1752, surrounded by his singing dervishes. Legend has it that they did not notice his death for a long time - then they understood their obligation therein, and ever since, every night his students and their students and their students in turn come together until today to recite his verses and to sing his songs after the Islamic Isha prayer until morning.
We cannot stay today for so long. Meanwhile, it is well past midnight, the police have to go home.
(c) Christoph Peters 2016, Translation: Puriya Jamkhandikar Onkar
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