The legend of Sindh: Jai Jhulelal


‘Beyond Hindu and Muslim’:

Rethinking Iconographic Models and Symbolic Expressions in Sindh, A Case of the Tradition of Rama Pir1

By Sohail Bawani

Images, signs and symbols have always been significant intermediaries between the world and its representation before individuals. These images, signs and symbols portray more than just graphical facts, figures and forms; they are a means towards construction of human perception of ‘reality’: the ‘meaningfulness’ of the material world through the same (Lichty 2003: 1). Similarly, iconography, particularly portraying religious images, had played an important role in understanding and describing human interpretations about things beyond human imaginations, for example the matter of the creation of the universe.

The valley of the Indus River, since the time of its civilization’s peak and through local inhabitants and arrival of Muslims, including the Sufi saints, has been rich in its symbolic expressions and materials related to ‘image writing’; more specifically, within the context of the interaction between ‘Hinduism’ and ‘Islam’ in the Indian subcontinent (Khan 2004: 30). Moreover, not much has been written through the iconographic perspective about the cultural heritage in shape of sacred symbols among the various religious traditions in Sindh today.

With this perspective in mind, this paper is an attempt to explore the visual culture related to a devotional worship through a temple called Rama Pir or Ramdev Pir mandir, situated in Tando Allahyar, Sindh. The first part of this paper briefly describes different aspects of iconographic legends and symbols concurrently ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ in nature related to the famous charismatic figures in Sindh at present. This will be important in contextualizing the above visual culture in the broader context of religious traditions in Sindh. Moreover, the second part will take the tradition of Rama Pir, a Rajput prince-deity, as a case for depicting ‘syncretic’ (‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’) iconographic figure and symbol system. The third part will lead towards the main problem, by arguing as to what extent is it feasible to identify symbols and icons as ‘Hindu’ or ‘Muslim’ by taking the tradition of Rama Pir again as a case. Lastly, this paper will conclude by synthesizing the above part to draw some general principles on the same argument.

‘Neither Hindus nor Muslims’: Iconographic Legends and related Symbolic Expressions in Sindh, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar and Uderolal in Perspective

Richard Burton, in his famous account on Sindh has mentioned some Pirs revered by both Hindus and Muslims, in the portion in which he discusses tasawwuf, Sufism in Sindh (1975: 326). Among those Pirs he mentions Lal Shahbaz Qalandar and Sheikh Tahir containing both identities, i.e. as a Muslim Pir and also as a Hindu saint: Lal Shahbaz Qalandar as Raja Bharatri and Uderolal as Sheikh Tahir (ibid.). It is interesting to note from this observation regarding the names that perhaps it accentuated the perception of a community about a charismatic figure; which could be Muslim or Hindu.

It has been said that before the advent of Lal Shahbaz there was a Shivaite temple located in Sehwan in Sindh, where the shrine of this saint is situated. It might be an ancient pilgrimage center of the Hindus before the erection of the dargah (Boivin 2003: 7). Besides, a saint named Bharatri, an icon of ascetism in Indic traditions said to have been there before the arrival of the famous saint of Sehwan (Boivin 2003: 19); perhaps later became the appellation for Lal Shahbaz by the Hindus. On the other hand, it seems that association of Raja Bharatri, already a known character for Hindus, continued to exist in the form of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar later, as a Muslim Sufi saint. We may observe the impact of these parallel identities even after the demise of the saint-pir. For instance, a Hindu originated man called Lal Das came to Sehwan from Kashmir to pay homage to Qalandar and never went back (Boivin 2003: 13). A dargah of Lal Das was also erected after his death, who was buried rather than cremated. A small population of Hindus frequently visits this ‘Hindu’ shrine (Boivin 2005a: 316). Today, one of the most important rituals performed at the time of the urs (anniversary of a Muslims saint) of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar is the mehndi; an important element for the bride and groom in Indian weddings even in present times. It may come as a surprise that the mehndi ritual is performed by the Thakurs, local Hindu inhabitants, even before the proceedings of the sajjada nashins commence (Boivin 2003: 18-19).

The Indus has been worshipped since the earliest times in the form of water and light by local dwellers. Uderolal has been invoked as the incarnation of the river-god of the Indus and known under various names such as Khwaja Khizr, Darya Shah, Dulah Lal, Amarlal, Zinda Pir and others (Dawani 2002: 63-64). Popular poster art, available at local bazaars and temples represents Uderolal sitting on a fish with his white beard and mustache, resembling that of a Muslim Sufi saint floating on the River Indus. This iconographic description resonates with the continuation of the ‘river-cult’ in the Muslim era in the form of Sheikh Tahir and Khwaja Khizr; perhaps by those proselytes who still venerated Hindu sacred spaces even after becoming Muslims. This fact can be understood by the architectural structure of the shrine of Uderolal; situated in Hala, near the Uderolal railway station, Sindh. This shrine-complex was built under the supervision of the Mughals having Kashmiri and Persian importation of design (Dawani 2002: 67). This shrine-complex has both a temple and a mausoleum. A wooden Samadhi has been erected in memory of the river-saint including his image in the temple, however, no idol can be found. An oil lamp burns there regularly (Dawani 2002: 68). After this observation, one may ask, which structure is older, the mausoleum or the temple? We may propose tentatively the ‘Mughalization’ of the ‘cult’ of Uderolal after the advent of the Muslims. The restoration of the place into a gigantic structure indicates that the Mughals perhaps attempted to appropriate the spiritual heritage within the Muslim context: continuing the tradition of river-worship by associating a similar figure called Khizr, a wali2 related to the river and a famous symbol among the Sufis; who used to guide their disciples, those not having any formal relationship with a Sufi master, but on their way towards unification with the divine in various Sufi tariqahs.

The Tradition of Rama Pir in Sindh

Rama Pir is popularly known under the name of Ramdev Pir in the Indian subcontinent. In Sindh he is also known as Ramlo Pir; lo with Rama is an expletive rhythmic Sindhi suffix (Boivin 1998b: 28), and Pir, a Persian derivative to denote a saintly figure. Apart from these names, he is also venerated as Baba Ramdev and Ram Shah, probably referring more towards Muslim appellations such as Baba and Shah. It is not far away that at Runicha-Ramdeora, where the main shrine of this saint is located in Pokran, Rajasthan, in India, some Muslim votaries suspect him to be a Muslim saint; whose dargah, later on taken away by the Hindus, was transformed into a temple (Khan 1997: 64).

Present hagiographical accounts depict Ramdev as a Kshatriya Rajput deity-saint and an avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu-Krishna; who miraculously appeared in a cradle where his elder brother Viramdev was sleeping. His father Maharaja Ajmalji (King of Pokran) secured him through a sacred boon conferred by the Lord Krishna. The child was held in awe as he used to perform miracles since an early age. As the legend goes, he killed a demon called Bhero, who used to slaughter and eat the people of that area.

Khan suspects that the present form of the tradition is a transformed version due to many reasons and now turned merely into a ‘bhakti cult’ and a pilgrimage center in Rajasthan; which is a heterogeneous tradition from ‘mainstream Hinduism’ (1997: 62). However, she classifies Ramdev Pir as a guru or a spiritual leader of the ‘cult’ rather than the founder of the ‘sect’; and possibly connected with the Nizari Ismaili dawa: a highly organized proselytizing campaign of the Ismailis to propagate Islam that recognizes the right of authority of the Imams as their sole guide3 (Khan 1997: 60-96). The Ismailis are one of the important facets of Islam related to Shiite ideologies. An alleged Ismaili Pir called Pir Shams was actually responsible for initiating this tradition by proselytizing a lineage of Tanwar Rajput in which Ramdev Pir was an important figure, as the devotional hymns related to Meghwars, the traditional followers of Ramdev, have shown (Khan 1997: 68, 82-82) (Mallison). Ramdev, as a result, happened to be an alleged ‘forgotten’ saint of the Ismailis, who went back to ‘Hinduism’ later on; since Ismaili dawa perhaps could not be able to hold its vigor on the propagating reigns.

It seems that the tradition related to Ramdev Pir in Sindh is a recent phenomenon, not before the twentieth century if we are to consider Aitken’s (1986: 182) remarks on the worship of Ramdev Pir (Bawani 2006: 27). Before Aitken (1986) we are unable to trace any source informing us about this deity-saint. However, according to a popular legend, the tradition of Rama Pir in Sindh starts with his journey towards a place called Umerkot; a desert area of Tharparkar in Sindh, situated in modern day Pakistan. It is believed that he visited this place for his wedding with a Sodha princesses called Netal Devi; Sodhas are a famous tribe that ruled Umerkot around the twelfth century (Chanuriya 2005: 91-102). Historical sources do not conjure up any event like this, though they show strong martial relations between the ruling tribes of Sindh and Rajasthan (Allana 1995: 68) (Butt 2003: 94).

Currently, for the Hindus in Sindh, who are mostly the so called ‘untouchables’, the temple of Rama Pir in Tando Allahyar is one of the third largest pilgrimage centers. It is situated in the midst of the main bazaar near the railway station of Tando Allayar, approximately 20 kilometers from Hyderabad in Sindh, Pakistan. Every year at the time of the annual fair held in the first week of September, this sacred space attracts thousands of devotees who pay homage and visit in fulfillment of their vows. For the votaries, Rama Pir is a savior deity; who also cures every kind of ailment if called upon from the heart. For the staunch bhakt or devotee he is said to appear mysteriously when his followers are faced with a terrible situation.

He has been worshipped as a hero-saint and for the ‘low caste’ Hindu communities as a caste demolisher. More particularly so, due to the suppression of the upper caste Hindu and Muslim feudal, borne by the low caste which forms a considerable number of peasantry and field labour force in various parts of Sindh.

Iconography and Symbolic Expressions

The first impression of the figure of Ramdev is an idol installed in the mandir of Tando Allahyar, which appears more like a Muslim saint riding a white horse. Popular iconography presents him with his beard and mustache like that of a Sufi with a two-sided conical banner in his hand. Traditionally, idol worship is strictly prohibited. It may possibly be related to the nirgun principle: a concept of immaculate god in Indic tradition; or perceived as a Muslim concept of unity of ‘being’. It is however, in recent times that the popular icon of Ramdev Pir has been introduced in Sindh. Before, as some of the devotees suggest, it was only a lamp that was regularly kept burning inside the main areas of the worship.

One of the important symbols related to the tradition of Rama Pir in Sindh is the constantly maintained oil lamp inside the mandir. It is believed that the temple situated in Tando Allahyar was erected when an upper caste Khatri, after the fulfillment of his vow for a child, took this lamp from Runicha; where the main center of pilgrimage of Ramdev Pir is located. Lamps have been kept in all major shrines of the Sufis in Sindh as a sacred object. One is also kept in the shrine of Uderolal already discussed. Moreover, light itself is a popular element in various sacred traditions.

One will feel amazed to observe the building of the temple, which is again close to a structure of a shrine than a temple. Usually, temples of the Hindus have cone-shaped roofs with many of the icons and carved images installed on the walls and on the pillars. However, at the mandir of Rama Pir, arches or mehrabs can be observed from the front view of the temple. Mehrab is thought to be a common characteristic associated with the structural designs of the sacred spaces of the Muslims. Moreover, the use of Hala and ceramic tiles has given this sacred site a traditional Sindhi feel.

Another prominent symbol of the tradition is the foot-print (qadam) and the banner (dhaja). The foot-print is generally painted or woven in the speared-flag mostly accompanied with a crescent and a star. This flag or banner has been carried by the devotees in atonement of a vow. In the context of the Indic tradition, this foot-mark is supposed to be of the Alakh, the formless god of the Jogis (ascetics) or it belonged to Vishnu (The Nirgun Lord), (Khan 1997: 106-107). A similar foot-mark is also common among the Muslims, for instance, the sacred qadam sharif or qadam rasul can be found in Jerusalem that has been ascribed to the prophet of Islam, Muhammad (pbuh); whereas, an impression of his cousin’s foot namely Ali, the first Imam of the Shias, can be observed in the sanctuary dedicated to him near Hyderabad Deccan in India (Schimmel 1994: 3). Moreover, related to the speared-banner is the main alam or banner installed in front of the temple. It has been raised in veneration of Rama Pir at the time of the annual festival where all the devotees take part in the sacred flag ceremony. In the Shiite tradition, one may find a similar vocabulary of alam and a flag with palm and fingers on the top, referring to the numeral five for the Panjetan Paak: the five key figures among the Shias namely, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Hazrat Ali, Bibi Fatima, Imam Hasan and Imam Husain.

An Approach towards Rethinking Iconographic Models and Symbolic Expressions in Sindh: A Case of the Tradition of Rama Pir

The decisive principal thought behind the above discussion has continually focused: interaction between ‘Hinduism’ and ‘Islam’ on different levels; from sharing symbolic expressions to charismatic figures. Experts have tried to understand this phenomenon through different approaches and many theories had been proposed for the same. For instance, this interaction has recently been understood anew by the concept of ‘liminality’4 by Dominique Sila-Khan (2004) in the context of South Asia. The word ‘liminal’ emanates from ‘limen’ – Latin in origin – to mean a ‘boundary’ or a ‘threshold’. However, in the context of South Asia, she has used this concept to articulate the state of shared religious practices among the Hindus and Muslims; for example, rituals, formulas, literature, legends and even religious figures…a state of ‘religious identity’ that is ‘in-between’ and is difficult to draw a margin on to call something or someone a ‘Hindu’ or a ‘Muslim’. With this remark, we can argue the approach in which iconographies and symbol system has been interpreted. For example, what is the criterion that qualifies Ramdev Pir as a Muslim saint? His beard and mustache, which seems ‘Islamic’? Or does the title of Pir makes him eligible? More precisely, we may argue, if iconographic models or symbolic expressions are ‘Hindu’ or ‘Muslim’ in nature?

It will be significant to observe these ‘objects’ (signs, symbols and images) when they became ‘sacred objects’, i.e. a phenomenological approach towards them. In other words, these signs, symbols and images are more ‘cultural’ than ‘religious’. For example, the symbol of the foot-print associated with the tradition of Ramdev Pir and the Muslims is first a natural object, a stone. The use of stone is as ancient as human societies for conveying abstract meanings. Stones have been taken as signs of power and sometimes as eternal strength, perhaps due to the hardness and perpetuity (Schimmel 1994: 1). Moreover, in the Indus Valley, stones are prominent objects of worship related to the mother goddess in the form of rings (Jairazbhoy 1994: 9). The famous practice of worshipping lingum, an important symbol in the Shivaite tradition, is also associated with the stone (Jairazbhoy 1994: 12-13).

Similarly, flags or banners are supposed to be the developed form of rod or wand – which is again a symbol that is derived from the tree – widely used to satisfy superstitions and magical practices in primitive societies. Besides, it has also been thought to increases human power and used as a sign of guidance (Schimmel 1994: 29-30). However, a Peepal tree (ficus religiosa) has been a sacred object depicted in a seal found in the excavations conducted in Mohenjodaro, Sindh. The mother goddess can be seen sitting in its shade (Jairazbhoy 1994: 8). In Sindh, a Sufi master called Pir Jhandewaro (Pir of the flag’) has also been named after the flag (Schimmel 1994: 30).

The same can be said for the architectural design of the sacred spaces that are so-called ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’. Both derive their architectural heritage from neighboring cultures and civilizations. For instance, architecture associated with the Muslim societies is mostly influenced by the Christians, like the Copts or Mozarabs, Jews or the Armenians; who sometimes acted as material and cultural contact agents between Muslims and themselves, by means of commerce (Irwin 1997: 214). Similarly, temple structures in Indic traditions evolved out of the Stupas5, known in India since the first century BC, but possibly were more ancient than the suggested era of their identification. The Stupas were designed to be ‘seen as the image of the cosmos’, again symbolizes a universal phenomenon of encompassing transcendent ‘reality’ through a corporeal object.

We may now conclude that ‘objects’ remain the same but the ‘vision’ or creative imagination have made them abstract and appropriate for the respective ‘religions’, or sacred traditions which are at the core of every religion. And, every religion or sacred tradition internalizes the eternal ‘existential quest’ of human beings; personal search for some questions that transcends reason: to whom I belong? Who is the creator of this universe and how it works? They become ‘meaningful’ through various religious visions by materialization of the same through cultural items. Since, ‘…vision is implicit in culture’ but it is encapsulated into social and cultural practices; similarly, symbolic expressions and images are encoded values of the religious visions, more or less common in every human culture but they vary in their meanings.


1. The source materials (pictures and bibliography for example) used in this article were first presented in a conference at Alliance de Francasie, Karachi, on December 6, 2006: the first seminar, entitled The Cultural & Historical Legacy of Pakistan: Investigating Interpretations of a Regional Patrimony in Sindh. A study namely The Temple of Rama Pir: Some Preliminary Reflections related to its History, Architecture and Symbolism was presented by the author.

2. Literally a friend in Arabic, but in Sufi traditions, a friend of God; sometimes whose status assumed more than that of a prophet.

3. Ali is the cousin of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, for the Ismailis he is their first Imam and they believe in the continuation of the lineage to the present Imam: Aga Khan IV, popularly known to the Ismailis as Shah Karim Al-Hussaini Hazar Imam and as His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan in general.

4. This concept of ‘liminality’ actually derived from Victor Turner (1969: 94-130) which Khan (2004: 6) too acknowledges.

5. Stupa is a unit of brick and plaster hemisphere with a pointed superstructure.


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Courtesy: Nuktaar Mag

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