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Jhulelal and the Hindu History of Sindh

Written by Manahil Bandukwala

As mentioned in the previous article about Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, Jhulelal’s presence is just as ubiquitous in Sindh as a key figure in the culture, spirituality, and history of Sindh. As we drove along Karachi’s coast, we passed multiple restaurants named “Jhuelal.” There was an old local selling guavas who described the significance of Jhulelal in the region as a guardian of the river and the sea. He spoke about the annual celebration, Cheti Chand, dedicated to Jhulelal. It typically falls in late March or early April and is attended by Sindhis, Hindus and Muslims alike.

A Visit to Sri Laxmi Narayan Mandir

Hindu women in red at the Sri Lakshmi Narayan Mandir
Hindu women in red at the Sri Lakshmi Narayan Mandir

One of our visits was to the Sri Laxmi Narayan Mandir in Karachi. Claimed to be one of the oldest operating Hindu temples in Karachi at over 200 years old, it is located under Port Grand, a popular food street always bustling with people. The small temple sits tucked on the banks of the Arabian Sea under the Native Jetty Bridge. It’s one of the only temples where the Hindus of Karachi can conduct rituals related to the water, such as ritual purification.

We were greeted with smiles and some looks of confusion as we entered the temple to have a look around. Swatting flies, we sat under a massive image of Jhulelal, an old bearded man sitting on a fish. We watched the waves hit the edges of the temple, and imagined how hundreds of years ago the temple still stood without a busy food streets above it, multiple bridges crossing over, and the constant influx of garbage. Watch a video of the Mandir here. We marvelled at how those inhabiting the region lived at the mercy of the massive water bodies around them, the Arabian Sea and the Indus River. Yet, they sought peace with the trust that Jhulelal was looking out for them, guarding the unpredictable waters and the the vulnerable communities settled around them.

Due to rapidly increasing construction and development around the area, the temple undergoes constant threat of demolishment. In 2012, the Karachi Port Trust (KPT) had started construction work that blocked access to the sea. However this threatened the ritual practices of the Hindus living there. The local community filed a petition to the Sindh High Court, and an order was given to stop its demolition.

Who was Jhulelal?

Jhulelal as popularly depicted sitting on a fish on the River Indus
Jhulelal as popularly depicted sitting on a fish on the River Indus

We talked to musician Arieb Azhar about the famous song, “Lal Meri Pat.” In the song’s refrain, the line goes, “Jhule lal, Jhule lal, Mast Qalandar, Jhule lal.” The word “Jhule lal” means “swinging red,” popularly referring to the associations between Lal Shahbaz and his red cloak. However, Arieb pointed out that the term equally refers to the deity Jhulelal. Jhulelal was a water deity who was said to have emerged from the Indus River in the form of a palla fish. When Lal Shahbaz Qalandar travelled to Sindh in the 1200s, he did not define himself as Muslim (just as Jhulelal did not call himself Hindu). Lal Shahbaz’s stories became entangled with those of Jhulelal’s. “Hindus look upon him as their saint – their incarnation of the god, and Muslims look upon him as a Sufi saint,” said Arieb. While Muslims revered Lal Shahbaz as a saint, Hindus saw him as an incarnation of Jhulelal.

According to legend, in the 1000s, the region was under the rule of the Soomro dynasty. The Muslim leader Mirkh Shah ordered all Hindus to convert to Islam, threatening to kill anyone that did not convert. After much convincing from the Hindu population, Mirkh Shah gave them forty days before they would be forced to convert. Fearing for their lives, the Hindus prayed at the banks of the river to the god Varuna for forty days, and on the fortieth day Varuna told the people he would come down in the form of a baby born in Nassarpur. Their prayers were answered with the birth of Jhulelal on Cheti Chand (celebrated as the first day of the Sindh New Year). At his birth, Jhulelal the child turned into an old man, and was sitting on a palla fish, a fish indigenous to the Indus River. Once news of Jhulelal’s birth reached Mirkh Shah, he dismissed the idea that a child could pose a threat to him. He was confident that Jhulelal would convert to Islam, and then the Hindus who had prayed for their saviour would be disheartened by their god and would turn to Islam as well. However, Mirkh Shah still sent his advisor to see whether the prophecy of the Hindus had any merit.

To be on the safe side, the advisor took a poisoned rose petal with the intention of killing the child. When he reached Nassarpur, he saw Jhulelal and offered him the rose petal. Jhulelal blew the petal away in a single breath, and turned into an old man and back to a child in front of the advisor. Convinced, the advisor begged for forgiveness from Jhulelal, and related this encounter to Mirkh Shah. The Soomra ruler was still not convinced, and thought his advisor a fool for falling for “magic.” He demanded to meet Jhulelal at the River Indus. Jhulelal told Mirkh Shah that Hindus and Muslims just had different names for the same god and that the ruler was going against his own people by forcing them to convert to Islam with the threat of death. When Mirkh Shah still did not yield and ordered his armies to attack Jhulelal and the Hindus, Jhulelal sent tidal waves that flooded the armies away, and fires that burned Mirkh Shah’s palace down. After multiple failed attempts at Jhulelal’s life and witnessing his miracles with his own eyes, Mirkh Shah was finally convinced and pleaded for forgiveness. Jhulelal told him never to discriminate between his Hindu and Muslim followers again.

The glowing shrine of Jhulelal in Uderolal, Sindh. Photograph by Neilcave.
The glowing shrine of Jhulelal in Uderolal, Sindh. Photograph by Neilcave.

Now that his work was done, Jhulelal settled in Udero Lal, where the deity gave up his physical form. Following this, the Hindus wanted to build a shrine according to their rites, while the Muslims wanted to build one according to theirs. While the two groups were arguing on what to do, Jhulelal’s voice came down, instructing them to build a space that could be for both Hindus and Muslims. Today, Muslims visit the shrine in Udero Lal and offer prayers because they believe it to be the shrine of Shaikh Tahir, who was born as Udero Lal during the reign of Emperor Aurangzeb in the 1600s. This other version of Udero Lal was born a Hindu and converted to Islam after meeting a Sufi saint. We spoke to architect Dr. Masooma M. Shakir, who met with the caretakers of the Shrine of Udero Lal. “There are two caretakers of the shrine, the Hindus and the Muslims, who look over the different people who visit the shrine to pay respects to Jhulelal,” she said. Hindus offer pooja and Muslims offer prayers. “[Jhulelal] never defined himself as Hindu or Muslim.”

In a country plagued by religious, ethnic, and social divides, it was refreshing to learn about a joint Hindu-Muslim shrine.

A Fluid Identity

One of the things we found was that Jhulelal goes by several names: Udero Lal (meaning “the one who has sprung from the water”, Varundev, Dariya Lal (the Red River), Zinda Pir (the Living Saint), and Lal Sai. His most popular name, Jhulelal, comes from a story of his crib swinging by itself, hence the word “jhula,” meaning “swinging,” attached to him as a nickname. Varundev is a common identity in the Karachi area, as Udero Lal was considered a reincarnation of the Vedic deity Varuna, the god of the river. The Sri Varundev Mandir on the island of Manora in Karachi is devoted to the worship of the Hindu deity Varuna, including all of his reincarnations.

We spoke to Dr. Kaleemullah Lashari, an archeologist and historian, about Varuna and his temple at Manora.

The making of Varundev shows the seafarers that you will get khair from the river, however you have to stop and ask Varundev. Varundev (is kaayinaat ke taqleet ke iktidai aamil mai sai thai). Water was his element. Thirdly, in this gods evolution, he takes care of Poseidons character. He is the last water god going into Darya-e-Pir.

Dr. Kaleemullah Lashari, translated from Urdu to English
Varundev Temple in Manora Island
Varundev Temple in Manora Island

Historically, this three hundred year old temple protected fisherman and traders as they navigated the sea. However, due to tourism at the Manora Island, and neglect by the government, restoration and maintenance of this ancient temple has been a constant challenge. Poor repairs by unskilled workers using has caused damage to the structure, and the last puja to be held there was in the 1950s. Through the continuous efforts by archeologists Dr. Kalimullah Lashari and his team, and the support of the US Fund for Cultural Preservation, some restoration has been made in recent years, however upkeep and rehabilitation of such an ancient site requires much additional funds and work.

For Hindus, Jhulelal remains a figure that protects both the waters, but more importantly the minority Hindu communities in Sindh. Referred to Jhulelal, Udero Lal, Varundev or any other of his names, the spirit of this water guardian, minority protecting, ancient figure remains an undeniably important part of every day life for Sindhi’s in the region as well as the Sindhi diaspora.