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The Legacies of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar

Written by Nimra Bandukwala

Watercolour illustration of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar by Nimra Bandukwala
Watercolour illustration of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar by Nimra Bandukwala

Who Was “Lal” ?

Having grown up in Karachi, the name of the Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar was not new to our ears. We had heard of the massive annual Urs (death anniversary) of Lal Shahbaz, and multiple mentions of him in music inspired by Sufi poetry.

However, when we set off to learn more about Pakistani’s folklore and folk stories, we were surprised to come across constant mention of Lal. What did a saint have to do with folklore? In our first interview, with musician Arieb Azhar, we learnt a bit about the history of this mystifying figure:

The thing about Shahbaz Qalandar, is that hardly anything is known about the actual saint. Most people say that his name was Hazrat Usman Marvandi. Marvand is a place in today’s Iran, so he was called Marvandi. He migrated to this part of the world. He had a little bit of his own poetry which was in Persian. All poetry and praise of Hazrat Ali. But he himself came to be symbolised as almost a patron saint in this part of the world. And somewhere along the way, his stories got mixed up with the stories of a Hindu deity, called Jhulelal.

Jhulelal is a deity who appeared in the form of a fish, in the River Indus. The palla fish. Some say that Jhulelal was an incarnation of Vishnu in Sindh. And then Jhulelal got mixed up with Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. So Hindus look upon him as their saint, their incarnation of the god, and Muslims look upon him as a Sufi saint.

Arieb Azhar

This revelation piqued our attention, and from then on we would keep an eye out for signs of Jhulelal the Hindu deity and Lal Shahbaz the saint. What fascinated us was how the historically accurate figure who lived in space and time was long dead, but the spirit of the mystical Lal or “Lals” was very much equally alive for Muslims and Hindus. We also noticed that combining two entities was not uncommon in Sindh, as this had been the case in other folklore as well such as the overlapping character of determined and strong Natar in the folktales of Moomal Raano and Mokhi and Matara’s. Whether “Lal” was Lal Shahbaz Qalandar or Jhulelal didn’t matter, as the revered entity of Lal was an amalgamation of spirits of the water bodies and the land. Lal existed in the liminal space between religious divides, between the Hindu and the Muslim, between the singular Allah and the pluralist Hindu pantheon.

Lal Meri Pat: A Song For a Nation

Coke Studio Season 10| Laal Meri Pat| Quratulain Balouch ft. Akbar Ali & Arieb Azhar

In the video on the right, Arieb sings the iconic song “Lal Meri Pat” alongside Quratulain Balouch and Akbar Ali. Their voices gorgeously capture and convey the mystical brilliance of Lal, a presence that envelops all of Sindh. We then discussed the popular line from the song “Jhulelal Jhulelal mast qalandar Jhulelal.”

While visiting a Jogi community in Tharparkar, Mistri Jogi and his musicians played the tune of “Lal Meri Pat” while snakes danced under the heat of the desert sun. We watched puppets dance to the songs tune in a performance by a local puppetry company in Karachi, Thespianz Theatre. As we continued travelling and learning about folklore from the northern province of Gilgit-Baltistan, we were ecstatic to hear the various versions of “Lal Meri Pat” on different instruments. Around a bonfire in Hunza we sipped chai while listening to a local musician play the song on the rubab, a lute-like instrument popular in the region. Singers all over the country, from Abida Parveen, Reshma, the Sabri Brothers, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan have sung versions of this song. It may do justice to call the song and the spirit is carries a cultural national anthem.

Although the origins of the song have their presence in Sindh, we wondered why the song was so popular throughout the country, despite the different cultures, traditions, and languages of the provinces. During his interview, Arieb told us that the songs popularity is relatively recent. In the 1970s, when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was in power, he used to play “Lal Meri Pat” at his rallies. Bhutto was a supporter of Shahbaz Qalandar, and the song became an anthem of sorts of the Pakistan People’s Party. Through the power of radio, television, and media, the song spread throughout the country. It has shed its association with Bhutto, but remains sung far and wide throughout Pakistan.

We asked Arieb about whether there are any issues with the same song being sung by pretty much everyone. His response was the following: “this thing about copyrights came about much later. It was never important whether you had actually penned something or whether you were telling it so forcefully that it made sense. Before, our folk musicians used to take one verse from here, one verse from there, add in a verse on their own, and it all became a part of a common melting pot of folk music.” 

Who Was the Qalandar?

Idealised image of the Qalandar (Photo via Museum of Ethnology, Munich)
Idealised image of the Qalandar (Photo via Museum of Ethnology, Munich)

Known as one of the greatest Sufi saints and poet in Sindh, he wore a red cloak (“Lal”), he was a holy man (“Shahbaz”), and a wanderer (“Qalandar”). Born as Hazrat Usman Marvandi in 1162, in Marvand, in what was then Iran, he came to Sindh and settled in Sehwan, in the northern part of the province. He died in 1274, at the age of 112, his shrine in Sehwan becoming one of the biggest and most revered Sufi shrines in the country. It is visited by thousands of people every day, both Muslim and Hindu.

There are numerous stories and descriptions of Lal Shahbaz told around the region. His face was said to have been glowing like a light. Some say he descended from Hazrat Ali. According to filmmaker Atiya Khan, he was called the Red Royal Falcon, because he appeared as a falcon during the Prophet Muhammad’s Miraj, his holy journey to the heavens. Lal Shahbaz refers to himself as a falcon in his poetry. In Atiya’s film, “The Qalandar Code,” she says that he settled in Sehwan because it was said to hold the mystery of the Mahdi, the hidden twelfth Imam in Shia tradition.

She describes a “Qalandar” as someone with a divine pulse, which is shared by everyone. Lal Shahbaz was carrying on the tradition of the Malamati and Qalandari Movements, which were based on divine love and were in opposition to the hypocrisy of Islam. In “The Qalandar Code,” Atiya says that Lal has come to earth many times, in the forms of Shiva, Jesus, Ali, and Adam (the first man). She describes him as “light, breath, Adam, faith, Quran, day, night,” as he symbolizes everything all at once.

Some of the miracles Lal was known to perform included healing the deaf and blind, resurrecting the dead, and feeding thousands from a single loaf of bread. These miracles share similarities with the story of the Prophet Isa, (known as Jesus in the Christian tradition). At Manghopir, an area of what is now Karachi, Lal once sat at a spot and meditated. A hot spring sprang up from where he sat, and even today the waters of the spring are believed to have healing and restorative powers. The Baloch people call the spring “garmaab” and “sardaab” for its hot and cold nature. The Sufi shrine of at Manghopir, located in the outskirts of Karachi, remains an important spiritual space for the community there, and carries many stories of its own. We noted, once again the intersection and collage of stories and lore that give spaces their spiritual and cultural significance today.

The Travels of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar

Still of a postcard of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, from “The Qalandar Code” by Atiya Khan
Still of a postcard of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, from “The Qalandar Code” by Atiya Khan

According to Farooq Soomro, a journalist, and Jürgen Wasim Frembgen, the director of the Munich Museum of Ethnology, Lal travelled to Makkah, Madina, Karbala, and Mashhad before coming to Sindh. In Karbala, he looked after the shrine of Imam Husain, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and an important figure for Shia Muslims. An apparition of Imam Husain ordered Lal Shahbaz to go to the Indian subcontinent. He travelled through the Makran coast, going through Karachi and Sukkur, before going to Multan, the then capital of Sindh. He travelled through a number of cities, before finally settling in Sehwan.

Once during his travels, Lal was praying in the desert. A wandering man came across the saint, and saw two sticks appear in the ground where Lal prayed. Lost in daydreams of becoming a king one day, the man passed between the sticks. He found himself in a city, and saw a large crowd gathered at the door through which he had entered the city. He inquired about what was happening, and found out that a king had died without leaving a successor. At that time, when such a thing happened, people set out a Huma bird to fly, and the king was determined by whoever’s head the bird landed on. The Huma bird landed on the man’s head. He became king and reigned for several years. During his reign, the king passed by the same door through which he first came to the city. Curious, he walked through it, and found himself back in the desert, Lal praying as he had been when the man first encountered him. Lal had sensed the man’s wish and granted it.

The Shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar

Inside the tomb of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, Sehwan (Photo by Ahmer Qureshi)
Inside the tomb of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, Sehwan (Photo by Ahmer Qureshi)

Lal’s shrine is in Sehwan, whose original name was “Seva-Wahan” or, “the abode of Seva.” Before the shrine of Lal, there was a Hindu temple of Seva (Shiva), where the town got its name. This is part of the reason why the shrine attracts many Hindus. At his Urs (the death anniversary of a saint), millions of people from around the country visit. The word “Urs” in Arabic literally means “marriage,” so the Urs of a saint signifies their marriage with the Divine.

An important ritual at the shrine in modern times is the daily dhamaal after maghrib, when a dhol player starts playing the dhol. People shift their weight from one foot to the other, moving faster as the beat of the drum and dhol increase. The movements during the dhamaal likely originated from Sehwan’s history as a sacred Hindu space. According to Frembgen, “Dhamaal appears to have been originally a ritual of mystical union with Shiva performed by the Pashupatas, a Shivaite school of ascetics.”

The shrine is also a welcoming space for vulnerable groups whose movement through society is generally policed. The outward expression of emotion, and the acceptance of publicly doing so through movement and dance goes against religious orthodoxy and patriarchal restrictions. However, supportive of Hindus, transgenders, and Shias, amongst many other minority groups, Lal’s shrine and legacy holds space for those cast off by society.

Through stories about Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, Jhulelal, and Sehwan, what we kept encountering was the constant spirit of love and acceptance that Lal carries. The “come as you are” philosophy sees shared humanity much before any differences in religion, class, gender or ethnicity. Through his poetry, his message, the stories he left in his wake, and the song “Lal meri pat,” it suffices to say that to learn more about the pluralistic entity of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar is to learn about the spirit of Sindh itself.