Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai – [1689-1752]
Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai (1689–1752) (Sindhi: شاھ عبدالطيف ڀٽائيِ), was a Sufi scholar and saint, and is considered as the greatest poet of the Sindhi language. He settled in the town of Bhit Shah in Sindh, Pakistan. His most famous written work is the Shah Jo Risalo. His shrine is located in Bhit and attracts hundreds of pilgrims every day.
Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai was born in the small village of Bhit [ the mound] about 150 miles north of Karachi . His Urs is held every year between the 13th and 15th of Safar , the second Islamic lunar month.
Shah Latif can be said to be the soul of Sindh. He was a great saint , a nationalist , a humanist and a poet whose stature is perhaps on par with the great poets of the world [Byron, Keats , Selley, Neruda, Rilke, Rimbaud, etc ]. Just as the Elizabethan period [ 1500-1700] is known more for Shakespeare than for the empire-builders as Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake [whose plunder of the Spanish gold armadas earned him the knighthood from the Queen] , so the Kalhora period of Sindh history [ which managed to withstand Nadir Shah’s invasion of Delhi in 1739] will be remembered more for Shah Latif’s poetry.
The Kalhoras period during which Shah Latif lived ,was a period of great prosperity and the towns of Thatta and Hyderabad thrived under the good governance [low taxes, canal irrigation , textiles] of the Kalhoras who were originally ruling the north of Sindh near Sukkur. The East India Company described Thatta “as large as London” ; International commerce gave Thatta its prominence with textiles exports and 4000 ships & boats and 400 schools. The Kalhoras were to squeeze out the Sammas and the Soomros who ruled the southern parts of Sindh. The great romance of Sasui-Punhu was born in the Sammas period [ 1300- 1500] and which Shah Latif later made the subject of his Surs.
“Shah Jo Risalo” the message of Shah
His poetry was first translated into German in 1866 [a hundred years after his death] by Ernest Trump a German scholar and missionary when in 1860’s he became fascinated by Sindhi language and culture and the jogis and singers who sang Shah Latif’s verses [ganj]. With the help of Sindhi scholars he compiled a selection of the original verses and called it “Shah Jo Risalo” [the message of Shah].
Later in 1940, D.H. Sorley an English scholar learnt Sindhi, and published selections from the Risalo by the Oxford University Press entitled “Shah Abdul latif of Bhit – His Poetry,Life and Times”.
The most recent work [ 1994], from which most of the translations given here are taken from , is that of Amena Khamisani a professor in English Literature at the Sindh University.
Much of Shah Bhitai’s poetry expresses the individual seeking for God in terms of well-known ballads and the negation of the ego. In Islamic tradition the seeker and the sought are both males. Shah following the Indian tradition made his individual a female. Shah’s heroine’s come mainly from the lower strata than the heroes, and yet they outshine the men. The divine is the beloved , with the feminine form associated with earth fertility, nurture, wisdom, and intuition and the masculine with rationality an logic.
The Surs of Shah Jo Risalo
The word ” Sur” means a mode of singing .In all there are 30 Surs in Shah Jo Risalo. In Indian classical music, its ” Rag” and Raginis” are sung at different times of day and night. In Risalo the Surs are named according to their subject matter . The underlying theme is how the individual is to cultivate the godly attributes, negate his ego so as to evolve to a better human being.
Bhitai art is “impressionistic” . He uses the plight of the poor, the peasantry, the fisherman, the weavers, and the helpless needy women in his work. The ancient folklore names of his stories and episodes such as Sasui , Marvi, Sohni , Bilawal become the means by which he attains his end – namely that of the evolution of better human beings in society. In many verses the virtues of patience and the evils of arrogance , anger are stressed
Examples of the Surs :
— “Sur Hussaini” glorifies the martyrdom of Hasan and Hussain.
— “Sur Samundi” sings of the trading traditions of Sindh. The Monsoons are over and the sailors get ready to catch the receding monsoon winds. Shah gives this poetry a metaphor of worshipping the “Deep” sea [God] if one is to gain rubies and pearls.
— “Sur Ramkali” is devoted to Yogis/ Jogis, ” they carry nothing , not their ego, …. Shah Latif says : ” Sorrows are the ornament of joys; I have no use for joys unmixed with sorrows…. don’t follow the well beaten path ; people float downstream , you should swim upstream..”
— ” Sur Sarang” is an cry and ode for the Monsoon Rains in the parched Sindh countryside ,
— “Sur Sasui” is on the tragedy of Sassi and her lover Punhu,
— ” Sur Bilawal” sings of the golden period in Sindh under the Sammas and the tragedy of Bilawal a liberal scion of the royal , who was killed [ crushed in an oil press] by the fanaticism of the orthodox Sammas.
Look at the weavers,
delicate is their love,
they join every day,
and learn not to part.
Sufi is not limited by religious bounds,
He discloses not the war he wages in his mind,
Helps and assists those who with him fight.
[ Sur Yaman Kalyan]
” Go not far , sasui , nor give up the quest,
walk not with your feet, yet sit not quite content,
All connection with joys of life snap,
Walk with your heart , that the journey may soon end.
[ Sur Sasui ]
Shah Latif’s Sasui-Punhu [ a tragic romance of the Sammas period 1250-1350.]
Sasui was born in a Brahmin family ; because her horoscope indicated that she was destined to marry an alien ,her father floated her in a wooden box down the Indus river. A washerman at Bambhore [ re; the folk song “mera lutta -e shehar Bhambore nee … singer Dr. Amjad ] found her and being childless adopted her. Because of her beauty her name was Sasui, Sindhi for moon [ in Sanskrit “Sashi” ]. Her beauty’s fame grew far and wide such that it attracted a merchant prince of Mehran, Baluchistan. It was mutual love at first sight. Punhu marries Sasui , refuses to be a trader and settles down in Bhambore to become a washerman. On hearing this news , Punhu’s father turns furious and sends his other two sons , who drug Punhu and take him away while Sasui sleeps. Sasui wakes up to find Punhu gone, starts walking barefoot in her search for Punhu. A shepherd on the way views her with a leery eye. Sasui prays to mother earth to protect her honour and the earth open up to end her life. Punhu meanwhile recovers and escapes back to Bhambore only to find Sasui dead. He too meets the same end and is thus united with sasui in death.
“Sun sets , Sasui weeps tears of blood,
No messenger , no traveler from whom to ask of that place,
Confused she remains , but does not think of going back.”
[ Sur Sasui Abri]
The poetry has descriptions of how all the birds and animals in the desert were saddened by Sasui’s tragedy . Shah Latif’s compassion was such that one story relates to his adoption of two puppy dogs who were abandoned . He called them “moti” [pearl] and “khenu”” [a ball] . These two dogs followed him around his travels with the fakirs and jogis in Sindh.he had adopted
Shah Latif’s Suhni – Mehar : [a tragic romance of the Sammas period 1530-1550]
The Arghun great descendants of Genghis Khan were pushed out of Kandhar by Babar and descended on Sindh around early 1520 and were assimilated into the Sindhi culture. The Arghuns defeated the Sammas . The Sammas are believed to be originally J/Yadavas Rajputs who settled in Gujarat after the early [ 900 AD ] Arab invasion and later drifted back into Sindh and fought the Khiljis alongside the Soomros. When later peace was made, the result was that the Hindu chiefs of lower Sindh lost power. For a while Sindh was shared between the Arghuns and the Tarkhan. Humayaun married an Arghun Sindhi girl Hamida Banu at a village Patt in Sindh in 1541 and Rana Birsal of Amarkot gave shelter to Humayun. Here Akbar was born on October 15, 1542. Isa Khan Arghun in 1655 invited the Portuguese for help against the local tribes. Thatta was sacked. It is in this period of darkness that the episode of Suhni -Mehar is set in .
The story here that Shah Latif’s poetry sings of is the tragedy of Suhni [the beautiful one ] – it is also known in Punjab as Sohni – Mahiwal . Sohni is the daughter of Tula, a potter of Shadapur . Izzat Beg a merchant-prince of Bokhara , falls in love with Sohni. . He forgets his business and Bokhara and settles down as a buffalo-herd by the name of Sahir across the river .Every night Sohni would swim across on her pitcher till one day her angry and jealous sister in-law replaced the baked pitcher with an unbaked one. As Sohni enters the river the pitcher melts and Sahir hearing her cries also jumps in to save her , and both meet a watery grave.
The Last days of Shah
The history books claim that sometime before his death, Shah threw the manuscripts of his works into the Karar lake near his village of Bhit [ the mound/ rock ]. His reason for doing so was that his people may not understand the main theme of messages. However his disciples had some older copies of his work. and it was the mainly through the efforts of a lady by the name of Mai Miamat, a disciple, who had memorised a lot of his verses. Thus by her singing the verses, his disciples were able to record his messages.
It is said that Shah longed to perform a pilgrimage to Karbala [ the site where Hasan & Hussain were martyred ]. As he went to Kutch to board a ship for the journey, a pious man met him and said : ” O saint you have always said that Bhit will be your burial place “. At this remark , Shah went back to Bhit .
It is said that he donned black garments and went into seclusion for 20 days , composing “Sur Kedaro” a serious ballad about resisting tyranny and about the eternity of spirit and the mortalness of the body. After this he sang “Sur Suhini” [ kahirre manjhi hisaaba – on what count am I here ].
Shah Latif asked the jogis and the fakirs to play music and sing . He died after three days on 22 December 1751. The only worldly possessions he left behind were a patched cloak, a quilt and a begging bowl.