AN OUTSIDER’S PERCEPTION ON SINDHI HINDUS
By Aileen Wortley
In this essay I should like to show how successive invasions of a wide variety of peoples have left their mark on the the culture of the Sindhi Hindus. This population traditionally lived in Sind province, once part of India, but now in Pakistan and it is the culture of these inhabitants, prior to partition in 1947, that is the subject of this essay.
In North America, there are approximately 8,000 Sindhi Hindu families living today. About 1000 families live in the Metro Toronto area and environs. Since my husband is a Sindhi and since I number as my friends, many Sindhi families, I am naturally interested in their history and origins. To be perfectly honest I had never heard of Sindhis when the name was first mentioned, but as I came to know representatives of the community better, I became aware that in outlook they seemed very different from other Hindu Indians I have known, and these differences intrigued me. For instance, as a group they seemed far more cosmopolitan in outlook, quick to adapt to new influences and did not seem so hidebound by tradition.
Gentle, easygoing and tolerant I compared them with some of my more traditional Indian friends from Maharashtra, Kashmir or Gujarat and wondered at the differences. This essay has given me an opportunity to examine their culture. Reading and researching has been like a jig-saw puzzle, as isolated facts and incidents related by friends were shown to fit into a larger pattern. Sadly the traditional life of pre-partition is no more. Sindhi Hindus were forced to flee their homeland at that time and in a sense have been a homeless people ever since.
Sind or Sindhu is the native name for the river known more popularly as the Indus. This river runs from North to South through the province of Sind and has by its position and function literally carved out three specific geographic areas. In the East lies the inhospitable desert, in the West the rugged desolate hill country and lastly the central fertile plains of the Sind, where most of the rich history of Sind has occurred. Rich and verdant, the plains area of Sind has always been able to satisfy the immediate requirements for survival and has proved tempting to invading peoples.
The boundaries of Sind are comprised of and include parts of present day Punjab, Gujarat. Rajasthan, Afghanistan, Baluchistan and Kutch. Although the mountainous and desert areas afforded a certain degree of protection from invasion, two trade routes enabled invading peoples to enter Sind which became known as the Gateway of India. These routes were as follows. In the North, that which extended from Kabul to the middle Indus basin, and in the South, that which connected South Iran with North Baluchistan and then led into the South Indus valley. Through these routes came invasions from Scythians, Parthians, Kushans, Huns, Iranis and Greeks and other ancient peoples. In addition various other peoples have left their mark on the culture of Sind.
To be able to understand this, it is important to be aware of the history of Sind, much of which is a story of continual invasion. It is now known that Sind boasts a civilization at least as old as that of Ancient Egypt. The archaeological remains of an advanced civilization believed to have been that of the Dravidians, a small dark-skinned people has been located in the Indus Valley. Two cities, Mohenjo-Daro, 180 miles N. E. of Karachi and Harappa, 400 miles N. E. of Karachi are believed to have existed between 2,500 and 1,500 years B. C. According to one theory these advanced peoples, whose urbanized culture was based on agriculture, were driven out by Aryan invaders from the West. They brought with them worship of the elements of nature and the Vedic scriptures which replaced the Dravidian worship of the Phallus and Shiva.
In the 5th century BC the Persian conquests of Darius and Cyrus occurred, leaving many traces of its art in that of the Sind area. In 325 BC Alexander the Great lured by the riches of the Sind area, conquered Sind, building bridges, towns and in the process looting, robbing and massacring thousands of native people.
Twenty years later, the Maurya Dynasty of Chandragupta took over the rule of the land. This dynasty was later renowned when Chandragupta's grandson Asoka became king and tried to unify the country of India. Since Asoka was a convert to Buddhism, Sind came under the influence of the Buddhist faith.
Between 712 and 1000AD the Muslem era began as the Arabs conquered Sind and held power for centuries, climaxing with the reign of Akbar in the 16th century who like Asoka before him wanted to see a unified India. The 1st Afghan war which involved the British occurred between 1839-1842 and at that time Sir Charles Napier annexed Sind to British India thus bringing it under British influence.
Inevitably each and every one of these invading peoples have had an influence upon the economic, cultural and linguistic features of the Sindhi, whether Muslem or Hindu. Somehow the Sindhi Hindus have absorbed into the melting pot of their culture many features of the diverse races and religions which penetrated Sind. Somehow they not only managed to survive attacks but to a certain extent benefitted by the assimilation. Its disadvantages according to Jethmal Gulrajani is that the Sindhi Hindus never built up an individuality in their culture which results from a concentration of forces. Their is no real clear-cut individuality in matters of religion or caste. Instead they are like blotting paper who have absorbed whatever comes their way and seems to be an expedient adaptation.
Prior to partition about 21% of the 20,000,000 population of Sind was Hindu. These Hindus were part of the great family of Lohano which is divided and subdivided into many branches. The divisions are basically those of occupation. The two main classes are as follows. The Amils or government servants, filled many appointments in the civil service. This conferred a status upon them which set them above others and was marked by a difference in attire. In the past they worked for Moslem rulers who often gave gifts of land in return. Thus they came to be small landowners known as Zemindars or Jageerdar. Under British rule these posts became administrative ones where they held positions as collectors and commissioners, highly respected by the British as well as the common man of Sind. The other large group of Hindus were involved in trade and commerce of various types. Sindhuvarkis established trading posts throughout the world and dealt in fabrics. Many were extremely rich and their women-folk were renowned for their richly dressed, bejewelled appearances. Shikapuris were bankers who carried on business throughout the Middle East and the Vanya were shopkeepers of all types. Sindhis themselves had no untouchable caste, which in other Indian societies did the menial work.
Various theories abound as to the exact origins of these Lohano. Connections between them and both the Dravidian and Vedic cultures are apparent in the forms of worship they still conduct. For instance some Sindhis still worship the God Varuna as did the Aryans whilst others still pour milk on the Shiva linga and worship the phallus as did the inhabitants of the Indus civilization. Another connection is the worship of the water god Uderolal. Most people believe therefore, that the Indus valley is the original home of the Lohano, although a small minority feel that they may be an immigrant group from the Punjab or Kutch because of the similar sounding names.
One of the most striking features of the Sindhi Hindus is their lack of emphasis on the caste system as of importance. This is in contrast to almost any other Hindu group in India. There is no doubt that it is this feature which gives Sindhis their distinctive and unusual adaptability and which is reflected in many aspects of their culture. Indeed, many Hindus regard the Sindhi as a rather decadent example of Hinduism because of his non-rigid traditions and have condemned their casteless sectarian approach, ridiculing his non-parochial behaviour.
The lack of Brahmins in Sindhi society is reputed to be a legacy of one of the invading peoples of Sind. Two stories are in existence. One states that when Alexander the Great came to Sind the Brahmins advised their rulers not to greet the Greek invaders. As punishment the Greeks massacred the Brahmin population. Another story states that in the 16th century Muhammad Bin Quasim defeated the Hindu King Dahar with the aid of the disloyal Brahmin subjects. When he came to power he executed these same Brahmins who had helped him because in doing so they had demonstrated their lack of loyalty. It is probable that the second story has more truth to it since in the 7th century, after Alexander' invasion, it is known that Brahmin's still wielded considerable power.
Brahmins in pre-partition Sind are likely to have been imported from neighbouring states to preside over ritual ceremonies . Those who do exist have lost their caste, few are experts in Hindu culture or intellectual pursuits and are generally considered backward by Sindhis. This of course would be unheard of in most other provinces of India. Because priests were not powerful, caste was not important and as a result many religious and social restrictions were absent. The problem of the depressed classes did not exist, there was less of a stigma attached to widow remarriage and child marriage was not a feature of their customs.
Hinduism renowned for its tolerance in religious matters is more than ever seen as such in the Sindhi whose religion takes in aspects of the many people who have lived in the Sind. The major religions of India are Sikhism and Sufism . The majority of Sindhi Hindus are Sikhs - followers of the teachings of Guru Nanak. These Sikhs are not to be confused with the Punjabi Sikhs. The Punjabi Singhs follow the tenth Guru Nanak whose influence led to the militarization of the Sikhs. Under this leader Gobind Rai, the followers received new names with the suffix Singh and swore to keep the five Ks - long hair, bangle, comb, shorts and a sabre. Since Nanak was the original leader of this movement and his teachings are still the essence of Sikhism, Sindhis do consider themselves Sikhs, but nowadays it is mainly the older generation who see themselves thus. One of my friends remembers that in his grandfather's time (probably at the turn of the century there was an optional custom for the eldest son to take the name Singh and to adopt the 5ks. The book listed in my bibliography by Gulrajani talks quite decidedly and emphatically about the Sikhism of the Sindhis.
It is he who believed that Sikhism found a strong foothold in the Sind because he felt that the existing Buddhist influence had paved the way. Buddha a kshatriya warrior never believed that Brahmins were superior to others. Buddhism itself spread easily in Sind because of the lack of orthodoxy occasioned by the absence of the Brahmin caste. It was because the beliefs of Guru Nanak emphasised the original spirit of Hinduism without the influence of Brahmins, combined with the best of Moslem faith, that Buddhism was able to spread quickly.
Other Sindhis worship a variety of other Gods but all are practising Hindus "staunch believers in the vast Hindu pantheon, worshipping Shiva, Rama, Krishna, Buddha, Guru Nanak and all Gods and Saints. Neither will he forget to give reverence to the Moslem Zindah Pir or the River God Uderolal". The worship of Uderolal, itself is an interesting subject. As mentioned earlier, it creates a tie with the early Aryan invaders of Sind. However other links may be established also.
Iran is derived from the word Airyan meaning land of the Aryans. Some of the old inhabitants of Iran as well as those of Sind had common beliefs and customs. Sindhis worship water with lighted lamps and Parsis of India (derived from the Zoroastrians of pre-Islamic Iran) worship fire and pray near water. New Year's day of both Sindhis and Parsis were traditionally celebrated on the banks of the rivers or shores of the sea. Many of their ceremonies coincide. For instance, the Parsis have a sacred ceremony for children where a sacred thread is placed around a child's neck. This co-incides with the Janiyo ceremonies of the Sindhis. Both throw lavish parties at ritual occasions to which hundreds of friends and relatives are invited. The Parsis believe the urine of the cow to be sacred whilst Sindhis have a calf walk in a place where a sacred ceremony is to occur. It is not certain whether Zoroastrians learned to worship the elements from the Aryans or vice versa. It could be that both had the same origin.
The other religion of Sind which some call a philosophy rather than a religion is Sufism. A Sufi is a saintlike humanist and it is said that in Sind, Sufism is to be found an harmonious blend of the finest values of the Vedantic and Islamic cultures. The tradition of Sufism is portrayed in a fine body of poetry and literature. Sufi comes from the word "safu" which means pure or clean. The birth place of Sufism is said to have been Persia. Sufism has been quoted as being a mixture of "Greek neo-platonism , Indian Buddhism , Zoroastrianism, Magian and Nestorian beliefs" Arabs conquered Persia in the 7th century and spread Islam there and so Sufism is associated with Islamic mysticism. However there are ties to the Parsis, in that wine is used for sacraments which is not a Moslem connection but a Hindu one from the "bhang" consumed on religious occasions. In any case there is much in this philosophy which relates to and appeals to the Hindu.
A culture is integrally related to its language. Without language there is no culture, without culture no language. Both naturally define each other. Just as the Sindhi culture is a mixture of customs and influences of other people so is the language. Sindhi belongs to the family of languages known as Indo -Aryan but over the 1000 years the Muslim influence has given a large number of Arabic words whilst the written character is a variety of Persian with necessary modifications of sounds peculiar to the language. The "strange phonetical sounds, untraceable grammatical structures and peculiar characteristics that baffle philologists" are all put down to the influences of invading peoples. Many books have been written about the language of Sind, far more than about the people, as I was unfortunate enough to discover, as I tried to write this paper!!
I hope that in some way I have been able to point out the tolerance and adaptability of the Sindhi Hindus. To a people who were so tolerant in so many aspects of their lives, the cry for partition along religious lines was unthinkable. That is not to say there were no political dissensions between Hindu and Muslem and that there was no religious or racial bigotry. However in general they got on well with a minimum of communal violence, as compared with other provinces of India. Both had access to each others homes and apparently a typical evening prayer would be "God's blessings on Hindus, on Moslems and on the rest". Sindhi Moslems celebrated Hindu festivals and showed respect to Hindu Gods while Hindus reciprocated in the same manner.
Understandably, under these circumstances, the reaction to a proposed partition here was different then elsewhere in India. Nevertheless Sindhi Hindus were obliged to leave their homes and property behind them and find shelter in India as they could. As a result the Sindhis were scattered throughout the sub-continent. As refugees they were received with unfriendliness by state and municipal governments. They were sent to camps which offered terrible conditions and were insulted by other peoples. They were labeled as smugglers, black marketeers and the significance of their property losses in Sind were belittled. Because they were scattered, they had insufficient numbers to obtain any political voice to promote their cause. To add insult to injury their language was not included in the list of accepted national languages when India's constitution was being written. This situation was not rectified until 1968. Each province was anxious to develop its own regional language and Sindhi had no chance of being nurtured.
Sindhis educated in India are obliged to study other languages to be competitive in the job market. As a result there is concern that the young do not learn the language and the attached cultural associations. Their distinct cultural identity has disintegrated and continues to do so. Their own social systems and customs became modified as daily life dictated the need to involve themselves in regional practises. Thus they take on new identities as Bengali Sindhis, Punjabi Sindhis etc. It is difficult to preserve their cultural and social links as they are weakened daily by associations with other cultures.
Sindhis do not have any place that they can call their own in India and the Sindhi Hindu therefore has been relegated to the same position as that of the wandering Jew although without the obvious persecutions. Ever adaptable, the individual Sindhi looks with regret on his lost homeland, but determines to do his best in adversity, to meet the challenges of a new environment. They have had much success in trade, commerce, industry and medicine. Nevertheless the identity they had through language, lore and literature is being lost daily. Through man's inhumanity to man the Sindhi culture faces extinction........