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Sindh’s Cattle-Stealing Heroes and Satis

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Sindh’s Cattle-Stealing Heroes and Satis

The practice of erecting memorial stones to commemorate the heroic death of a warrior was widespread in the early medieval period in Sindh. One cannot say with certainty, however, when the first memorial stone or pillar was erected. Based on dated memorial stones one can safely say that they were in vogue in the 10th and 11th centuries.   

Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro

When people talk about Sindh’s tangible heritage, three or four sites are usually mentioned. Everyone knows Mohenjo Daro, the Makli Hill monuments, the Chaukhandi tombs. Some more aware people will even talk about Ranikot fort or the Jain temples. But as my work and journey through Sindh’s cultural landscape has shown, there is much more to explore and document.

I have been doing research on Sindh’s tangible heritage since 1999 when I was a student of anthropology at Quaid-e-Azam University. It has brought forth for me new dimensions to anthropology, heritage and archaeology of the province. During these years, I started writing on the lesser known religions which included Udasi panth, Naths, Puri, Giris, Prem Parkash Panth, Sevapanth, Gulabi panth, Daryapanth and the Kumari cult. I also discovered rock art sites, megaliths, and memorial stones in Badin, Mirpurkhas, Sanghar and Tharparkar districts. My recent book is dedicated to the subject of memorial stones. The book was published by the Endowment Fund Trust for the preservation of the cultural heritage of Sindh and comprises the outcome of 15 years of fieldwork in Tharparkar.

The journey

It was in 1999 when I first developed an interest in memorial stones. The first article that inspired me, was Romila Thapar’s “Death and the Hero” in which she discusses the hero and sati stones of India. Following in her footsteps, I tried to find similar monuments in Sindh. In January 2000, I went to Nagarparkar but was initially disappointed because I could not find any. Even my Hindu friends knew virtually nothing about the existence of these monuments. It was a year later, when I was introduced to Nawaz Ali Khoso by one of my friends that the landscape opened up. Khoso knew everything about Nagarparkar, its history, geography, culture and religion. It would not be an exaggeration if I said that he was a person who introduced me to the memorial stones of Nagarparkar. It was he who first showed me the memorial stones at Bodhesar. My subsequent years were spent in Tharparkar discovering more than 2,000 memorial stones in all six talukas. And I feel that there are many more to unearth.

Book-TitleThe stones

A memorial stone is either a cylindrical, square or rectangular upright standing stone with two basic parts: the carvings and inscription below. They were erected in the memories of heroes (Vir, jhujhar) who took part in a battle, fight, skirmish or scuffle and died fighting the enemy. They were also erected in the memory of women who committed sati on hearing of the heroic death of their husbands, sons or any family members on the battlefield. Memorial stones are considered anthropological data for a society as they shed light on their socio-economic, socio-religious, and socio-political events.

The practice of erecting memorial stones to commemorate the heroic death of a warrior was widespread in the early medieval period in Sindh. One cannot say with certainty, however, when the first memorial stone or pillar was erected. Based on dated memorial stones one can safely say that they were in vogue in the 10th and 11th centuries.  Memorial towers, pillars and stones are found in different parts of Sindh.

In Tharparkar, they are known by various names. Traditionally they are divided into eleven types: Pariyo, Gauchar Pariyo, Vir jo Jod Pariyo, Vanjara Pariyo, Loharti, Khambhi, Jaryo, Nishidi, Dagalo, Thesa, Chuca. Each of the local term has been explained in the book.

I have also discussed and theorized the role of a hero in Sindhi society. It has been explained that chivalry of Sindhi heroes was eulogized by both bards and Sufi poets. They narrated the stories of their gallantry, their weapons and their horses or camels on which they rode off into the battleground. They were protectors of family honor, community, village resources and cattle. They also fought against foreign occupation and were the first to raise a voice against tyrannical rule.

I have categorized these heroes into three groups. Those who died defending their cattle and community and village resources were called either vir, jhujhar sura or sarfarosh. Among these, the highest category of the hero was assigned to jhujhar who fought and lost his life in an act of heroism on the battleground. Jhujhars are the warriors who continue to fight after they are beheaded. According to Komal Kothari, jhujhar is a term which refers to those people who die a violent death and who later manifest themselves as restless spirits. According to Lindsey Harlan, who has also done research on Rajput satis and heroes, the Jhujhar may lose his head in battle or as a result of palace intrigue. To die fighting is not misfortunate, it is the goal of all Rajput warriors. Nevertheless, to die of decapitation whether on the battleground or at home is degrading: it violates the warrior’s physical integrity, which is inseparable from his moral integrity. Such humiliation can be erased by revenge alone. The abundance of sat (goodness, character) enables the jhujhar to survive the loss of the head long enough to avenge with interest the insult paid him. Before dying, he kills at least a few, and perhaps many, enemies. This revenge takes victory from the hands of his slayers and immortalizes his valor.

Memorial stones at Gartiari
Memorial stones at Gartiari

The second category of heroes included those who protected and retrieved their cattle from the enemy. Interestingly, both cattle-lifters and cattle-retrievers were equally heroes for their respective communities who celebrated their chivalry. The third category of heroes (sura) included those who fought against foreign rule. Sarfarosh, a subcategory of sura includes heroes were trained to ambush enemy camps.

All these heroes were commemorated with memorial stones, pillars, towers and tombs. Many monuments depict the hero fighting with cattle-lifters and enemy troops. Among three categories of heroes, we have a large number of those who either died in cattle-raids or on the battleground. Cattle-raiding was a frequent and favorite sport of heroes who demonstrated his power and bravery by stealing the cattle of rival tribes. Tribal elders took pride in the achievements of the heroes who stole cattle and composed poetry on their heroism which they demonstrated during the cattle raiding (looryun) and camel-lifting (wag).

Sati in Sindh

Apart from hero stones, there are stones which commemorate satis. The rite of sati is of uncertain origin and appears to have developed in India during the post-Vedic period. Though, there are instances of sati in classical epics, sati as a voluntary act appears to have slowly spread throughout India from the third century AD onward and became more prevalent and popular after the eighth century AD. Thereafter, sacred works increasingly advocated the rite as religious duty for women and a way by which the wife might even ensure salvation for both her dead husband and herself.

Satis in India have been commemorated in various ways, from preserving the imprint of the doomed widow on gateways to carrying their images on memorial stones and placing such pillars or stones within elaborate cenotaphs (chhatris) built to honor deceased rulers and their satis. Such memorials, whether dedicated entirely to satis themselves or primarily commemorating their deceased consorts are visible reminders of in the modern Indian landscape of an ancient custom which has continued to the present, despite being outlawed over 150 years ago. Sati has occurred in most parts of India, and the practice has been associated with all levels of Hindu society. Traditionally, however, the rite has been identified more with the upper castes, especially the ruling aristocracy, and in certain regions more than others. Rajasthan and Gujrat have become a major stronghold of the custom. The rite of sati was the norm of ruling families of Rajasthan and there are many accounts of Rajput queens and concubines following their lords to the funeral pyre.

Based on interviews with the Hindu community of Tharparkar, I classify sati in four types: In the first she acquired status of sati through her piousness and devotion to her husband (pativrata), in the second, she performed self-immolation with her husband and was called sati. The third was the woman who committed self-immolation either with her brother or son and was thus called satimata and the fourth was the one who committed sati for a cause such as protecting the community from invaders, against the occupation of their property and cruelties of a Thakur of the village etc. Such satis were called mahasatis in Tharparkar.

Memorial stones at Mokrio village
Memorial stones at Mokrio village

These satis are also kuldevis (family satis) of certain families of Rajput and other castes in Tharparkar. Sometimes, the term mahasati is synonymous for sati when the former acquired a regional cult. Some satis are only worshipped by certain families and the others by the whole community of a village. If her cult extends from family to community and to the whole region of Tharparkar, then they are also called satimatas irrespective of whether the act of self-immolation was with her son or husband. She then becomes satimata and thans or temples had been raised in her honor in different villages of Tharparkar.  The book presents a brief ethnography of 40 villages in Tharparkar where there are memorial stones. All of these stones are objects of veneration for the Hindus of Tharparkar who frequent them on various occasions. It is hoped that the research will be equally useful for anthropologists, historians, archaeologists, heritage managers and art lovers.

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Dr Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro - Sindh CourierZulfiqar Ali Kalhoro is an anthropologist and author of 12 books including ‘Symbols in Stone: The Rock Art of Sindh’, ‘Perspectives on the art and architecture of Sindh’, ‘Memorial Stones: Tharparkar’ and ‘Archaeology, Religion and Art in Sindh’. He may be contacted at: zulfi04@hotmail.com

Courtesy: The Friday Times Lahore