SAKHI SARWAR, lit. the Bountiful Master, also known by various other appellations such as Sultan (king), Lakhdata (bestower of millions), Lalanvala (master of rubies), Nigahia Pir (the saint of Nigaha) and Rohianvala (lord of the forests), was the founder of an obscurantist cult whose followers are known as Sultanias or Sarwarias. His real name was Sayyid Ahmad. He was the son of Sayyid Zain ulAbidm, an immigrant from Baghdad who had settled at Shahkot, in present day Jhang district of Pakistan, Punjab, and Ayesha, daughter of the village headman married to the Sayyid. Accounts ofAhmad`s life are based on legend and not many factual details are known about him.
It is said that the maltreatment he received from his own relations after the death of his father took him to Baghdad where he was blessed with the gift of prophecy by three illustrious saints Ghaus ulAzam, Shaikh Shihab udDin Suhrawardi and Khwaja Maudud Chishti.On his return to India, he first settled at Dhaurikal, in Gujranwala district, and then at Shahkot. At Multan he had married the daughter of a noble. In due course he became famous for his miraculous powers and soon had a considerable following.
This aroused the jealousy of his family who planned to kill him. Sakhi Sarwar got to know of their plans and escaped to Nigaha at the foot of the Sulaiman mountain, in Dera Ghazi Khan district, but his relatives pursued him there and ultimately murdered him in 1174. He was buried there and his followers built a shrine on the spot which subsequently became a place of pilgrimage for the devotees. Within the enclosures of the shrine are the tombs of Sakhi Sarwar, his wife, known as Bibi Bai, and of the jinn (demon) w^hom he had held in his power and who brought many miracles for him.
Near the shrine at Nigaha there are two other holy spots called Chorn and Moza, both associated with `All Murtaza, the son in law of Sakhi Sarwar. At Chom, an impression of the former`s hand was said to have been imprinted when he prevented a mountain from collapsing over the cave in which he had taken shelter.Nothing is known about the religious belief or teachings of Sultan Sakhi Sarwar. It was stories of his miracles and, especially, the protection he gave the animals that attracted many people to him.
He did not lay down any creed or doctrine for his disciples, nor any code of conduct or ritual. His followers commonly known as Sultanias thus had the freedom to retain their Hindu or Muslim affiliations. Hindus as well as Muslims visited the Pir`s shrine at Nigaha usually in locality wise organized groups called sang led by bharais, the drumbeating Muslim bards who acted as professional guides and priests at local shrines called pirkhanas. Members of a sang addressed each other as pirbhaior pirbahin (brother or sister in faith).
Their halting points on well marked routes were known as chaukis (posts) where the pilgrims slept on the ground. Devotees who were unable to undertake the pilgrimage to Nigaha went at least to one of the chaukis.If they could not do even that, they went to any other village on the route for a night. Those who could not go anywhere at all slept on the ground at home for at least one night in a year.
This ritual of sleeping on the ground instead of on a cot was called chauki bharna. The greatest number of visitors from central Punjab visited the shrine during the week long Baisakhi fair in the month of April. A month long fair was also held at Dhaunkal in Gujranwala district during JuneJuly. Other fairs were Jhanda Mela (fair of the flag) at Peshawar in November, and Qadamon ka Mela (fair of the feet) at Lahore in February. Another common ritual was offering of a rot, i.e. a huge loaf prepared from 18 kilograms of wheat flour sweetened with gur or jaggery weighing half that quantity, once a year on a Friday.
It was prepared by a Bharai, who took one fourth of the rotas offering, the remaining being consumed by the donor family and distributed among fellow Sultanias. During the time of the Gurus, many Sultanias especially those from Jatt castes in southern Punjab embraced Sikhism, though several of them continued to adhere to their former beliefs and practices.The travels of Guru Har Rai, Guru Tegh Bahadur and Guru Gobind Singh through this region brought a large number of Sultanias into the Sikh fold. But as time passed the Sultania influence asserted itself in certain sections among the Sikhs.
The Singh Sabha reform movement gaining strength in the closing decades of the nineteenth century attempted to counter this influence. In 1896, Giani Ditt Singh, the erudite Singh Sabha crusader, published a pamphlet Sultan Puara attacking the worship by Sikhs of the grave of Sakhi Sarwar or of any other saint or sufi.This was a common plank of the Singh Sabha and Akali reformers. But what ended the Sakhi Sarwar legend among the Sikhs was the forcible exchange of populations between India and Pakistan at the time of the partition of 1947.
Most of the Bharais, who were exclusively Muslim, migrated to Pakistan, Secondly, Nigaha and other places connected with Sakhi Sarwar being all in Pakistan were suddenly rendered out of reach for his Indian devotees. Even now pirkhanas marked by flags with peacock tail on top may be seen in some villages in the Malva area, but the number of the followers of Sakhi Sarwar has dwindled drastically.
1. Oberoi, Harjot Singh, “The Worship of Fir Sakhi Sarwar: Illness, Healing and Popular Culture in the Punjab,” in Studies in History.
2. Census Reports