Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai (1689–1752) (شاھ عبدالطيف ڀٽائيِ) was a Sufi scholar and saint, and is considered one of the greatest poets 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 Latif is a most famous Sindhi poet and Sufi. He was not just adored for his poetry alone. People from far and near respected and loved this man as a saint, a Sufi and a spiritual guide. Not much is known about the early life of this noble son of Sindh from written records. Most of the information that has come down to us has been collected from oral traditions. A renowned Sindhi scholar, educationist, and a foremost writer of plays, dramas and stories, Mirza Kalich Beg, has rendered a yeoman service to Sindhi literature by collecting details about the early life of Shah Bhitai, from the dialogues that he has constantly held with some of the old folks, still living at that time, who knew these facts from their fathers and grandfathers for they had seen Shah Latif in person and had even spoken to him.
"The next day I sat down, and listened to the Story of the 'Vairagis.' Their salmon-coloured clothes were covered with dust. Their hair-bands were worn out. They had let their hair grow quite long. The lonely ones never talk to anyone about their being. These 'Nanga' are content and happy. They move about unmarked amongst the common folk." ........Shah Latif BhitaiHe was born sometime around 1689 CE (1102 A.H.) to Shah Habib in the village Sui-Qandar a few miles to the east of the present town of Bhit Shah (named after him), on Safar 14, 1102 A.H. ie November 18, 1690 CE. He died at Bhit Shah on Safar 14, 1165 A.H., ie January 3, 1752 CE. In his memory, every year, on 14th Safar of the Hijri Calendar, an Urs is held at Bhit Shah, where he spent the last years of his life and where his elaborate and elegant mausoleum stands.
Latif got his early education in the school (maktab) of Akhund Noor Muhammad in basic Persian (the government language at that time) and Sindhi (local spoken language). He also learned the Qu'ran. His correspondence in Persian with contemporary scholar Makhdoom Moinuddin Thattavi, as contained in the Risala-i-Owaisi, bears witness to his scholastic competence.
"Beloved's separation kills me friends, At His door, many like me, their knees bend. From far and near is heard His beauty's praise, My Beloved's beauty is perfection itself." .....Bhitai [Sur Yaman Kalyan]
The Urs is a grand affair in Sindh, where people from almost every village and town of Sindh - rich and poor, young and old, scholars and peasants - make a determined effort to attend. The Urs commences every year from 14th Safar (2nd month of Hijra calendar) and lasts for three days. Along with other features, like food fairs, open-air markets selling traditional Sindhi ware, and entertaining and competitive sports, a literary gathering is also held where papers concerning the research work done on the life, poetry, and message of Bhitai, are read, by scholars and renowned literary figures. His disciples and ascetics, singers and artists, gather around and sing passages from his Risalo. Scholarly debates and exhibitions of his work and traditional Sindhi artefacts are also organised.
"Sleeping on the river's bank, I heard of Mehar's glory, Bells aroused my consciousness, longing took its place, By God! fragrance of Mehar's love to me came, Let me go and see Mehar face to face." .....Bhitai [Sur Suhni]
Shah Abdul Latif's lineage has been traced back directly to Muhammad, through Imam Zain-ul-Abideen, son of Imam Hussain, grandson of the Prophet. His ancestors had came from Herat in Central Asia, and settled at Matiari. Shah Abdul Karim 1600 CE, whose mausoleum stands at Bulri, about 40 miles from Hyderabad, a mystic Sufi poet of considerable repute, was his great, great grand father. His verses are extant and his anniversary is still held at Bulri, in the form of an Urs.
Shah Latif's father, Syed Habib Shah, lived in Hala Haveli, a small village, at a distance of about forty miles from Matiari and not far from the village of Bhitshah. Later he left this place and moved to Kotri, where Shah Latif spent some part of his adolescent life.
Early education of the poet did not exceed what the village school curriculum could provide. His first teacher was Noor Muhammad Bhatti Waiwal. Mostly, Shah Latif was self-educated. Although he has received scanty formal education, the Risalo gives us an ample proof of the fact that he was well-versed in Arabic and Persian. The Qur'an, the Hadiths, the Masnawi of Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, along with the collection of Shah Karim's poems, were his constant companions, copious references of which have been made in Shah Jo Risalo.
In appearance, Bhitai was a handsome man, of average height. He was strongly built, had black eyes and an intelligent face, with a broad and high forehead. He grew a beard of the size of Muhammad's beard. He had a serious and thoughtful look about himself and spent much time in contemplation and meditation, since he was concerned about his moral and spiritual evolution with the sole purpose of seeking proximity of the Divine. He would often seek solitude and contemplate on the burning questions running through his mind concerning man's spiritual life:
Although he was born in favoured conditions, being the son of a well-known and very much respected Sayed family, he never used his position in an unworthy manner, nor did he show any liking for the comforts of life. He was kind, compassionate, generous and gentle in his manner of speech and behaviour which won him the veneration of all those who came across him. He had great respect for woman, which, unfortunately, the present day Sayed's and Vaderas (the landlords) do not have, and he exercised immense reserve in dealing with them, in an age when these qualities were rare. He hated cruelty and could never cause physical pain to any man or even to an animal. He lived a very simple life of self-restraint. His food intake was simple and frugal, so was his dressing which was often deep yellow, the colour of the dress of sufis, jogis, and ascetics, stitched with black thread. To this day, his relics are preserved at Bhitsah (where his mausoleum stands), some of which include a "T"-shaped walking stick, two bowls, one made of sandal-wood and another of transparent stone, which he used for eating and drinking. His long cap and his black turban are also preserved.
"Cloud was commanded to prepare for rain, Rain pattered and poured, lightning flared. Grain hoarders, hoping for high prices, wring their hands, Five would become fifteen in their pages they had planned. From the land may perish all the profiteers, Herdsmen once again talk of abundant showers, Latif says have hope in God's blessed grace." ......Bhitai [Sur Sarang]
In quest of religious truths, Shah Bhitai travelled to many parts of Sindh and also went to the bordering lands. He kept himself aloof from the political scene of favouritism and intrigues which was going on at the height of the power and rule of Kalhoras in Sindh. Instead of visiting towns and cities, in political canvassing, to serve the purpose of the rulers and elite of the land, though he was much respected by the members of the dynasty and could have benefited from it, he went to hills, valleys, the banks of river, and the fields, where he met the ordinary simple people, the sufis (mystics). He went to the Ganjo Hills in the south of Hyderabad for contemplation, and then to mountains in Las Bela in the south of Sindh and Balochistan. For three years, he travelled with these jogis and sanyasis, in search of the truth, peace, and harmony, to Hinglay, Lakhpat, Nani at the foot of the Himalayas and to Sappar Sakhi. At several places in the Risalo, mention has been made of these jogis and of his visits to these wonderful, holy and peaceful places. The two surs, Ramkali and Khahori, describe them under various endearing names and a detailed account of the jogis' lifestyle is given. He also travelled to such far away places as Junagardh, Jesalmere and parts of the Thar desert.
"In deserts, wastes and Jessalmir it has rained, Clouds and lightning have come to Thar's plains; Lone, needy women are now free from care, Fragrant are the paths, happy herdsmen's wives all this share." ..........Bhitai [Sur Sarang]
By the time he was a young man of twenty one years, he began to be known for his piety, his ascetic habits and his absorption in prayers. Observation and contemplation were chief traits of his character. A number of people flocked round him adding to the already large number of his disciples. This aroused jealousy of some powerful, ruthless, tyrannical persons - landlords, Pirs, Mirs, and Rulers - who became his enemies for some time. Later, seeing his personal worth, and the peaceful and ascetic nature of his fame, abandoned their rivalry. At this time he was living with his father at Kotri, five miles away from the present site of Bhitshah. It was here that his marriage was solemnised in 1713 CE with Bibi Sayedah Begum, daughter of Mirza Mughul Beg. She was a very virtuous and pious lady, who was a proper companion for him. The disciples had great respect for her. They had no children.
In the true ascetic spirit, Shah Latif was now in search of a place where in solitude, he could devote all his time in prayers and meditation. Such a place he found near Lake Karar, a mere sand hill, but an exotic place of scenic beauty, four miles away from New Hala. This place was covered by thorny bushes surrounded by many pools of water. It was simply and aptly called 'Bhit' (the Sand Hill). On the heaps of its sandstones he decide to settle down and build a village. As it was sandy, he along with his disciples dug out the hard earth from a distance and covered the sand with it to make the ground firm. After months of hard labour, carrying the earth on their heads and shoulders, the place was now fit enough for the construction of an underground room and two other rooms over it, along with a room for his old parents. A mosque was also built and the houses of his disciples properly marked out. In 1742, whilst he was still busy setting up a new village, Bhit, he got the sad news of the death of his dear father.. Soon after this Shah Latif shifted all his family members from Kotri to Bhitsah, as the village now began to be called. His father was buried there, in accordance to his will, where his mausoleum stands only eight paces away, from that of Shah Abdul Latif, towards its north.
For the last eight years of his remarkable life, Shah Latif lived at Bhitshah. A few days before his death, he retired to his underground room and spent all his time in prayers and fasting, eating very little.
"Laggi Laggi wa'a-u wiarra angrra latji, Pa-i kharren pasah-a pasand-a karrend-i pirin-a jay." ......Bhitai "Wind blew! The sand enveloped the body, Whatever little life left, is to see the beloved."After 21 days in there, he came out and having bathed himself with a large quantity of water, covered himself with a white sheet and asked his disciples to sing and start the mystic music. This went on for three days continuously, when the musicians, concerned about the motionless poet, found that his soul had already left for its heavenly abode to be in the proximity of the Beloved for who he had longed for, all his life, and only the body was there. He suffered from no sickness or pain of any kind. The date was 14th Safar 1165 Hijra corresponding to 1752 CE. He was buried at the place where his mausoleum now stands, which was built by the ruler of Sindh, Ghulam Shah Kalhoro. His name literally means 'the servant of the Shah'. He, along with his mother, had adored and revered Shah Latif and were his devoted disciples. The work of the construction of the mausoleum was entrusted to the well-known mason, Idan from Sukkur. The mausoleum, as well as the mosque adjoining it, were later repaired and renovated by another ruler of Sindh, Mir Nasir Khan Talpur. A pair of kettle drums, that are beaten every morning and evening even till today by the fakirs, jogis and sanyasis, who frequent the mausoleum, were presented by the Raja of Jesalmeer.
"Korren kan-i salam-u achio a'atand-a unn-a jay." "Countless pay homage and sing peace at his abode."
"Tell me the stories, oh thorn-brush, Of the mighty merchants of the Indus, Of the nights and the days of the prosperous times, Are you in pain now, oh thorn-brush? Because they have departed: In protest, cease to flower. Oh thorn-brush, how old were you When the river was in full flood? Have you seen any way-farers Who could be a match of the Banjaras? True, the river has gone dry, And worthless plants have begun to flourish on the brink, The elite merchants are on decline, And the tax collectors have disappeared, The river is littered with mud And the banks grow only straws The river has lost its old strength, You big fish, you did not return When the water had its flow Now it's too late, You will soon be caught For fishermen have blocked up all the ways. The white flake on the water: Its days are on the wane." ......Bhitai [translated by Prof. D. H. Butani (1913-1989) in The Melody and Philosophy of Shah Latif