Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Tomb of Seven Virgin Sisters.

In the city of Sukkur, rising from the middle of River Indus, overshadowed by the massive steel railway bridge, lies the mound called by the local people Sat bahan jo asthan or Satbahain jo maskan, the resting or ‘living’ place of Seven Sisters.

It is also popularly called Satian jo asthaan (the home of seven virgins). If it is day time, then you will find the cave like hall, dug out of the mound, crowded with women. These distressed souls come from places, far and wide, to seek the blessings of the saintly ‘Seven Sisters’, in the hope that their problems will be solved. And judging from the number of women pilgrims daily, their prayers must be getting positive response to attract them in such large numbers.

It is a strange place. No impressive mausoleum like those of other saints of Sindh, but just an empty cave. There are no graves, no epithaps, no inscriptions, no engravings, just some prayer mats and copies of the Holy Quran. This is how the cave was, a secluded hiding place, when the ‘Seven Virgins’ took shelter here to save their honour from drunken soldiers. It is a female only shrine, no males are allowed inside.

Like all folklores, the story of the seven sisters has many variations. The most commonly accepted version is that these were seven pious women, probably of Arab origin. They came to Sindh, along with a caravan of Arab traders during the reign of Raja Dahir. They had camped on the hillock, rising out of River Indus. As the story goes, their camp was attacked by soldiers of Raja Dahir with the evil intention of dishonouring them. One version says that to save their honour, they drowned after jumping into the River Indus.

Another version has it that the women were fleeing from the drunken soldiers of Raja Dahir, whose capital, Arore, was situated only about twenty kilometres away. They took refuge in the cave. Seeing the soldiers close in on them, they beseeched Allah to protect them against the dishonour. Allah listened, and the “hillock” caved in on them burying them alive.

Yet another version goes that the sisters were local pious women, who had taken vows never to show themselves to any man and had locked themselves, in complete seclusion, inside the cave. A licentious local ruler decreed that all beautiful girls be sent to him. To save their honour, the seven women committed suicide. According to yet another version their death took place when their abode was swallowed up in the debris fallout during an earthquake.

Anyway, despite the variants in the folklore, the central point remains that these were pious women who preferred death to disgrace. The story of their sacrifice spread far and wide and in no time the place and the place turned into a holy sanctuary for women only, as the seven virgins did not allow men to come in. It was here that Allah had answered the prayers of the Seven Virgins and now with their saintly blessings He answers the prayers of other women in distress.

Last month, while visiting Sukkur in connection with a Pakistan Press Foundation / Unesco Journalism Training Workshop for Women, the three member instructors team from Karachi, Samina Ishaque and Musawar Shahid visited the shrine. Located in the vicinity of Rohri Railway Station, one has to ascend narrow winding steps to climb to the top of the mound. The official caretaker of the site, Imdad Ali Jatoi took us around and like a well informed professional guide, explained to us the history of the cave.

A little further up on the mound, is a historic Mughul era graveyard, which has been mentioned in British travellers accounts. More details are available in a book written by the well known Sindhi research scholar Bader Abro. According to him, the graves are of Khan Zaman Amir Abul Qassim, the Moghul governor of Bakkhar (the old name of Sukkur) and members of his family. Abul Qassim was very fond of this picturesque hillock, offering panoramic view of mighty River Indus and often organised poetry and music functions here.

The graves are in the Mughal style of architecture, similar to those found in Thatta. It is believed the artisans who worked at Makli at Thatta, were also employed in building of these graves. The grave of Abul Qasim is bigger than all the others. Details of his life and deaths, in Persian verse, along with Quranic verses, are inscribed on the tomb stones. On one side of the graves stands the mosque called the Jamia Akbari, named after Emperor Akbar, built in 1584. Having ravaged by the test of time and despite repeated repairs, the mosque today stands in ruins.

Due to their historic importance, and their scenic location, the graves of the Moghul Governor and his family also, daily attract a large number of tourists daily. They visit the mound and enjoy the panoramic view of River Indus from this vantage point, often staying there for picnics when the weather is good.

But nothing can match the spiritual dedication of the women visitors to the abode of the Seven Virgins where they spend whole days praying and pleading for saintly blessing to solve their personal and family problems. The fact that the simple cave shrine attracts such a large number of women from far off places everyday, speaks for their firm faith. They ‘know’ that their prayers will be answered by Allah, as He answered the prayers of the Seven Virgins.