So, Ali Sher Thattvi’s book Tuhfat ul Keram tells us that Bilawal Shah Noorani, who was probably surnamed ‘The Lunatic’ in his life having made a nuisance of himself in Thatta during the reign of Jam Nizamuddin Samma, left the royal city. This was in or about 1494, and he, in his state of semi-consciousness, wandered the wild and desolate country to the northwest of Thatta.
At some point, he made his way across the low range of hills and having crossed the languid Hub River ended up in the well-wooded and watered country where his shrine now sits. The rich orchards of tamarind, mango and jamun had lately been the property of a certain Gokal Seth who had died some years earlier. We do not know if he left behind family and the histories do not reveal how he usurped the property of the seth. However, we thereafter hear nothing of the Gokal family until Mustafa Gokal; the shipping magnate became General Ziaul Haq’s minister for shipping.
Now, we know that any person not in full possession of his/her mental faculties is referred to as saeen log and held in a degree of awe for being nearer to God than the rest of us non-special persons. So, too, they venerated Bilawal. Years after he died, a cult grew. For some peculiar reason, however, it had little to do with Bilawal — now known as Bilawal Shah Noorani — and more with Hazrat Ali (RA), the last of the Rightly Guided caliphs.
In Lahoot valley, a short walk from the shrine, there is another shrine where believers put their foreheads to a mark on the stone. The mark resembles a misshapen human foot. The man minding this store tells you that it is the footprint of Hazrat Ali (RA) as he put one foot down to dismount from his horse. Nearby is a small dent in the rock which is said to be the mark left by a hoof of the caliph’s horse.
The relationship of the caliph’s footprint and that of the horse is so askew that there is no way a human being could have dismounted from the animal. Moreover, the footprint is about 50 centimetres (18 inches) long! When I told the minder that the blessed caliph in question was short-statured, he smugly informed me that in those days, men were giants and so the big print. No other argument was permitted and I was happy that I had been able to measure the so-called footprint.
The good caliph was here about to dismount when he was challenged by the evil deo. He quickly remounted and rode on to deliver this beautiful valley from the demon’s evil clutches.
Further on in this beautiful valley is a spot with thick metal strips drawn across some rocks and secured with padlocks (Made in China!). It is said that Hazrat Ali (RA), having fought with and vanquished the demon, imprisoned him in a cave sealing the opening with rocks and iron.
Not far from this site is a not very deep cave into which believers must crawl on all fours. Inside this limestone cavern, one sees a few stalactites. These, you are informed by the keeper outside, represent the udders of the caliph’s she-camel — the sudden metamorphosis of the horse into a camel is not discussed, so don’t even ask about it.
Until 20 years ago, so it was said in 1983, the udders oozed milk which was panacea. All sorts of incurable diseases were cured by a single draught of this magical fluid. But then, men got greedy, as is their wont, and began to sell the stuff. Miraculously, the udders dried up. I am certain that even today they talk of the drying up ‘20 years ago’.
There were no tales of the miraculous powers of Bilawal Shah Noorani in 1983. I am sure, there are now. But one thing was most intriguing: the evil demon was named; wait for it, Gokal Deo!
And that is how a madman was deified and a decent landlord since he was, I believe, a Hindu, turned into a demon. That, dear readers, is how cults are made.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 1st, 2012.