HYDERABAD: During a hot summer two and half decades ago, a young man was moved by the thirst of the enervated devotees crammed into the shrine of Hazrat Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai during the annual three-day urs celebrations. He set up a sabeel [a stall providing free drinking water] in the shrine's premises.
After a few years of this voluntary service, he planned to make arrangements to provide cold water but since there was no ice factory in Bhit Shah, the ice blocks had to be brought from Hyderabad or Nawabshah districts, at least 60 kilometres away.
In recognition of his services, the Auqaf authorities and the shrine's caretaker gave him a place near the entrance to build a permanent sabeel, equipped with piped water supply. Later, he was given more space to set up an additional sabeel.
For around 10 years both the drinking water facilities, the only ones in the huge shrine, have been functioning throughout the year. During the urs they also provide free tea round the clock. The man running this facility is Ishwar Das, a 45-year-old Hindu.
"Whatever I am today is due to the blessing of Shah Bhitai," claims Das, a trader by occupation. "This is my temple. Here I pray."
Although Bhit Shah is located between the Indus River and Rohri Canal, both at a distance of a few kilometres, the dwellers mostly drink brackish subsoil water due to the absence of a water supply. Every year, when tens of thousands of devotees from all over Sindh flock to the small town during the urs, the two sabeels are the only places where fresh water is available for free.
Das was lucky to have found a rare fresh water well in the town, from where pumping machines take water to the shrine. "Two years ago I also opened an ice factory to make sure that we never run out of ice," he said, adding that he does not accept donations or contributions from other devotees.
Up to 45 persons, including Das who spend all three nights at the shrine, man the sabeels during the urs.
Das may have gained prominence as a Hindu devotee of Bhitai but the Sufi poet has huge following among the Hindu community. "Bhitai, with his attributes of saint, poet, philosopher and musician, binds his followers, among the people of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh religions, together," says another devotee, Rajesh Singh.
A Sikh Gurdwara opened up in Bhit Shah in September this year with the support of the caretaker, Syed Waqar Hussain Shah, who laid its foundation stone four years ago. A group of Christian students also set up a medical camp during the urs.
"Through our prayers we pin our hopes as much on this shrine as on our temples," says Manisha Kumar Lohano, from Shikarpur. According to her, her family rarely misses the annual urs and stays at a rest house for all three days.
Thousands of people who cannot afford to pay the inflated rents of over a hundred rest houses and hotels in the town find accommodation in the mostly uncovered large courtyard of the shrine. In the absence of adequate arrangements by the Auqaf department, they have to sleep on the cold floor. The people also bring vegetables, goats and hen to cook.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 28th, 2015.
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