Chances are that you may not have heard of them. On an island, on the river Indus in Pakistan, is a temple complex sacred to the Udasis, a religious sect that was once well known in North West India. After all, they trace their journey all the way back to the eldest son of Guru Nanak.
Located around 250 kms north of Karachi, near the town of Sukkur, the Sadh Belo shrine gets its name from ‘Sadhu Bela’ or the ‘Hermitage of a Monk’. The religious complex is spread across two connected islands in the middle of the Indus river, Sadh Belo and Deen Belo. It was established in 1823, by Baba Bankhandi, a monk who belonged to the Udasipanth.
The Udasipanth or Udasi sect was one of the many syncretic religious sects which emerged in North India during the medieval period, as a reaction to the rigid religious and societal norms. Its founder is considered to be Baba Sri Chand, the eldest son of Guru Nanak, the first Guru and the founder of Sikhism. After the passing away of Guru Nanak in 1539 CE, it was his follower Guru Angad Dev, who became the second Guru of the Sikhis. Baba Sri Chand established his own ascetic order that came to be known as ‘Udasipanth’ or the sect of those detached from the ways of the world. Quite like the Gurus of Sikhism, the Udasi sect also had their own Gurus, beginning with Baba Sri Chand.
Unlike the Sikhs who followed a more settled and community oriented path, the Udasis believed in monasticism and being detached from worldly life. They worshipped the ‘Panchayatana’ (a combination of five deities, namely Shiva, Vishnu, Surya, Durga and Ganesha) as well as the Holy Book, the Guru Granth Sahib. A number of their beliefs were very close to those of other monastic orders like the Naga Sanyasis, and their establishments were also called Akhadas. The Udasis, due to their monastic order and detachment from worldly affairs, escaped the brutal persecution under Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and continued to thrive.
The Udasi sect was most popular during reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839) of Punjab. He was a great patron of this sect. Interestingly for a very long time, it was the Udasis who were the custodians of the main Gurudwaras and they even controlled the Harmandir Sahib (Golden temple) at Amritsar, the holiest shrine of Sikhism. Under the Sikh Empire they were given vast land grants.
At the beginning of the 19th century, there were more than 250 Udasi establishments across North-Western India. It was in 1823, that an Udasi ascetic named Baba Bankhandi arrived in the town Sukkur, in northern Sindh. He lived and preached on an uninhabited island in the middle of the Indus river for around 45 years. Over time, the island evolved into an important Udasi shrine and a pilgrimage site for Hindus and Sikhs from far.
By the end of the 19th century, the power and influence of the Udasi sect however began to decline. In the 1870s, the ‘Singh Sabha Movement’ had emerged in Punjab. The movement sought to the cleanse Sikhism of the ‘impure practices’, which they believed had crept in. Singh Sabha Movement’s political wing was known as the Akali Dal and it sought to take control over all the Gurudwaras from the Udasi Mahants, who controlled them, till then. After a prolonged agitation by the Akalis, the Sikh Gurudwara Bill of 1925 was passed, which placed the control of the Gurudwaras in the hands of the Sikh Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC). This ended the influence of the Udasis in Punjab.
Despite this turbulence, Sadh Belo, in Sindh continued to thrive. In 1889, the grandest building on the island, the beautifully carved Darbar of Baba Bankhandi had been built. Marble was brought all the way from Jaipur for this. Over time, the island had new temples, dedicated to a cross section of gods and goddesses – Annapurna, Hanuman, Ganesh and Shiva, as well as shrines dedicated to the Sikh holy text, the Guru Granth Sahib and the Bhagwad Gita. It had langars or community diners for men and women, a large library, residential establishments for monks and the samadhis of the main priests, the Mahants.
The Sadh Belo island continued to be the seat of the Udasi Mahants till 1947. The partition of India and the exodus of Hindus and Sikhs from Sindh to India, led to its decline. Even the seat/ashram or the akhada of the Mahant or head priest of Sadh Belo was shifted to Mumbai.
The current Mahant of the Sadh Belo Math and six other Udasi establishments across India, is Acharya Swami Gauri Shankar Dass, whose seat is located at the Sadhubella Udasin Ashram, at Mahalaxmi in Mumbai. In Sindh, the island is now under the control of the Pakistan Government’s Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB).
The 2010 flooding of the Indus caused great damage to the Sadh Belo complex, but thankfully it was restored well thanks to the efforts of the then Pakistan President, Asif Ali Zardari.
Today, Sadh Belo continues to attract Hindu and Sikh pilgrims from across Pakistan and India.
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