An archeological site called Satiyan Jo Asthan or the Abode of the Seven Sisters in Sukkur had probably nothing to do with women, according to an expert with the Archeology department of Shah Abdul Latif University Khairpur. History is silent about the visit and burial of seven sisters and instead it appears to have been a place where seven saintly men used to gather for “Chilla Kashi” which is why it came to be known as The Hill of Seven Saints.
Legend had it that seven women who came with the convoy of Muhammad Bin Qasim in 712 Hijri chose this hilly area as their home. Folklore also has it that the women came even before bin Qasim set foot here. And yet another story vilifies Raja Dahir, the Hindu ruler of Sindh ousted by bin Qasim for setting his sights on the women, who were unmarried and feared for their honour. They prayed to God to save them and, as the tale goes, were sucked into the earth where they were kneeling in prayer.
Satiyan jo Asthan is located on the left bank of the River Indus in Rohri right next to Sukkur. If you go to the site you will see a cave-like passage on top of which are several graves, seven of which are prominent and intricately carved.
Head of Archeology at Shah Abdul Latif University Khairpur Dr Mohammad Qasid Mallah categorically rejects the notion that these are graves of seven sisters. Dr Mallah is famous for his work on historical sites such as Moen Jo Daro, Lakhian Jo Daro, Kotdiji Fort. He argues that if those girls or women had hypothetically arrived in Sindh along with bin Qasim or even before him, then the governor of Bakhar, Mir Abul Qasim ‘Namkeen’ (1018 Hijri or 1609 AD) wouldn’t have chosen this place as a leisure spot. (Abul Qasim was a poet and used Namkeen as his nom de plume).
The Governor Mir Abul Qasim Namkeen was appointed by the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar. “Being a literary personality, Mir Abul Qasim chose this hill to pass leisure time with other poets and literary persons,” says Dr Mallah, adding that he most probably chose the site as it was away from Sukkur’s hot weather and felt cooler due to the breezes off the River Indus. It was also a good location for security reasons.
As far as the seven saints are concerned, they might have been close to the governor and gathered at the hill to pray and do Chilla Kashi. Dr Mallah says their names were Shaikh Abdul Hameed Suhurwardi, Shaikh Abdullah Harrari, Ali Dino Ahmed Basri, Hamza Bin Raffa, Yousuf Bin Ballah, Saifuddin Shirazi and Abul Hassan Kharqani.
The design of the graves at this particular site is the same as those in Makli in Thatta and the stone work appears to be Turkish. “At that time only the rich and famous could afford such graves,” he says.
Over the centuries, women suffering from illnesses have come here, some from as far as Balochistan, to pray in the hope that the Seven Sisters will intercede. The spot where the sisters were sucked in is located in the cave-like passageway, where neither man nor camera is allowed. Only women are allowed to visit.
The site’s caretaker Hafiz Jamil Ahmed Chachar says that nobody really knows the actual story. “But I’ve heard that this place gave them eternal shelter when their honour was in danger.” He says that many visitors with chronic illnesses say they get well after praying here.
Since only females are allowed inside, the devotees bring along girls and women from their families to go inside the cave and pray for their ailing women. Many of the women cannot afford to go to the doctor and feel it easier to visit the Asthan.
Around 25 stairs lead to the top of the cave, where 200 graves are located. They include the final resting place of then governor of Sukkur, Bakhar Mir Abul Qasim Namkeen. According to the caretaker, the other graves belong to family members of the governor and other Syeds. This “business” is so lucrative that the former caretaker of the Asthan, Shoukat Ali Khawajai, was killed in an acid attack in 2011, which I reported on for The Express Tribune back then. However, Khawajai’s wife still used to sit there and this gives faith to the other women.
A major share of the income generated from the visits to the graves goes into the caretaker’s pocket. It ranges from Rs150,000 to Rs200,000 a month. The dispute between Khawajai and his cousin Abad Hussain Farooqi over who would be the Asthan caretaker started after the death of Bibi Badran, the wife of Nazar Hussain Farooqi, who died in 2009. According to people who did not want to be named given the dispute, Bibi Badran was a close relative of Khawajai and was named caretaker after the death of Khawajai’s sister, Mai Nazan. After Bibi Badran’s death, her maid Miran Katpar was temporarily made the caretaker. Sources said that since Miran’s appointment, Khawajai, who was a retired employee of Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited, along with his wife started visiting the Asthan frequently as they claimed caretakership. Upon this, Azizullah Katpar, Miran’s close relative, had an argument with Khawajai, but the matter was resolved with the intervention of the Farooqis, the caretakers of Dargah Hazrat Sachal Sarmast in Khairpur.
Somehow, Shoukat Khawajai usurped the position of the caretaker but was killed in the acid attack. The Sindh Culture and Antiquity department has deployed four employees at the site including Hafiz Jamil Ahmed Chachar, Mohammad Ashraf as guides and Imdad Ali Jatoi and Sadaqat Abro as site attendants to look after the Asthan now.
Some repair work has begun. Hafiz Jamil Chachar said this particular stone work and colored tile work cannot be done by ordinary masons. According to him, the department has arranged for masons from Multan, who are said to be experts at this type of work and after they arrive the renovation will start.