SAKHĪ SARWAR, lit. the Bountiful Master, also known by various other appellations such as Sultān (king), Lakh-dātā (bestower of millions), Lālāṅvālā (master of rubies), Nigāhīā Pīr (the saint of Nigāhā) and Rohīāṅvālā (lord of the forests), was the founder of an obscurantist cult whose followers are known as Sultānīās or Sarwarīās. His real name was Sayyid Ahmad. He was the son of Sayyid Zain ul-Ābidīn, an immigrant from Baghdād who had settled at Shāhkoṭ, in present-day Jhaṅg district of Pakistan, Punjab, and Āyeshā, daughter of the village headman married to the Sayyid. Accounts of Ahmad's life are based on legend and not many factual details are known about him. It is said that the maltreatment he received from his own relations after the death of his father took him to Baghdād where he was blessed with the gift of prophecy by three illustrious saints ---Ghaus ul-Āzam, Shaikh Shihāb ud-Dīn Suhrāwardī and Khwājā. Maudūd Chishti. On his return to India, he first settled at Dhauṅkal, in Gujrāṅwālā district, and then at Shāhkoṭ. At Multān he had married the daughter of a noble. In due course he became famous for his miraculous powers and soon had a considerable following. This aroused the jealousy of his family who planned to kill him. Sakhī Sarwar got to know of their plans and escaped to Nigāhā at the foot of the Sulaimān mountain, in Ḍerā Ghāzī Khān district, but his relatives pursued him there and ultimately murdered him in 1174. He was buried there and his followers built a shrine on the spot which subsequently became a place of pilgrimage for the devotees. Within the enclosures of the shrine are the tombs of Sakhī Sarwar, his wife, known as Bībī Bāī, and of the jinn (demon) whom he had held in his power and who brought many miracles for him. Near the shrine at Nigāhā there are two other holy spots called Chom and Mozā, both associated with 'Alī Murtazā, the son-in-law of Sakhī Sarwar. At Chom, an impression of the former's hand was said to have been imprinted when he prevented a mountain from collapsing over the cave in which he had taken shelter.
Nothing is known about the religious belief or teachings of Sultān Sakhī Sarwar. It was stories of his miracles and, especially, the protection he gave the animals that attracted many people to him. He did not lay down any creed or doctrine for his disciples, nor any code of conduct or ritual. His followers commonly known as Sultānīās thus had the freedom to retain their Hindu or Muslim affiliations. Hindus as well as Muslims visited the Pīr's shrine at Nigāhā usually in locality-wise organized groups called saṅg led by bharāīs, the drum-beating Muslim bards who acted as professional guides and priests at local shrines called pīrkhānās. Members of a saṅg addressed each other as pīrbhāī or pīrbahin (brother or sister-in-faith). Their halting points on well-marked routes were known as chaukīs (posts) where the pilgrims slept on the ground. Devotees who were unable to undertake the pilgrimage to Nigāhā went at least to one of the chaukīs. If they could not do even that, they went to any other village on the route for a night. Those who could not go anywhere at all slept on the ground at home for at least one night in a year. This ritual of sleeping on the ground instead of on a cot was called chaukī-bharnā. The greatest number of visitors from central Punjab visited the shrine during the week-long Baisākhī fair in the month of April. A month-long fair was also held at Dhauṅkal in Gujrāṅwālā district during June-July. Other fairs were Jhaṇḍā Melā (fair of the flag) at Peshāwar in November, and Qadamoṅ kā Melā (fair of the feet) at Lahore in February.
Another common ritual was offering of a roṭ, i.e. a huge loaf prepared from 18 kilograms of wheat flour sweetened with guṛ or jaggery weighing half that quantity, once a year on a Friday. It was prepared by a Bharāī, who took one fourth of the roṭ as offering, the remaining being consumed by the donor family and distributed among fellow Sultānīās.
During the time of the Gurūs, many Sultānīās especially those from Jaṭṭ castes in southern Punjab embraced Sikhism, though several of them continued to adhere to their former beliefs and practices. The travels of Gurū Har Rāi, Gurū Tegh Bahādur and Gurū Gobind Siṅgh through this region brought a large number of Sultānīās into the Sikh fold. But as time passed the Sultānīā influence asserted itself in certain sections among the Sikhs. The Siṅgh Sabhā reform movement gaining strength in the closing decades of the nineteenth century attempted to counter this influence. In 1896, Giānī Dītt Siṅgh, the erudite Siṅgh Sabhā crusader, published a pamphlet Sultān Puāṛā attacking the worship by Sikhs of the grave of Sakhī Sarwar or of any other saint or sūfi. This was a common plank of the Siṅgh Sabhā and Akālī reformers. But what ended the sakhī Sarwar legend among the Sikhs was the forcible exchange of populations between India and Pakistan at the time of the partition of 1947. Most of the Bharāīs, who were exclusively Muslim, migrated to Pakistan, Secondly, Nigāhā and other places connected with Sakhī Sarwar being all in Pakistan were suddenly rendered out of reach for his Indian devotees. Even now pīrkhānās marked by flags with peacock tail on top may be seen in some villages in the Mālvā area, but the number of the followers of Sakhī Sarwar has dwindled drastically.
D. L. Dewān