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A journey into Pakistan’s syncretic past

Published : Apr 13, 2016, 4:33 am IST
Updated : Apr 13, 2016, 4:33 am IST

In December 2015, a charming young couple from Pakistan, Haroon Khalid and his wife Anam Zakaria, came to India to launch their books, In Search of Shiva: A Study of Folk Religious Practices in Pakist

Writer couple Anam Zakaria and Haroon Khalid (above). The mosque of Waris Shah at Malka Hans.
 Writer couple Anam Zakaria and Haroon Khalid (above). The mosque of Waris Shah at Malka Hans.

In December 2015, a charming young couple from Pakistan, Haroon Khalid and his wife Anam Zakaria, came to India to launch their books, In Search of Shiva: A Study of Folk Religious Practices in Pakistan (Rupa) and The Footprints of Partition (HarperCollins) respectively. Interacting with them after their engaging presentations at the Foreign Correspondents Club, New Delhi, one could not but help admire their guts at selecting, researching and writing on sensitive, or even unpopular/troublesome subjects, given the environment of extremism in Pakistan. And amidst the acrimonious cacophony of India-Pakistan political relations, Haroon and Anam proved to be a pleasant whiff of fresh air.

Haroon Khalid, who has also authored A White Trail and is presently writing Walking with Nanak, in this book In Search of Shiva, documents religious traditions of Hindu origin, which have survived over decades in many Muslim shrines in the region which, after Partition, became West Pakistan and how they are now adapting to the increasingly rigid religious climate in that country.

The author discovers that before Pakistan became the new centre of global terrorism and reactionary Islamic forces that are slowly sweeping through its urban centres, influencing even educated youth, it was a region that had a fusion of different religions/cultures/philosophies that emanated or were derived from Hinduism and other religions that it interacted with over the centuries. This book is an attempt to study these religious traditions — those that have not been derived from an orthodox religion, but from indigenous religious practices that in some cases go as far back as the Indus valley civilisation. Peeling through the layers of Muslim nationalism and Pakistani separatism, the book studies various shrines scattered all over West Pakistan and the adjoining part of India, which included Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, the oldest living civilisation in the world. In this book the author has particularly focused on idiosyncratic shrines, where the practices defy the notions of orthodox Islam.

Khalid’s extensive journeys with Anam, Iqbal Qaiser and some other friends to unique Muslim shrines, Hindu/Jain temples/Gurdwaras in many parts of Pakistan’s Punjab and his interactions with their caretakers/followers bring out interesting, fascinating and of course surprising revelations which much of Pakistan’s urban populace may still not be aware of.

At the shrine of Aban Shah, Village Chak 50, the sacred offering is a hand-carved wooden human phallus, piles of which are stocked. Followers come here wishing for a child, preferably male. At Pakpattan, there is a shrine where women worship and present a Shivaling (Lord Shiva’s phallus) at the grave of the saint.

The author also mentions the archaeological discovery in Indus Valley of a male with an erect phallus sitting in the Yogic cross legged pose being that of Lord Shiva.

Then there are the shrines where eunuchs and animals such as dogs, cows, cats, crows etc. are considered sacred. Interestingly, the author mentions that while cats are acceptable to orthodox Muslims, dogs are acceptable only outside the house as guards and touching a dog must be followed by ritual washing/cleansing of hands. Khalid’s book is an informative travelogue that studies these exotic shrines with an academic understanding of how they link back to the Indus valley civilisation or in other cases, Hinduism.

The author maintains that the sole purpose of the book is not just the documentation of these shrines and their analysis but to also place them in the current geopolitical realities of Pakistan. Pakistan was carved out of India on the basis of Muslim nationalism, defined in opposition to Hindu nationalism.

For most Pakistanis, the two-nation theory, which argues that Muslims and Hindus are two separate nations given their irreconcilable religious differences, fed to them throughout their formal educational years, holds sway. Given the political identity of the country, these eclectic shrines that derive inspiration from Hinduism/Hindu religious practices acquire a particular significant character, rebelling against the dogma of state nationalism. The book studies how these political compulsions are altering religious traditions in Pakistan and how these shrines respond to such challenges. Unfortunately, these shrines are now threatened by the sweeping tide of orthodox Islam, which particularly post-9/11, has engulfed the country. Based on notions of miracles and syncretism, their utility value has diminished as educated people and the elite are drawn towards a more “scientific” interpretation of religion, which the orthodoxy in Pakistan readily provides.

Not only does the author travel to these shrines but alsstudies the rise of an orthodox Islam, which presents a direct threat to these shrines. Apart from this book, Khalid has written many articles published in Pakistani newspapers. ‘Once temples, now madrassahs: Dars among deities’, published in Dawn, 29 September 2015, is one of them, excerpts from which are worth mentioning. At Malka Hans, a historical city about 200 kilometres from Lahore, Khalid, Anam and another fried, Rida, visit the historical mosque of Waris Shah, the celebrated Punjabi poet known for re-composing the folk tale of Heer-Ranjha, believed to have been written in the basement of this mosque where he used to work as an Imam.

Across the street from the mosque, is a temple. In Waris Shah’s time in the 18th century, it was not unusual to find a mosque and a temple sharing a wall. “Today, of course, that is an anomaly,” writes Khalid. There are several stories about this relationship between the mosque and the Hindu temple, about Waris Shah and his Hindu beloved who, it is believed, used to come to this temple regularly. Khalid quotes Rida saying: “It was a surreal feeling. There were wooden figures all around the temple, perhaps angels, and sitting under them were these women clad in burqa, reciting the Quran. There were pictures of Hindu deities on the wall while these women talked about the unity of God. No harm had been done to any of these idols or figures on the wall,” and added, “These women saw no contradiction in studying Islam in a Hindu temple”.

Another similar scene mentioned is of a Jain temple that they visited in Multan, believed to have been once ruled by Hiranyakashipu, the tyrant father of Bhakta Prahlada. “Even before we entered the main room of the temple we could hear a humming sound of children reciting the Quran, memorising it. Inside the hall there were rows of mats with small tables in front of them where children had placed their copies of the Quran, rhythmically moving back and forth as they recited their lesson”, stated Khalid.

Amidst many reports in media about destruction or defacing of temples and religious historical statues, forced conversion of Hindus, mass killings of non-Muslims and even Muslims — Shias and Ahmadiyyas — in Pakistan, one hopes that more books like those by Khalid, Anam and other bold writers in Pakistan get published, obviously in India, and also get wide circulation in both countries.