For some a shrine, for others a refuge

Published November 30, 2014
Women devotees at the shrine of Mai Sahiba. — Photo by the writer
Women devotees at the shrine of Mai Sahiba. — Photo by the writer

Thousands of Sufi shrines, big and small, dot the landscape in rural Pakistan. Each shrine has its own history and associated legends. But the shrine that stands against the dusty green hillocks in Dhoke Sahi Village is unique, both in terms of its past and present.

Here, much as with other shrines, the day of the urs – the saint’s death anniversary – resembles a carnival. Triangular buntings in red, yellow and green hang at the entrance along sparkling streamers and strings of colourful bulbs.

Steam rises from potbellied cauldrons filled with rice placed over burning logs and devotional speeches blare from the loudspeakers.

Like other shrines, thousands of devotees have come to celebrate the saint’s union with his beloved God. But what is unusual is that the saint, for whom these devotees have gathered, is a woman.

The shrine, near the town of Dina, is dedicated solely to Mai Noorun Nisa Begum, whose name literally means ‘a light among women’. The shrine of the woman – called ‘Mai Sahiba’ by her devotees – is managed by a staff of women, who live on the premises. The complex, which is the centre of cultural and religious life in Dhok Sahi and neighbouring villages, includes two burial chambers: one for Mai Sahiba and another that is the final resting place of two of her disciples.

A courtyard for women and residential rooms adjoin another courtyard and lodging rooms reserved for men. In the larger outer courtyard, two peacocks strut about in a large birdcage. A nearby kennel houses two Russian dogs, who also live on the premises. This reflects Mai Sahiba’s love for all creatures of the animal kingdom, as dogs are usually not allowed anywhere near a religious site in Islam.

The shrine fulfils social and religious functions for the women of the area. Each day, dozens of women bring their worries to the shrine. Some find relief weeping at Mai Sahiba’s feet; others find hope in the vows they make here and yet more lighten their load by sharing light moments with other visitors.

The entrance to the shrine of Mai Sahiba — Photo by the writer
The entrance to the shrine of Mai Sahiba — Photo by the writer

This mausoleum is called home by women abandoned by their families. These women have dedicated their days to the service of Mai Sahiba. The older caretakers at the shrine guide women in both spiritual and worldly matters. On most days, women share their family troubles and receive prayers nd blessings from Mai Hameeda and Mai Rashida, the caretakers.

This shrine, like others, receives millions of rupees in donations each year, which are spent on its upkeep and to finance the langar that feeds visitors. “Once, we received a letter and a donation of a few hundred thousand rupees from India. A Hindu man who had been her devotee before partition left the money with his son and asked to have it sent here for a well to be dug. Since we already had a well and an electric motor with it, we used it to install a biogas plant,” said Rashida.

While Sufism has traditionally offered more space for women than the madressah and the mosque combined, today this space is shrinking. Many Sufi shrines in Pakistan do not allow women to enter the burial chamber and women’s participation in rituals such as dhamaal and the practice of making vows to deceased saints is generally seen as a decline in Sufi practice. Taliban have attacked shrines such as that of Rahman Baba near Peshawar, specifically because it was frequented by women.

Similarly, while women are remembered as disciples of notable sufi saints, caretakers of shrines and seen as participants of rituals and pilgrims to shrines, few women have occupied positions of authority as saints themselves. Bibi Pak Daman in Lahore is another well-known shrine to a woman saint.

Kelly Pemberton, professor of religion at George Washington University, has written extensively about women in Sufism. “As relatives of particular saints they (women) may be buried in the same shrine complex, but few will have shrines erected solely in their honour,” she says.

“Mai Sahiba was not born into a traditional pir family. It was a landowning Awaan family of this village whose men served in the British army. However, she had Sufi inclinations from a very young age. As a teenager, she left home for a cave in the hills where she would perform chilla (meditation),” said Rahman, an old man at the shrine.

“Later, she made contact with pirs of the Chistiya-Qadria order and travelled to shrines in different parts of Pakistan but in the beginning it was all on her own. She didn’t know how to read or write but produced hundreds of pages of poetry, now compiled in a book. That is one of her miracles,” he added.

Children walk through the main courtyard. — Photo by the writer
Children walk through the main courtyard. — Photo by the writer

According to him, Mai Sahiba occupied a special position in the village not available to other women. She was engaged to her cousin as a young girl however she made her family promise that after she married, she will not have to stay at her husband’s house. Because she was a majzub woman – one whose life had been dedicated to god –, her request was honoured. Her brother also facilitated her in visiting shrines and other sufis, all over Pakistan, often accompanying her himself.

“She asked her brother to build her rooms next to the village graveyard. She lived there and would perform long chillas (meditation). In the beginning, she had a grave dug in one of the rooms and meditated inside it. This kind of meditation is symbolic of rejection of the world. On the direction of her pir, she stopped this practice. Perhaps that maqaam (stage) in the Sufi path was complete,” he said.

“Her devotion to God made her attract devotees and she was joined by a couple of other Majzub women. The shrine stands at the same spot where they had lived,” he added.

The Sufi path involves going through specific stages under the guidance of a spiritual master. Mai Sahiba went through these stages over a course of many years under the guidance of Hazrat Babu Ghulam Sarwar in Lahore and eventually returned to the village to give religious education to people in the village. She also used her position as a figure of religious authority to help women with domestic issues.

“It was usual for her to call a woman’s husband and lecture him on mistreating his wife. No one dared to disobey Mai Sahiba,” said Rahman.

Today, Mai Noorun Nisa’s devotees live all over Pakistan and widespread immigration from the Potohar region to England, Norway, Denmark and other parts of the world has taken her story abroad.

Her poetry is compiled in a thick volume. Hundreds of copies of this volume were printed, bound in a hard-cover with gold lettering and delivered to the shrine on a truck by a devotee who refused to identify himself. When asked by the caretakers what they could give him in return, he smiled and said “I have received the return many fold from Mai Sahiba”.

The life and the legacy Mai Sahiba has left behind is an example of often ignored social functions that shrines in Pakistan perform. It is also an unusual example of a woman occupying an autonomous position of religious authority in a society where this position is reserved solely for men.

“I am not a follower of Sufism or someone who visits shrines but whenever I was going on the Mangla road I would see the board guiding to Mai Sahiba’s shrine and I would think in this patriarchal society, if a woman has been able to occupy such a position she must have been someone truly great,” said Subedar Farooq Khan, a resident of Peshawar, visiting the shrine.

Published in Dawn, November 30th , 2014



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