Cover Story: This ancient land

Published May 8, 2016
The shrine of Mian Mir, Lahore.— M. Arif / White Star
The shrine of Mian Mir, Lahore.— M. Arif / White Star

Following his ethnographic study of minority festivals in Pakistan, Haroon Khalid’s In Search of Shiva: A study of Folk Religious Practices in Pakistan turns its attention towards Pakistani shrine culture and its corresponding beliefs, practices and politics. The book takes the form of a travelogue, a style that Khalid has developed considerably well since his first publication. The book takes us on a journey across the rapidly changing cultural topography of a country whose reputation has been hijacked by increasingly dominant versions of monolithic Islam and a breed of urban liberals who consider shrine culture to be ‘pre-modern’.

Instead, what Khalid documents is the predominant Islam that might seem unusual to foreign ears or some urban natives; an Islam of fertility cults, sacred trees, animistic cults and legends about saints that predate the proud nations of Pakistan and India, as well as their prescribed religions. He finds a shared wellspring of Islamic and Hindu cultures that over time, and over various political humps, have been appropriated and integrated into separate formalist belief structures.

The inclusion of the Hindu god Shiva in the title might be a bit too provocative for a Pakistani readership, but this is a carefully measured provocation. As Khalid explains, “I have used Shiva in the title as a symbol to allude towards pre-Islamic religious practices and traditions that are part of folk or practiced Islamic traditions in Pakistan. Shiva even predates the Vedic deities. Archaeologists and historians have identified seals from the Indus Valley Civilisation with a proto-Shiva. I believe that a lot of the traditions that I have talked about in the book also find their roots in the Indus Valley Civilisation.”

Throughout the book, Shiva’s presence can be felt at every corner. He is a key suspect in Khalid’s findings, who sees the dance of Shiva in the dance of dervishes, and spots the “Shivling” (an abstract or iconic representation of Shiva) in the offerings at the shrine of Aban Shah.

The shrines in Khalid’s book emerge from the thick fog of religious nationalism, like a troubling memory that no longer fits one’s narrative of the past. On his way to see the Shrine of Aban Shah in the village of 50 Chak PS near Lahore, accompanied by the revered Punjabi poet Iqbal Qaiser, he finds himself following a rickshaw that displays an advertisement sponsored by the Jamaatud Dawa (JuD) organisation. “Jihad is an obligation, now or never” reads the advertisement. Khalid’s account of this odd encounter reveals certain key truths about Pakistan: “Underneath [the advertisement] was a gruesome picture of a bloodied hand covered by the American flag, cut through by a sword which was in a hand covered by the Pakistani flag. ‘They plan to fight the Americans with swords,’ I joked with Iqbal Qaiser, who grumbled and refused to comment. He lacks a sense of humour when it comes to religious violence and exploitation.”

This incident perfectly demonstrates the sharp political demarcations between one world and the next, all clumped together under the banner of Pakistan. It highlights the tensions between clashing discourses of modernity, their internal paradoxes and the corresponding identity crises that such tensions produce.

After all, the sword is not a literal weapon of choice, it symbolises the power of static traditions and values. For Wahabis or Salafis, who comprise a significant portion of JuD’s supporters, traditions pertaining to saints and shrines are not only post-Islamic but also un-Islamic and anti-Islamic. Hence, for them shrines are modern perversions that contaminate, dilute and weaken Islam’s truly progressive potential.

Ironically, for the urban elite who consider themselves modern Muslims, shrines represent a primitive form of Islam; exploitative and superstitious. But no matter which side of the argument one is on, these shrines are a historical fact in their own right, an evidence of a hybrid spirituality that is much more deeply rooted than what the Pakistani upper-classes unconsciously experience as mainstream syncretism: the seasonal Coke Studio qawwali, the poetry of Bulleh Shah, the occasional Abida Parveen concert.

Khalid takes us deeper, to a place called Apal Muri, in order to see an ancient Banyan tree that the locals believe to be occupied by spirits, or djinns. A Muslim saint is also believed to be buried underneath it. According to Haroon, the djinns these locals refer to are Yakshas — Hindu tree spirits named after “one of the most well-known spirits’ in ancient India who was believed to reside in the branches and roots of Banyan trees.

As Hinduism developed, this belief found its way into Brahmanism and later appeared in its Islamic version. The Banyan tree has aerial roots, so one can see why it would stand as a metaphor for reincarnation. Intrigued, Haroon shows a picture of the tree to Salman Rashid, a travel writer, who reckons that the tree must be over 2,000 years old. “There was no Islam at the time, so how could there be a Muslim saint?” It is a strong possibility that like many other shrines, this one too was ‘converted’ to Islam after Partition.

This is the aspect of his explorations that Haroon is fixated upon. He is not concerned about which version of Islam is authentic or not — there are plenty of ‘theologians’ who have their opinions and they voice them to their heart’s content. He doesn’t wish to romanticise or ‘exotify’ shrine culture either: the book ends with the harrowing tale of young teenagers and drug addicts who are sent to a shrine in order to be treated by being imprisoned there. He simply presents his story as the story of historical collusions between Islam and politics, and the impact such collusions have had on our understanding of Islam and ‘Pakistani’ culture.

Though there are moments when the historical credibility of certain theories is a bit suspect, the book offers a vivid literary account of a journey every Pakistani ought to make. The scope of the book is limited to Punjab, so it would be interesting to see an excursion of this kind into other regions of the country. Moreover, photographs would have added another layer of historical value and credibility to this book. Haroon is often accompanied by a photographer; one wonders why her photos are not included.

Regardless, In Search of Shiva is a must-read because it captures the complexity of Islamic culture and its interaction with politics, reminding us that looking into the past is akin to dealing with broken mirrors. In each shard we see an incomplete version of ourselves and to lose one of these pieces would be to irrevocably lose a part of ourselves.

To continue the discussion, these places need to be preserved. This common heritage is quickly eroding as jingoistic and austere versions of Islam gather political power. Many of these shrines are under threat, attacks by extremist sects are increasingly common and the book makes a compelling case for why the state should do more to protect Islam’s religious diversity, whilst preventing the exploitation of its believers. Hopefully, someone will listen.

The reviewer is a freelance journalist, and a graduate sociology researcher at Humboldt University, Berlin.

In Search of Shiva: A Study of Folk Religious Practices in Pakistan
By Haroon Khalid
Rupa Publications, India
ISBN 978-8129137432



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