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The blog was originally published on January 9, 2017.

At least once a month, I drive down to Lahore from Islamabad using the Motorway. Just before the Jhelum River, as the Salt Range and Potohar Plateau gradually merge into the plane of Punjab, I always a notice a small isolated shrine located on the top of a hill. A flag swaying atop the shrine testifies that pilgrims still visit it.

Scattered all over the Potohar Plateau, there are several such Sufi shrines on hilltops, to which pilgrims are expected to hike. The difficulty of the journey is part of the spiritual process. The tradition is similar to other religious pilgrimages in the region.

A little north from here is the historical temple complex called Tilla Jogian, a pilgrimage site for jogis in Punjab, abandoned at the time of Partition. There is still no path that leads to the top. Visitors to the site are expected to climb the mountain as pilgrims once did.

Further north, deep within the Hazara territory is the shrine of the Muslim Sufi saint Wali Qandhari, who had a confrontation with Guru Nanak and was humbled.

The Gurdwara Panja Sahib, at the base of the mountain, atop which is the shrine of Wali Qandhari commemorates this interaction. Every day, dozens of pilgrims climb this steep mountain, a trek of about two hours to pay homage to the Sufi saint. Before the technology of pumps, pilgrims used to carry water pots to the top for other pilgrims, as a religious duty.

“The shrine is called Khara Peer,” said my driver, as he noticed me observing the shrine’s silhouette on the top of the mountain on one of these trips.

A young man, my driver belongs to a small village not far from here. Not inclined towards institutional religion, he is particularly attracted to Sufi shrines, referred to as folk religion by academics, where the freedom allotted to its devotees is more aligned with his rebellious nature.

I wasn’t surprised. This entire mountain range, known as Salt Range, is one of the largest depositories of rock salt in the world. Khara in Punjabi means salty. The shrine was attuned with its geographical surroundings.

The Peacock Shrine

This is a particular feature of small Sufi shrines. Just a few kilometres from here, in the small town of Kalar Kahar, atop another mountain is the shrine of Mooranwali Sarkar (Master of the Peacocks).

At the time of sunrise, when the tourist rush at the shrine is at its lowest, dozens of peacocks waltz around the courtyard of the shrine that overlooks the natural lake, around which the town of Kalar Kahar is populated.

A handful of devotees offer them food and seek their blessings, regarding them to be the loyal pets of the saint interred here. Till a few years ago, before the construction of Motorway brought along an influx of tourists, peacocks would strut around the shrine all day along. With the arrival of tourists and their irreverent fascination with the peacocks their number decreased here.

The shrine of the peacocks at Kalar Kahar too highlights the fact that such folk religious traditions adopted local geographical features into their devotional framework. It represents the unique relationship that these shrines developed with their surroundings.

Connected by a cable wire, there is another Sufi shrine on the top of a neighboring hill. It is a modest structure, less visited by tourists. A plaque on one of the walls of the shrine identified it as Rori Peer. “There is nothing but rori [small rocks] here and this shrine,” said a lone devotee sitting there.

On the bank of river Chenab is the village of Takht Hazara, believed to be the home of Punjab's legendary folk hero Ranjha. In the surroundings of this village is a settlement of a few houses referred to as Apal Moori.

The fame of this settlement comes from the massive banyan tree that stands next to it. It is an enormous structure, a forest within itself, with its branches disappearing into the ground and emerging anew.

There is no main trunk of the tree but several of them. At the centre of the tree is the grave of a Sufi saint regarded as sacred by the locals and people of the surrounding areas.

While the grave becomes the object of veneration, it is nothing but a symbol of the worship of this massive banyan tree, sacred in almost all of the religious traditions of South Asia, including folk Islam. The grave is an indirect way of worshipping the sacred geography, much like most of these shrines.

Vital symbols

Combined, these folk religious traditions serve as an important symbol. One of the oft-repeated accusations of right-wing Hindu nationalists against Islam has been its foreignness in the Indian peninsula.

Even 1,300 years after the arrival of this religion into the region it is asserted by some that it does not belong here. Such a criticism lacks an understanding of the cultural development of the religion in India.

As it reached the peripheral towns and villages of India, it was adopted, owned and indigenised. It is these folk religious shrines mentioned above that emerged out of this process, all of them deeply linked with their geographical surroundings.

In fact, it is not just Islam, but Christianity that also underwent a similar process. About a 100-odd kilometres from Lahore is the small town of Maryamabad developed around the shrine of Mary.

A little before Partition, a couple of local Christian men said they saw the figure of Mary appear here. A small shrine was constructed at the spot. In the 1980s, it was reported that a few children said they saw an image of Mary once again.

As the story of these sightings spread to other parts of the country, the number of pilgrims to the shrine increased. Since then many saints have been reportedly sighted here.

Much like folk Islam that used the geography of the region to evoke spirituality, folk Christianity too, represented by this shrine, found an actual geographical legitimisation, as a counter to Christianity or Islam being foreign to this land. A statue of Mary was raised on a small mound here and a shrine was constructed around it.

The article was originally published on Scroll and has been reproduced with permission.

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Author Image

Haroon Khalid has an academic background in Anthropology from LUMS. He has been traveling extensively around Pakistan, documenting historical and cultural heritage. He is the author of Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva: A study of folk religious practices in Pakistan, and A White Trail: A journey into the heart of Pakistan’s religious minorities.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (22) Closed

Syed Irfan Ali Jan 09, 2017 11:07am

So impressive and insightful.

FAREED HUSSAIN Jan 09, 2017 01:38pm

arrival, stay, their union with God, and now remembrance of these sufi saints has created the 'Mangals in Jungles', which proves power of their knowledge that God has bestowed upon them/his friends. No one knows the Mullahs who opposed their ways then and or do so now but they are known to thousands still after their deaths. God has put the love of his friends into every inclined heart, and they have ever since been source of healing to people vows. Body dies but knowledge doesnt, and this is the reason people still rush to these shrines to seek remedies to their problems.

shahid Ahmed Jan 09, 2017 03:55pm

A skillful piece of writing and observation

KhwarAzmi Jan 09, 2017 04:57pm

We are the inheritors of the Indus Vally Civilization, Gandhara Civilization, the Delhi & Mughal Sultanates and part of the global Islamic Civilization. All these are depicted on our currencies and postal stamps, our museums are filled with artifacts from these periods, Pakistan International Airlines proudly present this heritage in their marketing and so on..

xyz -indian Jan 09, 2017 05:49pm

@KhwarAzmi :- Appreciated,

D Patel Jan 09, 2017 06:13pm

Very good appraisal of rare sights of the amalgamation of new cultures peacefully merging into the native culture. This can happen only in one place in the world and that is in Indus Valley civilization that has history of accepting guest cultures with open arms. Long before middle eastern invaders entered Indus Valley by land, there was heavy exchange traders and goods by sea. A book narrates their life with archeological documentation and records showing that many Indian kings treated the traders as honorable guests, provided special protection and provided funding to built masjids for the traders to pray. The guest cultures have so much to be grateful to the hospitality of Indus Valley civilization..

kaliraja thangamani Jan 09, 2017 06:14pm

great writing

MoTh Jan 09, 2017 06:55pm

Very enlighting article. Thank you Dawn. Dawn rocks.

MoTh Jan 09, 2017 07:15pm

Would like to see Urdu version of this article and love to read how mainstream Pakistani and Indian think about it. That portion of the population (who cannot understand English) is being ignored in this though process.

Madan Jan 09, 2017 09:06pm

Very informative for the new generation.

jay Jan 09, 2017 11:47pm

@KhwarAzmi No mention of Hindu or Buddhist traditions the back bone of the culture of the Subcontinent and also Sri Lanka.

Pankaj Jan 10, 2017 03:37am

Of course you would not want to acknowledge the forceful conversion not would you want to talk about destruction of local temples. Peaceful indeed.

Ranjit Haripur Jan 10, 2017 11:42am

Haroon beta, wish i could join you in your wonderful journey of discovery.

Khwarazmi Jan 10, 2017 03:07pm

@jay I can only speak for my self and people I know: we don't practice Hindu or Buddhist traditions but I whish all the best to those who do.

Sourabh Jan 10, 2017 03:44pm

@MoTh I am an Indian and a Hindu. Though I am of the so called english speaking class, I have travelled all over India and interacted deeply with all strata of society. In most places religions might be different the culture is an unique syncretic amalgamation. may God bless the subcontinent and may we all celebrate this glorious heritage we have.

vasanth Jan 10, 2017 08:10pm

excellent article.... me being a tamil, one of the main gods is Murugun , a god who has peacock on the side and always on hill tops. we have several hundred temples like this tamil nadu.....very interesting to see this in pakistan

REALLY Jan 10, 2017 10:49pm

Any thoughts on how things were before Islam or Christianity in Indus valley

KhwarAzmi Jan 11, 2017 04:36pm

@REALLY Gandhara, Vedic, Budhist, Indus Vally Civilization, Mehrgarh, Soam Vally Culture, iron age, bronze age, stone age, hunter far do you want to go? Jurassic era?

History of Pakistan is one of the world's most well researched and documented.

Bijon Ghosh Feb 17, 2017 10:20am

@KhwarAzmi , very good explanation

dharasri Feb 17, 2017 10:21am

The article leaves a thought. Can Both India and Pakistan with a common rich culture, live harmoniously like USA and Canada. Maybe the political will is required.

mkb Feb 17, 2017 01:09pm

@jay Yes, it is a big mistake.

Dia Feb 17, 2017 04:52pm

@KhwarAzmi very right, but look at what's happening today. Pretty pathetic state.