Sufi traditions, a Sikh past and Islamic influences come together in a Christian shrine in Pakistan

The Christians there are descendants of Sikhs who stayed back after Partition to look after their masters’ property.
Published November 3, 2017

The smoke of the hashish spread through the air as Basheer took a puff from his cigarette, staring at me through kohl-smeared eyes. He had a thick, long white beard, though his hair was neatly trimmed.

Through the open buttons of his kameez, I could see a taveez hanging from a black thread. Such an amulet usually contains verses from a holy book written on a piece of paper. I wondered what holy book Basheer had – the Quran, the Bible or the Granth Sahib?

Sitting with his back to a small shrine in an open field, he handed over the hashish-filled cigarette to his young companions. Were they here just for a smoke or did the shrine represent something to them?

Hashish and bhang (both made from cannabis) play a central role in folk shrines across the country. I call them folk shrines because most of them, despite their outward religious associations, do not strictly fall within the bracket of religious traditions.

They represent an indigenous religiosity that connects the thread of diverse religious traditions of this land. Sufi malangs have in their poetry and literature referred to hashish as al-luqaymah (little green bite), musilat al-qalb (what binds with the heart) and waraq-i kheyal (leaf of insight).

In several Sufi shrines across the country, one would come across devotees gathered around a fire smoking hashish or consuming bhang. Similarly, in ascetic traditions associated with Shaivism, the consumption of hashish is almost part of religious rituals. In Vedic literature, the use of cannabis is mentioned as a bestower of joy, a liberator.

“This is the shrine of Baba Gur Baksh Masih,” Basheer told me. Masih is the Arabic word for messiah, a title reserved for Jesus Christ. It is a word the Christian community uses today for its self-identification in Pakistan.

However, it is not the word Muslims use for the Christian community – they use Isaai, followers of Prophet Isa, the name for Jesus in the Quran. While Isaai is now popularly recognised as the word for Christians in Pakistan, it is not a title the Christians necessarily associate with.

However, power relationships between the two communities have forced this identification upon them, despite their reluctance. This is similar to Muslims being referred to as Mohammadens. Many Christians in Pakistan also use Masih as a surname.

Not always a Christian shrine

The shrine behind us was a simple structure – a short boundary wall with no roof, with the grave of the saint at the centre, covered in green cloth, similar to the cloths used to cover graves at Muslim Sufi shrines.

Like in Sufi shrines, a turban and garlands decorated the grave, symbolising the groom and bride-like relationship between the saint and the divine. Green, a colour usually associated with Islam, was used to paint the decorative niches and false architectural pillars.

At the entrance, however, was a cross, identifying this as a Christian shrine. In fact, this shrine in the small village of Maraka, about 20km south-west of Lahore, is popularly known as Isaaian da mazaar (shrine of Christians). Once again, one can tell that this is not a name chosen by the devotees of the shrine.

But this was not always a Christian shrine. “Baba Gur Baksh Masih was a follower of Guru Nanak,” Basheer said. “He lost his life in a battle. During combat his head was severed but his body continued to fight until it eventually came and rested at this spot, where later a shrine was constructed to commemorate his life and death.”

Basheer at the Isaaian da mazaar in Maraka village. Photo credit: Haroon Khalid.
Basheer at the Isaaian da mazaar in Maraka village. Photo credit: Haroon Khalid.

The history told by Basheer and several others in rural Punjab who have not had a formal education is not measured in years but through events. In this framework, Partition becomes a pivotal point, the ultimate divider of eras.

Basheer does not know exactly how old this shrine is but knows that it predates Partition. So, in its original form it would be fair to suggest that instead of a grave, this shrine must have hosted the smadh of Baba Gur Baksh.

Perhaps it did not actually contain the remains of Baba Gur Baksh but was a symbolic shrine built to commemorate the legend of Bhai Gurbaksh Singh, who sacrificed his life to defend the Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar from the onslaught of the Afghan king Ahmad Shah Abdali.

Whatever it was in its past incarnation, the shrine today serves as the central communal space for Christians of the village. They not only gather here for the annual festival of the shrine, much like devotees of a Sufi shrine, but also for conventional Christian celebrations such as Easter and Christmas.

A symbol of Partition

The story of this shrine is the story of Partition. Maraka was a pre-dominantly Sikh village whose occupants fled to the other side of the border to escape the bloodshed. However, several of these wealthy Sikh landlords left behind servants to look after their property and belongings.

Like millions of others, they felt the riots of Partition were a temporary madness and they would return to their ancestral homes as soon as the situation returned to normal.

The majority of Christians who live in Maraka today are descendants of the servants of those landlords. Most of them were Mazhabi Sikhs, a title reserved for Sikhs who converted to Sikhism from lower castes.

Sikhism in this case was no different from Islam in South Asia. Both these religions were principally against the caste system but in practice retained remnants of caste hierarchy. Lower caste Hindus who became Muslims came to be known as Musali or Deendar and in many cases continued to be treated as untouchables. In Sikhism, they became Mazhabi Sikhs.

For as long as they could, these Mazhabi Sikhs retained their religious identity. But as soon as the fire of the riots approached, they cut off their hair, removed their turbans and embraced Christianity, a neutral religion, to stay alive. Christianity from Partition onwards became a part of their identity.

The shrine of Baba Gur Baksh, too, eventually saw this transition. Similar to the name Isaai, the Christian identity, too, was forced on this shrine and the community.

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

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