CULTURE: THE ROAMING GIANTS OF YORE

July 29, 2018

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The exterior of the Tanook shrine in Sheikh Chogani village in Gujrat
The exterior of the Tanook shrine in Sheikh Chogani village in Gujrat

After the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in the early years of the 19th century, his army fell apart. The emperor was exiled on the Isle of Elba and his generals became itinerant mercenaries. Many of them, some truly outstanding in their profession, apparently ended up in Punjab. Here the best of Punjabis, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, quickly employed them. Most of those Europeans made good names for themselves as administrators and soldiers.

It seems Punjab was a lure not only in the 19th century.

Millennia earlier, following the Deluge when mankind was beginning anew, the sons, nephews, hangers-on and others of prophets of old seem to have heard of a place called Gujrat in Punjab of what is now Pakistan. Gujrat has never been famous for anything but for its jooti-chors (shoe stealers); it therefore eludes me what drew those holy personages to this little town. Of course, they could all have been ‘sent’ here to cure the Gujratis of their shoe fetish.

The fantastical tales surrounding the nau-gaza shrines of supposedly holy men in Gujrat are mostly that: fantastical tales

Having arrived here five or six thousand years ago, they lived out their holy lives, converting our heathen ancestors to the true faith and passed away in this until-then godless land. And since it is common knowledge that in those days giants roamed the world, especially if they were holy, all these worthies were nau-gazay — nine yards tall. Unsurprisingly, their burials are all nine yards long.

A description of the prophet Moses (from a supposedly authentic account) convinces me that he was 40 feet (12 metres) tall. And when he fought against a heathen giant many times bigger than himself, he leapt 40 feet in the air and yet the prophet’s sword (or staff) could reach only as high as the enemy’s ankle. Such then was the stature of men of old!

Strangely, however, while Moses fought against gigantic foes, the Pharaohs of those times, whose mummified bodies we find in museums in the West are all rather short. I find myself wondering why Moses fled those midgets he could easily have crushed underfoot. But I know this is a mean little trick the heathen white people have played on us by chopping off the legs of giant Pharaohs.

But back to our story.

I was asking my friends Bilal and Abbas in Jalalpur Jattan (north of Gujrat) about something unrelated when Bilal mentioned the giant prophets’ tombs. I recalled visiting the tomb of Hazrat Kanbeet in Barilla, said to be a son of the prophet Noah. In 1993, this tomb had grown to fully 100 metres in length and devotees had completed an elongated roof above it. Imagine a 100-metre-long lintel! Fortunately for the confining roof, the tomb cannot grow any longer. And that is just as well.

Kanbeet was one thing, said Abbas. All around their native Jalalpur, nau-gaza tombs were a dime a dozen, he added. It seems millennia ago something very nefarious was underfoot in this part of Gujrat district to warrant the dispatch of at least a dozen giants to quell the trouble.

We drove to village Sheikh Chogani sitting on a mound above the right bank of the Chenab. Just beyond the clump of houses and on a sheer cutting above the floodplain sat the newish domed building of Tanookh, a supposed son of the prophet Solomon. Vilayat, the tall, bearded attendant told me that the tomb had for thousands of years overlooked the Chenab and, while the river had destroyed hundreds of acres of farmland and dozens of villages, it had not dared to damage the prophet’s burial ground.

As much as I was tempted, I did not tell him that ‘thousands of years’ ago, the Chenab flowed a long way off to the east. Later, at the edge of the eroded cutting above the floodplain, Bilal pointed out the reinforced cement concrete retaining wall that was coming up. I secretly prayed that the construction be delayed and a flood as had never been known in the history of mankind sweep down the Chenab and obliterate this superstitious fraud.

Interior view of the shrine with the nau-gaza grave
Interior view of the shrine with the nau-gaza grave

The keeper urged us to go up the mound to pay obeisance at the tomb. Four other men preceded us. One had his forehead resting on the foot side of the elongated concrete sarcophagus, flower-strewn and draped with green velvet. The other three reverently walked around the supposed grave, trailing their hands on the railing surrounding the grave.

The man raised his head from the concrete, rubbed his hands on the velvet and placed them on his eyes. Unsolicited he said that had it not been for Hazrat Gohar ud Din, no one would have known of Hazrat Tanookh. But he had no idea how anyone could know the name of a man who was not mentioned in any book of religion or history. He referred us to the keeper.

Inside the so-called burial chamber was a large padlocked heavy steel collection box. A notice said that the mausoleum was undergoing repairs. Bilal and Abbas remembered the white marble facing of the past. Other signs warned against photography and aimlessly sitting around the precinct. My friends told me that tombs such as these were favourite haunts of lovebirds and the ‘no hanging around’ sign was for them. The photography sign was for those pretending to take selfies but actually photographing visiting girls. So, some visitor clearly did not come to kiss the concrete sepulchre!

When we returned to his room, Vilayat the keeper had displayed several copies of an Urdu book titled Ramooz-i-Gohar — Secrets of Gohar. We did not oblige him by buying any. Another worthless volume masquerading as a mirror of Gujrat history that my friend Bilal keeps, says this man died in 1952. For about four decades before that, he was marking out all nau-gaza saints in Gujrat on the indication of, wait for it, Ali Hajveri commonly known as Data Ganj Bakhsh.

Since Gohar was gifted with kashf ul qaboor — revelations from [the interior of] graves — he knew the identity of the interred person, we are told. I was a little nonplussed, yet did not ask Vilayat why, if Gohar had this power, he still needed Ali Hajveri’s intervention. Nevertheless, a native of nearby Jindar, the fraudster went around the district marking out all these supposed prophetic burials, said the man.

Vilayat also had a family tree to ‘prove’ that Tanookh was an actual entity. I did not ask him who first procured this rather confusing and hard-to-decipher genealogy from and how. Especially when there is no authentic list of all the prophets and their progeny. The Quran mentions some 13 or so prophets, but Islamic traditions tell us of 124,000 of them. I did not ask for I knew there would only be a frustratingly inane answer.

Bilal said there was another similar tomb a couple of hundred metres away. And sure enough it was Amnoon, which I initially took with some delight to be a misspelling of our dear president’s name. The keeper said Amnoon and Tanookh were brothers.

Back in the 1880s, a British deputy commissioner had a nau-gaza grave opened near Sheikhupura. Inside was a recumbent Buddha. It has since been postulated that since the Hunnic invasions, pious Buddhists would bury their icons. Now since a recumbent Buddha should face the rising sun, the alignment of the grave was north-south — just like a Muslim burial. Years later, when Islam became the predominant religion here, pious believers attributed the elongated graves to prophets of old, for we all know that once ‘giants roamed the earth’.

As for Gohar ud Din, little is known. Buried in Jindar in 1952, his aura has grown larger than he could ever have been in life. Clearly a fraudster, he made a living of duping simple, superstitious folks. He went around creating nau-gaza prophets. Since all graves are draped with satin, brocade or velvet, fraudster Gohar had an endless supply of material for his family. At festivals and weddings, the women wore new dresses harvested from the nau-gaza graves.

We do not know what means Gohar possessed when he set out on his scamming mission, but now we know that he became quite rich during his life of fraud. His shrine, served by his sons, is not simple and the offerings of cash and kind at the grave are reportedly plentiful. The sons, like Gohar, are also much revered as men of God.

It certainly pays to scam in the service of superstition.

PS: If such a ‘grave’ is ever opened to be found empty, the ardent, sugary excuse of superstitious simpletons will be: He did not wish to have sinful eyes rest on his holy presence. He went into purdah.

The writer is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

He tweets @odysseuslahori

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 29th, 2018