As I set off researching the Zuljanah procession of old Lahore that ends at Karbala Gamay Shah outside Bhati Gate, one point along the procession fascinated me the most, and that was the Imambargah of Chihl Bibian in Mochi Gate.

The importance of this place can be gauged from the fact that once the procession, said to be the largest and oldest in South Asia, leaves Nisar Haveli and passes Mubarak Haveli, it turns to pass the Imambargah of Chihl Bibian. When Gamay Shah and his disciple Mai Aghia started their journey of tears for the first time over 200 years ago, people laughed at them. A lot in this city has changed since then, but the route of this procession remains the same. It begins at Nisar Haveli inside Mochi Gate on the night of 9-10th of Muharram, and moves past Mubarak Haveli, the place where Maharajah Ranjit Singh ‘acquired’ the Koh-e-Noor diamond from a royal Afghan prisoner.

Gamay Shah, or Syed Ghulam Ali Shah, was known for his mourning for the descendants of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Legend has it that Maharaja Ranjit Singh got him imprisoned for his constant public mourning. Then, so one account states, the maharajah started suffering from terrible nightmares. A holy Sikh man advised that he visit Gamay Shah in prison, and when they met both smiled at each other. The ruler was narrated the episode of Karbala, on which he apologised and released him. From that point onwards on the 10th of Muharram he would visit him without fail if he was in Lahore.

Now back to the procession. From Mubarak Haveli it moves at almost a snail’s pace towards Mohallah Chihl Bibian. It stops for a long time outside the Imambargah. Now Chihl Bibian is rumoured, unverified at that, to be the original graveyard of Sayyeda Ruqayyah, the daughter of Hazrat Ali (RA) and was originally known as Bibi Pak Daman. Much later a graveyard by that name appeared just off Empress Road after Ali Hajweri, better known as Data Sahib, was known to visit it every Friday to pray at a few graves there. His claim held the field and so the original Bibi Pak Daman claim was dropped in popular perception.

The graves at Chihl Bibian are inside an old ‘haveli’ which belongs to the family of Syed Ahmed Tokhta Tirmizi who died in 1208 AD, whose own grave still exists there. His miracles are part of local legend. When he was buried the gravedigger allegedly found bones of a female buried there. Hence the Bibi Pak Daman rumour. The only other mention of a graveyard here is in Prince Dara Shikoh’s book ‘Safinah-ul-Awliya’ where he says that “Bibi Haj and Bibi Taj lie buried there”. My take is much more archaeological. That is why we must get our timelines in perspective.

In the year 1186 AD we know that Shahabuddin Ghori defeated the successors of Mahmud Ghazni and Qutabuddin Aibak established the Turkish Sultanate at Delhi with major centres at Lahore, Multan and Uch becoming centres for scholars-saints like Sheikh Abdul Aziz Makki, Syed Ahmed Tokhta Tirmizi and Sheikh Yaqoob Zanjani. When Aibak died in Lahore, as also did Syed Ahmed Tokhta Tirmizi, they were both buried outside the city walls.

In those days the walls of the ancient city ran along to the west of Shahalami Bazaar as it is located today. So the entire area to the east was an open space with the river running just to the east of those fields. Muslims who died were buried outside the city walls, just as Ali Hajweri was buried far away from Mori Gate. Before him Hazrat Zanjani was also buried next to today’s Lady Aitchison Hospital on Hospital Road. The reason is simple, and that being that Lahore was a Hindu city with just a few Muslims, all foreigners at that. These graves are definitely ‘ancient’ in relative terms.

Mind you Bhati Gate did not exist because the walls ran along the east of today’s Bazaar Hakeeman, when Ahmed Tokhta Tirmizi died he was buried in open space and his ‘haveli’ did not exist. Mind you even Mahmud Ghazni’s slave Ayaz was also buried outside the city walls. In the same manner had Sayyeda Ruqayyah died in Lahore she would have been buried outside the city’s walls. Where exactly has never been determined. That there is a similar grave in Multan, and mind you a similar grave in Cairo, does bring forth considerable doubt.

Now we come to the fact that once in Akbar’s era after 1587 Lahore got its bricked walls, the graveyard, probably other scattered graves too, came within the walled city. It was at that time that a large number of ‘havelis’ came up. The family of the descendants of Ahmed Tokhta Tirmizi claimed the land of their ‘family graveyard’ and walled it in, much later building a ‘haveli’. The presence of graves led to it being declared an imambaragh, which it still is.

So who did the bones discovered belong to? Here a number of possibilities exist. As no carbon-dating existed, it is not possible to determine exactly to whom they belonged. The question is impossible to answer as they could also belong to a much earlier period when dwellings of the late Harappa era could exist on the mounds of Lahore.

The Sayyeda Ruqayyah connection is in all probability because of the ‘Nisbat’ tradition in Shiaism, just as they are in Multan and Cairo. But we do know from the family tree of the descendants of Ahmed Tokhta Tirmizi (‘Tarikh-e-Anwaar-us-Sadaat’ by Syed Zafaryab Hussaini) that he was a direct descendent of Imam Ali Zainul Abideen (RA). But such lineage tables have their own shortcomings.

Now back to the main procession which starts from inside Mochi Gate and ends after a complex route at Karbala Gamay Shah outside Bhati Gate next to the Central Model School. As a young reporter for ‘The Pakistan Times’ I covered the event many a time in what was a gruelling almost 24-hour stint. Along the way colleagues working in PT’s ‘hot metal linotype’ section provided us breathers in what our chief reporter, I.H. Rashid called “with-walli chai”. And so the entire event had an almost predictable script.

From Chihl Bibian the procession moves towards the Wazir Shah ‘imambargah’, which is locally known as Haveli Alif Shah and is probably over 300 years old. On the 7th and 9th of Muharram smaller processions start from here to join the main one from the house owned by the Qizilbash family. From this place the procession reaches Chowk Nawab Sahib and heads towards Kucha Qazi Khana, the Imambargah Maulvi Feroz Ali, Kucha Miskeenan, turning into Mohallah Peer Gillanian past Imambargah Syed Rajab Ali Shah and towards Chauhatta Mufti Baqir. Just for reference lest you seem lost this is by the famous Khalifa Naan Khatai Shop.

At this stage of the over 200-year old route the procession of mourners turn towards Chowk Kotwali and onto Kashmiri Bazaar reaching Sonehri Masjid. Then a turn towards Dabbi Bazaar and onto Gumti Bazaar reaching Chowk Rang Mahal. At this place is the tomb of Mahmud Ghazni’s beloved slave Ayaz. If you run your mind 500 years back, the procession so far is inside the ‘new’ walled Lahore created by Mughal Emperor Akbar.

Once you enter Bazaar Said Mitha you enter the ancient city pre-Mahmud Ghazni era and head towards Tehsil Bazaar, past the old Jain Hall and the mosque built after 1947 by the sage Mubarak Ali at the corner of Bazaar Hakeeman. From here it turns onto Bazaar Hakeeman, straight past the Mubaraka Begum Imambargah and towards Bhati Gate. It finally emerges from Bhati Darwaza and heads towards the famous Imambargah of Karbala Gamay Shah, built by the Qizilbash family at the place where Gamay Shah is buried. Such is the history and the mystery of the different places along where the procession moves.

Published in Dawn, March 8th, 2020