I parked my car in front of a closed shop next to the Data Darbar shrine and hurriedly crossed the road. On that side, facing the Bhatti Gate, one of the 13 gates that lead into the walled city of Lahore, I had noticed a yellow billboard on a building that said “Bengali Baba”, surrounded by various other smaller hoardings.
This was about seven years ago, and I was researching the concept of black magic. I had come across this advertisement while driving around the older part of the city.
Bengali Babas in Pakistan are known for their prowess against the spells of black magic, while others sometimes accuse them of practicing this demonic art.
On the first floor of the shabby building, Baba Patras Bengali sat in his office. He was a young man, perhaps in his late 20s or early 30s, sitting behind a desk. It was a formal setting. I asked him about the epithet “Bengali”. “Because the tradition of black magic comes from Bengal,” he explained.
He told me how he accompanied his guru to Bengal and then to the jungles of Assam. It was there that he first encountered a devil, a matriarch spirit who was so despicable, he said, that it could not be described in words.
Patras said that he was sitting on the top of a mountain, engaged in meditation or “chila” as he described it using Sufi parlance, when she appeared and tried to distract him, first by sending a giant snake and then by attempting to seduce him.
Patras, however, protected by a boundary of nails that he constructed for himself, resisted her. Finally the matriarch had to give in and acknowledged his spiritual superiority.
He said he earned the title of Baba Patras Bengali for himself that day. He asserted that he now controlled several djinns or spirits, and used them to cure black magic.
There are many parallels between this story and several similar ones about Muslim pirs gaining control of djinns, and the Tantric tradition where shakti or energy is harnessed for spiritual prowess.
Both these traditions emphasise how djinns are accessed by devoted practitioners of asceticism after they overcome the onslaught of demons and djinns who seek to prevent them from acquiring this occult art.
In the Tantric tradition, shakti is associated with the cults of female deities such as Durga and Kali, most commonly found around the region of Bengal.
Is the Muslim Bengali Baba tradition in Pakistan, found in many parts of the country, connected to this Tantric tradition?
In the Tantric tradition, the shakti harnessed can be used for evil as well as good. Similarly, Muslim babas also believe that these djinns are of both varieties. The evil ones can be used to cast the spell of black magic, while the good ones can be used to ward off that spell.
For Baba Patras Bengali, the distinction was quite simple – Muslim djinns were the good ones, who protected people, while Hindu djinns were evil.
I heard a similar narrative when I interviewed Baba Karamat Bhatti, a Christian spiritual healer, who specialised in warding off black magic through the recitation of verses from the Bible. He too was a resident of Lahore.
In his sitting room there are photographs of the various people he says he has cured. When I asked him about the evil djinns, he told me how all the evil ones he ever encountered were Hindu or Christian, never Muslim.
This was interesting coming from a Christian spiritual healer. Perhaps his views were influenced by the broader socio-political environment that took into account the vulnerabilities of living as a Christian minority in a Muslim-dominated country.
He told me that there were several Hindu djinns in Lahore, particularly close to the banks of the Ravi river, where before Partition, Hindus used to cremate their dead.
According to him, because the dead were not buried following proper rituals, their spirits remained behind, haunting those who were alive.
To counter these evil Hindu spirits, the spiritual healer has to purify himself through several religious rituals. In Samnabad, Lahore I interviewed Dr Zahid Shah Bokhari (name changed on his request), a professional doctor who also was once a spiritual healer.
According to him, his family had been in the profession of warding off evil spirits for several generations. A person who wanted to harness these good spirits needed to remain in the state of wuzu (ritual ablution) all the time, I was told.
The clothes of this person also needed to be clean at all hours. To combat the spirits one had to recite particular verses from the Quran.
According to Dr Bokhari, there are some famous Hindu djinns in Lahore who have been haunting people for several centuries – Laxmi Devi, Parvati and Shero.
Similarly there are also some famous Muslim djinns who have been combating these powerful forces for generations. The most famous of these, according to Dr Bokhari, is Yasir djinn.
This phenomena of imposing a particular framework and interpretation of history on the spiritual world extended to the temporal world.
All the practitioners I interviewed confirmed how young girls were more likely to be, as they put it, “occupied” by these evil spirits, particularly those girls who left their hair open, wore too much make-up, left their homes in the night, or visited graveyards.
Being occupied by the spirit has a sexual connotation, similar to how the harnessing of shakti in the Tantric tradition has sexual undertones.
Thus, according to these practitioners, evil spirits become effective when the girls challenge the normative traditions of a patriarchal society.
In these interpretations of the source, impact and vulnerability to black magic there are strong undertones of an ideal society – a deeply patriarchal and religiously monolithic one, with clear hierarchies within different religions.
Therefore, it seems to me that the concept of black magic in Pakistan is imbued in the contextual political framework of the country, shaped by Partition and the separation from India.
It goes on to show the long-lasting impact Partition has had on society and how it continues to capture the imagination of the people.
The article was first published in Scroll and has been reproduced with permission.