Haroon Khalid: Pakistani newspapers tend to censor my writing much more than Indian newspapers
Pakistani author Haroon Khalid introduces the reader to eye-opening religious traditions in his home country that are rooted in the cultural beliefs of South Asia
1) What was the trigger point for this book? Weren't you apprehensive about the subject matter being controversial?
I did not begin the research for this book as a planned enterprise. These were stories that I had accumulated over the years as a result of my travels around the country. However, for the longest time I could not see any connection between these different shrines and religious traditions. I saw them as anomalies in the larger religious and cultural sphere of Pakistan. Eventually though, as I began researching on these traditions I realized that they were all linked to the pre-Islamic religious traditions of South Asia. They weren’t anomalies but rather part of the larger Indian civilization that the Pakistani state constantly rejects. This became the trigger point for the book. These shrines and religious traditions for me defied the nationalistic discourse of the state, which is premised upon its separation from the Hindu past. These religious traditions celebrated their pre-Islamic roots. I wanted to juxtaposition the state narrative with these folk narratives, both of which survive together, yet are diametrically opposed to each other.
I have been writing about "controversial" subjects since a long time now. I have written about temples, Gurdwaras that are now lying in ruins in Pakistan or have been taken over by land mafia. I have written about the non-Muslim history of Pakistan, which is shunned in the official historiography. I have written about the plight of the religious minorities. And now this book that looks at some of the folk religious practices around the country that directly challenge the official narratives. Friends and well-wishers have warned me over the years given the changing landscape in the country. Things looked particularly bleak after the assassination of the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, yet, I have continued writing about topics that are close to my heart. However having said that I have to admit that operating in this environment one learns to steer away from certain topics which would be regarded as more "sensitive". I will not be lying if I say that sometimes I do indulge in self-censorship given certain topics and issues.
What upsets me though is how sometimes; my stories are used as propaganda by certain segments of the society to portray Pakistan as a "barbaric" "intolerant" state. Of course, Pakistan has its issues of intolerance particularly when it comes to non-Muslim communities and heritage, yet within all the stories I have done there will always be some aspects of optimism, which to my dismay sometimes goes ignored.
2) Which was the most challenging chapter/section that you faced during your research?
One of the most challenging aspects of the book was to provide these religious practices and shrines with a context. I did not want the book to simply give a list of these "idiosyncratic" religious shrines such as that of the phallic offering, sacred dogs and sacred cows. Rather I wanted to talk about the significance of these traditions within Pakistan – a country that was carved out of its separation from the Indian or Hindu culture. It is in this environment that the stories of these traditions become even more intriguing. For example Hindus and Muslims going to a Hindu shrine a 100 years ago perhaps would not be as significant as Muslims going to a Hindu shrine today. Today this action is loaded with meaning.
There were two other aspects that I wanted to highlight as well. One was presenting these shrines in the context of rising Islamic Puritanism and extremism. What do these shrines represent in this growing environment of Islamic uniformity? Pakistan today is seen as the hub of Islamic terrorism, while on the other hand you have such shrines that defy all stereotypes. I wanted to study this interaction between Islamic extremism and syncretism.
The final aspect was that of economic development. A lot of these religious practices have survived in the rural regions, where education and economic development has not reached. However that is changing now and one can see the effect of these developments on these traditions. With education comes a greater awareness of nationalism, religious identity, etc. All of these concepts are a product of state propaganda. Therefore as a community gets more "developed" or "educated" it moves away from these "Hindu" influences and heads towards a "purer" Islam.
I wanted to bring in all of these aspects into the book because I believed that talking about these shrines and traditions without this context would have not been able to highlight the true significance of these traditions in a Pakistani context. It was easy to talk about my travels to shrines and record these experiences but a little more challenging to talk about these philosophical topics in a travel book.
3) What were some of the most startling findings that you encountered/experienced along the way where you had to unlearn/change your opinions?
Initially, two of the most startling shrines that I found were that of the phallic offering and the sacred dogs. At the shrine of the phallic offering, which is known as Aban Shah, barren women present phallic offerings to the grave of the saint with the faith that the saint, Aban Shah, would bestow them with a child. This is a Muslim shrine in the heart of Pakistan’s most prosperous province, Punjab. Even though the caretakers of the shrine maintain that Aban Shah was a real man, I believe that the word Aban comes from Abba, which is the Punjabi word for father. Such fertility shrines have been found all over the ancient civilizations, across the world.
The second shrine that I found fascinating was the shrine of the sacred dogs, once again in Punjab. The dogs at this shrine are believed to be the progeny of the dogs that used to roam around with a Muslim saint called Peer Abbas. After his death the dogs continued staying at his grave and began to be seen as sacred by the devotees of the saint. Devotees offer them meat with the belief that this would bring to them the blessings of the saint. This shrine becomes particularly fascinating because conventionally in Islamic traditions dogs are considered to be impure animals. At this shrine the order of the sacred and profane has been reversed.
The sacred dogs of the shrine of Peer Abbas
One of the most startling discoveries for me was this realization that religious syncretism, which is what features in the book, is not something that exists in far away rural shrines but also in urban societies and in what we today consider mainstream Islam. However given that the political situation has changed drastically after Partition, most of these stories are now being forgotten or reinterpreted. For example, in the book, I talk about the annual festival of Eid Millad un Nabwi, when the birthday of the Prophet of Islam is celebrated. Over the past few years, the scale of these festivities has increased by manifold and now, it is celebrated in several other countries besides Pakistan. However, what a lot of people do not realize is that this festival was inspired by Ram Navami. Similarly, I talk about the Sufi order of the Chistiyyan, which is a mainstream Islamic Sufi order that adopts several aspects from the local religious traditions.
4) What are some of trials and tribulations that Pakistani writers like you face? And yet, you are unafraid to speak up for religious equality in particular? Do you believe things will change for the better or a large part of the current impression has been created by the media?
One of the most challenging aspects for a writer like me who focuses on religion, nationalism, and identity is this aspect of self-censorship. I have never been threatened or asked to tone down my writings, yet after the assassination of Salman Taseer I felt I started doing that on my own. At that time, I realized for the first time that perhaps the silent majority was not a tolerant majority as we had always thought. With the way supporters came out to greet his assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, it was getting clear that perhaps it was people like us who were in a minority. After that I completely stopped talking about certain issues, which I knew were more controversial than the others. Of course, one needs to bear in mind here that writing in English is different from writing in a regional language.
I also regularly write for Indian and Pakistani newspapers and magazines. I feel that Pakistani newspapers tend to censor my writing much more than Indian newspapers. In fact I don’t think I have ever been censored by an Indian magazine or blog. In Pakistan the media organizations live under this perpetual fear of not offending the religious segment of the society, which is why occasionally my stories are toned down, some words or comments are cut out. This is a necessary evil that one has to live with if one has to survive as a writer in Pakistan.
On the other hand, I do believe that given the socio-political circumstances people are a little too sensitive about discussing religious topics. I feel that there is a general consensus in the society that talking about religion or minorities would necessarily offend someone, so a lot of people don’t end up talking about it. I think this is paradoxical. On the one hand Pakistan is a deeply religious society, whereas on the other hand we as a society are now afraid to talk about religion. The media is also a part of this society and continues to live under this perpetual fear. It is this space that I want to establish. There was a tradition of religious discussions in Islamic society, which has now almost finished. Also, given the right language and tone even the most controversial opinions can be expressed in a polite manner.
5) What has been the initial reaction to your book in your home country?
So far the reaction has been that of fascination. "This exists in Pakistan," is what a lot of people ask. I have been approached by a couple of documentary-makers who want to make a documentary based on my book. Recently one of the most well known Pakistani columnist, Nadeem F Paracha endorsed the book. I have done a couple of book tours where students, journalists and other professionals have expressed their fascination. Most of the people find it hard to believe that traditions like this can exist in the same cities and villages that they live. "How do you find such stories?" is another question that I have been asked many times.
IN SEARCH OF SHIVA BY HAROON KHALID, RUPA PUBLICATIONS, RS 295
I parked my car in front of a small dhaba to find out whether the small road led to the village 50 Chak PS.
‘Is there a shrine of Aban Shah there?’ I asked the owner of the dhaba after he confirmed I was going in the right direction.
‘Yes there is,’ said the old man sitting on a platform inside.
‘See there is a shrine of Aban Shah. I wasn’t making it up,’ I told my friends as I got back into the car. ‘We’ll see if they actually have those that you speak of,’ replied Maryam, who knew that I was really talking to her, as she had been the most sceptical about the existence of the shrine.
‘Penises!’ I said with a laugh. Anam, my fiancée and Bilal, a photographer like Maryam, laughed lightly.
In my travels around the country I have seen my share of strange customs and practices that one would not usually associate with Islam, at least with the Islam that I have grown up with. But nothing had prepared me for this, a Muslim shrine dedicated to the fertility cult, where women offer phallic-shaped offerings to the patron saint while praying for a child, ideally a boy. It was a continuation of a tradition that evolved long before the birth of Islam.
Archaeologists have unearthed seals and terracotta figurines from the cities of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization, believed to be part of religious rituals, several of which developed around the fertility cult. There are figurines of pregnant women and seals depicting a male figure sitting in a yogic position with an erect penis. There is consensus amongst archaeologists that these figurines and seals were used as votive offerings to deities while praying for the birth of children. We were on our way to see a tradition that had been passed onto us through a journey of thousands of years.
I was first informed about the shrine by my friend and mentor Iqbal Qaiser. Together he and I had travelled extensively in Punjab, documenting Hindu and Jain temples, gurdwaras and peculiar Muslim shrines located in obscure villages and small towns that do not exist on the political map of the country. His brilliant work, Historical Sikh Shrines in Pakistan, documents 135 gurdwaras in the country. Over the years, Iqbal Qaiser has managed to add a new dimension to my understanding of Pakistan and its history, beyond the pitiful state of villages and raw capitalism of towns. He has helped add a historical perspective to my understanding of these places, something that sixteen years of formal education could not do.
A few months prior to my visit to this village, I received a call from Iqbal asking me if he could come and see me. Later in the day, while we were sitting in my garage, around a fire he said, ‘Let’s make a trip to Pakpattan. There is an interesting shrine there that I want you to see and write about. You know what a shivling is, right? There is a shrine there where women worship and present a shivling to the grave of the saint. It’s incredible, isn’t it? A friend came to me in the morning with a “specimen” from the shrine. It was made out of wood and was just like the real deal. I was holding it in my hand when I called you. The shrine is of Aban Shah. My friend told me these penis offerings are lying all over the shrine. They are sacred structures.’
Iqbal Qaiser had also figured out the etymology of the shrine’s name by the time he came to me. ‘Aban, I think, comes from Abba, the word we use for father.’ As it turned out, Iqbal Qaiser couldn’t make the trip to the shrine with me because he was busy.
Prominent Indus Valley archaeologist Mark Kenoyer is of the opinion that the seals depicting a nude male figure with an erect penis sitting in a yogic position, discovered from Mohenjo-daro, could actually be a prototype of Lord Shiva, one of the most important Hindu deities. In Hinduism, Shiva is depicted as a lingam which is a phallus. In Hindu temples, the lingam is placed inside a structure called yoni, signifying the vagina. Together they represent the divine power of procreation. In most religions, God is seen as a creator as well as a great father. In the context of this particular shrine, the saint is viewed as someone who bestows birth therefore a father figure.
Mahadev Chakravarti in his book The Concept of Rudra Siva Through the Ages, mentions that in post-Vedic literature, Shiva is known as the god of procreation. He further explains that in an agriculture-intensive society like that of the Indus Valley (similar to present day Punjab, Pakistan) the fertility cult has particular significance, as cultivation is perceived to be an act of procreating. He writes that Shiva is also worshipped as the god of cultivation. In post-Vedic literature one finds the river Ganges on top of Shiva’s head emphasizing his fertilizing power.
Fertility cults have played a prominent role in all ancient civilizations. In Egyptian civilization, there were Khem and Osiris, in Assyrian there was Vul. Fertility rituals developed around Pan and Dionysius in Greece, Fricco in Scandinavia, Hortanes in Spain, Adonis in Phoenicia and Attis in Phrygia. Several of these ancient cults developed in isolation, without much sharing and borrowing from each other, highlighting humans’ fascination with the process of creating and creation. The fertility cults also represent the human quest to leave a mark on the world, to become a creator himself/herself through his/her progeny, a lack of which therefore, requires divine intervention. Fertility dominates human existence, whether it is in the form of humans, being an act of creation, or creators depicted in art, music, etc.
‘Is this shrine something like the Kanamara Matsuri?’ asked Maryam as we headed towards the village. It was a single road, with its edges tethered, as if bitten off by some prehistoric monster and then discarded because of its bad taste. Frequently we would have to climb down on the road to give way to a trolley and a tractor overflowing with sugarcane.
‘What is Kanamara Matsuri?’ asked Anam.
‘It is a festival held each year at a shrine in Japan with the penis as the central theme. The name of the shrine is Kanayama, which too is a penis-venerating shrine,’ I replied.
‘I really want to go there sometime for the festival,’ commented Maryam.
‘I want to take back souvenirs to show to my friends,’ she added.
Staring out into the deep fields on a bright afternoon, Bilal smoked away.
‘Me too,’ Anam joined her in excitement.
‘They’ll let us do that, right?’ Maryam wanted to know.
‘Of course they will. They will be lying all over the shrine. We can just pick one up and take it back,’ I said with assurance.
The concrete road gave way to a mud track as we entered the village. It was smaller than I had expected, a few hundred houses, most of which were made of mud, just like villages and cities would have looked in the Indus Valley Civilization. It was deserted except for a few naked children running along our car, a rare sight in this secluded part of the village. Under the shade of a house, I noticed a group of elderly men gathered around a hookah, adjusting their glasses and peering closely at us ‘strange creatures’.
We left behind a trail of dust and continued looking out for any signs of the shrine. The mud track gave way to a concrete road as we left behind the last remaining row of village houses. I stopped a young man approaching us on a cycle and asked him about the shrine. He pointed towards a graveyard, off the concrete road. The shrine was surrounded by a cluster of trees. Socially appropriate I thought, imagining phallus structures hanging from the branches. There was a modest house next to the shrine.
As we parked our car next to this house, a child peeped out, probably curious about the strange sounds. The shrine was an unassuming building, a lonely structure in the graveyard. It was single-storeyed with a green dome on top of a white body. Baba Aban Shah was scribbled at its entrance. A small courtyard stretched out in front of the shrine, with remnants of a boundary wall around it. White turbans with festoons and glass bangles were scattered at the other end of the courtyard. These two objects symbolize the groom and the bride. They must have been placed there by supplicants hoping to get married. There were no signs of any phalli. My friends spread out across the graveyard, while I entered the shrine. The grave, without an indentifying plaque, lay at the centre of the room, with a bowl of salt, to be consumed by devotees for blessings, next to it. Still no phalli.
Outside, my friends were disappointed after searching vainly all over the graveyard.
‘At least we will get to see Baba Farid’s shrine at Pakpattan,’ I said, trying to cheer them up. Maryam gave me an I-toldyou-so look.
As we turned despondently towards the car, I realized that we had overlooked an old lady who had come out of the house and was standing next to the car, with one hand placed on the child who had first appeared when we parked there. She was about seventy and looked like she had seen poverty all her life.
‘Where are you from? Why don’t you come inside?’ she told us.
We followed her. She took us to a portico where another old woman was lying on one of the several charpoys (rope beds). A young boy of eighteen with a shaved head, sat next to her. He seemed lost in his own world and didn’t look at us as we entered. We were told later that he was mentally disturbed.
Two males and two females, we could have easily been newly married couples seeking the blessings of the saint to have a child. I explained to the woman lying on the charpoy that we were there to seek the blessings of the saint. She appeared satisfied with my explanation.
‘I moved into this house a few years ago after the death of my husband, who is buried in the graveyard outside. I have two children, one of them is this boy. He is a Saeen. I am crippled and after the death of my husband I had no place to go so I came and settled here, next to his grave.’
Her name was Hajra. Not knowing how to ask these two women about the phalli offerings, I asked them about the bangles and the turbans instead.
‘These are presented to the shrine by women praying for children. Some of them also bring toys for children and tie them around the trees outside. Not all of them come to ask for children of their own. Women sometimes come to pray for their cows to give birth to calves.’
Hanifa, the old woman who had brought us in, nodded in agreement.
Offering toys and seeking blessings from sacred trees is another tradition that has continued from the religious practices of the Indus Valley Civilization. Archaeologists and historians have identified a few of the figurines discovered from Indus Valley cities as toys, which could have been offered to deities with a specific purpose.
The shrine of Ghore Shah where toys are offered to the grave of the saint. Similar votive offerings have also been unearthed from ancient Indus Valley cities
It seems as if thousands of generations have survived in this very form. Peeling off the layers of this civilization, we find that it is the same people with similar beliefs who live here today. The changes that have occurred have only been on the surface, sometimes taking the form of paganism, sometimes that of Buddhism, to be replaced by Jainism, Hinduism and then Islam. Several trees have also been depicted in the votive seals with deities, leading experts to assume they were also allotted special religious significance. The most important one was the banyan tree, which is still considered sacred in the Hindu, Buddhist and even Muslim traditions of South Asia, something that these religions have adopted from the Indus Valley Civilization. The waan trees stooping over the graves outside are also considered sacred in the Muslim saints’ hagiography. These trees are known to live through several centuries and are associated with several miracles.
A sacred Banyan tree
‘My brother told me that this is not the actual grave of the saint and that Aban Shah was not his real name,’ added Hanifa.
She confirmed Iqbal Qaiser’s thesis that Aban Shah was not a name but a title given to the saint for the effectiveness of his blessings on childless couples.
Phallic offering at the shrine of Aban Shah
‘His real name was Baba Lal Shah. He once came here and tied his horse to the waan tree next to the shrine. While he was staying here the horse died so the saint buried it and moved on.’
Historically, Muslim mystics have preferred itinerant lives which allow them to learn about spiritual matters from different sources, and also to proselytize. Jürgen Wasim Frembgen, a leading scholar on Muslim culture, compares the itinerant nature of a mystic’s life to the metaphorical journey that humans undertake at the time of their birth till their death, considered to be their final destination.
‘He is actually buried in a village called Lakhewali Haveli near Pakpattan next to the river [Sutlej]. I have never seen that shrine myself but my brother has.’
‘So women offer turbans, bangles and toys to the shrine. Is there anything else that they offer?’ I asked Hajra, wondering if by asking this question I had crossed the line of social decorum. I had tried to be as tactful as possible. Hajra covered her face with her dupatta and giggled whereas Hanifa gave a coy smile while slapping the little boy gently on the back.
‘Yes, yes,’ replied Hajra. ‘Women also sometimes offer killis to the shrine. We place them inside now because children would often run off with them.’
Killi in Punjabi is used as a slang to refer to a nail, specifically one which is inserted into a particular surface like a wall or a cupboard to hang pictures or clothes. I assumed that the killis Hajra was referring to were phallus offerings.
‘You might find a few tied to the trees outside as well. Women tie them to the branches praying for a child,’ added Hanifa.
‘No, you won’t find any on the trees. I removed them all and placed them inside. They would get lost otherwise. Children and young boys who do not know their importance play with them and then take them away. We lost so many like this that I now protect all of them. Whenever any new killi is presented I collect it and save it,’ said Hajra.
The fact that out of all the offerings—toys, bangles and turbans—presented to the shrine, children would choose to pick up the killis also meant that they understood what they symbolized. It wasn’t out of fear of theft that Hajra was hiding them but out of concerns of modesty. Morality defined by a more urbane Islam had finally caught up with this particular practice as well.
‘How long have you been collecting them?’ I asked her.
‘Ever since I moved here. I now have a bag full of them inside,’ she said, pointing to a room behind her which had no door.
‘Can I see one?’
‘Of course! Hanifa go inside and bring one from a black bag.’
A few minutes later Hanifa emerged with a killi, about six–seven inches in length, and gave it to Maryam and Anam to examine. It was a simple wooden structure that could be passed off as a penis with some imagination.
‘Can I see any of the other ones?’ I asked Hajra.
‘They are all the same. Just look at this one.’
I didn’t want to test the limits of Hajra’s hospitality so I conceded.
‘Most of the visitors to the shrine are jungli from the neighbouring village. They bring all these things and present them. We are migrants. We don’t believe in such traditions,’ said Hajra with an apologetic tone.
Why was she protecting them, I wondered, but refrained from asking her.
Jungli, which literally means ‘people of the jungle’, is a popular term used to refer to the indigenous Punjabis, as opposed to those who settled here after the construction of the canal colonies by the British during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Using ingenious methods of civil engineering, the British connected the five rivers of Punjab with each other through canals, turning several acres of jungle land into agricultural land. As a result, thousands of new villages, referred to as chaks were established, and farming families from all over Punjab were invited to settle in these villages and tend the land. One such village was 50 Chak PS. The former inhabitants of the areas where the chaks were established were primarily nomads who did not have the concept of private ownership and were thus unable to prove ownership over land that they had lived for thousands of years. Their land was snatched away and allotted to these migrants. Soon their nomadic lifestyle came to be referred to as uncivilized or jungli.
There was a subtle implication behind this otherwise harmless sounding remark. Hajra wasn’t using the word jungli as a derogatory title, but rather as a means of identification. However, the distinction was raised to dissociate with the shrine and its ‘vulgar’ practices, a distinction which was necessary due to our presence. Given her ignorance of our religious leanings, she wanted to distance herself from this paganism, which would normally offend the sensibilities of most religiously inclined city-dwellers. Even though both women didn’t say anything, I wondered if there had been any backlash from the conservative elements of the village resulting in them taking a defensive stance.
All the inhabitants of 50 Chak PS were from the wave of the second migration that took place after the division of Punjab between India and Pakistan. As opposed to the migrants who had suffered at the hands of the Hindus and the Sikhs during the riots, the locals all over the country generally tend to be more embracive of practices ‘non-Muslims’. I have seen several gurdwaras and temples being taken over and destroyed by the migrants who moved into them after losing their homes and belongings in India. On the contrary, in villages and towns where a considerable percentage of the population is indigenous, such ‘non-Muslim’ religious spaces are better looked after. This is primarily due to a historical bond developed over several generations. However, there are exceptions, and there have been several occasions in which the indigenous have been as brutal to non-Muslim shrines as any other community. This particular village’s inhabitants were predominantly Hindus and Sikhs, abandoned following the riots of 1947. In contrast, the neighbouring village housed Muslims who had lived there for several generations and who must have developed a particular association with this shrine, a religious space that they must have shared with Hindus and Sikhs. For the migrants, such a local fertility cult would have been scandalous and therefore, must have taken some time to find place in their religious sensibilities. But given the fact that Hajra was based here and collected the offerings to maintain their sanctity, meant that the cult was able to grow popular among the newcomers as well.
‘We don’t know how old this shrine is. It was present here before the creation of Pakistan,’ said Hanifa, whose family had moved here after the Partition. Hajra’s ancestral roots also lay on the other side of the divide.
‘You know the saint is responsible for maintaining the purity of his own shrine. He can read everyone’s intention. If you come with evil intention he will emerge as a lion and devour you. I have seen it with my own eyes,’ said Hanifa. ‘There are also several snakes here that guard the shrine and bite only those who are evil. If you are pure of heart nothing will happen to you even if they crawl up your leg.’
There was a sense of urgency in her tone, a justification of sorts that phallus offerings don’t represent a corrupt moral system. Rather it is a holy act, and if anyone tries to trivialize it, the person is punished severely. I thought about my conversation with Maryam in the car and hoped for the sake of our safety that the story was just superstition. I wondered though, if the saint had promised to protect his own shrine, why was Hajra intervening by protecting the offerings.
By talking about the snakes around this fertility shrine, Hanifa, without being aware of it, had made an age-old connection between fertility cults and snakes. Snakes, because of their ability to shed their old skins and grow a new one, are seen as symbols of rejuvenation and everlasting youth. In Hinduism, Shiva worship and worship of a snake go hand in hand. In seals discovered from Mohenjo-daro, which are believed to represent the proto-Shiva, the figure is flanked by two kneeling snakes. Even in the Mahabharata, an epic read and revered by Hindus, snakes are closely affiliated with Shiva. In fact, one of the several incarnations of Shiva is that of a snake god. There are similar connections between snakes and fertility cults in other ancient religions. Osiris, a god from ancient Egypt, and the Greek god of Hermes, both known for their fertility power, are shown holding snakes.
On the way out, I noticed several burrows dug by snakes. Perhaps in earlier days, devotees coming to seek the blessings of Saint Aban Shah also had offered milk and prayed to the snakes of the saint, a tradition which then fizzled out and died, similar to what would eventually happen to the phallus offerings.
Feeling parched, we stopped for drinks at the only shop in the village on our way back from the shrine. A group of children gathered around us. Standing behind the counter was thirty-year-old Akhtar, equally intrigued by our presence. There was a television set placed on a high plank in this small room, one of the few technological advances that had trickled down to villages. This harmless-looking box has revolutionized the culture of faraway villages. It has brought to them the message of uniform nationalism, the dictates of a pure religion purged of its past corruptions that had ‘seeped into it during its days of interaction with the Hindu culture’. It has brought to these villages new ideas of what civilization and civilized mean, resulting in the reinterpretation of their own worldview. I had no doubt that this harmless-looking box had played a pivotal role in inviting disdain towards the shrine of phallic offerings.
Akhtar had a short beard, a symbol of religious piety. ‘Please ask this lady to go away,’ he said, referring to Anam who was standing next to me while we were talking to him about the shrine.
On a normal day, Anam would have been enraged by such sexist behaviour and would have probably given Akhtar a piece of her mind. Today she left us to interview a local woman.
‘The truth is that a few years ago, the elders of our village decided to remove all these things [killis] from the shrine. This is because young girls were being corrupted due to the practices there.’
I understood why he had asked Anam to leave. He was afraid that she might get ‘corrupted’ as well.
‘Girls would collect these offerings and engage in immoral activities. So finally it was decided that only those particular offerings, the killis, needed to be stopped whereas anything else could be presented to the shrine. Now no one presents the killis there.’
I wondered if Akhtar knew about Hajra’s preservation and decided against telling him about it.
Female sexuality has always threatened the male’s sentiment in religious stories. One would come across several narrations of male yogis, saints and mystics being incited by celestial nymphs while they meditated. Perhaps the most famous of them was Buddha. In the Islamic tradition, it is the sexuality of the female that is to be guarded as it has the potential to disrupt the senses of a male. The story of Prophet Yousuf comes to mind—in this story, the Egyptian wife of his master was so enthralled by his beauty that she made several attempts to have a sexual relationship with him and when that failed she got him punished by making up stories against him. This concept of female sexuality, untamed and beyond control, is a recurring theme in ancient religions. I was glad Anam was not around to hear this version of the story.
Akhtar’s testimony presented the larger picture. Hanifa and Hajra had earlier said that the saint himself was responsible for protecting the holiness of his own shrine, which essentially meant that he didn’t require human intervention to restore moral order, which was what the ‘elders of the villages’ (who must have been all men, of course) were primarily doing. Images of the saint taking up the form of a lion and attacking those who played around with the phalli came to my mind. Even though these two women had conceded to the wishes of the elderly, they had also developed a counter-narrative which said that there is no need for such an intervention. How superficial then was Hajra’s claim that only the jungli took part in this practice. Of course, the women of this village believed in this cult.
My analysis was further strengthened by the story of Salma, a twenty-five-year-old housewife whose family had moved to this village from Ferozepur district, India. She had three children, two sons and a daughter, all of whom she believed were born after seeking the blessings of Aban Shah. Salma told Anam separately while I was talking to Akhtar, that when she hadn’t conceived after five years of marriage, her mother-in-law had threatened her with divorce. Out of desperation, she presented a phallus offering to the shrine and was rewarded with three children. Now she visits the shrine regularly. In fact while she was pregnant, Saint Aban Shah appeared in her dream and suggested the names of the children. She also repeated the stories about the saint appearing as a lion to protect the sanctity of his shrine. It amazes me how miracles occur despite all odds because of the power of faith.
As we headed out of the village, a group of children ran after our car. I wondered how many of them were products of the blessings of Saint Aban Shah.