“In Search of Shiva- a Study of Folk Religious Practices in Pakistan” by Haroon Khalid

In Search of Shiva

“Dama dam mast Qalander……” The peppy tune echoed in my mind as I breezed through Haroon Khalid’s book. Whether sung by Bangladeshi singer Runa Laila or Pakistani Abida Parveen or the Wadali brothers, the song has a universal appeal. Hazrat Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, the 12th century Sufi saint is not the subject of this book though. The author, an Islamabad-based journalist and educationist takes us on an unusual journey through little known villages in Pakistan, where religious shrines cling to relics and rituals of a long-forgotten pre-Islamic past, virtually presenting an alternative and liberal version of Islam. Khalid expresses concerns about the rising tide of extremism and intolerance in Pakistan and suggests that many of these quaint practices may soon be wiped out or driven underground.

“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.” Here, the author recounts his visit to the shrine of Aban Shah Shirazi. Glass bangles and white turbans were among the offerings. No sign of any shivling! Khalid and his fellow travellers finally discovered that an elderly woman had removed all the phallic symbols to hide them from prying eyes. It appears that concerns for modesty played a part rather than Islamic beliefs, or the other items would have been hidden too. When asked about the offerings, the woman said, “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…..Women sometimes come to pray for their cows to give birth to calves.” This in an Islamic country where Hindus comprise less than 2% of the population!

A 25-year old woman confessed that when she remained childless after five years of marriage and her mom-in-law threatened her with divorce, a simple phallic offering to the saint did the trick and she was soon blessed with two sons and a daughter. Wonder what the Prophet Muhammad, PBUH, would say to that!

The shrine of Baba Mast where thousands of eunuchs congregate, that of Peer Abbas, where dogs abound, the shrine at Kallar Kahar where peacocks are venerated (Babur camped here on his way to conquer India), the shrine of Ghore Shah where toy horses are offered, a shrine for the master of crows, what more do you need? A 75-year old dervish tells the author, “All langar provided to the devotees at the shrine is offered to the crows before anybody else. Children who stutter or have other speaking problems drink water from the same vessel as the crows and are cured.” He continues, picking up a little ash from under a pot, “This ash here is also sacred. Devotees eat it and all their problems are solved.”

In the city of Jhang, where the legendary lovers Heer and Ranjha lie buried in a single grave, the site has become a place of pilgrimage. The story is part of the oral tradition of South Asia, supposedly written by Damodardas Arora during the reign of Akbar and rewritten by Waris Shah in the 18th century. And young people come here in droves to seek the blessings of the long-gone lovebirds.

The book offers many glimpses of life in Pakistan. Here are some interesting examples: ‘Jihad is an obligation, now or never,’ said an advertisement sponsored by the Jamaat ud dawa organization, on the back of a rickshaw. “The (Friday) prayer would be preceded by a sermon from the local maulvi, who while stoking his oiled beard would pray for the demise of the United States, Israel and India, our own local version of the axis of evil…” The author notes the disappearance of kittens from the Billiyonwala Mazaar at Lahore and its rapid transition from a Sufi shrine to a regular mosque. He observes that the Eid Milad un Nabi celebrations are modeled on the Hindu festival of Ram Navami, and while the fervor with which Eid is celebrated has increased, its opposition from puritanical Muslims has also increased. Qawwali singing at Sufi shrines also irks the orthodox maulvis who believe that music is un-Islamic.

“I have often been told that there are certain topics pertaining to religion one should avoid writing about because of the negative backlash they are likely to invite. I, on the other hand, argue that one can get away with writing anything in Pakistan as no one reads,” Khalid explains. I hope his luck holds. We don’t want the young man to attract a fatwa or anything. We need sane voices from every country to keep speaking out, to keep writing, to move the dialogue forward.

The publishers could have could have done a better job of editing — I found several blatant errors in the text. But my overall assessment is still: Eminently readable.


Reviewer: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

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