A few years ago, I had gone on a long trip to South Punjab in Pakistan, where I wound my way through various Sufi shrines belonging to several traditions, some similar and others distinct. I was working on my second book then, In Search of Shiva, a collection of several such idiosyncratic Sufi shrines around Punjab that draw their religious inspiration from pre-Islamic ancient religious traditions of this land. This ended up being a rather unique collection of shrines – there was the shrine of phallic offerings, one of sacred dogs and another of sacred cows, to name a few.

The search for one such shrine took to me to Tibba Haji Deen, a small village next to the colonial city of Bahawalnagar. On the outskirts of the village, on a vacant plot, was a huge shrine, thought to have the power to cure mental illnesses. Those suffering from psychological disorders would be left at the shrine for a few days and would recover miraculously, or so it was believed. Beyond these myths about the shrine, they were also several stories of oppression and abuse, which could perhaps be discussed in another column.

While roaming the village in search for this shrine, I chanced upon another Sufi shrine with several graves in a row, all covered with colorful shawls and containing Quranic inscriptions. An old man came up to me and told me that these graves belonged to seven generations of 12th- century Sufi poet Baba Farid’s male ancestors – his father, grandfather, great-grandfather and so on.

Baba Farid is buried in the city of Pakpattan 70-odd km from here. His Punjabi verses are still sung by folk singers and qawwals in Punjab on both sides of the border. He also had a huge impact on Guru Nanak, the first Sikh guru, who collected Farid’s poetry from his ancestor and that is how it found its way into the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib.

Before that, the great Punjab poet’s work only existed in the oral tradition, remembered and passed onto the next generation through songs.

In one corner of this open courtyard was a small, humbly decorated grave. “Whose grave is that?” I asked the old man. “That belongs to one of my ancestors,” he replied. “Our family has been serving this shrine for the past several generations.”

Driving down the Multan road, on my way back to Lahore, I was still thinking about the shrine of Baba Farid’s ancestors and the connection between the old man’s family and the family of the saint. Stories of the saint’s miraculous and spiritual prowess must have passed from one generation to another, His poetry recited, analysed and remembered through this channel. This was perhaps one of the few remnants of our country’s oral culture, once the backbone of our heritage.

Musical memories

Just as I was thinking about this, a rendition of Amir Khusro’s Aaj Rang Hai by Hadiqa Kiani, a contemporary Pakistani pop artist, on Coke Studio started playing in the car. The iconic Sufi poet’s 13th-century song is a tribute to Nizamuddin Auliya, Khusro’s spiritual master.

In the typical qawwali style, the song builds up slowly and gradually and after much repetition, bursts into its culmination, a divine ecstasy. Nizamuddin Auliya was the head of the Chisti Sufi order, still one of the most prominent Sufi schools in India as well as Pakistan. Qawwali remains one of the central tenets of this Sufi order, a way for them to express their devotion. It is this unique relationship between music and devotion that allowed the Chisti order to become so popular in India, drawing devotees from Hinduism and Islam.

Almost midway into the qawalli, Kiani goes into a trance-like state, repeating a particular composition. This is an important stage before the song’s culmination.

In this repetition, she recited the name of the heads of Chisti order – Nizamuddin Auliya, Alauddin, Faridudin, Shah Qutubudin, Moinudin. The names melted into the melody of the song, slowly entering the collective memories of the listeners. These few lines contain 100 years of the Chisti order’s history in India.

Over generations, from the 13th century when this qawwali was first sung to the present, these names have been repeated and memorised by those who have heard the song. This is how oral history was preserved. While the written word was the preserve of the elite, the ordinary folk preserved their history by committing it to memory in other ways, of which songs are just an example.

Stories in names

Another beautiful example is that of names. Much before the Saffronisation of India and the Islamisation of Pakistan, names sometimes preserved within them a memory of an entire generation to be passed on to the next one. A few years ago, I heard about one Baba Raiyyah, an old man who lived in Lahore and whose family migrated to Pakistan from India’s Punjab at the time of Partition.

The word Raiyyah comes from ra, which means way in Punjab. Raiyyah was born on the way to the new country in 1947 when his family, uprooted from their ancestral village, headed West to the safety of Pakistan. Three or four generations after him heard the story of how Baba Raiyyah got his name, tales of their family’s lost homes and the long journey to Pakistan.

There was also a story in the name of Baba Laskhar from Ferozepur – now a border town –before Partition. In the year he was born, their village was attacked by an armed group called Laskhar. Through his name, several generations of Baba Lashkar’s family kept alive the memory of that attack.

Sometimes, history is also preserved in a ritual. Maraka was a small, insignificant village when the forces of when Afghan king Ahmad Shah Abdali, bored with a prolonged siege of the walled city of Lahore, burnt it down in the 18th century. Decades later, as some surviving members of the village repopulated it, they constructed a small shrine and named it Shaheedan da mazaar, shrine of the martyred. Every year they organised a fair at the shrine to commemorate the barbaric attack on their village. The festival continued well into the history of Pakistan before it slowly faded away.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books, most recently, Walking with Nanak