In a dense grove a short walk from the impressive Gurdwara Sacha Sauda, the famous shrine that commemorates Guru Nanak’s life-changing meeting with starving sadhus outside Chuhrkhana town, about 75 km from Lahore, stands an abandoned single-storey domed small brick structure. This is Gurdwara Sachakand.

The entrance, above which somebody has scribbled “Allah” in charcoal, overlooks a mud grave, enclosed by a feeble wall of a few bricks. Inside, a picture on a wall shows a Muslim fakir, wearing a green shawl and sporting a beard, praying in this building. Other walls are decorated with posters of the Ka’aba and the Masjid-i-Nabwi in Medina.

It is a hot summer afternoon in Ramzan, the month of fasting, and everyday life has slowed down. On a vacant plot behind Gurdwara Sachakand, a few men are resting in the shade of the trees.

“Who is in that grave?” I enquired.

“Pir Munawar,” replied one of the men, Furqan. “He was a renowned saint who had immense spiritual prowess. He would never ask for food and only eat what was offered to him. He stood in a canal for 12 straight years and ate only rocks.”

Hearing about Pir Munawar made me think of the ascetics Guru Nanak had met here. The story goes that when Nanak came of age, his father gave him a little money to start some trade. Nanak left Talwindi, or Nankana Sahib, for Chuhrkhana to buy goods. In the jungle just outside the town, he came upon a group of naked, emaciated sadhus sitting in strange yoga positions. Upon enquiry, Nanak found out that they had not eaten for days and would not until someone offered them food because begging was against their religious conviction. Nanak went and bought food with the money his father had given him and fed the ascetics. When he returned home, he told his angry father he had engaged in true trade, or Sacha Sauda.

Pir Munawar, like Nanak’s ascetics, also only ate when offered food and engaged in physical hardship to attain spirituality. This is a feature of folk Islam, which borrows heavily from the diverse spiritual traditions of this land. It does not adhere to any strict notions of exclusivity, leaving room for even non-Muslims to engage in its practices. There is room for Nanak and his gurdwara in this religiosity. One of the men in the grove said his elders, who used to live with Sikhs before the Partition, held Nanak as a holy figure and his gurdwara sacred.

Sometime after Partition, Pir Munawar came and settled in Gurdwara Sachakand and was buried in it after his death. This is not an imposition of one religion on another but rather a coexistence and mutuality that underpins folk religion. Pir Munawar by settling here resacralised a place abandoned by its devotees.

Gurdwara Sacha Sauda marks the place where Guru Nanak fed starving sadhus outside Lahore. Photo credit: Iqbal Qaiser

Dying tradition

Once widespread, such folk religious traditions are being slowly wiped out, especially in urban centres. Devotees who can read and write seek a “truer” version of their religion, and look for guidance directly in scriptures. Often, they come away with literal interpretations of the religion. Folk religious practices, which are passed down orally and have little basis in religious texts, are looked down upon.

Not surprisingly then, folk Islamic traditions are more common in rural areas or urban pockets with low levels of formal education. This leads to urban and rural areas having different religious milieus. The differences are never more visible than during Ramzan.

While eating and drinking publicly during the fasting hours is banned in Pakistan, this year the government amended the Respect Ramadan Act to increase fine and jail time for violators. For the most part, such decorum is maintained in urban centres, where restaurants remain closed and people who are not fasting refrain from eating in public. Not so much in rural settings, especially in Punjab.

As I was talking with the villagers resting outside Gurdwara Sachakand, a man came and sat down. He took out a packet of cigarettes and offered it to the person sitting next to him. The packet went around and everyone took a cigarette. There were no embarrassed glances, no looking out for anyone watching. Nobody was fasting and there was no public display of piety that one would expect in a city.

On another day, tracing the footsteps of Nanak, I reached the small town of Kanganpur in Punjab province. I sat in a shop interviewing a local historian as a group of men sat under an ancient banyan tree across the road, idly staring at passersby. Our host brought us tea and placed it on the road-facing counter for everyone to see. Having lived most of my adult life in Lahore, I hesitated to have tea publicly in Ramazan. Then, I noticed one of the men under the tree lighting a cigarette. It is hard to imagine a similar situation in Lahore.

On another Ramzan trip searching for historical Jain temples in the town of San Khatra, a companion and I walked into a jeweller’s shop next to a temple. A little boy discreetly left and returned with biscuits and cold drinks. We were not even asked if we were fasting. The shop owner did not expect us to. I wonder if, with the latest changes in the law, this has changed in Punjab’s villages and small towns. Will they still dare offer tea during fasting hours? I have no doubt they will.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books, Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail