At the entrance of a shrine stood a plaque with the purported story of its patron saint. “He is a martyr and martyrs never die,” it said. “He laid down his life helping the Muslims of this region against the Hindu Marathas. And now, even the birds from heaven come to the shrine to pay homage to the holy martyr.”

There was no mention of any time period, or the context of the conflict that took the purported saint’s life. But none was required. Decades of state propaganda had laid the ground for statement of a Muslim being martyred at the hands of Hindus to be accepted as fact.

Several devotees, a few locals and many tourists entered the shrine and paid their respects to the elaborately decorated grave, with a green shawl containing verses of the Quran, a few garlands and a turban on one side.

Moron wali Sarkar, or the saint of the peacocks, is a fairly well-known shrine in Pakistan’s Punjab. It is located in Kallar Kahar, a town which has in the past two decades become quite popular with the tourists because of the motorway connecting Islamabad to Lahore that passes through it. Located on top of a small mound, the open courtyard of the shrine provided a panoramic view of the surroundings – the lake, Kallar Kahar and the M2 Motorway a few kilometers away. Little hillocks dominated the landscape as far as the eye could see.

Photo: Iqbal Qaiser

A middle-aged man sat at entrance, making sure devotees maintain decorum. “Cover you head before entering the shrine,” he said to a woman. I asked him how he was attached to the shrine. “I have been appointed by the Auqaf department [a state department] as their representative at the shrine for the past few years, but I am a resident of this town, so my association with the shrine goes a long way back,” he said.

Keeping control

Established in 1959 by the first military dictator, Ayub Khan, the Auqaf department looks after the affairs of prominent mosques and shrines around the country, even collecting revenue on their behalf. It is claimed the dictator set up this department to weaken the authority of the heads of Sufi shrines, most of whom still are prominent feudal lords and have immense political influence. Moreover, Sufism, with its multi-cultural influences, syncretic nature, mysticism and celebration of music and dance was viewed as a threat to a more purtanical Islam that the State was aligning with.

The official charter of the department drafted by Javed Iqbal, the son of politician-poet Allama Iqbal, claims its agenda is to discredit the “superstitious” beliefs of these shrines and reinterpret them in a “modernist” light. In practice this, translates into aligning the diverse religious traditions of these distinct shrines with the state’s interpretation of the official religion of Islam.

In the six decades of its existence, the department has managed to succeed at this to some extent. In certain shrines, such as Data Darbar in Lahore, dedicated to a sufi saint, it has managed to alter its religious traditions to align it with the purported mainstream.

But in other cases, such as at the shrine of Madho Lal Hussain – dedicated to mystic Shah Hussein and his disciple and lover, Madho Lal – also in Lahore, the department has failed to rid it off non-Islamic influences. Sufi shrines located in smaller towns and villages, far away from Pakistan’s political centres of Lahore and Islamabad have also largely managed to retain their distinct nature.

Creature care

A little over a year ago, I wrote about a shrine in a small town, about 80-odd km from Lahore, which holds dogs sacred. Dogs were allowed to roam the premises of the shrine devoted to Peer Abbas, a saint who loved the animal that is otherwise looked down on in Islam. The dogs were offered meat to seek the saint’s blessings. One reason why such an idiosyncratic practice has survived for such a long time is because it is in a small town, away from the State’s glare.

But the same was not the case with a similar shrine in Lahore, where cats were revered because of their association with its patron saint, in Lahore. Over the years, the cats that lent the shrine its name, Billiyon wali sarkar, have been driven out.

After the horrendous attack on the Shah Noorani shrine in Baluchistan on November 12, where more than 52 devotees as a bomb exploded while they were performing the dhamal a whirling dance that puts devotees in a trance of sorts – I wrote about how, even in the eyes of the State, several practices at Sufi shrines are seen with disdain because of their pre-Islamic and diverse religious influences. It is this ideological position that also leads Sunni extremist organisations to bomb Sufi shrines.

Wiping the past

It is this disdain for diverse religious influences that have also led to the rewriting of the history of these shrines. Coming back to the Moron wali Sarkar, I first heard about the shrine while I was looking out for animistic cults within the Sufi culture, as part of research for my book In Search of Shiva. A number of people told about the shrine at Kallar Kahar, where peacocks roam freely and are revered by the locals and devotees.

However on my visit to the shrine, I found no peacocks in the courtyard. I was told tourists often chase the birds away and so peacocks now only visit at sunrise and sunset, when there are just a handful of people at the shrine.

“For the locals the birds are sacred,” said the Auqaf appointed official. “A few devotees would also bring food offerings for these birds. But the tourists don’t show the same kind of respect.”

Surrounded by a jungle known to have many wild peacocks, this shrine is likely to have derived its name from its geographical surroundings. This was an essential characteristic of pre-colonial Islamic and Hindu shrines, whose sacredness reflected their geography. For example next to the banks of Indus, the lifeline of Sindh, the cult of Udero Lal, the river god, emerged. In Sufi Islamic tradition, sacred shrines developed around ancient trees that have been worshiped in this part of the world since time immemorial.

Because of their abundance in the region, peacocks may have held a special place for locals in this region, which found expression in this shrine. However, the state-appointed overseer of the shrine had a different explanation. “These peacocks were brought here by the saint who came here from Baghdad,” he said. “The muster of peacocks is the progeny of the original muster brought by the saint.”

This has been one of the biggest dilemmas of the Pakistani State’s interpretation of religion and national identity. Given the immense emphasis on distinguishing themselves from Hindus, it has been hard to reconcile the ancestral heritage of a majority of the population. Therefore, history is often reinterpreted and several castes claim Arab, Persian or Afghan ancestry insteading of acknowledging their Indian roots. This was also the attitude adopted by the State when it took charge of the syncretic Sufi shrines.

Somehow, to identify as “Pakistani”, people and places had to dissociate with the land (that was once shared with India) its geography, and its history. Several such shrines, with their idiosyncratic traditions that were rooted deeply in the land surrounding them had to shed their geographical context to fit this new framework sanctioned by the State. In order to belong in the new State, it became essential to dissociate with their land.

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