At the centre of the courtyard of the Bibi Pak Daman shrine in Lahore, surrounded by hundreds of devotees on any given day, is the twisted trunk of an ancient waan tree. Rising from the middle of the courtyard, it forms an overarching canopy. On a hot summer afternoon, several devotees doze under its shade, lying on the cool marble floor. This tree is believed to have magical properties. Several female devotees yearning for a child eat its leaves in the hope that their wish will be fulfilled. Others tie prayer threads on its ancient branches, praying to the guardians of the shrine to intercede on their behalf.

Traditions associated with trees have for long been part of religious culture in the Indian subcontinent. Archaeologists have unearthed devotional seals, which depict trees, dating to the Indus Valley Civilisation. The banyan tree acquired a particular significance in the Buddhist tradition due to its association with Siddhartha, who later became the Buddha.

Sacred trees are associated with numerous Sufi shrines around Pakistan and are part of many rituals. While peepal, waan, keekar and berry are some of the most popular sacred trees, it is not unusual to see a giant banyan tree next to Sufi shrines too, on which devotees tie prayer threads.

While keekar and other trees have been part of several Hindu rituals, there are references to waan and berry trees too in the hagiographical stories of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. Even today, his devotees at various Sikh shrines treat these trees with the utmost respect.

All these shrines have their own stories of why the trees next to them became sacred.

(Photo credit: Saad Sarfraz Sheikh/Flickr).

The story of the six pious women

Next to the tree at the centre of the courtyard of the Bibi Pak Daman shrine are six graves that are believed to be the tombs of six pious women. The women are believed to belong to the family of Hazrat Ali, the cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, and also his son-in-law and the fourth caliph of Islam. His son, Imaam Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet, was brutally assassinated, along with his family members, by the forces of Yazid on the 10th of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, in the plains of Karbala in present-day Iraq. Severely outnumbered, the forces and the family of Imaam Hussain were initially starved and denied access to water before the sword fell on them. Those who survived were taken prisoners. It is this dark day that millions of Muslims around the world commemorate every year on Muharram.

According to one narrative, one of the survivors of the massacre was Bibi Ruqayyah, the daughter of Hazrat Ali from his wife Umm ul-Banin, whom he married after the death of Hazrat Fatimah, his first wife and the daughter of the Prophet.

(Photo credit: Saad Sarfraz Sheikh/Flickr).

Not far from the graves is an alm, a traditional symbol of Shia-an-Ali, the party of Hazrat Ali. Fixed atop a pole, the alm is shaped in the form of a hand and symbolises the flag-bearer of the forces of Imaam Hussain and his half-brother Hazrat Abbass. Hazrat Abbass was the eldest son of Hazrat Ali and Umm ul-Banin, thus the brother of Bibi Ruqayyah.

While there is no historical evidence backing the claim, a popular account in the city of Lahore suggests that Bibi Ruqayyah, who somehow escaped the forces of Yazid, found her way to Lahore with five other women – the daughters of Hazrat Aqeel, the brother of Hazrat Ali.

Maulvi Nur Ahmad Chishti, a chronicler of Lahore, in his book Tehqiqat-e-Chishtia, notes that there was no respite for these pious women in Lahore, a city ruled by “pagans” at that time. Fearing for their lives, these women gathered at the spot the shrine stands on now and prayed. The earth tore open and interred all six of them alive. The piety of these women remained intact and they came to be known as Bibi Pak Daman. According to local legend, the camels these women arrived in Lahore on turned into trees, of which the waan tree is one.

There is much historical evidence to suggest that the graves do not belong to the daughters of Hazrat Ali and Hazrat Aqeel. However, for hundreds of devotees, it is the only truth that they know.

(Photo credit: Yasir Hussain/Flickr).

The shrine has acquired a particular significance for the Shia population of Lahore. It acquires centrestage during the processions of Muharram. All around the shrine, Shia emblems such as bangles and alms are sold.

Rich syncretic tradition

But this not just a Shia shrine. Sunni devotees too descend here every day, in equal numbers if not more, to make offerings before the graves of these pious women. Many Sunni devotees also tie threads on the branches of the sacred tree and eat its leaves in the hope of securing blessings. During the annual celebration of this shrine – the urs – members of both Sunni and Shia communities take charge of the festivities. While sectarian conflict overshadows Shia-Sunni relations elsewhere, these distinctions blur away at the shrine of Bibi Pak Daman, as all become devotees.

(Photo credit: Yasir Hussain/Flickr).

This syncretism does not end here. A few years ago, when I was interviewing members of the Hindu community from Lahore, I found out that several Hindus visit and make offerings at this shrine too. In fact, Hindus visit several prominent Sufi shrines around the city, including the shrines of Data Darbar and Shah Hussain. The numbers were much larger in pre-Partition Lahore.

The stories of the six pious women must have neatly aligned with the notions of honor and piety of women among Rajputs, who once ruled the city, while the rituals at the shrine must have appeared as a continuation of ancient religious traditions. In this aspect, the shrine of Bibi Pak Daman does not stand alone. It represents a deep-rooted tradition that puritans on all sides are bent upon uprooting.

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