It was a hot summer’s day, the kind when even your car’s air-conditioning refuses to work. We were returning from the shrine of Aban Shah, partly disappointed, for, unlike we had been told, there were no phallic offerings hanging from trees or lying next to the tomb. The lonely shrine, standing in a graveyard outside a small village in Arifwala tehsil of Pakistan’s Pakpattan district, had been “sanitised”.
(There is another shrine of Aban Shah on the outskirts of Kamalia town, around 30 km from the archaeological site of Harappa, which receives similar offerings.)
The phallic offerings – made made from wood, mud or marble – which women devotees brought for the saint so that he would bless them with children were locked away. The village elders had apparently decided that the “vulgar display” had no place at the shrine as it once did. Offerings of bangles, toys, turbans and suchlike, however, were left strewn around the tomb.
We were moving out when an old woman standing by a house at the edge of the graveyard waved us down. Hanifa invited us in and introduced us to another old woman, Hajra. Sitting next to Hajira on a cot was her teenaged son. “He is a saeen,” she said, using a word that implies he suffered from some sort of a mental illness. She herself was a disabled person. After her husband’s death, Hajira had moved into this house. Hanifa, it seemed, was her domestic help.
“Hanifa, go and bring one from the black bag,” Hajra instructed her when I broached the subject of the phallic offerings. It was a wooden phallus, 6-7 inches long. Hanifa had been collecting the phallic offerings for some time and storing them in the house. She explained that young boys who did not understand the significance of the offerings would take them away. So she began collecting them to “preserve their sanctity”.
The women told us that the saint could read the intentions of the devotees and if one were frivolous or engaged in “immoral activity” at the shrine, he would take the form of a lion and chase them away. Then there were “holy snakes” in the graveyard which helped preserve the shrine’s sacredness, the women added. They would bite those who “disrespected the purity” of the place.
Driving away from the shrine, I did not give another thought to the story of the lion and the snakes. I was trying to comprehend the “sanitisation” of the shrine. Why were only the phallic offerings being removed? Did the young boys know what these offerings represented? Of course they did, which is why they took away only those, leaving toys, bangles and other items alone.
It seemed the purge of the phallic offerings had been brought about by the overarching moral standards of our society, where expressions and symbols of sexuality are considered taboo. In this framework, a sacred symbol was stripped of all symbolism and interpreted purely through what it depicted.
Afraid of women’s sexuality
We were told the offering of phallic symbols was a pre-Partition tradition, the product of the amalgamation of a fertility cult with the Sufi Muslim culture. But over the decades, as diverse communities began to connect with the broader society, a more mainstream interpretation of religion began to take root, slowing elbowing out such idiosyncratic traditions.
We stopped at a small shop in the village to buy refreshments. The shopkeeper was a young man named Akhtar. I asked him about the particular tradition of the shrine.
“A few years ago, the elders of our village decided to remove all these things from here,” he said, referring to the phallic offerings.
“How come?” I asked.
“Please ask the woman to leave,” he said, pointing to my colleague. She decided to walk away.
“The truth is that young girls were being corrupted,” Akhtar continued. “They were using these things for wrong purposes. They would collect them and then engage in immoral activities. Boys would visit the shrine and joke around with them. Then the elders got together and decided that these things need to be purged from here.”
There it was: the threat to tradition and culture from the sexuality of women. The theme is as old as time, forming the core of patriarchal religious traditions. It is why women are barred from entering certain Hindu temples or inner sanctuaries of some Sufi shrines. It was on display at Aban Shah’s shrine as well where older men had taken it upon themselves to save their society and culture from the threat of women’s sexuality.
I realised, however, that even as this narrative of female sexuality threatening culture was taking hold in this place, a counter-narrative was also playing out. Hanifa and Hajra’s story about the lion and the snakes was the counter-narrative. Through myths, they were saying there was no need for the village elders to protect the shrine, its traditions or the women who visited it. If the saint was not chasing away those bringing phallic offerings, what business was it of the elders? Couched in this mythology was a strong narrative of dissent.
As I was talking to Akhtar, my colleague struck a conversation with a young woman in a house nearby. She still believed in the magical power of the saint no matter what the elders said. In fact, she had presented a phallic offering at the shrine not very long ago and had been blessed with a child, she said. Perhaps the young woman’s offering was not locked away by the elders or taken away by the young boys. Perhaps it ended up with Hanifa, its sanctity intact.
Haroon Khalid is the author of four books, including Imagining Lahore and Walking with Nanak.