The ancient mythological city of Lahore may have been the fort of Lav, the twin son of the Hindu deity Ram. But in its medieval and contemporary incarnation, it is the bastion of Data Sahib or Data Darbar.

Located a short distance away from Lahore’s walled city, close to Bhatti Gate, this 1,000-year-old Sufi shrine is to Lahore what Notre Dame is to Paris, Hagia Sophia is to Istanbul, and the shrine of Nizamuddin Auliya is to Delhi.

Over 1,000 years ago, a modest shrine to Ali Hujwiri, popularly known as Data Ganj Baksh, was constructed away from the hubbub of Lahore. It has been witness to the city’s history ever since, and Hujwiri is now considered Lahore’s patron saint.

Sanctity always preserved

Over the centuries, through several invasions and a succession of rulers, the shrine has always been left unharmed. From the arrival of Mahmud Ghaznavi, to the rise of Qutbuddin Aibak, from the tyranny of the Mongols to the ransacking of the city by Babur, from the invasions of Ahmad Shah Abdali to the rise of the Khalsa Empire, from the consolidation of the British Empire to the riots of Partition, its sanctity has always been preserved.

Post-Partition, its significance increased as Lahore found itself at the centre of various political movements – the rise of the maverick Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the Islamisation of Zia-ul-Haq, the rise of his protégé Nawaz Sharif, and the return of the “daughter of the east” Benazir Bhutto from exile in 1986. All of them turned towards the shrine, not just to seek blessings for their political journeys, but also to extend it their patronage.

Through their patronage of the most important Sufi shrine in Lahore, these politicians wanted to find their way into the heart of the city, the political centre of Pakistan. Alongside, from a modest one-storey, single room shrine, a mammoth complex emerged. The Data Sahib complex now has a gigantic mosque, a madrassa, a langar hall and a separate room for Qawwali.

This political patronage, however, was not limited to a post-Partition Pakistan. Historical records suggest that the youngest wife of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Jindan Kaur, the mother of Maharaja Duleep Singh, donated the imperial collection of handwritten Qurans to the shrine in the 19th century. This was the first such public collection of the Quran in Lahore and must have immensely added to the prestige of the shrine.

Even in the spiritual realm, the shrine has been an important pilgrimage centre throughout its long history, attracting people like Moinuddin Chishti, Baba Farid Shakarganj, Nizamuddin Auliya and Shah Hussain – all prominent Sufi saints in their own right.

Much like other such shrines scattered all over South Asia, Data Sahib also attracted non-Muslim devotees. Even today, it is visited by members of Lahore’s Christian community as well as its minuscule Hindu population.

Several years ago, a Hindu priest from Lahore told me during an interview that his mother used to take him to the shrine when he was a child, and that he had his mundan – a ritual head tonsure ceremony for Hindu children – at the Data Darbar shrine.

With its thousand years of history and its contemporary significance, it is easy to assume that Data Darbar has always been as politically and spiritually significant as it is today. But that was not always the case. There are at least two other Sufi shrines in the city with whom the shrine has had to compete.

Muslims offer Eid prayers at the Data Darbar Mosque in Lahore on August 31, 2011. (Photo credit: Arif Ali/AFP).

Shrine of Mian Mir

Located on the edge of Lahore cantonment is the shrine of Mian Mir. The grave of this 16th century saint is situated in a small, single storey room at the centre of a vast courtyard.

What the patronage of Jindan Kaur and politicians did for Data Darbar in the 19th and 20th centuries, Dara Shikoh, the Sufi prince, did for Mian Mir in the 17th century. It is during his governorship of Lahore that the shrine rose to prominence, as the prince became a disciple of Mulla Shah, the spiritual successor of Mian Mir.

Under Dara Shikoh, the shrine began receiving royal funds for its expansion. The foundation of the contemporary structure was laid at this time. Even long after Dara Shikoh died in 1659, the significance of the shrine survived. It came to be considered as one of the most important Sufi shrines in Lahore, rivaling the popularity of Data Darbar.

Shrine of Mian Mir.

Shah Hussain’s shrine

The other Sufi shrine in Lahore that enjoyed immense popularity at one point – arguably even more than the former two – is the shrine of the 16th century Sufi mystic, Shah Hussain, which lies in the vicinity of Shalimar Bagh.

While royal patronage played a pivotal role in the rise of the popularity of the Data Darbar and Mian Mir shrines, the popularity of Shah Hussain’s shrine grew organically, as his Punjabi poetry began to be sung not only in the streets of the city but also in other parts of Punjab.

Even within the Sufi tradition, Shah Hussain represented a particular order that not only challenged conventional religious laws but openly flouted them. This was in contrast to the former two saints whose teachings fundamentally remained aligned within the doctrine of Islam.

It is for this reason that different political authorities preferred to patronise the shrines of Mian Mir and Data Darbar. Unlike Shah Hussain, who was a rebel, the philosophy of Ali Hujwiri made it easier for his message to be celebrated by the political establishment.

Shrine of Shah Hussain.

Data Darbar’s popularity

Particularly during the colonial regime, as religious distinctions and identities began to be solidified and became much more exclusivist, the shrine of Data Darbar became much more popular as compared to that of Shah Hussain’s. This was because people’s religious sensibilities began to be sanitised by the colonial education system and religious revivalist movements.

It is during the colonial era that Data Darbar truly emerged as the patron shrine of Lahore, a title that it continues to hold as the importance of all its other rivals has receded.

Its importance to contemporary politicians is also why the shrine came under attack in 2010 by militants who were challenging the authority of the Pakistani state. Two suicide bombers blew themselves up within the complex during that attack in July 2010, killing more than 50 people.

Nine years later, on May 8, there was another suicide attack at the shrine. The explosion, which took place close to its entrance and targeted police personnel, killed at least 12 people.

This attack, as did the one in 2010, has had a deep impact on the people of the city.

There have been other terror attacks in Lahore, but none that have hurt the psyche of the city as much as these two blasts have. This is because Data Darbar and Lahore are perceived as synonymous – one is soul, the other the body. And last week’s bombing struck at the city’s soul.

Haroon Khalid is the author of four books including Imagining Lahore and Walking with Nanak.