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On the Margins of Religious Discourse

By Yogesh Snehi

Any academic discussion on the sacred shrines in Punjab revolves around the centrality of gurdwara spaces in the rural and urban landscapes of contemporary Punjab. This is despite the fact that Punjab was a major recipient of critical discourses of Buddhism, Nathpanth, and Sufism before the evolution of Sikhism in Mughal India. The vivisection of the province post-partition has led to consolidation of religious boundaries, a process that had its roots in the movement for reform in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century India. The state in Pakistan and India mimic each other in propagating presentist histories of modern nation states and discount the longue durée of historical processes. This photo-essay details narratives around two Sufi shrines in Indian Punjab and explores their lives post-partition. Both these shrines were established pre-partition and were on the receiving end during period of violent movements in the region post-partition.

Rekindling the memory of Sheikh Hafiz Musa at Ropar[1]

Ropar had an urban population of 51 per cent of Muslims, 30 per cent Hindus (excluding Ad Dharmis), and 12 per cent Sikhs pre-partition (Census 1941). Manakpur Sharif, the Chishti-Sabiri shrine of Sheikh Hafiz Musa, must have occupied a prominent place of piety among the Muslims of Ropar. Hafiz Musa was a disciple and khalifa of Syed Mohammad Azam, a Chishti Sabiri mystic of Ropar from the lineage of Miran Bhik, whose shrine is at Ghuram Sharif near Patiala. After the death of his pir, Hafiz Musa went to Manakpur near Kurali (Ropar) and settled there permanently, where he passed away in February 1832. One of the foremost disciples of Hafiz Musa was his khalifa, Muinuddin Shah Khamosh of Hyderabad. Shah Khamosh remained in service of Hafiz Musa for a period of 60 years and spread the message of silsila in and around Hyderabad. The extant shrine complex at Manakpur was constructed by Shah Khamosh (Image 1).

Image 1: Panaromic view of the dargah of Hafiz Musa during urs celebrations in 2010

Mian Abdur Rehman, who was the caretaker of the shrine pre-partition, left for Pakistan in 1947. The shrine thus remained desolate for some time. The rejuvenation of the shrine of Hafiz Musa is credited to the efforts of the incumbent sajjada nishin of Shah Khamosh shrine in Hyderabad. He established a Chishti Sabri mosque at Chandigarh, gave strength to the followers of the tradition who were living in disguise since 1947, and reinstated the ritual practice at Manakpur Sharif. Baba Ruknuddin Shah, a Baba of Majri, started taking care (khidmat) of the shrine. Meanwhile, a Muslim Welfare Roza Committee, Manakpur was formed during 1980-81 to take care of the shrine. Raunak Ali (Image 2) is associated with the eleven-member managing committee since 1980, along with Faqir Muhammad Sabri, Mangat Khan (an employee of Punjab Roadways and then president of the Committee), among others. One of the important initiatives in the year 2010 was the beginning of a wrestling competition at Manakpur Sharif with the cooperation of the Sikh and Hindu communities of the area.

Image 2: Raunak Ali displaying the poster announcing the first wrestling competition being organised at Manakpur Sharif in 2010.

However, the journey of the shrine has been marked by several disputes and contestations. After the death of Baba Ruknuddin Shah in 1992, there wasn’t any gaddi-nishin for more than a year. Finally, Faqir Muhammad of Majri was handed over the gaddi-nishini but since he did not remain in khidmat of their guru pir for long, Mehdi Hasan (Image 3) did the majority of the work of the shrine for more than twenty years. Mehdi Hasan shared how the shrine experienced violence, gun-fight, bombing, and even killing over property disputes and litigation during these years, owing to which he spent long spells, especially during Ramzan and urs, at Manakpur. The urs and other ritual activities have now become a regular and vibrant part of the shrine’s life as the sangat (gathering) increases day by day.

Image 3: Baba Mehdi Hasan ties the ritual jhanda (flag) at Manakpur Sharif.

Mehdi Hasan narrates the contours of violence that Manakpur Sharif shrine experienced during partition and subsequently during the 1980s. He situates the violence in the Indian context (mulk) in the genesis of partition and the politics of Muhammad Ali Jinnah that created duality (dui paidaki) and separation (wand) among communities, along with the British. Hasan narrates several other incidents of violence that engulfed the space with the demand for Khalistan:

I had heard something of this kind for the first time in my life of 65 years. They were neither bothered about themselves nor others, and they engaged in fearless killings. We had a servant (langri) at the shrine, who was shot dead by the militants. Militants also planted a bomb in one of the outer walls and exploded it, damaging the building. On another occasion, 60 rounds of bullets were fired on the main gate (buland darwaza) of the shrine, while the congregation (chauki) was on. At the neighbouring shrine of Nathan Shah at Majri (under Faqir Muhammad), a man was shot dead right after the maghrib prayer (namaz). Shots were also fired at the Burail shrine in which one person was severely injured.

These were difficult times for the shrine and Mehdi Hasan had to stay for longer durations ‘as the name of the guruji (his pir) was at stake’. The darbar used to remain desolate for several months and no one from the managing committee dared to stay there. There was an environment of fear all around. Only one local Mazhabi Sikh (Kukki) stayed and served as a cook for him. But since then times have changed and after more than two-and-a-half decades of peace, the shrine has been rejuvenated and people from all across the region come and participate in the annual festivities. Khalifas and pirs from Amroha, Malerkotla, Nukkad (UP), and other parts of Punjab and Haryana also come to the shrine during urs. The painting below (Image 4) on the outer wall of Manakpur Sharif, which was once bombed, now narrates the popular lore of a woman, Rudi, who lost her family when their ferry was drowned in the river and how Gauz Pak (Qadiri mystic Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jilani) rescued it. We also see the image of the legendary singer, Gurdas Maan.

Image 4: A painting narrating the story of Rudi and legendary singer Gurdas Mann.

Baba Lakhdata Pir Nigaha, Village Hargobindpur[2]

Village Hargobindpur in district Moga is also popularly known as Nigaha due to the location of the shrine of Baba Lakhdata, an obscure saint of mixed Suhrawardi and Chishti lineage. There are three major Nigahas in Punjabs. The major shrine dedicated to Baba Lakhdata is located at Dhaunkal in Wazirabad (Pakistan). Una’s (chotta) Nigaha (in Himachal Pradesh) now occupies a prominent place among such shrines in India (Image 5).

Image 5: A popular poster of the Nigaha shrine at Una receiving blessings from Baba Lahkdata (right) and Gauz Pak (center).

Hardip Soni explains the circumstances, which led to the establishment of this shrine. Their ancestor, Pir Buddhu, was blind and hence could not cultivate his agricultural land. He deeply wished that Baba Lakhdata Pir Nigaha (Sakhi Sarwar Sultan) would restore his vision. Baba Lakhdata, who was incidentally travelling from Multan towards Sultanpur Lodhi, was passing through this village and wanted to find the right direction and asked Pir Buddhu for the way. Pir Buddhu expressed his inability to show Lakhdata the way to Sultanpur due to his blindness. Baba Lakhdata threw his green parna (cloth) on Buddhu and when the latter ran it over his face, he regained his eyesight.

In return, Baba Lakhdata asked Buddhu to establish a darbar for him. Buddhu pleaded that he possessed land but did not have money to construct the darbar. Baba Lakhdata told Buddhu that the son of a sardar of Mansa was cursed with mental illness and would only be cured by the latter. Their son was cured by Pir Buddhu and Mansa sardars constructed the original darbar, which has now been expanded and a large langar hall added adjacent to the shrine. The family of Pir Buddhu was blessed with the gaddi-nishini of this shrine. Two major fairs are held at this shrine every year, besides small fairs every Thursday. The shrine draws pilgrims of diverse faiths from across the region.

Image 6: A photograph situating Baba Lakhdata at his shrine in Dera Ghazi Khan, Pakistan.

Nigaha at Hargobindpur is one of the oldest in the Punjab plains of India. This Nigaha is purported to be 250 years old and is said to have been built by Baba Lakhdata himself. Rose (1919) gives a brief account of this shrine in district Moga;

It is called Nagaha Pir, and was founded in 1869 S. [?] by a Patiala man. It contains no image but has a chabutra or platform. The pujari is a Khatri and succession follows natural relationship. Fairs are held on the 8 Thursdays of Chet and Asauj, when offerings of cash and churi are made to the shrine. Another shrine of Sakhi Sarwar is at Nagah[a], where a fair is held on the light Thursday of Phagan. It contains a place that is worshipped. It was founded some 200 hundred years ago by the Sirdar of Mansa. When subjected to several trials they were bidden in a vision to go to Moga and there build a temple. So they constructed this shrine and all Hindus and Muhammadans in this part are its votaries, offering it grain at each harvest. It also has a chhabil where the poor travellers drink water. At the fair visitors are fed free. A Brahman is employed as pujari (570-71).

The seven generations of sevadars of this Nigaha, as mentioned by Rose, belong to the clan of Khatris, who have been in continuous possession of this shrine since pre-partition times. Moga’s urban population comprised of 40 per cent Hindus (excluding Ad Dharmis), 25 per cent Muslims, and 30 per cent Sikhs. Hardip Soni draws the following line of succession to the shrine:

Pir Buddu Shah Baba Khushi Ram Baba Mangat Rai (killed in 1987) Deepak Soni
Ashwini Soni (d. 2011)
Baba Harbans Lal (d. 2013) Hardip Soni
Sandeep Soni
Baba Faqir Chand Soni (d. 2008) Krishan Soni
Bikramjeet Soni (d. 2014)
Kuldeep Soni (d. 2008)

Sevadars of Nigaha Baba Lakhdata at Hargobindpur

Post-partition, village Hargobindpur comprises of Khatris (Soni), Jats (Brar), and Mazhabis. During the heydays of militancy in Punjab, militants gunned down Baba Mangat Rai in 1987. The militants contended that Nigaha was a Muslim place of worship and wanted to destroy the darbar. Village Rode of Jarnail Singh Bhindrawala is located nearby.

Baba Lakhdata’s Nigaha counters contemporary notions of territoriality associated with nationalist histories as well as limited identitarian discourses around Sufi shrines that usually associate and legitimise such shrines with ‘Muslim’ caretakers. Here is an example of a shrine that had an uninterrupted succession of Khatri caretakers only, and there has been no change in ritual performance at the shrine. The shrine’s complex has expanded and it now has a very large langar khana dotted by two tall minarets (Image 7), mimicking symbols of Islamic architectural traditions but the space continues to be vibrantly ‘secular’ in its spatial dynamics. The miracle story around Baba Lakhdata and Pir Buddhu does not involve any trope of conversion. The miracle tropology is instead interwoven with the gift (barkat) of healing, recovery, and boon to heal. The circumstances associated with the establishment of the shrine similarly involve a ‘Hindu’ Khatri and a ‘Sikh’ Jat through the agency of a ‘Muslim’ saint.

Image 7: Gateway to a large Langar Hall at the Nigaha, village Hargobindpur.

Shrines of popular saints emerged out of complex organic linkages that were established by the Sufis, in which shrine’s spaces, marital alliances, and vernacularity played an important role. Moini shows how during the eighteenth century, irrespective of social and cultural divisions, the people of Punjab inspired by the Chishti exemplars of the region signed individual and collective bonds (vikalatnamas) to develop intimate devotional links with the shrine of Khawaja Muinuddin Chishti at Ajmer.[3] These interactive spaces hold much promise for the future of Indian subcontinent. But these very shrines became targets of reform and revivalist movements in colonial India that perceived popular shrines as threats to exclusivist imagination of religious identity and practice – therefore equally critiqued by Islamic, Hindu, Sikh, and Christian missionary movements. It is a tragedy that in the latter part of colonial India, Sufi shrines of Punjab became embroiled in the Pakistan movement through the agency of its Khalifas and sajjada nishins.

These very shrines are today being targeted by Islamic radicals in Pakistan, and were also at the receiving end of Khalistani radicals in Indian Punjab. Sufi shrines have increasingly become targets of bombings post-partition, both in India and particularly in Pakistan, where the shrines of almost all major Sufi mystics have been bombed. Baba Lakhdata’s burial place in Dera Ghazi Khan, Pakistan, was twice bombed in 2011[4], besides prominent shrines of Baba Farid in Pakpattan, Al-Hujwiri in Lahore, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan.

The demographic transformation of Indian Punjab into a Sikh-dominated space gave premium to gurdwara politics and deeply entrenched the control of dominant castes over gurdwaras. Historic gurdwaras that had strong linkages with Sufi narratives, for instance Haji Ratan in Bathinda and Bhikham Shah in Ghuram (Patiala), have sought to marginalise Sufi narratives. However, despite these political interludes, popular shrine spaces continue to remain vibrant and offer immense potentiality for articulation of shared piety and belonging in a sphere that is hegemonised by dominant religious discourses.

[1] This narrative was recorded from Baba Mehdi Hasan (Age 61 years in 2010) and Raunak Ali (63 years in 2010) on 24 October, 2010 at Manakpur Sharif.

[2] Hardip Soni was interviewed on 9 February, 2015 at his residence in village Hargobindpur.

[3] Moini, Syed Liyaqat Hussain. 2009. ‘Devotional Linkages of Punjab with the Chisthti Shrine at Ajmer: Gleanings from the Vikalatnamas,’ in Surinder Singh and Ishwar Dayal Gaur (eds) Sufism in Punjab: Mystics, Literature and Shrines, New Delhi: Aakar, p. 390.

[4] ‘Death toll in shrine blast rises to 49,’ in Dawn, 04 April 2011, (accessed on 28 November 2015).

Dr. Yogesh Snehi teaches history at the School of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD). He was earlier a fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. His major teaching and research interests focus on popular culture. His understanding of Popular Sufi Shrines problematizes debates on identities and offers a critical insight into local and regional processes of social formation. He has also created a digital repository of images that are in circulation at popular Sufi shrines in contemporary Punjab. Snehi is editing a book, ‘Modernity and Changing Social Fabric of Punjab and Haryana’ and working on a monograph, ‘Spatializing Popular Sufi Shrines: Dreams, Memories, Territoriality, Historiography’.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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