Before Pakistan became the new centre of global terrorism and reactionary Islamic forces, the region had a fusion of different religions/cultures/philosophies that emanated or were derived from Hinduism and other religions that it interacted with over the centuries. This book by Haroon Khalid is an attempt to study these religious traditions – those that have not been derived from an orthodox religion, but from indigenous religious practices which in some cases go as far back as the Indus Valley civilisation. Peeling through the layers of Muslim nationalism and Pakistani separatism, the book studies various shrines scattered all over West Pakistan and the adjoining part of India, which included Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, the oldest living civilisation in the world. In this book the author has particularly focused on idiosyncratic shrines, where the practices defy the notions of orthodox Islam.

Khalid’s extensive journeys with his wife, Anam, Iqbal Qaiser and some other friends to unique Muslim shrines, Hindu/Jain temples/Gurudwaras in many parts of Pakistan’s Punjab and his interactions with their caretakers/followers bring out interesting, fascinating and of course surprising revelations which much of Pakistan’s urban populace may still not be aware of. At the shrine of Aban Shah, Village Chak 50, the sacred offering is a hand-carved wooden human phallus, piles of which are stocked. Followers come here wishing for a child, preferably male. At Pakpattan, there is a shrine, where women worship and present a Shivaling (Lord Shiva’s phallus) at the grave of the saint. The author also mentions about the archeological discovery in Indus Valley of a male with an erect phallus sitting in the Yogic cross legged pose being that of Lord Shiva.

Then there are the shrines where eunuchs and animals such as dogs, cows, cats, crows etc. are considered sacred. Interestingly, the author mentions that while cats are acceptable to orthodox Muslims, dogs are acceptable only outside the house as guards and touching a dog must be followed by ritual washing/cleansing of hands. Khalid’s book is an informative travelogue that studies these exotic shrines with an academic understanding of how they link back to the Indus valley civilisation or in other cases, Hinduism.

The author maintains that the purpose of the book is not just the documentation of these shrines and their analysis but to also place them in the current geopolitical realities of Pakistan. For most Pakistanis, the two-nation theory that argues that Muslims and Hindus are two separate nations given their irreconcilable religious differences, fed to them throughout their formal educational years, holds sway. Given the political identity of the country, these eclectic shrines that derive inspiration from Hinduism/Hindu religious practices acquire a particular significant character, rebelling against the dogma of state nationalism. The book studies how these political compulsions are altering religious traditions in Pakistan and how these shrines respond to such challenges. Unfortunately, these shrines are now threatened by the sweeping tide of orthodox Islam, which particularly post-9/11, has engulfed the country. Based on notions of miracles and syncretism, their utility value has diminished as educated people and the elite are drawn towards a more “scientific” interpretation of religion, which the orthodoxy in Pakistan readily provides. Not only does the author travel to these shrines but also studies the rise of an orthodox Islam which presents a direct threat to these shrines.

Amidst many reports in media about destruction/defacing of temples/religious historical statues, forced conversion of Hindus, mass killings of non-Muslims and the ongoing sectarian conflict in Pakistan, one hopes that books like those by Khalid, Anam and other bold writers in Pakistan get published, obviously in India, but get wide circulation in both countries.

Lt Col Anil Bhat

Col Anil Bhat (retd) is an independent defence and security analyst he is also an Editor at Word Sword Features

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