How shrines helped indigenise Islam and Christianity in South Asia

At least once a month, I drive down to Lahore from Islamabad using the Motorway. Just before the Jhelum River, as the Salt Range and Potohar Plateau gradually merge into the plane of Punjab, I always a notice a small isolated shrine located on the top of a hill. A flag swaying atop the shrine testifies that pilgrims still visit it.

Scattered all over the Potohar Plateau, there are several such Sufi shrines on hilltops, to which pilgrims are expected to hike. The difficulty of the journey is part of the spiritual process. The tradition is similar to other religious pilgrimages in the region.

A little north from here is the historical temple complex called Tilla Jogian, a pilgrimage site for jogis in Punjab, abandoned at the time of Partition. There is still no path that leads to the top. Visitors to the site are expected to climb the mountain as pilgrims once did.

Further north, deep within the Hazara territory is the shrine of the Muslim Sufi saint Wali Qandhari, who had a confrontation with Guru Nanak and was humbled.

The Gurdwara Panja Sahib, at the base of the mountain, atop which is the shrine of Wali Qandhari commemorates this interaction. Every day, dozens of pilgrims climb this steep mountain, a trek of about two hours to pay homage to the Sufi saint. Before the technology of pumps, pilgrims used to carry water pots to the top for other pilgrims, as a religious duty.

“The shrine is called Khara Peer,” said my driver, as he noticed me observing the shrine’s silhouette on the top of the mountain on one of these trips.

A young man, my driver belongs to a small village not far from here. Not inclined towards institutional religion, he is particularly attracted to Sufi shrines, referred to as folk religion by academics, where the freedom allotted to its devotees is more aligned with his rebellious nature.

I wasn’t surprised. This entire mountain range, known as Salt Range, is one of the largest depositories of rock salt in the world. Khara in Punjabi means salty. The shrine was attuned with its geographical surroundings.

The Peacock Shrine

This is a particular feature of small Sufi shrines. Just a few kilometres from here, in the small town of Kalar Kahar, atop another mountain is the shrine of Mooranwali Sarkar (Master of the Peacocks).

At the time of sunrise, when the tourist rush at the shrine is at its lowest, dozens of peacocks waltz around the courtyard of the shrine that overlooks the natural lake, around which the town of Kalar Kahar is populated.

A handful of devotees offer them food and seek their blessings, regarding them to be the loyal pets of the saint interred here. Till a few years ago, before the construction of Motorway brought along an influx of tourists, peacocks would strut around the shrine all day along. With the arrival of tourists and their irreverent fascination with the peacocks their number decreased here.

The shrine of the peacocks at Kalar Kahar too highlights the fact that such folk religious traditions adopted local geographical features into their devotional framework. It represents the unique relationship that these shrines developed with their surroundings.

Connected by a cable wire, there is another Sufi shrine on the top of a neighboring hill. It is a modest structure, less visited by tourists. A plaque on one of the walls of the shrine identified it as Rori Peer. “There is nothing but rori [small rocks] here and this shrine,” said a lone devotee sitting there.

On the bank of river Chenab is the village of Takht Hazara, believed to be the home of Punjab’s legendary folk hero Ranjha. In the surroundings of this village is a settlement of a few houses referred to as Apal Moori.

The fame of this settlement comes from the massive banyan tree that stands next to it. It is an enormous structure, a forest within itself, with its branches disappearing into the ground and emerging anew.

There is no main trunk of the tree but several of them. At the centre of the tree is the grave of a Sufi saint regarded as sacred by the locals and people of the surrounding areas.

While the grave becomes the object of veneration, it is nothing but a symbol of the worship of this massive banyan tree, sacred in almost all of the religious traditions of South Asia, including folk Islam. The grave is an indirect way of worshipping the sacred geography, much like most of these shrines.

Vital symbols

Combined, these folk religious traditions serve as an important symbol. One of the oft-repeated accusations of right-wing Hindu nationalists against Islam has been its foreignness in the Indian peninsula.

Even 1,300 years after the arrival of this religion into the region it is asserted by some that it does not belong here. Such a criticism lacks an understanding of the cultural development of the religion in India.

As it reached the peripheral towns and villages of India, it was adopted, owned and indigenised. It is these folk religious shrines mentioned above that emerged out of this process, all of them deeply linked with their geographical surroundings.

In fact, it is not just Islam, but Christianity that also underwent a similar process. About a 100-odd kilometres from Lahore is the small town of Maryamabad developed around the shrine of Mary.

A little before Partition, a couple of local Christian men said they saw the figure of Mary appear here. A small shrine was constructed at the spot. In the 1980s, it was reported that a few children said they saw an image of Mary once again.

As the story of these sightings spread to other parts of the country, the number of pilgrims to the shrine increased. Since then many saints have been reportedly sighted here.

Much like folk Islam that used the geography of the region to evoke spirituality, folk Christianity too, represented by this shrine, found an actual geographical legitimisation, as a counter to Christianity or Islam being foreign to this land. A statue of Mary was raised on a small mound here and a shrine was constructed around it.

The article was originally published on Scroll and has been reproduced with permission.

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Author Image

Haroon Khalid has an academic background in Anthropology from LUMS. He has been traveling extensively around Pakistan, documenting historical and cultural heritage. He is the author of Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva: A study of folk religious practices in Pakistan, and A White Trail: A journey into the heart of Pakistan’s religious minorities.

Prosecutors request arrest of Samsung heir, bribery suspect

Prosecutors requested the arrest Monday of the Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong as a bribery suspect in the influence-peddling scandal that led to the impeachment of South Korea’s president.

The special prosecutors office said it had ask the court to approve a warrant for the arrest of Lee, the 48-year-old Samsung Electronics vice chairman.

Samsung is South Korea’s biggest company, and Lee is its de-facto head.

The prosecutors office said it also indicted ex-health minister Moon Hyung-pyo on charges he abused his power to compel the national pension fund to support a contentious Samsung merger in 2015.

Last week, the investigators questioned Lee on allegations Samsung won government favours such as getting backing for the merger in exchange for donating corporate funds to various entities controlled by Choi Soon-sil, a long-time friend of President Park Geun-hye. She has been jailed.

Lee earlier denied the allegations. Samsung had no comment when asked about the arrest warrant.

Careem test launches ride-hailing services in Peshawar, Hyderabad and Faisalabad

Careem on Monday announced the test launch of its ride-hailing services in Hyderabad, Peshawar and Faisalabad.

“With this test launch, we aim to embrace all vibrant cultures of our beloved nation,” the organisation said, adding that more locations would soon be added.

The promo code ‘CareemKarao’ will enable customers in Hyderabad, Peshawar and Faisalabad to book all types of rides up to 12 kilometres in the ‘Now’ booking for Rs100. A customer may only use the promo code twice, Careem said.

Careem entered the Pakistani market in 2016, launching its services in Karachi, Lahore and later Islamabad.

Within only a few months of their launch, mobile app-based car-hailing services Careem and Uber both became favoured modes of intracity travel for thousands of urban Pakistanis, especially women.

Careem recently launched a rickshaw ride-hailing service in Karachi and Lahore called ‘Tezz Rickshaw Service’ at a base rate of Rs60 and a minimum fare of Rs75.

Balu Mahi isn’t just another traditional romance, says actor Osman Khalid Butt

The Pakistani film industry is going through a renaissance at lightning speed, making a great leap in terms of skills and technology to catch up to a level other industries took decades of trial and error to achieve.

One of the most exciting aspects of this resurgence is the incredible diversity of styles and subject matter from comedies such as Jawani Phir Nahi Ani and Na Maloom Afraad to a biography such as Manto, a romance such as Bin Roye, action/adventure movies such as Maalik and Waar and an intimate exploration of modern relationships such as Dobara Phir Se.

Set for release on February 10, 2017, Haissam Hussain’s Balu Mahi has Pakistani film fans intrigued with beautiful visuals, a strong production team, an award-winning director and a fresh cast consisting of Osman Khalid Butt, Ainy Jaffri and Sadaf Kanwal.

Images on Sunday caught up with the lead pair, whose appearance in the qawwali teaser ‘Rung De Chunar’ (sung by the inimitable Rahat Fateh Ali Khan) has caused quite a stir.

On being ‘Balu’ and ‘Mahi’

Images: Osman, tell us about your character, Balu. In an earlier interview, you’ve said that Balu is a foreign-returned British Pakistani. How did you ensure your portrayal of Balu would be authentic? I ask this because so many portrayals of the Pakistani diaspora often ring hollow.

Osman Khalid Butt (OKB): Bilal aka Balu is your average 20-something guy who is thrust into one impossible situation after another (courtesy Mahi). So it was really interesting to portray an otherwise self-assured (or so he thinks) man unravel — and eventually reconstruct himself into a mature, more confident, more at-ease with risk individual.

Despite coming from a fractured family, he’s beloved by his grandmother and so comes across as generally well-balanced, with that distinct British politeness… and passive-aggressiveness (laughs).

Haissam, our director, had a clear back story for Bilal in mind, so it became quite easy to tap into his psyche once the ball started rolling. I did not give him an accent, though, because that rang false with me.

Images: For the fan girls desperately trying to decipher your personality, which of your recent characters is nearest to the actual Osman Khalid Butt — Wali (Diyar-e-Dil), Aunn (Aunn Zara) or Balu (Balu Mahi)?

OKB: I believe there’s a little bit of me in every character I’ve played — wish I had more of Wali’s patience, though. I definitely have more of a sense of humour than Balu!

“At its core the film is about two polar-opposite people brought together by happenstance… and how that one encounter changes the both of them.”— Osman Khalid Butt

Images: Ainy, producer Sadia Jabbar said in a recent interview that your character Mahi is a modern, contemporary Pakistani girl. What do you think she means by that? How do you see your character Mahi?

Ainy Jaffri (AJ): I think when Sadia says modern and contemporary, she means a strong and determined girl of today. Mahi to me is a very brave and confident person, someone who is passionate about pursuing her goals and dreams and won’t let anything stand in her way.

She has a keen sense of what is right and wrong and is willing to do what it takes to carve her own path because she feels it is her right. She does not mean to hurt anyone or betray anyone’s trust, but truly believes that it is her destiny to set out on the journey she chooses to take. I really admire Mahi’s gumption, and think she’ll make an excellent role model.

Images: What made you choose this role? Was there something about the character you could relate to?

AJ: Several factors helped in this decision. Firstly, I’m a big fan of Haissam’s work and he was the one who approached me for the project. I knew that this being his first movie, it would be amazing. After reading the script, I was completely on board. Mahi’s character goes on an enviable journey and as I don’t want to give away anything, I’ll just say that when you watch the movie, you’ll surely see why the role is a dream role. Just wait and see.

Images: It is often said Pakistani dramas are female-oriented but the females tend to be victims in a lot of the stories. Your characters in dramas such Aseerzadi, Meri Bahen Maya etc have rarely fit the mould of themazloom aurat. Has this been a deliberate choice?

AJ: I am attracted to roles that portray strong, independent woman who break the norms of society. So yes, that is partly why I chose those roles. I would not be averse to playing the victim in a drama/movie as long as the project concludes on a worthwhile note.

On BaluMahi’s first look

Images: Ainy, the first Balu Mahi teaser was just released and the on-screen chemistry between you and Osman was fantastic. How was your experience working with him?

AJ: It was great! It has been a pleasure to work with Osman. Like I’ve said before, the guy is a triple treat, he’s an actor, a writer and a great dancer. It’s always good to work with people who you admire and respect and I’ve been a fan of OB’s since I first saw his online parodies. He gives great advice when needed, doesn’t believe in false praise and his off-screen humour and shenanigans keep everyone thoroughly entertained during tough days.

“Mahi’s character goes on an enviable journey. When you watch the movie, you’ll surely see why the role is a dream role. Just wait and see.” — Ainy Jaffri

Images: From the Balu Mahi teaser, it’s apparent that Osman and Ainy share some amazing chemistry, an element which can make or break a movie. Who is responsible for bringing that to the screen, the director or the actors?

OKB: I think the responsibility lies with both the director and the actors — you can’t fake it on the big screen, and I think both Ainy and I were aware of that.

There is something incredibly unique about the Balu Mahi dynamic. The romance is organic (a far cry from the ‘love/lust at first sight’ we’re used to watching in local cinema) and the pair goes through a gamut of emotions before even realising they’ve quietly become emotionally intimate and codependent. Haissam was fully aware of this graph and would tell us immediately if we were preempting an emotion.

I also think we subconsciously mirrored the graph of our respective characters — the initial reservation (read: walking on eggshells around each other), the slow opening up and feeling more relaxed around each other to — wait, I should stop right here for fear of spoilers. But you get the drift.

Images: What does Mahi see in Balu or Bilal?

AJ: At first Mahi sees Balu as just a means to an end, but eventually as the story progresses and we see Balu open up about himself, his experiences and hope & dreams, she sees him as a fellow comrade.

Images: You look absolutely beautiful in the teaser Ainy. Was that blue and lavender outfit by Rano’s Heirlooms designed specifically for you?

AJ: Yes, I believe Haissam wanted something to complement me and took great care in choosing the designs and colour combinations of each and every one of our costumes. He wanted the costumes to not only work well with the individual actors but with the colour palette of the backdrops against which we were shooting.

So what’s BaluMahi all about?

Images: Balu Mahi looks like a traditional ‘something for everyone’ entertainer or what I would call a movie with a big heart. Am I right? How would you describe it?

OKB: You’ve summed it up really well — the film does have a big heart. I think people who’re judging it by the qawwali are under the impression it’s perhaps just another ‘traditional’ romance. In reality, Balu Mahi is quite the contemporary film with a beautiful message about (Gaah! I don’t even know if I’m allowed to say this) empowering women and giving them the freedom and liberty to pursue their dreams — a message that will resonate deeply with our society, no matter the class.

There’s romance, there are honest, heartfelt conversations, there’s situational humour, moments of unabashed masala, a breathtaking aesthetic — but at its core the film is about two polar-opposite people brought together by happenstance… and how that one encounter changes the both of them.

Call it a journey of self-discovery, of seeing the world in a new light because of how a stranger’s actions and words impact you.

“There is a huge difference between criticism and spewing vitriol. If a critic thrashes a project without explaining why, how is anyone involved in said project supposed to feel anything but… s?”*

Images: The fledgling Pakistani film industry is going through a difficult phase with a Bollywood ban and some complaints about the quality of films produced. Do you think critics are being too demanding? Or is the Pakistani film industry taking its audience for granted?

OKB: I believe critics have some valid concerns with the direction our cinema is taking, but then, the industry is still so young. It’s definitely going to take more time for everyone involved — be it directors, actors or writers — to evolve and find their identity and that distinct voice.

It is, however, unreasonable to expect the kind of finesse and diversity Bollywood (or with some critics’ comparison-meter) Hollywood brings to the table. I mean look at their budgets, their manpower, the technical facilities, their… everything.

I also believe there is a huge difference between criticism and spewing vitriol. If a critic thrashes a project without explaining why, how is anyone involved in said project supposed to feel anything but… s***? Less throwaway, cutting lines and more detailed analyses, pretty please. Also, unless a film really doesn’t have a single redeeming factor, it would be nice to balance the bad with a little bit of good, too.

On song and dance

Images: What was the hardest thing you had to do for Balu Mahi?

OKB: I was injured at every spell (and there were four major spells!) – there was a lot of physical as well as emotional investment in Balu Mahi… the phrase ‘blood, sweat and tears’ turned quite literal during our shoot!

I think the choreographed fight sequences and the stunts were a real challenge to pull off convincingly. Oh, and there’s this extended sequence where… let me put it this way: it just wasn’t just Balu’s emotions that were laid bare. So, err… that was incredibly tough.

Images: South Asian cinema is unique in that it requires its actors and actresses to know how to dance and act while they’re lip-syncing. How did you find that experience?

AJ: Oh wow, this was very hard for me. I had never lip synced to songs before and on the first day. I sort of fell apart for a moment and burst into tears. But our team was very supportive and it didn’t take long for them to get my morale back up. I hope the audience finds me convincing singing like that.

Images: And what about the choreographed dance sequences? How did you cope with the lip syncing Osman?

OKB: I loved it! I was a bit nervous about the lip-syncing during the first takes but, I don’t know, having grown up watching Bollywood classics there was something quite exhilarating (and surreal) about being given the chance to do the whole song-and-dance routine on celluloid (yes, I am unapologetically filmi that way). I think I had the most fun during these choreographed sequences — both Wahab Shah and Pappu Samrat did wonders with their respective songs.

Foreign direct investment jumps 10pc

KARACHI: Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) has shown a sign of improvement after a long time as inflows improved 10 per cent year-on-year to cross the $1 billion mark in July-Dec.

The overall investment increased 52pc to $1.82bn for the period under review. However, this increase was achieved by including the money borrowed through the Eurobond floated by the government.

The State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) reported on Monday that FDI in July-Dec amounted to $1.08bn, showing annual growth of 10.4pc.

FDI has been declining for the last three years despite regular investments from China. However, Netherlands changed the trend with a massive investment in December.

According to the SBP report, Netherlands invested $459.5 million in December alone, which pushed up the FDI figure for the six-month period and showed positive year-on-year growth.

In December, the net inflow of FDI was $595m. China and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) contributed FDI amounting to $47.6m and $45.6m, respectively.

The inflow in December made the real change as it accounted for 55pc of total FDI during the six months. Data shows that FDI for the first five months (July-Nov) was less than the investment recorded in December alone, which was dominated by the inflow from the Netherlands.

The inflow from China, which is the main partner of the country under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), in the six months remained $204m. The inflow from the Netherlands during the same period was $462m.

Collective inflows from the two countries were 61pc of total FDI received in the first six months of the current fiscal year. FDI is coming from a handful of countries, which indicates that the country is still not attractive for international investors.

Research reports issued by analysts show the investment outlook has improved, particularly with the improvement in law and order. However, corruption remains a major hurdle to foreign investment.

FDI from the United States grew to $38m compared to the net outflow of $44m a year ago. The investment from Britain fell 50pc to 44m in the six months.

Turkey was the third largest investor in Pakistan with a total investment of $129m. Other important investors were the UAE ($77m) and France (46m).

The half-yearly report is encouraging for the country’s economic managers who have been struggling to attract FDI. The finance minister and his team have been asserting that the CPEC is a game-changer. But analysts believe that inflows from China are still not encouraging.

The government also came under fire for showing borrowing through the Eurobond as investment.