How colonialism eroded Pakistan’s history of religious fluidity

Before colonialism, Muslims and Hindus in Pakistan shared their sacred shrines and welcomed each other into their religious spaces. Post-Partition, this has changed but some traditions continue in rural areas.

Inside the courtyard of a house in the village of Ram Thaman, near Lahore in Pakistan, an audience has gathered.

Next to a wooden cot, seven or eight young men are dancing in a circle, holding sticks that they occasionally beat together. Others – mostly men and one transgender person – join in, dancing passionately to the beats of these sticks.

Women watch from the rooftops of neighbouring houses as, with each passing moment, the crowd grows.

Over the cot is spread a “chaddar” – a piece of green cloth edged with gold embroidery – onto which the spectators have scattered hundreds of rupees as a gift to the young men who are dancing.

It is part of the festivities that take place at the shrine of Ram Thaman, a 16th-century Hindu saint, located in the village of the same name, during the annual festival of Vaisakhi.

Vaisakhi, which has both Hindu and Sikh mythological roots, is celebrated in the month of April to mark the beginning of the harvest season.

For three days, the village, which is located entirely within the compound of an ancient Hindu temple, is transformed from a sleepy hamlet into a bustling city of makeshift tents as thousands of pilgrims arrive from across the country and celebrations break out in the streets and alleyways.

The village of Ram Thaman lies entirely within the compound of an ancient Hindu temple. It is transformed on April 13 into a bustling tent city when thousands of pilgrims arrive to celebrate Vaisakhi [Haroon Khalid/Al Jazeera]

Festival with a difference

At the spin-off celebration in the courtyard, the money scattered by revellers has now been removed and the cloth has been taken to the main shrine where it is placed inside a marble pavilion, on top of a triangle-shaped marble stone that contains the last remains of the saint.

The group of young male dancers have brought the cloth to the shrine as their offering to the saint. They all crowd into the small room.

“We brought this chaddar from Kasur,” explains Ghulam Ali, who is in his early 20s. “We wanted to offer it to the saint.”

“I have been doing this for 15 years,” he adds. “Paying homage to different shrines, offering chaddar, performing with my group and collecting any money that people give us.”

The scene is similar to hundreds of other festivals at Hindu shrines across South Asia, but there is one fundamental difference here in Pakistan. The majority of the devotees who come to the shrine of Ram Thaman, including Ali, are not Hindus – but Muslims.

A group of young men, including Ghulam Ali, perform a dance in honour of the Hindu saint at last year’s Vaisakhi festival at Ram Thaman, Pakistan [Maryam Altaf/Al Jazeera]

‘We see the world in oppositions – Hindu, Muslim’

Pakistan is home to hundreds of shrines, many of which have a long history. Most of these are Sufi – a tradition in Islam that focuses on mysticism – but some, like Ram Thaman, are Hindu. Some shrines are visited by thousands of people; others attract millions of devotees during festivals.

“Pilgrimage to Sufi shrines is an important part of the religious experience,” explains Raza Rumi, a policy analyst, journalist and author of several books, including Delhi by Heart, and Identity, Faith and Conflict.

“A visit to a Sufi shrine provides a lived experience to the devotees as opposed to an intellectualised or ritualised understanding of religion. The pilgrimage to Sufi shrines is a multi-layered journey for the devotee. On the one hand, it denotes the effort and resources that are invested in the physical journey towards worship. At another level, it is a search for communion socialisation, and relating to the larger community of dargah (shrine) goer.”

The Vaisakhi festival at Ram Thaman is like any other Sufi festival but instead of being at a Sufi shrine, it is at the smadh (a sacred space constructed over the burial ground of the ashes of a prominent religious figure) of a Hindu saint.

A dance performance by transgender people at last year’s Vaisakh festival at Ram Thaman [Maryam Altaf/Al Jazeera] Next to the building containing the sacred space is a Hindu temple, dedicated to the goddess Kali. Adjacent to these two buildings are the remains of a large, sacred pool. There are several other smaller temples within this larger complex, scattered all over the village.

This Hindu shrine is one of several non-Sufi shrines in Pakistan. Other examples are Udero Lal and Sadhu Bela, both in Sindh, the Pakistani province that is home to the vast majority of the country’s Hindus.

“The shrine stands out for us because we see the world in binaries, in oppositions – Hindu, Muslim,” says Ali Usman Qasmi, a historian who works at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).

“This is our problem. This is a question for us, how do we categorise this tradition? This is a problem of modernity, perhaps not for the people who come to this shrine. It seems as if in their worldview there is no apparent contradiction.”

For many, the pilgrimage to Ram Thaman is a key part of the larger circuit of Sufi shrines.

The smadh of 16th century Hindu saint Ram Thaman [Haroon Khalid/Al Jazeera]

‘Sanitising’ the shrines

“Pre-colonial identities were fuzzy, unclear,” says Qasmi. “People used to negotiate with multiple identities and movements. So there was no contradiction in a Hindu visiting a Muslim shrine or vice versa. The Hindu/Muslim, as we understand them today, was yet to be crystallised. Things began to change with the colonial state, with the arrival of modernity.

“Modernity doesn’t like this fuzziness. Identities needed to be indexed, clearly defined. They had to be determinable. People were pigeonholed according to the preconceived notions of the officers of the colonial state.

“After Partition, the Pakistani state inherited the deep insecurities of a post-colonial state,” he continues. “Using the logic of modernism, the Pakistani state right at its inception sought a modernist, reformist, liberal and progressive Islam. It looked down upon this shrine culture, which it saw as a superstitious, anti-modern phenomenon. Through the Auqaf department, the state wanted to ‘sanitise’ the traditions at these various Sufi shrines.”

The shrine of Ram Thaman [Maryam Altaf/Al Jazeera] Auqaf refers to government departments that were created to oversee the administration of historical shrines and mosques.

“The Auqaf department was strongly influenced by the writings of Javed Iqbal,” says Qasmi, referring to the son of poet and philosopher Allama Iqbal who was also a philosopher in his own right and served as the chief justice of Lahore High Court.

“Javed Iqbal in his writings was very critical of the various traditions at Sufi shrines. He called them ‘Hindu influences’, corruption of a pure Sufi tradition. This logic informed the founding of Auqaf that now controls all Sufi shrines in Pakistan. Through its control, it promoted Islam, which was Sunni, Deobandi, allowing for a certain accommodation of the Barelvi tradition as well,” he adds, referring to two sub-sects of Sunni Islam.

Ram Thaman is overtaken by pilgrims in April [Haroon Khalid/Al Jazeera] To promote a “normative” Islamic tradition – centred around the offering of daily prayers – mosques were constructed at those Sufi shrines under the control of the department.

“There are multiple shades within the Sufi culture,” says Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro, an anthropologist working with the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics in Islamabad, Pakistan. “There are different schools of thought and different philosophical debates. Broadly speaking there can be a division between orthodox and heterodox [aspects not conforming to the orthodox] form. It is the heterodox forms within Sufism that don’t follow conventional rituals. They draw followers and devotees from across different religions and sects. So, you would have Hindus and Sikhs as well, visiting their shrines. These heterodox forms, such as the ‘Malamati’ [Muslim mystic] tradition, have their own rituals, for example around music, singing and clothes.”

Rumi points out that, historically, Sufi shrines provided their devotees with an escape from the dogmatism of rituals, which is why diverse religious communities could interact there.

Because of its syncretic traditions, a Sufi shrine was historically not a Muslim-specific place but rather a sacred space open to all religious groups – the shrine of Ram Thaman being a prime example.

A policeman stands guard at the Data Darbar Sufi shrine in Lahore, which was targeted by suicide bombers in 2010, killing 42 people and injuring at least 175. It was attacked again in 2019 [File: Mohsin Raza/Reuters]

Separation from a ‘Hindu-India’

Qasmi points out that the closer a shrine is geographically to the centre of political power in a large city, the more likely it is to have been “sanitised”.

He gives the example of the shrine of Data Darbar, a massive complex in the heart of Lahore. There, in the 1980s, Pakistan’s then-President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq constructed a huge mosque next to the shrine. The four-star military general who came to power in a coup and ruled for more than 10 years promoted a more narrowly defined brand of Islam which affected laws, the educational system and public spaces, among other things, as a way to garner political legitimacy.

There is a long history of defiance of normative gender roles at Sufi shrines. Women and men have historically intermingled in these spaces, while the transgender community has been welcomed. However, as these shrines have become more doctrinaire since the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, many have disallowed the on-site mixing of men and women.

A man adorns the marble walls of the Data Darbar Sufi shrine with roses after a suicide bombing there in July 2010 [File: Adrees Latif/Reuters] The Sufi shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sewhan Sharif, located 300km (186 miles) from the city of Karachi, lies far from the gaze of religious authorities. Here, men and women are allowed to worship together.

Another part of the adoption of stricter Muslim practices was the removal of Hindu influences from not just the Sufi shrines but from all aspects of religious, social and public life in the country.

“There was a forced amnesia on the part of the state, a planned erasure, which was organised and brutal,” says Qasmi. “The Hindu past was systematically removed.”

While the Auqaf stripped Sufi shrines of their Hindu influences, hundreds of Hindu temples and shrines across the country fell into neglect, resulting in squatters moving in or the buildings being demolished – while others were deliberately destroyed by mobs.

In December 1992, after a Hindu-nationalist mob brought down the 16th century Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, India, hundreds of Hindu temples across Pakistan, most of which had been abandoned at the time of the 1947 Partition, were attacked in retaliation. The Neela Gumbad Valmiki Mandir, in Lahore – one of the two functioning Hindu temples in the city – was burned down, while Sitla Mandir, also in Lahore and which had been serving as the living quarters for Partition refugees from the other side of the border, was also attacked. As these attacks on historical structures unfolded, government officials quietly looked on.

“Separation from a ‘Hindu India’ is explained as the raison d’être of a Muslim-Pakistan,” says Anam Zakaria, an oral historian based in Toronto, Canada, who is the author of several books, including Footprints of Partition and Between the Great Divide.

A view of the tomb of Sufi saint Syed Usman Marwandi, also known as the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine, after it was closed to the general public following a suicide blast in Sehwan Sharif, Sindh province, February 17, 2017 [File: Akhtar Soomro/Reuters] “Every year, millions of Pakistani students learn about the ‘Hindu other’ through our educational curriculum. The ‘Hindu’ is the perennial enemy and it is imperative to retain the purity of religion, and of nationhood from it. It is through this reflection, and contradiction of the ‘Hindu other’, that the self is created in Pakistan. Unfortunately, the situation is not much different in India, where the ‘Muslim other’ defines the ‘Hindu Indian’ identity.”

On the other side of the Partition divide, “India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has emerged as a hegemon in Indian politics since 2014 and aggressively implemented its ideology that revolves around the idea of Hindutva,” says Delhi-based author and journalist Sameer Arshad Khatlani.

“Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the originator of the term, described Hindutva as the quality of being a Hindu ethnically, culturally, and politically. For Savarkar, a Hindu was someone who considered India as her/his/their motherland, ancestral land, and holy land. Hence, as per Hindutva, India is the Hindu land since the faith originated here. Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism, according to this definition, also qualify as variants of Hinduism since they, too, emerged in India. The Muslim ‘otherisation’, vilification, and disenfranchisement, which is actively promoted via social media, traditional media, and through legislation, has to be seen in this context.”

While there is no doubt that the Partition and the subsequent hostility between India and Pakistan played a major role in the hardening of the Hindu-Muslim identities, the British colonial state laid the foundation for this process, says Qasmi.

A woman prays at the gates of the Data Darbar shrine on May 10, 2013, in Lahore [File: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images] The colonial census reports, for example, forced people to choose just one religion instead of reflecting the fluidity of their religious beliefs. The colonial education system, too, played its part, while dividing history into separate, impenetrable categories of “Hindu era” and “Muslim era” in Indian history, constructing the narrative of Muslims as “foreigners” on the Indian subcontinent and Hindus as “Indigenous”.

With the Partition drastically reducing the population of the Hindu community in Pakistan and the work of the Auqaf department at shrines, traces of these pre-colonial, pre-modern, fluid traditions began to disappear.

However, as this labelling of identities was a top-down effort, it was far more prevalent in urban centres. Thus, during the colonial era and after, the tradition of Muslims revering a Hindu shrine, has continued to some extent in more remote, rural areas.

Ghulam Hussain came from East Punjab to Ram Thuman as a young boy after Partition. His family took up residence in the temple of Kali and have protected it ever since [Maryam Altaf/Al Jazeera]

Partition refugees

Iqbal Qaiser is a historian from the city of Kasur who has worked extensively on the documentation of abandoned, non-Muslim religious spaces in Pakistan. He is the author of several books, including Historical Sikh Shrines in Pakistan and a Punjabi book on historical Jain temples in the country.

“Many of these abandoned sacred spaces, gurdwaras, temples and smadhs across Pakistan were taken over by refugees of Partition,” he says. “People divided these vast complexes into several residential quarters and started living there. The government, instead of protecting these historical and religious places, often turned a blind eye towards these places.

“Even if you ignore the historical and religious significance of these shrines, the economic values of these properties now run into billions of rupees. Of course, you cannot blame the refugees for taking over these shrines. Having lost everything on the other side, they had no option. It was the government’s job to facilitate them and find a mechanism to protect these historical places. But nothing happened. For a lot of refugees, there was no emotional or sacred connection with the spaces they occupied. They were new to these geographies and hence did not fully understand the importance of these places in the context of their villages, towns or cities.”

In some places, however, refugees did work to preserve old, traditional practices. Now an old man in his 80s, Ghulam Hussain was a young boy when he and his family moved from East Punjab following Partition to the village of Ram Thaman and took over one of these abandoned buildings. They took up residence in the temple of Kali next to the smadh. Pictures of the goddess hung from the top of the niche in the inner sanctum of the temple. The rest of the rooms, including the courtyard, were converted into the family’s residential space.

Women come together to celebrate Vaisakhi at Ram Thaman [Maryam Altaf/Al Jazeera] Hundreds of other families also converged on this village when escaping the riots during Partition. They took over abandoned houses, temples, gurdwaras and other sacred spaces that were once occupied by the Hindus, Sikhs and Jains who used to live in this village before the Partition but migrated to East Punjab in India after 1947.

Sitting inside the small room of the smadh with all the other devotees now gone, a red cloth with gold embroidery tied around his forehead, Hussain explains the history of his family. His son, Abid Hussain, in his 50s, is sitting next to him.

“Our family comes from a village in Ferozepur district (now part of India). After Partition, our family settled here. We moved into that adjacent building, where there is a temple dedicated to the Hindu deity, Kali. We watched as other migrants from Ferozepur and Amritsar took over different parts of the complex. However, our family was determined to preserve the sanctity of this shrine. We locked up this room to make sure no one took over this space. Sometimes we would open the lock, sweep the floor and change the chaddar at the smadh. And then every year, on the occasion of Vaisakhi, we would open the shrine and pay our homage.”

Pilgrims to the shrine of the 16th-century saint, Ram Thaman, gather last year for the annual celebration of Vaisakhi [Maryam Altaf/Al Jazeera]

Vaisakhi had been a big event at the shrine of Ram Thaman, long before the partition of British India.

“It was probably one of the largest Vaisakhi festivals in Punjab,” says Qaiser. “The festival was so important that it found its way into our Punjabi folk literature. We don’t really know why Vaisakhi became such a big affair at this shrine. This happens sometimes. Different shrines, temples, become associated with a particular tradition or a festival.

“We know, for example, the gurdwara of Panja Sahib in Hassan Abdal also became associated with Vaisakhi and so did the Sufi shrine of Sakhi Sarwar. Vaisakhi is the celebration of harvest, of agriculture, which is such an integral part of everyday lives in Punjab. Therefore, Punjabis of all religions used to take part in the celebration of Vaisakhi.”

As a child, Hussain witnessed these festivities. “My grandfather was a devotee of Ram Thaman before Partition,” he says. “My family had a strong connection with this shrine. We had been to this place many times before Partition. After the creation of Pakistan, this was the only place we knew here (in Pakistan), so we came and settled here.

“Before Partition, Vaisakhi was a huge festival,” he recalls. “There was kabaddi [a popular team sport from Punjab], theatre, music, dance, stalls. It was understood that there was no point in looking for someone who was lost during the festival. So, before arriving here we used to fix a spot, where we were supposed to meet in case someone got lost.”

The Panja Sahib Gurdwara in Hassan Abdal became closely associated with Vaisakhi, the celebration of harvest which is an integral part of life in Punjab, as did the Sufi shrine of Sakhi Sarwar [Caren Firouz/Reuters]

A space to celebrate

A little further away in the village of Ram Thaman, inside the narrow alleys of the village that emerged as new walls were constructed around this vast complex after the Partition, dividing buildings into smaller structures, Munawar Bibi, a woman in her late 70s, is sitting on a cot at the open door of her house. “The festival today is nothing compared to what it used to be,” she says. “I remember we used to stock up for days on food and water and lock our homes from the inside, during the occasion of the festival. There was hardly any place to walk on the streets.”

Muneer Ahmad is a Muslim who comes to celebrate Vaisakhi at the shrine of Ram Thaman each year. He performs a daredevil motorbike show. ‘We forget our worries and celebrate,’ he says [Maryam Altaf/Al Jazeera] Another celebrant at the Ram Thaman festival, Muneer Ahmad, a Muslim who performs a daredevil motorbike show at the festival, says: “I know that this is not our festival. But this festival provides space for the local community to forget about their worries and celebrate. In a time where security threats have sapped the life out of larger religious festivals, these small village events are the only real festivals that are left. There is nothing un-Islamic about celebrating and having fun now, is there?”

Before Partition, there was nothing unusual about a Muslim family celebrating at a Hindu shrine. And for many such as Hussain, Partition did not rupture the fluid religious identity they had inherited.

Due to his efforts and that of his family, the festival of Vaisakhi at Ram Thaman is one of the last remnants of this syncretic identity.