A micro narrative celebrating love and barakat
With my father turning 84, my brother and I joined him in his annual pilgrimage to a ‘dargah’ or a shrine near the Punga village this year. While the glibly articulated reasons by us to make this trip along with Dad was ranged from ‘an anthropological enquiry’ to ‘the two sons being with their dad for a change’ — the journey left us with many things to chew over … some insights and questions emerged much later.
My father has been a faithful devotee of a Sufi priest — his Sufi teacher was Baba Abdullah Shah — whose presence in pre-partition India (and largely in Lahore) had offered him unconditional love and a sense of spiritual well-being. However, as a practicing Sikh, this dimension of his spirituality and commitment to Sufism was never publicly displayed within the larger family — he carried his concerns about being misunderstood and misinterpreted. But in the recent years, he has ‘come out’ with his devotion with scant concern of how the larger community would judge him. His anecdotal narratives about his experiences with his Babaji in 1940s and 1950s are deeply embedded in love, simplicity, and devotion during times of partition and post-partition blues. While we had often accompanied him in our childhood — this journey was special to both of us.
Punga is a small village or a hamlet which is 5 miles south of the Ravi river that forms the Indo-Pakistan border, and 20 miles north of Amritsar. The simple shrine becomes the space for the annual fair or mela on September 24th — commemorating the ‘Urs’ or his death anniversary, where devotees from nearby villages congregate each year to commemorate the life and blessings of the Sufi saint.
The Shrine itself has an interesting narrative — for the mortal remains of the Sufi Saint were smuggled across the Indo-Pakistan border — from the original grave that lies in Pakistan, by his followers in the 1940s, and finally into the village of Punga.
In Islamic and Sufi tradition, the dargah becomes the place or a bridge between the human world and non-human world, and paying homage to the saint leads to the attainment of ‘barakat’ or spiritual power and divine blessing.
My earliest memory of the shrine was that of a simple gravestone in early 1970s, surrounded by shady yet thorny acacia trees in the middle of nowhere and next to it was a solitary hand-pump. We would travel with my father on a horse drawn cart to this shrine — a long trip that acquainted me with panoramic depictions of village life in the Punjab — pastoral spreads of sugarcane interspersed with yellow mustard flowers on either side of the narrow road.
On September 24th each year, the Punga shrine witnesses an annual festival (or mela) where communities across villages and some from the city of Amritsar, congregate together and commemorate a Sufi saint that had blessed the land and many families.
We reached the Shrine around 1100 hours, after having driven for nearly 5 hours from Chandigarh. The day was initially cloudy, and then the Sun started to bake all of us at the shrine. Hundreds of local folks were moving in with folded hands and palpable devotion — while the shrine itself was surrounded by small shops set up by peddlers to sell bangles, toys, jewelry. There were even rustic machines that offered rides, but the biggest hit I guess with the kids was a trampoline — it may have seen better days — but despite its seemingly rundown appearance, it evoked extreme excitement.
Like the eye of the hurricane, the shrine itself was the ‘quiet’ and solemn space enclosed within the commotion and noise of the fair.
The aforesaid anthropological lens let us witness interesting community processes:
a) The shrine is managed by the three communities — Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims. The Hindu families as well as the Sikh families (including my father) have invested tremendous efforts and money to build the shrine, infrastructure around it, as well as a small school open for all communities.
b) The prayers were anchored by an Alim (who also wore a green turban like a Sikh — I mistook him for a turbaned Sikh) and who prayed both in Urdu and then later in Gurmukhi — in a ritual known as the Ardaas.
c) All members from the three communities who came in adhered to the Sufi / Muslim rituals with a fair amount of elan and ease — including rich offering of a Chaddar (Ornate Sheet) or a Ghilaf, plus mustard oil for the lamps, and other rituals.
d) The prayers ended with three beautiful qawwalis rendered by a Hindu singer — the songs were of deep love and deep surrender. Jugaad (local innovation) from a young child mobilized an portable mike and amplifier from nowhere, and his lovely voice soon mesmerized all of us, dulling out the ambient noises associated with the fair. Even in the heat, the atmosphere for many minutes was magical.
e) Women and children sat inside the simple structure, next to the mazar or grave, joining the men — it was kind of packed and there was no separate spaces for each gender.
f) And yes, there was the ‘langar’ of delicious food cooked on firewood that was served to all who had come.
g) The number of people who visit the shrine on that day would come to barely a few thousand folks across the day though the organizers of the midnight Qawwali were anticipating more in the late evening.
Since my father was among the handful few who had been blessed by the saint and who had had many a conversation with him as a young child and teenager — he was very much seen with reverence too.
The two of us (his sons) were seen as prosperous aliens / foreigners and evoked not just curiosity but drew plenty of people begging for alms — a process that was quite depleting emotionally.
As the day drew to a close, we were still digesting our experiences of the day, only to wake up very early the next day to visit the Golden Temple at Amritsar. It is only on my return to Pune and after several days, that the experience has sunk in …
Looking back …
The Faith and the Barakat
The trip for the first time, invited me to explore what Sufism would have offered my father, as he grew up and in a context of extreme violence. While he seems to have made trips to Lahore from Amritsar — as late as 1955, the sheer chaos and violence of partition at a psychic level could have been devastating for him but for his encounters with the saint. It was a near miracle that a saint took upon himself to love a young child / adolescent and guide him during times when neither the family nor the community offered any safety or anchorage. My dad still tears up as he struggles to find words to describe what he learnt — I suspect encounters of love and faith can never be put in the form of a construct or a principle.
The trauma around partition is seldom spoken about in our family but some anecdotes as one-liners are quite illustrative — for example, my grandfather who was an engineer with the Railways speaks of times during the mid 1940s, when he and many others started manufacturing swords and knives, anticipating the churn.
I suppose that would be true for the larger community of people who gather at Punga each day — the Dargah stands out as symbol of love and humanism for communities that have lived next to the Indo-Pakistan border — a line drawn in hate and in vengeance for many an Indian.
There are millions of Indians, who would go to the Wagha border, and cheer for the soldiers that participate on the military rituals at this famed border checkpoint, and then claim to be overwhelmed by patriotism.
The Dargah at Punga of a humble Sufi saint would never evoke or provoke the intense nationalism that the meta narrative of Indianness / Bharatiyata relies on — it at best, and quite apologetically offers a micro narrative of hope and love for all …
The question that I have for myself is — what is my commitment for love and faith in the things that I do?