Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Channan Pir

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The shiny new pick up truck went bowling down the black top road bordered on one side by rolling, grey sand dunes and by vibrant green citrus orchards and wheat fields on the other. I was riding from Yazman (Bahawalpur District) to the annual festival of Channan Pir in the Cholistan Desert and my co-travellers, all twenty or so of them, were devotees come from as far away as Faisalabad, Rahimyar Khan and Kashmore. Being the first Friday in February, these people were the vanguard for the festival was to continue over the next six Fridays culminating in middle March. As far back as anyone could remember the death anniversary celebration of Channan Pir had always extended a full six weeks.

I had come to investigate what I believed to be the most primordial festival in Punjab, the others were heading for the shrine of Channan Pir either to offer thanks for the dead saint’s benediction in providing long sought for sons or to seek fulfillment of their quest for sons. The boys born out of supplication at the shrine came freshly scrubbed, wearing their best finery with oily hair and shiny plastic shoes. The thick smear of kohl lining their eyes made them winning candidates for parts in some B-grade horror film. Some of the boys even wore cheap rouge on their cheeks.

One man, a tough looking mullah, with his purdah-less wife and three beautiful little girls was doubtlessly on his way to harangue the dead man for being so unmindful of all his requests and having bestowed upon him the third daughter. Surely the rant would be followed by yet more impassioned please for the cherished son. Though heaven knows what the son would do for the mullah that his daughters couldn’t. But that, I suppose, is the way of the Orient: parents without a boy child are unfulfilled parents. They were one and all, very cheerful and spoke of how they would miss out on this great festival. They carried on with exaggerated humility on how near their saint was to Allah and how the Lord favoured him by deferring to his wishes. I wondered what the mullah and his wife would have to say to that.

On the east side of the road where we disembarked, amid the rank and file of sand dunes, was a line of tents comprising the makeshift bazaar where the shops sold eatables and tinsel. At the far end of this line three brilliantly white-washed domes reared up from the dunes. To one side of the bazaar were the Ferris wheels and two of those large wooden drums known as Moat ka Kooan – the Well of Death, on whose inside walls some daredevil rides his motorcycle round and round in a gravity defying spectacle. On the other side was the camping area where hundreds of families sheltered from the sun behind animal-drawn carts or tractor trolleys that had brought them to the carnival. Nearly all had small cooking fires going as they prepared breakfast. Blaring music rode the gusting wind in undulating waves and even at eight in the morning a great mass of humanity surged gaily along the corridor of the bazaar.

Here, despite the ban on eating during the hours of fasting, the food stalls did brisk business. Removed from the watchful eye of our city-bound, hypocrisy-ridden custodians of religiosity, belief tended to be a rather personal affair. Here were sellers of semi-precious stones and exotic perfumes, of miraculous tooth powders and electuaries that relieved anything from hook worms to hemorrhoids and impotence. Amidst this crowd men meandered with their dancing bears and monkeys and fighting snakes and mongooses. The star of the carnival was the supposed expert in the black arts who could, as his sign said, purge the evil eye or bring the hard-hearted woman of desire grovelling at the feet of the client.

The great crowd-puller, however, was one of the two so called circuses with the dance team of a young man and a transvestite dressed and made up to out do Mae West by several inches of bust line. To the strains of an innocent Punjabi folk song they went through motions so obscene as to send our selfsame keepers of morality directly into rigor mortis. But the crowds of gleeful men, young and old, that remained glued to the spot said much for the way the human mind works.

Before the black top road was built and the shrine was accessible only by camel or by foot, devotees began arriving on Thursdays, usually after some days slog across the desert by foot or by camel. While the women minded the campsite, the men drugged themselves with bhung – the potent marijuana drink, a traditional part of carnivals and celebrations, and ambled arm in arm through the bazaar the livelong night. The preparation and consumption of the drink was rather open and nobody ever thought anything of it. But the hypocrisy spawned by our history’s most deceitful martial law during the 1980s, has unfortunately the consumption of bhung as clandestine as that of alcohol. I was nevertheless assured that it was still to be found in secret but plentiful supply.

At the far end of the bazaar, hard by the south wall of the white-washed mosque, was the celebrated sand dune of Channan Pir. There is no dome above it, for the dead man, they say, so wished. It is this dune, sometimes draped with a sheet of green kalmia-inscribed satin, otherwise bare, that devotees venerate as the supposed last resting place of the saint. It is said that over the years several attempts were made to raise a mausoleum over the supposed grave but abandoned every time the unfinished building collapsed mysteriously during the night. The last abortive attempt at construction, it is said, was made in the 1930s by Nawab Sadiq Mohammed Abbassi V, the last ruler of Bahawalpur. But when the building collapsed yet again, only then was the saint’s will understood and the matter rested.

To one side of the mound is a stubby obelisk with an alcove just below its domed finial. In the alcove an earthen bowl brimmed with rapeseed oil – a panacea that believers dabbed on diseased bodies: a boy child with mange, a woman with a festering sore, an old man with a gash across the back of his hand and a lad with a swollen elbow. They all got a quota of holy oil to rub on their wounds. Those who are healed return to offer thanks and advertise the saint’s power to cure. Those who aren’t, take it as Allah’s will and continue to suffer.

Legend, as recorded in the Gazetteer of Bahawalpur State 1904, has it that in ancient times a certain Syed Sher Shah came to this country which was ruled over by Raja Sandhila and asked if he had any Muslim subjects. There was none, said the Raja. Then, asked the Syed, was there any pregnant woman in the kingdom and it turned out that the queen herself was expecting. The holy man, says the legend, ordered the king to arrange a Muslim midwife because his son was to be an adherent of the true faith.

When the son was born the Raja, fearing that the child was to abandon the religion of his forefathers and bring down everlasting perdition on him, had him abandoned among the shifting dunes. Not long afterwards it was reported to the king that a sandalwood cradle had miraculously descended from the skies and the child was being nurtured by some unseen hand. The Raja hurried to the desert to retrieve his child. But as he approached it, the cradle rose heavenward. Thwarted after several attempts the Raja realised that the gods wanted it otherwise and retired. When he grew up, the child chose to live on the dune that had first received his sandalwood cradle and that was where he was buried in death. Legend also relates that this miracle child possessed such radiant good looks that he was named Channan after the moon (chun in Seraiki, the language of that region).

Suddenly, there rose above all the noise the skirl of bagpipes and the booming of drums. No kilted, red-nosed Highlander but a dark-skinned dhoti-clad man leading an entourage of those who had sons to show off for their supplication to Channan Pir. They came dancing, man and woman alike, led by a perspiring, convoluting transvestite. Some dragged a reluctant sheep or goat to be sacrificed in the name of the saint. A young man broke away from the crowd to tie a small wooden cradle to the gnarled peelu tree beside the mound. I asked and he shyly explained that he too wished for a baby boy and if he prayed at the shrine and offered the cradle he would be suitably blessed.

The venerated sand dune is now surrounded by an iron railing with two openings – an entrance and an exit. I stood to one side watching a wave of humanity struggling to enter the enclosure. Once inside they prostrated themselves, their foreheads resting on the green satin that draped the mound. And there they remained in motionless genuflexion, man woman and child, until the bored functionaries of the Auqaf Department, the minder of all shrines, flogged them with their switches to drive them away and make room for a fresh wave. Others stood patiently outside the steel fence gazing adoringly at the dune. When overcome with reverence they did not wait to enter the enclosure. They simply bent over and placed their forehead in the sand.

A man with his two-year old son on his shoulders stood clutching the railing waiting his chance to ride the surge into the enclosure. Thrice he attempted, and thrice he was pushed aside by the more assertive. He withdrew to the side and for several minutes stood by watching the crowd. Then, rather suddenly, he bent down and with his son still on his shoulders, pressed his forehead into the yielding sand. His son struggled to hold his face up to keep from being smothered. Unmindful, the man remained prostrated until the child began whimpering. He got up and gently wiped the sand off his son’s oil-smeared forehead. Others sat to one side worrying their rosaries while the better endowed tossed money and the sugary makhanas onto the mound. The money went straight to the Auqaf strong box while the makhanas, now possessed of the power to heal, were distributed among the devotees. People kissed the green drape or just plain sand around the dune. Others, perhaps of lesser religious merit, only placed a reverent hand on the mound and looked dreamily into the sky. The children, ever watchful, taking their cues from their wards, went through the same motions.

In stark contrast to the devotees’ veneration, the officials showed not a jot of respect and strode all over the mound. They were very clear in their minds that it was nothing more than that. Several times I tried to catch the eye of the youngest of the official trio, a clean shaven city bred sort, in order to draw him into conversation. With very obvious effort he avoided eye contact. Perhaps he suspected me of some mischief or the other.

Dozens of followers of the Pir came with prize bulls and horses all gaudily made up with henna and purple, green, rust or blue paint. At first I suspected the bulls were to be sacrificed and asked one man leading a handsome animal on a tether. He looked at me with some disdain (I was clearly uninitiated) and told me all the animals had come, like everyone else, to say salaam. Animals doing obeisance, a shrine open to the sky and a festival that continues a full six weeks, stories of the conversion of a prince of devout Hindu parents and a tiny item hidden away in a rarely read ancient manuscript. Suddenly it all fell neatly into place.

The ancient manuscript first. In the ninth decade of the fifth century BC a young man from a priestly Greek family became well known for his skill in the science of medicine. No surprise, for Ctesias, as he was called, came from a long line of medical practitioners from the town of Cnidos on the southwest coast of Turkey. Ctesias was a contemporary of and distantly related to Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine. In 416 BC young Ctesias left his native Cnidos and repaired to the Persian court to become physician to Darius II, the Achaemenian king. He served Darius eleven years before the latter died. His ability as a healer had evidently been noted at court for Artaxerxes Mnemon, Darius’ successor, retained Ctesias’ services.

Now, in order to break the monotony of medical practice, Ctesias indulged in literary pursuits and has to his credit several historical and descriptive works. Among others that are extant to this day, one is his Indika, a treatise on ancient India. Though he never actually visited India, Ctesias would have met dozens of traders, scholars, diplomats and ordinary travellers visiting the Persian court from India. It appears that all these persons were the source of his information. But as his translator John McCrindle says he was, ‘unfortunately … not only a great lover of the marvellous, but also singularly deficient … in critical acumen.’ Consequently the book on India is stocked with implausible and far-fetched stories, either told him by frivolous raconteurs playing to a gullible listener or misunderstood or perhaps even embellished by Ctesias himself. That having been said, it needs be granted that the man did record a goodly body of remarkably accurate fact as well.

One such is the mention by Ctesias of the ‘sacred spot in the midst of an uninhabited region which they venerate in the name of the Sun and the Moon.’ This sacred spot, he goes on to tell us, lies fifteen days journey from certain mountains that produce onyx and sardine stones. Here, writes Ctesias, ‘for the space of five and thirty days the Sun every year cools down to allow his worshippers to celebrate his rites, and return home unscorched by his burning rays.’

Forty days the rites of the Sun continued as against forty-five days for those of Channan Pir. But even more interesting is the report that this festival took place when the sun ‘cooled down.’ Conversely, this should imply that the summer had not yet begun and the sun was still mellow. Weltheim, a well-known Oriental scholar, places this ‘uninhabited region’ in the Cholistan Desert which is actually fifteen days journey from the Himalayas. He also tells us that sun worship flourished in this area in ancient times. But long, long before that worship of the sun, or even of the moon, as Ctesias mentions in the very first instance, does not appear central to the ceremonies in this desert region, however. There was another deity, more powerful and benevolent than either Surya or Chandra, which was revered here.

We know that Dharti Ma – Earth Goddess, with her inexhaustible reserves of fertility has always been worshipped in her Goddess of Fertility incarnation in cultures across the world. So too was she worshipped here in the Indus Valley. Depicted as a hugely breasted woman with fancy headwear, she was venerated eight thousand years ago in Moen jo Daro and Mehrgarh. That was when the now lost rivers of Cholistan irrigated a fertile land. As Dharti Ma rejuvenated herself each spring (when the sun was yet mellow), her devotees celebrated her by the banks of her river. Perhaps there was a low mound that they believed represented her.

About four thousand years ago, the river dried up. Little by little life began to ebb away from this fertile land. Green fields gave way to vast tracts of parched, cracked clay where the wind whipped up clouds of dust. The spreading shisham and pipal were taken over by the hardy peelu and tamarisk. Where succulent grasses grew to fatten the cattle, sparse and inedible species of the wasteland took root. Wells dried up and sand from the southern desert encroached stifling the towns, forcing the inhabitants to leave in search for newer homes.

Time passed. The last vestiges of once great towns were lost under the shifting sands. All was forgotten. Only memory of Dharti Ma, the bestower of fertility, remained etched in the collective consciousness of those who had fled the encroaching desert. Faithfully, every year, the followers of Dharti Ma returned to the spot sacred to her hoping against hope that she would once again rejuvenate the land. About 1700 BC the aboriginal peoples of the Indus Valley were replaced by the speakers of Aryan tongues. The notion of Dharti Ma appealed even to these newcomers and as they assimilated some other Indus Valley gods, they adopted the Goddess of Fertility into their pantheon. Like their predecessor, they too returned to her hallowed mound every spring so that she may not withhold her fertility for their women, their cattle and the land they ploughed. But the land itself remained barren and unproductive. It had been forsaken by the goddess. And so with the passage of years, Dharti Ma was overtaken by Surya and Chandra of the newcomers’ pantheon. But even in decline her spring rites were not forgotten. They were grafted upon sun and moon worship.

The march of time that had seen Vedic belief replace the ancient religion of the Indus Valley, the passing of Buddhism and the resurgence of the Vedas, eventually saw the ascendancy of Islam. Old gods became new saints. But Dharti Ma or Surya were too starkly Vedic and called for a name capable of easier assimilation into the new belief. The moon god, still part of the collective memory, came in handy. This was especially true since the moon was not repugnant to Islam, the crescent being a favoured symbol.

Dharti Ma was converted to the male moon-faced Channan Pir. The story of the infidel parents bearing a true believer gave legitimacy to the conversion: from the womb of ancient mythology symbolised by Raja Sandhila and his queen, Channan Pir was born pre-converted to Islam. Yet another primeval belief, that of the decree that the shrine of Dharti Ma may never be covered up by a dome, needed legitimacy. And so the requisite words were put into the mouth of Channan Pir – a saint who had never actually existed. Centuries were to go by before the story of the miraculous repetitive collapse of the dome was invented. Under this thin veneer of make-up, the ancient celebration that, according to Ctesias, lasted a full six weeks before the onset of summer continues to this day. With it the practice of bringing prize cattle to pay respect at the shrine of the Goddess of Fertility as well as the prayer for sons continues and is accepted by the goddess.

As I watched the quasi-religious spectacle at the dune of Channan Pir I was completely overcome by its vehemence. The prostration, the reverential gaze at the dune, the hands touching the sand and rubbed over the face or eyes, the unshakable belief that the makhanas tossed on to the dune are bestowed with miraculous healing powers as they roll off, the trembling lips that beseech for a son. All of it comes through thousands of years of piety. Behind all this the misty corridor of time is strewn with the sloughs that the ancient cult of Dharti Ma has shed to take its present form. As the man lies prone with his son on his shoulders, the essence of the cult flows into the child’s veins – just it had into those of his father and of his father before him. The cult of the Goddess of Fertility will never die.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 6 September 2015 at 18:00, Blogger Saifuddin Ismailji said...

Very nicely written Salman Rashid Sahib:
In one post, I note the name of the Raja written as Raja Sadharan instead of Raja Sandhila!
And I cannot seem to find any where Chanan Pir's year of birth and year of death?

At 7 September 2015 at 10:58, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Good sir, how can anyone give the date of birth or death of a so-called pier who never existed? If you read again and a little more closely, you'll see this is pure fiction to keep the myth of moon worship plus Dharti Ma alive.

At 19 June 2019 at 14:21, Blogger Unknown said...



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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

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