Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The Saint who lives

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Past Dera Ghazi Khan Cement Factory, we turned westward into the hills and drove the eight kilometres of dusty trail to a sprawling assemblage of clapboard eating and trinket-selling stalls. The shrine of Zinda Pir, the Living Saint, lay a short walk away. We were late. On the way we had passed dozens of tractors going the other way hauling trailers loaded with colourfully dressed people returning from the closing rites of the annual festival of the purported saint.

We took the short walk from the shanty bazaar. The shrine was scarcely impressive: an ill-looking cubicle with a large brass bell hanging on the door jamb. The devotees, mainly women, clanged the bell as one would upon entering a Hindu temple and went in. Inside, since the man had not died only disappeared from the sight of mortals, was a pile of copies of the Koran instead of the usual grave. Outside, by the entrance, was the tree with assorted rags and tiny cloth pouches filled with the first shaving of newborn babies. A child begotten as a result of supplication at this shrine, it was said, had to return here to be shaved and the hair left as an offering. What with most Baloch men having beards and sometimes even long hair, I couldn’t help thinking that this shrine may well have been started by some long-forgotten out-of-work barber whose descendents now must be right thankful to him.

Further on were the sulphur baths: an open pond where pot-bellied men (as ugly as tadpoles) and some boys splashed about in knee-deep water. Nearby was another hidden behind a rock wall from where we could hear women’s voices punctuated by an occasional mischievous squeal. It was the saint’s blessing, they said, that warmed the dirty blue-green water and that cured all ills. The curative qualities of sulphur were unknown to the devotees of Zinda Pir.

Saleh, my guide, took me up a small slope to a small gash gouged out in the rock. He lit a match and poked it into the hole and a small blue flame appeared, flickered for a while before going out. I stuck my nose into the hole and sensed a faint smell of sulphur. All pilgrims always came up here and performed this little exercise, said Saleh. He also said that there was no other rock nearby that burnt. I could not imagine how this little ‘miracle’ was first discovered, nor the quirky coincidence that would have caused some individual to come up this slope that leads to nowhere, light a match and hold it next to the rock at just the right spot to see the tiny blue flame. But once discovered, the ‘miracle’ apparently quickly caught on and now it is on the menu of the Zinda Pir pilgrimage.

Our next number was the fifteen-minute hike up the slope across the valley floor. Men, women and children were going up and down. On the top was a row of colourful flags, a few water-pots under a shelter and an elderly green-clad attendant to point us in the direction of the cave where the saint is believed to have disappeared. Hardly a cave, it was more a tear in the limestone wrought by seismic activity and very difficult to enter. After fumbling about a bit, however, I did manage to get in. The twenty thousand-year old cave paintings I had hoped to discover were not there, nor too was the hole as deep as we had been promised. The men at the sulphur pond had said it was connected to Mecca via the tomb of Sakhi Sarwar, but it ended in a jumble of rocks barely three metres from its mouth. I hadn’t realised we were this close to Mecca!

Everything about this Houdini of a saint is vague. There are no legends. We only hear of a police inspector who, upon retirement some years ago, repaired to this valley. Forswearing speech the man became a hermit and when he was asked as to who Zinda Pir was, he wrote on a slip of paper that he ‘might have been’ the prophet Khizer. They asked if that prophet had visited this lonely river valley. Again the man wrote out that he ‘might have.’ And so trusting the ‘might haves’ of some corrupt police officer hoping to atone for all the injustice he had perpetrated in his professional life upon the dispossessed and the powerless, but more likely was on the run from worldly justice, people believe they are supplicating at the shrine of the prophet who had guided none less than Moses himself. The retired inspector apparently followed in the footsteps of his spiritual mentor for it is not known what eventually became of him.

I have no doubt that these ‘living saints’ were no more then foolish mendicants who, because they were not prudent enough, ended up as dinner for wild beasts. Since no trace was ever found, they became disappearing wizards for superstitious folk. We have no scarcity of such saints that departed into the hungry stomachs of wolves or leopards and one that even met his end in a crevasse on a Karakorum glacier: on a small nameless glacier at the top of Chapursan Valley in Gojal north of Hunza, there is a spot known as Qalander Gum (Lost Saint). That, they tell you, is where the Qalander disappeared from the sight of mortals. In other words the poor soul, uninitiated to mountaineering, fell into a crevasse and died a miserable death. All of them are deified and worshipped as Zinda Pirs.

This site in southwest Punjab, however, has been usurped from Hinduism – and I have no doubt in that. When this conversion took place is not known, however. Not belonging to Muslim shrines, the bell and the way it is clanged as one enters is a manifest zeitgeist from our Hindu past. As elements of an earlier faith are incorporated into the new belief system at the shrine of Channan Pir in Bahawalpur or at the hilltop temple of Takht e Suleman in Zhob or on the snowy peak of Musa ka Musalla in Kaghan, so too has it happened at the Zinda Pir shrine of Dera Ghazi Khan. And as elsewhere, these earlier elements do not disturb the religious sensibilities of the disciples of this Zinda Pir.

For those yearning for sons, a visit to the shrine and the ringing of the bell yields a male child. And then perhaps it also does not. But only the begetting of a boy child is proclaimed to the world: the keeper insisted that all seekers did get what they sought and always returned. He seemed incapable of understanding that the sorry parents whose prize for a visit to this shrine was their seventh daughter were forgotten for they never returned to shave the infant’s head and leave the offering in a tiny pouch on the tree outside the temple. Only the proud parents of the boy child are registered and so the legend grows fat – and with it the progeny of the enterprising barber.

For many, especially local rural women, the outing is surely no more than an exciting diversion from humdrum lives: here they can let their hair down. Here they can laugh and talk, frolic in the dirty, foul-smelling sulphur pond, shop to their hearts’ content (or as much as the purse allows) for cheap and gaudy trinkets, gorge themselves on the goodies the shanty eating-houses offer and, best of all, get away from the drudgery of the hearth and the water hole. It is one hell of a picnic and even if it lasts just a day, it is worth it. On the side, if they can get a son by the saint’s blessing, that is a bonus. If not, there is no dearth of other saints to try out.

Book is available at at Sang e Meel (042-3722-0100), Lahore

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 7 July 2014 at 12:38, Blogger Kush said...

While it is true that baba-ism abounds, one can still find genuine gurus if one looks for them. Maybe this side of the border more.

Some reasons manAsataramgini suggested for emergence of fraudulent babas, for instance, in the state of Tamil Nadu, are brain-drain of brahmins to sramana traditions of Bauddha sangh, Jain sangh and brahmins leaving ancestral practices of rituals for more secular pursuits.

Down history also Brahmins were killed in great numbers because Brahmins were seen as the backbone of Hindu civilization and in order to mass-convert it was found that when the Brahmin asked society to convert they would convert and so invaders went for the Brahmins. So is my understanding.

So in the absence of genuine gurus we have Babas abound. Deepak Chopra and others of his ilk are Hollywood people's baba for instance.

At 7 July 2014 at 12:40, Blogger Kush said...

Oh, this is the link with the blog with observations on brahmin brain-drain by manasataramgini


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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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