Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Channan Pir

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The festival of Channan Pir lasts a full six weeks through February to mid-March. The shrine is set amid rolling sand dunes, a few kilometres from Yazman (in Bahawalpur district) and is visited, among others, by mothers whose sons were born, so it is believed, after praying here. Cattle owners bring their prize animals to do obeisance so that they may be fruitful and the herds grow. The devotees are spread across the religious spectrum: Muslims, Hindus, Christians.

Legend has it that a Muslim saint came to the court of Raja Sandhila, who ruled over this part of Cholistan at some indeterminate time in the past, and asked if there were any Muslims in the country. There were none, he was told. In which case, said this man of god, the king’s pregnant wife was to deliver a son who would be a Muslim and who would eventually convert the whole country to the true faith.

This was too great an affront for the upper caste sensibilities of the king and his queen. Consequently, when the boy was born, the king ordered him to be abandoned in the desert. Weeks later, news came that the infant, being fed by Nature herself, was hale and growing in a cradle miraculously lowered from the heavens.

The repentant king went out to retrieve his son. But as he approached the sand dune, the cradle rose up out of his reach. After several failed attempts, the king resigned to divine intervention and returned. The boy grew up into a handsome young man who worshipped Allah and lived on the sand dune where he was abandoned as an infant. He possessed miraculous powers to grant children, particularly sons, to those who came to him. Because of his radiant, moon-like beauty, he was known as Channan.

Before he passed away, the saint instructed that he be buried on the same dune and that never a dome be raised above his grave. It is said that in the 1920s, the nawab of Bahawalpur tried to build a mausoleum. But when the labourers returned after a night’s rest, they found their work demolished. Several failed attempts led to submission to the dead saint’s wishes.

I went to Channan Pir for the first time in 1992 when I heard the story related above. The object of worship was the sand dune — the supposed burial of the saint — next to a whitewashed mosque. There were indeed men with cattle who came to say salaam to the pir and women with infant sons who came dancing with bagpipes and flutes, bearing cash offerings for the keepers of the dune.

The symbolism was far too stark to be missed by anyone who kept their eyes and ears open. The conversion of the pagan Dharti Mata to Islam was uningeniously disguised by the legend of the Hindu parents giving birth to a Muslim son. For many decades, the worship would have continued as before. But with the number of Muslims growing, the conversion eventually took place to suit their sensibilities. As Dharti Mata was celebrated in spring, so too was the Channan Pir festival.

Until the mid-1990s it was the dune that devotees bowed to — a dune that was under the open sky. A holier-than-thou secretary of auqaf, perhaps offended by the blatant un-Islamic act of genuflecting to a dune, ordered its cementing over to make it appear like a proper grave.

A couple of years ago, photographer friends returning from the festival reported that an ugly domed building had been raised over the cemented dome. This ‘crime’ against ancient tradition was committed by a retired brigadier heading the Cholistan Development Authority. I wonder if local devotees of Channan Pir protested against this gross violation of the saint’s dying wishes. If they did, their protests had no effect against the stonewall of authority.

Human memory is short. I am certain that the tradition against the building of the dome, so essential to the worship of Dharti Mata, is already forgotten. It may well have been lost within a year of the raising of the ugly structure. I have seen this happen at another shrine with another story.

Odysseus Lahori one year ago: Humour in Uniform

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,

3 Comments:

At October 19, 2014 at 2:42 PM, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

Sir thanks for providing details of Channan Pir

 
At October 19, 2014 at 3:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The fascination and ardour with folklores that we people are akin to is indeed remarkable. These folklores were believed not only by the locals but also by the so-called learned English Sahibs of the time as well. In 1850s Sir Alexander Cunningham, writing about Harappa talks about a folklore about Harappa. Let me quote from what he wrote:

....... The people refer to the ruins of Harappa to the wickedness of a Raja named Hari Pal or Hara Pala who was in a habit of claiming to the sovereign rights at every bridal. At last, in the exercise to his royal privilege, he committed incest with a near relative. Some say his own sister, others his wife's sister or his wife's sister's daughter. The girl prayed to the heavens for vengeance, and the city of Harappa was instantly destroyed. Some say it was by fire and some say earthquake; others say that an invader suddenly appeared, and the city was taken by storm, and the Raja killed. The period of its destruction is vaguely said be about 1200 to 1300 years ago. If this date is correct, the city of Harappa must have been destroyed by Muhammad-bin-Kasim in AD 713, just 1260 years ago. I am inclined to put some faith in this belief of the people, as they tell the same stories about all the ruined cities in the plains of Punjab, as if they had all suffered at the same time from some sudden and common catastrophe, such as the overwhelming invasion of the Arabs under Muhammad-bin-Kasim. The story of the incest also belongs to the same period, as Raja Dahir of Alor is also said to have married his own sister. ............

Interestingly, Chachnama the book which narrates the story of Raja Dahir marrying his sister was translated into Persian in 1216 AD. The English translation of the book was done by Mirza Kalichbeg Fredunbeg in 1900. Cunningham wrote about this folklore in 1856.

And this is what make these orally transmitted folklores so fascinating and romantic to the core.

Another interesting facet mentioned in the same paper by Cunningham is discovery of a long grave on one of the mounds of Harappa - in his own words:

......... On the same mound but lower down towards the east, there is a tomb of a Naogaja named Nur Shah, which is 46 ft long and 3 1/2 ft wide. Besides the tomb there were formerly three large stones, which the people believed to be the thumb rings of the gigantic Naugaja. ............

Baba Nur Shah as he is locally known, is believed to have lived in this area in the 17th century. Locals say Baba Nur Shah was a giant and, ironically, his 9-metre long tomb in Harappa attracts more visitors than the ancient ruins themselves. The tomb was properly constructed in 1918. According to the administration, the grave is unusually long on account of having the Sufi’s personal belongings buried with him.

Regards.
Sufyan.

 
At October 19, 2014 at 3:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The fascination and ardour with folklores that we people are akin to is indeed remarkable. These folklores were believed not only by the locals but also by the so-called learned English Sahibs of the time as well. In 1850s Sir Alexander Cunningham, writing about Harappa talks about a folklore about Harappa. Let me quote from what he wrote:

....... The people refer to the ruins of Harappa to the wickedness of a Raja named Hari Pal or Hara Pala who was in a habit of claiming to the sovereign rights at every bridal. At last, in the exercise to his royal privilege, he committed incest with a near relative. Some say his own sister, others his wife's sister or his wife's sister's daughter. The girl prayed to the heavens for vengeance, and the city of Harappa was instantly destroyed. Some say it was by fire and some say earthquake; others say that an invader suddenly appeared, and the city was taken by storm, and the Raja killed. The period of its destruction is vaguely said be about 1200 to 1300 years ago. If this date is correct, the city of Harappa must have been destroyed by Muhammad-bin-Kasim in AD 713, just 1260 years ago. I am inclined to put some faith in this belief of the people, as they tell the same stories about all the ruined cities in the plains of Punjab, as if they had all suffered at the same time from some sudden and common catastrophe, such as the overwhelming invasion of the Arabs under Muhammad-bin-Kasim. The story of the incest also belongs to the same period, as Raja Dahir of Alor is also said to have married his own sister. ............

Interestingly, Chachnama the book which narrates the story of Raja Dahir marrying his sister was translated into Persian in 1216 AD. The English translation of the book was done by Mirza Kalichbeg Fredunbeg in 1900. Cunningham wrote about this folklore in 1856.

And this is what make these orally transmitted folklores so fascinating and romantic to the core.

Another interesting facet mentioned in the same paper by Cunningham is discovery of a long grave on one of the mounds of Harappa - in his own words:

......... On the same mound but lower down towards the east, there is a tomb of a Naogaja named Nur Shah, which is 46 ft long and 3 1/2 ft wide. Besides the tomb there were formerly three large stones, which the people believed to be the thumb rings of the gigantic Naugaja. ............

Baba Nur Shah as he is locally known, is believed to have lived in this area in the 17th century. Locals say Baba Nur Shah was a giant and, ironically, his 9-metre long tomb in Harappa attracts more visitors than the ancient ruins themselves. The tomb was properly constructed in 1918. According to the administration, the grave is unusually long on account of having the Sufi’s personal belongings buried with him.

Regards.
Sufyan.

 

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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand


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Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

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