Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Unto us a saint is given

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Some eight or nine kilometres from Kharian city en route to Jhelum by the Grand Trunk Road, if you are careful, you will notice as you enter the Pabbi Hills a shrine on a low knoll just off the road to your right. The green dome is unremarkable, but the dozen or so fading green flags fluttering around it catch the eye. In fact, there are two sets of green flags. The one around the domed building and the other on a slightly higher hummock twenty metres or so to its northwest. Just below them runs the main railway line. By the southbound track of the highway a tent is pitched and next to it sits a steel collection box minded by a man who, it is claimed, is an employee of the Auqaf Department.

Pir Bren Gun Shah (foreground), Pir Howitzer Shah (background) and the railway line

I do not recollect ever noticing this shrine in passing – and I have passed up and down this highroad innumerable times. Indeed the six years I spent at Kharian in the early 1970s and the several walks I took in these hills also throw up no memory of this establishment. But that may not necessarily mean it was not there. It only means that I am not particularly drawn to shrines, real or imaginary, or that it may then just have been an insignificant set up.

Concerning this shrine my civil servant friend Shahid Nadeem has an interesting tale to tell and it was with him I went there one day recently. Shahid’s tale later, but first the young man we met collecting donations thrown out of passing traffic. He said Syed Sabir Hussain was a great saint who passed away about a hundred years ago. He came here from the east country and made the bald knoll his home where he spent his days in the worship of his Lord. Since there was no water nearby, passing trains would halt to fill up the man’s pitchers.

One day a negligent driver failed to do the duty. Lo and Behold, the train just ground to a halt and stopped right below the knoll where the old man was sitting. No matter how hard the driver tried, the train would not budge. At this point I was tempted to ask if the driver tried getting out and pushing, but discretion prevailed and I desisted. On someone’s suggestion the driver made the water offering and sure enough the engine agreed to haul once again. From then on this became standard operating procedure for all trains.

Time passed and the 1971 war with India rolled around. The army thought Sabir Hussain was a spy passing on valuable information to the enemy. They hauled him in and administered the old routine. I wonder if the dreaded Special Investigation Branch (SIB, does it still exist?) also did their bit. The man, so our informant said, was fasting and would not speak. Well and properly belaboured, he was eventually taken to an officer who somehow knew of the his saintly credentials and who ordered his release.

Sabir Hussain was so incensed at the army’s treatment that he hated all wearers of the khaki from then on. Shortly after this event, an ammunition convoy passing by this place managed to blow itself up. Not a man survived nor too a vehicle. In fact, the bombs even landed on Choa Kariala a good five or six hundred metres away. Such was the saint’s venom, it was said. I found this rather interesting. First we were told the old man passed away a hundred years ago and now it was that he was still mucking about in 1971. I asked our man how he reconciled the discrepancy. He grimaced like we Punjabis do when we say, ‘Oh damn! What a goof up!’ ‘No, no! You don’t understand.’ Said he, ‘Sarkar came here a hundred years ago and died only recently.’ Our man was evidently rather adept at making up stories as he went along.

This pious man of God had dug his grave with his own hands. In preparation of death that might come during the night, the man would lay himself down in his grave. No one knows if he died or what, but having laid down in the grave one evening, he did not emerge the following morning. Lesser mortals believed he had gone into purdah – concealed himself from the sight of sinful humans. Thereafter the grave was filled in and became a worship site. The burial on the neighbouring hillock is said to be of one of his disciples. But about this lesser saint who also commands a few flags, nothing else is known.

This meant, said our man, that sarkar died sometime after the 1971 war when he was mistaken for a spy. Shahid asked what it was that drew people to the site and we were told that this was the place to cure arthritis and cardiac diseases. The shrine, he told us, was known as Jhandian wali Sarkar – Lord of the Flags, because of all the flags planted around about. We were also told that the Auqaf Department built the domed shrine some years ago. Until then, there was only a simple grave. The annual urs or death anniversary festival is held in the first week of the Punjabi month of Jeth (third week of May) and invariably there is a fall of rain the day before festivities begin.

All this was told us between several trips out to the edge of the road for the man to collect the tenners that were constantly being tossed out by passing lorries and buses. Shahid, the good Accounts Group officer that he is, later estimated that the collection was no less than three hundred rupees. And we had spent only an hour or so there.

Shahid’s tale is far more edifying, however. It was told him by the late Colonel Imdad Malik who once commanded 14 Field Regiment of Pakistan Artillery. The year, so said the colonel, was 1953 when the Army undertook the well-known exercise that went by the name of November Handicap. The colonel’s regiment (14 Field) deployed in the vicinity of village Choa Kariala just outside Kharian. Now, November Handicap appears to be what they call a ‘signal exercise’ in the army. That is, they did not use all the equipment but fought the war on wireless sets; flags depicting guns and other equipment.

Consequently, the 105 mm howitzers that 14 Field took into battle were also shown by flags. One of these howitzers (or flags, if you please) was placed where Sabir Hussain now supposedly reposes. On the neighbouring height they placed another flag depicting a bren gun in anti-aircraft role. The necessary slit trenches for the gun crews were dug and the great battle between Foxland and Blueland fought out in the cool November days and nights of 1953. What Colonel Malik remembered clearly and recounted to Shahid was that there was no tomb, whether a simple grave or a domed shrine, on either of the two knolls that marked his defensive position. But over the years, he saw the grave appear and the business pick up.

Now, anyone who knows a slit trench will know how very like a grave it looks. So here is what I believe happened: the exercise over, the trenches were carelessly filled in, the flags removed and 14 Field Regiment moved out. Some smart-aleck local who had seen the flags and now found the partially filled in trench would have invented the story and passed it around. I maintain about us as a nation that we can get wisdom in only through a hole in our head. But walk along a deserted place whispering foolishness to the winds and the next thing you know your jiggery-pokery will have become part of folklore.

And so our little genius prepared the two graves, planted some flags in continuation of the army’s practice and the rest, as they say, was history. The saint was antedated to a previous time when steam trains ran and as time went by the story expanded by natural accretion. The ammunition convoy came later and I will not be surprised if the story of the bombs landing on the nearby village was grafted upon the yarn when news of the Ojhri blast and how rockets rained on ‘Pindi and Islamabad became well known.

If this saint lived on until the 1970s there would surely be some retired engine driver still alive today who could tell of how passing trains were obligated to make the water stop. As certainly as I breath today, there is not one mother’s son of a former locomotive driver in Pakistan who will vouch for this deceitful fabrication. Equally certainly there will be no record of any out-of-station train stoppage in this area or of the army losing a full ammunition convoy. I, for one, remember many train journeys up and down this line in the 1960’s and 70’s, but I do not recall the train ever holding up by Choa Kariala railway station.

Centuries ago when our ancestors converted to Islam, they were hard put to grasp the abstraction of an unseen god. The practice of worshipping an image of a deity was deeply ingrained in their psyche and even though they outwardly fell in line with the new belief, they hankered for an image of a god. Or, if you please, of an intermediary between them and their god. And so they took to worshipping the graves of those who had converted them to the new faith. Not being entirely secular or, as we love to say now, ‘Hinduistic’, this ritual caught on until we have come to a pass where every single grave in this great and wonderful land is considered worthy of being worshipped. No surprise then, that we see people prostrating themselves to burials all over the country. Jhandian wali Sarkar thus satisfies that need for the intermediary that those who believe in Allah should know neither exists nor is needed.

Ateeq Shah of the Auqaf Department could only confirm that there were many miracles attributed to this nonexistent saint. Among these he recounted was the habitual train stoppage. Heaven knows what the real purpose of this department ever was, but it is now a money-maker for the government. Presumably having taken it over after they became aware of the goodly collection it was making from passing traffic, they helped expand the myth. The good Ateeq Shah said, this shrine had a ‘passing-traffic lease’ – because the income comes largely from passing traffic. That is, it was leased out (the same way as any octroi post would be) to a moneyed contractor and the lease renewed annually like any other lease.

In other words the Jhandian wali Sarkar shrine is a money-making concern for a rich and surely illiterate contractor and an impoverished and equally illiterate government. In a better society the government would strive to educate its people and wean them away from such superstitious practice, but here they’ll encourage it for a few extra rupees to misappropriate. Here the government and the contractor gang up to prey on the superstitions of illiterate masses. In all this, one wonders, whatever happened to that wiseacre who first ‘revealed’ the existence of this saint. How did he stand to gain from this monkey business?

As surely as I breathe today, if they were to dig up the ‘graves’, they’ll not find anything below. And as surely as I breathe today, people come to watch will raise their hands in orison, praise the Lord and murmur; ‘Sarkar has preserved himself in his purdah.’

Long live Pir Howitzer Shah and his disciple Pir Bren Gun Shah.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 28 February 2015 at 21:01, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

No of time passed from this place but never noticed in this contest. Thanks for enlightening .

At 1 March 2015 at 11:37, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Athar.

At 4 March 2015 at 19:40, Blogger Harvinder Singh said...

This is not ignorance but exploitation of fear psychosis .

At 5 March 2015 at 12:02, Blogger Muhammad Imran Saeed said...

Sir,after the mention of the said shrines on that dearly treasured 'telcon' with you, I had much awaited this piece that was supposedly in making by then. On one of the fateful afternoons as I traveled from Islamabad to Lahore, I had stopped at the entrance to Pabbi Hills and visited the shrine again to relive the memoirs from my unit, the 14 (Abbasia) Field Regiment Artillery.
14 Abbasia was the only Artillery Unit along with a couple of Infantry Units and a Brigade from the Army of Ameer of Bahawalpur, Nawab Sadiq Muhammad Khan Abbasi V to have become part of Pakistan Army as the State of Bahawalpur joined Pakistan.
I should extend to you a warm invitation to my Unit to explore the historical perspectives of interest. It will be an honour to arrange such visit in your company.

At 8 March 2015 at 11:16, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Imran. Let's do this soon.

At 8 March 2015 at 11:38, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Harvinder, I think this is just plain stupid superstition.

At 20 June 2017 at 20:27, Blogger DHA LIBRARY said...

A great out fit indeed 14 Abbasia


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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

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