Once upon a time, sometime in the 13th century, a red-cloaked saint from Uch Sharif wandered into the desert kingdom of a Hindu ruler, Raja Sadharan. He invited the raja to embrace Islam but was unceremoniously turned away. The queen of the kingdom, childless and anxious, had heard of his holy powers, and she sought him out in secret, begging him to pray for her.
You will have a son, the saint assured her. He will be Muslim.
Needless to say, the king wasn't too pleased when his son arrived into the world with the kalima on his lips, so he had him packed into a box of sandalwood – channan in local parlance – and dispatched him into the deepest bowels of the desert. But this was a child of destiny; the universe conspired to keep him alive. A donkey brought him food and water every day, says one legend; another version insists it was a mother deer. Soon people also began flocking to him, to partake in his grace and seek his blessings. Eight hundred years have passed and they still keep coming. On this particular Thursday, they will come in the thousands.
Asmatullah Shah peers through the windscreen of our speeding car like an excited child. "Look, everyone in that trolley is so dressed up!"
"Those sacks of wheat and those goats! Someone's mannat (prayer) has been fulfilled."
"Ah, they are coming on camels. Just like old times."
We are on our way to visit the desert saint: Shah, a teacher of Seraiki language at one of the oldest colleges in Bahawalpur, two poets – a man from Bahawalpur and a woman from Dera Ghazi Khan – and me. Every Thursday, for seven weeks at the start of spring, the environs of Channan Pir come alive; devotees celebrate all night and disappear in the morning. This particular day, the fifth of the seven Thursdays, is so popular that it is an official holiday in the whole district of Bahawalpur. As a result, the road to the shrine, running through the market town of Yazman and then through chequered fields, is clogged with traffic of a startling variety: tractors and trolleys, motorcycles and minivans, camels and cows – and donkeys.
Shah hasn't visited Channan Pir in a while. A long time ago, his parents made this pilgrimage: they came to the saint to pray for his birth. Years later, they returned with little Asmatullah in tow, bringing bags of wheat and flour and a lamb. The trip was different then – rows of bedecked camels on what used to be dirt tracks and a continual rippling of bells, rather than beeping horns. Modernity has dulled the culture, he notes sadly.
All this used to be desert once. Indeed, barring Uch Sharif, Bahawalpur during the Mughal era was so barren that imperial revenue documents dismissively referred to it as berun Panjnad or outside Panjnad — that was its only reference point. When the Abbasis established their state, they built a sprawling series of inundation canals: according to an 1871 British engineer's report, 45 canals of various sizes tapped the Sutlej, Chenab and Indus rivers, comprising some 2,176 kilometres of engineering works; another 4,800 kilometres of cultivators' ducts branched out from the canals, carrying the water ever further. As academic Richard Barnett points out, even as early as 1835 in Khanpur, 37 kilometres away from the
Indus, a lieutenant in the Bengal Engineers reported seeing flooded rice fields stretching all the way to the horizon: "… green was almost the only colour that met the eye in an expanse of many miles," he wrote in clear awe. The most transformative of the engineering works was still to come, however — the Sutlej Valley Project, built during the 1920s, involved the construction of three barrages still in use today; it ensured a perennial supply of water. And so it is that the shrine of Channan Pir, once marking a spot so deep in the desert that a king thought it possible for someone to remain lost there forever, is now perched on its very edge, bordered on one side by a sea of green inching further and further into Cholistan.
Shah twists in his seat and looks back.
"You know, this is almost entirely a Punjabi area — but everyone at the mela will be Seraiki. Except maybe a few urchinswho'll come for a stare and a laugh. You wait and see."
We are passing through rural settlements known as chakook, built mainly for settlers who moved to the state of Bahawalpur to cultivate land made available by an expanding irrigation system. Some of the first to come were Sikhs and Bishnoi Hindus, in the mid-1860s, followed by Muslims from princely states in eastern Punjab and what now constitutes central Punjab in Pakistan. It is difficult to ascertain the exact number of migrants: on the one hand, Barnett notes that the population of Bahawalpur doesn't really seem to increase very dramatically between 1871 and 1951; on the other, according to figures cited in Re-Thinking Punjab: The Construction of Siraiki Identity and attributed to The Civil and Military Gazette, abaadkaars (settlers) accounted for 42 per cent of the population, Seraiki-speakers for 37 per cent and mohajirs (migrants) for 21 per cent in 1952. In any case, migrants who came as settlers or in the wake of Partition, remain a major sticking point in the politics of the area; in demographic terms,
Bahawalpur division, only slightly different from the Bahawalpur state of yore, is currently almost equally divided between the speakers of Punjabi (45.82 per cent) and Seraiki (46.59 per cent). Urdu speakers account for nearly four per cent. And in such a scenario, the chak – as distinct from the Seraiki mauza – has become a symbol of historical wrongs for many Seraiki nationalists. One poet even used it as a motif in his work, playing on its second meaning (bite) to illustrate the injustices meted out to the indigenous population.
'Mein trisa, medi dharti trisi, trisi Rohi jae, mekon akh na Punj Duriyai' ('I am thirsty, my land is thirsty, the Rohi desert is thirsty, don't label me as a dweller of the land of the five rivers'), this same poet, Javed Aslam, wrote in another work.
What makes his poetry enigmatic is the fact that Aslam was born to Urdu-speaking parents.
Apart from teaching Seraiki, Shah is also working on his doctoral thesis, an exploration of the evolution of Seraiki dohra or couplet. His respect for Khwaja Ghulam Farid is so profound that he blushes when he speaks of him. An ardent nationalist, he wears his politics on his sleeve. That morning, though, he is quite literally wearing it around his neck. An ajrak is slung proudly across his shoulders.
"A sajrak," he corrects me, pointing towards its colour, the classic blue of a Multani tile. "You know, ajrak actually originated from this region, near [the town of] Karor, then travelled down to Sindh. Last year, some of our Seraiki intellectuals decided it was time to reclaim it as sajrak."
He pauses, then adds: "The name didn't catch on. So we are calling it the Seraiki ajrak now."
Earlier, a colleague of Shah, a teacher of statistics who compiled a lengthy tome on the workings of the Bahawalpur state, narrated a story. Many years ago, a learned man called Maulvi Abdul Haq with familial roots in Gujrat used to teach Arabic and Persian to the children of the state's finance minister. The minister was so taken by Haq's erudition that he offered him a job in his ministry. Haq accepted and steadily worked his way up
the ranks to the top. "When he died, his son inherited his position," said the statistics teacher, pursing his lips. This son, Akhtar Ali, whose own son Khalid would go on to become a celebrated Urdu fiction writer, was in charge of settling all the emerging arable land in the state.
It sounded like a wonderful migrant story to me, an illustration of one man's destiny-defying dynamism — but to Seraiki nationalists, it serves as the starting point for something far more insidious: the influx of Punjabi settlers. "The trouble with most settlers is that they still have links with where they came from," one nationalist tried explaining, choosing his words carefully. "They don't integrate. They retain their original loyalties. And that causes friction."
It is a sentiment felt by many people. A Seraiki-speaking lawyer based in Bahawalpur who professed to not particularly care for the nationalist cause did say it angered him to hear settlers, who had been living in the city for generations, claim they couldn't comprehend a word of Seraiki. Shah's colleague, the statistics teacher, said his own father joined government service as a junior clerk and retired as a senior clerk; around him, better connected colleagues rose to posts as high as that of district commissioner. Who you are determines who you know, argue nationalists — it can boost you or set you back in life. It can only help to belong to an ethnicity that dominates – or has dominated, in the case of Urdu-speakers – so many of the country's institutions: the army and the bureaucracy, federal and provincial politics. And so, when the car trundles off the tarmac and begins inching through the throng of cows and camels and humans towards the shrine of Channan Pir, only to be yelled at by an irate – and admittedly Punjabi – officer of the Punjab Police, perhaps it is a little understandable that Shah doesn't view him merely as a bad-tempered man but as a symbol of ethnic oppression. Perhaps the policeman sees Shah as some sort of a symbol too.
"See how they speak to us," says Shah, seething with resentment.
At Channan Pir, though, it isn't possible to remain angry for very long. The green dome of the shrine, ordinarily immediately visible against the rolling sand, is surrounded by hundreds of tents; after all, the real party starts at dusk. Men form circles
and perform the jhumar dance. Many are wearing the original ajrak, I realise with a sudden pang of sympathy for Shah — it seems that it may take some time for sajrak to catch on.
The desert saint has followers far and wide but nowhere more than in Cholistan itself. Nomads have brought their best animals along — plump cows and goats and camels with intricate designs carved on their hide and names scrawled on their long necks. Bijli. Kabootar. Jhoolay Lal. There is also an Abdul Waheed among the camels, reminding me of the clever childless Cholistanis trying to pass off their animals as their offspring. The donkey that kept baby Channan Pir alive and fed hundreds of years ago is also buried here; a small shrine has been erected for him and, with great reverence, nomads bring their donkeys there to pay respect.
The shrine of the pir itself is teeming with people, mostly men, a blur of bodies pressed against each other. Occasionally, a determined woman elbows her way through the crowd to distribute her share of tabarruk, or sacred sweets.
The shrine is conical in shape, a bit like the top of a circus tent, and the sweets come rattling down towards the grasping hands of devotees. From time to time, people break from the crowd and clamber onto the shrine itself in an attempt to press their eyes and lips to its pointed top.
They are swatted away by the harried men from the government department overseeing the shrine.
There is an old tree in the compound. Channan Pir's mother, the erstwhile queen of the land, is said to be buried under that tree. The branches that shade her grave are bowed by colourful threads; they represent the hopes and dreams of thousands of devotees. There is also the odd Coca Cola bottle wrapper on a branch, tied just as meticulously as other threads — someone, perhaps, ran out of string. Many people who come here pray for a child, just like the queen once did. I wonder how many, if any, of the threads on this bright hopeful tree are wishes for a plot of land.
A few days ago, a disgruntled nationalist had been complaining that the only area of the mazaar where you might find non-Seraiki speakers was the market adjoining the shrine — settlers just saw the festivities as an occasion for commerce, he lamented. As we walk through the market, a winding muddle of stalls selling bangles and plastic dolls and prayer mats, I ask Shah if he thought this was true. He nods, then points towards a clumpy paan stain on the ground so large it is almost a puddle. According to him, Seraikis rarely eat paan.
"The outsider has reached here," he says bitterly.
Identity politics is a curious thing. Two major developments occurred during the 1970s. A literary conference was held in Multan, the first All-Pakistan Seraiki Literary Conference in 1975 — and a language, long considered a dialect of Punjabi, referred to by colonial administrators as Wuch and Mooltani and Jatki and Southern Lahnda and Western Punjabi, was standardised and given a formal name. Many reasons are given for it having been clumped with Punjabi for so long: as the poet-academic Nukhbah Langah argues, it was perhaps because large parts of what Seraiki nationalists call vasaib had been under the influence of Ranjit Singh or possibly because there were no physical barriers such as mountains between the Punjabi and Seraiki regions — or perhaps because, while making their classifications, the British had neglected the folk tradition and oral culture so crucial to this language. No one knows where the word Seraiki originated from or why it was agreed upon unanimously, though many link it to the Sindhi word siro, meaning north. All the same, it was a stunning achievement: millions of people across a vast stretch of land were suddenly given a common identity marker and a new consciousness. Of course, some saw it as yet another demonstration of the narcissism of minor differences, the notion that precisely those communities that live next to each other engage in constant feuds and ridicule.
During my time in Bahawalpur, a Seraiki-speaking teacher of Urdu had declared that it was actually Punjabi that was the
dialect of another language. He argued that languages were predicated on three parts of speech: ism or noun, feyl or verb
and harf or preposition — nouns can be borrowed but verbs preserve the sanctity of a language. Punjabi had no verbs that
were distinct from Urdu, he went on to assert, which made it "mere slang, really".
"Vanjeej," he said suddenly, as an example of a pure Seraiki word.
"You won't even be able to say it."
"Vanjeej," I repeated. He winced. I tried again; he shook his head.
Giving up, I asked him what the word meant.
"To be lost," he replied.
And another movement had also been stirring across Bahawalpur four decades ago — earlier, in fact. Upon the dissolution of the One Unit scheme in Pakistan, Bahawalpur was absorbed into the province of Punjab; it had earlier existed as a separate federating unit and its residents now insisted that this status be restored — indeed, they claimed, the state of Pakistan had promised this would be so. The restoration movement, which lost its momentum when police opened fire at a protest rally in 1970 and killed two demonstrators, wasn't based on a linguistic identity; people of all ethnicities, including abaadkaars and mohajirs, had thrown in their lot with the cause. Their identity was derived from a shared political history – they called themselves riasati, people of the state, although the term sometimes refers only to the 'indigenous' population – as well as an immediate sense of loss. After all, much like the desert, Bahawalpur is haunted by its past. A self-contained and largely prosperous state saw the centre of power shift far away to Lahore and Islamabad. Its grand palaces now serve as army offices. Even today, without fail, every riasati will mention two things: how the nawab famously announced his support for the independence movement by proclaiming that the front door of his state faced Pakistan and how, once it was created, the salaries of employees of the new country came from the coffers of the nawab. Jinnah's Rolls Royce came from Bahawalpur too.
Even though calls for a Seraiki and/or a Bahawalpur province emerge from time to time, usually just before elections, even though there are strong reasons for supporting the creation of new provinces particularly in light of the skewed federal framework of Pakistan, both movements have on occasion displayed worrying reactionary tendencies. A parliamentarian elected from Bahawalpur during the 1970s argued for a provincial status for Bahawalpur so that the region could regain its former 'social and religious purity': "Before the merger of Bahawalpur into the One Unit, there were neither unveiled women nor was there co-education. Following the traditions of Islam, every Friday was a holiday; the holy month of Ramadan was held in great esteem. There was a ban on selling wine and the preaching of Christianity was prohibited within the boundaries of the state — there was not a single church or missionary school. All criminal and civil cases were decided according to shariah but after the merger of Bahawalpur, all these religious characteristics vanished," said Noor Muhammad, a legislator from the area, as cited in Re-Thinking Punjab: The Construction of Siraiki Identity. As for the ethno-nationalist Pakistan Seraiki Party, it announced its intention to declare null and void all land allotments made after Partition in the Seraiki region: "According to the charter of UNO, these lands can only be allotted to either ancient inhabitants or natives of the area and Pakistan Seraiki Party will cancel all such allotment which are bogus and illegal and will allot these lands only to the natives."
The trouble with this sort of nationalist rhetoric is that anyone can start using it. A journalist in Bahawalpur narrated a story about the controversy generated from Bahawalpur. But he wasn't a Shia. No banners went up this time.
In the reading room of Bahawalpur's central library, I look up at a portrait of Khwaja Ghulam Farid. He seems a little gruff to me, a man who wouldn't be too pleased if someone interrupted his thoughts. Heavy-lidded and thick-lipped, he gazes down with a tilted head, as if his large hat is a bit too heavy for him. In this artificially coloured image, the hat and the kurta are soft beige, as if the desert sand has seeped into the cloth, but his beard is pure white. The lips have been rendered a little too red — almost paan red. There is an inner stillness to him, though. Like the desert.
Khwaja Ghulam Farid is everywhere. His portrait hangs in public buildings across Bahawalpur. The gate that serves as the main entrance to the main bazaar is named after him. He is the focus of an entire branch of literary studies: it is called Faridiyat. Rickshaws and vans carry his message – 'Khwaja da ik paighaam; pyaar, amn-o-amaan' ('Khwaja has only one message; peace, love and security for all') as well as messages for him: 'main deewani Khwaja di' ('I am a devotee of Khwaja'). He looms large in an abstract sense too: Seraiki nationalism has anointed him as its poster boy, a somewhat retrospective symbol of indigenous struggle. Granted, he was a keen opponent of colonialism, stringing words into poems of resistance: 'Apnain mulk koon aap vasa toon, put angrezi thaane' ('Liberate your own country, uproot British police posts'), he wrote. But I wondered what he would have made of Bahawalpur today.
Colonialism and historical wrongs, inequality and entrenched privilege — can these battles be fought without slotting people into ethnicities, without blurring their individualities? What does it mean to belong to a place? After all, not all settlers are oppressors: many just migrate in search of a better life; many find themselves victims of circumstance, just like locals. And outsiders don't always remain outsiders. No one knew this better than Khwaja Ghulam Farid. He wasn't born in Cholistan — but does anyone dare divorce the bard from his desert?
Ali Muhammad Chaudhry lives just outside Bahawalpur city in a neat little house situated smack in the middle of agricultural fields. Most of these lands belong to him; he inherited them from his father, an Urdu-speaking migrant who moved to Pakistan in the 1960s. The land just outside his door is clear, though. People often ask him why he doesn’t grow anything there — after all, this is prime agricultural land. "I tell them it is because I am crazy," he quips. He is saving up to build a school there.
Inside his house – and this is a surprise given the streaming fields outside – are books, shelves and shelves of books, a veritable library. Chaudhry might be an abaadkaar by profession but what he is really interested in is the past, particularly the past of the land he lives on. A few of these books are even written by him, under the pen name Ain Meem Chaudhry. He is currently working on a hefty manuscript, a historical account of Sui Vehar that he guards jealously, fearing theft and plagiarism, made wary by past experience.
Climbing onto the roof of his house, Chaudhry points out a specific speck on the near horizon. Sui Vehar looks like the vertical shaft of a brick kiln peeking out from among the trees, but it is in fact the remains of
a Buddhist stupa. During the Kanishka era, there used to be a monastery here but now cultivation has encroached upon most of this site of ancient learning. Chaudhry began frequenting the site as a child, fascinated by the scattered shards of pottery and the mound of earth that lay at the heart of so many stories: some whispered that it stood guard over a secret treasure; others spoke of the woman who once ruled over this land, generous and kind, but without child. He still goes there often, sometimes serving as a guide for tourists and visiting academics. A few of the historical details he relates with relish – for instance, that some of the graves at the site are of the companions of the Prophet of Islam – are disputed, but there is no denying his genuine love for the crumbling stupa.
"I used to want to write fiction," he says, standing beneath the structure and beaming. "But reimagining this [stupa] is so much better." Sui Vehar looms large behind him, crooked like a finger bent in remonstrance, a reminder from the past that everything – the desert, the farmland, the language and the politics it has spawned – is transient, susceptible to change.
This was originally published in Herald’s April 2015 issue.
The videos were produced in October 2014.