Sufi traditions, a Sikh past and Islamic influences come together in a Christian shrine in Pakistan


The Christians who flock this shrine are descendants of Sikhs who stayed behind after Partition to look after their masters’ property.

The smoke of the hashish spread through the air as Basheer took a puff from his cigarette, staring at me through kohl-smeared eyes. He had a thick, long white beard, though his hair was neatly trimmed. Through the open buttons of his kameez, I could see a taveez hanging from a black thread. Such an amulet usually contains verses from a holy book written on a piece of paper. I wondered what holy book Basheer had – the Quran, the Bible or the Granth Sahib? Sitting with his back to a small shrine in an open field, he handed over the hashish-filled cigarette to his young companions. Were they here just for a smoke or did the shrine represent something to them?

Hashish and bhang (both made from cannabis) play a central role in folk shrines across the country. I call them folk shrines because most of them, despite their outward religious associations, do not strictly fall within the bracket of religious traditions. They represent an indigenous religiosity that connects the thread of diverse religious traditions of this land. Sufi malangs have in their poetry and literature referred to hashish as al-luqaymah (little green bite), musilat al-qalb (what binds with the heart) and waraq-i kheyal (leaf of insight). In several Sufi shrines across the country, one would come across devotees gathered around a fire smoking hashish or consuming bhang. Similarly, in ascetic traditions associated with Shaivism, the consumption of hashish is almost part of religious rituals. In Vedic literature, the use of cannabis is mentioned as a bestower of joy, a liberator.

“This is the shrine of Baba Gur Baksh Masih,” Basheer told me. Masih is the Arabic word for messiah, a title reserved for Jesus Christ. It is a word the Christian community uses today for its self-identification in Pakistan. However, it is not the word Muslims use for the Christian community – they use Isaai, followers of Prophet Isa, the name for Jesus in the Quran. While Isaai is now popularly recognised as the word for Christians in Pakistan, it is not a title the Christians necessarily associate with. However, power relationships between the two communities have forced this identification upon them, despite their reluctance. This is similar to Muslims being referred to as Mohammadens. Many Christians in Pakistan also use Masih as a surname.

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