Archive for June, 2012

Aleph by Coke Studio-Sufi Music and Poetry


The old shrine and its rustic environs looked the same when I last visited it in 2007. Pallid walls topped with a fading green dome and a tattered flag, a few trees around it laden more with ribbons than leaves.  The ribbons were actually rags, reminders of wishes made.  Few women from the nearby villages were gathered around the grave; impoverished, as ever they looked richer in faith. The eldest of them recited a verse of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, one of the most revered saints and a Sufi poet buried in another shrine miles away and at that moment beyond her reach.

Far from the turbulent North West region bordering Afghanistan, Chand Maurya’s shrine is located in Sindh, the southern province of Pakistan.  Standing between the towns of Mirpurkhas and Jhalori, and just a mile away from my ancestral village, it is a spiritual sanctuary to many of its devotees from the nearby villages.  In contrast are spectacular and crowded shrines located closer to the cities.  At a distance of only one hundred miles from Chand Maurya is the city of Sehwan that houses the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalander; near Hyderabad is Bhit Shah that still radiates with the poetry of Latif; in the heart of Lahore is Data Darbar and on the coast of Arabian Sea in Karachi is the shrine of Abdullah Shah, perhaps the first Muslim Saint of the Indian sub-continent.

Not too far back in times Pakistan’s landscape, especially the rural landscape of Sindh and Punjab was dotted more with shrines than with mosques.  Shrines are the hallmark of mystical Sufi Islam that prevails in most of the non-Arab Muslim World.  It has evolved with the flow of history, inheriting many traits of pre-Islamic faiths and acquiring a transnational character.

In March 2009 when Taliban bombed the shrine of Abdul Rehman Baba in Peshawar, the government of Afghanistan immediately announced to bear the expenses of the repairs of the shrine.  The devotion to saints continues to thrive beyond political boundaries even in these troubled times; a seventeenth century saint and mystic poet, Rehman Baba is revered throughout the Pakhtun land.

History of Islam in the Indian sub-continent begins in 711 C.E with the first Arab Muslim conquest of the Indian subcontinent.  Invading from the Arabian Seacoast, making Sindh the Gateway of Islam, these early conquerors did not force conversions but received a tax from the non-Muslims in lieu of military service. Even later in times and away from Sindh “The battles of Islam were won not by Muslim iconoclasts but by peaceful missionaries,” admits Khushwant Singh, a non-Muslim writer and historian. These peaceful missionaries had been trickling into Sindh even before its conquest; one of them was Abdullah Shah. Once when the much-desired land of Sindh was conquered it became a good testing ground for the early preachers to convince the Buddhist, Jain and Hindu population on a mass scale. Before reaching Delhi, for three centuries, Islam had already flourished and co-existed with the prevailing religions. Later with their message of justice and social equality these preachers were to win many converts in the caste divided society of India. With the passage of time they acquired the status of saints and structures came to be built to house their graves; each shrine was built according to the means of their devotees.

Given the history of Sindh and the early Islam in the region it is natural for the most original form of Sufism to survive in Sindh.  Sindh is the stronghold of Sufi Islam observes William Dalrymple in his op-ed article in The New York Times (Aug.16, 2010) writes:  “The good news is that Sufis, though mild, are also resilient. While the Wahhabis have become dominant in northern Pakistan ever since we chose to finance their fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, things are different in Sindh Province in southern Pakistan. Sufis are putting up a strong resistance on behalf of the pluralist, composite culture that emerged in the course of a thousand years of cohabitation between Hinduism and Islam.”


In the segregated society of Pakistan where mosques, until three decades ago, had remained the premise of male domain, shrines had been spiritual sanctuaries for women since centuries.  Shrines represent the esoteric Islam, unlike militant Islam, this is marked with non-violence of Buddhism and Jainism and festivities of Hinduism.  Devotional songs and trance dance are a common sight at the shrines.  Devotees can be rich and poor, vagabonds and social outcastes, Muslims and Hindus, women and even transvestites. The militant Islamists, however, do not approve this face of Islam and its practices; they had warned the administrators of the Rehman Baba shrine to bar women from visiting it.  On the other hand poor economy and deteriorating conditions of the country in general is causing frustration and more and more women and men are calling on their saints.  Amongst the crowds are a large number of children being used by their destitute parents for begging.  These are the at-risk children most vulnerable to fall in the handsof a Taliban mullah.  Worse yet can happen if they are trained for a suicide-bombing mission for the very shrine that feeds them…Ah poverty.

Thankfully, the militant attacks so far have not been able to deter devotees from visiting shrines.  They continue to invoke their saints by means of vibrant music and dance, the tradition is old and is at the core of Sufi Islam. The provinces of Pakistan still abound in shrines and the numbers in Sindh are splendid. The largest necropolis of Asia located on Makli hill survives with more than a million graves and half of these are said to be of saints.  How many of these the militants can destroy? “The Taliban have antiaircraft weapons, rocket-propelled grenades and squads of suicide bombers. But the Sufis have drums. And history.” Writes Nicholas Schmidle in his article in the Smithsonian Museum. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/Faith-and-Ecstasy.html?c=y&page=1

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Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy is an Academy Award and Emmy Award winning documentary filmmaker. Her recent films include SAVING FACE, TRANSGENDERS: PAKISTAN’S OPEN SECRET AND PAKISTAN’S TALIBAN GENERATION, which aired on PBS, Channel 4, CBC, SBS and Arte and was the recipient of theAlfred I Dupont Award as well as The Association for International Broadcasting award. Sharmeen has made over a dozen-multi award winning films in over 10 countries around the world and is the first non-American to be awarded the Livingston Award for best international reporting.  In 2012 Time Magazine included her in the magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world. (Read more on the link below)



Anoushka Kachelo, 24, resident of London, is perhaps the youngest woman, and first Pakistani, to walk the last degree to the North PoleAfter eight days of hauling over 55 kilos across about 50 miles of the frozen continent, Anoushka achieved her goal of reaching the Geographic North Pole at 7.10am (GMT), Sunday April 24, 2004. (Read more on the link below)



Zainab Imran, 15, was selected to participate in the relay next week in Nottingham by the British Council.  Volunteers from 20 countries were chosen to hold the torch and represent their country at a June 28 ceremony. The Olympic Games begins on July 27.

“It is a once in a lifetime opportunity and I am very happy,” Zainab told reporters. “It is a great inspiration for all Pakistani youth and I will try to present a soft image of my country.” (Read more on the link below)



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#PPP candidate #RajaParvezAshraf elected #Pakistan‘s new Prime Minister. http://dawn.com/2012/06/22/profile-raja-pervaiz-ashraf

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In Part 4 of his documentary “In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great” Michael Wood covers the legends and myths woven around Alexander in the Indus region.

Finally Greece has formed a new Government.  But as the international media debates over country’s future I am reflecting upon its rich past, the fate of that too hinges upon the fiscal policy of the new government.

An article by Randy Kennedy appeared in the New York Times on June 11th.  It reports how the glorious past of the cradle of Hellenic civilization is being neglected due to the budget cuts imposed on Greece by European economic establishment.  The austerity measures by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism have resulted in forceful retirements and understaffing is causing many problems; closing of museums and galleries and thefts being the most obvious.  It is also a blow to the historical scholarship as the limited staff’s time is mostly consumed in non-academic duties.  The anonymous American archaeologist rightly says “Nobody in Greece digs nearly as much as the government archaeological service. And if they aren’t able to publish what they find, they might as well not be doing it at all; they might as well just rebury it.” On the other hand Pavlos Geroulanos, the helpless minister of Culture and Tourism says “I believe that this ministry could double or triple the number of archaeologists it hires — and the number of guards — and still be understaffed.”

What happened to Greek archaeology the most spectacular on the landscape of Europe?  Since more than a century its sites had been number one tourist destinations, and Greek archaeologists were almost a breed of celebrities.  It was not too long ago when Melina Mercouri, a former minister of culture campaigned so confidently for the return of Elgin Marbles.  As a theater actress she had enhanced Greeks’ longing for their past. She had made herself known on the international stage by acting in few Hollywood movies (“Never on Sunday” “Topkapi” and “Phaedra” with James Mason and Anthony Perkins) and she used her celebrity status too for the promotion of Greek culture.  And what about the new Acropolis Museum, constructed only three years ago?  Incidentally its third birthday is just being celebrated. Let’s hope the new government and the Euro economic establishment considers bringing back the state of archaeology back to its standard.

Greece’s past had a huge impact on the then known world; in Pakistan and Afghanistan Gandhara art is a proof.  More important are the ancient Greek manuscripts sprinkled with references pertaining to lands beyond Greece.  Megasthenes’ account of India may be exaggerated but most of the chroniclers made sure to record many solid facts of the exotic lands where Alexander is only known through legends.  What could be more revealing than the Greek record that established the chronology of Indian history or for that matter Pakistan’s history, or history of both the countries, at some points in the past it is permissible to cross political boundaries.

It was Sir William Jones, an eighteenth century British Jurist posted in Calcutta who stumbled upon the name of an Indian King in a Greek chronicle- Sandrocottus, the name that he immediately identified with Chandragupta, the founder of the Mauryan dynasty and the first emperor of the sub-continent.  Known for his theory of identifying Indo-European group of languages and tracing their roots to Sanskrit, Sir Jones had gone through many ancient manuscripts of these languages.  Through Indian texts and Buddhist traditions he had come to know Chandragupta but the period of his reign was not dated. In fact there were reservations in the western academic world  to accept Chandragupta as a real historical figure.  Greek reference came to rescue as it provided a date, 326 BCE, the year when he met Alexander the Great.  According to Plutarch, Chandragupta “was a stripling” when he approached the Macedonian conqueror with a burning desire to establish an Empire in India. Alexander by that time had already accomplished part of his mission and had reconciled with his war weary soldiers to return home. Chandragupta thus failed in getting any military assistance.  The meeting of the two had taken place somewhere in the Indus region which is now Pakistan. 326 BCE thus became a reference point in Indian and Pakistani history as most of the known events before and after this year came be dated.

Alexander is also known through vague references; there is a fort he got built in Sindh mentioned in Tuhfatual Kiram; there is a port of Alexander on the Makran coast, another in the delta of Indus and yet another somewhere in Punjab.  Out of the thirty Alexandrias that the conqueror built, few are bound to be in Pakistan.  There is also the bed of a long abandoned tributary of Indus, passing behind my village, in lower Sindh, the southern province of Pakistan.  It is said Alexander may have crossed it on his return journey.  On many afternoons I had walked on its banks with the village kids, later as a student and a novice in archaeology I had even wished in vain to discover an amphora thrown long ago  in its waters. However, there is another ancient riverbed in the island of Kythera in Greece, its banks are not as barren but sadly the artifacts studded on these are going down the drain due to the collapse of its bank.  Kythera, had been a colony of Minoan Crete, it is rich in archaeology.  Aris Tsaravopoulos a senior archaeologist who had worked in the island for 15 years, and who too had been retired, feels that the site may be part of a tomb but who knows it may also hold clues to the world beyond the island.  Wasting Greek artifacts, or artifacts anywhere in the World, is wasting a vital ancient record of the common past of human race.  Aris attempted to save some larger pieces of pottery, reports Randy in New York Times, but the pockets of his Khaki vest are not large enough to store a massive heritage that Greece owns.

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 ‘Prime Minister of Pakistan Disqualified by the Supreme Court’ The news fits well in the story of Pakistan.

The story of Pakistan in fact is a story of many ironies – A country created for the Indian Muslims failed to maintain Islam as the binding force, as in 1971 its East Wing separated.  Pakistan failed with democracy but it succeeded in making atomic bombs.  It is the first Muslim country to possess nuclear arsenal; it is also notorious for selling its nuclear technology.  Since September 11, 2001 Pakistan remains a staunch ally of United States in its war against terrorism but it is also suspected of protecting Al Qaeda.  Foreign archaeologists continue to reconstruct its past in the ruins of its ancient cities while NATO forces bomb its region bordering Afghanistan.  Sufi saints, once hailed as the keepers of Islam, are being labeled un-Islamic as suicide bombers target their shrines.   Things are getting dangerous, slogans of nationalism are increasing in Balochistan.  There are talks of bifurcating Sindh on ethnic basis.  Should this be happening in the province, where least blood was shed during the Partition, where refugees from India were welcomed and accommodated, where Hindus were not driven out and where the largest Hindu population continues to live. The country is also facing war on several other fronts Islam versus Islam, judiciary versus executive, army versus civil governments. Today the Supreme Court has disqualified the Prime Minister and the federal cabinet is dissolved. On the external front US-Pakistan relations are deteriorating.  What next?

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Around the time when I was regularly visiting Bhanbhore to enhance history with tradition Sir V.S. Naipaul was visiting Pakistan.  “History, in the Pakistani school books I looked at, begins with Arabia and Islam.” He had observed.

His visit had also coincided with the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan when Pakistan was helping United States with a generous supply of Mujahideens to combat the communists.  Mujahideens, the freedom fighters, were funded by Saudi Arabia, the staunch ally of United States.  As a long term project, special madrasas, or religious schools were established to indoctrinate the next generation of fighters in a militant philosophy based on distorted Islamic teachings. In the given circumstances it is very likely that some school, some where, inspired by the madrassas or under the spell of Jihad, went an extra mile and tailored a syllabus with the Arab Muslim conquest as the first chapter of country’s history.  That chapter, however, begins with Bhanbhore.

Many archaeologists and historians believe that the site of Bhanbhore was in fact the city of Debal mentioned in the Chachnama, an Arab chronicle.  According to the Chachnama, Debal was the first city of the Indian sub-continent that was conquered in 711 CE by Mohammad bin Qasim, the well-known young Arab general.  It was described as a large city on the Arabian seacoast in the country of Sindh and the ruins of Bhanbhore are large enough to be identified with Debal.  Bhanbhore is thus labeled as the Gateway of Islam.

Excavations have revealed more than a mere Arab conquest. Bhanbhore’s origins can be traced to first century BCE.  It had been a home to the Scythians, Parthians, Sassanians, Hindus and Buddhists before the Arab Muslims occupied it.  There is however, no reference of Debal in any local source, or even in the folklore.  The Sindhis have always known the site as Bhanbhore or Sassui jo Takar, the Hillock of Sassui, and that is how it has come to the posterity through the poetry of Latif, through the love story of Sassui Punhoon.

I was therefore visiting Bhanbhore to feel the mystique of the folk story from its very source and also to rummage through its streets for the mundane -the citadel and the moat, the remains of the residential and the industrial areas, slingstones and the arrowheads that targeted the inhabitants and the evidence of Manjanik, the weapon, that destroyed the city.

The coincidence that Sassui Punhoon longed for each other at a time when Islam was just gaining foothold in Sindh and that I was attempting to set their story in an archaeological and historical context at a time when Islamization of Pakistan was in full swing intrigued me.  While fighting the ghosts of a pre-Islamic era, Pakistan’s Islamization process was emphasizing on the Islamic component of history and undermining the rest, whereas I was keen to include the ancient traditions and folklore as a record of the past. I do remember that on revealing my views few government officials had looked at me with a sneer as though I was committing blasphemy.

I was also aware of the fact that Islamization process was undermining the position of women and Sassui stood no chances of official recognition.  It was the period of General Zia-ul-Haq when the newscasters on television screens were required to cover their heads with the veils.  It was also the season of Islamic punishments; flogging had become a public spectacle and stoning to death was being considered for those who committed adultery.  The most absurd quirk of the times was the definition of a new status of women in the Law of Evidence where two women witnesses were considered equal to one male witness.  Worst still was their predicament in the rape cases where the victim had to prove the rape by producing four witnesses, otherwise it was likely to be considered adultery.  However, when it came to erase the past, it was not easy. Two folk heroines Sohini and Heer had already committed adultery but nothing could be done about them. Likewise, Indus Valley Civilization and the pre-Islamic era that followed could not be erased from all the textbooks.

If Moen jo Daro, the most elaborote site representing the mature urban phase of Indus Valley Civilization, is a window to the pre-historic past; Bhanbhore, the Gateway of Islam, is one of the richest sites that offers a glance in the pre-Islamic period of Pakistan’s history.  In between these two sites are many other pre-Islamic landmarks that have survived in various forms-archaeological sites, manuscripts, oral traditions, dialects, rituals and even customs-mutilated remains of all these are calling for research and preservation. Islamization process had failed to erase these.  Naipaul, failed to view the state of history and education in totality. Ten years later in the sequel to his book, once again he committed a similar blunder and overlooked the other face of Islam prevalent in India and to a much larger extent in Pakistan.  William Darlymple pointed out that in 2004.

“In Beyond Belief (1998) Naipaul writes of Indian Muslims as slaves to an imported religion, looking abroad to Arabia for the focus of their devotions, which they are forced to practise in a foreign language – Arabic – they rarely understand. He seems to be unaware of the existence of such hugely popular Indian pilgrimage shrines such as Nizamuddin or Ajmer Sharif, the centrality of such shrines to the faith of Indian Muslims or the vast body of vernacular devotional literature in Indian Islam, much of it dedicated to the mystical cults of indigenous saints.” Darlymple 2004 Guardian.


According to a report by the National Commission on Status of Women (NCSW) “an estimated 80% of women” in jail in 2003 were there as because “they had failed to prove rape charges and were consequently convicted of adultery” from wikipedia









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Enjoy Pairhein Pavandi Saan by Mithu Tahir, the latest gem, presented by the chic Coke Studio.

In a country drifting under the spell of a militant Islam where lovers, in the name of honor, are axed to death, a great love saga lives on. Thirty miles East of Karachi and away from its ever-erupting ethnic violence, lies in peace the long dead city of Bhanbhore. In its glory, it was an emporium where merchants ‘exchanged turquoise and silk with topaz and a little wine’ and where Sassui yearned for her lover. On my first visit, its ruins were still ringing with her pleadings:

Pairhein pavandi saan, chavandee saan
rahi wanjh raat Bhanbhore mein

“I will fall on his feet and beg at him
spend the night in Bhanbhore”

The song composed centuries ago continues to remain popular and was playing on a donkey cart driver’s rickety cassette player. Even the tourist guide, a native Sindhi, was under its spell, so when I asked him about the inhabitants of the ruined city, he named only two – Sassui and Punhoon!

The bare bones of the Sassui Punhoon story have passed from generation to generation as an oral tradition. However, in the eighteenth century Shah Abdul Latif, the beloved saint and mystic poet of Sindh, composed it in a verse form. Among the many ancient love stories buried in the region, Latif was able to retrieve and preserve seven in his poetry. Sassui Punhoon is the longest and as rife as Laila Majnun of the Arabian Desert.

Spread over a vast area from Iran and Afghanistan to Pakistan and India, the details of Sassui Punhoon story may differ from region to region but the overall plot structure remains much the same. “Latif, like Shakespeare and Goethe, takes up ordinary tales that were known to the people of his day and renders them in glorious verse and employs them as instruments for the purpose of revealing the hidden side of our life’s beauty and power” writes A.K.Brohi, the eminent Pakistani jurist who is also considered an authority on Latif’s works.

Like Romeo and Juliet, Sassui and Punhoon were star-crossed lovers born in rival camps. Whereas Romeo and Juliet came from feuding families, Sassui Punhoon came from rival religions – Hinduism and Islam. While Shakespeare, found the two families ‘alike in dignity’ Latif, with his deep insight, revered both religions. Shakespeare lamented on the ‘ancient grudge’ of Montagues and Capulets; Latif, who had once undertaken a pilgrimage to Mata Hinglaj, the westernmost Tirtha (holy places) of Hinduism, must have lamented on the mutual hostility of the two noble religions, Islam and Hinduism. And as Shakespeare failed to thwart the star that blighted the fates of Romeo and Juliet so did Latif with Sassui and Punhoon’s. When Brohi says Latif reveals ‘the hidden side of our life’e beauty and power’ he points to the realistic depiction of the events and locale described by Latif and his symbolic exploration of the human struggle with the natural world and the human capacity to transcend hardship, and personal triumph won from defeat.

Sassui was born in an orthodox Hindu Brahmin family. An astrologer had predicted that she will marry a Muslim. This perturbed the parents and in order to save themselves from the disgrace they preferred to put her in a basket and leave her to the mercy of the river. The basket sailed to a washerman of Bhanbhore, and being childless he considered the baby in the basket a divine gift. His wife named the girl Sassui, the Moon, due to the radiance of her beauty. As she grew up the legends of her beauty began to spread far and wide and fate bought Punhoon, a prince of Kaitch-Makran, to Bhanbhore to marry her. Their happiness was short-lived and as soon as Punhoon’s father discovered that his son has married a washerman’s daughter, he summoned his other sons and sent them to Bhanbhore with the instructions to fetch Punhoon. The brothers reached Bhanbhore, drugged Punhoon with opium and in the dark of the night whisked him away on a camel’s back to Kaitch-Makran. This was the turning point that has made Sassui Punhoon one of the greatest stories of unrequited love.

When Sassui woke up and discovered that Punhoon had gone she embarks on a punishing journey in quest of her lover. Her journey ends with her death which becomes a means of uniting her with Punhoon. Latif’s greatest achievement, however, is that he uses Sassui’s plight as a metaphor for a mystic’s journey on the Divine Path. She follows the tracks of Punhoon’s caravan and asks his whereabouts from the mountains and the trees, pleading at the sun not to set soon and at the wind not to blow away Punhoon’s footsteps. She confronts barrier after barrier in her search as a seeker confronts on a mystic journey. But instead of her lover, she comes across a shepherd and his lust. She prays to God to save her honor, the earth cracks and she is swallowed leaving behind her veil. The shepherd, stunned at the spectacular divine intervention, builds a grave for her; Punhoon seeks her grave and dies next to it. Sassui’s journey ends with a defeat, but her death actually becomes a means of uniting her with Punhoon.

Much before the radios relayed Latif’s songs, the bards sang and performed his ballads on festive occasions, at town fairs and at the shrines of saints where large number of devotees gathered to pay homage. Their audience memorized these and passed on to the coming generations and thus the story passed to the villages and towns far and wide. Until few decades ago Latif’s Sassui Punhoon lived in every Sindhi house whether Hindu or Muslim, rich or poor, urban or rural. The peasants and the unlettered could quote his verse even with more ease. Even today the song of Sassui can mesmerize many Pakistanis.

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