In defiance: Celebrating Baisakhi at a Hindu shrine in Pakistan

By Haroon Khalid for Scroll.in

Muslim devotees keep alive the tradition of Baisakhi mela at the 16th century shrine of Baba Ram Thaman in Punjab province.

In defiance: Celebrating Baisakhi at a Hindu shrine in Pakistan

Dressed in brown shalwar kameez, Abdul Razzak stood behind his small portable wooden stall of colourful glass bangles, his 7-year-old son beside him. He had just returned from selling his wares in nearby villages to where his wife had spread out her collection of bangles on the ground, hawking to people gathered for the annual fair at the 16th century shrine of Baba Ram Thaman.

Baba Ram Thaman was a Hindu saint, an older cousin of Guru Nanak. He came from Khala Kharu village, now in Kasur district of Pakistan’s Punjab province. He set up his camp at a short distance from the village where his devotees would pay homage to him. After his death, a shrine was built at the spot. Over time, other buildings were added and the shrine eventually became a vast complex with several temples and a pond. His devotees permanently settled at the complex, turning it into the small independent community of Ram Thaman.

As a child, Razzak would accompany his father to Baba Ram Thaman’s shrine for the fair of Baisakhi, the harvest festival that is celebrated across Punjab in mid-April, to sell bangles, just as his father did before him and his son does now. The annual trip, though, has always been more than an economic enterprise for Razzak’s family. They are devotees of the saint, so it is also a pilgrimage, a religious duty.

Image credit: Haroon Khalid

In olden days, the Baisakhi mela at the shrine was among the largest in Punjab, attended by hundreds of thousands of people. That was before Partition ripped apart the social fabric of the land. Communities, religious traditions, history, culture, pilgrimages, festivals and saints were divided into distinct religious groups, each more conscious of its identity than ever. Most residents of Khala Kharu had to cross to the other side of the newly chiselled Radcliffe boundary, while a stream of refugees descended upon the village from the east, desperately looking for any vacant space to settle down. A vast shrine complex with several abandoned temples offered more than ample space.

One of the refugee families was Ghulam Hussain’s. Standing in the courtyard of the shrine, I spoke with the 85-year-old man in 2011 when I first visited the mela. He had tied a chunri around his forehead just as the devotees of goddess Durga do when they undertake her pilgrimage. Coming from Firozpur district in Indian Punjab, Ghulam Hussain’s family knew there was only one place in the unknown country of Pakistan that would provide them refuge. The family’s patriarch, Ghulam Hussain’s grandfather, was a devotee of Ram Thaman and was living at the shrine. And the family had often attended the Baisakhi mela at the shrine before Partition.

Settled in a small village away from the influences of a big city, Ghulam Hussain’s family, like millions of villagers in British India, was unaware of the newly crafted religious identities being forced upon them through the state apparatus. Religious identity for them was not connected to a larger imaginary community but to their geographical surroundings — referred to as folk religion by academics. Local saints, myths and traditions dominated their discourse, shared by several religious communities, bound together by their geography. Without a uniform education system and mass media, several villages adopted their own sacred traditions that did not necessarily fall within the umbrella of any organised religion. A Muslim family devoted to a Hindu saint and vice versa, therefore, was not much of an anomaly as it would appear today, especially to someone whose sensibilities are shaped by post-Partition state rhetoric expressed through the education system and mass media.

Samadhi of Baba Ram Thaman. Image credit: Haroon Khalid

Finding refuge in a Kali temple next to the shrine of Ram Thaman, Ghulam Hussain’s family could not bear to witness how their sacred complex was being transformed. They wanted to preserve the sanctity of the shrine but understood the desperation of the times. Finally, they put a lock on Ram Thaman’s shrine, ensuring, as other buildings and temples were being taken over by refugees, no one occupied the central shrine.

Only once a year, on the occasion of Baisakhi, as the village around them remained engulfed in silence, they would open the lock, clean the floor of the shrine, present the samadhi with a new chaddar and pray. In the subsequent years, they were accompanied by a few other devotees, who too had witnessed the festivities at the shrine in pre-Partition days. Over time, a small mela, a shadow of the former festival, began to be organised on Baisakhi. Ram Thaman, irrespective of the name, became one of the Sufi saints the villagers held in esteem. Just as they would present a chaddar to the grave of any Sufi saint, they began to present a chaddar to the samadhi of Ram Thaman on Baisakhi.

The mela grew by the year as more devotees started coming. Along with them came the stalls, the rides, the circus, the performers and the music. Even as such non-Muslim traditions were being abandoned in the cities of the newly created Pakistan, Baisakhi at the shrine of Ram Thaman became an annual festival. Now, for three days every year, the village is decked up as devotees and other participants pour in for the mela, unaware perhaps of how this little tradition in a small village in Punjab stands in defiance to the religio-nationalist propaganda that the state has spewed over the past seven decades.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books, Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail