Replicating Memory, Creating Images:
Pirs and Dargahs in Popular Art and Media of Contemporary East Punjab

Yogesh Snehi


Pirs and dargahs constitute an important feature of the popular tradition of saint veneration in medieval and modern Punjab. Before the British arrived in India, networks of shrines loosely linked within the Sufi orders of major silsilas spread through much of the province as the descendants and successors (khalifas) of many of the major saints established their own khanqahs (hospice). There was also a tradition of constructing ‘lesser shrines’ dedicated to one or many, major or minor Sufi centres of medieval Punjab.1  The networks were particularly dense in parts of the Indus valley; for instance in South-Western Punjab the shrines of the descendants of Syed Jalaluddin Bukhari of Uch dotted the countryside when the British arrived.2

These shrines represented sources of power (barkat) to the common people and were open to people from all religious persuasions. Liebeskind terms this all-inclusive approach as the local face of Islam.3   There was yet another practise of constructing ‘memorial shrines’ which gradually developed into distinctive centres of cultural practices, often denoting local as well as long term geographical influences. These memorial shrines existed in the realm of the popular and inspired many folk writer of medieval and modern Punjab evolving into a distinct form of ‘saint worship’. 4

Significantly, these popular shrines emerged as centres for inter-communal dialogue and evolved into a distinct form of cultural practice of saint veneration. One particularly distinct character of this social formation was that while Western Punjab (now in Pakistan) became a major centre of emergence and dissemination of Sufism in the medieval period, it was eastern Punjab (India) which was the recipient of the vast influence of sacred shrines in Sind, Multan, Bahawalpur and Montgomery districts of the colonial India. This paper entailed an extensive survey of popular Sufi shrines through an overview of two trajectories of contemporary Punjab. Firstly, it highlights the landscape of various old and new popular Sufi shrines in contemporary Punjab and secondly, it reflects upon the continued significance of popular Sufi traditions among various classes and ethnic communities of Punjab, delineating a unique picture of social formation of the region.5 

The significance of this social formation lies in the fact that when the province of Punjab was partitioned in 1947, it transformed the demography of the region in such a way that east and west Punjab became Sikh/Hindu and Muslim dominated regions respectively. Both these regions had their significant share of major and local Sufi shrines which would thereafter become inaccessible to each other.6 Over the years the memories of shared past were reconfigured in new spaces and either new memorial shrines were created or the older ones restructured with new sets of functionaries and sajjada nishins. This reconfiguration of space, accessibility to shrine and Pirs associated with them will be significantly mediated through circulation of images which would in a way replicate the shared memories of the pre-partitioned Punjab. It needs to be underlined that saint veneration continues to be a significant articulation of pre-partition memories of shared popular traditions.7

This study was executed through an extensive survey of popular Sufi shrines in contemporary East Punjab and included a vast array of both major and minor shrines. The survey entailed the study of old and new practices of the use of original/early images of saints and shrines for the creation of new mediated material such as collage posters, videos, paintings, animation and internet-based presentations which gets altered through transcultural impact and seek to influence newer generation of devotees and their popular piety. This would be helpful in understanding the linkages and reproduction of connections between east and west Punjab and within the region, which are mediated through popular memory and visualised both through visual arts and, modern print and electronic media.

A major repository of audio-visual material, both in print and electronic media, collected during these surveys consist of posters printed from several places in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh and CDs/VCDs/DVDs which play a major role in circulation of legends and local histories, creation of pilgrimage networks, development and standardisation of images of a popular saints and their shrines. These images consist of roughly three sets of production material. First set of images consist of large, medium and small posters, the second set consists of printed images produced for photo frames and the third set of images consists of such tiny versions meant for pocket and wallets. With an easy accessibility of print mediums, these images are also produced on photo prints at local studios.

This paper underlines the significance of audio-visual material and its circulation in the continued existence of popular Sufi shrines in contemporary East Punjab. It primarily focuses on four types of material. More important role in circulation of images is played by numerous production of electronic material in the form of CDs/VCDs/DVDs. Second set of material collected consists of poster and banners which are a major source of circulation. Book-covers and illustrations also constitute a fairly significant medium of circulation, especially the ones printed in local medium of Punjabi. The bulkiest material was in the form of digital photography and videography of shrine spaces and Urs personally done during surveys.

1  David Gilmartin, Empire and Islam: Punjab and the Making of Pakistan (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989), 41-42.
2  Gilmartin, 43-45.
3  Claudia Liebeskind, Piety on Its Knees: Three Sufi Traditions in South Asia in Modern Times (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.2.
4  Author’s work on Panj Pir shrine at Abohar exemplifies how its geographical location on the medieval trade route led to the emergence of a distinct form of veneration of saints associated with five Sufi shrines on the trade route between Sindh and Abohar. Author, “Historicity, Orality and ‘Lesser Shrines’: Popular Culture and Change at the Dargah of Panj Pirs at Abohar,” in Sufism in Punjab: Mystics, Literature and Shrines, ed. Surinder Singh and Ishwar Dayal Gaur (New Delhi: Aakar, 2009), 402-429.
5  In the context of a paper on Panj Pir tradition at Abohar, author highlights the continued significance of the popular Sufi shrine in contemporary social formation of Punjab. Author, 402-29.
6  Shrines of Chishti saints like Baba Farid, Suhrawardi saints like Shaikh Bahauddin Zakariya and Syed Jalal Bhukhari, Qadiri saints like Mian Mir, early mystics like Shaikh Al Hujwiri, popular shrines of Sakhi Sarwar and the deras of Nath Jogis with whom early Sufi mystics interacted are located in Pakistan and the shrines of Suhrawardi saint Haider Shaikh, Nasqbandi saint Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi, Chishti saints like Shaikh Muinuddin, Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, Nizamuddin Auliya, Shaikh Ali Ahmed Sabir, Shaikh Sharfuddin Panipatti and Shaikh Hafiz Musa, etc. are located in northern India, besides numerous minor saints and their shrines on both sides of Punjab.
7  Farina Mir argues that saint veneration is better understood as constituting a parallel, alternative spiritual practice that was accessible to all Punjab’s inhabitants. Literary representations in Punjabi popular narratives such as Hir-Ranjha suggest that people participated in saint veneration without recourse to or invoking pre-existing religious identities. The practice involved the reinterpretation of piety and constituted beliefs that stood alongside formal categories of religious identity, without being in conflict with them. The repeated depiction of this form of devotional practice in the most ubiquitous Punjabi cultural form suggests the importance of this social formation in Punjabi popular imagination, and in Punjab’s religious and cultural history. Farina Mir, “Genre and Devotion in Punjabi Popular Narratives: Rethinking Cultural and Religious Syncretism,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 48, no.3 (2006): 755.


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