The tomb of Shah Jehangir in Gujrat, where many come to have their wishes granted, is in all likeliness the place where the fourth Mughal emperor's intestines are buried
"What brings you here?" the man with a bit of plaster covering a cut on his chin asked. He had obviously set me apart from the throng of visitors still loitering under the shade of the spreading banyan in the premises at the end of the three-day urs of Shah Jehangir in Gujrat city. Once outside the city limits, to the northeast of town, the tomb is now within the municipal limits and unbeknownst to me, I had arrived in the wake of the annual urs held on the first Thursday of the Punjabi month of Harr.
This time I was not to be caught unaware, this time I had a story. A friend, much troubled and having despaired of all the astrologers and black magicians of Lahore, I related, had sought the end of his travails at this shrine. Two weeks ago for a full night between the blessed days of Thursday and Friday he lay prone in front of the sarcophagus inside the building. As dawn was breaking on Friday, my friend suddenly became aware of the milky light filling the dark confines of the unlit tomb and the feeling of intense peace and well-being that came over him. He knew then that his prayers had been answered by Shah Jehangir. Just three days after returning home to Lahore, my friend saw his wish granted.
"He instructed me to also seek the end of my difficulties at the threshold of Shah Jehangir. And so here I am." I lied through my teeth. But this was the fib Plaster Chin was just dying to hear. "You have come to the right place. He is the king, the great giver, the grantor of wishes. Go inside, put your forehead to the ground and ask all that you desire. You will not be disappointed."
The tomb with its tiled main dome and series of smaller domes and miniature minarets was pretentious in an uneducated sort of way. It was the kind of quasi-religious building made by public donation anywhere in Pakistan which followed Mughal architecture in a vague sort of manner. One look and I knew the structure was no older than 50 odd years. But another loiterer who had come over to hear us talking told me that it was built long before his grandfather's time. Here we have people who in one breath claim that their fathers lived for 150 years and in the next unwittingly tell you that 50 years equal three times as much.
Above the door jamb was a marble plate that announced the 'blessed abode' of Hazrat Shah Jehangir Sahib which was build in the reign of Aurangzeb Alamgir in the year 1100 Hijri. The line below had the name Farzand Hussain Moinudinpuri with the date September 15, 1969. It was evidently the date when the plaque was affixed by this believer, but for the life of me I do not know where Moinudinpur is -- and there are few places in Pakistan I haven't been to. The erudition (or lack thereof) of this man was evident in the misspelling of Aurangzeb -- in Urdu too.
Inside, the reek of joss-sticks and rancid sweat mingled to create a sickening thickness. Devotees sat staring at the green-draped sarcophagus, hands cupped in front of their faces begging, begging, begging, the stone to give them the desired son or the wealth that had so far eluded them. One ardent and particularly troubled believer was prostrate at the foot end of the tomb rubbing his forehead on the floor and deep in mumbled conversation. How I ached to hear what wishes he wanted fulfilled but despite all my straining could only hear something about Kishwar.
Above the door there was another marble plaque that began in Persian and faded into Urdu to record the completion of the tomb in February 1957. The Persian part mentioned Spehr Shah Aurangzeb and the year 1289 which would correspond with about 1880. The give away was the flawed Persian, evident even to one like me with only rudimentary knowledge of the language. In order to give it some historicity, the builders and promoters of the tomb had added the Mughal-sounding name of someone who never existed. So, who was this Shah Jehangir who grants wishes and fulfils dreams?
On the eighth day of November 1627 Jehangir, the fourth Mughal emperor, died on his journey back from Srinagar to Lahore. He had ruled a full 22 years and had finally succumbed to an attack of asthma that had plagued him for the past eight years. His caravan was at that time halted at the caravanserai of Chingas Hatli. Now, this caravan stop was mentioned only a few years earlier by the English sailor and merchant William Finch who travelled extensively across India.
Finch tells us that Chingas Hatli was 40 kilometres, or just over a 150 kilometres northward of Gujrat on the highroad to Srinagar. That is, from this caravan stop the journey to Gujrat would take no less than five days. Even in the cool of early November, the body of the king would have started to stink. And as they stopped for the night at Gujrat, the royal surgeon would have set to work eviscerating the rotting corpse. The innards were deposited outside the city and the grave marked very likely with a sign that said something about Shah Jehangir.
Years passed. The tomb grew and people forgot what was buried under it -- only the name was remembered. For Muslims of the subcontinent, praying at tombs is a throwback to the time we all prayed to graven images. But when our forefathers, converted to Islam, it was impossible to wean them away from the idol: how could one pray without something material in front of the bowed head? Surely this would have niggled for when the guide who had converted them passed away from this life, his tomb became that much desired idol. As Islam spread across the subcontinent so too did the cult of the worshipful tomb until until Indian Muslims today are no more than hard-core grave worshippers.
Time went by and every old grave became a saint who bestowed sons and wealth on those who grovelled around it. The intestines of Jehangir, an utterly worldly sort of king, did no worse (or better). As its fame grew and the collection box began to fill, the Auqaf Department became its custodian. This totally redundant setup which should actually be renamed Superstition Department, is the keeper of all such spurious tombs for the money they rake in and it has accordingly got its fingers in the Shah Jehangir pie as well.
Outside, Plaster Chin was waiting to ask if I had petitioned the Syed badshah. I nodded and he said never had anyone gone unrewarded from this threshold. Reeling under the garb of my false piety, I could not resist this one. How, I asked, did he know all comers had their desires satisfied? Because they all came back with donations in appreciation for the saint's intercession in their affairs, replied the man.
It would surely have been too taxing for his simple mind to recognise that those whose desires remained unfulfilled would not return. They would, instead, seek other demi-gods to answer their prayers. And in Pakistan there is no dearth of graves.
A 16-year old becomes curious about her roots but gets a chance to visit Saidpur searching for some answers only a decade later...
"Your grandfather was born in Pakistan, in a village called Saidpur."
Born in Britain, to Indian Hindu parents, this statement added a new dimension to my identity crisis. "So does that mean my grandfather was Pakistani? Does this mean we are partly Pakistani?" I asked my Dad.
As a child, my ancestry had seemed quite irrelevant to my life in Britain. However, I was now 16 and had finally become curious about my roots. My Dad explained that when my grandfather was born in Saidpur, it was part of British India. This was the first time that I heard about the partition and the creation of Pakistan in 1947. So, we were not Pakistani. But, I was now very interested in our history. In the following years, I learned more about Saidpur. My grandfather had died before I was born, so I only heard second hand anecdotes about Saidpur based on the stories that my aunts and uncles had remembered being told.
My grandfather was not a partition refugee. He had left Saidpur as a child over a decade before the partition. By 1947, the family was well-established in Bombay and so were able to comfortably withstand the losses of land and property from Saidpur. However, my great-grandmother Mayavati had been visiting family in Saidpur in August 1947. She had to make the arduous journey across the border alone and on foot, apparently carrying an axe under her sari for protection.
It was not just my ancestry that made me interested in the partition. I had grown up in Britain with close Pakistani friends, both at home and at school. I wanted to understand whether strong bonds of friendship, like ours, had been completely destroyed by the partition.
Ten years later, in 2005, I was sitting in a taxi about to turn the corner and see Saidpur. Now aged 26, I was on my fifth trip to Pakistan. I was conducting research for my DPhil, exploring how Indian and Pakistani families remembered the partition. This was my last fieldwork trip to Pakistan and I did not know if I was coming back. I felt it was time to visit Saidpur to learn more about my family's own partition story.
Against the backdrop of the lush, green Margalla hills, Saidpur village looked dishevelled. Many of the houses were crumbling. The dry channel of an old stream was now filled with rubbish. The charm of the village shone through the people that I met there. A group of the villagers showed me around. The first stop was the old temple. It was now being used as a school, but the exteriors of the temple complex had been carefully preserved.
There were two small temple buildings. One was now the girls' home economics classroom. The other was now the school office. On the outside of the buildings the inscriptions marking the opening of the temple were still there, written in Hindi, Urdu and Sanskrit. The complex also included an inn for visiting pilgrims. This was now also part of the school, but the iron balcony decorated with Hindu 'Om' signs still remained. The villagers were making good use of the buildings, but they had also respected its former history.
As I heard the azaan from the mosque, I covered my head with my dupatta -- returning the respect they had shown to the old temple. There were inscriptions on the marble floor, which marked donations that had been given to the temple. One in particular drew my attention. It was from Mayavati dedicated to her son. As I traced my fingers over the stone, I wondered if this was from my great-grandmother Mayavati. The name did not match any of my great-grandmother's children's names, but it was possible that she had dedicated it to a son who died in infancy.
The villagers shared with me their fond memories of their old friendships. One villager said that you could tell that before partition there had been good relations between Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, because all the houses around the mosque were owned by Hindus and Sikhs and all of the houses around the temple were owned by Muslims. As I walked around the village, I could tell there had been class divisions, because the former Hindu and Sikh houses were much larger. However, the villagers insisted that although there had been differences, relations between them had been loving.
One of the elderly villagers said that they had asked the Hindus and Sikhs not to leave and promised that they would protect them. However, the Hindus and Sikhs were evacuated by the army because it was feared that people from surrounding areas might attack them. Teary-eyed, he said that he still missed them.
No one remembered my family though. I still was not sure this was the right village, but this began to seem unimportant. This place was special regardless.
What I originally thought would be a one hour visit turned into one over six hours! I toured the whole village, meeting many of the villagers, several of whom welcomed me with cups of tea and other refreshments. Their hospitality was overwhelming and heart-warming. Several said "welcome home" and I was introduced as 'Saidpur ki beti' (daughter of Saidpur).
I was taken to see the grandest house in the village, which had previously been owned by a Hindu family. A Muslim partition refugee family was now living there. They had come in 1947 from Poonch in Kashmir. The grandfather welcomed me inside when he found out why I had come. He said, "I only have memories of my home and I wish my children and grandchildren could have the chance to see it. So, please you must come in."
His attitude, and that of the other Saidpur villagers, defied my expectations. Despite the cruelties of partition, they were not embittered. They remembered the partition in terms of the shared human tragedies and their lost friendships. I later found out that I had visited the wrong Saidpur. So I had discovered nothing about my family history, but I did find the spirit of goodwill and friendship that I had been looking for.
(Vanita Sharma is a Scholar of Peace Fellow with Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace (WISCOMP) and is conducting her DPhil research at Oxford University)