I always adored Saif-ul-Muluk, poetry by great Sufi saint Mian Muhammad Bakhsh, since childhood. I spent countless summer evenings sitting on Takatposh (Wooden bed) in our wehrra (courtyard), where my father used to sing the verses from it, and would ask for the interpretations in exchange of few rupees or mere praises. These hours were exclusively dedicated to the family. I would sit along with my siblings, circling our parents and listening to the old tales from their childhood. My father served in Pakistan army, and sometimes he would share the stories of the time he spent as war-prisoner in India during the 1971 war.
To survive the electricity cut-offs in Hajira, we would hold a singing competition within the house. With utter due to my ultra-high-pitch voice, that too without hesitation, I always stood last; the Sufi-ideology ran in the veins of my home arteries.
Later, during my days at the Government College University, Lahore, I chose to pursue my bachelor’s thesis on Saif-Ul-Muluk to punctuate my childhood obsession. It made me read the book thoroughly, and that is when I came to know that Mian Muhammad Bakhsh belonged to Khari Shareef, Mirpur, Pakistan-administered-Kashmir (PaK). Being a Kashmiri, I resonated myself more with his poetry.
I had always thought of paying a visit to his shrine, but couldn’t. Though, as destined, I had to roam around in Kashmir for my Ph.D., and end up buying purple bangles from the shrine of Mian Muhammad Bakhsh.
On a pleasant sunny morning in April, I decided to go Khari Shareef to visit the darbar (shrine). Those days the preparations of the annual Urs (death anniversary) of Mian Muhammad Bakhsh were going on at the shrine.
There were numerous stalls outside the shrine of books, CDs, artificial jewelry with religious names and verses imprinted on it, fresh flowers, glass bangles, and sweets. The shrine area starts with a small graveyard with a lot of people coming and going. While entering I got a handwritten number on a tag, which would later be matched by the same tag to collect my shoes while returning. Walking barefoot on the hot marble-tiled floor of the darbar, I went straight-away to the grave of late Saint.
It was covered with green chadar (piece of cloth) printed with Kalima and verses of Quran, loaded with fresh flower and petals of the rose. People were standing beside the grave, showering flowers, putting money in the wooden-box fixed nearby, and distributing sweets to every new visitor. Few were sitting beside it and reciting Quran. I stood right in front of the gravestone and tried to read the dates and verses carved on it. Reading the name of Mian Muhammad Bakhsh and considering him lying under the piles of concrete and chadars, I felt exalted. I had a silent secret conversation with the poet, wrote a few things in my personal diary, took a rose from his grave and came outside.
I started strolling in the tiled courtyard absentmindedly, taking a few pictures. I wanted to stay there longer but couldn’t figure where to go, sit and what to do. I became restless for some unknown reasons. Anyhow, I composed myself started walking towards the stalls where a deck was playing the Qawalis. I requested the operator to play the work of the Mian Muhammad Bakhsh and he agreed. I heard the Saif-ul-Muluk and started walking towards the veranda where few people were lying and others were sitting and eating. I saw a baba (Saint) with long hair locks sitting in orange chugha (gown) there with a marvelous serene smile on his face. He looked towards me and then looked away. My presence stirred the monotony of people who sit and lie there in routine; Mostly men. Feeling uncomfortable I decided to walk towards the stalls again.
This time I went on the bookstalls and spent quite a long time there scrolling through the different books and digests. I bought two copies of Saif-Ul-Muluk, newly published edition, with a very shimmering hard binding cover. I also bought the Punjabi books, Sohni-Mahiwal, and Heer-Ranjha. After buying the books, I wanted to buy something of the darbar as to be kept with me all the time so I bought the beautiful four purple (glass) bangles which I still have on my arm and I never took them off for the last eight months. I felt delighted after this little love-loaded darbar shopping and I decided to go towards the Orange baba’s veranda again.
I paid salam to everyone and sat there placing my bag and books aside. An old lady took Heer-Ranjha from my bundle. She held it in her hand and asked, “Do you study?” I replied in agreement.
She pointed towards the book and said, “Jeerriyan ae parhdiyan ney, onhon hor kakh parhan di lorr nai.” (One who reads this, don’t need to read anything else.)
I grinned back at her. A middle-aged man also sneaked into the conversation and asked, “Where are you from?” I told’em about my research and childhood desire to pay homage to the darbar. He expressed his gratitude and introduced himself as a member of the management team of the darbar. He was employed by the Department of Auqaf and taking care of the matters of the darbar were among his duties.
He passed on his visiting card and asked me if I wanted to have an in-depth look at the darbar; including places that are not open for all the visitors. I agreed. He took me to the basement where Mian Muhammad Baksh used to meditate. Soon, he opened the locks of “chilla gah” and told me that Mian Sb used to perform his “chilaa” (meditation) here. There were prayer mats and copies of Quran put in the small taqcha (a shelf inbuilt in the wall) lightened with candles downstairs.
After having a brief look at the chilla gah, we went towards another locked gate. As he opened it, he told me that it was Mian Sb’s mother’s grave, which is not open for the public to visit. “We only open it on special requests, and since, you are coming from a faraway place and is on a good mission, I am opening it for you,” he said. I thanked him and went inside the net walls of the place. The grave was covered in a brand new velvet chadar of ferozi color.
I prayed there and asked him about the confidentiality of the place. He told me that since it is the grave of a female, it is not morally correct that public visit the grave of a ghair-mehram (non-acquaintance) female. I was in no mood indulge in any sort of ‘intellectual’ debate at that time; I said nothing and accepted that — what good my ‘verbal-academic logical arguments’ could bring to the way things are practiced daily, since ages — and secondly, I didn’t want to lose the opportunity of having an insider view of the darbar.
After the grave, we went back to darbar. The lady was still there and asked me how it went? This time, another elderly man joined us; he started telling about Mian Sahib and his poetry. He also told about a common ritual of Mirpur and nearby villages; on the wedding day, the groom along with family and friends would pay homage at the darbar first and then goes to fetch the bride. Meanwhile, the management guy brought juice to me.
The management guy told me that there is the Hujra of Mian Sb, where they have preserved his day-to-day life stuff and asked me to have a look at it.
I went to see the Hujra with him. On our way, I could see a few workers painting the walls of the darbar and nearby buildings. The management guy told me it falls among the preparation for the upcoming Urs event. He asked me to wait, went to fetch the keys of the Hujra. I asked workers about how were they feeling doing it? They told me that they feel blessed and insisted that Mian Sahib’s Urs is a grand event. People, a few barefoot, come from the faraway places, even some from mainland Pakistan, to attend the Urs every year. Amid the heavy rush, there are Qawali and Mehfil-e-Samah nights for three days. While talking to them, I asked if I could paint the walls, and they agreed.
I painted one of the boundary walls of the Hujra. I felt a golden feeling of happiness and eternal bliss inside me while painting the wall.
Soon, the management guy came and we went inside the mud house to see belongings of Mian Sb. The old prayer mat, stick, huqa, clay pitcher, clay lota were among his other personal belongings. It was an immensely pleasing experience to see and touch the things which were once touched and used by Mian Sb.
From Hujra, we went to see the kitchen where open langar (Meal distributed among visitors in shrine) was being cooked. He added that it is because of the mercy of gracious God that no one, in and around, this darbar sleeps hungry. We start early in the morning and it finishes late in the night. I asked about the economic aspect of langar, and he said, “It is all Allah ki dain (God’s gift) and our department takes care that the food supply never stops.”
Moreover, he considered that his job is holy, as God, himself, has appointed him for this good cause and that he feels blessed that his life is in service of Mian Sb.
Before leaving, I paid regards to the orange Baba, others, and thanked the management guy for his time and unasked services, out of respect and love. I came out of the shrine enriched with everlasting beautiful memories in my heart, mind, and notebook.
Komal Raja is a native of Hajira in Poonch, Pakistan-administered Kashmir. She is a PhD Scholar, studying Social and Cultural Anthropology in LMU, Ludwig Maximilian, University of Munich, Germany.