[ An excerpt from the book “In Search of Shiva: A Study of Folk Religious Practices in Pakistan”. ]

A few months prior to my visit to this village, I received a call from Iqbal asking me if he could come and see me. Later in the day, while we were sitting in my garage, around a fire he said, ‘Let’s make a trip to Pakpattan. There is an interesting shrine there that I want you to see and write about. You know what a shivling is, right? There is a shrine there where women worship and present a shivling to the grave of the saint.’

‘It’s incredible, isn’t it? A friend came to me in the morning with a “specimen” from the shrine. It was made out of wood and was just like the real deal. I was holding it in my hand when I called you. The shrine is of Aban Shah. My friend told me these penis offerings are lying all over the shrine. They are sacred structures.’


Iqbal Qaiser had also figured out the etymology of the shrine’s name by the time he came to me. ‘Aban, I think, comes from Abba, the word we use for father.’ As it turned out, Iqbal Qaiser couldn’t make the trip to the shrine with me because he was busy.

Prominent Indus Valley archaeologist Mark Kenoyer is of the opinion that the seals depicting a nude male figure with an erect penis sitting in a yogic position, discovered from Mohenjo-daro, could actually be a prototype of Lord Shiva, one of the most important Hindu deities. In Hinduism, Shiva is depicted as a lingam which is a phallus. In Hindu temples, the lingam is placed inside a structure called yoni, signifying the vagina. Together they represent the divine power of procreation. In most religions, God is seen as a creator as well as a great father. In the context of this particular shrine, the saint is viewed as someone who bestows birth therefore a father figure.

Mahadev Chakravarti in his book The Concept of Rudra Siva Through the Ages, mentions that in post-Vedic literature, Shiva is known as the god of procreation. He further explains that in an agriculture-intensive society like that of the Indus Valley (similar to present day Punjab, Pakistan) the fertility cult has particular significance, as cultivation is perceived to be an act of procreating. He writes that Shiva is also worshipped as the god of cultivation. In post-Vedic literature one finds the river Ganges on top of Shiva’s head emphasizing his fertilizing power.

‘Is this shrine something like the Kanamara Matsuri?’ asked Maryam as we headed towards the village. It was a single road, with its edges tethered, as if bitten off by some prehistoric monster and then discarded because of its bad taste. Frequently we would have to climb down on the road to give way to a trolley and a tractor overflowing with sugarcane.

‘What is Kanamara Matsuri?’ asked Anam.

‘It is a festival held each year at a shrine in Japan with the penis as the central theme. The name of the shrine is Kanayama, which too is a penis-venerating shrine,’ I replied.

‘I really want to go there sometime for the festival,’ commented Maryam.

‘I want to take back souvenirs to show to my friends,’ she added.

Staring out into the deep fields on a bright afternoon, Bilal smoked away.

‘Me too,’ Anam joined her in excitement.

‘They’ll let us do that, right?’ Maryam wanted to know.

‘Of course they will. They will be lying all over the shrine. We can just pick one up and take it back,’ I said with assurance.

The concrete road gave way to a mud track as we entered the village. It was smaller than I had expected, a few hundred houses, most of which were made of mud, just like villages and cities would have looked in the Indus Valley Civilization. It was deserted except for a few naked children running along our car, a rare sight in this secluded part of the village. Under the shade of a house, I noticed a group of elderly men gathered around a hookah, adjusting their glasses and peering closely at us ‘strange creatures’.

We left behind a trail of dust and continued looking out for any signs of the shrine. The mud track gave way to a concrete road as we left behind the last remaining row of village houses. I stopped a young man approaching us on a cycle and asked him about the shrine. He pointed towards a graveyard, off the concrete road. The shrine was surrounded by a cluster of trees. Socially appropriate I thought, imagining phallus structures hanging from the branches. There was a modest house next to the shrine.

As we parked our car next to this house, a child peeped out, probably curious about the strange sounds. The shrine was an unassuming building, a lonely structure in the graveyard. It was single-storeyed with a green dome on top of a white body. Baba Aban Shah was scribbled at its entrance. A small courtyard stretched out in front of the shrine, with remnants of a boundary wall around it. White turbans with festoons and glass bangles were scattered at the other end of the courtyard. These two objects symbolize the groom and the bride. They must have been placed there by supplicants hoping to get married. There were no signs of any phalli. My friends spread out across the graveyard, while I entered the shrine. The grave, without an indentifying plaque, lay at the centre of the room, with a bowl of salt, to be consumed by devotees for blessings, next to it. Still no phalli.

Outside, my friends were disappointed after searching vainly all over the graveyard.

As we turned despondently towards the car, I realized that we had overlooked an old lady who had come out of the house and was standing next to the car, with one hand placed on the child who had first appeared when we parked there. She was about seventy and looked like she had seen poverty all her life.

‘Where are you from? Why don’t you come inside?’ she told us.

We followed her. She took us to a portico where another old woman was lying on one of the several charpoys (rope beds). A young boy of eighteen with a shaved head, sat next to her. He seemed lost in his own world and didn’t look at us as we entered. We were told later that he was mentally disturbed.

‘I moved into this house a few years ago after the death of my husband, who is buried in the graveyard outside. I have two children, one of them is this boy. He is a Saeen. I am crippled and after the death of my husband I had no place to go so I came and settled here, next to his grave.’

Her name was Hajra. Not knowing how to ask these two women about the phalli offerings, I asked them about the bangles and the turbans instead.

‘These are presented to the shrine by women praying for children. Some of them also bring toys for children and tie them around the trees outside. Not all of them come to ask for children of their own. Women sometimes come to pray for their cows to give birth to calves.’

Hanifa, the old woman who had brought us in, nodded in agreement.

Offering toys and seeking blessings from sacred trees is another tradition that has continued from the religious practices of the Indus Valley Civilization. Archaeologists and historians have identified a few of the figurines discovered from Indus Valley cities as toys, which could have been offered to deities with a specific purpose.

It seems as if thousands of generations have survived in this very form. Peeling off the layers of this civilization, we find that it is the same people with similar beliefs who live here today. The changes that have occurred have only been on the surface, sometimes taking the form of paganism, sometimes that of Buddhism, to be replaced by Jainism, Hinduism and then Islam. Several trees have also been depicted in the votive seals with deities, leading experts to assume they were also allotted special religious significance. The most important one was the banyan tree, which is still considered sacred in the Hindu, Buddhist and even Muslim traditions of South Asia, something that these religions have adopted from the Indus Valley Civilization. The waan trees stooping over the graves outside are also considered sacred in the Muslim saints’ hagiography. These trees are known to live through several centuries and are associated with several miracles.

‘My brother told me that this is not the actual grave of the saint and that Aban Shah was not his real name,’ added Hanifa.

She confirmed Iqbal Qaiser’s thesis that Aban Shah was not a name but a title given to the saint for the effectiveness of his blessings on childless couples.

‘His real name was Baba Lal Shah. He once came here and tied his horse to the waan tree next to the shrine. While he was staying here the horse died so the saint buried it and moved on.’

Historically, Muslim mystics have preferred itinerant lives which allow them to learn about spiritual matters from different sources, and also to proselytize. Jürgen Wasim Frembgen, a leading scholar on Muslim culture, compares the itinerant nature of a mystic’s life to the metaphorical journey that humans undertake at the time of their birth till their death, considered to be their final destination.

‘He is actually buried in a village called Lakhewali Haveli near Pakpattan next to the river [Sutlej]. I have never seen that shrine myself but my brother has.’

‘So women offer turbans, bangles and toys to the shrine. Is there anything else that they offer?’ I asked Hajra, wondering if by asking this question I had crossed the line of social decorum. I had tried to be as tactful as possible. Hajra covered her face with her dupatta and giggled whereas Hanifa gave a coy smile while slapping the little boy gently on the back.

‘Yes, yes,’ replied Hajra. ‘Women also sometimes offer killis to the shrine. We place them inside now because children would often run off with them.’

Killi in Punjabi is used as a slang to refer to a nail, specifically one which is inserted into a particular surface like a wall or a cupboard to hang pictures or clothes. I assumed that the killis Hajra was referring to were phallus offerings.

‘You might find a few tied to the trees outside as well. Women tie them to the branches praying for a child,’ added Hanifa.

‘No, you won’t find any on the trees. I removed them all and placed them inside. They would get lost otherwise. Children and young boys who do not know their importance play with them and then take them away. We lost so many like this that I now protect all of them. Whenever any new killi is presented I collect it and save it,’ said Hajra.

The fact that out of all the offerings—toys, bangles and turbans—presented to the shrine, children would choose to pick up the killis also meant that they understood what they symbolized. It wasn’t out of fear of theft that Hajra was hiding them but out of concerns of modesty. Morality defined by a more urbane Islam had finally caught up with this particular practice as well.

‘How long have you been collecting them?’ I asked her.

‘Ever since I moved here. I now have a bag full of them inside,’ she said, pointing to a room behind her which had no door.

‘Can I see one?’

‘Of course! Hanifa go inside and bring one from a black bag.’

A few minutes later Hanifa emerged with a killi, about six–seven inches in length, and gave it to Maryam and Anam to examine. It was a simple wooden structure that could be passed off as a penis with some imagination.

‘Can I see any of the other ones?’ I asked Hajra.

‘They are all the same. Just look at this one.’

I didn’t want to test the limits of Hajra’s hospitality so I conceded.

‘Most of the visitors to the shrine are jungli from the neighbouring village. They bring all these things and present them. We are migrants. We don’t believe in such traditions,’ said Hajra with an apologetic tone.

Why was she protecting them, I wondered, but refrained from asking her.

Jungli, which literally means ‘people of the jungle’, is a popular term used to refer to the indigenous Punjabis, as opposed to those who settled here after the construction of the canal colonies by the British during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Using ingenious methods of civil engineering, the British connected the five rivers of Punjab with each other through canals, turning several acres of jungle land into agricultural land. As a result, thousands of new villages, referred to as chaks were established, and farming families from all over Punjab were invited to settle in these villages and tend the land. One such village was 50 Chak PS. The former inhabitants of the areas where the chaks were established were primarily nomads who did not have the concept of private ownership and were thus unable to prove ownership over land that they had lived for thousands of years. Their land was snatched away and allotted to these migrants. Soon their nomadic lifestyle came to be referred to as uncivilized or jungli.

There was a subtle implication behind this otherwise harmless sounding remark. Hajra wasn’t using the word jungli as a derogatory title, but rather as a means of identification. However, the distinction was raised to dissociate with the shrine and its ‘vulgar’ practices, a distinction which was necessary due to our presence. Given her ignorance of our religious leanings, she wanted to distance herself from this paganism, which would normally offend the sensibilities of most religiously inclined city-dwellers. Even though both women didn’t say anything, I wondered if there had been any backlash from the conservative elements of the village resulting in them taking a defensive stance.

All the inhabitants of 50 Chak PS were from the wave of the second migration that took place after the division of Punjab between India and Pakistan. As opposed to the migrants who had suffered at the hands of the Hindus and the Sikhs during the riots, the locals all over the country generally tend to be more embracive of practices ‘non-Muslims’. I have seen several gurdwaras and temples being taken over and destroyed by the migrants who moved into them after losing their homes and belongings in India. On the contrary, in villages and towns where a considerable percentage of the population is indigenous, such ‘non-Muslim’ religious spaces are better looked after. This is primarily due to a historical bond developed over several generations. However, there are exceptions, and there have been several occasions in which the indigenous have been as brutal to non-Muslim shrines as any other community. This particular village’s inhabitants were predominantly Hindus and Sikhs, abandoned following the riots of 1947. In contrast, the neighbouring village housed Muslims who had lived there for several generations and who must have developed a particular association with this shrine, a religious space that they must have shared with Hindus and Sikhs. For the migrants, such a local fertility cult would have been scandalous and therefore, must have taken some time to find place in their religious sensibilities. But given the fact that Hajra was based here and collected the offerings to maintain their sanctity, meant that the cult was able to grow popular among the newcomers as well.

‘We don’t know how old this shrine is. It was present here before the creation of Pakistan,’ said Hanifa, whose family had moved here after the Partition. Hajra’s ancestral roots also lay on the other side of the divide.

‘You know the saint is responsible for maintaining the purity of his own shrine. He can read everyone’s intention. If you come with evil intention he will emerge as a lion and devour you. I have seen it with my own eyes,’ said Hanifa. ‘There are also several snakes here that guard the shrine and bite only those who are evil. If you are pure of heart nothing will happen to you even if they crawl up your leg.’

There was a sense of urgency in her tone, a justification of sorts that phallus offerings don’t represent a corrupt moral system. Rather it is a holy act, and if anyone tries to trivialize it, the person is punished severely. I thought about my conversation with Maryam in the car and hoped for the sake of our safety that the story was just superstition. I wondered though, if the saint had promised to protect his own shrine, why was Hajra intervening by protecting the offerings.

By talking about the snakes around this fertility shrine, Hanifa, without being aware of it, had made an age-old connection between fertility cults and snakes. Snakes, because of their ability to shed their old skins and grow a new one, are seen as symbols of rejuvenation and everlasting youth. In Hinduism, Shiva worship and worship of a snake go hand in hand. In seals discovered from Mohenjo-daro, which are believed to represent the proto-Shiva, the figure is flanked by two kneeling snakes. Even in the Mahabharata, an epic read and revered by Hindus, snakes are closely affiliated with Shiva. In fact, one of the several incarnations of Shiva is that of a snake god. There are similar connections between snakes and fertility cults in other ancient religions. Osiris, a god from ancient Egypt, and the Greek god of Hermes, both known for their fertility power, are shown holding snakes.