“The feeling of sanctity cannot go unnoticed [by those] who visit Bela,” believes Anum Imran. At times, she said, it is a mere feeling incited by the way a tree is placed right in the middle of a temple and other times it is much more prevalent such as the shrine of two secret yet legendary lovers which is situated amidst mountains.
She quoted Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities, in which he wrote that “the city must never be confused with words that describe it.” “Therefore it must be kept in mind that what I present to you today is my feelings articulated in words with their basis embedded in relevant historical and religious narratives,” said Imran.
Imran is a student of Habib University who was reading her paper on Lasbela, ‘Nature as Sacred: religion sites and interplay with same’ along with Syed Ali Arshad at a session, titled ‘Sacred Geographies of Lasbela’ at the Sixth International Karachi Conference on Friday. The session focused on the sacred and historical geography of Bela town in Lasbela district of Baluchistan through the eyes of students who had visited the region and conducted their research on the myth and reality of these sacred sites. Despite its pivotal location between Iran, Kalat and Sindh and Bela’s role as the capital city of a state that not long ago encompassed Karachi, there has been little research on Lasbela.
While observing different sites in Las Bela, Imran realised that all religious sites had a different relationship with nature. “While some sites seemed too detached from nature and the environment outside its boundaries, others merged and blended with nature and its own surroundings so coherently that it was hard to bifurcate oneself from nature,” she explained.
The duo of presenters experienced first this interplay when they visited a 250-year-old temple and had a group discussion with its caretaker, Gansham Bhai. The tree placed there was of interest to the duo as it was situated in the middle almost as if it were providing shelter to the entire area.
The tree, according to Gansham was as old as the temple and has its own significance, which he said could not be explained in a short time. When asked about monotheism and Hinduism, Gansham said, “The entity who runs the entire kainat [universe] is one. God is one. In every language, he is present with a different name. In every area, he is present with a different name. God is one but is presented to us in many forms.”
Recalling the caretaker’s words, Imran said that they realised that Gansham’s explanation was profoundly present in all the temples they visited. “It was also prevalent in the way people were making use of the spaces, for instance, the moortis [idols] placed right under the tree in a temple and the knots tied with dhaagay [threads] on trees resembled the knot between religion and nature that we are trying to understand here,” she said.
Arshad continued their paper from Jam’s Bara Bagh, which is a royal garden situated in Bela, teemed with lush orchard fields and plants that are both common to local geography and also known to be exotic. Situated at the heart of the Bagh was the royal graveyard. “Trees, easily centuries old, sprang out of scattered graves, many deliberately shading those graves,” he said.
On the famous love story of Shirin Farhad, the duo said that it has contributed significantly to the meaning-making process of discourse on love, divinity and purity. “We believe that he was able to manifest meaning in his love, only with his engagement to what is nature and her elements,” said Arshad, adding that there’s a myth that a thick river of milk started spurting out of the mountain after Farhad’s first strike – signifying that even the divine has given approval of his madness for Shirin and chooses to manifest it by ordaining a miraculous parallel to jannat’s promised milk-river, in the most arid, most inhospitable of places, defined by rugged mountains and terrain inaccessible to human endeavour.
The session was chaired by Dr Noman Baig, who is the director of interdisciplinary development at the Research and Action Centre (IDRAC) and an assistant professor at Habib University.
Another student, Novaira Khan’s presentation focused on the Nanakpanthi community of the area. This community was first called so in the 17th century by Shaikh Mohsin Fani, a Persian writer, because of their faith in Guru Nanak, the 13th century founder of Sikhism. Novaira Khan also pointed out that today, the two communities [Muslims and Sikhs] live in peace and harmony, respecting each other’s religious feelings.
Amal Hashim, another presenter, explored the myth of the seven sisters and compared this folklore with a similar myth that existed in Rohri in northern Sindh. She pointed out that the tombs of these “sisters” are quite close to the site of another temple, Hanglaj Mata, an important Shakti site. Meanwhile, Mowwiz Shaheen, another presenter, made a comparison between the tombs of Muhammad Ibna Haroon and Colonel Robert Groves Sandeman.
Fatima Siraj’s presentation focused on the shrines of the love legends Shirin and Farhad, and Sassi and Punnu, as well as graves that are believed to belong to the people who were with Prophet Noah. As she said, “folklore and history make a pair.” Safina Shilwani spoke on the architecture of these sacred sites and pointed out that the designs and colours of these buildings were very much related to the belief systems of the people of those times.
Dr Kaleemullah Lashari later summed up in his presiding speech that folklore is an oversimplification of history. He praised the students’ efforts in understanding this relationship between the two. He also pointed out that the Bela region – like the regions of Dadu and Thatta surrounding Karachi – had ensured that Karachi remained safe from the powerful kingdoms surrounding it.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 10th, 2018.