A quarter century ago, driving from Dipalpur to Haveli Lakha in Okara district of Punjab, I passed a gateway with a couple of human figures in terracotta. If memory serves, there were some more peering down from niches in the wall. Pausing, I learnt that this was the ‘tomb of Bhuman Shah’ in the village of the same name. Bhuman Shah, so my young informant said, was a great saint from even before his grandfather’s time – which in the vernacular means a very long time ago.
I looked in and noticed a building with an impressive façade flanked by octagonal turrets with a central gateway on my right. Straight ahead, at the end of the street could be seen another building with an octagonal turret. To the left, a battered dome that I took to date from the early 18th century reared up behind a wall. The young man invited me to look in on what he said was a fort, but it being just about sunset I declined hoping to return another time.
It took me twenty-five years to get back. The figures in the wall were gone, and only one remained in the gateway. Inside, the street seemed to be more crowded with houses and the building on the right with the pretty façade was fronted by ugly cubicles all but concealing it. Going up the street and turning left at the foot of the second turreted building, I was surprised to find the domed building all spruced up with a fresh coat of yellow wash. The tomb of Bhuman Shah had been restored, and furnished with booklets in English and Urdu encapsulating the man’s life.
Born in 1687 to Rajo Bai and Hassa Ram of village Behlolpur near Dipalpur, Bhumia is said to have been a miraculous child whose birth was not attended by the customary labour pains. Three hundred years is a sufficiently long time to veil his life with a mist of the usual formulaic miracles that are the staple of all saints. But if one were to sift through the murk, even as a teenager Bhumia was smart enough to have developed an impressive discourse on eschewing materialism and mortifying the soul through hardship to attain oneness with god.
When the boy saint was about thirteen and visiting an ashram at Pakpattan, he is said to have been recognised as the reincarnation of a great saint of the past. The keeper of the ashram, himself an accomplished monk, initiated the boy into monk-hood. There Bhumia learned the secrets of the Udasi order of monks who believe that true spirituality transcends religious division. When he was ready to set out to put his world to rights, his mentor suggested he take the name of Bhuman Shah.
Legend has it that he arrived near the village of Kutb Kot and camped by a well in the forest where Hindu, Muslim and Sikh alike came to seek his benediction. Among the seekers was the mother of Lakha Wattoo who was then serving time in the jail in Lahore. The woman petitioned the saint to bring her son back and Lakha was home in a few days. The yarn being that Bhuman Shah has appeared in his cell led Lakha through solid walls and within moments brought him back to his mother’s hearth. To show his gratitude, Lakha ordered his entire tribe to vacate the village and donate it lock, stock and barrel to Bhuman Shah. The chief’s word was law and Kutb Kot became Bhuman Shah as it is known to this day.
And so the saint who abhorred worldly wealth of a sudden became lord and master of a vast estate. With this newly acquired affluence, Bhuman Shah now had a headquarters where he began a kitchen that daily fed all comers regardless of caste or creed. By 1747, the year of his death, Baba Bhuman Shah had a large following. The body was cremated, the ashes buried at the very spot where saint spent his time in meditation and a domed building raised above it. Though he died unmarried and with no heir to inherit his holdings, Bhuman Shah passed on his mantle to one of his disciples and that remained the more: as he lay dying each man nominated a successor to lead the cult of Bhuman Shah.
The cult grew and the free kitchen that daily fed hundreds of hungry mouths seems to have won admiration all round. The ‘official history’ of the cult records an unnamed British divisional commissioner adding three thousand acres to the Bhuman Shah holding in appreciation of the good work being done. In 1910 with increasing numbers of followers resorting to Bhuman Shah for the four annual festivals, the magnificent edifices with the corner turrets were paid for from earnings from the agricultural holding. The one on the right as one enters the complex called the sarai or Bhajan Mahal and the other the fort. During the festivals, attended by all religious denominations in united India, the fort housed the upper crust of devotees while the sarai was for the middle tier. Commoners, it is told, had to make do as they found best.
The free kitchen continued to function until 1947 when the Hindu population was exchanged with Muslims. Finding the two buildings handy, refugees moved in and portioned them out according to their individual needs. The samadhi complex was spared only because it afforded no reasonable accommodation. As time went by and families grew, makeshift walls were raised to create courtyards until the once-grand edifices became virtual mohallahs. The cult’s agricultural land was similarly annexed by the new-comers.
Years passed, visa requirements stiffened and by the 1980s free travel between Pakistan and India became virtually unknown. The trickle of Bhuman Shah devotees that had continued after partition eventually dried out. A generation of Muslims grew up in Bhuman Shah without hearing bhajans and qawalis sung around the domed samadhi of the saint whose name their village carried. It was forgotten that Bhuman Shah had four annual festivals where tens of thousands of visitors congregated.
December 1992 saw one of the most shameful acts of all times: the razing of Babri Mosque in Ayodhia. Muslims all over Pakistan responded with the even more dishonourable deed of destroying everything that had anything to do with either the Hindus or the Sikhs regardless of the buildings’ religious or secular nature.
The occupation of Bhajan Mahal and the fort by dozens of families was a blessing in disguise for that held the vandals at bay. But the samadhi of Bhuman Shah was heavily damaged. Thereafter the derelict building became the refuge of drug addicts. Thus matters stood at the turn of the century. Meanwhile, easier visa requirements once again permitted some devotees to visit and locals were surprised to see Europeans among the visitors.
In 2005 Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB) responded to appeals from the followers of the Bhuman Shah cult in India and elsewhere. The complex containing Bhuman Shah’s samadhi and yet another one as well as a large building known as Darbar Hall was restored. But when ETPB turned its attention to Bhajan Sarai and the fort, those who had taken over the buildings and destroyed their character resisted.
Under the Antiquities Act 1974 the two buildings, as well as the samadhi complex, are protected monuments. Though Pakistan is famous for mindlessly destroying perfectly serviceable built heritage, we do have the example of a priceless building being pulled back from the brink in Chiniot. That happened because of official interest. Now, owing to pressure from cult followers abroad, ETPB has taken the right line of relocating the squatters to take over and restore the two residential houses.
It is imperative that the sarai and the fort be reclaimed and used only for the purpose they were originally built for. Religious tourism is a big thing and the Udasi cult followers from India alone mostly belong to the moneyed class. Restoring the festivals at Bhuman Shah will not only bring Muslim, Hindu and Sikh together, it will also bolster the local economy.
In the bargain, ETPB will have preserved two fine examples of the built heritage of Punjab.
Fellow of Royal Geographical Society, Salman Rashid is author of several books including jhelum: City of the Vitasta and The Apricot Road to Yarkand, Riders on the Wind, Between two Burrs on the Map, Prisoner on a Bus and Sea Monsters and the Sun God. His work - explorations, traveling and writings - appears in almost all leading publications.