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A shrine on the border

The unassuming mazaar of Sheikh Brahm, with elements of Mughal-Rajput architecture, represents a sacred space oft-repeated across Punjab

A shrine on the border

A view of the shrine

Lovneet Bhatt

Imagine a quaint little mazaar in the middle of wind-swayed crop ears as far as the eye can see. It is covered with a traditional cool green plastered onto the walls of a disproportionate little fortress-like structure, with Mughal-Rajput elements giving it, shall we say, architectural personality. There is even a rudimentary charbagh. However, a discriminating aesthete might say the structure lacks classical finish and is a rather hastily-done job. That perhaps is exactly the point of the exercise here in remembering a Sufi saint — to subvert the imposing hegemon. Have no doubt, this is a subversion done with love, and sophistication — with chaadars and flowers, the calming whiff of gulab ka attar, burning lubaan’s gentle smoke, and, above all, by providing a space for internal reflection and collective euphoria.

BSF personnel stand guard, a few feet from the

border pillar, at a post near the mazaar. Photos by the writer

It is a rather unassuming structure, and this representation of a sacred space is oft-repeated across Punjab — on either side of the International Border. Interestingly, this particular mazaar happens to sit a handspan away from the border pillar between the districts of Tarn Taran and Kasur (Pakistan) — as if bending the brutalist border to its whim. It lies beyond the internal fencing managed by the BSF, some 6 km from Khemkaran. And with its peculiar sense of space, a particular kind of romantic — believe me, they are a tribe — will feel all afluttered, literally going taaran tapp ke (across the border fence).

So taaran tapp ke lies a mazaar of Sheikh Brahm alias Farid Sani, a 15th-century figure in Fariduddin Ganjshakar’s lineage of empathy-espousing Chisti mystics. I say ‘a’ mazaar of Sheikh Brahm because, according to one tradition, his final resting place might be at Sirhind. You would ask then, why is his mazaar, which usually and in a secular vein is understood as a grave, located here? Well, this is where the nature of sacred in Punjab comes into play. For the faithful, the barkat (blessing, abundance) this place carries is on par with the barkat the actual mazaar carries. That is to say, the ‘light’ illuminates all the places the saint has touched. The numerous gurdwaras are a fitting example.

According to local tradition, Sheikh Brahm finds mention in at least two janamsakhi episodes of Guru Nanak’s life. It is here that Baba Nanak on his travel westward met Brahm, engaging him in discussions on the nature of reality and divinity. Moved by his wisdom and verse, Brahm entrusted him with Farid’s bani.

Every Thursday and during festivities in March and August, the BSF opens the gate to hundreds of devotees from around Khemkaran. The crowd here, as at a majority of shrines across the region, is largely a mix of Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims and Ad-Dharmis. Till the late ’90s, devotees from around Kasur also used to visit to share the experience. Due to souring of relations with Pakistan, the mazaar remains inaccessible to the devotees from the other side. However, chaadars in offering and religious paraphernalia required for the functioning of the mazaar keep pouring in through the Pakistan Rangers — who take them from the devotees and hand them over to the BSF personnel.

Those who come here with wishes also come with, for what at once appears to be, thoughts of material gains. Some visit as appellants for a visa to Canada perhaps — that explains the scores of toy airplanes at the shrine. Propitiation is the word –– some seek a child, others career success, but then there are also those who indulge in the search for existential closure in their conception of the divine through Farid’s bani or internal dialogue.

The common thread, however, is that they all have gathered in one place to revel in a shared idea of the sacred. The devotee is not ‘blinded’ by faith as some might say, he knows there is still a probability the visa might not come through. Yet, having interacted with his divine, he almost unfailingly walks away from the mazaar with a stronger resolve to take on the challenges thrown by life.

Collective observance seems to have emotionally lifted the faithful en masse. Moreover, the devotee has crossed the ‘border’ of organised religion maintained by the orthodoxy, with its tendency to look at the past to derive its idea of purity of practice and belief.

Through this weekly shared celebration of divinity, the community comes together and reaffirms its bond. It is here at Sheikh Brahm’s mazaar and across lakhs of such ‘unassuming’ shrines in Punjab that the devotees assert love and peace as ideas of no less purity than those promoted by the hegemon orthodox. These are ideas that permeate ‘borders’, rendering them irrelevant.

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