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Cultural legacy

The annual urs and the mela are losing popular appeal in digital age

October 01, 2023


T

wo annual congregations were held in the Punjab last week: one in Lahore and the other at Jandiala Sher Khan.

Mian Mir’s was once a very populated shrine. Thousands thronged there on Thursdays and even more on the occasion of the annual urs. As a well-known sufi, he represented the spirit of peaceful coexistence in a religious and political landscape that had its own characteristics, the primary being that the rulers in terms of religious denomination represented a hopeless minority.

Mian Mir symbolized the spirit of inclusive coexistence. He maintained cordial terms with many loathed by the exclusionists. He was revered by the Sikhs and was invited to bless the foundation of the Golden Temple in Amritsar. He was also greatly cherished by Dara Shikoh. It is said that a more grandiose mausoleum was planned to be built upon Mian Mir’s death by the prince but as political fortunes changed, Aurangzeb, the new ruler, ordered that the red stones be used for a huge mosque that he planned to build. The Badshahi Masjid was then built using the stones and other construction materials originally meant for the shrine of Mian Mir.

A shrine nevertheless was built. This burial site attracted a lot of devotees since he had a large following. Now, the shrine is hard to notice from the roads around it as it is hemmed in by structures that have popped up without proper planning. The space for devotees has also shrunk due to the illegal constructions. The annual urs is a shadow of what it used to be.

As it is, the people who promoted a peaceful and tolerant culture have fallen into disfavor as a more militant narrative has taken over. The puritanical dispensation has hued the religious discourse and it is no longer fashionable to be associated with those who advocated tolerance, forgiveness and love, that needn’t be paid back. The urs is now noticed mostly on the media and the sections of the mainly rural population allied to the traditional way of life.

The urs of Waris Shah, a leading poet of Punjabi, is held at Jandiala Sher Khan close to Sheikhupura. Originally, the urs was held on the ninth of Sawan but the authorities have now arranged it to be held at a much later date in the month of September.

The urs of Waris Shah, the leading poet of Punjabi, is held at Jandiala Sher Khan close to Sheikhupura. Originally, the urs was held on the ninth of Sawan but the authorities have now arranged it to be held at a much later date in the month of September.

Punjabi, the language, has been abandoned by many Punjabis. The reference to their great poets carries signs of the guilt. Heer by Waris Shah is considered to be one of the greatest long poems in the language. It is still relived in sections of the population.

Heer must have been orally recited as part of a living cultural tradition. Finally, it was decided to get it printed with the introduction of the printing press. In early editions, the effort was to document whatever was available so as to preserve it for posterity. The text was not verified and the various versions were not credited to the sources. Many manuscripts have been extant. Some of them, published in the last hundred years or so, have survived many interventions, independent from the oral versions (more susceptible to changes in the text).

Waris Shah wrote his Heer in Malkahans. It is regarded as an outstanding work. But the recitation of Heer was a continuous treat that informed the cultural landscape and bound the community together. The oral rendition travelled over time. As recitation was a favoured manner of transmitting the text in a pleasurable package to the next generation, people gathered in the evenings for this cultural treat. Heer is traditionally recited in bhairaveen raga. Various versions of bhairaveen across North India testify to it being trans-regional. It is difficult to answer the question of why bhairaveen was chosen. Due to a lack of evidence, it can only be surmised that recitations were a common cultural practice and this was also followed in the case of Heer. After all, our qissas, kathas and lok dastaans too were recited and still are. Many knew them all by heart, but few do so now.

In the cities, too, Heer was recited and. A mandli was held every Sunday at Hazoori Bagh between the Lahore Fort and Badshahi Masjid till a few years ago. Now, the focus has shifted to the transferring of cultural practices through the digital media. The younger generation is more comfortable in accessing these on such platforms with its own technological imprint.


The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore