Shiva in Pakistan, Sozkhwani in India


The widespread protests and violence pertaining to the National Registry of Citizenship and the Citizenship Amendment Bill in India said to be discriminatory and biased against Muslims brought to mind a book and a performance which coincidentally happened at the same time earlier this year. Haroon Khalid’s In Search of Shiva: A Study of Folk Religious Practices in Pakistan [i] which traces practices followed by simple folk in rural areas that at first glance are at variance with Islamic practices. They have been given an Islamic garb, the shrines having become associated with some revered Muslim saint, but their connection to antiquity goes back to the Indus Valley civilisation. Their roots can be found in the different spiritual traditions that developed around Lord Shiva. They represent a continuity that the rupture of partition has not managed to obliterate. Similar is the case of Sozkhwani the chants narrating the tragic events of the Battle of Karbala and expressing intense grief on the supreme sacrifice of Imam Hussein and his family. It is the Shi’a Islam tradition that has travelled from Persia to India and. in the process, it has acquired a new form and colour. These practices defy the dogma of the exclusivity of the two religions, Islam and Hinduism. They also show that much borrowing and lending has taken place between religious traditions and these connections can be still seen by those who care to do so.

Dance of Shiva

At the shrine of Aban Shah, called as such because his blessings are believed to bestow children on childless couples, small replicas of Shivalinga as are offered by the devotees, among other things. The lingam of Shiva placed on a yoni represents the divine power of procreation. And that is why Shiva is known as the God of procreation. Fertility is obviously important to an agricultural society, and that is why Shiva, bestowing fertility is also the God of cultivation. The Ganges in his coiled locks and the serpent around his neck point to this as water is water and snake are associated with fertility. The caretaker at the shrine of Aban Shah carefully removes the lingam offerings because they are seen to be a corrupting influence on young girls. Female sexuality has always posed a threat to men and they have made all attempts to control it across cultures.

Another shrine has the custom of worshipping trees. This practice also goes back to the Indus Valley civilisation and is widely prevalent in India. The peepal and the acacia tree are frequently depicted on the Indus seals and amulets and these are the two trees that are worshipped at this shrine. Animals and mysterious creatures have been featured together with the trees on these seals as they are supposed to be protective forces. Khalid cites Edwin Oliver James’ book, The Tree of Life: An Archaeological Study [ii] in which he points out that the peepal and the acacia were probably the most venerated trees, the former being an object of universal worship in India and regarded as the abode of the Triad of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. It was worshipped by pouring water on its roots, making votive offerings to it, and by tying pieces of cloth on its branches, a practice still being followed in Pakistan. Red ochre is also applied on its trunk as the surrogate of blood. Today, the origin of the practice has become irrelevant, but the tradition developed over thousands of years lives on among rural people without worrying about its un-Islamic-ness.

Another example is the festival of Chunian held in the city of the same name. Many educated elite may not even know places such Chunian and other cities that pilgrims come from like Habibullah, Arifulla and others, but the world of the people of these obscure cities exists however far and disconnected it may be from that of the westernised elite. It may seem out of context in today’s globalised – industrialised world, but the immediacy and intensity of emotion witnessed at these shrines, makes one wonder what really is the true context; the bubble of the elite or the world of the masses.

The shrine on the outskirts of Chunian is of the Muslim saint Baba Mast. Thousands of eunuchs from all over the country flock here to honour the saint as he is the only one who has given them respect and love. The roots can once again be traced back to Shiva, who as Ardhanarishwara brings about the union of the male and female within him. Neither can survive in isolation. The same union is represented in the Shiva lingam with its symbolism of the lingam and the yoni. That is why at a cosmic level, Shiva is both the creator and the destroyer.

This sexuality exuded by the eunuchs is a complicated combination of masculinity and femininity. They may flirt with young men, but when provoked, they can be ferocious shouting curses and gesticulating threateningly. At the festival held at the Shrine, the eunuchs dance “passionately driven by an explosive energy, which carries everything with it as a mad explosion, which accelerates devastation.” [iii] Khalid finds a curious connection between the dance of the eunuch and that of the dervish. He writes: “the form and significance of the dervish dance may also be influenced in Indo Pakistan by Shaivism. One need only recall the position of Shiva as Nataraja (Lord of the dance) and the numerous interfaces between Muslim ecstatic and the Shaivite ascetics in terms of external attributes and behavioural pattern.” [iv] Shiva is not only the master of the tandava, but also of lasya, the gentle, lyrical, feminine dance full of sweetness, reflecting all feelings of tenderness and love. This too personifies the duality that only Shiva encapsulates.

Khalid evokes a powerful scene of three eunuchs wearing ghunguroos, standing in front of the shrine and vigorously beating time with their feet to the rhythm of the song. The most ecstatic of them swirled around his with long hair flying around him as in the tandava dance of Shiva. At another place, malangs, like in Hindu ascetics, sit around the fire consuming hashish and other intoxicants like bhang. Similar to other features of this version of popular Islam, also known as folk Islam, anthropologists feel that these practices are derived from Hindu Shaivism. The consumption of hashish is also linked to the cult of Shiva. The malangs, in a practice that too derives from Hindu ascetics, consider the ash from the fire around which they are sitting to be holy and use it for healing purposes. Examples can be multiplied as the author travels from one shrine to another tracing different facets of Shiva worship and linking them to the practices and the shrines coexisting with the worship of Muslim saints to which they have been dedicated.

The Chant of Grief

A performance by Askari Naqvi of Sozkhwani or a chant of grief proved to be an eye-opener on how a syncretic culture develops. This was my first exposure to Sozkhwani, a form that has travelled from Persia to find a home in India which it has not only adopted but also adapted to it. The Soz is musically, the most sophisticated of majlis chant forms. In its present incarnation it can be said to have developed from classical singing in Lucknow before or around 1800. As Qureshi points out in a comprehensive article, “Islamic Music in an Indian Environment: The Shi’a Majlis,” [v] Islamic religious traditions generally proscribe secular music, but permit religious musical expression as an adornment of religious texts. Accordingly, the majlis chant is conceived of as religious music. The majlis is an assembly to mourn the Karbala tragedy with the chanting of elegiac and commemorative poetry in Urdu or Farsi. The chant is not thought of as music but as recitation in which the musicality is made subservient to the text. That is why the verb used for it is ‘ padhna’ or recitation. Along with other vernacular chanting traditions, it can be seen as a series of hymns, based on vernacular poetry as distinct from the recitation of Quran in the original Arabic. It has an essential place in the Shi’a religious life and constitutes a major part of the musical life of the community which generally discourages secular music.

The Shi’ites believe in the imams or in the principle of divinely ordained religious leadership. Imam Hussein occupies the most imminent position because he suffered martyrdom, along with his family and followers at the hands of the government army in Karbala in 680 A.D. As Qureshi emphasises, in its religious implications Hussein’s martyrdom is comparable, to a degree, to the passion of Jesus. It epitomises commitment to truth and submission to the will of the divine, even at the cost of the ultimate in human suffering. His self-sacrifice, in order to redeem his religion and to set a supreme example to the Muslim community, makes Hussein an ideal man and his family, who suffered with him, and ideal family. To the Shi’as, Husseini, a term that encompasses all the values that Imam Hussein’s martyrdom embodied is a central religious concept and is the main spring of the shear religious experience. It is expressed through commemoration and eulogy, morning and even participation in the suffering of the marketers by self- deprivation and mortification.

The majlis has five distinct human forms that are performed in a more or less standard order in a period of one of two hours, although a short majlis may finish in less time, but along one can even last through much of the night. Depending on the location. All forms of hymns may not be used. The majlis moves through a full range of emotions expressing grief. It begins in a stylised, reflective tone and gradually grows into intensity to the final climax of martyrdom. It is not usually held in a mosque, but in an Imambara or a place especially designated for the purpose and adorned with replicas and insignia of the martyrs.

In a majlis both professionals and amateurs may perform in succession, in spite of the social gulf that normally divides the two groups. It brings them together on the same platform as equals before God. Among the professionals may be those trained mainly in secular music and those trained specially in religious music. They may be singers of classical music who have added the majlis music to their repertoire because of the demand of the patrons who were the landed gentry specially around the Shi’a court in Lucknow.

The second type are the trained singers of religious music which includes the professional majlis performers called Sozkhwan or Marsiakhwan. The chanting is based on north Indian classical music, and so a good sozkhwan needs to have some background in it. While in traditional Muslim society, professional musicians were held in low social and moral esteem, the sozkhwans are said to be Syeds, descendants of the Prophet. Majlis chant has to be considered with its poetry because the poems underlying the chant forms of the majlis are part of the large body of religious poetry, treating the subject of Hussein’s martyrdom and providing the text for religious mourning.

Majlis chant has certain general musical characteristics which sets it apart from other musical traditions of South Asia. Musical instruments, for example, are not used in Sozkhwani because of the theological opposition to music, and instrumental music would be seen to epitomise musical enjoyment for its own sake. But the sozkhwan needs musical support which is provided by beating the chest and singing the drone collectively sitting by the main chanter. These are obvious substitutes to the support that the musical instruments would give. The chant is subordinated to the text. It may enhance it, but never obscure any aspect of it. Therefore, a clear enunciation of words is required and the sequence has to be meticulously maintained. In addition, both the poetic form and the metre has to be clearly represented in the chant. The chant, unlike secular music has functional aesthetic. Although it uses the north Indian ragas, its beauty and excellence lie in conveying and arousing the emotion of grief rather than in unfolding the beauty of the raga.

However, it must be remembered that while the majlis characteristics of the sozkhwani have been derived from the Persian tradition, they have been modified and have evolved consistently with Indian musical practice. This is what makes the majlis, a unique musical tradition of India. Robert Byron, very aptly writes in the Road to Oxiana, that “Indian Islam appears, like everything else, uniquely and exclusively Indian. In a sense it is so; for neither man nor institution can meet that overpowering environment without a change of identity.” [vi] And this what makes the persistence of the Shaivite traditions in Pakistan, too, a uniquely powerful statement of the strength of borrowing and lending.


[i] Haroon Khalid, In Search of Shiva: A Study of Folk Religious Practices in Pakistan, Delihi:Rupa Publications, 2015. [ii] Cited by Khalid, p.44
[iii] Khalid, p. 72
[iv] Ibid
[v] Regula Buckhardt Qureshi, “ Islamic Music in an Indian Environment: The Shi’a Majlis,” 1981, Ethnomusicology, pp. 41-71
[vi] Cited by Khalid, pp.81-82


More by :  Dr. Kavita Sharma

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