Khawaja Khizar in Islamabad?

Margalla Road Islamabad

Islamabad is often described as a city without a soul. Its soul, however, is not to be found in the city itself, but on its fringes, in the hamlets and hills.

Fauzia Minallah, an Islamabad-based artist, recently published a coffee-table book titled ‘Glimpses into Islamabad’s Soul’. She describes many such places in and around Islamabad, their history, heritage, and folklore.

One such place is the village Said Pur, situated just off Margalla Road, hardly a 10-minute drive from the upscale neighborhoods of Islamabad. I knew Said Pur only as a place we ordered garden-manure from. You didn’t have to go there. Just called the guy on his cell phone and he would have a Suzuki-full of manure delivered the same day at your doorstep, literally sometimes, almost blocking your driveway.

Or you knew Said Pur as a place where one bought a bakra (a male goat), especially a black one, for slaughtering to seek divine help on occasions such as groundbreaking of a house, the birth of a baby boy, an upcoming exam, a possible promotion, a serious sickness, or to ward off a potential mishap.

I drove past the sign pointing to the Said Pur village, on Margalla Road, almost daily but never bothered to venture into the village, because I had not faced the need or an occasion to slaughter a black bakra.

Only recently, a lot of development activity in the area aroused my curiosity, and, on a cloudless and crisp wintery day, I went to see the village. The road to the village was carpeted with a fresh layer of tarmac, a rustic fence erected on both sides, and haystacks appeared along the road to give it a rural look.

The Capital Development Authority (CDA) is in the process of developing Said Pur into a tourist attraction and is spending a lot of money and effort on resurrecting the old village and giving it a quaint, rural look.

A newly built adobe gate welcomes you to the village. Built somewhat in Pueblo style, it seems to have been lifted from Santa Fe, New Mexico, and planted in Saidpur, Islamabad. While the CDA’s intentions to revamp Saidpur are commendable, there is this danger they might end up reinventing it.

Said Pur is a very old village — 4 or 5 hundred years old — with a history, heritage, and folklore. Nestled in the Margallah hills, gradually creeping upwards, it overlooks Islamabad and presents a picturesque view, especially in the soft light of the setting sun.

Said Pur is named after Said Khan, the son of Sultan Sarang Khan, the Gakhar chief of the Potohar region during Emperor Babur’s time. Emperor Jahangir’s memoir, Tuzke Jahangiri, mentions Jahangir halting at a place “beyond Rawalpindi” on his way to Kabul. From the description in the book, it seems the place was Saidpur.

According to Fauzia Minallah: “The Persian book ‘Kaigor Namah’ beautifully describes the place [Saidpur] during the visit of the Mughal commander Raja Man Singh (Emperor Akbar’s general) in about 1580. It was a garden resort with a number of natural streams supplying water for drinking and irrigation. Raja Man Singh was so enamored by the village that he turned it into a place of religious worship. He constructed raised platforms, walled enclosures and several kunds (ponds) called Rama kunda, Sita kunda, Lakshaman kunda and Hanuman kunda named after the characters of the Hindu epic Ramayana. Saidpur was declared a pilgrim center and Rama kunda was preserved right up to 1947.”

The first thing you notice when you enter the village, past a green-domed mosque, is a Hindu temple, prominently situated, and newly restored. A little removed from the temple to the left is a small building with two orange-colored domes. A plaque on this building, written in what appears to be Gurmukhi, suggests it might have been a place of worship for Sikhs (perhaps a small gurudwara?). Between the temple and the ‘gurudwara’, there is a neat, 2-story building that was an orphanage (Dharamsala) at one time. The temple is over a hundred years old and is mentioned in the Punjab Gazetteer of Rawalpindi district of 1893–94. Given the loot and arson of the Partition, in 1947, it’s amazing that a temple and ‘gurudwara’ survived in a village that was left with no Hindu or Sikh population.

The temple and the attached buildings survived, perhaps because soon after the Partition they were converted into a government school, which saved them from being vandalized. The school was shifted recently to a nearby place, and the temple and the attached buildings restored to their original form — a little overdone though. The orphanage was converted into an interesting photo gallery where old photographs of Islamabad, when it was being built from a scratch, are displayed.

Other than being a historic village that had hosted Mughal royalties and its commanders, Saidpur has also been known for its unglazed pottery. According to Fauzia Minallah, “The distinct cultural identity of Saidpur has always been its pottery, and it has always been known as the potters’ village.” She also mentions two old potters of the village, Niaz Muhammad and Rahim Daad, who still run their workshops in the village.

When I visited the village, I stumbled, literally, on Rahim Daad chatting with friends on a street corner. On inquiry, He readily took me to his workshop and demonstrated how he turned a lump of wet clay into an interesting piece of pottery in few minutes.

Rahim Daad (he pronounced his first name as Rakhim) was a sun-bronzed, white-haired man with a weathered face. He said he was 70 years old and belonged to a long line of potters.

Other than being an old potter, Rahim Daad was also a repository of information about the village. What was the population of the village, I enquired. “Two thousand registered voters” was his precise answer. Among other things, he told me about the shrine of Zinda Pir or the Living Saint, which was located a couple of hundred feet uphill from the temple, nestled under a pair of old banyan trees. Who was Zinda Pir?, I asked.

Khawaja Khizar”, Rahim Daad replied.

I was aware of the tradition of Khizar but never heard that he had spent time in the hills of Islamabad. According to some Muslim traditions, Khizar or Khidar, having drunk from Aab-i-Hayat or “the fountain of life” and attained immortality, roamed the earth incognito, usually along riverbanks, lakes, and mountain streams. He is believed to help travelers and wanderers who have lost their way. In Urdu poetry, Khizar is often used as a metaphor for a person who guides lost people. Iqbal frequently mentions Khizar in his poetry and even wrote two poems, Khizar-e-Rah and Jawab-e-Khizar highlighting some of the Muslim beliefs about Khizar.

Mirza Ghalib, the master poet of the subcontinent, also mentions Khizar. But, iconoclast that he was, he taunts Khizar mischievously in one of his well-known couplets:

وہ زندہ ہم ہیں ، کہ ہیں روشناس خلق ، اے خضر

نہ تم کہ چور بنے عمر جاوداں کے لئے

Woh zinda hum haiN, keh haiN rooshanaas-e-khalq, aye Khizr
Na tum keh chore banay umr-e-javedaaN kay liye

Khizar, we are alive, for we are known to everyone
Not you, who slunk away unseen to steal eternal life

[Translation by Ralph Russel]

I requested Rahim Daad to show me Khizar’s shrine. He readily agreed and guided me up the hill. In spite of his years and inadequate footwear, he walked up the stony slope with the ease of a mountain goat while I slipped, stumbled, and clumsily lagged behind him.

Zinda Pir’s bethak, the sitting place of the living saint, as the place is called, is the spot where the saint is supposed to have sat and worshipped. The place is situated at the base of a rock and is enclosed by a low brick wall with decorative holes in it. Two large banyan trees cover the whole place like a huge umbrella. Several layers of satin chadors (cloth sheets), inscribed with holy verses, are spread on top of each other at the spot where the saint is believed to have sat, each chador placed by a devotee for a prayer fulfilled.

I entered the enclosure first and Rahim Daad followed me. I noticed that he had taken off his shoes before stepping in. I hadn’t. He glanced at my feet but didn’t say anything. It was too late for me to take off my shoes, for I was already in. I stayed there for some time taking in the surroundings while Rahim Daad raised his hands and whispered a prayer.

Outside the enclosure, there is a grave of a woman who is believed to have spent all her life sitting and praying at the shrine. She is known simply as Mai Ji.

Every Thursday evening, folks visit the shrine, light candles or ‘diyas’, place them in the holes in the walls, say a prayer, and go away, presumably with a lighter heart. They also light candles at the Mai Ji’s grave.

From the shrine above, looking down at Said Pur village set against a blue sky, glowing in the soft light of the setting sun, is an uplifting sight. It reminds you of Wordsworth’s lines:

“… that blessed mood,

In which the burden of the mystery,

In which the heavy and the weary weight

Of all this unintelligible world,

Is lightened.”

Tailpiece: When I came home from my trip to Saidpur and the shrine, I felt a shooting pain in my left leg and also noticed a severe rash on the upper part of the leg. It must have been the result of the exertion of climbing up the hill, I thought. But when the pain didn’t go away for a couple of days I was assailed with an awful thought. Could this possibly be a punishment for my walking into the shrine with my shoes on? We all are superstitious to some degree, aren’t we? When I mentioned this to a friend he had no doubt that it was a punishment for the irreverence I had shown to the Zinda Pir. The only way to atone for my ‘sin’, he said, was to go back to the shrine and ask for forgiveness. Or, better still, slaughter a black bakra.

I checked with the doctor. He said it was Shingles (Herpes Zoster) — a nasty, painful, and disabling viral disease that may last for a couple of weeks.

Note: Photos are by the author
A slightly different version of this post was originally published on
All Things Pakistan, in 2008.

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