Forgotten Art of the Subcontinent

The Indo Pak subcontinent has a vast, diverse, and extensive history with a rich and deep cultural significance. It is the land where human civilization began in the Harappan Civilization. The best way to learn about the history of any region or culture is through the arts, literature, culture, and architecture. Today we take a short trip down history lane and try to relive this land’s beautiful history through arts.

Long before the invaders from Central Asia attacked the Indus valley lived the Dravidians, who inhabited the Indus Valley civilization. The prominent cities of Harappa and Mohenjo had an organized and well-planned urban infrastructure. Archeologists discovered many small wooden, metallic, and clay statues or toy models within the Indus valley civilization’s remains. The most iconic work of art turned out to be a statuette of the Dancing Girl.

This sculpting passion did not die with the Dravidians when the Aryans attacked them. Instead, it was revived in the form of Gandhara Art. Gandhara Art mainly included sculptures of the Buddha in a meditating pose. Gandhara Art’s remains have been discovered in Taxila, Swat, and other Northwestern parts of Pakistan to the Bamiyan valley in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, this rich art form is almost out of practice by now, with only a couple of artists left in this genre.

The sculptures of the Gandhara art left their influence in the region as they inspired many Chinese, Japanese sculptures. Gandharan Sculpture became the foundation in crafting various statues of the Hindu and Jain Gods and Deities in South Asia. Overall the Hindu arts prevailed after the Gandhara civilization under the Gupta, Mauryan, and other Hindu empires. The art forms of Sculpting and painting grew, but dances like Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi became popular until the Arabs came.

The arrival of the Arabs and Persian brought with them a variety of different artistic genres.  The introduction of Kashikari (blue pottery and tiles) is often affiliated with the Arabs though its origin can be traced back to Central Asia to the Chinese city Kashghar. Overall this handicraft is recognizable due to the vibrant blue color, mostly decorating the mosques and shrines in the Indo Pak region. The art was made eternal by the Mughals, who used it during the architectural revolution they brought in the Subcontinent. The Shah Jahan Mosque in Thatta and Wazir Khan Mosque, Lahore, and many other shrines in Punjab and Sindh are outstanding works of Kashikari. Nowadays, the art, practiced widely in Multan and Sindh, observes a recline due to modern tiles and marble works in architecture.


Traditional Sports and Festivities

Sports have significance in almost every culture and are pursued passionately and with dedication. Sports combines physical activity with skill and precision and enhances an individual’s health and mental strength. Besides health, another crucial aspect of sports is to create a sense of unity and teamwork among the players. Sports activities are commonly a source of collectiveness, community building, and harmony from a broader perspective.

Today, many popular sports in South Asia like cricket, football, and hockey link back to the Colonial rule. Some have origins in the culture of the Indo Pak subcontinent as well, such as Kabaddi, Polo, tent pegging, and many others. These games are symbols of cultural pride, and people enjoy them in various melas (festivals).


Polo, the Sport of Kings, is played in various provinces in Indo-Pak, but to feel the game’s ultimate passion, one must experience it in the serene mountains of Chitral and Gilgit. The game originated in Central Asia, where it was played on horseback or riding on Yaks. Instead of a ball, the players used the carcass of a goat or sheep and had to run it over to the opponent’s side of the ground. People in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and northern Pakistan still enjoy this version which is called Buzkashi.

Freestyle  Polo played in northern Pakistan is pretty straightforward, with no rules at all. Many festivals at Chitral and Gilgit host freestyle Polo tournaments, but the most famous festival is the Shandur festival. People celebrate the festival for three days at the Shandur polo ground, surrounded by lush green meadows. Makeshift camps and shops are set up near the ground, and the people enjoy matches between Gilgit and Chitral teams. The tournament and the cultural dances performed during the event attract thousands of local and international tourists.


During the wheat harvest season, the fields in many Punjab villages create a scene of festivity. People cherish and celebrate the high yield harvest through various melas and festivals.  The fairs display cultural dances, local handicrafts, and sports competitions such as Kabaddi, volleyball, and Kushti (wrestling). In the past Kabaddi was a training exercise for warriors to improve their reflexes. Later it developed into a competitive sport that has now gained international recognition.

The game includes two teams with seven players on each side. Traditionally it is played in the mud fields in circular courts, split into two portions.  The teams take turns of offense and defense; the offensive side has to send a raider to the defensive team. The raider enters the opponent side chanting Kabaddi Kabaddi Kabaddi, aiming to tag out as many defensive players as possible. If a player gets tagged out in the defensive team, he must challenge the raider and stop him from reaching his side of the court. If the raider succeeds, the offensive side gets the point while the defender can block the raider; they get the point. The victorious side celebrates with a bhangra dance.

Both sports unveil the true spirit and passion among people. These festivals allow people to rejoice and also embrace each other. Many hostile rivalries have turned into positive competitions.


Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai and his Seven Heroines

The decline of the Mughal Empire produced one of the finest poets, authors, and artists in South Asia. Most of these poets, writers, and scholars worked in Persian or Urdu’s elite languages, but a few opted to work in native or local languages. Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai did a similar work of literary excellence in the Sindhi language, still regarded as the finest Sindhi Literature and poetry.

In 1689, Shah Abdul Latif, a Sufi poet, was born in Hala Haveli near Hyderabad, Sindh. Though he did not attain formal education, he was fluent in Arabic and Persian languages. The art of poetry ran in his blood as his Grandfather Abdul Qudoos Shah was a poet. He kept a copy of his grandfather’s poems with him along with a copy of the Holy Quran. Besides his grandfather, Maulana Rumi also inspired Shah Abdul Latif. Altogether, these influences helped shape Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai’s poetic work, collected by his disciples in Shah jo Risalo.

Shah Abdul Latif taught the meaning of life and the journey of divinity for every soul through his Seven Queens. The Folktales of the Seven Heroines are renowned as stories of love, but each story unveiled different spirituality levels. The tale of Sorath Rai Diyach focused on the evil of greed and jealousy, which quickly devours the good-hearted if left unchecked. Lilan showed that the material world is nothing but a mere illusion and trap for the soul. On the other hand, the fisherwoman Noori stayed humble to her roots, making her the noblest queen of her time. Marvi’s the symbol of resilience, stood up against the tyrant Umar, showing submission is not the answer always. Rano’s struggle to gain Momal revealed the challenges of life and love. Sohni’s dedication and Mehar’s sacrifice are the keys to their reunification. Sassi and Punnu show the connection of all souls to their common origin.  Moreover, Shah Abdul Latif also symbolized death as an emblem of reunification. In his eye’s the end of the worldly life is the ultimate level of divine love when the spirit meets the creator.

The stories of the seven Heroines are a part of the 30 Raags (rhythm) in the Shah Jo Risalo. Shah used music to preach his message to the masses. He even invented a stringed musical instrument called the Dhambura, which resembles the Tambura. Shah Abdul Latif started a tradition of singing his Wa’ai (poem), accompanying the melody of Tambura. He gathered his disciples at a Sandhill (Bhit) by night, and together, they sang his Wa’ai and Raags. Later he permanently resided at the mound, making him known in the region as Bhittai- The Dweller of Sandhill.

His Wa’ais (poem) are still sung by the Faqirs in a high-pitched sound, mimicking a woman’s voice at his shrine in Bhit Shah, Mitiari. Like all Sufi Saints, his poetry had women as the main character, and through them, he portrayed the wider message of the love of All humankind.


Mysticism: A Definition Of Love

What is mysticism? A word, a concept, and a faith in itself, mysticism dates back centuries to the beginning of time. One can never fully understand mysticism as it varies from person to person, and changes from time to time. Is it the mysteries of the world? Is it the reality of life? Or is it a connection with a higher power? Maybe it is a way of life, a path very different from what an average human being usually follows. 

Mystic values have long been a part of our society – a spiritual intuition that transcends human knowledge and belief. Mysticism over time has evolved, looking into the ways of life, enhancing empathy, love for humanity and God, and harmony in the world. 

Jalal al-Din Rumi is one of the most famous mystic scholars to have ever lived. Known as a God in the domain of love, his work and influence transcend borders and ethnic divisions. He is known for his spiritual legacy and transformation through love. Bulleh Shah or Syed Abdullah Shah Qadri was a Punjabi philosopher and poet, known for his folk tales of love. Then there is Nizamuddin Auliya, a mystic scholar of the Chishti order. His work focuses on realizing God through love, and for him to love God is to love humanity. Guru Nanak is another scholar who is widely followed. He was one of the first of the ten Sikhs; he is also considered the founder of Sikhism. His teachings revolved around the message of “Ek Onkar” (one supreme reality) through which he taught equality, fraternal love, goodness, and virtue. Rajneesh or Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh ‘Osho’ another scholar stressed the significance of meditation, mindfulness, love, celebration, courage, creativity, and humor. What is common among these scholars of mysticism is love.

Love that is true and pure, not one that is dominated by materialism and affectionate words. Love reflects empathy; love brings harmony; love ends all the divisions in the universe, and brings people together. Love that is felt within and then given rather than love that seeks validation.

The concept of mysticism has been materialized to an extent that now people use it for validation. As most notably written in the book, The Forty Rules Of Love, “Our religion is the religion of love. And we are all connected in a chain of hearts. If and when one of the links is broken, another one is added elsewhere. For every Shams of Tabriz who has passed away- there will emerge a new one in a different age, under a different name. Names change, they come and go, but the essence remains the same”. 

What I take from all this is that love is embedded in mysticism and every mystic scholar one way or another talks about love. To restore the essence of mysticism we must all go back to the basics of love and embrace it wholeheartedly.


Mystic Myths Men Believe

For most people, mysticism is well defined and complete. Some might view the mystic practices as a path that brings them closer to the creator. Others might see mysticism as heterodox. We know that mysticism is a spiritual journey that transcends all worldly knowledge, but what we don’t realize is that there exists a notion about mysticism that is completely false or as I like to call it “Mystic Myths Men Believe”. What are these myths and how have they come about? Let’s try to cover the facts in this blog. 

Among the many myths that exist, the most common is that mysticism is solely the experience of Islam. While Sufism is an important proponent of mysticism, that does not mean Sufism is mysticism or mysticism is Sufism. We have several other forms of mysticism that have been in practice for a long time. Even though they might not be very popular now, we cannot negate their influence.

Gnosticism is a system of belief that emphasizes personal spiritual growth rather than following the ordinary traditions and teachings. It was popular among the early Christians and Jews. Gnosticism started in the 1st century and expanded to the peak of its influence in the 2nd century. People who followed Gnosticism took a down to earth approach to this world. They believed that salvation is the direct knowledge of God through mystical insight. But they were faced with heavy criticism by the early Christians because they believed that Gnostics undermined the basic structure of Christianity.

Manichaeism is another example, the belief that this world is full of evil and pain, that this world is only a path to a life where there is no place for evil. Manichaeism originated in the 3rd century AD in Persia and was founded by the prophet Mani. Manichaeism was very popular between the 3rd and 7th century. They believed that the world, soul, and the human race are the byproducts of the battles God faced with the inner devil (evil). Manichaeism also believes that earlier revelations were limited and from the start they pursued a strong missionary activity so that they could spread their wings to other parts of the world. Teachings of Manichaeism were also translated into other languages. 

If we look closely, both Gnosticism and Manichaeism were popular in their time and age just like Sufism is today. So, to say that Sufism is the only proponent of mysticism would be completely wrong. With time, mysticism has evolved and taken different shades from its proponents just to compensate for the changing world. However, the basis remains the same, peace and humanity above all.


SAHI ZAHOOR: A Child’s Journey To Sufism

Sahi Zahoor was a personality born in 1937 in what was known as the British Indian part of the subcontinent. He belonged to a family of farmers. Sahi Zahoor did not know how to write properly, he only wrote in figures. He was an excellent artist and wrote Kalam Allah from a very young age. When he turned 7, he used to have dreams of a hand coming out of a shrine/grave. Little did he know that this was the start of his calling. 

As he grew, Sahi Zahoor’s dreams became more prominent and he became more restless. When he told his parents about it, they thought he had gone mental. They took him to many doctors and peer’s but no solution was found. Hopeless, they took him to a dervish living in the shrine of Bawa Ahmad Lang. When asked about his dreams, the dervish told them there is nothing wrong with him except that his dreams are a calling. The solution to his dreams laid in the shrine Sahi Zahoor dreamt about. This was the beginning of his journey from Kashmir, Gilgit, Balakot, Kaghan, Besham, Mansehra, Muzaffarabad, Baba Jumma Shah, HabibUllah to Baba Sehali Sarkar. He did not leave any place.

Years went by and his nights remained restless until he went to Kanthi Pir Darbar located in the Bagh District at the age of 20. Here he met two supernatural beings. At the time, he did not know they were supernatural. He went to them and paid his respects. At first, they did not respond to his Salam. Sahi Zahoor was confused and thought that they were deaf. However, he again said Salam, loudly this time, and both of them responded and acquired information about where he was going. This was when Sahi Zahoor realized that these beings were not human. In his own words Sahi Zahoor explains that their eyes had light in them, “Noor” to be precise. After they directed him to the Kanthi Pir Darbar, Sahi Zahoor asked if he could light a cigarette. They both replied with “do whatever you wish” as he lit a cigarette, they both vanished in thin air as if they were never there.

He stayed there for 2 hours hoping they would appear again but when they didn’t, he continued his journey towards Kanthi Pir Darbar. At the darbar, he met an old man who asked Sahi Zahoor why he was here. Sahi Zahoor told him his troubles with the dream to which the old man responded that Allah has fulfilled your wish. Then the old man offered him some food. A hot plate of rice that even after 2 days, did not get cold. The old man left never to be seen again. After 2 days Sahi Zahoor left the Darbar and walked towards Kashmir visiting different shrines. He traveled back to Depalpur and then to Uch Sharif with his father searching for the shrine in his dreams. At long last he found the shrine at Uch Sharif, exactly like the one in his dreams. His father left after 2 days and he stayed there for 5 years. He had found his life’s purpose at long last. 

His realization about life and submission to the kalam of God has made him an important part of the mystic and Sufi realm. It gave him the chance to travel the world spreading peace, love, and humanity.


National Dress of Pakistan

Pakistani clothing is a reflection of the various cultures that are thriving in the area. From Khyber Pakhtun Khwa to Sindh, the five provinces have their own histories and identities that are shown in the way they dress. The clothing culture is influenced by the years’ old heritage of the people and the settlements that lived in the specific areas for a time. The climatic conditions and lifestyles are the two most important factors that have given ‘Shalwar Kameez’ the title of the national dress of Pakistan.

Shalwar is a trouser that is wide at the waist and has a cuffed bottom. The wide waist is held up by a drawstring or elastic belt which causes pleats and tightens it to the needed size.  Over the years, the styles of the shalwars have changed. From tight cuts to more loose shapes, women, in particular, have experimented with different shapes and sizes. A kameez is a long shirt or tunic that is worn on top of a shalwar. The side seams are left open below the waist-line to allow the wearer ease of movement. Traditionally, the kameez has long sleeves which cover the arms. The cuts are straight and flat. The modern style of Shalwar Kameez is inspired by Western cuts. Women are moving towards sleeveless shirts and adding European-style collars while men are opting for straight tight pants to wear with their kameez.

In the 13th century, when Muslims entered South Asia, they introduced the Shalwar Kameez in the region. At first, it was worn by women only but after a while, men started wearing them too. Especially in Punjab, people took a liking to the dress as it was very comfortable and complemented the kind of work they did. The plain dress was replaced by vibrant colors and customized according to the preference of the wearer. Formal shalwar kameez is worn at weddings. Women get heavy embroideries done on their dress while men take a more minimalist approach to the design of their dress.

Due to the Islamic influence, women in most regions usually wear a long scarf known as a ‘dupatta’ with shalwar kameez. The dupatta signifies modesty and is made of delicate material. For men, the turban used to be a popular addition with the shalwar kameez. This was also passed down from the first Muslims who settled in the region. Now, the turban signifies power, respect, and is limited to special occasions only. While modern versions of the Shalwar Kameez have emerged all over Pakistan, the basic style remains the same.


Kabir Das – A Mystic Poet of India

Born in Varanasi, Jaunpur, India in 1440, Kabir Das is known as one of the mystical poets who harmonized Hindu-Muslim relations through his works. Kabir Das was born to a Brahman mother who later abandoned him, ultimately leaving Kabir Das to be raised by a Muslim weaver. Legends present all kinds of theories and accounts about his place and era of birth, one can say, there is no specific or concrete source to confirm his early childhood whereabouts. Nonetheless, regardless of having been raised in a Muslim home, Kabir Das was strongly influenced by his Guru Ramananda.

Though he is sometimes referred to as the harmonizer of Hindu-Muslim beliefs, his works mostly criticize the extremity of both religions in parallel. As he was a disciple of a Hindu Guru, Ramananda, most of his religious knowledge was gathered while being a disciple of Guru Ramananda. Kabir Das’s works mostly consisted of divine communications called “padas”. These padas are songs usually rhymed for the Hindu divine designation, Ram.

One of the most known works by Kabir Das is Kabir Panth. These teachings stem from the mystic ideology of salvation and freeing oneself from selfishness. The central idea of Kabir Panth is that one can be released from the cycle of birth and death by devoting themselves truly to the divine creation and immersing in the sincere love of God, this ideology refers to mystics as “bhakti”. Bhakti essentially means “devotion or prayer” in Hinduism. One can conclude that Kabir stressed upon devoting oneself to the supreme deity for the ultimate salvation.

Kabir Das’s works were thoroughly enjoyed by Sikh disciples as well. Verses from Kabir Panth and Bhakti movement were repeatedly cited in the Sikhism scripture of Guru Granth Sahib. This citation confirms the limitlessness of Kabir Das’s work and the message of interfaith-harmony present inherently within his works. As one of his prominent inscriptions says: 

“The Lord is in me, the Lord is in you, as life is in every seed, put false pride away and seek the Lord within..” – Kabir Das


Interesting Facts About Samaa

An ancient aspect of Sufism is the darvesh dance known as Samaa. This dance is a perfectly balanced potion of culture and art. Samaa is greatly attributed to the unworldly connection of one with the creator. Although it is a ritual practiced to achieve the utmost ecstasy of mysticism under the Islamic teachings, it has nothing to do with religion thus, it cannot be affiliated with a particular religion. It is simply a practice of indulging solemnly into the mystic world. Let’s dive into a few more interesting facts about Samaa.

1. History of Samaa

The Sufi dance of whirling darvesh referred to as Samaa, goes all the way back to the 13th century. This dance was born and bred in the Anatolia region of Turkey and is inspired by the legendary mystic of the spiritual world, Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi. Rumi was the one who first performed this dance in the narrow streets of Konya as an expression of pain and sorrow after the demise of his spiritual mentor. Ever since then, this dance has become an expression of spiritual connection with the divine creation.

2. Dance, a form of meditation

Samaa is also considered a form of meditation. Where one becomes completely unaware of the worldly surroundings and dissolves wholly into the spiritual world of meditation. This dance is perceived as the ultimate level of perfection of one’s faith in divine creation, disassociation of worldly desires, and abandonment of one’s ego. Once these levels are achieved, the darvesh dancer swiftly drifts into the peaceful world of ecstasy and divinity.

3. Dance rituals and their meaning

Throughout this performance, the flute and an African instrument, Gnawa are continuously playing in the backdrop of this performance. The most integral part of the dance is the pre-dance ritual of Zikir. Firstly, the solo singer sings a song in the praises of Prophet Muhammad PBUH and followed by the improvisation of the flute, a musical instrument. The part of the ritual is called Naat. Next is the Devr-i Veled, where all the Sufi dancers gather around in a circle and bend over each other. This part signifies the Sufi mystics being breathed life into. And then comes the actual dance, where dancers gathered around the main dancer spread away in whirling circles. And finally, the Taksim part of the dance where the main dancer reads out loud the Quranic verses while twirling away. The counterclockwise whirling symbolizes embracing humanity with love. This spinning movement also symbolizes the rotation of Earth around the sun and the Tawaf around the Kaaba.


Peacebuilding Through Arts

Arts can be defined as a therapeutic tool for expression and healing. Creative arts have a tendency to trigger the need to reflect among the minds of audiences. Creative arts not only trigger reflection but also, debunk one’s ability to think in monotones. Art helps one see the world through a wide palette of colors and needless to say, art unlocks the horizons of problem-solving by prompting creativity. So, let’s talk about how this prompted creativity can help us in peacebuilding.

Arts can be perceived as a ‘transformative learning’ experience and this transformative learning can help one imagine or look at the world from others’ perspectives. Though, visual arts are open to all kinds of interpretations but, it does somehow converge to one focal point. This ability of arts to converge everyone to one focal point is the holy grail for conflict management and peacebuilding.

There are a number of powerful art tools that could be used for peacebuilding, to name a few, music, storytelling, theater, poetry, visual arts, etc. As we list these tools down, our minds naturally drift off to examples of arts we might have come across and how they could have been used in promoting peacebuilding and peace advocacy. Cynthia Cohen, a theater artist from Brandeis University, builds upon the idea of arts being a peacebuilding tool, “the creative arts allow people to give meaning to their own concepts of safety and security through the invention of new creations and works of art.” 

The creativity and flexibility that comes along with art make youth an ample target group to be benefitted from it. Where art is an answer to destructive conflicts, it is also an outlet for emotions as well for those who cannot express themselves well enough in literal terms. Needless to say, art gives voice to the voiceless through non-verbal expressions. This expression gives art a cycle to channel education and change-making. Essentially, creative arts can use their power to unite people to create a lens through which new social identities, new thoughts, opinions, and practices can emerge which eventually leads to the avenues of peacebuilding.