Refuge for imagination
At the peak of the 2014 dharna, when nothing could sway headlines away from the drama unfolding at D Chowk, an odd little item of news managed to do the impossible. Briefly, very briefly, it turned the conversation away from the besieged capital towards its less important but far more colorful twin, Rawalpindi. On 3rd November, Rescue 1122 was called in to capture what was described by witnesses as a huge snake at the Shrine of Shah Jeevan. When finally caught, the snake did turn out to be a mammoth. Eleven feet long and judged to be weighing an unbelievable 100 kg, the rock python was quickly anointed an ‘anaconda’, never mind that those creatures are found 14,000 kilometers away in South America. An anaconda it was, and it was to be taken away.
At which point, the news morphed from the ordinary into the mythical, from the netting of a large snake to the wanton ensnarement of a gargantuan religious beast. The custodian of the shrine stepped in to beg Rescue 1122 to let the snake go. He said the snake had lived at the shrine for a hundred years, had never harmed anyone, and only appeared on 9th and 10th Moharram to pay its respect to the saint. Despite being in the presence of a snake that had mastered the lunar calendar, 1122 personnel unimaginatively decided the reptile was a threat and it was taken away from the shrine, to be handed over to the Topi Rakh Park, doomed to spend the last of his years in a snake house, far away from the tomb where it had outlived its lifespan thrice over.
For a country that follows an Abrahamic religion, most of the shrines in Pakistan are surprisingly tolerant of the creature that tricked Adam into betraying God. Many shrines are home to snakes; some that don’t bother hiding and some that dwell in secret abodes within the walls. Other shrines have serpentine wardens who only come forth when the shrine is in imminent danger. Near Chakri lies a hamlet of less than thirty houses, all surrounding the shrine of Pir Bokhari, a war hero who’s legend is obscure and as legends go, not terribly fascinating. But according to the old woman who is the custodian of his resting place, snakes of all sizes routinely show up to hail the holy bones. She maintains that they are pious and powerful djinns in snake form, not real snakes, for they do not display the hostility that a real snake would. When the shrine was in very real danger of being swept away in 2010’s biblical floods, two cobras appeared out of nowhere and stood guard at the door, one on each side, rising to their full heights. Faced with these formidable sentinels, the water dared not enter the compound, flowing away in what we can assume was cowardly fashion. To this battle between the flood and the snakes, almost the entire hamlet was a witness. Their own houses still bear the scars of the ravaging waters. The shrine does not.
Further into Chakwal lies the saddest tomb you’ll ever see. An unmarked grave barely visible under the thorny bushes that have grown over it is surrounded by the remains of walls that have long fallen victim to time and neglect. Here lies Maai Dholli, a woman not to be trifled with. Feeling insulted at not being invited to weddings because she was a spinster, she cursed the entire surrounding populace to bad marriages and divorces. It’s unclear how she was appeased in life, but in death her blessings can be sought by lighting a diya at her crypt in the evening. If you spot a white female snake there, you have been assured of a successful marriage for that is Maai Dholli herself, come to bless you in spirit form. Enough people have spotted the snake for the legend to live on, undeterred by it’s glaring lack of piety and prayer.
In the 80s, a long, thin green snake was often seen inside the burial chamber of Mian Mir, one of Lahore’s most famous saints. Not spotted after that decade at that particular tomb, a similar looking snake was spotted by disciples at Bibi Pak Daaman, one of Lahore’s oldest shrines. Sindh, resting place of numerous saints and Sufis, is even more partial to tales of devout ophidians.
But what if we were to drop the fascinating assumptions that the snakes are neither disciples nor djinns nor spirits? What if they really are just snakes, flesh and blood and venomous teeth? Why do they prefer living at tombs, where their enemy humans are in plentiful number? What instinct over rides millennia of evolutionary coding to head towards the adversary who would kill it elsewhere without a second thought? Perhaps the alternate knowledge also gathered over millennia: that if the Sun God Ra would carry you over his head, if Shiva would wrap you around the neck and Kali would let you free among her hair, then where there are believers, there is also refuge.