Harking Back: Tracing the origins of Lahore’s oldest pipal tree

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn April 17, 2016

Just how is Lahore’s ‘calligraphers bazaar’ - outside Wazir Khan’s Mosque – connected to Peshawar’s storytellers bazaar, better known as Qissa Khwani Bazaar. Both these ancient cities are connected by their storytelling traditions for over 2,000 years.

Sounds an amazing fact, but then while studying the life and times of Kanishka the Great (AD127-163), surely among the last great Buddhist rulers of Lahore and Peshawar, my curiosity about ‘shamans’ or ‘bakhsy’ and its connection with Lahore made me go over several accounts, describing his reign. His rule over Lahore is considered among the finest of its age. I am sure most readers would wonder just what I am talking about. But then consider. Kanishka the Great’s area of influence stretched from Kabul to Peshawar, from Taxila to Lahore and beyond till the Ganges. In the north, Kanishka ruled from Kashmir right up to Multan. He is considered by most historians as among the greatest our land has ever seen. Our current communal mindset keeps us away from our true heritage, let alone even know the man’s name.

The Aryan move southwards was on. The Ganges civilisation was beginning to peak. This great ruler of the Buddhist period at the fading end of the great Gandhara Civilisation is famous for his political, military and spiritual excellence. His reign is known as the beginning of the Saka Calendar era. But it was an account on ‘oral epics’ by Chadwick and Zhirmunsky that made me sit up to follow the trail of “shamans under the huge pipal tree”. This got me thinking.

A second mention of this tradition during Taimur Lung’s invasion of Lahore preceded by a ‘shaman’ session, again under a “pipal tree located in the centre of the city”, stopped me in my tracks. This had to be explored. Which ‘pipal tree’ are we talking about? As I read an account by Prof Baldev Kumar, it struck me that with Lahore in that time period being a purely Buddhist city, with Brahmin Hinduism just about to emerge as an aggressive force, the ‘shaman’ tradition of storytelling surely did reign supreme. But before we proceed further, let us undertake a reality check. In the times of Kanishka just about 2,000 years ago, as well as of Taimur’s invasion almost 1,400 years later and the complete destruction of Lahore, just where could this ‘pipal tree’ be?

We know from basic archaeological research just where stood the walls of old Lahore, now demolished by its trader class. On the western side while moving northwards, it ran on the right side of the present Bazaar Hakeeman, and its eastern alignment on the left side of Shahalami Bazaar. The ‘ghatis’ are still there to be seen. This means that the most probable place would be either Chowk Chandha at the convergence of Mori, Lohari and Said Mitha bazaars, or then, as a satellite map suggests, the only other probable place of convergence could be in the garden just near the shrine of Pir Bhola.

Both these places have a ‘pipal’ tree still there, though legend has it that Chowk Chandha (the Flag Crossing) is the more likely given its open space and the fact that it has for centuries, unlike the Pir Bhola site, been an open bazaar. Lest you forget in those ancient times the site where the Wazir Khan Mosque stands did not exist. So the Calligrapher’s Market is, in historic terms, a very recent occurrence. This place was called a ‘rahra maiden’ – a stony and barren plain field outside the mud walls of Lahore.

By any stretch of imagination, it seems that the pipal tree in Chowk Chandha is much older than most imagine. If you read accounts of the times of Hassu Telli, a Suhrawardy saint whose honesty was legendary, we learn that he sat under the pipal tree and on one occasion says: “This pipal tree was here before Iskander Unani”. What a strange thing to say. But then such are the ways of saints. Their wisdom belongs to a ‘shaman’ streak, which is where Kanishka and Taimur come in.

If we go over accounts of Kanishka, as given by different scholars, we see that he wrote: “My reign shall be always remembered for the ‘shamani’ sessions held in Kabul, Peshawar, Attock and Lahore at the same time. We reach out to the world beyond to gain both peace and wisdom at the same time.”

What does the world of the ‘shaman’ mean? I looked it up in Frederick Smith’s ‘The Self Possessed’, a classic on South Asian studies, and was amazed at its origins. From time immemorial in every religion there has been a keen interest in humans being ‘possessed’. All seers have allegedly excelled in this trance behaviour. Modern research terms this as a “neurotic state of disbelief”. In a way all forms of ‘possession’ have been seen as a way of, allegedly, reaching out to some spirit.

So what happened at Chowk Chandha in the reign of Kanishka, or before Taimur razed Lahore to the ground, was a ceremony of some sort, the details of which I have no knowledge of. But of what I am sure, as Manz B. Forbes, a renowned Taimur scholar, writes: “Before every battle his ‘shaman’ priests would predict the outcome. This was part of his Turko-Mongol heritage. His conversion to Islam just did not play its rational part in his thinking.” Under the pipal tree they sat and performed whatever they had to, and suggested that Lahore be flattened, but the pipal trees be spared. We know from ‘Tarikh-e-Ferishta’ that this is exactly what he did.

So if the pipal tree at Chowk Chandha descended from the original pipal tree from the times of Kanishka and Taimur, we have a tradition as old as time. Let me make clear that I am not suggesting that the existing tree is that old one. That in botanical terms is impossible. What surely is possible is that from that old tree new ones emerged over times. The Skanda Purana says: “If you do not have a son, regard the pipal as one. As long as the pipal lives, so shall your name.”

So stands the amazing pipal tree at Chowk Chandha under which also sat people like Bhagat Singh and other revolutionary heroes of Lahore. Under it sat Hassu Tilli and other great saints who passed through Lahore. Also under a pipal tree, surely not the Chowk Chandha one, sat Sita, so legend tells us, wife of Rama and mother of Loh, after whom Lahore is named.

Surely in these troubled times, we must stop to reflect, almost like the ‘shamani’ ways of old, about how our ancient heritage needs to be respected, researched, thought-through, protected, revived and conserved. Surely this is the least we can do for our children, and grandchildren.


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