HARKING BACK: Of trees, herbs, crows and ants

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn June 19, 2016

A few weeks ago while walking through the Mochi Gate precinct of the walled city, I stopped at a barber’s shop to ask the way. He put down his implements to attend to me and in the process joined his hands, bowed to his scissor and combs and then talked to me.

It was a very strange thing to do. The journalist in me made me ask just why he did what he did. “Our forefathers have taught us to respect the implements which bring home food” was his immediate answer. “It is the vehicle of Allah for providing us a livelihood, so we must respect them.” His way of thinking made imminent sense to me, and I respect the tradition. But then as I bang away at my laptop an unconscious part of my mind is informing the laptop that I am not going to bow before it. The worship, and hence respect, of inanimate objects has been part of almost all religions since the beginning of time. Our ways, puritans that we now claim to be, are basically extensions of the collective human behaviour of our ancestors.

But without getting into a debate on the subject, my effort was to first record past behaviour as the people of the walled city told me. For this I returned to Mochi Gate and stopped at a number of shops selling rare herbs and medicinal plants. I asked who would know best about the Lahore of 80 years ago when beliefs were private business. They sent me to the shop of a 75-year old barber Khizer Hayat near Lal Khoo, the place where Guru Arjan was imprisoned and where Hazrat Mian Mir prayed for him. He was kind enough to recommend that I meet Mai Bassi, an over 85-year old lady who lived in a nearby lane. Between them they went through an array of inanimate objects that were once, and still remain, venerated by everyone.

Mai Bassi told of the importance of the ‘tulsi’ plant. “Any house that did not have a ‘tulsi’ tree was considered unlucky and prone to diseases.” We know today that mosquitoes stay away from this plant and hence it makes sense to have plants that keep people free of malaria. Three years ago I was almost lost to dengue fever, so the ‘tulsi’ tree makes great sense to me. “In the old days all women, Hindu, Sikh or Muslims, would (do) first thing in the morning bow before their ‘tulsi’ plant”, said Mai Bassi.

“What about the famous ‘pipal’ tree”, I asked. “Oh, that is where evil spirits live, as do our ancestors’ spirits dwell,” she said. “Once a year all Hindus perform ‘Shraddha’ and leave food at a ‘pipal’ tree” said the wise old woman. She then went into a naughty peel of laughter: “Oh, when young we were very naughty, we used to go and pinch the food”. I asked: “What did they leave?” “Cooked rice and ‘dal’ in mud bowls”, she said. The fear of the wrath of ancestors has, it seems, been a central part of all religions. The original inhabitants of both north and south America based their religions on the spirits of their ancestors.

This old woman was a store of information. She told me that all Rajputs used to worship their swords and guns. Now this seemed a strange assertion, but then it reminded me of our old gardener Puran Masih who used to clean his ‘rambi’ after work, wrap it in a cloth and then, with reverence, touch it on his forehead. It was all beginning to fall into place, reminding me of Rumi’s couplet: ‘Oh pen, my future is in your hand, make what you please of it’.

This reminded me of an excellent book titled ‘The Thugs or Phansigars of India’ by Sir Henry Sleeman which I had read in my college days. He writes of thugs, Hindu, Sikh and Muslims, murdering their victims with a huge coin slung knotted on a handkerchief. They burying their victims would then all sit on the grave and worship the pickaxe with which the grave was dug. Mind you in an earlier piece, written probably five years ago, I wrote of a visit to a village in Sheikhupura where ‘thugs’ still live and worship their weapons, especially their daggers. But back to Mai Bassi.

She started reeling off types of inanimate objects that are venerated. “OK, then what about the Hindus and cows?” I teased. She was quick to respond: “Muslims are wrong when they claim it is worshipped. It is venerated just as cows are never beaten up in Punjab’s villages even today, while buffaloes get a bad time. As we eat cow meat we do not even respect what we eat.” It was time to discuss trees and leaves.

She told of a ‘bilva’ tree and I have no idea what a ‘bilva’ tree is. She told of a nearby Shiva temple where they still worship ‘bilva’ leaves. That was news to me. But then we have become such a non-diverse people that a lot of common knowledge has been lost to our communal way of thinking. She told me of a special type of grass which is found on the River Ravi edges called ‘durba’ which was made as an offering to the deity Ganesh. Surely once Lahore and its environs had a lot of elephants, and they would have loved this grass. The rationalist in me was coming out.

“Mai Bassi, tell me about ‘neem’ leaves”, I asked. “Oh ‘neem’ leaves keep away a lot of illnesses and in our youth once a week we were made to chew them to avoid illnesses. People would plant them in their gardens to keep illnesses away. Neem is still the best cure for smallpox, ask any ‘hakeem’. My mother used to spread them under the bedspread if smallpox or very high fever hit us”, she said.

But then we got onto flowers. The lotus and jasmine flowers were venerated and the smell of ‘motia’ was also part and parcel of every house, which were planted in pots. The old houses of the walled city must have been very interesting places, full of ‘essential’ plants and good luck charms. Amazingly the broad leaf of the mango tree was supposed to bring wisdom to a house. I do know that Ashoka sat on them. The list is endless.

On a personal note my own mother-in-law every morning used to put a little sugar at every place she knew from where ants emerged. “They pray of us” she educated me and who was I to disagree. But then my English mother every morning used to fill a plate with old ‘rotis’ for a nearby crow whom she called ‘Khan Sahib’, who had become part of the family. If his food was late he would create such a fuss. Mind you Queen Elizabeth of English still has an official ‘Crow Master’ to feed the black birds to “keep enemies at bay”.

The list of ‘good luck’ and ‘bad luck’ trees and leaves and objects and birds is endless. It seems they all made sense in one way or another to their believers. Such beliefs still make up our ancient city’s collective wisdom, one that we are fast losing. May people like Mai Bassi and Khizar Nai keep on telling our children their amazing stories.


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