On the road between Lahore and Sargodha, in the Churkhana (now Farooqabad) tehsil of district Skeikhupura, lies the dusty little town of Khanqah Dogaran, from where if you take a turn towards the west you would find the village of ‘Mariamabad’. This village, surrounded by many such villages built during the canal colonisation of the late nineteenth century, however, is very special.
Unlike its surrounding villages where the population is largely Muslim, this village is almost entirely Christian and in that of the Catholic denomination. The reason behind this difference lies in the fact that when the Punjab government began establishing these canal colonies, a number of religious organisations also petitioned the government for land so that they could begin communities in these regions.
Since land was plentiful and the government did not want to single-handedly be responsible for habilitating people there, several grants were made to religious groups. So just as Muslim, Hindu and Sikh religious organisations bought land from the government, Christian missionary societies also bought land for settlement. Another major reason for the choice of these settlements for the missionaries was that most people who had converted to Christianity in the Punjab were from the lower classes. The higher classes had already mistreated them, and their conversion, in many cases, made their life worse. Now not only were they of a lower caste, they were of a different — alien, they thought, religion. Hence, the missionaries saw in the canal colonies the best escape from the oppression of the upper castes.
The missionaries also envisioned these villages as ‘Christian villages’ where the new converts could live their lives according to Christian faith and morals and not remain corrupted by their earlier practices. However, it was not easy to do away with old and ingrained practices, and the rituals of olden days, and even some religious practices, continued among these new ‘Christian’ villagers.
The difficulties in creating these ‘Christian’ villages and the persistence of older practices among the converts, gave some of the missionaries a novel idea. While most Protestant and Anglican missionaries resisted the temptation, the Catholic missionaries decided to ‘inculturate’ their religion in the local environment. Hence, the Mariamabad Urs or Ziarat was born.
In the South Asian context, religious festivals — around the death anniversary of a saint in Islam and around some significant life event of a god in Hinduism, are a central feature of public religion. These festivals, where people from all religions generally join in, exhibit belief and devotion and also create an identity for the followers of either a particular Pir or deity. In the Western Christian context too, such festivals are not unknown.
In medieval times, going to a saints’ shrine on pilgrimage was a great act of devotion and homage, and pilgrim routes like those to Santiago de Compostela in Spain became very crowded even. In England, the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury became a major attraction, with Chaucer’s verse on the pilgrimage, The Canterbury Tales, becoming a classic.
Therefore, when these Christian villages did not become the ideal environments the founders had hoped for, and people still went to the local Hindu or Muslim shrine, the priests of the village decided to give them their own Urs, their own Ziarat, so that they did not have to go elsewhere. Already, the Grotto of Loudres in France, where Mary, the mother of Jesus, had appeared in the middle of the nineteenth century to St. Bernadette had achieved universal fame, and a small replica of that cave had been built within the premises of the Mariamabad church. Therefore, the parish priest decided to found an annual pilgrimage to the Grotto of Mary at Mariamabad around September 8, her birthday, as a Christian ‘Ziarat’ or ‘Urs.’
Today the Urs, which has been taking place every year for more than sixty years, is a mega event which is held over three days on the nearest weekend to September 8. For nearly a week the village and the area surrounding it, is transformed by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, who come from all over the country — and sometimes even beyond — to attend the festival. People walk, cycle, drive and even go on their knees to pay homage to Mary at her grotto.
The level of inculturation is such that upon entering the village one might be easily mistaken as to the religious affiliation of the festival. Just like the milad, or a Sufi’s Urs, a big decorated chadar (cloth), is carried by devotees singing hymns and collecting money. Similarly, scores of people carry dupattas to wrap it around the statue of Mary atop the grotto in strong resemblance to what their ancestors would have done a century ago at a Hindu shrine. Huge ‘langarkahanas’ — places where the pilgrims can have free food — strongly remind one of Sikh and Sufi shrines, where having the communal langar — where everyone sits together and eats without distinction of caste, race, or creed — is almost as important as visiting the shrine itself. The whole area carries a festive look and the faith and devotion of the pilgrims — not just Christian, but Muslim, Hindu and Sikh too — is simply overwhelming.
Out of all the major religions of South Asia, the Christian religion is largely regarded as the most ‘foreign’. Hindu extremists see it as alien, while a number of Muslim fundamentalists also question its existence in the region. The centrality of foreign missionaries (at least in north India), collaboration with the British Raj and the post-colonial persistence of the English language and Western ways, gave Christians in the region an indelible foreign look. Hence despite the gradual nationalisation of most major Christian churches now, Christians are still considered outside the realm of normative society in South Asia.
Mariamabad and its annual Mariam Urs show that Christianity is not an alien phenomenon in the region. Just like the Muslim Sufi saints who came from other countries but adopted this land and made it their own, the Christian religion is also now part of the lay of the land. The syncretic practices at Mariamabad might be related to the past of most of the pilgrims, but they show the localisation of the religion and the ability of its followers to understand it within their local context. The Urs of Hazrat Mariam, as it is called, is certainly a beautiful expression of the syncretic and dynamic religious and cultural milieu of South Asia.