The shrine or tomb of Bibi Pak Daman is one of the major shrines in Lahore. Until yesterday, I’d never visited.
This is especially strange when you consider that the Street of Bibi Pak Daman is located almost exactly across from the gate of the Convent of Jesus & Mary school – which I attended from 1974 to 1983. I didn’t even know there was a thing there that people cared about. A lot of people. (I think it is really interesting that the Sisters of Jesus and Mary founded their school near the shrine.)
So I, my husband, my daughter, and my brother went there yesterday.
The street begins with a lifting roadblock where the attendant will take a look at you before admitting you to the street. Then begins a neighborhood named after the revered women buried in the tomb. It is a humble neighborhood. Everything about the tomb is humble, and is welcoming to the poor. We, with our handbags and our White man, stuck out like sore thumbs. Our presence created a bit of a disruption in the energy, as many people attempted to help us or sell us things for tips. I decided that next time I go to visit a shrine, I’ll bring a bit of money for roses, the shoe rack, and for charity in my hand, and no handbag or anything of value. Of course helping my young daughter navigate the crowd was another source of distraction. But you cannot lose your temper. All of them are guests of the Lady.
Next time we go, it probably won’t be a weekend, too. The shrine was crowded and busy – unlike the quiet Mian Mir shrine the other day. Men were lined on the left side, and women occupied the remainder of the sides, of the main shrine – the resting place of Hz. Ruqayya bint Ali (RA) and the sister and daughters of Hz Muslim bin Aqeel, who, along with other family members and servants, had fled the persecution of the caliphs and settled in this faraway land. This area of Lahore was forested at the time, and edged with the River Ravi. There were no Muslims in India. Muhammad bin Qasim’s army landed (as it is claimed) 32 years later. Hz Ruqayya bint Ali settled here. But, as I read, the Umayyads sent spies and assassins, and the local raja also sent his army. The ladies, fearful of the soldiers’ treatment, prayed to God for protection and it is said that the earth split open to receive them. This tomb marks that spot.
Bibi Pak Daman refers to the Lady of Purity, but sometimes the name used is Bibian (ladies), because Syeda Ruqayya bint Ali was accompanied by five other ladies, Muslim ibn Aqeel’s sister and daughters. Any association with the Prophet’s household is revered here, and while the imagery and practices are often Shia in nature, fervently devoted Shias and Sunnis both attend.
Hz. Ali Hujweiri (whose shrine, Data Darbar, is the central shrine in Lahore and perhaps the most famous one in Pakistan) used to meditate and receive faizan (inspiration) at Bibi Pak Daman’s mazar.
The first time I heard about Bibi Pak Daman was from an anti-shrine Islamist Jamat-Islami family back in 1990. Auntie Shafqat (I’ll call her) confessed, rather shamefacedly, that she visited Bibi Pak Daman some time back. Her teenaged daughters had suddenly become plagued with terrible facial pimples. No remedies helped. Eventually someone told her to go to Bibi Pak Daman and sweep the floors. These are upwardly mobile middle class families; they do not sweep the floors of their own homes. But Auntie Shafqat took her daughters, and they swept the floors. The pimples disappeared with miraculous speed. I was rather intrigued despite my own suspicion of folk religion at that time.
The women attendees of Bibi Pak Daman cling to the walls and sing devotional songs. One of the women there was sobbing uncontrollably. I patted her head and tried to comfort her, but she knew no comfort. “Who knows what troubles she had,” my mother said, when I told her. (My mother couldn’t go because of mobility issues. The place is definitely not handicapped accessible, as the street and entrance are narrow and congested). “Women are all sorrowful.”
What a powerful place, it struck me. Men are somewhat restricted in the shrine, unlike most other public places. My husband was told not to take photos of us because there were women in that area. Any woman – divorced, battered, unloved, childless, raped, orphaned – can come here and pour out her sorrows to the Lady. She belongs here. It is a women’s shrine. A woman, alone, sorrowful, oppressed, can be the devotee of this powerful saint, and know that she has told her troubles to a loving spirit.