Traditional sports and pastimes in Lahore by Jurgen Wasim Frembgen and Paul Rollier
The particular version of ‘Islam’ gaining ground in Pakistan today discourages communal life by denouncing laughter and recreation, and those who indulge in them. As a result the people of Pakistan are increasingly divested of communal activities and ties, and overwhelmed by financial and other pressures. The country is therefore more and more divided along religious, sectarian and ethnic lines. These divisions were never as deep, nor were they ever as raw and exposed.
The two authors of this slim hardbound publication by Oxford University Press Pakistan, 2014, came to the same conclusion when they studied these particular recreational activities (wrestling, pigeon keeping and kite flying) and their status today. These sports may be counted as the three of the most popular recreational pastimes specifically in Lahore’s Walled City which lies at the heart of the city of Lahore.
The authors observe that ‘within the contemporary stream of conservative, and often rigid, scriptural Islam, the passion, pleasure, enjoyment and happiness of a worldly pastime, such as kite flying, is seen…at best…with suspicion and disregard.’ It mentions the maulvi of a mosque near Lahore who said, ‘Basant is a bakvas and un-Islamic activity that has come down to us from Hindus. We must get rid of this curse.’
It was not always this way. Poets have waxed lyrical about these sports and painters have painted them. Said Amir Khusrau: ‘Why are you sleeping, sleepyhead? Your fate does not slumber Celebrate Basant today, O beautiful wife, celebrate Basant today!’
Much earlier in the sixteenth century the Lahori saint Shah Husain invoked this image in his poetry: ‘The Beloved holds the string in his hand, (and) I am his kite.’
The book is an overview rather than an in-depth study, and is extensively researched and includes meticulous references, citations and notes, many photographs and interesting information about these popular sports that one knows little about. Did you know for example that those high tower-like cages made of bamboo and wire built on top of residential houses are actually bird catchers and not the aviaries favoured by pigeon fanciers. The aviaries are spread horizontally and rarely exceed six feet in height. ‘The architecture of the cage therefore indicates whether one keeps pigeons as a hobby or for making a profit.’
We know that Basant heralds a short season of joy before the long hot summer, that it was originally held in Sufi shrines, and that Mirza Ghalib was an avid kite flyer. But then the book covers a variety of kite and string making information, and kite flying techniques which you may not be aware of.
About wrestling one learns that the head (khalifa) of a traditional wrestling gymnasium (akhara) and his students are ‘organised very similarly to the Sufi orders and guilds of craftsmen.’ That before the twentieth century, before the ‘Kalashnikov culture’, the khalifa wielded authority over his area as a local strongman, and often the head of the village who settled disputes. He was respected for his justice, character and skill in wrestling. Members of the akhara were mostly unmarried men, who married once they reached their mid thirties and gave up their active careers.
Recently, the International Olympic Committee ‘revised the rules and Pakistan failed to qualify for the event in the past two Olympics (sic).’ The reason is primarily the failure to adapt to the rules under which wrestling takes place in the Olympics.
Sadly it seems that the ability to adapt has been a problem for each of these sports. In the case of kite flying the baby has been thrown out with the bath water. This is because the string used to fly the kite is at times coated with glass, or wire is used instead, and these have caused many fatalities. People have also died when they lost their balance jumping from rooftop to rooftop in pursuit of a kite. Rather than making arrangements for safer venues and regulating the string used in this sport the celebration of basant has been declared illegal in Pakistan. This book is of value in understanding these issues; at the least it provides an awareness of a rich cultural heritage, at best perhaps solutions to sports which have lost their luster and are threatened with extinction.
About the authors of the book
Jurgen Wasim Frembgen Islamist, anthropologist, writer and Senior Curator of the Islamic Collection at the Munich State Museum of Ethnology is a Professor of History of Religion and Culture of Islam and a visiting Professor in Lahore, and the USA.
Paul Rollier Frembgenan, a PhD in Social Anthropology from SOAS in London was at the time of printing a post doctoral research associate in Social Anthropology at University College, London.
In his book ‘Orangi Pilot Project: Reminiscences and Reflections,’ Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan says that one of our foremost traits as a nation is orthodoxy, and explains the repercussions: Orthodoxy makes many segments of life sacred; once something becomes sacred, it seems profane to subject it to critical inquiry and reason, and critical inquiry and reason are therefore employed only to uphold the sacred.
History, and our religious figures and heroes are amongst those things that are now sacred, says Dr Khan, and therefore no longer subject to critical analysis. ‘We worship our imperial past,’ he says, ‘and are constantly told that in the past we were the greatest and the best. Therefore logically, we are still the best even if we do not appear to be so. And we can become the greatest again if we take the trouble to follow the example of our ancestors. This ceaseless trumpeting of our greatness,’ says Dr Khan ‘has given us an invincible megalomania.’
A decade and a half after Dr Khan’s death innumerable incidents illustrate his point, especially the case of the Christian couple burnt to death in Kasur, probably the most direct and worst result of national megalomania and delusions of greatness.
The second case is the JI’s determination to ‘rectify mistakes’ in school curricula in KP, and the third the Higher Education Commission’s instructions to all universities to ‘ ”remain vigilant” against any activity that challenges the ideology and principles of Pakistan and/or the perspective of the government of Pakistan.’
The last two examples stem from and help create further delusion.
The Christian couple (she was pregnant) who worked as bonded labour in Kasur, allegedly made a blasphemous remark. Matters never reached the point of arrest and trial under that other creation of orthodoxy the blasphemy law, another sacred cow which is above criticism, and which would (unfortunately) have applied in this case. The couple was hounded, tortured by an enraged mob, and burnt to death, possibly while still alive. Horrifyingly, this happened as a result of announcements from mosques urging people to act.
Zeeshan Hasan (who holds a Masters degree in Theological studies), discusses blasphemy and the death penalty in a recent article and says that ‘Hadith does not provide support for the death penalty to be applied to a non-Muslim who is guilty of blasphemy,’ he says, ‘nor is what might constitute such blasphemy even defined.’
If Islam is a peaceful, compassionate, reasonable religion, one can only conclude that the reason for the bestiality that resulted in Shama and Shahzad’s death lies in flawed teaching in schools and other places of learning, where as Dr Khan says enquiry and reason are inhibited and restricted producing an ‘invincible megalomania’ that in turn feeds upon and is fed by laws such as the law against blasphemy.
In Pakistan, education is provided by government schools and madrasahs. Private schools cater to the very few. Madrasahs, once teaching religious as well as secular subjects now teach religious subjects alone. An estimate in 2008 put the number of madrasahs in Pakistan at over 40,000.
Madrasahs and their orthodox teachings are fertile ground for militants, although in itself a madrasah if regulated is a benign entity. In fact, in a place like Pakistan the contribution of madrasahs even as they are cannot be disregarded because they are the only source of education for many children whose numbers far outweigh the number of militants produced. Orthodoxy of course has other major social repercussions, but these are not under discussion here.
Without going into the low standard of our books and curricula (once again not under discussion here), it is enough to note the presence of orthodoxy and absence of critical inquiry in books meant for young readers and in government curricula. Below are just a few examples.
A Pakistan studies text book for students of Class nine states that a major result of the 1965 War between Pakistan and India was that ‘Pakistan got international fame and it elevated its dignity’ (sic). Another major result was apparently that ‘Pakistan learned that America and Europeans had two face characters’ (sic).
When speaking of the separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971, the book says that the Mukti Bahini killed numerous Pakistani soldiers and ordinary citizens. Thousands of Bengalis also massacred, are not mentioned.
‘The negative role of Hindu teachers’ in Bengal is given as a major reason for the separation of Pakistan’s eastern wing. Apparently they ‘tarnished the minds of new Bengali generation with the idea of Bengali nationalism and prepared them to rebel against the ideology of Pakistan’ (sic)’.
The preface to a popular Urdu series of books for children claims that (translated): ‘this series highlights the great and golden achievements of our heritage so that our children who will control our future may be mentally well nurtured and informed.’ The preface goes on to say that the publishers feel it their duty to lay before their readers those achievements of our heritage that astound the world.’ One of the books in this series deals with the great achievements of the Mughal emperor Alamgir, who, the book claims, was a great and a true Muslim. It cites his virtues, among which was that he did not tolerate non-Muslims at all, although he never did any non-Muslim who rightly deserved it out of a promotion in his government. Bravo. Especially since this is the same Aurangzeb who kept his father confined until his death and brutally murdered two of his own brothers to prevent their accession to the throne, who is now being cited as a role model for the future generation of Pakistanis.
Therefore we have a country where non Muslims are not tolerated, where mistakes in the curricula have been ‘rectified’ to project an ideology and a set of principles that may not be examined or criticised, producing a generation disinclined to examine and criticise its past or present because, among other reasons it is unaware of what the past contains that may contradict the said ideology or set of principles.
Is it any wonder then that in Pakistan minorities live in fear of their lives, education is scant and questionable, time is shrouded…the past changed or obliterated, the future in uncertainty, and people live amidst serious concerns for peace, stability and their lives?