Thinning the Herd

The changing fate of a Muslim shrine where cows are sacred

01 August 2016
The Shah family lives near their shrine, in an abandoned gurdwara that has been converted into living quarters.

The Sufi shrine where the Shia saint Sher Shah is buried is a simple structure. Sitting in an open field in a village called Bhambha, on the outskirts of Lahore, the building’s pointed dome is painted dark green. Its spire is topped by a sculpture of a right hand: a Shia symbol. Orange flags—characteristic of Sufi shrines—fly from the building’s roof. A few malangs, volunteers who watch over the dargah, usually sit around the property, their hair and beards untrimmed. Had I simply been driving past, little about the structure would have seemed unique.

But throughout the area, the shrine is known for a feature that makes it remarkable among Muslim dargahs: a collection of cows. The cows are considered sacred by many, with devotees often bringing them offerings, such as grass to eat, money for the shrine and food for the malangs. I visited the shrine in February, eager to see its cattle, but they were nowhere to be found. The property is managed by the grandson of Sher Shah, Shadi Shah—a thin man with a jet-black moustache. The cows, he told me, were out roaming the surrounding area in two separate groups, each led by some of the malangs. The entire herd returns to the shrine for an annual festival, arranged on Sher Shah’s death anniversary. But the strength of that herd has waned in recent years. “At one point we had hundreds of cows, but now we only have 70 to 80,” Shadi said. “That is because the devotion of the people towards this holy animal is declining.”

Many in Pakistan denigrate the idea of piety towards cows, believing it too reminiscent of Hinduism. This is not the only manner in which the Shah family’s practice of Islam differs from the Pakistani norm. As Shia Muslims, the family is part of an often targeted religious minority, in a country that is over 80 percent Sunni. They are also custodians of a Sufi shrine; Sufism encompasses a culture within Islam that is often likened to mysticism and disparaged for its focus on saints. Today, the type of religious syncretism that the Shah family embodies is threatened by a tide of orthodoxy sweeping Pakistan. The changing fate of their cows provides a window into this dynamic.

Haroon Khalid Haroon Khalid is a freelance journalist based in Pakistan. He is the author of In Search of Shiva and A White Trail.