The Cult Of Mai Nawab Sahib

The Cult Of Mai Nawab Sahib
During my research in Pothohar which spans over two decades, on history, heritage and culture, I visited many Sufi shrines. Interestingly, I also came across shrines of female figures in Pothohar, and later I developed my interest in female mysticism in the Pothohar region in Punjab. Over a period of time, I started documenting all the female Sufi shrines in this region. So far, I have documented more than thirty female shrines in Pothohar. Apart from Pothohar, I also documented some female Sufi shrines in Azad Kashmir. In Pothohar, a majority of female shrines are located in the Rawalpindi district. Some of these shrines are associated with established Sufi orders. However, the majority of the female Sufi shrines belong to the Qadiri order of Sufism. One such popular female Sufi shrine belongs to Mai Nawab Sahib of Pir Garata village. This village is located 2 km from Shah Bagh in Kallar Syedan tehsil in Rawalpindi district.

I first visited the shrine of Mai Nawab Sahib in 2006 and started reading about her role in spreading the teachings of her mentor Syed Mir Kalan. Later on, I revisited the shrine in 2017, 2019 and 2021 to collect more information on Mai Nawab Sahib, her deputies, disciples, and their shrines and bethaks (sanctuaries) in Pothohar.

Doorway to the grave of Mai Nawab Sahib

The real name of Mai Nawab Sahib was Bibi Jhandi. She was the daughter of Syed Nasarullah who was also known for being a pious person. Her husband Syed Ladhey Shah was a follower of Hazrat Syed Mir Kalan Badshah. Mai Nawab Sahib had two sons Syed Haj Shah and Syed Taj Shah who died in their childhood. Bibi Jhandi was initiated into the Qadiriyya Naushahiyya silsila by Syed Mir Kalan and thus she was called Nawab Sahib by her mentor. Mir Kalan was an eminent deputy of Hazrat Khawaja Hafiz Qaimuddin Barqandaz (d.1765), who was a deputy of Hazrat Pir Muhammad Sachiar Naushahi. Hazrat Pir Muhammad Suchiar (d.1707) was born in Narali village in Gujar Khan. Later his father migrated to Gujrat. The shrine of Hazrat Pir Muhammad Suchiar is located at Noshahra Miana in Jalapur Jattan in Gujrat district. He was a deputy of Hazrat Haji Muhammad Naushah Ganj Bakhsh Naushah Qadiri (d. 1654), the founder of Naushahia branch of Qadiri Silsila. The shrine of Hazrat Haji Muhammad Naushah Ganj Bakhsh is located at Ranmal Sharif in Phalia tehsil in the district of Mandi Bahauddin.

Hazrat Syed Mir Kalan Badshah, after receiving robe of initiation from his mentor Khawaja Hafiz Qaimuddin Barkandaz, who was also the founder of Barkandazi branch of Naushahiyya, and on his instruction spread the Naushahiyya silsila in the Pothohar region and established his khanqah at Rukhia Sharif where today his tomb is located. Rokhia Sharif is located in Gujar Khan tehsil. He was the earliest and first Naushahi Barkandazi saint in Gujar Khan tehsil to spread the teachings of his mentor.

Grave of Mai Nawab Sahib

Hazrat Syed Mir Kalan Badshah Naushahi Barkandazi had four other male khalifas (deputies) who are buried in various villages of Gujar Khan tehsil but Mai Nawab Sahib was the only female deputy who also initiated by Hazrat Syed Mir Kalan Badshah into Qadiriyya Naushahiyya silsila. According to Sharif al Tawarekh Vol 3 by Syed Sharif Ahmad Sharaft Naushahi (1971), there were seven prominent Khalifas of Mai Nawab Sahib. The names of khalifas include Raza Quli, Syed Gulab Shah, Sheikh Munawar, Mian Moizullah, Mian Khuda Bakhsh, Pir Ghulam Rasool, and Ram Singh Kuka of Peshwar. I believe that Ram Singh Kuka was not her Khalifa: rather he and his wife Jind Kaur were his followers. Ram Sing Kuka was also an ardent follower of Balak Singh who was the founder of the Kukapanth or Kuka sect in Hazro in Attock. He was originally from Ludhiana. The account and history of the Kuka sect can be read in the Gazetteer of the Rawalpindi District and the same was reproduced in Gazetteer of the Attock District (1930).

Pir Raza Quli was the first Khalifa of Mai Nawab Sahib. The grave of Pir Raza Quli is also located near the tomb of Mai Nawab Sahib at Pir Garata. The deputies and disciples of Mai Nawab Sahib spread her teachings in different villages and towns of Pothohar.  According to Gujar Khan ke Suhrawardi Mashaikh by Hasan Nawaz Shah (2013), Pir Raza Quli’s deputy Mian Muhammad Ji Naushahi’s khalifa Mian Sharaf Ali Naushahi’s (d.1914) shrine is located in Jarmot Kalan in Gujar Khan. According to Ruh Da Rishta by Hanif Hanfi (1999) Mian Muhammad Ji Naushahi preached Qadiri Naushahia in Pindigheb tehsil of Attock district. His chief deputy Mian Sharaf Ali Naushahi (d.1914) was a leading Nauhahi saint in Jarmot Kalan in Gujar Khan where today his shrine is located. The son of Mian Muhammad Ji Naushahi, Fazal Illahi Naushahi (d. 1930) was also a learned and famous Naushahi saint of Duman village in Gujar Khan where his shrine is located now. Mian Muhammad Ji travelled extensively in every nook and corner of Pothohar.

Another Pir Raza Quli’s khalifa was Syed Dastar Shah (d.1944) whose shrine is located at Sud village in Chauntra area in Rawalpindi district. He was an eminent scholar and poet.

Graves of Pir Raza Quli and his wife near the tomb of Mai Nawab Sahib

Another eminent deputy of Mai Nawab Sahib was Mian Khuda Bakhsh who also played a very active role in spreading Naushahiyya teachings in Pothohar. His chief disciple Tajuddin became a leading Naushahi saint of Thoha Khasa in Kahuta teshil. The shrine of Mian Tajuddin Naushahi is located in Thoha Khalsa.

The deputies and disciples of Mai Nawab Sahib preached Naushahiyya silsila in their respective areas and many people responded to their teachings. Mai Nawab sahib herself visited many disciples. To commemorate her visits, the followers, later on, marked the places and built structures on the spaces where Mai Nawab Sahib used to sit while preaching. These spaces locally called bethaks have now become shrines. The followers regularly attend these sanctuaries or sacred spaces which are associated with Mai Nawab Sahib and to her deputies and disciples.  They believe that the spiritual power of Mai Nawab Sahib or her deputies and disciples rest in these sacred spaces or bethaks.  There are over two dozen bethaks of Mai Nawab Sahib in Pothohar. Likewise, the sanctuaries of her mentor Hazrat Syed Mir Kalan Naushahi Barqandazi are also found in Pothohar. A majority of these bethaks or sanctuaries are located inside the houses of the followers.

Shrine complex of Mai Nawab Sahib

Apart from bethaks of Hazrat Syed Mir Kalan Badshah and her deputy Mai Nawab Sahib, there are at least seven bethaks of Mian Muhammad Ji, a deputy of Pir Raza Quli, the chief khalifa of Mai Nawab Sahib. All these sanctuaries are located in the houses of the followers.

The cult of Mai Nawab Sahiba is prevalent not only in Rawalpindi but also in Jhelum and Attock districts. Many of her deputies and their khalifas spread Naushahiyya silsila in different villages and towns of Pothohar. The shrines of some of his deputies and disciples are now popular in Pothohar. The shrine of Mai Nawab Sahib is frequented by both males and females. The devotees throng her shrine at the time of mela and special occasions.


The writer is an anthropologist. He tweets as @Kalhorozulfiqar. All photos by the author

The author is an anthropologist. He tweets at: @Kalhorozulfiqar