The unique block print of Ajrak, Pashmina embroidered shawls, blue pottery, brass and woodwork adorn the stalls amidst the Sufism reflected in the poetry of Bulleh Shah and Shah Bhitai and the aroma of Saag, Mamtu and Sajji at Lok Virsa Heritage Museum National Institute of Folk and Traditional Heritage as it holds an annual cultural festival inviting crafts persons and folk performers to represent their regional cultures allows people to witness unity in diversity.
Pakistan is blessed with ‘diverse diversity’. The variety in geographical landscapes can be seen in the form of plains, mountains, plateaus and deserts. The seasonal variations and the rich regional history have given rise to multiple ethnicities and religions in Pakistan. This paves way for a diverse culture in Pakistan. As Anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor said, “Culture is a complex whole which includes knowledge, beliefs, art, law, custom and any other capabilities acquired by man as a member of the society.” Hence, our national treasures include literature, paintings, folklore, handicrafts and family values, all of which have placed significant emphasis on elements of peace and tolerance irrespective of gender, class, age or ethnicity.
Our Cultural Values
Our South Asian collectivist culture is recognized for its emphasis on family values, respect for elders and love towards children. Our national and regional cultural values have always advocated peace, harmony and tolerance. The rich literature with prose and poetry in Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi, Balochi, Pashto, Shina, etc., yield sustainable lessons for life. Digging into our cultural values, we can find many examples of customary practices that are unique to specific regions or ethnicity and that promote peace and harmony. Melmastiya or hospitality is an important component of the code of conduct for the traditional lifestyle of Pashtuns, as enshrined in the Pashtunwali. This principle of hospitality requires all tribesmen and women to be respectful and hospitable towards their own members and strangers regardless of race, religion or socio-economic status.
Sufism and its message of interfaith harmony and peace is another significant feature of our national culture. The list of Sufi saints in different regions is endless, prominent ones being Bulleh Shah, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, Sultan Bahu and Baba Fareed. When Bulleh Shah (a mystic poet and the father of Punjabi enlightenment) said: “Sab Ikko Rung Kapaahai Da,” (All cotton threads are of the same colour), he referred to the description of textile and elaborated how the threads and cotton balls may have different colours or textures but when spun, they become one, and mainly aimed to highlight the belief in God as the essence in all humans. The analogy speaks directly to religious and ethnic pluralism, at the core of which is a powerfully simple spiritual outlook.
Since South Asian culture, which Pakistan is a part of, has thrived on oral tradition wherein knowledge, art and ideas were passed on from generation to generation, the role of elderly in the form of teachers and grandparents with rich experience and wisdom becomes significant. Although the formal socialization process that our educational institutions take control of, plays a major role in inculcating national values in children and youngsters, the folktales, proverbs and customs as practiced and communicated by our elders should be equally looked upon as valuable part of socialization about culture.
Some of the best life lessons one can get are the one-liners or poetry at the back of colourful rickshaws or trucks which also reflect the simple ideologies of our common folk. Where “Sab Maya Hai” (All is illusion) and a simple word “Aajzi” (Humility) commonly seen on the rickshaws teach us about the world as a temporary place and the need to stay grounded. “Ye sab mere maa baap ki dua hai” (It is all because of my mother’s and father’s prayers) places emphasis on the support and prayers that our parents bestow upon us.
Our ‘Identity’ and the ‘Other’
Owing to the cultural differences among regions, over the years, many stereotypes have emerged. Some of these beliefs are linked to the people of specific ethnicity or religion. They may have a positive connotation but we need to be aware of the stigmatizing attitudes we have built that hinder harmony at the national level. The negative attitudes that are prevalent in our proverbs or jokes may seem trivial but they pose a threat to our national and regional unity, peace and harmony.
Academically speaking, anthropologists who study culture elaborate the concept of identity stating that culture is a defining feature of an individual’s or a group’s identity. In the olden days, we read about the need for tribes to mark their own territory and identity, which was significant for their survival. The advent of global village has now moved to a stage where there is need to acknowledge differences but also celebrate diversity; the commonalities unite us and the differences create unique strengths.
We need to put an end to the ethnocentric bias and there is need to practice cultural relativism. This acknowledges that ideas and practices of some people and groups might differ from one’s own and no idea or practice can be held superior or inferior to another.
Revisiting Our Culture
There is a need to revisit our national and regional culture and be acquainted with the art, literature, customs, ideologies and histories as they facilitate understanding of self and others. With a diverse culture and rich history, the importance of being aware about our past cannot be stressed enough.
In the contemporary world, there is this tendency to explore the western paradigm, which may not be appropriate considering we have a different socio-cultural background. We need to value our indigenous culture because possessing a strong cultural identity has been shown to protect against mental health symptoms and buffers distress prompted by discrimination.
The dynamic letters, poetry and essays written by our national poet Allama Muhammad Iqbal are recognized worldwide as messages of human dignity and struggle. Not familiarizing ourselves with the vision reflected in his writings will be our great loss; we should not only boast of our heritage on special occasions like Independence Day, birth and death anniversary of our national leaders. The importance of the national culture can be reiterated by incorporating our indigenous literature in the curriculum to introduce the young minds to their roles as a Shaheen as conceived by Iqbal and by promoting the ideas of great Sufi thinkers who lived beyond their times to advocate for religious and ethnic harmony. Furthermore, the literature festivals, museum exhibitions and poetry recitals may add to our collective renewed enthusiasm towards an awareness of our cultural heritage. With Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Sikhs playing a vital role in nation building, interfaith interaction within safe spaces needs to be a norm. Interfaith dialogue is not an attempt to convert people to another religion neither does it enforce that all religions are the same, it only strives for peaceful co-existence which does not blemish any particular culture or identity.
The rich national cultural heritage may move towards endangerment as with time, there are fewer people who can read, have an interest in and can comprehend the language and ideas of the visionary, literary legends. We must revisit our cultural values and acknowledge their importance in promotion of peace, harmony and national values.
Ek hi saf mein kharay ho gaye Mahmood-o-Ayaz,
Na koi banda raha aur na koi bandanawaz.
Mahmood the king and slave Ayaz, in line, as equals, stood arrayed,
The lord was no more lord to slave: while both to the One Master prayed.
Banda-o-sahib-o-mauhtaaj-o-ghani aik huway,
Teri sarkar mein pohanchay tau sabhi aik huway
Slave or slave’s master, rich or poor, no sense of difference then felt,
For each a brother was to each when in Your Presence, Lord, they knelt.
(Shikwa by Allama Muhammad Iqbal) HH
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