When you walk into Cha Syed Munawar Shah graveyard in Dera Ismail Khan you are met with an unusual sight: a Peepal tree and an olive tree.
The Peepal tree was planted here as the Hindus believe that the goddess Lakshmi comes to dwell in it each week. The olive tree came because it is held dear by believers of Christianity as it is mentioned many times in the scriptures.
This graveyard is not just a symbol of inter-faith harmony, it bears testament to the practicality of a people who have empathy for a basic human need: to dispose of your dead in a dignified way.
It all began in the 1960s when Hindus of Dera Ismail Khan started to encounter problems. There was no shamshaan ghat and the cost of sending the bodies to Sindh was too high to bear and a logistical nightmare. They approached the community elders and consensus developed that a solution had to be found. The Onsiya family, who has owned the graveyard for nearly 1,000 years, decided to open it to people of all faiths.
“It is difficult that there is no cremation ground because it is our religious duty to cremate, but now we complete all our religious rites and bury the dead instead of burning the body,” says Kishor Kumar, a former minorities MPA from the JUI-F. “The land is now like our ancestral land,” he adds.
When the Christians of DI Khan experienced the same shortage of burial space in the cantonment they turned to the Onsiya family. The Onsiya’s are a family with an acute sense of the importance of tolerance as it lost 30 of its members in a terrorist attack in 2009. All of them are buried here. The community agreed again that Christians should be allowed to bury their loved ones here.
Abul Muazam Turabi is a social activist who has seen DI Khan before, during and after the conflict ended. He feels that the graveyard is a symbol of harmony and unity. “People in the vicinity did feel the pressure from the militants from 2007 to 2012,” he says. For a while, they stopped burying their dead here. But after the conflict abated in the district, people went back to their tradition. Turabi adds that even when the law and order conditions in the district were at an all-time low, people were reluctant to abandon sympathy for those they lived with. Indeed, Dera Ismail Khan is regarded by many as the most culturally diverse city of southern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
And so, in this graveyard, while the names on the tombstones sound different, the roses that are strewn on them all bear the same fragrance.