Lahore: The roads leading to the Bibi Pak Daman Shrine are generally crowded, snarling the traffic on a regular basis. Located in the heart of the city, just off the main Empress road, the shrine has existed for centuries, even though there is disagreement on the exact date of construction.

Once off the main road, the afternoon sun quickly recedes behind the three-story houses that overlook the narrow street leading up to the shrine.

The route to Bibi Pak Daman becomes just a little more congested with each passing step beyond this point, as shops on the side, parked cars, pedestrians and traffic are all crammed together on this tiny road.

Imran, 30, has been selling flowers in this area for three years and enjoys being in the middle of all the hustle and bustle. “This place is packed every day, but the crowds become much thicker on Thursday and Sunday. I like it, members of my family run other shops here as well; we have been working here for over ten years,” he explained.

With the government looking to renovate the shrine and the surrounding areas, there is hope that the work carried out will lead to an easier visit for followers and also allow for greater religious tourism.

A household name synonymous with the field of architecture, Nayyar Ali Dada has offered up his services on an honorary basis for this project. “Bibi Pak Daman has been in a state of neglect for a very long time. It is a very popular mazar which is visited by people from outside of Pakistan as well. There are all sorts of disputes (associated with this site), from sectarian and qabza groups etc. Those have been pending in the courts. Now the courts have sorted out the disputes and ordered the Punjab government to start work on the mazar itself.”

He explained further, “Now, the idea is – the mazar is currently in shambles – to make it respectable, where the mazahireen will have facilities. They will have shade and toilets and also the form of the mazar, the venue, will be worth visiting as well.”

“Although this shrine is significant for the Shia community, they are not the only ones who visit here. Sunnis and Hindus also come by; all sorts of people come and visit,” says an official from the Auqaf Department.

“All the work, including setting aside the budget, submitting the PC-1 and other technical work in renovating the shrine itself has been completed. Bear in mind that these changes will only be brought about in the 2 kanals of the land belonging to the shrine. We are just waiting for the go-ahead to move our offices out of this building, then these rooms will also be added to make the hall for the shrine wider. Any improvements to the shopping areas outside are another story entirely,” he stated.

He went on to add, “The government wants to work on an additional 14 kanals of land surrounding Bibi Pak Daman on all sides.

This land is owned by members of the Sunni community, and discussions are ongoing with them to allow for expansion and renovation work around the shrine. There is a court case underway as well. Let’s see how long that takes.” The Auqaf Department hopes that this work will yield productive results. “Yes, I believe that the hope is that tourism in this area will increase. The area is always full, so any extra space or better facilities is only likely to improve the turnout here.”

Work has not yet begun, but by all accounts, only the last steps of bureaucratic red tape still stand in the way of renovation for the shrine. As far as the rest of the work is concerned, the provincial government, the Auqaf Department, the courts and members of various in-fighting sectarian groups in the area will probably continue to tussle over the immediate future of this place.

Sana, a visitor of the shrine, tells us that she has been coming here since 2013. “I come here because the lady that is buried here was very holy. Any dua I have made here has come true. Just being here lifts all the weight off my shoulders.”

The lore or history behind the shrine states that it houses the graves of six ladies from Prophet Muhammad’s household. “They say that this (shrine) is so old that Data Ganj Baksh himself used to come to pay homage here,” explains one of the caretakers of the shrine.

There are a few general stores or shops with brightly coloured plastic toys of all shapes and sizes, but most of the vendors on this street and the next one – that leads up to the shrine – are selling something that will appeal to the faithful.

Flower sellers are looking to sell the mountains of rose petals that have perfumed the streets and there are vendors with vivid, multi-colored jewelry, with each bright stone purported to have a property associated with physical or mental wellness. Apart from this, there are shops that sell cloths with religious verses on them, to drape over the graves in the mausoleum and religious books.

To get to the actual shrine, one has to work their way through a security entrance, down another small alley with a canopy of small green flags and golden streamers, with vividly coloured shops on each side. It is difficult to see the sky in this lane, with the adornments almost forming a ceiling on their own.

There are old worshippers sitting on the ground next to the shops, and ardent devotees believe that giving them some money will only help in getting their prayers answered. “I always keep small change with me when I visit here, to give to those that sit outside and within Bibi Pak Daman,” states a female visitor.

“It can’t hurt if you want your prayers answered,” she adds.

On the left from the entrance, there are two passages that lead to the main mausoleum, which has a roof at some points, with the centre and the tombs open to the sky.

At the far end of this chamber, two trees that have existed before this place was constructed, look like they have grown out of the concrete and marble of the shrine, adding to the mysticism associated with this place.

One is thick with the smaller branches the size of a grown man’s forearm, while the bigger ones are practically tree trunks in their own right. The other has delicate thin twigs that stretch all the way up to the partially open sky; making it look like a tall tree that somehow did not grow past infancy – a paradox in its own right.

“It is said that these two trees were the camels of the Bibi – one male and one female – and they grew in the spot where the mounts died. Many people believe that eating the leaves of the trees will grant you boons of some sort or the other”, explains a representative of Auqaf at the site. Visitors at the shrine can be seen taking some leaves off the trees or just touching it with wonder in their eyes. This chamber is designed in a way where the mausoleum and the graves are in the centre, with two halves of the room on each side, that are ideally meant to separate genders and allow for the women to visit without being disturbed on the busier days. However, with no fence to separate the two sections, there is virtually no distinction between the areas set aside for both men and women. When asked if the shrine needed any improvements Sana, the visitor, replied, “If they could somehow make this place bigger, that would make it easier to be here for long.”