Mariamabad Virgin Mary Shrine, Pakistan

Devotees offering prayers in front of Mariamabad’s grotto. 2016. Credits P. Rollier

SITE – Basic information


LocationNational Marian Shrine, Mariamabad Chak # no 3, Shekhupura District, Punjab, Pakistan

Type of religious siteCatholic church and national shrine

Religious communities attendingPunjabi Christians, Muslims, Hindus

No of communities attending: more than two

Language(s) used for ceremonies and prayers: Punjabi, Urdu

Pilgrimage location: yes
Pilgrimage season: A three-day annual pilgrimage and mela is held yearly around September 8th to celebrate the Nativity of the Virgin Mary. The shrine also attracts visitors during Lent.

Name and title of the in-charge of the site (if known):  Parish priest Rev. Bernard Emmanuel (Archdiocese of Lahore)


Overview of the site

Established by Belgian Capuchins in the late nineteenth century, the small village of Mariamabad is located in Pakistan’s Punjab province. The site under study is composed of the village itself — about 300 houses — and its large religious complex, which includes a church, a mango orchard and a grotto topped by a statue of the Virgin Mary. Since the 1950s, this Catholic village has become a centre of pilgrimage. With growing intensity since the 1990s, thousands of pilgrims walk or cycle over great distances every year to celebrate the nativity of the Virgin Mary in Mariamabad. Known as ziarat-e-maqadas Mariam, this gruelling yet playful ritual is presumably the largest Christian congregation in the country, and culminates with a three-day mela or festival held around the Marian shrine.

Most participants are working-class Punjabi Christians, who are descendants of ‘chuhra’ untouchable castes converted to Christianity during the first half of the twentieth century. Concerned that recently converted Christians could relapse into heresy, Belgian missionaries designed the shrine and its pilgrimage as a Christian alternative to local Muslim village festivals. But boundaries are porous, and the language of ritual practice deployed in this site mirrors that of Muslim dargahs and Hindu yatras. This allows for a wide participation of Protestants, Muslims and Hindus seeking the Virgin’s blessings in relation to specific vows. As a result, critics often describe this site and its ritual as being excessively Islamized, or as a superficial recasting of Hinduism bordering idolatry. Rather than signalling a syncretic encounter, this ‘shared sacred site’ needs to be analysed with reference to the specific articulation between caste and religious identity in Punjab, and to the changing trajectories of social mobility among marginalized Punjabi Christians in Pakistan.

Bibliography pertaining to the site

Harding, Christopher.  2008. Religious Transformation in South Asia : The meanings of conversion in Colonial Punjab. Oxford.

Harding, Christopher.  2008. ‘The Christian Village Experiment in Punjab: Social and Religious Re-formation.’ South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 31(3): 397-418.

O’Brien, John. 2006. The Construction of Pakistani Christian Identity. Lahore: Research Society of Pakistan.

O’Brien, John. 2011. ‘The Quest for Pakistani Christian Identity: A narrative of Religious Other as Liberative comparative Ecclesiology.’ Pp. 78-103 in Church and Religious ‘Other’, edited by G. Mannion.  London; New York : T&T Clark

O’Brien, John. 2015. ‘By the finger of god: healing and deliverance in Pakistan’. Pp. 230-259 in Witchcraft, Demons and Deliverance: a global conversation on an intercultural challenge, edited by C. Währisch-Oblau and H. Wrogemann. Zürich: LIT Verlag.

Pelckmans, Godefroid.  1900. Dix Années d’Apostolat au Pundjab. Bruges: C. Ryckbost-Monthaye.

Pickett, J. Waskom. 1933. Christian Mass Movements in India. Lucknow: Lucknow Publishing House.

Walbridge, Linda. 2003. The Christians of Pakistan: The Passion of Bishop John Joseph. London: Routledge Curzon.

Webster, John. 1978. ‘Christianity in the Punjab’. Missiology: An International Review 6(4): 467– 483.

Webster, John. 2007. A social history of Christianity: North-West India since 1800. New Delhi: Oxford University Press

A French nun imparts catechism to ‘chuhra’ children in Mariamabad in the 1920s or 1930s. Credits: Source unknown
Young Christian in front of the statue of the Virgin in Mariamabad. 2018. Credits: P. Rollier
Pilgrims from Lahore on their way to Mariamabad. 2016. Credits: P. Rollier
Pilgrims from Lahore on their second day walking from Lahore to Mariamabad. 2016. Credits: P. Rollier.
Devotees climbing up a cross to offer a chadar in honour of the Virgin. 2016. Credits: P. Rollier
A hawker selling posters during the mela in Mariamabad. 2016. Credits: Michael Kashif
Young pilgrims during the mela in Mariamabad. 2016. Credits: P. Rollier
Cycling pilgrims arrive in the village of Mariamabad. 2016. Credits: P. Rollier
Statue of the Virgin Mary in Mariamabad. 2018. Credits: P. Rollier

A resident of Mariamabad singing in church after Sunday service. 2018. Recorded by P. Rollier

Promotional video: Annual Pilgramage to Mariamabad, 2018. Credits: Shahid Ghouri