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Shia pilgrims flock to Pakistan's Sufi shrine

Up to a million Qalandriya Shia gather for an exhilarating festival against a backdrop of growing violence.

Last updated: 31 Jul 2014 14:08
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Sehwan Sharif, Pakistan - As the bus began to slow down a young Sindhi boy in a dusty pistachio shalwar kameez (a traditional dress of South and Central Asia)  jumped in through the open rear door.

Balancing a steel bowl of glistening coconut slices on his shoulder, he weaved his way between luggage, vomit, biscuit wrappers, and sleeping children strewn in the gangway, trying to attract customers parched from the journey.

Out of the window, buses impossibly laden with pots, firewood, goats, and people jostled for space in a scene that could be mistaken for a biblical exodus were it not for the rhythmical dhol drumbeat pulsating amid the chaos. We had reached Sehwan Sharif.

"If someone has fallen in love with [Lal Shahbaz] Qalandar he will come here, whatever stands in his way …[for] his heart is filled with the gentle words of Ali," said Muddho Sain, the leader of a group of Qalandriya Shia on a pilgrimage.

If someone has fallen in love with [Lal Shahbaz] Qalandar he will come here, whatever stands in his way …[for] his heart is filled with the gentle words of Ali.

Muddho Sain, Pilgrim

The trip had begun three days before in Lahore when, out of devotion to the 13th-century Sufi saint, Lal Shahbaz Qalander, the group began a journey that would take them to shrines throughout Pakistan's Punjab, Sindh, and Balochistan provinces.

"Everything is Qalandar in this world … [and] our love is directionless," said Muddho.

Central to the Qalandriya ethos is asceticism and, in turn, unconditional love, devotion and submission before God in the pursuit of ecstatic divine presence and unity, or haal.

From the whirling of Turkish dervishes to the devotional songs of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan - the late Pakistani Sufi singer - the pursuit of haal underscores Sufi practises globally.

Shia targeted

Despite the introspective focus of these rituals, however, devotees in Pakistan have increasingly been targeted by more conservative Sunni groups. In 2010, a bomb blast at Lahore's Data Darbar shrine killed 42 people and injured at least 175. Pakistan's Shia community as a whole fares even worse.

"Each year when we meet for the mattam [flagellation], someone will ask 'Hey, where's that guy?' and someone will have to explain how he was shot on his way to work or buying groceries … this is the reality we face," said Ali Reza, a Shia from Karachi.

In spite of violent threats, up to a million pilgrims gather once a year for the three-day festival (or mela) at Sehwan Sharif in Pakistan's Sindh province, the resting place of Lal Shahbaz Qalander.

One such group making the journey this year was from Lahore's Kamyar Pura district. Once the last few stragglers had clambered onto the roof, bundles of roti and biryani were passed and the bus chugged into motion.

Inside, the atmosphere was a mix of the pains of long-distance travel with the perseverant joviality accompanying any journey on the subcontinent. "What a big heat!" adults declared to each another with eyes closed and a slow shake of the head.

Each morning, the crush of passengers inside the bus doubled; those who had slept on the roof now wanted a seat out of the sun. Young men rolled tobacco mixed with hashish and elders praised qawwali (musical performance of Sufi poetry) rhyming couplets. After just over 1,000km, the bus pulled into Sehwan Sharif.

"Everyone is welcome here; there is no discrimination of caste, race, and colour, only those who love God," declared Muddho.

In the courtyard of Qalander's shrine, a mass dhamal dance was already under way, its practitioners seeking to become closer to God as they shook their heads and rowed their arms to the rhythm.

A female dancer's relative untied her headband, and the kneeling girl began to slowly rotate her head, becoming faster as the beat quickened and throwing her long, black hair through the air in a frenzy before falling to the floor, panting heavily.

You must understand … [the fair] is not about a belief. This is about an experience, about living through an emotion.

Dr Mehdi Reza Shah

Freedom of expression

Between the roar of devotees circumambulating the shrine and the ceaseless throb of the flagellation, the fair is a sensory barrage.

By the second day, 53 people had died from the heat and lack of water, yet with the sun at its zenith, rows of bruised, bare-chested men stood to flagellate themselves.

A choir yelled to rally the devotees, wildly whipping their hands through the air, and onlookers held their faces in their hands and sobbed. Intermittently, flagellants dropped their arms from exhaustion and moved a few metres closer to the shrine before lining up to do it all over again.

"What is it about the mela (fair)?" asked Dr Mehdi Reza Shah, whose family has kept the shrine for almost seven centuries, his rhetorical question striking at the heart of what Sehwan Sharif offers devotees.

From the discomfort of even reaching the town and the heat, sweat, thirst, filth, and swell of up to a million bodies to the incessant drumming, chanting, stomping, whirling, beating, and bleeding, the traditional fair is a panoply of raw violence.

Yet for the pilgrims there is the presence of something higher and in the final moments of ecstatic release it becomes clear that what is at stake in Sehwan is freedom of expression.

"You must understand … [the fair] is not about a belief," Reza said. "This is about an experience, about living through an emotion."

Whatever violent threats the pilgrims face across Pakistan, the Sehwan Sharif fair remains an island of tolerance and expression rooted in the country's multi-ethnic and multi-faith history that is rapidly disappearing from public consciousness.

David Lewis is an MA candidate in South Asia Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. The author's research trip to Pakistan was made possible through the award of Fellowship from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, a UK-based trust supporting individuals to acquire experience abroad.

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