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On the road to Qalander: as more than a million Shia Muslims gather, David Lewis joins the chaotic, dramatic and, at times, brutal Sufi pilgrimage to discover why the tradition continues against mounting persecution in predominantly Sunni Pakistan.

As the bus began to slow down, a young Sindhi boy wearing a dusty pistachio shatwar kameez jumped in through the open rear door. Balancing a steel bowl of glistening coconut slices on his shoulder, he weaved his way in between luggage, vomit, biscuit wrappers and sleeping children strewn throughout the gangway, trying to attract customers certainly parched from the journey. Out the window, buses impossibly laden with pots, firewood, goats and people jostled for space in a scene that could almost be mistaken for a biblical exodus if it wasn't for the rhythmical dhol beat pulsating against all this chaos. We had reached Sehwan Sharif.

The journey had begun just after midnight, three days before in Lahore, Pakistan. Out of devotion to the 13th century Sufi Saint, Lai Shahbaz Qalander (or The Red Falcon), a group of Qalandriya Shias began a pilgrimage that would take them to shrines throughout Pakistan's Punjab, Sindh and Baluchistan provinces. Qalandriya Sufis are found across the subcontinent, but in Pakistan they make up a minority sect within an already minority Shia community. Central to the Qalandriya ethos is the principle of 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 sama (dances) of Turkish dervishes to the world-famous devotional songs (or qawwali) of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the pursuit of haal underscores Sufi practices across the globe. Despite the introspective focus of these singing and dancing rituals, however, Sufi shrines and devotees in Pakistan have increasingly been targeted by more conservative elements of the country's Sunni majority community. In 2010, a bomb blast at Lahore's Data Darbar shrine left 42 dead and at least 175 injured. Moreover, the community's activities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province have been forced underground.

Pakistan's Shia community as a whole fares even worse, particularly in the province of Baluchistan where rapidly escalating violence has left dead hundreds of Hazara Shias since 2008.

'We live in fear,' a friend in Karachi explained. 'Each year when we meet for the annual mattan (flagellation) during Muharram (the Shia period of mourning) 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 in the bazaar. This is the reality we face.'


In spite of these pressures and violent threats, the practices of sama, qawwali, mattan continue and up to a million pilgrims converge annually for an event in a small town in Sindh province: the Sehwan Sharif festival (or mela). The mela occurs over three days in Sehwan Sharif, just four hours' drive north of Karachi and is a death anniversary (or urs) for the Sufi saint, Lai Shahbaz Qalander.

Attracting pilgrims from all over Pakistan each year to Qalander's final resting place, the town of 30,000 inhabitants groans each year with the swell of humanity that makes the journey to pay their respects to the saint and seek blessings from his shrine. But it is among this very mass of humanity that mela's seemingly paradoxical existence in contemporary Pakistan becomes self-evident.

One such group making the journey this year was a community of devotees from Lahore's Kamyar Pura district. Mudho Sain, community leader of the devotees, hurried about frantically with pen and paper in hand, trying to ensure everyone was accounted for. The last few stragglers clambered onto the roof of the bus and haphazardly-tied bundles of roti and biryani were passed up through the windows.

Once each passenger had drunk a glass of rosewater, the bus chugged into motion. Amid the hooting and waving, a young man pinched his right ear between his thumb and forefinger, closed his eyes and projected a drawn-out call into the air; 'Naar-e Haider!' ('What is the slogan of the lion?'). Fellow pilgrims tilted their heads back in anticipation before forcefully nodding with a communal cry; 'Ya, AIK


From Lahore, the tasselled red flag on the bus' roof rippled as we moved southwards towards Sehwan. Along the way, the pilgrims paid their respects at a number of shrines in Multan, Dera Ghazi Khan and Baba Karim Shah. At each stop, the dhol players would strike up a fervent beat on their huge wooden-barrelled drums, forming a column of devotees behind them. Leading the procession was spiritual leader, Murshid Mudassar Shah, solemnly walking barefooted towards the shrine. His thick metal ankle-rings clinked with each step. Once in the shrine, devotees circumambulated the inner sanctum, stopping occasionally to place a forehead on the rose-petal bedecked veil covering the tomb and whisper a few words of prayer before returning to the bus.

Back inside the bus, the atmosphere was a quintessential mix of the pains of long-distance land travel with the persevering joviality that accompanies any journey on the subcontinent.

At times it seemed we were engaging in nothing more than a fruitless battle against sun, driving into the furnace of Sindh's desert landscapes. 'Bari garmi hail' ('What a big heat!'), adults declared to each another with eyes closed and a slow shake of the head. Children pestered parents over whether there was a metal cupful of thanda pani (cool water) left. Fellow passengers woke each other up if the sun had moved onto their face, men wiped an index finger across their forehead before casting the sweat into the gangway and women waved scraps of cardboard in front of their children to cool them down. Each morning, it was a matter of holding one's breath a little bit more as the number of passengers inside the bus doubled; those who had slept on the roof now deciding they wanted a seat out of the sun.


Despite the difficulties, the bus retained an unmistakable atmosphere of excitement and anticipation for the mela ahead. Young men were commissioned with a yell by their seniors to roll 'dablsigrets' (tobacco mixed with hashish) and crack open watermelons. Elders pressed their palms together before their chest, exclaiming 'Shaabaash, shaabaashY ('Bravo, bravo!') in response to the rhyming couplets of qawwali songs ringing through the bus.

After just over 1,000km--when even the bus driver's only CD refused to 'Repeat All' anymore --we pulled into Sehwan Sharif, resting place of Lai Shahbaz Qalander and for the next three days, a hub of devotion for almost a million pilgrims attending the Sehwan Sharif mela.

In the courtyard of Qalander's shrine, the main destination of pilgrim parties, a mass dhamal was already underway to signal the beginning of the mela. Traditionally a north Indian folk dance, the dhamal is a critical element of Qalandriya sama practice in Pakistan, through which practitioners aim to get closer to God and experience ecstatic divine presence. Men, women, third-genders and children all shake their heads, throwing their arms to the dhol's rhythm.

A female dancer's elder stepped forward towards the climax and untied the dancer's headband. With this invitation the kneeling young girl, hands on the warm marble, began to slowly rotate her head. Each turn became faster and more emphatic as the beat quickened. Soon her long, black hair was being thrown through the air in a frenzy, casting beads of sweat into the performance circle. And then a final thud. Falling to one side, the dancer lay collapsed on the floor, panting heavily, the hair strewn over her face hiding empty, half-open eyes.

The motivation of the dancers, of course, varied from pilgrim to pilgrim. Some saw Qur'anic symbolism in the movements; the pitter-pattering of feet mimicking the heat of the desert in which Flussein was killed at Karbala in 680 AD, or hair-spinning as an appreciative gesture of Fatima to clean the floor on which those commemorators of her son's death congregate.

To be sure, some dancers simply fancied a dance, others earned a living from the performance and among them many imitators could be found at Sehwan Sharif. But a true dhamal, delivering that still moment of enrapture amid the tumult motion and sound, is for a few the very essence of haal.


The rhythm of the mela was relentless. All day long, pilgrim parties departed from their makeshift bamboo and tarpaulin camps in Lai Bagh. Parading through bazaars lined with trickling pyramids of Afghan raisins and mulberries, they deliver their neighbourhood's veil, containing blessings and prayers, to Qalander's tomb.

Devotees flocked to the inner shrine, pushing their luck to get so close as to touch it without being hauled back into the swell of people charging forward barefoot on the muddied marble. Along the perimeter of the shrine, pilgrims did their best to escape this torrent of humanity and raise their cupped palms to offer a prayer.

By the second day of the mela, already 53 people had died from the heat and lack of water. Yet with the sun at its zenith, rows upon rows of barechested men stood to flagellate themselves for Hussein's martyrdom in the shrine's courtyard. A tightly formed choir circle of singers stood either side of the men. Beginning with little more than a whisper, the choirs called out to the flagellants alternately. Soon they were yelling from their stomachs, throwing hands down to emphasise certain lyrics, then whipping them through the air to rally their fellow devotees.

The flagellants leaned back and, looking to the sky, raised one arm before beating it down onto their bruised chests and raising the other. Some devotees held their faces in their hands, sobbing in commemoration of Karbala. The flagellant leader screamed in between the beats. After a few minutes, the men dropped both arms in exhaustion and moved a few metres closer to the shrine before stopping and lining up to do it all over again. And the same groups of men would return the following day, but this time with knife-blades chained to a wooden handle.


'What is it about the mela?', asked Dr Mehdi Reza Shah, whose family has kept the shrine for almost seven centuries. His question followed a long conversation as to whether pilgrims nowadays came out of cultural obligation or piety. Rhetorical as it was, it struck at the heart of what Sehwan Sharif offered to those who made the journey to be here. From the discomforts of even reaching the town, the heat, the sweat, the thirst, the filth and crush of up to a million bodies, to the incessant drumming, chanting, yelling, stomping, whirling, exhaustion, beating and bleeding, the mela is a panoply of raw violence.

On paper, the costs and benefits of pilgrimage don't quite add up, yet in the midst of the violence there was a peculiar presence of something more that made it all worth it. Something in the panting of the collapsed dancer, something in the vacant face of the flagellant that was calm and fulfilled.

Whether you call it haal or not, it is in those final moments of ecstatic release that it becomes clear that what is at stake in Sehwan is not a chaotic violence but a freedom of expression. After the mela, a Shia friend contextualised the events: 'You must understand that what you saw at Sehwan, this is not about a belief. This is about an experience, about living through an emotion.'

Whatever violent threats the pilgrims face in their everyday lives across Pakistan, the Sehwan Sharif mela remains for the time being an island of tolerance and expression rooted in the country's multi-ethnic and multi-faith history that is rapidly disappearing from public consciousness.
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Title Annotation:RELIGION: Sehwan Sharif
Comment:On the road to Qalander: as more than a million Shia Muslims gather, David Lewis joins the chaotic, dramatic and, at times, brutal Sufi pilgrimage to discover why the tradition continues against mounting persecution in predominantly Sunni Pakistan.(RELIGION: Sehwan Sharif)
Author:Lewis, David
Geographic Code:9PAKI
Date:Jun 1, 2015
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