Magazine article Geographical

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

Magazine article Geographical

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

Article excerpt

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.'

GROWING NUMBERS

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?'). …

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