Popular Sufism in South Asia

19 04 2009

shrine

From the December 18th, 2008 issue of The Economist, on popular Islam in Pakistan and India:

Pakistan’s southernmost state of Sindh, a vast desert bisected by the Indus river, is perhaps best known for its shrines. A few miles outside the city of Hyderabad, in sight of the Indus, a middle-aged dwarf called Subhan manages one of them. She found the shrine deserted a few years ago, and moved into it. It is a small shack, with a low doorway hung with cowbells, in the tradition of a Hindu temple. A dusty green shroud covers the grave. Incense burns at its foot. Subhan says it holds the dust of a medieval saint called Haji Pir Marad. Sometimes, she says, he wrestles with the Indus to prevent it from changing course. In fits of terrible rage, he has caused pileups on the road. She advises passing motorists to propitiate the saint with a modest gift of rupees. On a good day, she collects around 50 rupees (60 cents) from the travellers who stop to pray.

All the traffic, on that recent sunny day, was bound for the nearby town of Sehwan Sharif, where Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, one of Pakistan’s most prominent Sufi saints, is entombed. It was the 734th anniversary of his death, an event marked by an annual festival attended by several hundred thousand devotees. This event is known as Qalandar’s urs, or wedding-night, to signify his union with God. A three-day orgy of music, dancing and intoxication, literally and spiritually, the urs at Sehwan is one of the best parties in Pakistan, or anywhere.

Outside Qalandar’s shrine, a white marble monument, decorated with flashing neon, pilgrims work themselves into an all-night ecstasy. Tossing their long black hair, a dozen prostitutes from Karachi or Lahore have a place reserved by the shrine’s golden doorway, to dance a furious jig. It is the dhammal, a rhythmic skipping from foot to foot, for which Qalandar’s followers are well-known. Thousands are moshing to a heavy drumbeat. The air is hot and wet with their sweat. A scent of rose petals and hashish sweetens it. In a flash of gold, out in the crush, a troupe of bandsmen in braided Sergeant Pepper uniforms are blowing inaudibly into brass instruments, then lifting trumpets and trombones into the air as they dance the dhammal.

Fighting through the crowd, a stream of peasant pilgrims flows into the shrine. Many carry glittering shrouds, lovingly embroidered by a wife or mother, as an offering for the tomb. They will be bestowed with a poor man’s prayer, for a good harvest, debt relief, or a son. “Last year I told my master [Qalandar] that I would bring him a goat if he gave me a son. I have come to honour that promise,” said Muhammad Riaz Rahman, a shopkeeper from Multan, tugging a calm-looking billy, daubed with pink dye, through the crowd.

Read all of it here. Special thanks to a reader of this blog who provided the link.


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