Soon after descending from the Sohrab Goth flyover, one is greeted by a sea of tents stretching far into the skyline.
Behind the tents looms a brightly lit Ferris Wheel along with a few other ominous rides. It is easy to presume that a massive carnival is in full swing, until one drives ahead and the towering billboards advertise cattle and goats.
We are at the largest cattle market in Asia, which at the moment presents a spectacle not unlike one from a festival.
Sprawled over a vast expanse of land on the outskirts of Karachi, the cattle market - better known locally as mandi- is the place to be these days for Karachiites of all ages.
As first time visitors to the mandi, the enormity of the market is a little too overwhelming for us. The dusty walk to the tents has obstructions in the form of ditches and dugouts. Having crossed those, the labyrinth of tents makes it difficult to start the journey; where to begin?
Only a few minutes into the survey, it becomes evident that we are indeed inside the ‘elite’ tents that accommodate some of the most expensive animals in the market.
These tents are never vacant, a constant flow of visitors swamp the area, eager to catch a glimpse of the most sought-after cattle, both rich in breed and muscle.
Rarely would you find potential buyers here, perhaps due to the astronomical rates demanded for the animals that are twice the size of a normal human, if not bigger.
The animals — in a variety of colours and shades — seem almost amused as the onlookers, children and adults alike pose, pat and attempt to take selfies with them.
There are a sizable number of families visiting the market, much to our surprise; mothers watch cautiously as toddlers pet cows and burst into laughter having accomplished this feat.
Channeling Afridi's 'brilliance'
An Atif Aslam song from the latest Coke Studio season resounds in the background, umpteen bulbs dazzle from the canopy, and a number of uniformed staff carrying walkie-talkies hasten from one corner to another.
The setting could well be mistaken for a concert. It is, however, just another ‘elite’ tent at the mandi.
This particular one seems to stand out both due to its grand décor and a grander collection of cattle.
A green and white marquee in which fairy lights adorn every inch of the ceiling, a large board reads ‘Afridi Cattle’.
There is not a single animal that seems to adhere to a ‘normal’ size; these are the Cholistan and Sahiwal breed cattle, lounging calmly as spectators push to get a better view of the animals.
All of a sudden, a loud cry emerges from the far end of the tent, people scramble away for dear life just in time as loud hoops and jingling ornaments signal an incoming bull.
The fear transforms to exhilaration as the crowd awaits for more. But the heavyweight bull is taken to a man with slick back hair and a navy crisp kurta exuding a sense of power and ownership. It is easy to discern that he is the central managing force of the team.
“We feed our cattle chickpeas, wheat, milk and dairy products,” says Irfan, the owner of Afridi Cattle.
“I started off with just two goats and slowly built it up to this,” he spreads his hand wide gesturing to the open marquee.
“It took 10 years but I did it.”
“Afridi means brilliance and this is what we want to achieve too,” he says and then talks briefly about seeking inspiration from the former-captain of the cricket team, Shahid Afridi.
“He hit sixes on the field and we want to do the same in the cattle market.”
‘Raised them like my own’
In one relatively secluded corner of the 'United Cattle Farm', one animal caretaker caresses a pair of two burly bulls which are a shiny black and white.
We cannot overlook the pride in Mohammad Amir’s eyes as he stands next to the animals, and inquire about his attachment with them.
We take a moment to joke about how its the Afridi vs Amir battle before the cattle owner cuts in.
“We raise them like our own…just like our children,” he tells us, adding that the unusually large physique of the bulls should be attributed to the rich diet they are fed, which includes besides other things milk, yogurt, oil and nuts.
Amir, 24, who has been in the cattle-farming business for the past ten years, continues in a wistful tone: “It is difficult to let them go after the emotional bond that develops, but what can you do?”
Upon our question about the price tag on the large-size bulls, Amir takes no time in answering, “The right one is worth Rs580,000 and the left one Rs450,000.”
The crowd is mounting and Amir and his colleagues stand alert, guarding the animals from any untoward visitors.
Despite this, the traders see the influx of visitors as a good omen.
Amir shares that this Eidul Azha in particular, after the Rangers-led Karachi operation against criminals gained momentum, things have changed for the better.
As compared to previous years, the cattle-farm owners expect greater number of visitors and more serious buyers, Amir says.
The humble Afghan
In a striking contrast to the festivities on the outskirts of the mandi, the inside market paints a gloomy picture. The area is dimly-lit and dingy after sunset, animals stand closely packed together and the crowd is thin — this is where the majority of buyers are found.
Gul-e-Bagh is a cattle trader from Afghan basti, who waits with his animals for potential buyers, but he has managed to sell only a handful so far.
“This is our main source of livelihood for the entire year. We can't afford to feed our cattle anything luxurious, they eat what we eat which is a humble meal of roti,” says Gul who is 30 and has a family of six to support.
“My animals range from Rs70,000 and they go upto Rs220,000 but market is slow and I'd be lucky if all are sold in time.”
#Girls at the mandi
Dubbed as a “men’s occasion”, it’s indeed exciting to see a sizable presence of women at the market. A 70-year-old woman clasps her five-year-old granddaughter’s tiny fingers as the child gapes at the gleaming horns of a bull. There is no shying away from the animal and no one seems to mind getting their feet dirty in the mixture of cow dung and dirt.
“We come here with the entire family to select our sacrificial animal, and we have been doing this for years,” says Rukhsana, 70, hailing from Orangi. Six other women sit on a charpoy with her, relaxing and waiting for some snacks as the sun sets.
“It has been six hours and we are yet to find an animal that can be bought in our budget.”
A younger trio of girls catches our attention as they appear deep in discussion about buying a cow. The eldest one, Safya, who is a ninth grader proudly talks about her visit: “We have coming to the mandi ever since we were kids, two of my sisters here are in fifth grade and kindergarten respectively and they’re here because they too share this interest.”
“Our mother does not come because she’s not too fond of the mandi because of the dirt and stink but we don’t mind. We make it a point to survey the entire place and compare rates. For instance, we really like this white bull but I don’t think we can afford it. We’ll look elsewhere now.”
To pat or not to pat, that is the question
Six-year-old Huzaifa tries to break free from his uncle’s strong grip as they move forward towards a black bull.
“Go ahead, pat the cow, it won’t do anything,” says the uncle encouragingly and signals to his 11-year-old brother Haris who confidently poses with his arm around the gigantic animal.
“He’s scared because he’s young, he does the same at home,” Haris being the elder brother defends Huzaifa who scurries away in the safety of his father’s arms.
“I came to see how the animals have been this year, we won’t be buying obviously because we already have our own animals at home,” says the talkative Haris who adjusts his round spectacles to get a better view of a calf standing close by.
The father, Mohammad Ali who was incessant to take a good picture of both brothers finally gives up and talks about their visit.
“We raise our own animal; preferably a calf and I make it a point to frequent the farm where it’s being raised. Children do accompany but that’s seldom. My brother and I make sure that it’s well-fed and catered to.”
Ali believes that raising an animal creates a bondage which is the real essence of sacrifice.
“When you raise them right from the beginning you do form an emotional attachment with them and I won’t say that it doesn’t hurt to sacrifice them because it does. But we have to and I believe this is what sacrifice is all about, giving up something close to your heart and soul.”