From legend to science: The crocodiles of Manghopir

Updated Feb 26 2016

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A pilgrim at the Mangho Pir shrine. —AFP
A pilgrim at the Mangho Pir shrine. —AFP

Manghopir is one of the oldest areas of Karachi. Situated in the north of this bustling, chaotic and sprawling city, it is most famous for the shrine of Sufi saint, Pir Mangho.

The unique bit about this centuries-old shrine is a vast pond and a sulphur spring. The pond is populated by dozens of crocodiles who are regularly fed by visitors to the shrine.

They believe the crocodiles are manifestations of the Sufi saint.

The shrine is mentioned in ancient texts from the area and also in the writings of 19th century British colonialists. According to some historians, the crocodiles have been here for centuries.

A group of 19th century British men and women feeding the crocodiles at the shrine.
A group of 19th century British men and women feeding the crocodiles at the shrine.

Some archaeologists have claimed to have found fossilised remains of crocodiles here that are thousands of years old and some British colonial writers also suggested that they have been here for ‘thousands of years.’

Manghopir is also the patron saint of Karachi's boisterous Makrani/Sheedi community.

They are mostly the descendants of African slaves who were brought here by Arabs, Persians, Turks and the European invaders between 10th and 17th centuries. They are mostly Balochi-speaking Muslim working-class men and women with a passion for football, boxing, donkey-racing and dancing.

Every year the Sheedi celebrate their African roots at an annual festival at the shrine.

However, the festival hasn't taken place for the last couple of years, mainly due to the rise of street gang warfare in Karachi’s Lyari area (which is mostly populated by the Sheedi); and due to the creeping presence of religious extremist groups and militant outfits holed up in Manghopir.

A concentrated operation by the Rangers and the police in the city recently has, however, managed to largely clear the area of militant groups and the festival is expected to resume from this year onward.

The saint Mangho arrived here from Iraq in the 13th century when Iraq was being attacked by the Mongols. Mangho travelled from South Punjab and across the Sindh province and settled here (in present-day Karachi).

At the time Karachi just had a sprinkling of small fishing villages and the area in which Mangho settled to meditate was desolate. It was upon a hill and surrounded by palm trees.

He soon began to attract followers from the fishing villages. When he died, the locals constructed a small shrine of him at the spot.

Since the saint decided to live alongside the crocodiles, and maybe even shared his food with them, the locals weaved a fantastic legend that the crocodiles were actually lice which were turned into crocodiles by the miraculous powers of the Sufi saint.

A drawing of a keeper of the Mangho Pir shrine feeding a crocodile in the 15th century.
A drawing of a keeper of the Mangho Pir shrine feeding a crocodile in the 15th century.

Scientists and archeologists, however, believe that the area already had a lake/pond that held hundreds of crocodiles.

They suggest that the lake was formed due to an ancient flood and that the crocodiles were washed here with that flood.

Carbon-dating methods have placed the bones to belong to the Bronze age (3300-1200 BC). Archeologists have also discovered some copper artifacts with designs suggesting that a small Bronze Age village stood here thousands of years ago where people worshipped the crocodile.

The area was surrounded by heavy vegetation when the saint is said to have settled and died here in the 13th century.

The Manhgo Pir shrine in 1901.
The Manhgo Pir shrine in 1901.

Scientists also believe that by then the crocodiles had been ‘tamed’ and become dependent on the food fed to them by the saint’s followers.

There has never been a crocodile attack reported here and the crocodiles remain to be largely docile. But keepers of the shrine always advise caution.

The crocodiles at the shrine in 1910.
The crocodiles at the shrine in 1910.

Generation after generation of crocodiles have lived, died, procreated and are born here and all of them are the direct decedents of that group of crocodile which was washed here by the flood centuries ago.

Unlike crocodiles elsewhere, the crocodiles at the shrine eat almost everything. From meat to sweetmeat!

Scientists attribute this to the kind of food they have been fed for generations by the followers.

A devotee feeding the crocodiles in 2015.
A devotee feeding the crocodiles in 2015.