A maze of narrow lanes fanning out from the ornate Markazi Jamia Masjid leads to the 400-year-old shrine of Shah Chan Charagh, believed to be the patron saint of Rawalpindi and the cousin of Hazrat Bari Imam.
On Thursday night, the shrine complex reverberated with the beating of drums as hundreds of devotees danced in a music-fuelled frenzy to celebrate the Urs of the saint.
Strings of decorative lights hung over the complex, which houses an imambargah, the marbled grave chamber of the saint and other tombstones marking the graves of his descendants, adherents and companions, and a grand bonfire the saint is believed to have prayed in.
In Sufi Islam, the occasion of Urs or the death anniversary of a saint is a cause for celebration as it marks a union with God with wedding rituals often performed as part of the Urs to symbolise the sacred union.
At the shrine of Shah Chan Charagh, the Urs includes singing and dancing to dholak and shehnai,wedding dances such as bhangra and luddi and a gharoli ceremony — a traditional Punjabi wedding ritual in which a procession carries a decorated earthen pitcher of water for the groom to bathe. A palanquin decorated with a model of a shrine, trays of henna, sweets, garlands and a traditional groom’s turban is also carried and represents the saint’s mehndi ceremony.
The three-day Urs celebrations also included a Qawwali performance by Zain Ali and Zohaib Ali, known for their performance in Nescafe Basement and scions of Shaam Churasia Gharana Soraj Ali Khan and Chand Ali Khan.
The shrine has a long tradition of patronage of classical music and legends such as Ustad Salamat Ali Khan and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan have performed here in the past. Throughout the night various groups of musicians played a different genre of music in each section of the courtyard with the beating of the massive Nagara drum continuing in the background.
Over the centuries other cultural arts such as horse dancing and Gatka, an Indian martial art which involves fencing with wooden sticks, have also become a part of the Urs celebrations. The Gatka and sword dances are only performed by devotees of the saint known as Akharaas on the occasion of the Urs.
Women also throng the shrine in large numbers and while most gather in one side of the courtyard, there is no formal segregation. The newly ascended Gaddi Nasheen Syed Ali Mehdi Kazmi told Dawn that the shrine is the nexus of social, cultural and religious life of this area and continues the saint’s legacy of religious and social inclusion.
“While the symbols around the darbar represent Shia Islam, many devotees are Sunni while Hindus and Christians also frequent the shrine,” he said.
Historically, the shrine and the saint’s legacy promoted religious and social cohesion in the area with people of various faiths living in relative harmony.
This is visible in the architecture of surrounding buildings, which have a visible Hindu and Jain footprint while across the street from the shrine is a dharamshala and the nearby Banni area was an old Sikh stronghold.
Today, the shrine continues to bring the community together and performs welfare functions by offering food and shelter to the destitute.
Published in Dawn, August 25th, 2019