SEHWAN SHARIF: Herds of goats and sheep lazily graze on a tract of just-harvested agricultural land at the foothill of Bhago Thoro mountain range that runs parallel to Indus Highway.
Today, the animals and their handler are not disturbed by the usual sounds of unceasing traffic on the highway, which is eerily deserted even on the first day of Qalandar Lal Shahbaz urs.
For the first time in recent memory the urs, arguably one of the biggest gatherings in the country, have been cancelled over growing fears of spread of Covid-19 in the country.
Qalandar’s abode is empty as all entry and exit points leading to the shrine have been completely sealed since March 14 when the Sindh government decided to impose province-wide lockdown to avert spread of the contagion.
“Nobody comes hither anymore, hence no more hope for alms,” says a beggar clad in untidy and soiled clothes. Two men take off their shoes on roadside near outer gate of the shrine, in a gesture of reverence and raise their hands to invoke Allah’s blessings before heading for the town.
There are no charged devotees to intersperse the air with their ecstatic shouts bolo bolo mera…sohna Lal Qalandar mast. The silence is disturbed only by cooing and fluttering of pigeons inside the dome and a melodious voice of a woman crooning daman lagiaan maula main to teri aan.
“Since the shrine remains closed this malang woman hums it outside the shrine to pay her respects,” explains an Auqaf employee, Qasim, looking towards deserted passages that used to witness great hustle and bustle during urs celebrations.
Looking visibly disturbed Wazir Ali, another Auqaf worker, pours his heart out and says: “While we come here daily to do our chores my heart goes out to those who used to come here during urs days after spending huge sums of money. This year they are unable to pay homage to shahenshah Qalandar. Believe me it often makes me to cry.”
Fears over spread of Covid-19 have disturbed socio-economic fabric across the country and Sehwan is no exception where two confirmed cases of virus infection have so far been reported.
The shrine of Sakhi Bodla Bahar, the most devoted disciple of Qalandar, is also closed. Most devotees pay their respects to this tomb before heading to the Qalandar shrine.
“It is lying closed for quite long time,” said elderly Majid Khokhar from Sialkot who sat along with an equally old lady outside the tomb. Both are not worried about food which reaches them somehow through some philanthropists.
Business losses are undoubtedly colossal, for urs being an annual feature generates millions in Sehwan in just a few days. Men, women and children — mostly from Punjab — arrive here several days before urs to spend plenty of money in alms and langar during their stay, boosting local economy.
Besides hotels, locals rent out their properties to visitors to make additional income. “Locals have lost this income,” adds Mohammad Qasim Channa.
“I have suffered too much in monetary terms which I had not experienced even after devastating suicide bombing at the shrine in Feb 2017,” says Ghulam Mustafa, a shop owner.
But 86-year-old Nabi Bux Baloch, a retired Auqaf employee and a survivor of the 2017 suicide bombing, says he never thought he would witness such conditions in his life during the time of urs.
He believes Qalandar has protected the town against the virus outbreak but regrets that the pandemic has deprived Sehwan of its festivity.
“Today, it has become more important to protect people than to celebrate urs,” says Wali Mohammad Shah, who comes from a family connected with the shrine for a long time.
Published in Dawn, April 13th, 2020