HYDERABAD: Seventy something Mehrunnisa had spent the night in a narrow street of Sarfaraz Colony on Tuesday to earn a few rupees by selling bangles, threads and rings to devotees — mostly women.
Sitting outside a house on an elevated cemented structure, she had a weary look. “I am here since sunset on Monday as women start visiting the [Mian Sarfaraz Kalhoro Shaheed] shrine and picking different items like the ones I am selling as a mark of mannat”, says Mehrunnisa with a choked voice as emotions overwhelmed her when she recounted her economic woes confronting her in this advanced age.
For a second year in a row, she lost an opportunity to earn a decent income due to closure of the shrine. Sarfaraz Kalhoro was a descendant of the Kalhoro dynasty that ruled over Sindh before Talpurs till 1783. His father, Mian Ghulam Shah Kalhoro was founder of Hyderabad and had built Hyderabad Fort in 1768.
Sarfaraz Kalhoro shrine is a woman-specific spot for the purpose of a ritual performed this day of Safar, a lunar month. Women from different cities including Karachi arrive here to have their prayers answered.
Mehrunnisa, like many others, sells inexpensive stuff. A couple of bangles for Rs10 or so, blue or black threads for a couple of rupees. Women who throng the shrine from different parts of Sindh buy these things from her.
She was upset rather annoyed over the way government disallowed women to perform the ritual. “I otherwise sit inside the shrine easily,” she says. For her, the ritual serves as a source of annual income. Her husband has died and son does not have a source of sufficient income.
“Saving a couple of thousand enables me to buy some medicines or pay the utility bills. Since last night I’ve earned a few hundred rupees,” she says, showing a small plastic shopping bag which contained a few currency notes.
The ritual coincides with the Chehlum of Imam Hussain (RA). Young, elderly women and children filled the narrow streets in Sarfaraz Colony where women like Mehrunnisa were selling different items for the purpose ‘mannat’ — known as pallay bharaee — to women visitors of the shrine of Sarfaraz Kalhoro.
Since the shrine has been closed under government’s directives on account of Covid-19 SOPs, they gather in the nearby narrow alleys. One such passage was connected with the rear side of shrine. Police remained deployed at and around the shrine blocking the main thoroughfare leading to its gate with barbed wires.
The streets remained overcrowded with women as atmosphere remained suffocating throughout the day. The maximum temperature was recorded at 37 degree Celsius.
Auqaf department closed shrine for fear of pandemic spread yet women, throwing caution to the wind, converged outside the shrine.
The closure, however, did not deter visitors from performing the years-old ritual though in a difficult way. They filled the passages connected with the shrine. Policemen and policewomen were deployed on main road. They politely explained to them the reason for the shrine’s closure.
As arteries leading to the shrine from different sides like National Highway, Al-Raheem Shopping Centre, Tilak In-cline and Risala Road remained sealed off, women walked for longer distances to reach the outer precincts of the shrine or ended up on the rear side of shrine. Shrine is located paces away from Karbala Dadan Shah where central procession of Chehlum ends around sunset.
“Our brother Amir got a job in the Liaquat University Hospital ... that’s why we are here to honour our mannat,” says two burqa-clad sisters from Jamshoro while declining to disclose their identity for family reasons.
Women bring commodities like tomatoes and sweets besides bangles, coins, threads, etc. Each of these items have specific meanings while performing ritual.
“If I am aspiring for a child I will get a tomato. Some woman whose mannat or prayer for a child is answered will distribute such tomatoes among fellow women,” explains Parveen, who visits the shrine with a different dream — to have her own house. She admits that she was unlucky so far. “However, I have not lost hope either,” she says.
“Do you want tomato?”, one young woman asks this scribe. “I have blessed with a child and, therefore, I have to distribute tomatoes to those who are issueless,” she explains. In some cases oranges and green coloured threads are tied. “Men can collect anything from women depending the nature of their desire,” she says.
“Rozi key sikkay [coins] chaheyen,” beckons a bespectacled lady to some onlooking women moving in a street. Coins are picked by women for achievement of a professional goal but primarily to seek job. “Bangles are for those who want their sons or daughters married off,” explains Mehrunnisa.
Farzana, an old woman, was visibly elated. “I got house of my own. We used to cook and live in a one-room residence. Now I have a two-room house of my own,” she says as her young daughter accompanied her. Women or men who are poised to have their own house would eat sweets given by those whose desire for a house has been fulfilled.
The pandemic hit Sindh in Feb 2020 and led to the closure of all big or small shrines to discourage crowding. Until 2019, the pallay bharraee ritual had been a great source of economic opportunity not only for women but men as well. They would set-up stalls selling food, drinks and other things.
Published in Dawn, September 29th, 2021