Footprints: Qalandar’s pull

Published March 11, 2023
ZOR Ali, a devotee of Qalandar Lal Shahbaz, blows an olifant to mark his hazri (attendance) in front of the revered saint’s grave in Sehwan. The shrine is reverberating with the chants of ‘bolo bolo mera sohna Lal Qalandar, mast’ as the three-day urs celebrations officially begin on Saturday (today).—Umair Ali
ZOR Ali, a devotee of Qalandar Lal Shahbaz, blows an olifant to mark his hazri (attendance) in front of the revered saint’s grave in Sehwan. The shrine is reverberating with the chants of ‘bolo bolo mera sohna Lal Qalandar, mast’ as the three-day urs celebrations officially begin on Saturday (today).—Umair Ali

The golden wheat crop, being harvested and threshed on a sunny day, lines the route to Sehwan, giving a dazzling look as the dargah of Qalandar Lal Shahbaz becomes visible from the Indus Highway.

Sehwan — where considerable parts of the town were battered by devastating floods last September — is filled with devotees, including children, elders and women from all parts of the country who have come to show their love and respect for the saint.

The three-day urs celebrations begin officially on Saturday but in the spiritual sense, the event commences on Friday evening after Maghrib prayers, as the 18th of Shabaan, which marks the first day of the urs, begins at sunset. In Sufi parlance, urs of a spiritual personality is an event that marks the departure of a saint from this world for the hereafter.

As dusk falls, dhamal — a devotional dance performed by men and women to a drumbeat — leaves devotees mesmerised in the Qalandar’s shrine. Hindus and Muslims alike adore the Qalandar, some with watery eyes, some with smiles. Qalandar is also referred to as Jhule Lal, a Hindu water deity.

Deafening screams of “bolo bolo mera sohna Lal Qalandar, mast” echo inside and outside the shrine as devotees keep thronging Sehwan. Several devotees are seen kissing the white floor and wooden frame (zari) around the grave.

The mausoleum, or dargah, of the 12th-century saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar — born in present-day Afghanistan — is one of the most exalted shrines in Pakistan, if not South Asia. Devotees at the Qalandar’s shrine produce sounds from horns and seashell-like objects to mark their hazri (presence). Bare-footed, some beat their chests in memory of Hazrat Imam Hussain while entering the shrine.

Faith and devotion

Disciples make wishes as they believe their prayers will be answered here. “Qalandar saada wakeel hey tay Allah saada judge hey”, quips 35-year-old Shahid Ali, a stage artist from Sahiwal, Punjab, with watery eyes. His firm belief is “we commit so many mistakes in life and try to seek his intervention before God to have mercy on us”.

Sehwan is a small town around 150km northwest of Hyderabad on the right bank of the Indus river. It is an old settlement and features the ruins of a big fort said to have been founded by Alexander the Great. The fort is now going through a conservation process by the provincial government-supported Endowment Fund Trust (EFT).

As per tradition, intending visitors/devotees to the Qalandar’s dargah have to first pay their respects at the shrine of Sakhi Bodla Bahar, located in one of the many narrow streets of Sehwan after passing through the main bazaars. Bodla Bahar was Qalandar’s beloved and trusted servant. A legend attributed to Bodla is that the then-ruler of Sehwan executed him after fearing that Qalandar’s popularity had undermined his rule. After Qalandar’s call, Bodla’s body was resurrected, goes the legend.

All narrow lanes of Sehwan will be packed to capacity over the next four days, also leading to brisk economic activity as shopkeepers anticipate better returns in these three days alone when compared with their annual earnings. Visitors could be found everywhere — from the bazaar to the streets where they enjoy music and langar (food) hosted by many philanthropists and followers of Qalandar.

Chaudhry Zulfikar Ahmed, the chairman of the Pakistan Film Producers Association, is one of them. “I have been visiting [since] 1993 and thanks to Qalandar’s blessings the food activity is growing. I take it as a duty”, Ahmed says.

Adil Ali, a resident of Burewala, Punjab, notes that “people from different backgrounds gather here and get what they intend to. They have their own way of addressing Qalandar”.

Painful memories

The courtyard meant for dhamal had turned red due to bloodstains in February 2017 when a suicide bomber blew himself up near the zari. Full-scale urs is being witnessed once again after proceedings were suspended in 2020 and 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

After heavy rains and devastating flooding last year, the number of visitors had significantly dropped as road links on the Indus and National highways remained disconnected, as were rail links.

Visitors bring garlands and a green chador (cloak) as a mark of respect. “It is 100sq yds in length. We bring it every year from Karachi”, said Noman from the megacity’s Korangi area as other devotees try to hold the chador with reverence.

Those who consider themselves as “true” disciples of the Qalandar are mostly dressed either in black or red frocks to swirl ecstatically. A young woman, Sadia, from Karachi, is one of them. She remained in a trance right in front of Qalandar’s zari and fell on the floor. “She is under no magic spell but she visits the shrine every urs”, her brother Kashif says.

Published in Dawn, March 11th, 2023

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