Footprints: The myth and meteorology of Baba Ji’s shrine

Published June 15, 2023
Even though the shrine will remain closed on Thursday and Friday, devotees are steadfast in their faith that Baba Ji will save them from the worst of the cyclone’s fury.—AFP/file
Even though the shrine will remain closed on Thursday and Friday, devotees are steadfast in their faith that Baba Ji will save them from the worst of the cyclone’s fury.—AFP/file

A CYCLONE is heading towards the Sindh coast, and outside the revamped beige walls of the shrine to Karachi’s patron saint, the crowds are swelling.

Baba Ji guards against all storms … he will come through for us again, don’t you worry. Just believe,” I overhear a devotee telling another as they are purchasing flowers to adorn the grave of Abdullah Shah Ghazi.

They are hardly the only ones. Devotees are arriving wholesale at this busy Clifton intersection, amid the din of two-stroke engines and blaring bus horns. Even though the Met Office predicted cloud cover and showers, it is a sunny day in the city by the sea, with just fleeting grey forms passing overhead from time to time.

“The sea used to challenge Baba … it once rose up to the level of his grave. But he pushed the water back,” relates Shah Nawaz, 50, who is charged with keeping the shrine clean.

He regales me with stories about miracles of the sufi saint, giving an insight into the beliefs held not just by diehard devotees, but a large chunk of the population of Sindh — especially Karachi. In fact, many city-dwellers have the staunch belief that if it hadn’t been for Baba Ji, Karachi would have drowned long ago.

Syed Abu Muhammad Abdullah Al-Ashtar, known widely as Abdullah Shah Ghazi, was believed to be a descendant of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). He was laid to rest in this place after he was martyred by his enemies in AD 768.

While there is little historical evidence to go on, the lore surrounding Baba Ji and his exploits is quite similar, no matter who you hear it from.

For example, we met Abdul Razzaq inside the shrine, who narrated to us the story he had been told about the saint and his powers.

There was a fishing village on this spot when Baba came here. One day, a group of fishermen went to the sea and were trapped by a cyclone. Some people came to Baba to ask for his help. He had a bowl, which he filled with water and dipped his finger in it, and was able to control the destructive phenomenon.

“Since then, people started asking for his help whenever something like this happened, and he has never disappointed his people … he always saves them,” he narrated.

Haji Asif, who looks after the saint’s grave, had his own version of the tale. “You know martyrs never die, they are immortal. It is as simple as that … he makes sure that no damage is done to the city. The sea fears him.”

It’s not just the common folk who have great reverence for Baba; speaking on the floor of the National Assembly on Wednesday, even Shazia Marri declared: “We have faith that Abdullah Shah Ghazi will save us.”

While these accounts may seem fantastical, it is not difficult to imagine how they may have come about. In living memory, Biparjoy is perhaps the 12th or 13th weather system that has threatened Karachi. Of these around dozen occasions, only twice have cyclones actually wreaked substantial havoc on the city.

In recent years, cyclones such as Teuktae, Nilofer and Phet all changed direction at the last minute, sparing the city by the sea the kind of destruction that is usually associated with such tropical phenomena. But this does not mean that the city is immune to natural disasters.

Dr Asif Inam, principal of the Bahria School of Maritime and Applied Sciences, explains that cyclones are driven towards low pressure areas, which are mostly created on land in places with high temperatures.

In nearly all the cases mentioned above, Dr Inam says, the weather systems changed their course because they found higher land temperatures on the Indian or Oman side.

“The day the land temperature of this city surpasses India’s and Oman’s, it can definitely be hit by such a calamity,” he reckons.

He recalls that in Nov 2019, Cyclone Kyarr hit the coast of Balochistan, around 350km from Karachi. Even on that occasion, low-lying areas along the coastline were inundated with seawater.

On Wednesday night, it emerged that — in view of the threat from the cyclone — the shrine would remain closed for visitors for two days: Thursday and Friday. But for the faithful, it matters not whether they are able to visit Baba Ji or not; their faith in his powers to protect them from natural calamities remains steadfast.

Published in Dawn, June 15th, 2023


Clarification: An earlier version of this article mentioned cyclone ‘013A’ in December 1965, which has been removed after the Pakistan Met Department, when contacted, refuted reports of any cyclone in Karachi that year.


Opinion

Editorial

Miles to go
Updated 14 Jul, 2024

Miles to go

Some reforms agreed with the Fund are going to seriously impact economic growth and fresh investments, at least in the short term.
Iddat ruling
14 Jul, 2024

Iddat ruling

IT was a needless, despicable spectacle which only ended up uniting both conservatives and progressives in ...
Cricket shake-up
14 Jul, 2024

Cricket shake-up

SOMEONE had to take the blame and bear the brunt of the fallout from Pakistan’s disastrous showing at the T20 ...
Injustice undone
Updated 13 Jul, 2024

Injustice undone

The SC verdict is a stunning reversal of fortunes for a party that was, both before and after general elections, being treated as a defunct entity.
Looming flour shortage
13 Jul, 2024

Looming flour shortage

FOR once, it is hard to argue against the reason that compelled flour mills to call a nationwide strike from...
Same old script
13 Jul, 2024

Same old script

WHEN it comes to the troubling issue of enforced disappearances/ missing persons — either Baloch or belonging to...