Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Color, Camels and Celebrations at Channan Pir
Text and photos by Umair Ghani

Yellow sand and fine dust raise high in the sky, tractor trolleys encumbered with colorfully attired men and women, kids and older people throng from all sides and honk loudly to find parking place amid camel carts and motorcycle rickshaws scattered randomly in the outskirts of the shrine of Channan Pir in the heart of Cholistan desert. The festival of Channan Pir, 45 km from Derawar Fort is yet to be established as an untainted Sufi festival, but its cultural impact has flourished every year since its inception. The legend is more or less related to the story of Moses along the banks of River Nile.

The popular version states that Channan Pir, born in the family of Hindus, reciting holy Quran at birth, was disowned by an infuriated father and ordered to be killed or thrown deep into the desert. Somehow, the infant’s innocence invoked sympathy in the hearts of Hindu Raja’s slaves and they left him secluded under a bush, to be perished [with a vague hope that he will be saved by some miracle] . He was picked up by a Muslim childless couple and raised according to their faith, which he already possessed by birth. Later, Channan Pir became a disciple of legendry Sufi Saint Makhdoom Jahanian Jahangasht and gained wide acclaim among the people of the desert as protector and benefactor of children. No other activity in the desert attracts masses in greater numbers than this festival, which begins in mid February and sustains for seven Thursdays continuously, with fifth Thursday being the most admired among devotees of the Channan Pir. Camel caravans arrive from far and wide, carrying whole families and rural folk to the place of festivity. Snake charmers, camel dance trainers, camel decorators and simple desert folk all attend with equal enthusiasm and fervor. Women wearing white bangles and colorful ghagras roam like multihued butterflies in the destitute of sandy wilderness. Painted trucks and local busses also make long queues along the criss-crossed asphalt roads leading to Channan Pir from many sides. Desert suddenly becomes alive and vibrant with sounds and spectacle.

Camels are everywhere at Channan Pir. They rove about like ancient shadows of their mighty prehistoric ancestors. People of the desert take great pride in rearing camels. They not only provide a means of transport, but also nourish a family with milk, and deliver meat and skin when necessity demands. Camel owners take good care of the herds. Many of them are seasoned trainers and coach camels for dances and races at various festivals. They drive their best-nurtured animals to Channan Pir with an air of dignified arrogance. Adored with extravagant ornaments and decorations, the camels at Channan Pir are a rare spectacle to behold. Hair on their skins are allowed to grow for many months, as the festival draws near, the hair are cut into fascinating patterns and crafted into astonishing graffiti and intricate designs. Mostly, eldest members of the tribe are bestowed this honor of holding strings of decorated camels and receive recognition for the efforts of artisans and trainers among their folk. The camels form an orb to these peoples’ lives. Nothing moves at a steady pace without them. Families weave tales of courage and romance around camels, young men sing songs and kids play with them like they do with pets. Devotees sleep over camel driven carts and crawl under them for shade as sun moves and bakes the sand.

Custom and necessity dominate the rituals at Channan Pir. Law of the desert stays supreme. Men, like all other social events, dominate this festival also. Women have to cover themselves, most of their faces as well. They are protected and encircled by men. Most of these women come here to pray for healthy sons and concerns related to their daughters’ matrimonial status. Suzzane Fisher Staples quotes, “The sexes, in Channan Pir, literally divide themselves into two camps. Their actions in their camps reflect gender concerns: the men, mimicking the camels, fight and show off their strength. The women pray that their daughters will bear sons and be blessed with favorable marriages.” Tying threads or tattered cloth pieces to the tree outside the shrine, women actually hand over their wishes and unfulfilled dreams to the saint to be forwarded to the Almighty on hope that these will be reviewed and rewarded at the earliest. “The women pray out for their daughters to bear sons out of necessity, not out of any inherent spite for girls: they are, after all, praying for the good fortune of their daughters. In the context of their culture, that good fortune comes in the shape of sons. Both men and women, in their camps, are acting partly on what culture expects of them and partly on their desires and passions. They are working to negotiate how cultural norms and expectations influence their own hopes, dreams, beliefs, and prayers,” writes Suzzane. Staunch faith or frayed sanity, this tradition is deep rooted and trusted. Festive celebrations rock the desert. People rejoice in free spirit and for a brief interval, forget miseries that shatter their desolate lives and the environment surrounding them. Channan Pir allures the hopes and aspirations of the people of Cholistan desert.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Dervishes of Lahore
Text and photography by Umair Ghani
Paintings by Mehmood Butt

"We are the flute, our music is all Yours; Your wind invisible sweeps through the world!"

Lovers of the Truth, they call themselves. They deny all notions of duality and the individual self and seek Divine unity, “main nahin, sab Tu " [I’m nobody, all is You!], cries Shah Hussein. They wear black, red and green, and abstain from animal food. They whirl around the streets of Old Lahore chanting names of Allah and slogans of freedom from the worldly desire. “Dam mast qalandar, jholay lal, shah jamal, beray par”, Yasuo Osakabe writes these words to me from another world and I sit back and wonder, how silently the voice of dervishes echoes across the continents. Malangs rock!

Malangs and dervishes are unique characters. Dramatic personalities, seemingly under some deep spiritual trance, they move away from everyday existence of desire and greed. Living in the shadows of their very own personal beliefs, they disappear from the scene as soon as the Sufi festivals end, only to be seen again after a long lapse till the next festival begins. Ishq, they claim, is the foundation of their faith. It’s a stairway, a bridge, a vehicle that never fails to take one to the desired destination. “Ishq pakka, manzil pakki”, shouts Ghulam Rasool qalandar.

There are two types of Malangs (or perhaps: two extremes). The one extreme is firmly based on Muslim culture. This is the traditional stance, in many respects. The other extreme is universal in practice and outlook. This is a type of dervishes that has traditionally flourished in India and Pakistan. The first extreme has staunch faith in Quran and Sunnah. They are physically clean, offer prayers and other religious practices regularly. They are well versed in Sufi literature and teachings. The other extreme is more inclined to the psychedelic side of religious customs. Though the repeatedly chant religious slogans, but hardly care to wash themselves. They are covered in rags, dirt and stench. Wear few clothes, chains and locks to show their abstinence from worldly needs. They smoke Charas, drink Bhang to get into a trance which they can’t attain through meditation. I asked Mahila Saien Malang about his devastated state. “I’m happy”, he said, “You can’t understand. How can you know when you have never been through all this”. Evasive reply, I thought at first, but it wasn’t. Mahila Saien Malang along with Baba Berg Ali took a long drag and rolled his eyes. He transformed into a non entity, ignorant of everything that happened around him. Even loud beatings of Dhols couldn’t get him out of his self initiated trance.

Mystic Tradition of these malangs and dervishes involves diverse beliefs and practices dedicated to Divine Love and Unity. The Truth they seek is believed to originate in the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, but some Dervishes claim that it pre-dates Islam and adopted Islam as a suitable vehicle. Some believe that all this was essentially the result of Islam evolving in a more mystic direction. Louis Massignon claims that it is from the Qur’an, constantly recited, meditated, and experienced, that Sufism, dervishes and other religious orders proceeded. Dr S Radhakrishnan asserts that mystics are akin to Advaita Vedanta [Hindu philosophy of identity of the self and the Whole], “it believes in the non dual Absolute of God and looks upon the world as reflection of God, Who is conceived as Light.” According to him the force of Islamic Mysticism was toned down in India, molded by Hindu practices and beliefs. But malangs at Sufi Shrines are infatuated with Ishq:

Do not call philosophy religionand do not call the ignorant wise.

The involvement of other religions’ customs [dominantly of Hinduism] in Islamic Sufism is evident from the practices of Malangs at shrines in Punjab and Sindh. The dance, worshipping the fire, taking hash, charas with smoke, drinking bhang and other toxic shrubs is very much a gift of religious customs in the subcontinent. “Man is a Qalandar”, a dervish whirls a bowl of green whisky and murids shout “Allah…”, “A man must live away from luxury. His heart is the house of God. He must never go astray in wake of desire and comfort”. “Ya Ali..!” they shout again, all at once, and take soothing sips from the bowl one by one. “Dam mastt qalandar! Jholay Lal!”

Shrines of the Sufis, their disciples and murids are drenched in color. Fire burns, aroma of scented wood fills the air. Qawwali music floats with the wind. Narrow and mysterious streets of Old Lahore are crowded with malangs and dervishes. Dhamal [religious dance] with dholis involves everyone. Masses flock these events to bury their misfortunes in prayers, dance and religious music. They hope to seek solace from the burden of sins. Seekers of the Truth come from various parts of the globe. Papu Saien and Gunga Saien thrill them with ecstatic Dhol beats. Mahela Saien Malang,Baba Berg Ali and many others offer charas filled cigarettes and bowls of green whisky. These dervishes talk peace and listen to the woes of suffering from people who come to seek solace to them. Human misery is never ending. But these shrines are the places where one can forget pains for a while. These dervishes are a ray of trust and assurance. A momentary escape from fear and sadness that surround every soul. A flicker of hope and a vague shadow of relief. A glimpse into the world beyond the self. A psychedelic look of relief into a world beyond reality.
“Bitter cruelty transforms me into a pearl, O Spirit!”
Diwan E Shamas

Friday, May 30, 2008

Waris Shah: Ishq Da Waris [Custodian Of Love]

Narinder S. Kapoor wrote, “Heer by Waris Shah is full of poetic intensity, authenticity, critical faculty, deep and wide observation, wisdom gained through a full and rich life, daring, romantic imagination, poetic vision, artistic excellence and natural grace of perfect execution. No poet can raise poetic grace of love at so passionate and soulful a pitch without a deep moving personal experience.”

This is an apt tribute to the genius of Syed Waris Shah, the mystic bard of Jandiyala Sher Khan known for his epic literary contribution to Punjabi language in form of Qisa Heer-Ranjha. Punjabi mystic poet was born in 1710 [some historians claim 1706 as his year of birth, and some 1722], in the most troublesome period after the death of Aurangzeb and Shah Alam and witnessed the chaos and suffering in Punjab. His parents died when he was quite young and he remained in a mosque for some time, and then left Jandiyala [in order to escape the impending danger of attack from Afghan invaders] to receive early education from Pir Makhdom of Qasur.

This exodus at young age left lasting impact on his psyche to which professor S. S. Hans refers as ‘geographical and spiritual vilayat [migration]’ in his remarkable essay “The Idea of Country in Hir”. After completeing education, Waris Shah moved to Malkahans, again migrating which he later elaborated in Heer-Ranjha as Ranjha wandering from one Des to another. Here he resided in an isolated room adjacent to a mosque and fell in love with Bhag Bhari, his real life beloved which provided inspiration for his monumental epic written in 1767. Professor Kapoor alludes to this as, “Bhag Bhari is cited as the passion inspiring Waris to sing his own unfulfilled love through the legend of Heer and Ranjha.” In Malkahans, Waris Shah began to work on "Heer".

Hukam maan k sajna piyara da
Qisa ajab bahar da joriya ee

[obeying the order of my dear ones
I have composed this tale of a marvelous spring]

Fiqra jorh k khub darust kita
Nawan phul gulab da toriya ee

[I have fashioned the phrases elegantly
Like the blossoming of a new rose]

Buhat ji de wich tadbir kar k
Farhad pahar non phoriya ee

[Labour within my soul was great
As when Farhad hewed through the mountains]

Sabh banh k zaib bana dita
Jeha atar gulab nachoriya ee

[ Blending it all, I have adorned it
Just as the rose emits its fragrance]

Bitten by bitter realities of life and an unending personal suffering, with cruelty and injustice of the mighty making life miserable and hopeless, the great bard sought solace in qisa Heer-Ranjha. He couldn’t ignore the hypocrisy of the age, particularly of clergy and elaborately flaunted them with jest and ridicule. Waris Shah presented Ranjha as embodiment of universal loneliness that resides in every soul. Najam Hussain Syed quotes, “In this world, Ranjha is a lonely figure, an outcast. He is utterly disinterested in any material motives so he is out of place in a world where relationships are only based on utility and expediency.” A distant spectator to the massacre in Dehli by Nadir Shah, our mystic poet found his sublime senses deeply cut and he focused more and more on moral and spiritual issues. “Victim of this world, Ranjha puts to test the people who come into contact with him”, writes Najam Hussain Syed, “the only person who survives this test is Heer.” Thus Waris Shah concluded his tale on the notion that love alone could save the world.

With completetion of ‘Heer’, Waris Shah began the modern period in Punjabi poetry and became a household name in the subcontinent for more than 200 years now. He is regarded equivalent to Chaucer and Milton in English poetry. In view of K. K. Khullar through the voice of Heer, Waris Shah became the sposkeman of the Punjabi people and touched every soul and his epic became immortal. Waris Shah died around 1790. He was buried in Jandiyala Sher Khan and since then his mausoleum became a sacred place of pilgrim where thousands offer homage to Waris Shah’s rich literary genius and mystic imagination. His Qisa Heer-Ranjha will live through the ferocity of time with its myriad mystic, historic, social, Freudian, astrological interpretations and for pure folk wisdom.
Qisa Heer-Ranjha became both history and verse and this is best elaborated in words of Urdu poet Sauda:

Suna jo raat who qisa Heer-Ranjha ka
To ahl e dard ko panjabiyon ne loot lia

[last night when I heard the tale of Heer-Ranjha
the Punjabis stole all hearts with sublime feelings]

Text & Photography by Umair Ghani

Mystic Love of Heer and Ranjha
First I sing the praise of the Lord
Who made Love the foundation of the world

Overloaded passenger van flew towards Jhang on scary asphalt road, as I listened to Allah Ditta Lonaywala’s “asan wich Ishq de rul gay haan [we are lost in the paht of love]” from noisey car stereo, and thinking of the spiritual reunion of Heer and Ranjha I wondered if it is we that are lost in love.
I got dropped a few kilometers before Jhang city as young van conductor pointed to a dusty street through thick cluster of shrubs, “that will lead you to the tomb of Heer-Ranjha!” It was early October morning, a little warmer than usual and adjusting my worn out travel bag on weary shoulders I delved into another spiritual quest into the realms of unrequited immortal love.

A deep hush greeted me as I had first glimpses of green colored doom across a dense cluster of wild shrubs scattered in the adjoining graveyard. Climbing a few concrete steps I reached a marble floor guarded on all sides by iron fence and white, blue and green tiled tomb of Heer-Ranjha stood humbly in the middle of it. Had I been here before in another place and time? A powerful feeling of déjà vu prevailed my being. Everything looked so familiar, the environment, the canteen and the white and green colored mosque with its abandoned grace, and the deep and pure silence occasionally broken by the sobbing young girl who placed her head on the marble slab of Heer-Ranjha’s grave and sought solace for the pain that her lost love caused. On the right side of the main entrance of the tomb, a limestone plaque read, “Darbar Ashiq e Sadiq Mai Heer wa Mian Ranjha”. I read on for a long long time, “Asihq e Sadiq [True Lovers] and felt some very sacred presence all around the place. Jo bhi kuch hai, muhabat ka phailao hai [all that is here…is created out of love].

“Heer Ranjha has been elaborated in more than a hundred versions in Punjabi, Urdu, Sindhi and Persian. Gradually the work took on Muslim assertions and by the time of Ahmed Gujjars 1693 version, Ranjha became a Muslim, defending Sufi concept of love against asceticism of the Naths. Sufi poets elevated mortal love to the level of spiritual love and the qisa of Heer Ranjha took a pre eminent place in Punjabi literature in the hands of Waris Shah, the Sayed of Jandiyala. Suzanne McMahon writes, “Waris Shah’s Heer is widely regarded as the most brilliant rendering of Heer-Ranhja tale.” It is the story of a young man and a young woman who didn’t receive the sanction of society in shape of marriage. Heer [Izzat Bibi] was a courageous and daring young girl, the daughter of Chuchak Sial and Malki from Jhang. Her courage is elaborated in a sub qisa as Sardar Noora from Sambal community had a slave Luddan. Due to ill treatment Luddan ran away with Sambal’s most beautiful boat and asked for shelter. Heer helped him. Sardar Noora enraged by the incident approached Heer who gathered her friends and confronted Sardar Noora and defeated him. Heer’s brothers learnt of this incident and expressed their concern, “you fought alone, why you didn’t send for us?” Heer replied, “Why would I? It was not Emperor Akbar who attacked us!”

Ranjha [Mian Murad Bakhash] was the youngest of his brothers in Takht Hazara and after a confrontation with his brothers over distribution of inheritance; he left home and wandered with his flute under his arm finally coming to Heer’s village to seek his fortune. On the way he encountered a narrow minded Mullah who didn’t allow him to spend the night in the mosque [saying that ashiq, bhor, fakir te kutay- lovers, insects, beggars and dogs were not allowed to enter the mosque] and Luddan who refused to take penniless traveler across river Chenab. Ranjha lured Luddan’s wives and Luddan agreed to take him across the river to get rid of the situation. On the boat Ranjha slept on a comfortable couch which was the property of Heer. When she learnt that her couch had been defiled by some unknown Jat, she rushed to river Chenab to taunt Ranjha. But her anger evaporated with Ranjha’s words, “Vah Sajjana!” and they were lost in each others eyes. “Ah Waris, nothing can help when eyes meet on the battlefield of love!”

Ranjha told Heer that life was only a dream and she must abandon the pride of youth and beauty and be prepared to leave the world. Heer became mesmerized by the way Ranjha talked and played the flute and eventually fell in love with him. He asked Heer to take an oath to love and become immortal. Heer offered him a job to take care of their cattle so she could secretly see him more often. She promised to sacrifice everything for love and even to lay down her life.

Ranjha Ranja kardi nii main apey Ranjha hoi
Ranjha main no har koi akho Heer na akhey koi

They would meet each other secretly until they were caught by Heer’s jealous uncle Qaido who conspired with her parents and Heer was forced to marry Saida Khera. On her wedding day Heer talked to Mullah [who was heavily bribed by Qaido to perform wedding ceremony] in presence of everyone, “I was married in presence of Nabi [prophet]. When did God give you the authority to perform my marriage ceremony again and deny my first marriage? You are bribed to sell your faith”, she added, “but I’ll keep my faith till my death. As wine drinkers cannot live without wine”, she said, “and opium-eaters cannot live without opium, so I cannot live without Ranjha!”

Broken hearted, Ranjha left on his own until eventually he met a Jogi. Wherever he looked, he could only see his departed lover and being emotionally scared he voluntarily became an ascetic. Heer could not forget Ranjha either. She sent a message to him and he came in guise of a Jogi to take her away [they escaped with help from Saida’s sister Sehti]. When Heer’s parents became aware of the elopement they repented and asked her to come back so they could arrange her marriage to Ranjha. The lovers returned to Heer's Village, where her parents agreed to their marriage. On the wedding day, Qaido poisoned Heer so the wedding wouldn't take place. She was buried in Ranjha’s absence. Ranjha learnt of her death, grieved and dejected he rushed to his beloved’s grave and prayed to be with her. Miraculously the grave parted and Ranjha laid down beside his beloved Heer in their eternal sleep. The beginnings of Ishq e mijazi lead them to the status of Pirs and Fakirs at a young age of 32 and 36 years respectively.

Syed Abid Hussein, caretaker of the tomb, finished the legend of Heer Ranjha and I recovered from the trance of an enchanting tale of love. A simple man, Syed Abid looked at me with gloomy eyes, “Is God not a lover?” he said, “Is universe not created out of love? Ishq has uncountable colors and forms. Is everything not Ishq?” I agreed. Ishq was everything, it was everywhere.
“Can my love for a woman lead me to God?” I asked.
“Sure it can! But only if it is true. Ishq is always divine in its essence. If you enter the realm of Ishq, sure it will lead to unknown dimensions. I’ve seen people coming here everyday for many years now. Few of them are true and commit to be burnt, bruised, tortured, and tested by their love. Very few, I assure you!”

A few paces away the young girl sat curled up with her head against marble slab of the grave. She had stopped sobbing somewhere in the middle of caretaker’s narration of Heer-Ranjha’s tale. But her eyes were still soaked with silent tears flowing down across her neckline. She kept staring blankly into something unseen.
“I searched for faithfulness everywhere”, her choked voice echoed inside the tomb, “I was betrayed. I come to tell mother Heer [Mai Heer]. Only she can understand!”
With my back resting against the tiled wall I witnessed everything.
A bare-footed old woman walked in. Went to the grave and kissed it affectionately. Wrinkles filled her face like deep trenches on dry land. She performed some secret ritual by closing her eyes and clasping her hands for several minutes. Then like a whirling wind she began to dance in the tomb. Her bare feet struck the floor with a loud thud, providing beat for her dance. But I could see that the rhythm was from within, not from without.
“Two bodies in one grave but body is nothing”, she talked as she danced. “Soul is everything. Soul is dance. I am a soul and I will dance!” Another loud thud and another swirl within her soul and another thud of the feet and so on. “Only two bodies are here!”
“And where are their souls?” I asked.
“Their souls have become Ishq and spread everywhere!”
“Why do you take my photos?”
“I am trying to capture Heer-Ranjha’s soul.”
“I know where you can find it” she said with a mysterious smile. “I am Mai Saleem, from the family of Heer [her maternal grand parents]”. She dropped down her dopata and threw her thin hair in the wind. “Look! The women in our family never tie their hair.”
“Ishq is God!” She said and whirled around like a feather in the wind. Only a woman could know better, I though. Annemarie Schimmel [professor of Indo Muslim culture at Harvard University] in her book “My Soul is a Woman: The Feminine in Islam” describes the spiritual experience of a woman’s love, “Women setting out on a long journey during the course of which they are separated from the world more and more everyday until their entire being is transformed into their lovers.”

Outside the darbar women prayed for offsorings, love, happiness and prosperity. Some tied cloth strips to the iron bar above entrance gate as a reminder of their wish to Mai Heer. Young girls brought many colored bangles and strings and tied them to the wooden
On all sides of the Heer-Ranjha’s grave, so they ask God to help them win their love. Sun gently went down the distant horizon, shedding golden light on everything in a blissful adieu kiss. I placed my bag on my back and stepped down the dusty trek. Abandoned course of river Chenab that once flowed close to darbar stretched far and wide. Echo of Heer’s eternal song echoed all across the land:

Mai nii maino Kheriyan di gal na akh

Ranjha mera te main Ranjhe di
Text & Photography by Umair Ghani
Heer Ranjha paintings by Abdul Rehman Chughtai
Bulleh Shah: The Mystic Voice of Punjab

Not a believer, in the mosque, am I
Nor a pagan, disciple of false rites
Not a pure amongst the impure
Neither Moses, nor the PharaohBulleh!
To me, I am not known!

Farida Breuillac, a practicing Sufi from France, residing in Turkey now, was sitting on a wooden stool in Regal Internet Inn, discussing Sufism over a cup of desi tea. Dazzled as she is by the beauty and naked honesty of Bulleh Shah’s verse, I recited to her one verse after the other and she whirled around in a trance. A week later I was standing outside the shrine of Bulleh Shah in the heart of Qasur city. Dhol beats echoed loud in the air with chants of ‘Ya Ali’ and ‘Dam Mast’as many thronged to the shrine of Bulleh Shah, the greatest Sufi poet of Punjab. His real name was Abdullah Shah, later transformed into Bulleh Shah out of sheer affection from the masses that ardently adhered to his rebellious message of love, hope and wisdom. Historians believe he was born at Uch Gilaniyan in Bahawalpur around 1680, later migrated to Malakwal and finally settled in Pandoke Bhatian, about 14 miles southeast of Qasur. It was here that Bulleh Shah got formal education from Maulvi Ghulam Murtaza, who was the Imam of the main mosque in Qasur.

Bulleh Shah taught at the same mosque after completion of his education. He chose to follow the spiritual path of Inayat Shah Qadri, a famous saint of Qadirya school of Sufis in Lahore. Bulleh suffered incessant torrents of criticism from his family and friends for blindly following a Sufi other than Syeds. This gave spur to his rebellious nature against inherent hierarchy of spirituality and he remained steadfast to Shah Inayat till latter’s death in 1729. Bulleh Shah under a sheer spell of devotional closeness addressed his master as God, Guide, Lord, Spouse, Husband, Beloved and Friend. Under his mater’s guidance he experienced spiritual ecstasy and a vision that helped him to explore the unfathomable realms of inner self. In this process of self identification he began his learning process by grasping the reality of things and felt blessed by revelations from within. But the rapture of being away from his spiritual master never ceased to torment his soul:

He listens to my tale of woe
Shah lnayat guides me and takes me across
Shah Inayat is my Master, who has come to grace me.
All my wrangles and strife's are over
Who can now delude me?

Bulleh Shah’s spiritual quest found its finest expressions in form of Kafis. His tone is ironic and piercing with precision of a surgeon’s knife, his verse bleeding with pain of separation and unprecedented genius of his thought process, mercilessly dissecting misleading social norms and established dogmas in the name of religion. He set out his own aesthetics of the divine, guidance, faith, virtuosity, love and forgiveness. He preached negation of the self while seeking unity with the divine. His verse advocated liberal standards of religious tolerance and communal harmony. Realization of Truth transformed Bulleh Shah into a true mystic. He purified his heart with the fountain of truth gushing deep inside his soul. Intoxicated with wine of spiritual knowledge, Bulleh Shah heroically voiced his wisdom in his verse:

Burn thy prayer mat and break the water pot
Quit the rosary and throw away thy staff

Tired of reciting Vedas and Quran
Kneeling and prostrating my forehead down
God neither in Mathura, nor in Mecca resides
Only those can find him who see the light

By saying this verse, Bulleh Shah stands tall in the lineage of Sufis, a stalwart of this whole school of thought being Mansoor who was punished by clerics of the time thinking his Ana-al Haque (I am the truth, I am God). The ecstasy which torments and cleans the soul of a Sufi or saint is a phenomenon hardly perceived or understood by clerics and dogmatists who go by the sanctity of words and not the meanings and context. This happened with Mansoor Hallaj and Bulleh Shah met a similar fate too. He spent rest of his life in total self denial, lived careless of the anguish and hostility that orthodox mullahs unleashed against his verses. He danced fearlessly on the path of spiritual realization and preached love and humanism with a firm rejection of any formal religious authority imposing upon affairs of the people. He was refused to be buried in Muslim cemetery after his death in 1758, thus laid to rest in isolation outside Qasur city.

I am the first,
I am the lastNone other, have I ever known
I am the wisest of them all.
Bulleh! Do I stand alone?
Bulleh! To me, I am not known!
Text & Photography by Umair Ghani
Bullah Shah painting by Saeed Art [Lahore].

Lal Shahbaz Qalandar: The Red Sufi of Sehwan

"Mast O Mast Qalandar Teri Haan Mein Teri Haan", Abida Parveen’s [Sufi Singer] deep drone filled the air as special train to Sehwan crawled into Railway station like a lazy dragon. Motley crowd of devotees, malangs and dervishes hung from compartments, windows and train top. Loud chants “Dam Mast Qalandar”, “Ali Maula “and “Bolo Lal Qalandar “rocked the platform. People waved red flags and ran along the train. Thousands thronged dusty streets of sacred city of Sehwan to attend annual Urs of Hazrat Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. Cramped on a berth, I witnessed this unprecedented gathering of pilgrims from the compartment window. Tears of devotion faded my vision. Scenes blurred but I could hear this happening all around me in grand valour and glory.

Lal Shahbaz Qalandar was born as Syed Shah Hussein, later named as Usman by his father. His date of birth is shrouded in mystery but careful speculation reveals that it was 1187 AD, although some biographers claim it to be 1177 AD. He was born into an Uzbek tribe who was direct decedents of Imam Jafar Sadiq and belonged to Ismaili faith. Hazrat Usman Marvandi had a free spirit. He wandered far and wide in his quest for Divine unity. People called him “Shahbaz” [Falcon] due to his free divine spirit and adventurous quest. He joined Qalandariya order at the age of 20. Qalandariya is a unique branch of Sufism which is attained through unprecedented spiritual training and self negation. He met Sharf ud Din Boo Ali Qalandar who advised him to travel to Sindh and stay there. Sehwan, in those days was considered a strategic point from where areas around upper and lower Indus could be easily accessed. Besides, it always remained a significant city in the history of Sindh. As advised by Hazrat Boo Ali Qalandar, Lal Shahbaz decided to settle in Sehwan and lived there for six years till his death.

18th Shaban [Islamic month] marks three day celebrations of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar’s annual Urs. Devotees from all over Pakistan arrive in Sehwan. Narrow streets and mud and brick houses are flooded with zestful tourists and pilgrims. Sehwan suddenly becomes nosiy and dirty. Some five hundred thousand pilgrims visit Shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar from 18th to 20th Shaban every year. People, people everywhere! Dancing, mourning, chanting, shouting and crying. Every house in Sehwan is on rent. Streets clog with sewerage water. Nobody sleeps. A party carrying embroided Chaddars to Lal Shahbaz’s shrine. Another group mourning and wailing. A few streets ahead some devoted followers carrying candles and Mehndi as offering, clad in colorful attire, dancing in unbound joy and ecstatic pleasure. A group of women carrying lamps and scented wood. But all have to line up and wait outside the shrine which is engulfed by a sea of mourner’s processions. A deep thud of mourning hands strikes bare chests in every nock and corner of dimly lit streets around the shrine.

Zanjir zani and matam continues inside the vast compound. Blood oozes and spills carelessly on the marble floor as sharp blades of angled knives mark deep cuts in flesh of matmi procession. Jubilation is taken over by gore. Shock and awe prevail. Most of the pilgrims are not prepared for this but the sight is gruesome. Wailing continues, matam and zanjir zani gather pace. Blood spills, people faint due to loss of blood and fatigue. First aid camps are jam packed. One procession of mourners leaves and another arrives. Saga continues recklessly for three days and three nights. A few streets away from this sight, Sehwan celebrates in more moderate manner. Musicians and artists from various cities gather outside a dusty pavilion near Kafi Lal Das [a devotee of Lal Shahbaz Qalendar who initiated lighting up of Chiragh at the shrine and thus became known as Saien Lal Das Chiraghi Waley]. Papu Saien Dholia with his sungat arrives and the audience is spellbound. No artist of ordinary merit dares walk in that narrow and congested street of Kafi Lal Das.

I sit on a high point outside Sehwan and watch the city stretched before my eyes. Rising sun bathes the shrine in pure and pious light. Red flags on rooftops flutter as wind blows across the dusty panorama. Golden doom of awesome shrine stands majestically amid tiny houses and narrow streets of Sehwan. A sacred hush prevails. I experience a moment of frayed sanity and wait for something to change inside. Nothing changes or maybe I can not judge it at the moment. I trace my way back to the city with tired steps of an abandoned sage. Sound of mourning becomes louder and louder.

Text and Photography by Umair Ghani

Special thanx to Papu Saien [legendry Dhol player] for his early morning photos outside Sehwan City.

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