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.