Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

No season for fairs

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The traditional melas — fairs — in the subcontinent were the place for ordinary folks to let their hair down. Long before they took on a quasi-religious colour in Muslim Pakistan, fairs were secular whose timing was guided by the seasons.

Harvests meant food in the larder and cash in the pocket and so we had festivals in April and May, coinciding with the wheat harvest alternating with those to mark the cutting of rice and sugarcane. Things changed and while some many festivals became aligned with the lunar calendar, some despite their attachment to shrines and death anniversaries of the saints interred therein continued to stick to the earlier solar calendar.

The managements at these shrines understood that if they were to keep the economy alive, they had to keep to the time when pockets bulged with proceeds from the sale of harvests.

And so, across this wonderful land shrines became colourful pageants at harvest times. Here they came regardless of age and gender. In the covered bazaars that came up at fairs, doddering oldies dodged scampering youngsters, their hands sticky with the remains of confectionary just consumed even as the newly-wed couple shared a plate of aloo-chholay, coyly looking into each other’s eyes and exchanging shy smiles.

Here housewives sought bargain purchases of pottery and kitchenware and material for the new quilt for the next winter while their men, sitting in the shade of the acacia, openly indulged in a pleasure otherwise frowned upon — the hashish-laced cigarette or the large earthen bowl of bhang.

Year after year, entrepreneurs brought their wares to these festivals, many of them boasting of having kept this business through two or three generations. While they made good business, keepers of the respective shrine knew that their mela would be known from the kind of bazaar that sprang up around it at festival time. The better the bazaar meant greater attendance at the shrine and more donations to the money box.

From the shrine of Pir Baba in Buner to Ari Pir and Sri Mata Hinglaj in Lasbela and Abdullah Shah Ghazi in Karachi, the annual festivals each had a distinct colour and an air of intense, uninhibited celebration. In the course of the year-long grind, festivals were the time to just let everything be and have a blast. From the shrine of Pir Baba in Buner to Ari Pir and Sri Mata Hinglaj in Lasbela and Abdullah Shah Ghazi in Karachi and from Kartarpur in Narowal through Nankana Sahib to Chanan Pir in Bahawalpur, Sakhi Sarwar in Dera Ghazi Khan and Udero Lal in Hyderabad, the annual festivals each had a distinct colour and an air of intense, uninhibited celebration and gay abandon.

The air was always of gaiety, fellow-feeling and brotherhood. In the years between 1979 and 2002 in dozens of fair visited, I never saw a single occasion of belligerence or fear. There was never a time anyone was accused of and taken to task for ‘eve-teasing’. The only stir was a pickpocket caught in the act at Sakhi Sarwar many years ago.

Many of them, despite being commemoration of the death anniversary of a supposedly Muslim saint, were attended equally by Hindus and Muslims. In a past with fewer religious biases, these fairs were notable for their transcendence beyond religious boundaries.

Not at a single one did I ever see any distinction between followers of the two religions. At Chanan Pir I have seen Hindus and Muslims stand shoulder to shoulder to pray at the sand dune that was supposedly the burial of the saint, ditto at the shrine of Pir Pagara in Khairpur district.

Then began the vicious, mindless cycle of bombings at shrines and things changed. In November 2014, while my friends were examining the new shrine of Bilawal Noorani, I chatted with a number of shopkeepers in the bazaar at the foot of the stairs. The festival had taken place five months earlier, but these young men kept their stores for stragglers like us who came all year round. Though this shrine had been spared violence so far, the festival has become considerably subdued over the years.

Some years ago, shortly after the bombing at the shrine of the patron saint of Lahore, Ali Hajveri better known as Data Ganj Buksh (bestower of treasures), the annual death anniversary had a marked air of fear. The bazaar outside the shrine seemed to have lost some of its colour. I have to confess; I found the changed air oppressive and left in a hurry.

But devotees are of stouter hearts. In March 2014, taking time off from research at the Sindh Archives at Clifton, I took the short stroll to the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi. As Ali Hajveri is for Lahore, so is this saint for Karachi who is believed to actively stave off all storms heading in from the sea. It was not festival time and there were only a few stalls open along the stairs leading up to the mausoleum.

The men, two of whom had survived the bombing some years ago, who kept this business knew the danger to their lives was real and present. But they were seekers of merit in the eyes of God for serving the saint who kept Karachi from destruction. They would be martyrs if the next bomber got them. As one spoke, the others gravely nodded their heads.

The fear is palpable, the colour drained from the festivals. I am told the festival at Barri Imam outside Rawalpindi no longer has the same celebratory air it once had. The same story is to be gleaned from many other festival grounds.

I am not a shrine-goer. My interest in these festivals was purely anthropological. But for a long time I, for one, am not going to any shrine at festival time.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 13:28,


At 16 February 2015 at 00:06, Blogger Memoona Saqlain Rizvi said...

Very true...Our maid, alias Amman, and her family annually attend the mela of sakhi sarwar. She, her immediate and extended family book a truck for traveling to the shrine.

At 16 February 2015 at 17:40, Anonymous muhammad athar said...

Lot of people attend such function with respect and honour


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

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