For the part about the festival, I’ve found a few good documentary clips and also am transcribing an interesting and amusing piece of writing from a favorite book. I am going to retreat a bit from writing here because I think these items tell us a lot by themselves.
To start, here is a good explanation of the festival, with fine snippets of music and a slide show of excellent photographs. Made in 2008, this photo documentary also puts the celebration in a contemporary context, referring to it as the “love parade” of the “anti-Taliban.”
This is a nice video documentary that tells a little more about the motives for the festival and the history of the “Red Falcon,” himself:
And this is a good short one with video shots and descriptions of different rituals at the festival:
At least in the narrative, all of those videos project a very positive view of the Urs celebrations. For a not-as-positive view, I’ve decided to show an excerpt from The Dancing Girls of Lahore, a very novelistic piece of journalism that came out of a “study” in Heera Mandi conducted by the British sociologist (recently turned novelist) named Louise Brown. I’ve quoted from that book in this blog a couple of times before, most extensively in December of 2011. As might be expected, everything I have quoted from this book before was written from somewhere in Lahore (usually in Heera Mandi), but there are a few very vivid sub-chapters about an excursion to Sehwan Sharif…
And these following paragraphs describe a dark side that actually occurred to me as I watched the crushing, pushing crowds shown in some of the video footage above. When I looked at those scenes, I thought, this is a great event to praise from afar, but what if I were stuck in the middle of it and I realized that I really did not want to be there? Ms. Brown’s passages describe the nightmare that could be, though the writing is full of good dark humor, and we can see that she still has some strange affection for the experience in retrospect.
The bazaar is packed with pilgrims, most of them highly charged young men. Maha is saying a prayer beneath a giant pole surrounded by candles when she’s interrupted by a sudden surge in the crowd, and we are pushed on toward the mausoleum. Too many people are squeezed together here and I’m worried about the mass crushings that are sadly common at religious events like these. The men are working themselves into a frenzy: assembling in groups, waving flags, jumping up and down and shouting incoherently. They surge forward from the bazaar, through a passageway, and into the square directly before the mausoleum.
Maha and I stop in the passageway to buy flowers from a stall to throw on the shrine. The flowers are beautiful: pink, heavily scented, and strung on a thread like a necklace. We lean against the wall of the passage as a wave of men push through. Moments later we are not leaning against the wall but pressed tight against it. Some of the men’s faces are angry; some are frightened and shocked. They push this way and that, scaring others who push too. I think I can escape by climbing over a wall, but I can’t lift my arms because the press is so intense. My bangles snap against the bricks and the glass cuts into my arm. The pressure is so intense that I can’t breathe and I think my ribs will snap as well. Maha’s eyes are full of panic as we are propelled slowly toward the mausoleum, scraping against a wall until we are ejected from the passage and can breathe once more.
Hardly an inch of space is left in the courtyard that’s not thick with pilgrims. We’ve removed our shoes to show respect: we left them with an old woman and I wonder if we’ll ever see them again. Many of the pilgrims are in a trance. On the right-hand side is the ladies’ area. Some have babies and young children. I recognize a few of the faces from Heera Mandi. Many are praying. Dozens of the female devotees are honoring Shahbaz Qalandar by imitating the illustrations of him that are sold in the bazaar: they sit cross-legged or twirl around, undoing their hair and tangling it so that it swings from side to side in matted strands.
Most of the people in the courtyard are men: poor peasants and laborers. Their fervor increases the closer they get to the mausoleum: dancing with their arms in the air and shouting so loudly that I have to scream to make Maha hear me. A few of the men are spinning like dervishes, and Maha gestures toward them. “They’re like Shahbaz Qalandar. It’s the hashish,” she says.
There are later parts of her description that are even more grim, but the quote above should suffice. When I looked at news of the event during the past two years, I also saw reports of nine or a dozen or more people dying from heat stroke each time. So, the great celebration is obviously far from ideal, and it could be risky for some. (At least, thankfully, I have not yet seen any news of about this particular event being attacked by the revelers’ terrorist opposites.) Nonetheless, these celebrations of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar certainly are fascinating, and they have inspired some wonderful music and dance – the main reason, of course, why I like to give them so much attention, myself.