South Asia

Faith, Devotion Triumph in Aftermath of Attack on Sufi Shrine in Pakistan

Days after nearly 100 people were killed in a suicide bombing at Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine, devotees returned to perform the dhamal, a Sufi dance.

The Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine after suicide attack. Credit: Veengas

The Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine after suicide attack. Credit: Veengas

Sehwan (Pakistan): They were dancing the next day again, at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar or Lal Saeen. I wonder if they did the sorrowful dance – sug dhamal – that I had witnessed six years ago.

I am back in Sehwan, at the shrine of the Sufi saint, two days after a bomb blast killed nearly 100 people and wounded more than 250. On February 16, dhamal – the whirling dance of the Sufis – had been on for only 15 minutes when a suicide bomber brought it to an abrupt end.

“Dhamal is a Sufi raqs (dance). Your soul will realise the true meaning of life through dhamal,” a faqir at the shrine tells me.

Bombs have ripped through major Pakistan cities – from Lahore and Peshawar to Quetta – in recent years. The Sindh region is no stranger to brutal attacks either. The Ghulam Shah Gazi shrine in Upper Sindh was bombed in February, 2011 and Sayed Hussain Shah Qambar of the Dargah Hussainabad was attacked in Jacobabad in February 2013. In February 2014, there was an attack on the Jalal Baba shrine in Karachi.

Devotees seen inside the shrine. Credit: Veengas

Devotees seen inside the shrine. Credit: Veengas

My hometown Shikarpur has not been spared. Syed Hajan Shah of the Dargah Ghulam Shah Gazi died after a blast in the dargah in Maari village near Shikarpur in February 2013. More than 60 people were killed in January 2015 in a blast at Imambargah. The blast at Lal Shahbaz Qalandar’s shrine is the latest in a series of attacks on Sufi shrines by fanatics who oppose Sufi-ism’s syncretic outlook.

I walk towards the dargah and find Rangers everywhere. I am told I cannot take my bag inside the shrine – and am only allowed to do so when they see that I am carrying equipment needed for reporting and recording. Where are the other members of your team, I am asked. I am alone, I reply.

I walk into the shrine and recall the song ‘Laal meri pat rakhiyo, Bala Jhoole Laalan, Sindhri da, Sehwan da, sakhi Shahbaaz Qalandar’ (Oh, Laal! Protect my honour, Jhoole Laalan, of Sindh, of Sehwan, kind-hearted Shahbaaz Qalandar).

Lal Shahbaz Qalandar – or Murshid, which in Sindhi means a spiritual leader – was said to have been born in the 12th century. Though not from Sindh, he made Sehwan his home.

His followers cut across religions. “The devotees have nothing to do with religion. My father, Lal Das, was a Hindu and a devotee of Murshid,” says Lal Gul Das, the custodian who takes care of the Hindu traditions observed at the shrine.

Hindus have strong ties with Lal Saeen, as the saint is called. The city of Sehwan, Das believes, was known as Shivstaan in ancient times. “The first custodian of the shrine was a Hindu. A ghant – a bell – stood at the door of the shrine and was removed by the government’s Auqaf (religious affairs) department in the sixties once it took over the shrine,” Das says. The ghant is now placed at gate of the dargah.

Credit: Veengas

The ghant at the dargah. Credit: Veengas

“Now, we [Hindus] are less important at the Dargah, but we still play a significant role in three areas: we light diyas (lamps), we place the sacred cloth on the grave and the coffin is only carried by Hindus. A trishul is taken out of the dargah during Moharram,” he adds.

But Das regrets the changes that he sees around him. “We are treated like nothing because conservative minds consider us as Hindus, irrespective of the relationship my family has had with Lal Saeen,” he says. The saint, he tells me, saved his mother on the day of the blast. “My mother was just about to reach the Dargah when the blast occurred. Lal Saeen saved my mother.”

Muhammad Bux. Credit: Veengas

Muhammad Bux. Credit: Veengas

A young man called Muhammad Bux recalls the death and destruction that he saw. He was the first person to enter the shrine after the blast and tried to save the lives of many of those who were injured.

“It was a bloodbath. I found myself surrounded by dead bodies and body parts,” Bux says. “My friend and I looked for his younger brother, Zeeshan Lakho.” Lakho’s family of Khidmatgars, or servants of God, have been serving the Dargah for generations.

“Muhammad Bux and I entered the shrine,” Zeeshan’s brother narrates. “I had not seen anything like this ever in my life. I found my brother lying next to Lal Saeen’s grave. Someone drove us to the hospital and when I tried to pick my brother up from the seat of the car, my hands wouldn’t move,” he recalls.

His face crumples: “I lost my beloved brother.”

I can see devotees streaming into the shrine. But no one stays there for long. They enter the Dargah, pray and move on.

Some are chanting out aloud – “Ya Ali … Lal Qalandar”. There are women who are weeping and beating their chests. People are not talking to one another; everyone looks sad.

Sehwan market. Credit: Veengas

Sehwan market. Credit: Veengas

Sehwan is not the way I remember it. The crowds are missing and the shops are all shut. There is no one calling out to me, as they did in the Sehwan Market in 2011, asking me look at their ware. No one says, “Adi kujhh khardee kayou … Ajrak achhi deso” (Sister, come and buy something … try out the traditional Ajrak shawl).

Who was responsible for the incident? Daesh or ISIS has claimed responsibility. “But let the security agencies confirm this, then we can say something,” says SSP Tariq Wilayat, who has now been transferred out.

Das holds that there were threat alerts about possible attacks on the shrine. “A bus which had come from Shikarpur to attack the shrine during the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar Mela was stopped. The security at the dargah was very weak. When everyone is corrupt, how can they keep an eye on security,” he asks. Wilayat, however, denies that there was an alert.

Speculation is still rife on the forces behind the blast. “The terrorist is a bullet,” senior journalist Jai Parkash Moorani stresses. “Who presses the trigger to fire at their own people?”

Some residents speak about the changes they see in the city – madrassas are coming up and orthodox teaching is gaining ground. Reports hold that the Sindh government had sent a list of 94 madrassas for a probe, but the federal government had disregarded it.

“The Deobandis have been working silently in Sehwan city since 2003,” says a source who does not wish to be named. “The Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F) and Jamiat-e-Islami both follow the Deobandi school of thought and their activists are quietly working. Deobandi thought is influencing the local police.”

I have noticed the spate of madrassas by the highway. I ask the custodian of the dargah, Wali Muhammad Shah, about the role of Deobandi madrassas in Sehwan.

“Yes, there are Wahhabi and Deobandi madrassas which are preaching against Dargahs,” he replies. “I cannot give numbers but there are also Afghans, who are in the city with identity cards that say they are from Hyderabad and Sehwan. Who provides them with these identities? If the government does not stop extremism, then I fear the next target may be the Bodla Bahar shrine near the Qalandar shrine,” he warns.

The custodian stresses that it is the responsibility of the state to build strong institutes to stop what he calls wrong steps. He criticises the role of the Auqaf department, pointing out that corruption is deep rooted there. “Corruption has polluted the Sufi spirit in the shrine,” he rues.

Credit: Veengas

The dhamal performed two days after the attack. Credit: Veengas

But at the shrine, for the followers of Lal Saeen, the dance symbolises the pure spirit of the saint. “We are devotees of Qalandar. Terrorists cannot stop us from loving and from performing the dhamal at the dargah,” a devotee says.

The dhamal dance carries on for 30 minutes, which is the normal duration, barring on Thursdays, when it spans an hour. “Sug in Sindhi means sorrow, and the sug dhamal is being performed,” explains Niaz Hussain, whose family has been playing dhamal melodies for seven generations.

On February 18, while the dhamal is being performed, I find that the followers’ faces are etched in grief. Some start to raise slogans against terrorism.

Loud slogans and the presence of security around the shrine are not something that the devotees are used to. “Dhamal is spiritual – today it does not seem so,” a devotee rues.

But this is the dargah, I tell myself, where there was a bloodbath just a few days ago. Yet, the dhamal at Lal Qalandar’s shrine carries on. As it will.

Veengas is a Karachi-based journalist, and tweets at @veengasj.