Transcendent oneness, the Royal Red Falcon, green fairy lights, glaring heresies, hijras, divine unions, pilgrims, subversive drums & the Indus.
W hile traveling up the length of Pakistan in 2019, I stopped off at a number of Sufi tombs belonging to philosopher-poets and saints, their shrines spread all across Sindh and Punjab. Since the arrival of Islam at the Indus, such tombs have been right at the heart of religious devotion, some of the most impressive honoring Bulleh Shah, Shah Rukn-e-Alam, Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai and Sachal Sarmast. There are hundreds or perhaps thousands of shrines to be visited, many hosting a death anniversary of the saint. It’s a festival known as an urs: the marital union of the saint with the divine.
Among the largest of such gatherings is the urs of Sehwan Sharif, in celebration of the beloved Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, the Royal Red Falcon, so named for his soaring spirituality—combined with his fondness for dressing all in red. As did plenty of other saints belonging to various Sufi orders and wandering east from lands that had already been ruled by Muslims for centuries, the Qalandar arrived here preaching a message of tolerance, transcendent oneness and love.
It’s a gathering of nonconformists and dissidents, managing, if only for moments, to sidestep the supremacy of religious distinction and simply dance to the drums.
At his urs in April, I was among hundreds of thousands to descend upon the tiny town of Sehwan. As I arrived at the outskirts by train around midnight the day before festivities were set to begin, the platform was already a sprawling campground with a web of green fairy lights adorning a virtual sea of tents, spread north to the shrine and its golden dome in the distance. Lumbering endlessly past us along the desert road were fluorescent-lit, overloaded buses, blaring horns in excitement as distant drums rumbled. The party was about to begin.
Among the crowds at Sehwan are members of numerous groups at the societal margins. Beyond the red-robed Qalandaris themselves are various stripes of Sunni and Shi‘a pilgrims, the most hardcore of the latter self-flagellating in memory of the martyr Hussain, beating their chests with their fists and even using blades before entering the shrine itself. There are also Hindus, tasked for generations with the festival’s henna procession; among them, the Qalandar is known as Jhulelal, the Red Bridegroom—Lord of the Indus. The hijras, members of Pakistan’s transgender community, also make an appearance. Many pilgrims come to pray for the intercession of the saints, though a great many more are there to enjoy the qawwali music, some receiving some help from cannabis or the various other psychoactives that circulate Sehwan. As at the wildest rave party, the dancers twist and gyrate, flailing their hair and getting lost in the subversive beat of drums.
In a nation purpose-built in the image of Islam (as read by more-recent philosopher-poets), the annual urs is a sort of valve to release pressure—a few days’ escape from the religious strictures of the state. It’s a gathering of nonconformists and dissidents, managing, if only for moments, to sidestep the supremacy of religious distinction and simply dance to the drums. For such heresies, Sehwan and dozens of other shrines and festivals have been struck with deadly terror, targeted by those who view the state as not nearly Islamic enough—among its gravest errors its tolerance for such occasions. Regardless, the urs continues year after year, drawing pilgrims from all across Sindh and Punjab. As they have for centuries outside the tombs of the saints, the drums beat on.
Anthon Jackson is a writer and photographer from Utah, based in Denmark. He has researched, written and updated over a dozen travel guidebooks for Rough Guides and other series. With a master of arts in Arab and Islamic studies, he has specialized in coverage of the Islamic world, from North Africa to South and Southeast Asia. Follow Anthon on Instagram. (All photos © Anthon Jackson)