The greatest party on earth? : Urs of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan Sharif (Pakistan)
click Audio slideshow: the Sehwan Sharif festival
Declan Walsh: October 4, 2007: The Guardian
Around 1 million people attend the three day event that combines partying and prayer to mark the death of the Sufi mystic Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, who died 755 years ago. Photograph: Declan Walsh
Pakistan's tourism ministry designated 2007 as "Destination Pakistan", the year when tourists were urged to discover the country's sights and delights. Their timing couldn't have been worse. A military ruler clinging to power, al-Qaida fanatics hiding in the mountains, suicide bombings booming across the cities - in 2007, Pakistan has become a byword for peril and turmoil.
But there is another Pakistan, one the majority of its 165 million people are more familiar with. It is the thrusting software entrepreneurs and brash new television stations. It is the kite flyers and partygoers and the strangers who insist you sit for a cup of tea. And it is Sehwan Sharif.
A sleepy town on the Indus river, Sehwan Sharif is on the heroin smuggling route that runs through Sindh from Afghanistan to the Arabian Sea. In summer it is a sauna - stepping from my air-conditioned car last month, the heat carried a five-knuckle wallop.
I joined about 1 million people who come to Sehwan Sharif for three days every year, to mark the death of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, an ancient Sufi mystic. It is one of south Asia's greatest parties.
A giant, infectious drumbeat fills the night air. Red-clad women spin like dervishes and old men dance like teenagers. Men kiss the railings of the shrine; some burst into tears. A conga line of worshippers pushes into a glittering shrine at the heart of festival. The soft aroma of hashish and cooked bread wafts through the tiny alleyways; old men with watery eyes suck on clay pipes; barefoot families doze on the rooftops.
A million people - it's enough to give an embassy security officer a heart attack. Yet I've rarely felt so secure. Impromptu singing sessions erupt by the roadside. People offer strangers a bed, a meal, or a drag from their joint. Smiles and handshakes are everywhere. Qalandar, a sort of medieval hippy, would have approved. Wandering through this area almost 800 years ago, he preached tolerance between Hindus and Muslims and peace to all men. Legend had it that he could transform himself into a falcon.
One night I met Muhammad Fiaz, a burly bus driver from Gujrat with glitter on his cheeks. He had taken his annual holiday to come and sit at the feet of a pir, or holy man. He brushed off any talk of politics. "Musharraf and his lot are one thing," he said. "This is entirely another".
For more details on Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, click on Sufiblog, Wikipedia link, Tarique Kamal Blog entry,