Mundane to mystical
By: Sarwat Ali
Urs of Sufis are occasions for the ritualistic getting together of common people. Particularly in the subcontinent, the urs attract people from various creeds and faiths — and they all seem to coalesce at that meeting point offering different explanations in keeping with their own understanding of spiritual enlightenment.
Shahbaz Qalandar’s urs in Sehwan from 18th to 22nd Shaban also offers people, mainly from the rural areas, a chance to indulge in a number of activities which fall under the generic definition of being cultural.
One person who has documented the happenings on these shrines is Jurgen Wasim Frembgen. For all the years that he has spent in the subcontinent he has been totally engrossed with the living culture of the people. He has been taken in less by the normative aspect but more by the manner in which it is practiced. Squeezed between the needs of daily existence and the conscientious tugs of religious values, he found the most driven by pragmatism in conducting their daily affairs.
For an experience of the living reality, he went to the hospices, hamlets, settlements, shrines and festivals to be one with the cultural practices of the people which were well-entrenched and not-that-easily erased by the ups and down of ideological stresses. His favourite haunts were the shrines of Shah Jamal in Lahore, Imam Gul in the Potohar, Shah Latif in Bhitshah, Baba Farid in Pakpattan — all under the overarching shadow of Lal Qalandar of Sehwan, all famous for the patronage of music. The various mystical practices inextricably associated with music too fulfilled some inner need, some cravings rising from within.
As in the case of his other travels he has written about, his journey to the shrine of Shahbaz Qalandar started from Lahore. He boarded a train for the strict purpose of sharing the experience of the pilgrims as they travel more than six hundred miles to participate in the annual urs. He then chose to live with the pilgrims, as hundreds of thousands of them took part in the various activities that traverse the full expanse from the very mundane to the very mystical.
He did not let go of the various friends that he made on the shrines, the hospices and the musical gatherings. The shared interest is what kept them together. While the locals participated in the socio-cultural rituals, he took a step back like an anthropologist, observed and studied the myriad layers that people lived at.
Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan seems to be one of the favourites with the musicians because his kalaam is sung in the length and breadth of Sindh and Balochistan. Despite the fact that at the urs at Sehwan and otherwise, most singers sing and chant the kalam of Lal Shahbaz, little is known about him and his contributions to music. The naubat at the shrine is very conspicuous, as it is said to resonate the naubat struck at Khyber before the decisive phase of that battle and then the constant dancing in various forms, the most characteristic being the dhammal.
The qalandars were deeply devoted to music and loved to sing the songs eulogising Ali and Ahl-e-bait. It was however, the khanqah of Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan which until this day has been radiating the love of Ali and Ahl-e-bait through Persian and Sindhi songs. He was a Jelali Fakir and according to Richard Burton, Jelali Fakirs were generally poor who lived from hand to mouth. The Jemali Sufis in Sindh were a more respectable class than their Jelali brethren. The latter openly dispensed with the formalities of religious worship, the former did not except when inward sanctity was felt, known and acknowledged to be superior to the outward form.
He called dhammal as bridled unbridledness. On one side was the cautious reference to the distrust to the power of music and on the other the nourishment of the soul. His real name was Usman Marwandi because he was born in Marwand (now in Azerbaijan) and travelled to Mashhad, Khorasan, Baghdad, Makkah, Medina, Karbala, Makran, Multan, Ajmer, Kashmir before settling down in Siwistan, the town of Siva. As a qalandar, he was a rigid celibate and left no children and died in Sehwan in 1274. According to a local tradition, his grave too is built over a Shavistic Temple and Siwistan is now called Sehwan.
He is known as Lal Shahbaz because according to a popular legend, he assumed the shape of a falcon in order to release his friend Shaikh Sadruddin Arif from the hands of an infidel ruler. Many Hindus who visit the shrine believe he was the incarnation of Bhartrhari, a shivastic Nath Yogi.
Frembgen went to the shrine of Bodla Bahar, a disciple who was brought back to life by the qalandar. As well as other sites located on the hills outside Sehwan such as, where qalandar prayed, the shrine of Sakhi Jamal Shah, the blessed throne, the cave from where he took his mysterious pilgrimage straight through the earth to Makkah, the footprint of Maula Ali’s horse, three stone pillars like the shaitans in Makkah and the two alams of Hazrat Abbas.
Frembgen was totally engrossed in the relationship to the other pilgrimages that follow — like that of Nurani Sharif and Lahut Lamakan. The wondrous tales around this site as narrated by malangs include Hazrat Ali carrying his own corpse on a camel, Adam and Eve being taught how to bake bread, its subterranean passage to Makkah and Medina and Noah’s Ark being tied in the great flood at this very point.
All this may be found in the book ‘At the Shrine of the Red Sufi’ because Frembgen is interested in the qalandar’s appeal to the common man known for his capacity to forgive and a means to access the truly venerated personages of Islam.
Jurgen Wasim Frembgen is the chief curator of the Oriental Department of the Museumof Ethnology in Munich as well as professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Munich. He has also been a visiting professor at the Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, National College of Arts, Lahore and Ohio State University in Columbus. He has more than a hundred publications to his credit.