SEHWAN, Pakistan — Legend has it that when the Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar was travelling from Maiwand in Afghanistan to Sehwan, in what is today Pakistan’s lower Indus Valley, the fakirs (religious ascetics, or monks) of Sehwan sent him a bowl of milk filled to the brim to indicate that there was no more space for another fakir. He returned the bowl with a flower floating in the liquid to say that there was space for everyone and he would live among them, floating like a flower.
Ever since that day some 800 years ago, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar’s shrine – or darbar, a word also used to refer to the palace of a king – has created space for everyone. This shrine is the largest in Sindh province and among the most significant in the country. At the annual Urs, or mela (festival), to mark the anniversary of the saint’s death, an estimated one million pilgrims and devotees come to the town for three days.
Last week, a suicide bomber targeted the gathering.
Five days after the bombing left over 80 people dead and more than 200 injured, the only signs of the attack are the broken window panes, the missing fans, and the deep marks of shrapnel on spotless white marble in the hall where Qalandar is buried. But the grave itself stands tall and proud. The chandelier besides the grave, the wooden panes and steel grille around which people tie threads to mark their prayers stands unaffected. At first glance, one must ask where the blast even happened.
The attack was claimed by Daesh, a terrorist group which the Pakistani authorities had denied had a presence in the country. In a statement on the group's website, Daesh had claimed that its branch in the region had carried the attack out to target Shia Muslims. Pakistani security forces launched a crackdown in response, killing 100 suspects in 24 hours.
For the devotees of Qalandar, this is how it had to be. The shrine is a “mother” to its people. A mother who embraces all, who promises to always protect and watches over her worshippers. There is no distinction in who comes here. From the very poor to the very wealthy, all come seeking help, seeking hope.
For them, of course, nothing could shake Qalandar’s throne; not even a bomb blast at the foot of his grave. Witnesses to last week’s bombing claim that even the flowers on the grave did not move.
There is no one way to understand what the shrine means to its faithful visitors, except as the ultimate symbol of love and devotion. The day after the attack, the saint's devotees – Shias, Sunnis, Sufis and Hindus – all mourned in their own way, all together, at the same time, in and around the courtyard of the shrine. Some held a majlis, a commemorative event mostly organised by Shias to remember the tragedy of Karbala, where Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussain was martyred in a battle 1400 years ago. Some recited the Quran, while others sang or danced. There was dhamal (a traditional dance) every evening, with men, women and children dancing together to the beat of the dhol (a barrel-shaped wooden drum). It continued on Friday, just as it has every night for hundreds of years.
Fatima survived the attack. Today dressed all in black to signify her mourning, Fatima was there last Thursday, sweeping the floor as she has done every evening for 15 years now. The forty-something, who goes by only her first name, like many devotees was already back after the attack in service of the saint. The grief exists side by side with the music and dance.
“Whatever happened … it was terrible,” she said. “Sehwan is a place of harmony, a place of peace. Sehwan is like the heavens.”
Thursday is the busiest day of the week for all shrines around Pakistan. When the dhamal started in the courtyard, others sat inside the main hall. The bomber was walking towards the dhamal area, witnesses told TRT World, when a police officer stopped him for questioning and he detonated his suicide jacket. Most of the people inside the hall at the time were women and children; some were babies still in the bellies of their mothers. Police officers at the shrine said the number of dead could go much higher because many people are still tracing their loved ones.
The house of Zulfiqar Fakir lies in the street directly behind the shrine. Three of his sons were at the shrine when he heard the sound of the blast. Zulfikar ran outside towards it, he told TRT World, where from the gold tomb he could see black smoke. He found two of his sons, but not Saeed, his 17-year-old. Zulfikar talks about Saeed’s love for the shrine and love for Qalandar:
“[My son] has gone to be with him. Qalandar must have wanted to be with him. He must have been there to greet Saeed at the doors of the heavens that is why he took him away. All the children who died are with Qalandar today.”
Saeed was both his son and friend, and the one child Zulfikar would always ask about when he didn’t see him around the house. Saeed’s one unfilled wish, his father says, was a touch screen phone he was saving for. It cost 15,000 rupees ($143) and he had only 6,000, so he bought a Nokia phone with a camera in the meantime. Zulfikar keeps that phone with him in his pocket, going through the pictures again and again. They are all of Saeed and the shrine – his ‘‘selfies” in front of the grave, and in the courtyard.
Saeed’s cousin Mohsin Ali is among the injured. He lost his legs in the blast but his love for the darbar is so rooted in him that he is waiting until he can move again and return. Mohsin’s jobs included picking up the chadors (traditional full length pieces of fabric) from the grave of Qalandar and collecting the alms that came with it. He knew all the exits well and managed to step out and get help in time. He asked his friends to take him in a rickshaw to the hospital, and called his mother to tell her he was okay.
He saw many things that he wished he hadn’t seen: the severed heads of people he knew, dismembered limbs, severed ears … images that may take forever to forget.
There is grief everywhere in the streets of this town, home to around 50,000 people. People tell each other where they were when it all happened. Some witnesses say they couldn’t hear for two days following the blast, while others say they were temporarily blinded. In the house across from Mohsin’s is a woman who many people talk about. Several neighbours told TRT World that they keep hearing her screams since she lost her 11-year-old that day. They say she has lost her mind. When the screams get too loud, a family member injects her with a sedative.
But there is no space for hopelessness at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar and his believers. For them, the protector will protect. They believe that the “ultimate guardian” will never leave their pain unaddressed. Mohsin’s uncle Niaz Ali believes that there is no way terrorists can thrive in Pakistan now because they have hurt the greatest of all saints. Divine justice will take its course and bring an end to the years of violence and grief Pakistan has witnessed.
“Everyone who comes to this shrine comes as if they are walking into their own home,” said Munazzam Ali Shah, a man in his late 40s, who is from one of the three families who are the custodians of the site, locally referred to as the sajjada-nasheen.
“The authorities said they will seal the shrine for three days, we said we will never let that happen,” he says. “The people of Sehwan came together, they picked up the pieces, they washed the blood. They did not let the music stop.”
And the music continues even this Tuesday morning. Standing some feet away from Qalandar’s grave a devotee sings, “May your Sehwan always live Qalandar, may you ease the pain, you, you who is most generous of all."