Lal Shabaz Qalandar: The Pakistani Sufi 2

Before we realized it, it was just Humpty’s mom and I. We were in line to purchase our green chadar (scarf) with my cousins who were our guides for the evening, or so we thought. There were twelve of us in total, but only four were here to buy the chadar used to lie on the tomb of the Sufi Lal Shabaz Qalandar. But after finishing our purchase we turned around to find my cousins heading towards the shrine with an amazing display of speed. It was nearing 7pm, the official start time of the ceremony, and we needed to get to our spots. But getting to our spots was not going to be easy if we had no clue where we were going. We were now alone, lost in a maze, without my aunt or cousins who actually knew where to go. I presumed Humpty was with my cousins since she no where to be found.

To make matters worst, Humpty’s mom was gearing through the initial phases of her ritualistic panic attack – speeding up her pace, both in spoken word and walking, shallow breathing, perspiration, and even the occasional curse word. I am usually humored by this process and this time was no different, which of course only exacerbates the panic attack for Humpty’s mom as she sees no humor in the situation at all and is baffled by what it is that I am grinning about. But we marched forward. The winding passage way was not our friend – it did not take long for the fading image of my cousins to vanish completely in the masses and winding alleys and the vivid reality of a now totally panic attack ridden mother in law to replace that image. There were thousands of people assembling for the evening’s ceremony but for some reason they did not proceed in an orderly fashion to a single entrance but rather meandered seemingly randomly through the tiny alley ways. Fortunately for me, my self-proclaimed superior navigational skills landed us in the center of the action before long. The dhamaal was about to begin.

Lal Shabaz Dhamal Man Pakistani man and boy Lal Shabaz Dhamal Sehwan block printing Lal Shabaz Qalandar Mosque Sehwan Sehwan Pakistan Tombs Men playing sitar Men praying 2 men smoking

For those of you who do not know what a dhamaal is, it is a term used to describe the whirling and ecstatic dance performed every night and particularly on Thursday nights in Sehwan, Pakistan in honor of the, for lack of a better term, “patron saint” of the town, Lal Shabaz Qalandar. Sehwan, deep in the interior of Pakistan, was a four plus hour drive from Karachi, and it was the hometown of my grandfather and at least one generation more. Sehwan is doubly famous not just for being my grandfather’s home town but also as the final resting place for this famous Sufi “saint” Lal (which refers to the red clothing he wore) Shabaz (term referring to an ancient bird, like and eagle or falcon, which literally translates to “king falcon” and now used as a name) Qalandar (or the title, which means of the highest level of spirituality).


One of my favorite images of a local near Sehwan


When this journey of ours began, Humpty was very excited about visiting Konya, Turkey and seeing the resting place of Mehvlana Rumi. He represented Sufism for her. Many people are familiar with the tranquil, peaceful form of meditation they practice, known as whirling. In fact, the whirling dervishes of Turkey are now so popular that many places throughout Turkey have whirling dervish performances for the curious tourists. For me, Sufism was about Lal Shabaz Qalandar. This is the same Lal Shabaz Qalandar that the famous Pakistani Qawwali singers Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan , Abida Parveen, etc sing about. My family on my father’s side has a long history as the official gatekeepers for the town of Sehwan Shareef, Pakistan and my aunt still holds the symbolic title (the actual key to the shrine was taken over by the government about 15-20 years ago). When my aunt addresses my siblings and I as “children of Sehwan” to the folks that live there, they know what that means (even though we did not know exactly what she was referring to until very recently). And the practice of whirling, if you would call it that, practiced in Sehwan is much, much different. I also learned on this trip (during the four hour drive that actually ended up taking closer to six with the food stops, shopping, etc) that Lal Shabaz Qalandar is considered by many Hindu’s as the reincarnation of an ancient Indian leader/yogi, Bhrithari, and by others as an emanation of Julelal, a saint that was key to keeping Hindu’s and Muslim’s in harmony together in Sindh. In fact, during the annual Urs, or death anniversary, pilgrims both Muslim and Hindu come together to celebrate in Sehwan. Consider it the grandaddy of the dhamaal celebrations.

When you Google “dhamaal sehwan” or “dhamaal sehwan shareef”, you will find two to three pages of links to YouTube clips. There is a reason for this, in my opinion, because words literally cannot describe what you are in for. Some would call it total devotion, others some sort of spiritual possession, and in some cases just a bit of theatrics for the tourists. But there is no doubt; it is a sight to behold. Women appear as though possessed, wildly gyrating and letting out frightening screams. Men in a daze, dancing, hopping on one leg, heads shaking. The loud, rhythmic pounding of drums. I think if those Turkish tourists were to pay a visit to Sehwan’s dhamaal, they may pay someone to actually get them out of there.


A random fakir, religious ascetic, wandering the dhamaal


Which brings us back to my mother in law. We made it to the center square where masses of thousands of people were gathered. My cousin was nowhere to be seen, nor the other nine relatives with us including Humpty herself. It was just my mother in law and me, still at a level nine on the panic attack meter. The start time was approaching and Humpty’s mom did not want to miss whatever this dhamaal thing was. So she elbowed her way to the front of the women’s section, directly behind one of the massive “dhols,” or drums. I had a better sense of what a dhamaal was all about so I kept some distance, which only further increased her agitation since she did not want to lose sight of me and thus the only person she knew at this event. Suddenly, just behind her, a woman dressed head to toe in black let out a wail like I have never heard in my life. Needless to say, Humpty’s mom’s panic meter hit meteoric levels. One instance Humpty’s mom was standing behind the dhol and in the very next instance she was about five feet behind the security guard who himself was twenty feet behind the dhol. Perhaps it was the environment, but I could have sworn that her mom grew wings and flew from one location to another. The drum beat had commenced and the whirling, head spinning, eyes rolled back looks, dizzying dances, writhing on marble floors, and who knows what else followed closely after.


Here is our footage from the dhamaal.I too cannot describe it – you have to see it yourself. Humpty’s mom saw it despite the confusion just before the ceremony – I just don’t know if she wants to experience it again.

Please leave comments below or on YouTube! Thanks for watching.


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